Another big surprise

The discovery from the Neanderthal genome that people outside Africa have such a muscular bloke in their distant ancestry (see Yes, it seems that they did…in May 2010 issue of EPN) ought to be quite enough of a shock for one year, but hard on its heels comes another. Animal bones from Ethiopia in sediments dated at more than 3.4 Ma show clear signs of having flesh cut from them with a sharp blade (McPherron, S.P. et al. 2010. Evidence for stone-tool assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 466, p. 857-860). The oldest known stone tools date back only 2.4 Ma (none were found at Dikika), and those associated with a known hominin (H. habilis) to half a million years later than that. No species of the genus Homo is known to have been living 3.4 Ma ago, so a likely candidate for making and wielding stone tools then would be Australopithecus afarensis: Lucy’s genus. In fact the infant A. afarensis named Selam (see ‘Peace’ (Selam) disturbed in October 2006 issue of EPN) was found a mere 300 m away from the cut-marked bones.

There are several problems that arise from these butchered bones, as regards their implications. Do hominin specialists reserve the genus Homo exclusively for tool makers? If so, do Lucy and Selam become H. afarensis? But without actual tools associated with the bones, it is impossible to decide whether they were specifically made to deflesh prey or carrion, or were just sharp, naturally occurring bits of stone that some creature with insubstantial teeth happened to use to snaffle a quick snack from competing carnivores. Even more intriguing, in the light of the immense rarity of hominin remains, was there some creature more advanced than A. afarensis roaming the stifling plains of Ethiopia’s Awash valley 1.4 Ma before the first known tool maker? The various Awash projects will run and run after this new and startling discovery.

Survival by the seaside

Increasingly, hominins have survived swings of climate by their wits and by chance. Neither underpin the instinct to migrate when times are hard, but where one ends up depended, until the Holocene, more on chance than design. Early migrations must have been more by diffusion than purposeful, especially in the vastness of the African continent. Yet groups of hominins found their way into Eurasia several times and thrived there. Far more of them would have met the coast far from a continental exit route, such as the Levant or the Straits of Bab el Mandab. However, in stressful glacial episodes reaching the coast was a key to survival as its food resources are almost limitless (see Human migration and sea food May 2000 issue of EPN). Our own species found refuge by the sea not long after we originated (Marean, C.W. 2010. When the sea saved humanity. Scientific American, v. 303 (August 2010), p. 40-47). Around 195 ka climate began to cool and dry to reach a glacial maximum at roughly 123 ka. Curtis Marean (Arizona State University, USA) was one of the first scientists to look for signs of coastal refuges in Africa during the early 1990s, particularly at its southern tip. With co-workers he found several caves on the coast of South Africa that yielded the evidence on which he has based a review of littoral survival opportunities and the skills that we developed. This particular coastal stretch has a huge diversity of plant life, most unique to it, and many of which store carbohydrate in tubers, bulbs and corms. They are adapted to dry conditions and need only the simplest technology – digging sticks and fires for cooking – to exploit starchy, easily digested energy resources, along with the more obvious animal protein sources present on all shorelines. Marean’s review puts in plain language all the discoveries made by his group over the last 20 years, including evidence of the use of fire treatment to improve flaked stone tools and the development of art based on iron-oxide pigments, plus his own take on their anthropological significance.

Earlier colonisers of northern Europe

The Pleistocene of East Anglia in England is a rich source of the high-latitude flora and fauna from early interglacials of the 1 Ma long series of 100 ka climate cycles. Eyed by archaeologists for decades as a potential source of human remains, a coastal site at Pakefield in Suffolk finally yielded stone tools in 2005 (see Earliest tourism in northern Europe in EPN January 2006). The enclosing sediments, to widespread excitement, turned out to be around 700 ka old, establishing the earliest known human colonisation at that latitude (52ºN). At that time East Anglia was connected to Europe during both glacial and interglacial periods, and was crossed by a now-vanished river system draining the Midlands and Wales into the proto-North Sea. Stone artifacts have now emerged from similar interglacial terrestrial sediments on the shore below the village of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) further north still, in Norfolk (Parfitt, S.A and 115 others 2010. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature, v. 466, p. 229-233). Magnetostratigraphy pushes back the human influence here to more than 800 ka, maybe as far back as 950 ka. As yet no human remains have been turned up, and the site is below high-tide level and liable to be destroyed by winter storms so work proceeds as fast as possible. Yet cliff erosion will inevitably reveal new material each spring.

Fauna and flora from Happisburgh indicate a slow flowing river flanked by coniferous forest with grassed clearings. Beetle fossils suggest summer temperatures slightly warmer than those in modern southern Britain, but with winters some 3ºC colder than now. The climate was analogous to that in southern Norway today, at the transition from temperate to boreal vegetation zones; certainly tough in winter for people without shelter. Yet the permanent connection with continental Europe would have permitted easy seasonal migration across great plains that extended to warmer southern climes. The tool-using people were not the earliest Europeans, for several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy extend back to 1.3 Ma. Who or rather what hominin species they were needs bones, preferably those of the head. The discovery that there were at least 4 hominin species cohabiting Eurasia during the last glacial epoch encourages caution in any speculation.

See also: Roberts, A.P. & Grűn, R. 2010. Early human northerners. Nature, v. 466, p. 189-190.

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