How like the Neanderthals are we?

An actor made-up to resemble a Neanderthal man in a business suit traveling on the London Underground. (Source: screen-grab from BBC2 Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors)

In the most basic, genetic sense, we were sufficiently alike for us to have interbred with them regularly and possibly wherever the two human groups met. As a result the genomes of all modern humans contain snips derived from Neanderthals (see: Everyone now has their Inner Neanderthal; February 2020). East Asian people also carry some Denisovan genes as do the original people of Australasia and the first Americans. Those very facts suggest that members of each group did not find individuals from others especially repellent as potential sexual partners! But that covers only a tiny part of what constitutes culture. There is archaeological evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans made similar tools. Both had the skills to make bi-faced ‘hand axes’ before they even met around 45 to 40 ka ago.  A cave (La Grotte des Fées) near Châtelperron to the west of the French Alps that was occupied by Neanderthals until about 40 ka yielded a selection of stone tools, including blades, known as the Châtelperronian culture, which indicates a major breakthrough in technology by their makers. It is sufficiently similar to the stone industry of anatomically modern humans (AMH) who, around that time, first migrated into Europe from the east (Aurignacian) to pose a conundrum: Did the Neanderthals copy Aurignacian techniques when they met AMH, or vice versa? Making blades by splitting large flint cores is achieved by striking the cores with just a couple of blows with a softer tool. At the very least Neanderthals had the intellectual capacity to learn this very difficult skill, but they may have invented it (see: Disputes in the cavern; June 2012). Then there is growing evidence for artistic abilities among Neanderthals, and even Homo erectus gets a look-in (see: Sophisticated Neanderthal art now established; February 2018).

Reconstructed burial of a Neanderthal individual at La Chappelle-aux-Saints (Credit: Musée de La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Corrèze, France)

For a long time, a pervasive aspect of AMH culture has been ritual. Indeed much early art may be have been bound up with ritualistic social practices, as it has been in historic times. A persuasive hint at Neanderthal ritual lies in the peculiar structures – dated at 177 ka – found far from the light of day in the Bruniquel Cave in south-western France (see: Breaking news: Cave structures made by Neanderthals; May 2016). They comprise circles fashioned from broken-off stalactites, and fires seem to have been lit in them. The most enduring rituals among anatomically modern humans have been those surrounding death: we bury our dead, thereby preserving them, in a variety of ways and ‘send them off’ with grave goods or even by burning them and putting the ashes in a pot. A Neanderthal skeleton (dated at 50 ka) found in a cave at La Chappelle-aux-Saints appears to have been buried and made safe from scavengers and erosion. There are even older Neanderthal graves (90 to 100 ka) at Quafzeh in Palestine and Shanidar in Iraq, where numerous individuals, including a mother and child, had been interred. Some are associated with possible grave goods, such as pieces of red ochre (hematite) pigment, animal body parts and even pollen that suggests flowers had been scattered on the remains. The possibility of deliberate offerings or tributes and even the notion of burial have met with scepticism among some palaeoanthropologists. One reason for the scientific caution is that many of the finds were excavated long before the rigour of modern archaeological protocols

Recently a multidisciplinary team involving scientists from France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain and Denmark exhaustively analysed the context and remains of a Neanderthal child found in the La Ferrassie cave (Dordogne region of France) in the early 1070s  (Balzeau, A. and 13 others 2020. Pluridisciplinary evidence for burial for the La Ferrassie 8 Neandertal childScientific Reports, v. 10, article 21230; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-77611-z). Estimated to have been about 2 years old, the child is anatomically complete. Bones of other animals found in the same deposit were less-well preserved than those of the child, adding weight to the hypothesis that a body, rather than bones, had been buried soon after death. Luminescence dating of the sediments enveloping the skeleton is considerably older than the radiocarbon age of one of the child’s bones. That is difficult to explain other than by deliberate burial. It is almost certain that a pit had been dug and the child placed in it, to be covered in sediment. The skeleton was oriented E-W, with the head towards the east. Remarkably, other Neanderthal remains at the La Ferrassie site also have heads to the east of the rest of their bones, suggesting perhaps a common practice of orientation relative to sunrise and sunset.

It is slowly dawning on palaeoanthropologists that Neanderthal culture and cognitive capacity were not greatly different from those of anatomically modern humans. That similar beings to ourselves disappeared from the archaeological record within a few thousand years of the first appearance of AMH in Europe has long been attributed to what can be summarised as the Neanderthals being ‘second best’ in many ways. That may not have been the case. Since the last glaciation something similar has happened twice in Europe, which analysis of ancient DNA has documented in far more detail than the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were followed by early Neolithic farmers with genetic affinities to living people in Northern Anatolia in Turkey – the region where growing crops began. The DNA record from human remains with Neolithic ages shows no sign of genomes with a clear Mesolithic signature, yet some of the genetic features of these hunter-gatherers still remain in the genomes of modern Europeans. Similarly, ancient DNA recovered from Bronze Age human bones suggests almost complete replacement of the Neolithic inhabitants by people who introduced metallurgy, a horse-centred culture and a new kind of ceramic – the Bell Beaker. This genetic group is known as the Yamnaya, whose origins lie in the steppe of modern Ukraine and European Russia. In this Neolithic-Bronze Age population transition the earlier genomes disappear from the ancient DNA record. Yet Europeans still carry traces of that earlier genetic heritage. The explanation now accepted by both geneticists and archaeologists is that both events involved assimilation and merging through interbreeding. That seems just as applicable to the ‘disappearance’ of the Neanderthals

See also: Neanderthals buried their dead: New evidence (Science Daily, 9 December 2020)

Doggerland and the Storegga tsunami

Britain is only an island when sea level stands high; i.e. during interglacial conditions. Since the last ice age global sea level have risen by about 130 m as the great northern ice sheets slowly melted. That Britain could oscillate between being part of Europe and a large archipelago as a result of major climatic cycles dates back only to between 450 and 240 ka ago. Previously it was a permanent part of what is now Europe, as befits its geological identity, joined to it by a low ridge buttressed by Chalk across the Dover Strait/Pas de Calais. All that remains of that are the white cliffs on either side. The drainage of what became the Thames, Seine and Rhine passed to the Atlantic in a much larger rive system that flowed down the axis of the Channel. Each time an ice age ended the ridge acted as a dam for glacial meltwater to form a large lake in what is now the southern North Sea. While continuous glaciers across the northern North Sea persisted the lake remained, but erosion during interglacials steadily wore down the ridge. About 450 ka ago it was low enough for this pro-glacial lake to spill across it in a catastrophic flood that began the separation. Several repeats occurred until the ridge was finally breached (See: When Britain first left Europe; September 2007). Yet sufficient remained that the link reappeared when sea level fell. What remains at present is a system of shallows and sandbanks, the largest of which is the Dogger Bank roughly halfway between Newcastle and Denmark. Consequently the swamps and river systems that immediately followed the last ice age have become known collectively as Doggerland.

The shrinkage of Doggerland since 16,000 BCE (Credit: Europe’s Lost Frontiers Project, University of Bradford)

Dredging of the southern North Sea for sand and gravel frequently brings both the bones of land mammals and the tools of Stone Age hunters to light – one fossil was a skull fragment of a Neanderthal. At the end of the Younger Dryas (~11.7 ka) Doggerland was populated and became a route for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to cross from Europe to Britain and become transient and then permanent inhabitants. Melting of the northern ice sheets was slow and so was the pace of sea-level rise. A continuous passage across Dogger Land  remained even as it shrank. Only when the sea surface reached about 20 m below its current level was the land corridor breached bay what is now the Dover Strait, although low islands, including the Dogger Bank, littered the growing seaway. A new study examines the fate of Doggerland and its people during its final stage (Walker, J. et al. 2020. A great wave: the Storegga tsunami and the end of Doggerland? Antiquity, v. 94, p. 1409-1425; DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.49).

James Walker and colleagues at the University of Bradford, UK, and co-workers from the universities of Tartu, Estonia, Wales Trinity Saint David and St Andrews, UK, focus on one devastating event during Doggerland’s slow shrinkage and inundation. This took place around 8.2 ka ago, during the collapse of a section of the Norwegian continental edge. Known as the Storegga Slides (storegga means great edge in Norse), three submarine debris flows shifted 3500 km3 of sediment to blanket 80 thousand km2 of the Norwegian Sea floor, reaching more than half way to Iceland.  Tsunami deposits related to these events occur along the coast western Norway, on the Shetlands and the shoreline of eastern Scotland. They lie between 3 and 20 m above modern sea level, but allowing for the lower sea level at the time the ‘run-up’ probably reached as high as 35 m: more than the maximum of both the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and that in NW Japan on 11 March 2011. Two Mesolithic archaeological sites definitely lie beneath the tsunami deposit, one close to the source of the slid, another near Inverness, Scotland. At the time part of the Dogger Bank still lay above the sea, as did a wide coastal plain and offshore islands along England’s east coast. This catastrophic event was a little later than a sudden cooling event in the Northern Hemisphere. Any Mesolithic people living on what was left of Doggerland would not have survived. But quite possibly they may already have left as the climate cooled substantially

A seabed drilling programme financed by the EU targeted what lies beneath more recent sediments on the Dogger Bank and off the embayment known as The Wash of Eastern England. Some of the cores contain tsunamis deposits, one having been analysed in detail in a separate paper (Gaffney, V. and 24 others 2020. Multi-Proxy Characterisation of the Storegga Tsunami and Its Impact on the Early Holocene Landscapes of the Southern North Sea. Geosciences, v. 10, online; DOI: 10.3390/geosciences10070270). The tsunami washed across an estuarine mudflat into an area of meadowland with oak and hazel woodland, which may have absorbed much of its energy. Environmental DNA analysis suggests that this relic of Doggerland was roamed by bear, wild boar and ruminants. The authors also found evidence that the tsunamis had been guided by pre-existing topography, such as the river channel of what is now the River Great Ouse. Yet they found no evidence of human occupation. Together with other researchers, the University of Bradford’s Lost Frontiers Project have produced sufficient detail about Doggerland to contemplate looking for Mesolithic sites in the excavations for offshore wind farms.

See also: Addley, E. 2020.  Study finds indications of life on Doggerland after devastating tsunamis. (The Guardian, 1 December 2020); Europe’s Lost Frontiers website

Earliest sign of a sense of aesthetics

Maybe because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a dearth of interesting new developments in the geosciences over that last few months: the ‘bread and butter’ of Earth-logs. So instead of allowing a gap in articles to develop, and as a sign that I haven’t succumbed, this piece concerns one of the most intriguing discoveries in palaeoanthropology. In 1925 Wilfred Eitzman, a school teacher, investigated a cave in the Makapansgat Valley in Limpopo Province, South Africa that had been exposed by quarry workers.  His most striking discovery was a polished pebble made of very fine-grained, iron-rich silica, probably from a Precambrian banded iron formation. Being round and deeply pitted, it had clearly been subject to prolonged rolling and sand blasting in running water and wind. Eerily, whichever way it was viewed it bore a striking resemblance to a primate face: eyes, mouth, nose and, viewed from the rear, a disturbing, toothless grin. We have all picked up odd-looking pebbles on beaches or a river bank: I recently found a sandstone demon-cat (it even has pointy ears) when digging a new vegetable patch.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Inverted it still resembles a face and its obverse side does too.

What is different about the Makapansgat Pebble is that Eitzman found it in a cave-floor layer full of bones, including those of australopithecines. The cave is located in dolomitic limestone outcrops high in the local drainage system, so it’s unlikely that the pebble was washed into it. The nearest occurrence of banded iron formation is about 20 kilometres away, so something must have carried the pebble for a day or more to the cave. The local area has since yielded a superb palaeontological record of early hominin evolution, stimulated by  Eitzman’s finds. He gave the fossils and the pebble to Raymond Dart, the pioneer of South African palaeoanthropology. Dart named the hominin fossils Australopithecus prometheus because associated bones of other animals were covered in black stains that Dart eagerly regarded as signs of burning and thus cooking. When it became clear that the stains were of manganese oxide the name was changed to Au. africanus, the fossils eventually being dated to around 3 million years ago.

Dart was notorious for his showmanship, and the fossils and the Makapansgat Pebble ‘did the rounds’ and continue to do so. In 2016 the pebble was displayed with a golden rhino, a collection of apartheid-era badges and much more in the British Museum’s South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition. Well, is the pebble art? As it shows no evidence of deliberate working it can not be considered art, but could be termed an objet trouvé. That is, an ‘object found by chance and held to have aesthetic value to an artist’. The pebble’s original finder 3 million years ago must have found the 0.25 kg pebble sufficiently interesting to have carried it back to the cave, presumably because of its clear resemblance to a hominin head: in fact a multiple-faced head. Was it carried by a cave-dwelling australopithecine or an early member of genus Homo who left no other trace at Makapansgat? At an even earlier time a so-far undiscovered hominin did indeed make simple stone tools to dismember joints of meat on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. It is impossible to know who for sure carried the pebble, nor to know why. Yet all living primates are curious creatures, so it is far from impossible that any member of the hominins in our line of descent would have collected portable curiosities.

More Denisovan connections

In 2006 mining operations in NE Mongolia uncovered a human skull cap with prominent brow ridges. After having been dubbed Mongolanthropus because of its primitive appearance and then suggested to be either a Neanderthal of Homo erectus. Radiocarbon dating in 2019 then showed the woman to be around 34,500 years old and the accompanying sequencing of its mtDNA assigned her to a widespread Eurasian haplotype of modern humans. Powdered bone samples ended up in Svante Paabo’s renowned ancient-DNA lab at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and yielded a full genome (Massilani, D. and 14 others 2020. Denisovan ancestry and population history of early East Asians. Science, v. 370, p. 579-583; DOI: 10.1126/science.abc1166). From this flowed some interesting genetic history.

Skull cap of a female modern human from Salkhit in Outer Mongolia, which superficially resembles those of Homo erectus from Java (Credit: Massilani et al. Fig 1a; © Institute of Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

First was a close overall resemblance to living East Asians and Native Americans, similar to that of an older individual from near Beijing, China. This confirmed the antiquity of the East Eurasian population’s split from that of the west, yet contained evidence of some interbreeding with West Eurasians to the extent of sharing 25% of DNA and with Neanderthals. The two specimens also contained evidence of Denisovan ancestry in their genomes, but fragments that are more akin to those in living people in East Asia than to those of Papuans and Aboriginal Australians: these were definitely cosmopolitan people! The simplest explanation is two distinct minglings with Denisovans: that involving ancestors of Papuans and Australian being the perhaps earlier, en route to their arrival at least 60 thousand years on what became an island continent in the run-up to the last glacial maximum. Be that as it may, two separate Denisovan populations interbred with modern human bands. Further genetic connections with ancient Northern Siberian humans suggests complex movement across the continent, probably inevitable because these hunter-gatherers would have followed prey animals on their seasonal migrations, which would have been longer than today because of climatic cooling. The same can be surmised for Denisovans which would have increased the chances of contact

See also: Denisovan DNA in the genome of early East Asians (Science Daily, 29 October 2020)

In May 2019 (Denisovan on top of the world) I wrote about a human lower jaw that a Buddhist monk had found in a cave at a height of 3.3 km on the Tibetan plateau. Analysis of protein traces in the teeth it retained suggested that it was Denisovan. Like the earlier small remnants from Siberia, dating this putative Denisovan precisely proved to be impossible. The jawbone was at least 160 ka old from the age of speleothem carbonate encrusting it. Excavation of the sediment layers from Baishiya Cave has enabled a large team of Chinese, Australian, US and Swedish scientists to try out the ‘environmental DNA’ approach pioneered by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (see: Detecting the presence of hominins in ancient soil samples, April 2017). The cave confirmed occupation by Denisovans from mtDNA found in layers dated using radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence methods. Denisovan mtDNA turned up in four layers dated at ~100, ~60 and possibly as young as 45 ka, as well at that from a variety of other mammals (Zhang, D. and 26 others. Denisovan DNA in Late Pleistocene sediments from Baishiya Karst Cave on the Tibetan Plateau. Science, v. 370, p. 584-587; DOI: 10.1126/science.abb6320).  Denisovans were clearly able to live at high elevations for at least 100 thousand years: long enough to evolve the metabolic processes essential to sustain living in low-oxygen conditions, which it has been suggested was passed on to ancestral modern Tibetans.

Environmental change and early-human innovation

Acheulean biface tools strewn on a bedding surface in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya (credit: mmercedes_78 Flickr)

The Olorgesailie Basin in Southern Kenya is possibly the world’s richest source for evidence of ancient stone-tool manufacture. For early humans, it certainly was rich in the necessary resources from which to craft tools. Lying in East Africa’s active rift system, its stratigraphy contains abundant beds of hydrothermal silica (chert), deposited by hot springs, and flows of fine grained lavas. Its sediments spanning the last 1.2 million years show that the Basin hosted lakes and extensive river systems for the earlier part of this period: it was rich in food resources too. The tools, together with bones from dismembered prey, bear witness to long-term human occupation, but hominin remains themselves have yet to be discovered. The time span suggests early occupation by Homo erectus, who probably manufactured Acheulean biface stone tools in large quantities that litter the surface at some archaeological sites.

There is a break in the stratigraphic sequence from about 500 to 320 thousand years ago caused by erosion during a period of tectonic uplift. Younger sediments reveal a striking change in archaeology. The earlier large cutting tools give way to a more diverse ‘toolkit’ of smaller tools produced by more sophisticated techniques than those used to make the Acheulean ‘hand axes’. In African archaeological parlance, the <320 ka-old tools mark the onset of the Middle Stone Age (NB not equivalent to the much younger Mesolithic of Europe). The sedimentary gap also marks what seems to have been very different human behaviour. The stone resources used in the 1.2 to 0.5 Ma sequence were local: no more than 5 km from the tool-yielding sites. After the gap a much more varied range of lithologies was used, from as far afield as 95 km. Not only that, but rock unsuitable for tools appears: soft pigments such as hematite.

The foregoing was known from three major papers that appeared in March 2018 (see: Human evolution and revolution in Africa, March 2018 – specifically the section Hominin cultural revolution 320,000 years ago). Now, many members of the teams who produced that published evidence report detailed analysis of samples from a deep drill core through the stratigraphy in a similar, nearby basin (Potts, R. and 21 others 2020. Increased ecological resource variability during a critical transition in hominin evolutionScience Advances, v. 6, article eabc8975; DOI:10.1126/sciadv.abc8975). As well as calibrating the timing of stratigraphic changes using 40Ar/39Ar dating from 22 volcanic layers, the team analysed sedimentary structures, body- and trace fossils, variations in sediment geochemistry, palaeobotany and carbon isotopes, to suggest variations in environmental conditions and ecology throughout the section in greater detail than previously achieved anywhere in Africa.

They conclude that as well as a change in topography resulting from the 500-320 ka period of tectonic uplift and erosion, the climate of this part of East Africa became more unstable. Combined, these two factors transformed the ecosystems of the Olorgesailie Basin. Between 1.2 to 0.5 Ma the Acheulean tool makers inhabited dominantly grassy plains with substantial, permanent lakes – a stable period of 700 thousand years, well suited to large herbivores and thus to these early humans. Tectonic and climatic change disrupted a ‘land of plenty’; the herbivores left to be replaced by smaller prey animals; vegetation shifted back and forth from grassland to woodland with the unstable climate; lakes became smaller and ephemeral. The problem in linking environmental change to changed human practices in this case, however, is the 180 thousand-year gap in the geological record. Lead author Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his team suggest that the change contributed to the ecological flexibility of the probable Homo sapiens who left the fancier, more diverse tools during the later phase. Yet 1.6 million years beforehand early H. erectus had sufficient flexibility to cross 30 to 40 degrees of latitude and end up on the shores of the Black Sea in Georgia! The likely late-stage H. erectus of Olorgesailie may have moved out around 500 ka ago and sometime later early H. sapiens moved in with new technology developed elsewhere. We know that the earliest known anatomically modern humans lived in Morocco at around 315 ka (see: Origin of anatomically modern humans, June 2017): but we don’t know what tools they had or where they went next. There are all sorts of possibilities that cannot be addressed by even the most intricate analysis of secondary evidence. The important issue seems, I think, to centre on the transition from erects to sapiens, in anatomical, cognitive and behavioural contexts, via some intermediary such as H. antecessor, to which this study can contribute very little. That needs complete stratigraphic records: ironically, the other basin from which the core was drilled is apparently more complete, especially for the 500 to 320 ka ‘gap’. That seems likely to offer more potential. Yet, such big questions also demand a much broader brush: perhaps on a continental scale. It’s to early to tell …

See also: Turbulent era sparked leap in human behavior, adaptability 320,000 years ago (Science Daily,21 October 2020)

Supernova at the start of the Pleistocene

This brief note takes up a thread begun in Can a supernova affect the Earth System? (August 2020). In February 2020 the brightness of Betelgeuse – the prominent red star at the top-left of the constellation Orion – dropped in a dramatic fashion. This led to media speculation that it was about to ‘go supernova’, but with the rise of COVID-19 beginning then, that seemed the least of our worries. In fact, astronomers already knew that the red star had dimmed many times before, on a roughly 6.4-year time scale. Betelgeuse is a variable star and by March 2020 it brightened once again: shock-horror over; back to the latter-day plague.

When stars more than ten-times the mass of the Sun run out of fuel for the nuclear fusion energy that keeps them ‘inflated’ they collapse. The vast amount of gravitational potential energy released by the collapse triggers a supernova and is sufficient to form all manner of exotic heavy isotopes by nucleosynthesis. Such an event radiates highly energetic and damaging gamma radiation, and flings off dust charged with a soup of exotic isotopes at very high speeds. The energy released could sum to the entire amount of light that our Sun has shone since it formed 4.6 billion years ago. If close enough, the dual ‘blast’ could have severe effects on Earth, and has been suggested to have caused the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician Period.

Betelgeuse is about 700 light years away, massive enough to become a future supernova and its rapid consumption of nuclear fuel – it is only about 10 million years old – suggests it will do so within the next hundred thousand years. Nobody knows how close such an event needs to be to wreak havoc on the Earth system, so it is as well to check if there is evidence for such linked perturbations in the geological record. The isotope 60Fe occurs in manganese-rich crusts and nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and also in some rocks from the Moon. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 2.6 million years, so it soon decays away and cannot have been a part of Earth’s original geochemistry or that of the Moon. Its presence may suggest accretion of debris from supernovas in the geologically recent past: possibly 20 in the last 10 Ma but with apparently no obvious extinctions. Yet that isotope of iron may also be produced by less-spectacular stellar processes, so may not be a useful guide.

There is, however, another short-lived radioactive isotope, of manganese (53Mn), which can only form under supernova conditions. It has been found in ocean-floor manganese-rich crusts by a German-Argentinian team of physicists  (Korschinek, G. et al. 2020. Supernova-produced 53Mn on Earth. Physical Review Letters, v. 125, article 031101; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.031101). They dated the crusts using another short-lived cosmogenic isotope produced when cosmic rays transform the atomic nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen to 10Be that ended up in the manganese-rich crusts along with any supernova-produced  53Mn and 60Fe. These were detected in parts of four crusts widely separated on the Pacific Ocean floor. The relative proportions of the two isotopes matched that predicted for nucleosynthesis in supernovas, so the team considers their joint presence to be a ‘smoking gun’ for such an event.

The 10Be in the supernova-affected parts of the crusts yielded an age of 2.58 ± 0.43 million years, which marks the start of the Pleistocene Epoch, the onset of glacial cycles in the Northern Hemisphere and the time of the earliest known members of the genus Homo. A remarkable coincidence? Possibly. Yet cosmic rays, many of which come from supernova relics, have been cited as a significant source of nucleation sites for cloud condensation. Clouds increase the planet’s reflectivity and thus act to to cool it. This has been a contentious issue in the debate about modern climate change, some refuting their significance on the basis of a lack of correlation between cloud-cover data and changes in the flux of cosmic rays over the last century. Yet, over the five millennia of recorded history there have been no records of supernovas with a magnitude that would suggest they were able to bathe the night sky in light akin to that of daytime. That may be the signature of one capable of affecting the Earth system. Thousands that warrant being dubbed a ‘very large new star’are recorded, but none that ‘turned night into day’. The hypothesis seems to have ‘legs’, but so too do others, such as the slow influence on oceanic circulation of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and other parochial mechanisms of changing the transfer of energy around our planet

See also: Stellar explosion in Earth’s proximity, eons ago. (Science Daily; 30 September 2020.)

Severe COVID-19 associated with Neanderthal inheritance?

News broke in 2010 about evidence from modern and ancient DNA samples that showed some anatomically modern humans who left Africa before 40 thousand years ago to have interbred with the Neanderthal occupants of Eurasia (see: Yes, it seems that they did …; May 2010). In 2011 it turned out that the same had happened when AMH migrants in Asia met with Denisovans (see: Snippets on human evolution; November 2011). The resulting human hybrids went on to spread their new genes as they populated East Asia, Australasia and the Americas. Genomes of thousands of living people from these continents all show varying proportions – but generally less than about 5% – of genetic contributions from one or the other and in some cases both. Some of the modern humans who remained in Africa also had a similar opportunity. A few Neanderthals did set foot in Africa sharing their genes with its original inhabitants, but those venturing far from their normal range had already interbred with early ‘out-of-Africa’ AMH migrants about 150 to 100 thousand years ago, as had  AMH returning from Eurasia around 20 ka ago. Five widespread groups of modern Africans (but not all) carry up to 0.3% of the Neanderthal genome. Moreover, the ancestors of some living Africans had also exchanged genes with as-yet unknown archaic humans (see also: Everyone now has their Inner Neanderthal; February 2020).

Personally, I reacted to the news with a sense of pride. Neanderthals were tough, survivors of several hundred thousand years of climatic extremes hunting fearsome prey, and they probably had an intellect as advanced as that of the AMH with whom they mingled. My little bit of Neanderthal has conferred several advantages including resistance to Eurasian pathogens, but also has its downside, such as a tendency to depression and excessive blood clotting. But an unedited paper released in advance of publication by the journal Nature suggests that my pride turns out to include an unwelcome element of hubris.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, genetic research on over 3000 individuals, whose symptoms were severe enough for them to be hospitalised – a high proportion of whom sadly died – revealed that there was more to their being prone to severe symptoms than age, co-morbidities, gender and ethnicity. A short segment (around 50,000 base pairs long) on the DNA of their chromosome-3 is significantly associated with severe COVID-19 outcomes. Svante Pääbo, the leader of the team than reconstructed the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes and discovered their presence in living people, and his co-author, Hugo Zeberg, have linked this segment to a stretch in the Neanderthal genome (Zeberg, H. & Pääbo, S. 2020. The major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neanderthals. Nature, accelerated preview; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2818-3). One gene included in the segment plays a role in the human immune response and another is linked to the way the coronavirus invades human cells, but how they influence health outcomes in COVID-19 victims is yet to be established. Sixteen percent of Europeans and 30% of South Asians carry the segment. If infected, they are at higher risk of severe outcomes than the rest of the population. That the relatively small segment still persists 40 ka after Neanderthals became extinct suggests that it has not always conferred high risk: probably because it once conferred significant advantages, perhaps by protecting against other, now extinct pathogens. A fitness benefit is passed on through natural selection

The pandemic has yet to run its course and genetic research, such as that by Zeberg and Pääbo, takes second place to that aiming at lessening the effects of the disease and developing vaccines that, hopefully, will wipe it out. The country-by-country statistics of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality are shaky, but an interesting feature may be emerging. Although there have been many cases in Africa, where health services are under developed, it seems that deaths as a proportion of infections are significantly lower there than in the more advanced countries. Hopefully that will continue, perhaps as a result of lower Neanderthal inheritance.

See also: Sample, I. 2020. Neanderthal genes increase risk of serious Covid-19, study claims. (The Guardian, 30 September 2020)

Did early humans learn to cook in Olduvai Gorge?

Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania was for many years the stamping ground of the famous Leakey family and many other anthropologists because of it richness in the skeletal remains and the tools of the earliest members of our genus Homo. The first of these, H. habilis, appears in the Olduvai stratigraphic sequence at around 2 Ma: older examples are now known from localities in Kenya and South Africa taking the species back to about 2.4 Ma. ‘Handy Man’ got the Latinised nickname from its association with abundant stone tools, albeit of a very primitive kind. Oldowan tools are of the ‘let’s bash a couple of pebbles together to get a cutting edge’ kind, dating back to 3.4 Ma (but without evidence of who made them then) and as easily-made disposable tools they linger in the archaeological record until the Neolithic and even modern times. Homo habilis had a brain size little larger than that of australopithecines and some authorities deem them to be such.

Olduvai also yielded the earliest of a more ‘brainy’ species H. ergaster (‘Action Man’), which coexisted with habilis for a few hundred thousand years from around 2 Ma. Initially they also left Oldowan tools. Then, around 1.7 Ma at Olduvai, ergaster began making another stone artefact, the symmetrical bifacial ‘axe’ – probably a multipurpose tool and possibly an object of ritual significance, according to some researchers. Whichever, to make one required visualising the finished item within a shapeless lump of hard rock, and making them required great dexterity: and still does for stone knappers. The biface or ‘Acheulean’ tool originates with one of humanity’s greatest cognitive leaps and lay at the centre of the human toolkit for well over a million years. After being made first in Olduvai by African H. ergaster biface artefacts then spread throughout the continent with H. erectus (probably a direct descendent) and beyond its shores with succeeding humans, up to and including the earliest H. sapiens. How did what seems to be a ‘golden spike’ in human culture first take material form in Olduvai? The possibility of an answer stems from pure serendipity and the development of new research tools.

A flint bifacial stone artefact from the Palaeolithic of Norfolk, UK, which incorporates a bivalve fossil

That the Olduvai Gorge has drawn in several generations of researchers lies in its geology. As well as the sediments deposited by rivers and in ephemeral lakes that characterised a broadly speaking savannah environment, from 2 to 1 Ma there were at least 31 major volcanic eruptions that deposited lavas and a wide range of volcanic ash beds. These have enabled precise dating to calibrate in minute detail the evolution of a highly productive environment and the flora and fauna that it supported during the early Pleistocene. A recently developed technique involves identification of a variety of fatty acids or lipids – natural oils, waxes and steroids – using gas chromatography. Lipids are the remaining ‘biomarkers’ of plants and microorganisms that once lived in an ecosystem. Ainara Sistiaga of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Copenhagen, with colleagues from Denmark, Spain, the US and Tanzania, set out to document ecological variation at Olduvai over a million-year interval using this approach. Among the microbial biomarkers they stumbled on something of possibly great importance (Sistiaga, A. and 10 others 2020. Microbial biomarkers reveal a hydrothermally active landscape at Olduvai Gorge at the dawn of the Acheulean, 1.7 Ma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, published online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2004532117).

The palaeo-landscape of Olduvai, as revealed by lipid analysis, was highly diverse and rich in grasses, palms shrubs, aquatic flora and edible plants, watered by spring-fed rivers. It supported a diverse fauna including large herbivores (supported by fecal biomarkers): ideal for hominin subsistence. Sistiaga et al. focus in their paper on samples from the 1.7 Ma sedimentary and volcanic sequence (the Lower Augitic Sandstones – augite is an igneous pyroxene) that contains remains of H. ergaster, the oldest bifacial artefacts, and dismembered carcases of hominin prey animals. The surprise that emerged from the volcanoclastic sandstones included lipids produced by a range of bacterial species that only thrive in modern hot springs, such as those at Yellowstone and on the North Island of New Zealand. At three sample sites biomarkers for one particular hyperthermophile were found (Thermocrinis ruber), which can only live in water between 80 to 95°C. This and the other heat-loving bacteria also require water chemistry that, if cool, is drinkable.

Artist’s impression of Homo ergaster cooking an antelope in a 1.7 Ma hot spring at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (credit: Tom Björklund, MIT)

The implication is obvious: the ancient Olduvai hot springs were capable of thoroughly cooking meat and vegetables. The importance for humans is that cooking both tenderises meat and tough tubers and roots and breaks down carbohydrates and proteins to make them more easily and efficiently digestible. The brain capacity of H. ergaster was significantly greater than that of H. habilis, and at the average 800 cm3 about 2/3 that of anatomically modern humans. An increase in the input of easily digested protein, fats and carbohydrates may have fuelled that growth and, in turn, the cognitive capacity of H. ergaster. Not only the Western Rift Valley of Tanzania but the whole of the East African Rift System is liberally dotted with hydrothermal vents and also with hominin-rich sites.

See also: Chu, J. 2020. Did our early ancestors boil their food in hot springs? (MIT News, 15 September 2020)

Isotopic clues to diet of early hominins

‘We are what we eat’ is certainly a truism, but it is neither a trope nor a cliché. The phrase is especially appropriate when scientists examine isotopes of a variety of elements in bones or teeth. For instance the relative proportions of two stable isotopes of the metal strontium – 87Sr and 86Sr – differ from place to place in soil because 87Sr is the daughter isotope of radioactive 87Rb. The older the rock from which a soil has formed the more of the radioactive rubidium isotope will have decayed. Not only does this increase the 87Sr/ 86Sr ratio in the rock and the soil derived from it, but vegetation inherits it too. So it gets into an animal’s diet and ultimately its teeth. A human who has migrated will carry the ratio of the geology of her early home geology in her adult teeth – fully developed by about 13 years-old – to wherever she dies. Likewise, the different oxygen isotopes in rainwater, which result from climate variation, end up in teeth thanks to what a person ate before adulthood. The two ‘signatures’ together allowed archaeologists to backtrack the famous ‘Amesbury Archer’, who may have brought Bronze Age culture to Britain, back to the Alps of Central Europe. Just what a human diet comprised can be roughly assessed from the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in collagen that fossil bone sometimes preserves: the proportion of seafood relative to the meat of land herbivores and the amount of terrestrial grains, nuts and fruits. The trouble is, collagen degrades with the age of human remains and another approach is needed to assess the diets of our distant forebears.

Calcium isotope data from early hominins and some modern primates. Increasingly negative values of δ44/42Ca signify lower values of the ratio compared with a standard. (Credit: Martin et al. 2020; Fig. 1)

It turns out that calcium isotopes in teeth, which do not degrade over extremely long time spans, offer clues to diet. In particular the dental 44Ca/42Ca ratio decreases as its hosts rise in the food chain; effectively as the meat content in their diet increases. This approach has been applied to the hominin and non-human primate fauna of the Turkana Basin in Kenya (Martin, J.E. et al. 2020. Calcium isotopic ecology of Turkana Basin hominins. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 3587; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17427-7). The shores of a large lake in the vicinity of modern Lake Turkana were occupied from 3.5 to about 2 Ma ago by early Homo, australopithecines, paranthropoids and baboons. Using dental Ca isotopes fails to distinguish Australopithecus anamensis and Kenyanthropus platyops, whereas carbon isotopes suggest that the first had a purely C3 plant diet – fruiting plants that thrive under cool, wet conditions, as beneath woodland canopies – whereas Kenyanthropus foraged on both these and the C4 plants – many grasses and sedges – that favour open, well-lit grassland. The 44Ca/42Ca ratios in Homo teeth span a wide range of values that point to omnivory and even a high dietary meat content: a similar isotopic pattern to those of fossil baboons and geladas. Paranthropus boisei is definitely the odd-one-out, among both ancient and modern primates, and even among paranthropoids as a whole. It most likely had a specialised diet. Its teeth show wear patterns that suggest soft plant material, which seems to rule out grasses which are abrasive. Perhaps it fed on succulent semi-aquatic plants of the lake shore. When Mary Leakey first discovered P. boisei in 1959, she and husband Louis considered that its huge molars with thick enamel indicated that it ate hard vegetable matter, hence its original nickname ‘Nutcracker Man’. It also had hands capable of precise manipulation, indeed the association of the first specimen with Oldowan-type stone tools led to speculation that it had made them. Some specimens are associated with long bones with worn ends, suggesting that they may have used them for digging.

Earliest Americans, and plenty of them

Who the first Americans were is barely known outside of the tools that they left in the archaeological record. For most of the late 20th century US researchers claimed that the first people to migrate into the Americas produced stone tools of the Clovis culture that first appear just before the Younger Dryas cold period, around 13.2 to 12.9 thousand years (ka) ago. The hallmark of Clovis culture is the finely-worked stone spear point, and its association with butchered large mammals: the Clovis people were apparently big-game hunters  Despite other, albeit less convincing, signs of earlier human habitation, this notion ossified for a seemingly irrefutable reason. To reach the Americas from NE Asia on foot, these people would have had to cross the Bering Straits via the Beringia land bridge exposed as sea level fell during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). That would have taken them to Alaska, but an exit to the south remained blocked by the huge Laurentian ice sheet until around 13 ka. Once an ice-free route had opened, the Clovis people migrated quickly to reach the site from which they take their name in New Mexico. But other archaeological sites discovered in the last couple of decades, extending as far south as Chile, have yielded ages that clearly predate the Clovis culture (see: Clovis First hypothesis dumped, May 2008). Beneath a Clovis-bearing layer at a site in Texas excavators unearthed thousands of totally different tools reliably dated to as far back as 15.5 ka (see: Clovis first hypothesis refuted, May 2011). This opened the realistic possibility that the earliest migrants had not necessarily walked from Asia, but may have followed a marine route along the Pacific coast and spread eastwards as opportunities presented themselves.

Now Mesoamerica has convincingly verified migration more than twice as long ago as that which littered North America with Clovis tools. It emerged from the Chiquihuite Cave 2.7 km high in the Astillero Mountains of northern Mexico. Almost 2000 stone artefacts were found throughout a 3 m thick layer of sediment beneath the cave floor that spans 27 to 13  ka, (Ardelean, C.F. and 27 others 2020. Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature, v. 584 p. 87–92; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2509-0). The technology revealed by the tools is more primitive than that of the Clovis culture. Artefacts occur throughout the layer, which extends back in time from the Younger Dryas, through the preceding period of warming and the LGM itself. Although colder than the present equitable climate of the high mountain valleys of Northern Mexico environmental data obtained from the layer show that it was viable for occupation through the LGM. Of the 42 highly precise and accurate radiocarbon dates those from some of the stratigraphically deepest part of the layer exceed 33 ka, which the authors suggest may establish the initial human occupation of the cave. Incidentally, although the paper was published online in July 2020 it was submitted to Nature in October 2018. That is a very long time in the editorial and review process. There is no indication as to why there was such a delay: maybe an indication of some continuing defence of the Clovis First hypothesis among the reviewers …

Dated pre-Clovis sites in Mexico and North America and possible expanding distribution of people from 31.3 to 14.2 ka (Credit; Becerra-Valdivia and Higham; Extended Data Fig. 4)

The radiocarbon dating in the paper was carried out at the state-of-the-art accelerator mass spectrometer unit at the University of Oxford, UK, by two of the co-authors (Lorena Becerra-Valdivia and Thomas Higham). They too published a Nature paper in late July 2020, which discusses their new dating of 42 archaeological sites in North America and Siberia (Becerra-Valdivia, L. & Higham, T. 2020. The timing and effect of the earliest human arrivals in North America. Nature, v. 584, p. 93-97; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2491-6). In Mesoamerica and North America (the Clovis heartland) their results suggest that, as in Chiquihuite Cave, ‘people were present in different settings before, during and immediately following the LGM’, their ranges increasing over time. These people would likely not have followed the same route suggested for the later Clovis people, i.e. across Beringia and then parallel to the topographic grain in the Western Cordillera, ice-cap melting permitting. An interesting suggestion by Becerra-Valdivia and Higham is that post-LGM expansion in numbers and range of these early American contributed to the famous extinction of the North American Pleistocene megafauna. Dating the extinctions of different genera suggests that disappearance of the megafauna may not have been a single event during the Younger Dryas, but seems to have been during at least two other episodes peaking at about 40 and 24 ka. Both the ecological devastation supposedly associated with the Clovis people and the impact theory for its cause depend on a single event.

See also:  Gruhn, R. 2020. Evidence grows for early peopling of the Americas. Nature, v. 584, p. 47-48; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-02137-3; Rincon, P. 2020. Earliest evidence for humans in the Americas (BBC News, 22 July 2020); Keys, D. 2020. Humans reached the Americas 11,000 years earlier than previously thought, archaeologists discover (Independent, 22 July 2020)