How Yamnaya nomads and other herding cultures became early forces of globalization

Science News reports: Nomadic herders living on western Asia’s hilly grasslands made a couple of big moves east and west around 5,000 years ago. These were not typical, back-and-forth treks from one seasonal grazing spot to another. These people blazed new trails.

A technological revolution had transformed travel for ancient herders around that time. Of course they couldn’t make online hotel reservations. Trip planners would have searched in vain for a Steppe Depot stocked with essential tools and supplies. The closest thing to a traveler’s pit stop was a mountain stream and a decent grazing spot for cattle. Yet, unlike anyone before, these hardy people had the means to move — wheels, wagons and horses.

Here’s how the journeys may have played out: At a time when rainfall dwindled and grasslands in western Asia turned brown, oxen-pulled wagons loaded with personal belongings rolled west, following greener pastures into central and northern Europe. Other carts rumbled east as far as Siberia’s Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet today. Families of men, women and children may have piled on board. Or travelers may have been mostly men, who married women from farming villages along the way. Cattle, sheep and goats undoubtedly trailed along with whoever made these trips, under the watchful guidance of horse riders. Wagons served as mobile homes while on the move and during periodic stops to let animals graze.

These journeys, by people now known as the Yamnaya, transformed human genes and cultures across a huge swath of Europe and Asia. Yamnaya people left their mark from Ireland to China’s western border, across roughly 4,000 kilometers. [Continue reading…]

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Primate vocalizations are much more than gibberish

By Jay Schwartz

A chimpanzee is strolling along a trail through the lush Budongo Forest in Uganda when he spots a deadly Gaboon viper. Chimps have an alarm call for scenarios like these: a soft “hoo” grunt that alerts others to potential danger. But there’s no point in alerting his group mates if they’re already aware of the threat. So what does he do?

This is the question that Catherine Crockford, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and her colleagues were keen to answer. They are the ones who’d put the viper—a convincing model made out of wire mesh and plaster—in the chimp’s path. It sounds like a silly prank, trying to surprise a chimp with a model snake. But the researchers were trying to get at an elusive and profound question: How much of what a chimp “says” is intentional communication?

Their findings, published in 2012, along with those of a 2013 follow-up study by University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe and colleagues, challenged long-held assumptions about what makes humans unique among our primate relatives.

Researchers have spent decades endeavoring to unravel the depth of communication that nonhuman primates can achieve. Do they have words as we would think of them? Do they have grammar? Since language is so integral to our identity as humans, these questions get to the heart of what it means to be human. While the public tends to imbue every cat meow and dog bark with meaning, scientists have traditionally taken a much more conservative approach, favoring the least cognitive explanations and assuming that animal vocalizations are involuntary and emotional. “Conservatism is essential if animal cognition work is to be taken seriously,” says Slocombe.

We can’t see inside primate brains (at least not without a lot of practical and ethical difficulty), or ask primates what they mean or why they vocalize. So primate-communication researchers have been forced to devise clever studies to work out what’s going on in their subjects’ minds.

[Read more…]

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The case against civilization

John Lanchester writes: Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial. [Continue reading…]

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Did the first people to reach the Americas arrive via a kelp highway?

Gemma Tarlach writes: The average person’s idea of how — and when — the first people arrived in the Americas needs a serious revision, say researchers: The First Americans arrived significantly earlier and via a different route than most of us learned in school. There’s something fishy about the whole thing.

Open most middle school textbooks to the chapter on how our species migrated to the Americas and you’ll likely see an image of people in furs trekking over taiga and tundra, the lost world of Beringia. The land bridge, now submerged, once linked Siberia to North America. For years the standard story was that hunter-gatherers from Siberia crossed it on foot when the glaciers retreated enough, at the end of the last ice age, to open an ice-free corridor.

And people did cover Beringia on foot when such a route opened up. But they probably weren’t First Americans. Think of them as… Second Americans, perhaps.

Thanks to a growing body of archaeological and genetic evidence, researchers publishing today in Science say it’s increasingly likely that the first humans to arrive in the Americas followed a coastal route, making the most of marine resources on a “kelp highway” that spanned the edge of the north Pacific from Asia to North America. And they made this journey well before glaciers retreated to open the traditional Beringia overland route. [Continue reading…]

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A conversation on the deep history of humans and music with Gary Tomlinson

Damon Krukowski: Something I love about A Million Years of Music is this idea of deep time. How did you move from studies of Monteverdi and opera to prehistory?

Gary Tomlinson: There are a couple of ways this happened. One is that it’s a return to my past, because, though I’ve been a musician from my childhood, I went to university thinking I was going to become a biochemist and spent my first three years working toward a biochemistry major. Then I came under the influence of a wonderful music teacher. I was playing in an orchestra and ensembles—mostly classical, with a little bit of acoustic rock and roll on the side. And suddenly I said, “Why am I in science when what I really want to be doing is thinking about music?” And so I went off to graduate school in musicology at UC Berkeley.

My interest in music history also was always anthropological in a general sense. It was the placement of music in culture, and in cultures of the past, that fascinated me, and I approached other cultures of the past in some ways like an anthropological fieldworker. And my sense of that anthropological purchase was not just to place music in a context but to understand how music helps to make the context that it’s a part of, so that there’s a real mutuality and reciprocal kind of interaction; I never saw those as separate things. The anthropological stuff took me off toward social theory and poststructuralist theory and cultural theories of various sorts. And it gradually turned toward Foucauldian work. The trajectory for me was a smooth one, in a way—even though my books seem to be on very different subjects: from Monteverdi as a part of the context of late Renaissance Italian culture, through opera as a manifestation of fundamentally shifting conceptions of the voice and its powers over four hundred years (in Metaphysical Song), to Aztec and Inca song (in The Singing of the New World)—an attempt to understand the really different ways in which cultures can come to appreciate the powers of music and voice. And the next stretch was in a way just leaping back and saying, “Well, I always was interested in evolutionary theory—how the hell did humans come to be armed with the capacities to do all these things in the first place?” So that’s the short answer. [Continue reading…]

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Mating with Neandertals reintroduced ‘lost’ DNA into modern humans

Science News reports: Interbreeding with Neandertals restored some genetic heirlooms that modern humans left behind in the ancient exodus from Africa, new research suggests.

Those heirlooms are versions of genes, or alleles, that were present in humans’ and Neandertals’ shared ancestors. Neandertals carried many of those old alleles, passing them along generation after generation, while developing their own versions of other genes. A small number of humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago and settled in Asia and Europe. These migrants “lost” the ancestral alleles.

But when the migrants or their descendants interbred with Neandertals, Eurasians reinherited the ancestral heirlooms along with Neandertal DNA, John “Tony” Capra reported October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Present-day Europeans have more than 47,000 of these reintroduced ancestral alleles, and East Asians — who have more Neandertal ancestry than Europeans (SN Online: 2/12/15) — carry more than 56,000, said Capra, an evolutionary geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists battle over whether violence has declined over time

Bruce Bower writes: Contrary to a popular idea among researchers, modern states haven’t dulled people’s long-standing taste for killing each other in battle, a controversial new study concludes. But living in a heavily populated society may up one’s odds of surviving a war, two anthropologists propose.

As a population grows, larger numbers of combatants die in wars, but those slain represent a smaller average percentage of the total population, say Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee and Charles Hildebolt of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That pattern holds for both small-scale and state societies, the researchers report online October 13 in Current Anthropology.

Increasing absolute numbers of war dead in human societies have resulted from the invention of ever-more-lethal weapons, from stone axes to airborne bombers, the researchers suspect. But Falk and Hildebolt show that states, which centralize political power in a bureaucratic government, are less likely to lose large portions of their populations to war than are small-scale societies, such as hunter-gatherers. That’s a consequence of large populations acting as a buffer against war casualties among noncombatants, not a lesser appetite for violence, the researchers contend.

“Small-scale societies are not more violent than states,” Falk says. “But there is safety in numbers.” [Continue reading…]

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Chimpanzees learn to use tools on their own, no teaching required

Leah Froats writes: As it turns out, chimpanzees don’t need to see in order to do, no matter what the old mantra might lead you to believe.

A common belief among researchers is that chimps need to watch other members of their communities use tools before they can pick the behavior up. In a study published in PeerJ in September, researchers from the University of Birmingham, and the University of Tübingen challenged this belief and checked to see if it would hold for a specific kind of tool use.

They attempted to recreate a behavior commonly found in the wild: the use of sticks to scoop algae from the water to eat. Would chimpanzees that were unfamiliar with this behavior be able to figure it out on their own? [Continue reading…]

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The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes ‘didn’t exist’

Lindsey Bever writes: The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.

California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn’t reach for his camera.

“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.

Hofman started shooting.

“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag. “The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”

Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” [Continue reading…]

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Our imaginative life today has access to the pre-linguistic, ancestral mind

Stephen T Asma writes: Richard Klein, Maurice Bloch and other prominent paleoanthropologists place the imagination quite late in the history of our species, thousands of years after the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In part, this theory reflects a bias that artistic faculties are a kind of evolutionary cheesecake – sweet desserts that emerge as byproducts of more serious cognitive adaptations such as language and logic. More importantly, it is premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago). It is common for archaeologists to assume that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work, thinking and creating just as we do today.

Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.

Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins. [Continue reading…]

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‘Uncontacted’ Amazon tribe members are reported killed in Brazil

The New York Times reports: They were members of an uncontacted tribe gathering eggs along the river in a remote part of the Amazon. Then, it appears, they had the bad luck of running into gold miners.

Now, federal prosecutors in Brazil have opened an investigation into the reported massacre of about 10 members of the tribe, the latest evidence that threats to endangered indigenous groups are on the rise in the country.

The Brazilian agency on indigenous affairs, Funai, said it had lodged a complaint with the prosecutor’s office in the state of Amazonas after the gold miners went to a bar in a near the border with Colombia, and bragged about the killings. They brandished a hand-carved paddle that they said had come from the tribe, the agency said.

“It was crude bar talk,” said Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, Funai’s coordinator for uncontacted and recently contacted tribes. “They even bragged about cutting up the bodies and throwing them in the river.”

The miners, she said, claimed that “they had to kill them or be killed.”

Ms. Sotto-Maior said the killings were reported to have taken place last month. The indigenous affairs bureau conducted some initial interviews in the town and then took the case to the police.

“There is a lot of evidence, but it needs to be proven,” she said.

The prosecutor in charge of the case, Pablo Luz de Beltrand, confirmed that an investigation had begun, but said he could not discuss the details of the case while it was underway. He said the episode was alleged to have occurred in the Javari Valley — the second-largest indigenous reserve in Brazil — in the remote west.

“We are following up, but the territories are big and access is limited,” Mr. Beltrand said. “These tribes are uncontacted — even Funai has only sporadic information about them. So it’s difficult work that requires all government departments working together.”

Mr. Beltrand said it was the second such episode that he was investigating this year. The first reported killing of uncontacted Indians in the region occurred in February, and that case is still open. “It was the first time that we’d had this kind of case in this region,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s not something that was happening before.”

Survival International, a global indigenous rights group, warned that given the small sizes of the uncontacted Amazon tribes, this latest episode could mean that a significant percentage of a remote ethnic group was wiped out.

“If the investigation confirms the reports, it will be yet another genocidal massacre resulting directly from the Brazilian government’s failure to protect isolated tribes — something that is guaranteed in the Constitution,” said Sarah Shenker, a senior campaigner with the rights group.

Under Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, funding for indigenous affairs has been slashed. In April, Funai closed five of the 19 bases that it uses to monitor and protect isolated tribes, and reduced staffing at others. The bases are used to prevent invasions by loggers and miners and to communicate with recently contacted tribes. [Continue reading…]

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Why do people die fighting for a cause?

Science reports: To beat your enemies, you must understand them intimately. And so anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have spent the last 2 years interviewing Islamic State group fighters and their opponents on the front lines. For a study published yesterday in Nature Human Behavior, Atran, director of research at Artis International, a research institute based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his research team personally talked with extremists in the field, whom they’d reached through local leaders. They also conducted online surveys with thousands of Spanish citizens in order to include a more pacific population. Science spoke with Atran, who also holds positions at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and France’s CNRS in Paris, about his work. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What makes someone willing to die fighting for a cause?

A: Well, lots of things, but what best predicted willingness to die on the battlefront was both devotion to a tight-knit group of comrades—fusion with them—and commitment to sacred values. But the values actually trumped the group, which may be the first time that was shown. Because most of the military sociology and psychology, at least since World War II, has said that will to fight is based on camaraderie and fighting for your buddies.

In September 2014, [then-President Barack] Obama’s national security director said the greatest mistake the U.S. made in Iraq was underestimating ISIS’s will to fight, and he said it was similar in Vietnam. And then he said will to fight is an imponderable, which is why we undertook this study.

Q: What are sacred values?

A: They are moral values. We’ve shown in lots of different contexts that sacred values are immune or resistant to material trade-offs. You wouldn’t sell your children or sell out your country or your religion for all the money in China. Another aspect is that they generate actions because they’re the right thing to do, so you’re not really worried about risks or rewards or cost or consequences. [Continue reading…]

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How the Folsom point became an archaeological icon

Stephen E. Nash writes: The Folsom spear point, which was excavated in 1927 near the small town of Folsom, New Mexico, is one of the most famous artifacts in North American archaeology, and for good reason: It was found in direct association with the bones of an extinct form of Ice Age bison. The Folsom point therefore demonstrated conclusively, and for the first time, that human beings were in North America during the last Ice Age—thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The Folsom discovery marked the end of a long series of sometimes serendipitous, sometimes deliberate actions by an intriguing cast of characters. As such, it helps us understand that archaeology—like most fields of study—has very few “Eureka!” moments in which a brilliant sage comes upon an insight that suddenly changes the world. Instead, archaeology is cumulative, often slow, and painstaking. And while an individual artifact can indeed be important, it’s context (where it was found) and association (what it was found with) are often more important than the object itself.

The story begins in 1908. In the late afternoon heat of August 27, an unusually strong summer thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain—75 percent of the yearly average—on Johnson Mesa, northwest of Folsom. The resulting flash flood swept through the town and the usually dry drainages in the vicinity. In so doing, it exposed buried features and artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years. [Continue reading…]

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Here’s what the last common ancestor of apes and humans looked like

Charles Q. Choi writes: The most complete extinct-ape skull ever found reveals what the last common ancestor of all living apes and humans might have looked like, according to a new study.

The 13-million-year-old infant skull, which its discoverers nicknamed “Alesi,” was unearthed in Kenya in 2014. It likely belonged to a fruit-eating, slow-climbing primate that resembled a baby gibbon, the researchers said.

Among the living primates, humans are most closely related to the apes, which include the lesser apes (gibbons) and the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans). These so-called hominoids — that is, the gibbons, great apes and humans — emerged and diversified during the Miocene epoch, approximately 23 million to 5 million years ago. (The last common ancestor that humans had with chimpanzees lived about 6 million to 7 million years ago.)

Much remains unknown about the common ancestors of living apes and humans from the critical time when these branches diverged. Fossil evidence from this part of the primate family tree is scarce, and consists mostly of isolated teeth and broken jaw fragments. As such, researchers were not sure what the last common ancestors of living apes and humans might have looked like, and even whether they originated in Africa or Eurasia. [Continue reading…]

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Democracy as contained conflict

Saul Frampton writes: The fall of Mycenaean power, the intervening Dark Ages, and the dawn of a new civilisation during the ‘Greek miracle’ of the Archaic period is one of the most fascinating stories in ancient history. After the collapse of the Mycenaean palace system around 1100 BCE, Greece experienced centuries of social and economic devastation. Pylos, Mycenae and Thebes were abandoned and burned to the ground. A dwindling population was attacked by invaders from the north and from the sea. What remained of Bronze Age culture was according to one historian ‘very little’, and ‘that little then dwindled away to almost nothing’. Writing at the end of the period, the 8th-century poet Hesiod described the degeneration of the human race, from glittering Bronze Age heroes, down to his own violent ‘Age of Iron’. He looked into the near future and saw children born grey, families at war with themselves, and society self-destructing. He concluded miserably: ‘I wish that I … had either died sooner or been born later.’

But it was at this moment that a new vision of society began to emerge. As the classical scholar Gilbert Murray put it in 1907 : ‘There is a far-off island of knowledge, or apparent knowledge; then darkness; then the beginnings of continuous history.’ The archaic period (800-480 BCE) represents the start of this history, when ‘darkness gives way to dawn’, according to the archaeologist J N Coldstream. And at its heart is the birthplace of the Western intellectual and political tradition: the polis or Greek city-state.

A polis was a self-governing city or town and its surrounding territory. In terms of size, it wasn’t necessarily big: Aristotle said that all the citizens of a polis (i.e, men) should be able to be assembled by the voice of a single herald. Plato gave an ideal citizenry of 5,040. Some poleis were smaller, but few were much larger. A typical city-state such as Plataea in Boeotia had a total population of fewer than 10,000. But from its modest beginnings, the idea of the polis soon spread. At the highpoint of Greek civilisation (c400 BCE), around 1,000 had migrated across the shores of the Mediterranean – as Plato put it: ‘like frogs around a pond’.

Given these geographic variations, many chose to define the polis anthropologically. ‘Not well-built walls, nor canals and dockyards make the polis: but men do,’ said Alcaeus of Lesbos. In Thucydides, the Athenian general Nikias states that: ‘It is men that make the polis, not walls or ships.’ Aristotle defined man as politikon zoon, a political animal: he ‘whose nature is to live in a polis’. At its heart was a conception of government for the people, by the people: of normative rules and collective decision-making. For the writers and philosophers of 5th-century Athens, this culminated in an ability to step back, not only from politics but from life itself, and subject it to something like objective scrutiny.

But the reasons for the success of the Greek city-state still remain unclear. Did it result from an expanding population or the group-think of the armoured hoplite phalanx? Were improvements in trade crucial, or was it the rise of sophisticated urban elites? Was it maintained by abstract ideals of democracy (demokratia), freedom (eleutheria) and free speech (parrhesia)? Or was the rise of the polis somehow the astonishing aftereffect of the simple act of drawing a line? [Continue reading…]

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Humans first settled in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago

Science News reports: Tools, paints and other artifacts excavated from an ancient rock-shelter in northern Australia are giving new glimpses into early life Down Under. The first humans may have arrived on the continent 65,000 years ago — 5,000 years earlier than previously thought — and they were sophisticated craftspeople, researchers report July 19 in Nature.

Archaeologists unearthed three distinct layers of artifacts at Madjedbebe, Australia’s oldest known site of human habitation, during digs in 2012 and 2015. The oldest, deepest layer contained more than 10,000 relics of human handiwork. This cache included the world’s oldest polished ax heads, Australia’s oldest seed-grinding and pigment-processing tools, stone points that may have been spearheads, as well as hearths and other remnants of human activity.

“When people think about our ancient ancestors, they either tend to have a view that our ancestors must have been primitive, less culturally diverse, or they take the view that our ancestors were probably extraordinarily culturally impressive,” says Peter Hiscock, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney who was not involved in the study. “This indicates the latter view. The moment people get to Australia, they’re doing all this really smart stuff.” They were probably building fires to light nighttime activities, grinding seeds for food and using ochre paints to decorate cave walls or their own bodies, Hiscock says. [Continue reading…]

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In Neanderthal DNA, signs of a mysterious human migration

Carl Zimmer writes: With fossils and DNA, scientists are piecing together a picture of humanity’s beginnings, an origin story with more twists than anything you would find at the movie theater.

The expert consensus now is that Homo sapiens evolved at least 300,000 years ago in Africa. Only much later — roughly 70,000 years ago — did a small group of Africans establish themselves on other continents, giving rise to other populations of people today.

To Johannes Krause, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Germany, that gap seems peculiar. “Why did people not leave Africa before?” he asked in an interview. After all, he observed, the continent is physically linked to the Near East. “You could have just walked out.”

In a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, Dr. Krause and his colleagues report that Africans did indeed walk out — over 270,000 years ago.

Based on newly discovered DNA in fossils, the researchers conclude that a wave of early Homo sapiens, or close relatives of our species, made their way from Africa to Europe. There, they interbred with Neanderthals.

Then the ancient African migrants disappeared. But some of their DNA endured in later generations of Neanderthals.

“This is now a comprehensive picture,” Dr. Krause said. “It brings everything together.” [Continue reading…]

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