Herodotus Returns

Oldest stone tools and evidence of meat-eating found
August 12, 2010, 9:42 pm
Filed under: Evolution | Tags: , , ,

Big news from the New York Times. Archaeologists in Ethiopia have found an animal bone marked in a way to suggest that early humans used stone tools and ate meat and bone marrow 3.4 million years ago. That’s 800,000 years earlier than previously expected. The implications – check out the article for a full explanation – are pretty enormous. So we’ve all heard of Lucy – also known as Australopithecus afarensis – whose 3.2 million-year-old skeleton was found in Ethiopia in the seventies. Until now, we were convinced that Lucy and her contemporaries were vegetarians and did not use stone tools. No one was supposed to be using stone tools until just before the beginning of the Homo genus (the direct ancestors of modern humans). A species called Homo habilis, who had a much larger brain than any species before, were the first to embrace tool-making. So what to make of this new research in Ethiopia, which shows that the beginning of tool-making did not coincide with the beginning of Homo? One of two things is going on: either Lucy and her people were more advanced and led different lifestyles than we thought, or there was an entirely separate species of early humans who ate meat and made tools that we don’t know about yet. Either way, anthropologists are reeling right now.

Scientists who made the discovery could not have been more surprised. They said the cut marks on a fossilized rib and thighbone were unambiguous evidence that human ancestors were using stone tools and sometimes consuming meat at least 800,000 years earlier than previously established. The oldest confirmed stone tools are less than 2.6 million years old, perhaps only a little before the emergence of the genus Homo.

Some prominent researchers of early human evolution were skeptical, saying the reported evidence did not support such claims.

If true, though, the new find reveals unsuspected behavior and dietary habits of the Lucy species, Australopithecus afarensis. Though no hominid fossils were found near the butchered bones, A. afarensis is thought to be the only species living in this region at the time. Their large teeth with thick enamel indicated they subsisted mainly on tubers and other vegetation.

More from The Times on the discovery.


NPR on Symbolic Thinking
August 12, 2010, 9:06 pm
Filed under: Cognitive evolution | Tags: , , ,

Ascent of Man Illustration

Here’s a great piece from NPR on symbolic thinking. Primer to cognitive archaeology, beginnings of complex human behavior. Tip of hat to Christopher Henshilwood in there, too.

Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of evolution, there’s been one dominant picture of the moment we truly became human. It’s that cartoon sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this image, because I’ve decided that we somehow ended up with the wrong one — that there’s something much more fundamental to being human than our ability to stand upright.

More on ‘when we became human.’ Really great stuff.

Robot will plumb great pyramid at Giza
August 12, 2010, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Egypt | Tags: , , , ,

University of Leeds has embarked on a project to send a robot down two unexplored shafts in the Queen’s chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza.

No one knows what the shafts are for. In 1992, a camera sent up the shaft leading from the south wall of the Queen’s Chamber discovered it was blocked after 60 metres by a limestone door with two copper handles. In 2002, a further expedition drilled through this door and revealed, 20 centimetres behind it, a second door.

“The second door is unlike the first. It looks as if it is screening or covering something,” said Dr Zahi Hawass, the head of the Supreme Council who is in charge of the expedition. The north shaft bends by 45 degrees after 18 metres but, after 60 metres, is also blocked by a limestone door.

Now technicians at Leeds University are putting the finishing touches to a robot which, they hope, will follow the shaft to its end. Known as the Djedi project, after the magician whom Khufu consulted when planning the pyramid, the robot will be able to drill through the second set of doors to see what lies beyond.

More on the robot project at Giza.

A look at Pictish, ancient language of Scotland
August 12, 2010, 8:03 pm
Filed under: Scotland | Tags: ,

Pictish stone

BBC takes a brief look at the current debates over Pictish, the ancient language of Scotland.

The stones are believed to have been carved by members of an ancient people known as the Picts, who thrived in what is now Scotland from the 4th to the 9th Centuries.

These symbols, researchers say, are probably “words” rather than images.

“The line between writing and drawing is not as clear cut as categorised in the paper,” Mr Fournet wrote in his article. “On the whole the conclusion remains pending.”

But Prof Lee says that his most recent analysis of the symbols, which has yet to be published, has reinforced his original conclusions.

He also stressed he did not claim that the carvings were a full and detailed record of the Pictish language.

“The symbols themselves are a very constrained vocabulary,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that Pictish had such a constrained vocabulary.”

He said the carvings might convey the same sort of meaning as a list, perhaps of significant names, which would explain the limited number of words used.

“It’s like finding a menu for a restaurant [written in English], and that being your sole repository of the English language.”

More on Pictish.

Tunnel found beneath Teotihuacan may lead to lost tombs
August 9, 2010, 7:58 pm
Filed under: Mexico | Tags: , ,

A long, branching tunnel found beneath the once-opulent ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan may lead to the tombs of the city’s royals, which have never been found.

Experts say a tomb discovery would be significant because the social structure of Teotihuacan remains a mystery after nearly 100 years of archaeological exploration at the site, which is best known for the towering Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun.

No depiction of a ruler, or the tomb of a monarch, has ever been found, setting the metropolis apart from other pre-Hispanic cultures that deified their rulers.

Archaeologists had suspected the hidden tunnel was there after a heavy rainstorm in 2003 caused the ground to sink at the foot of the Temple of Quetzacoatl, in the central ceremonial area of the ruins just north of Mexico City.

More on the tunnel beneath Teotihuacan.

Neanderthal bedroom discovered in Spain
August 9, 2010, 7:33 pm
Filed under: Neanderthals | Tags: , ,


Neanderthals were crafty homemakers, it turns out. Archaeologists working in a cave Spain have uncovered a bedroom, complete with a fireplace and two beds that were covered in grass. It’s been a big year for Neanderthal public relations. First we found out that 50,000 years ago they were wearing makeup and jewelry. Next, the Neanderthal Genome Project told us that they were mating with Homo sapiens.

Neanderthals inhabited the cozy Late Pleistocene room, located within Esquilleu Cave in Cantabria, Spain, anywhere between 53,000 to 39,000 years ago, according to a Journal of Archaeological Science paper concerning the discovery.

Living the ultimate clean and literally green lifestyle, the Neanderthals appear to have constructed new beds out of grass every so often, using the old bedding material to help fuel the hearth.

“It is possible that the Neanderthals renewed the bedding each time they visited the cave,” lead author Dan Cabanes told Discovery News.

Cabanes, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Kimmel Center for Archaeological Research, added that these hearth-side beds also likely served as sitting areas during waking hours for the Neanderthals.

More on the Neanderthal bedroom.

12,000-year-old Mexico woman’s face reconstructed

This undated photo released on July 23, 2010, ...

The  shroud over the ‘Peopling of the Americas’ is being slowly lifted and more and more it seems like people came over in multiple migrations from broad areas, rather than all at once via the Bering Strait. The latest evidence is a reconstruction of 10,000-12,000-year-old remains of a woman found on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Hers are some of the oldest remains found anywhere in the Americas.

Anthropologists had long believed humans migrated to the Americas in a relatively short period from a limited area in northeast Asia across a temporary land corridor that opened across the Bering Strait during an ice age.

But government archaeologist Alejandro Terrazas says the picture has become more complicated, because the reconstruction more resembles people from southeastern Asian areas such as Indonesia.

“History isn’t that simple,” Terrazas said. “This indicates that the Americas were populated by several migratory movements, not just one or two waves from northern Asia across the Bering Strait.”

More on the reconstruction.