The early signs of counting and arithmetic?

Three earlier articles in Earth-logs originally focussed on what I supposed to be ‘ancient abstract art’.  One highlighted a clam shell that bears carefully etched V-shapes found at the type locality for Asian Homo erectus at Trinil on the Solo River, Java, dated between 430 and 540 ka. Another is about parallel lines etched on a piece of defleshed bone from China dated at 78 to 123 ka, which may be a Denisovan artefact. The most complex is a piece of ochre found in the coastal Blombos Cave 300 km east of Cape Town, South Africa in association with tools ascribed to early modern humans who lived there about 73 ka ago. Fascinating as they seemed at the time, they may hold much greater significance about early-human cognitive powers than about mere decoration. That is thanks to recent evaluation of other simple artefacts made of lines and notches by anthropologists, cognitive scientists and psychologists. Their work is summarised in a recent Nature Feature by Colin Barras (Barras, C. 2021. How did Neanderthals and other ancient humans learn to count? Nature, v. 594, p. 22-25; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-01429-6). The European Research Council recently allocated a €10 million grant to foster research into ‘when, why and how number systems appeared and spread’.

Examples of ancient ‘abstract’ art. Top – V-shaped features inscribed on 430-540 ka freshwater clam from Java; Middle – parallel lines etched through red ochre to show white bone, from a possible Denisovan site in China; Bottom – complex inscription on a tablet of iron-rich silcrete from South Africa

Straight lines and patterns made from them are definitely deliberate, whatever their antiquity. In recent times, such devices have been used by artists to render mental images, moods and thoughts as simplified abstractions: hence ‘abstract’ art, such as that of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. The term also applies to the dribbles and drabbles of Jackson Pollock and many more styles. But these works are a very recent evolutionary development out of earlier schools of art. So deliberate geometric shapes and arrangements of lines that are many millennia old cannot simply be termed ‘abstract art’. It is certainly not easy to see how they evolved into the magnificence of Palaeolithic figurative cave art that started at least 40 thousand years ago; Yet they are not ‘doodles’. Being so deliberate suggests that they represented something to their makers. The question is, ‘What?’

The research summarised by Barras is mainly that of Francisco d’Errico of The University of Bordeaux, France and colleagues from Canada and Italy (d’Errico, F. et al. 2018. From number sense to number symbols. An archaeological perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, v. 373, article 2160518; DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0518). They focused their work on two remarkable artefacts. The oldest (72 to 60 ka), from a cave near Angoulême in France, is a fragment of a hyena’s thigh bone that carries nine notches. It is associated with stone tools almost certainly made by Neandethals. The other, from the Border Cave rock shelter in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, is a 44 to 42 ka old baboon’s shin bone, which carries a row of 29 prominent notches, and a number of less distinct, roughly parallel scratches. The rock shelter contains remains of anatomically modern humans and a very diverse set of other artefacts that closely resemble some used by modern San people.

Top: notched hyena femur bone fragment associated with Neanderthal tools from SW France. Bottom: notched baboon shin bone from Border Cave, South Africa. Scale bars(Credit: F. d’Errica and L. Backwell)

Microscopic examination of the notches made by a Neanderthal suggest that all 9 notches were cut at the same time, using the same stone blade. Those on the Border Cave shin bone suggest that they were made using four distinctly different tools on four separate occasions. Are both objects analogous to tally sticks; i.e. to count or keep a record of things as an extension to memory? There are other known examples, such as a 30 ka-old  wolf’s radial bone from the Czech Republic having notches in groups of five, suggesting a record of counting on fingers. Yet very similar devices, made in recent times by the original people of Australia, were not used for keeping count, but to help travellers commit a verbal message to memory enabling them to recount it later.

Do read Barras’s summary and the original paper by d’Errico et al. to get an expanded notion of the arguments being debated. They emerge from the truly novel idea that just because the makers of such objects lived tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago that doesn’t make them intellectually lacking. Imagining in the manner of Victorian scientists that ancient beings such as Neanderthals and H. erectus must have been pretty dim is akin to the prejudice of European colonialists that people of colour or with non-European cultures were somehow inferior, even non-human. To me it is admirable that the European Research Council has generously funded further research in this field at a time when research funding in the UK, especially for the disciplines involved, has been decimated by those who demanded an exit from the EU.

The older Trinil and Blombos patterns appear yet more sophisticated. The pattern on the latter looks very like the kind of thing that someone in a prison cell might draw to keep track of time. It also incorporates the zig-zag element engraved on the Trinil clam shell. Remember that the word ‘Exchequer’ is derived from a tax audit during the reign of Henry I of England that was conducted on a counting board whose surface had a checked pattern

Why did anatomically modern humans replace Neanderthals?

Extinction of the Neanderthals has long been attributed to pressure on resources following the first influx into Europe by AMH bands and perhaps different uses of the available resources by the two groups. One often quoted piece of evidence comes from the outermost layer in the teeth of deer. Most ruminants continually replace tooth enamel to make up for wear, winter additions being darker than those during summer. Incidentally, the resulting layering gives away their age, as in, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth’! Deer teeth associated with Neanderthal sites show that they were killed throughout the year. Those around AMH camps are either summer or winter kills. The implication is that AMH were highly mobile, whereas Neanderthals had fixed hunting ranges whose resources would have been depleted by passing AMH bands. That is as may be, but another possibility has received more convincing support.

Neanderthal populations across their range from Gibraltar to western Siberia were extremely low and band sizes seem to have been small, even before AMH made their appearance. This may have been critical in their demise, based on considerations that arise from attempts to conserve threatened species today (Vaesen, K. et al. 2019. Inbreeding, Allee effects and stochasticity might be sufficient to account for Neanderthal extinction. PLoS One, v. 14, article e0225117; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0225117). The smaller and more isolated groups are, the more likely they are to resort to inbreeding in the absence of close-by potential mates. There is evidence from Neanderthal DNA that such endogamy was practised. Long-term interbreeding between genetic relatives among living human groups is known to result in decreased fitness as deleterious traits accumulate. On top of that, very low population density makes finding mates, closely related or not, difficult (the Allee effect). A result of that is akin to the modern tendency of young people born in remote areas to leave, so that local population falls and becomes more elderly. The remaining elders face difficulties in assembling hunting and foraging parties; i.e. keeping the community going. Many Neanderthal skeletons show signs of extremely hard, repetitive physical effort and senescence; e.g. loss of teeth and evidence of having to be cared for by others. Both factors in small communities are exacerbated by fluctuating birth and death rates and changed gender ratios more than are those with larger numbers; i.e. random events have a far greater overall effect (stochasticity). Krist Vaesen and colleagues from the Netherlands use two modern demographic techniques that encapsulate these tendencies to model Neanderthal populations over  10,000 years.

By themselves, none of the likely factors should have driven Neanderthals into extinction. But in combination they may well have done so, even if modern humans hadn’t arrived around 40 ka. Completely external events, such as epidemics or sudden climate change, would have made little difference. Indeed the very isolation of Neanderthal bands over their vast geographic range would have shielded them from infection, and they had been able to survive almost half a million years of repeated climate crises. If their numbers were always small that begs the question of how they survived for so long. The authors suggest that they ran out of luck, in the sense that, finally, their precariousness came up against a rare blend of environmental fluctuations that ‘stacked the odds’ against them. It is possible that interactions, involving neither competition nor hostility, with small numbers of AMH migrants may have tipped the balance. A possibility not mentioned in the paper, perhaps because it is speculation rather than modelling, is social fusion of the two groups and interbreeding. Perhaps the Neanderthals disappeared because of hybridisation through choice of new kinds of mate. Some closely-related modern species are under threat for that very reason. Although individual living non-African humans carry little more than 3% of Neanderthal genetic material it has been estimated that a very large proportion of the Neanderthal genome is distributed mainly in the population of Eurasia. For that to have happened suggests that interbreeding was habitual and perhaps a popular option

See also: Sample, I. 2019. Bad luck may have caused Neanderthals’ extinction – study. (Guardian 27 November 2019)

Out of Africa: The earliest modern human to leave

The 2017 discovery in Morocco of fossilised, anatomically modern humans (AMH) dated at 286 ka (see: Origin of anatomically modern humans, June 2017) pushed back the origin of our species by at least 100 ka. Indeed, the same site yielded flint tools around 315 ka old. Aside from indicating our antiquity, the Jebel Irhoud discovery expanded the time span during which AMH might have wandered into Eurasia, as a whole variety of earlier hominins had managed since about 1.8 Ma ago. Sure enough, the widely accepted earliest modern human migrants from Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel (90 to 120 ka) were superseded in 2018 by AMH fossils at Misliya Cave, also in Israel, in association with 177 ka stone artefacts (see Earliest departure of modern humans from Africa, January 2018). Such early dates helped make more sense of very old ages for unaccompanied stone tools in the Arabian Peninsula as tracers for early migration routes. Unlike today, Arabia was a fertile place during a series of monsoon-related cycles extending back to about 160 ka (see: Arabia : staging post for human migrations? September 2014; Wet spells in Arabia and human migration, March 2015). The ‘record’ has now shifted to Greece.

hominin sites
Key ages of early H. sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans (credit: Delson, 2019; Fig. 1)

Fossil human remains unearthed decades ago often undergo revised assessment as more precise dating methods and anatomical ideas become available. Such is the case for two partial human skulls found in the Apidima Cave complex of southern Greece during the late 1970s. Now, using the uranium-series method, one has been dated at 170 ka, the other being at least 210 ka old (Harvati, K. and 11 others 2019. Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature, v. 571 online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1376-z). These are well within the age range of European Neanderthals. Indeed, the younger one does have the characteristic Neanderthal brow ridges and elongated shape. Albeit damaged, the older skull is more rounded and lacks the Neanderthals’ ‘bun’-like bulge at the back; it is an early member of Homo sapiens. In fact 170 ka older than any other early European AMH, and a clear contemporary of the long-lived Neanderthal population of Eurasia; in fact the age relations could indicate that Neanderthals replaced these early AMH migrants.

Given suitable climatic conditions in the Levant and Arabia, those areas are the closest to Africa to which they are linked by an ‘easy’, overland route. To reach Greece is not only a longer haul from the Red Sea isthmus but involves the significant barrier of the Dardanelles strait, or it requires navigation across the Mediterranean Sea. Such is the ‘specky’ occurrence of hominin fossils in both space and time that a new geographic outlier such as Apidima doesn’t help much in understanding how migration happened. Until – and if – DNA can be extracted it is impossible to tell if AMH-Neanderthal hybridisation occurred at such an early date and if the 210 ka population in Greece vanished without a trace or left a sign in the genomics of living humans. Yet, both time and place being so unexpected, the discovery raises optimism of further discoveries to come

See also: Delson, E. 2019. An early modern human outside Africa. Nature, v. 571 online; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02075-9

The earliest humans in Tibet

Modern Tibetans thrive in the rarefied air at altitudes above 4 km partly because they benefit from a genetic mutation of the gene EPAS1, which regulates haemoglobin production. Surprisingly, the segment of Tibetan’s DNA that contains the mutation matches that present in the genome of an undated Denisovan girl’s finger bone found in the eponymous Siberian cave. The geneticists who made this discovery were able to estimate that Tibetans inherited the entire segment sometime in the last 40 thousand years through interbreeding with Denisovans, who probably were able to live at high altitude too. Wherever and whenever this took place the inheritance was retained because it clearly helped those who carried it to thrive in Tibet. The same segment is present in a few percent of living Han Chinese people, which suggests their ancestors and those of the Tibetans were members of the same group some 40 ka ago, most of the Han having lost the mutation subsequently.

That inheritance would have remained somewhat mysterious while the existing evidence for the colonisation of the Tibetan Plateau suggested sometime in the Holocene, possibly by migrating early farmers. A single archaeological site at 4600 m on the Plateau has changed all that (Zhang, X.L. and 15 others 2018. The earliest human occupation of the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau 40 thousand to 30 thousand years ago. Science, v.  362, p. 1049-1051; DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8824). The dig at Nwya Devu, which lies 250 km NW of Lhasa, has yielded a sequence of sediments (dated by optically stimulated luminescence at between 45 to 18 thousand years) that contains abundant stone tools made from locally occurring slate. The oldest coincides roughly with the age of the earliest anatomically modern human migrants into northern China, so the earliest Tibetans may well have been a branch of that same group of people, as suggested by the DNA of modern Tibetan and Han people. However, skeletal remains of both humans and their prey animals are yet to emerge from Nwya Devu, which leaves open the question of who they were. Anatomically modern humans or archaic humans, such as Denisovans?

The tools do not help to identify their likely makers. Slate is easy to work and typically yields flat blades with sharp, albeit not especially durable, edges; they are disposable perhaps explaining why so many were found at Nwya Devu. None show signs of pressure flaking that typify tools made from harder, more isotropic rock, such as flint. Yet they include a variety of use-types: scrapers; awls; burins and choppers as well as blades. The lack of associated remains of prey or hearths is suggested by the authors to signify that the site was a workshop; perhaps that will change with further excavation in the area. The age range suggests regular, if not permanent, occupancy for more than 20 ka

Related articles: Gibbons, A. 2014. Tibetans inherited high-altitude gene from ancient human. Science News,2 July 2014, Zhang J-F. & Dennell, R. 2018. The last of Asia conquered by Homo sapiens. Science, v. 362, p. 992-993; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav6863.

Read more on Human evolution and Migrations

Multiregional human evolution in Africa

Africa is not only a large continent, but is subdivided into many different climatic zones and ecosystems and these have changed drastically over the last 2 Ma. It is further subdivided by terrain features, such as the courses of major rivers, large plateaus, tectonic rift systems and the mountains that frequently define their flanks. Getting around Africa is not easy today, was more difficult before modern transport, and many geomorphic provinces may have been mutually inaccessible in the distant past. For instance, the Sahara Desert forms a major barrier to travellers on foot because access to surface water is non-existent except at widely spaced oases. Without boats or rafts the Nile and Congo cannot be crossed for a thousand miles or more. Migration was perhaps a very rare event outside of periods of widespread humid climates or when great environmental stress forced people either to move or perish. Despite these physical and ecological divisions and barriers palaeoanthropologists have, until recently, tended to regard the evolution of Homo sapiens and earlier human and hominin species as having occurred within single populations: a linear view forced on them by scanty fossil remains and limited methodologies. Logically, when human numbers were small Africa probably had several isolated population Physical isolation would have engendered genetic isolation in which our ancestors evolved for tens of thousand years.

Anatomically modern human (AMH) remains found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco turned out to be 315 ka old, displacing those from Ethiopia (190 ka) as the earliest known examples of AMH. Several more archaic H. sapiens fossils have turned up in southern Africa and as far afield as the Middle East, suggesting that the early evolution of AMH was in an Africa-wide context rather than in one area – the rift system of Ethiopia and Kenya – from which a new species radiated outwards. This breadth of finds has encouraged Eleanor Scerri of Oxford University and her many international colleagues to resurrect what was once a widely discarded hypothesis; a multiregional model of modern human origins, originally proposed to have arisen from pre-sapiens groups in Eurasia by Milford Wolpoff but which was sunk once genetic connections among living humans turned out to be rooted in Africa. (Scerri, E.M.L. and 22 others 2018. Did our species evolve in subdivided populations across Africa, and why does it matter? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, v. 33, p. 582-594; (PDF) doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2018.05.005). Scerri et al’s model is sited in Africa and the paper’s authors include several leading palaeoanthropologists who once opposed multiregionalism and established the Recent African Origin hypothesis on the back of the early genetic data.

early homo
Different early AMH cranium shapes: left Jebel Irhoud, Morocco (315 ka), right Qafzeh, the Levant (85 ka) (credit: Scerri et al, 2018; Figure 1)

From region to region in Africa, the oldest AMH crania show significant differences from each other, but within a distinct combination of features that clearly distinguish us from our fossil relatives and ancestors, such as Homo heidelbergensis from Zimbabwe and the primitive-looking H. naledi found in a South African cave in 2015. Improved dating now shows that the Zimbabwean H. heidelbergensis and H.naledi remains are roughly the same age as the Jebel Irhoud AMH specimens. The first has long been held as the progenitor of AMH and descended from H. antecessor, perhaps the common ancestor for AMH, Neanderthals and Denisovans about 700 ka ago. The three human species cohabited Africa early in the evolutionary history of AMH. It is now abundantly clear from ancient and modern genomes that AMH, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred in Eurasia. The proximity in time and space of earlier African AMH to two more ancient human species opens up a similar possibility earlier in the emergence of all living humans. There is evidence for that too: Yoruba people living in West Africa, whose genomes have been analysed, carry up to 8% of genetic ancestry that originated in an unidentified ancient population that was non-sapiens. At present, DNA analysis with the same high precision and information content from other living Africans has not been performed, and deterioration of ancient DNA in African climates has so far thwarted genomic studies of ancient African fossils.

The new view of our origins points to repeated hybridisation involving other coexisting human species, as well as evolution in isolation, from the outset. It continued through later times while Neanderthals and Denisovans survived. Even recent human genetic history is peppered with intermingling of a great variety of migrants passing through all the habitable continents. Another issue: In the earliest times, were cultures exchanged as well as genes? The first appearance of AMH coincides with that of a new stone technology (Levallois technique), moving away from the earlier dominance by handaxes towards more delicate, leaf-shaped points, that characterise the African Middle Stone Age. Similar techniques reached Europe with the Neanderthals. Was this an invention of the earliest AMH or a joint venture?

You can find an excellent review of these issues in the September 2018 issue of Scientific American (Wong, K. 2018. Last hominin standing.  Scientific American, v. 319(3), p. 56-61) along with several other articles on human evolution.

A revised and updated edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Early human dispersal through Asia

When first mooted, the Out of Africa model for the spread of anatomically modern humans (AMH) centred on a single exodus from African to Eurasia, which researchers broadly agreed to have occurred about 60 thousand years ago. That was when an advance of continental glaciers and sea level fall narrowed to manageable proportions the obstacle presented by the Red Sea. The only archaeological drawback was that AMH had occupied the Levant at around 110 ka. That was formerly considered to have been a temporary occupation corralled by hyperarid conditions immediately to the east and a mountain barrier to the north, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Yet, during humid periods there was every chance that the eastern barrier would occasionally have been permeable. Plumping for the 60 ka exit model was a conservative view stifled by a lack of high-quality dates for scattered suggestions of an Asian AMH presence, such as occurrences of stone tools resembling those of early moderns and even rarer, incomplete and often ambiguous skeletal remains. The ‘modern-looking’ tools that occurred both above and below the 74 ka Toba ash deposit in southern India were disposed of as ‘advanced’ tools of earlier migrants; probably Homo erectus. In retrospect, the established fact of earlier occupation of Eurasia by such ‘primitive’ African migrants, as long ago as ~1.8 Ma in the case of Homo fossils in Georgia, should have encouraged the view that culturally better-endowed AMH would have had less problem in diffusing eastwards once they found an escape route from Africa.

Whatever, the flurry during the last couple of decades of more skeletal and archaeological remains of AMH in Asia, genetic evidence for their interbreeding in the west and east with earlier human groups and, principally, improvements in dating ancient sites suggests a more complex geographic flow. Christopher Bae of the University of Hawaii and colleagues based in the UK, Germany and the US have reviewed this growing wealth of new data to put forward various scenarios for Out of Africa dispersal through Asia (Bae, C.J. et al. 2017. On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectives. Science, v. 358, p. 1269 (summary); online full paper DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9067). They highlight growing evidence for at least one pre-60 ka dispersal, and probably several, to reach the Levant, Arabia, India, China, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia before that date. This tallies with Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA segments within the genomes of living Eurasians that indicate interbreeding before 60 ka.

Bae and colleagues also assemble data that bear on where AMH managed to move out of Africa. They resolve the dispute between routes around the northern shores of the Red Sea and crossing the southern Straits of Bab el Mandab by concluding ‘why not both’. Where the migrations went to is currently suggested by the distribution of sites that reveal either pre- or post-60 ka occupancy. The earlier dispersals may have been dominated by following coastlines along the Mediterranean in North Africa to the Levant and via Bab el Mandab across the Persian Gulf, along the northern Indian Ocean littoral to south-east and east Asia. The later, more ‘adventurous’ movements using both routes led to Europe and deeper into continental Asia and thence to its north east. The review conveniently covers in seven pages much the same geoarchaeological and anthropological ground as Earth-Pages has visited bit-by-bit as it has unfolded since 2000. Clearly, great swathes of Asia have not been explored by palaoanthropologists. As in most geographic sciences there is a tendency to follow up known sites year after year – often decade after decade – to ensure publishable results, and that will consume lots of economic and human resources. It is more risky to try and fill in the gaps, but that basic field work is urgently needed to supply new material.