New dating questions previous ideas about early hominins

The Sterkfontein cave 40 km northwest of Johannesburg in South Africa first sprang to the attention of scientists in 1936, with the discovery there of an adult hominin skull. This showed clear affinities with the discovery 400 km to the SW in 1924 of the fossil skull of a juvenile primate, which Raymond Dart claimed to be ancestral to modern humans, naming it Australopithecus africanus. Sterkfontein has since yielded more than 500 hominin fossils, many of which are Au. africanus.

Limestone cave deposits are difficult to date precisely, unlike sediments that are interbedded with volcanic rocks, the most amenable material being that deposited by water flowing through the cave to form flowstone or speleothem. Using the U-Pb method of radiometric dating yielded an age of between 2.1 to 2.6 Ma for flowstone that cements the breccia in which the Au. africanus fossils occur. Clearly, the flowstone formed after burial so that was a minimum age for them, awaiting the use of a different chronological tool to suggest when burial of the bones took place

The face of an Australopithecus africanus: ‘Mrs Ples’. (Credit University of Zurich)

An almost complete skeleton of another australopithecine found in another part of the Sterkfontein cave system was dated in 2015 by a different approach. This used the decay of 10Be and 26Al isotopes that high-energy cosmic rays produce in quartz grains while they are exposed at the surface. Burial of irradiated sedimentary grains protects them from such bombardment, and the two isotopes  then steadily decay at a known rate. Quartz grains associated with this specimen (fondly known as ‘Little Foot’) turned out to be far older than the flowstone U-Pb age, with a cosmogenic burial age of about 3.7 Ma. Its much greater antiquity prompted scientists to regard ‘Little Foot’ as a different species – Au. prometheus – despite being similar to Au. africanus.

Since that success, much the same team from South Africa, the US and France has been working on sedimentary grains buried with the abundant Au. africanus specimens from Sterkfontein (Granger D.E. et al. 2022. Cosmogenic nuclide dating of Australopithecus at Sterkfontein, South AfricaProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 119, article e2123516119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2123516119). Their newly published efforts show that “Little Foot’s” burial took place between 3.41 and 3.49 Ma, more than a million years earlier than suggested by the flowstone U-Pb dating and just ~200 ka younger than the ‘Little Foot’ skeleton. More surprising is that Au. africanus lived during the same period (3.4 to 3.7 Ma) as did Au. afarensis – the species to which ‘Lucy’ belonged – 3500 km to the north in Ethiopia.

So it is no longer justifiable  to suggest that the first known human species (Homo habilis ~2.3 to 1.65 M) is either a more ‘advanced’ australopithecine or a direct descendant from that genus, for the new dating opens a million-year gap in the history of human evolution. That age range does contain stone tools but no plausible candidates for an australopithecine-human evolutionary connection. One of the most recently suggested link is Au. sediba (see: Another candidate for earliest, direct human ancestor, October 2011; and Australopithecus sediba: is she or is she not a human ancestor? April 2013). The snag with that candidate is that the well-established age (2.0 Ma) of known specimens falls in the middle of the range for H. habilis. The two may have been cohabiters of Africa but are very different.

The million years that separated Au. africanus together with afarensis from H. habilis is the period when the defining character of humans, tool making, evolved. So the hunt is on for hominins associated with stone tools in that huge stratigraphic gap. One of the drawbacks with famous sites, such as the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ that includes Sterkfontein, is that they almost become clichés so that scientists return to them again and again, while the key that they seek may well lie elsewhere.

Balanced boulders and seismic hazard

The seismometer invented by early Chinese engineer Zhang Heng

China has been plagued by natural disasters since the earliest historical writings. Devastating earthquakes have been a particular menace, the first recorded having occurred in 780 BC . During the Han dynasty in 132 CE, polymath Zhang Heng invented an ‘instrument for measuring the seasonal winds and the movements of the Earth’ (Houfeng Didong Yi, for short): the first seismometer. A pendulum mechanism in a large bronze jar activated one of eight dragons corresponding to the eight cardinal and intermediate compass directions (N, NE, E etc.) so that a bronze ball dropped from its mouth to be caught by a corresponding bronze toad. The device took advantage of unstable equilibrium in which a small disturbance will produce a large change: akin to a pencil balanced on its unsharpened end. Modern seismometers exploit the same basic principle of amplification of small motions. The natural world is also full of examples of unstable equilibrium, often the outcome of chemical and physical weathering. Examples are slope instability, materials that are on the brink of changing properties from those of a solid to a liquid state (thixotropic materials – see: Mud, mud, glorious mud August 2020) and rocks in which stress has built almost to the point of brittle failure: earthquakes themselves. But there are natural curiosities that not only express unstable equilibrium but have maintained it long enough to become … curious! Perched boulders, such as glacial erratics and the relics of slow erosion and weathering, are good examples. Seismicity could easily topple them, so that their continued presence signifies that large enough tremors haven’t yet happened.

A precarious boulder in coastal central California (credit: Anna Rood & Dylan Rood, Imperial College London)

Now it has become possible to judge how long their delicate existence has persisted, giving a clue to the long-term seismicity and thus the likely hazard in their vicinity (Rood, A.H. and 10 others 2020. Earthquake Hazard Uncertainties Improved Using Precariously Balanced Rocks. American Geological Union Advances, v. 1, ePDF e2020AV000182; DOI: 10.1029/2020AV000182). Anna Rood and her partner Dylan of Imperial College London, with colleagues from New Zealand, the US and Australia, found seven delicately balanced large boulders of silica-rich sedimentary rock in seismically active, coastal California. They had clearly withstood earthquake ground motions for some time. Using multiple photographs to produce accurate digital 3D renditions and modelling of resistance to shaking and rocking motions, the authors determined each precarious rock’s probable susceptibility to toppling as a result of earthquakes. How long each had withstood tectonic activity shows up from the mass-spectrometric determination of beryllium-10 isotopes produced by cosmic-ray bombardment of the outer layer. Comparing its surface abundance relative to that in the rock’s interior indicates the time since the boulders’ first exposure to cosmic rays. With allowance for former support from surrounding blocks, this gives a useful measure of the survival time of each boulder – its ‘fragility age’.

The boulder data provide a useful means of reducing the uncertainties inherent in conventional seismic hazard assessment, which are based on estimates of the frequency of seismic activity, the magnitude of historic ‘quakes, in most cases over the last few hundred years, and the underlying geology and tectonics. In the study area (near a coastal nuclear power station) the data have narrowed uncertainty down to almost a half that in existing risk models. Moreover, they establish that the highest-magnitude earthquakes to be expected every 10 thousand years (the ‘worst case scenario’) were 27% less than otherwise estimated. This is especially useful for coastal California, where the most threatening faults lie off shore and are less amenable to geological investigation.

See also:  Strange precariously balanced rocks provide earthquake forecasting clues. (SciTech Daily; 1 October 2020)