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The Discovery of Ancient Tools in China Suggests That Humans Left Africa Earlier Than Previously Thought



|| July 12: 2018: University of Exeter News || ά. Ancient tools and bones discovered in China by archaeologists suggest that early humans left Africa and arrived in Asia earlier than previously thought. The artefacts show that our earliest human ancestors colonised East Asia over two million years ago. These tools were found by a Chinese team of researchers, led by Professor Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and included Professor Robin Dennell of Exeter University.

The tools were discovered at a locality, called, Shangchen, in the southern Chinese Loess Plateau. The oldest are ca. 02.12 million years old and are c. 270,000 years older than the 01.85 million year old skeletal remains and stone tools from Dmanisi, Georgia, which were previously the earliest evidence of humanity outside Africa. The artefacts include a notch, scrapers, cobble, hammer stones and pointed pieces.  All show signs of use; the stone had been intentionally flaked.

Most were made of quartzite and quartz, that, probably, came from the foothills of the Qinling Mountains, five to 10 km to the south of the site and the streams flowing from them. Fragments of animal bones 02.12 million years old were, also, found. The Chinese Loess Plateau covers about 270,000 square kilometres and during the past 02.6 million years between 100 and 300m of wind-blown dust, known as, loess, has been deposited in the area.

The 80 stone artefacts were found predominantly in 11 different layers of fossil soils, which developed in a warm and wet climate. A further 16 items were found in six layers of loess, that developed under colder and drier conditions. These 17 different layers of loess and fossil soils were formed during a period spanning, almost, a million years. This shows that early types of humans occupied the Chinese Loess Plateau under different climatic conditions between 01.2 and 02.12 million years ago.

The layers containing these stone tools were dated by linking the magnetic properties of the layers to known and dated changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Professor Dennell said, “Our discovery means it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa.”

Hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau since about 02.1 million years ago is published in Nature on Wednesday: July 11 2018.

Caption: 02.1 million years old artefacts: Images: Professor Zhaoyu Zhu :::ω.

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New Research Shows Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers Were the First People to Ride Horses and Explores Its Impact on Migration and Languages


|| May 11: 2018: University of Exeter News || ά. A new study has discovered that horses were first domesticated by hunter-gatherer descendants in Kazakhstan, who left no direct modern trace. The domestication of the horse was one of the most important milestones in human history because it allowed people and their languages to move further and faster than ever before and it led to widespread farming and horse-powered war. Academics from around the world collaborated on the new inter-disciplinary research, which was published in two papers in the journals Science and Nature. Wednesday, May 09. Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, jointly led the studies, which looked at archaeological findings, history and linguistics.

The academics analysed ancient and modern DNA samples from humans and compared the results, the 74 ancient whole-genome sequences studied by the group were up to 11,000 years old and were from inner Asia and Turkey. The research sheds new light on the long-standing 'Steppe Theory' on the origin and movement of Indo-European languages made possible by the domestication of the horse. A number of conflicting theories have been presented about who first domesticated the horse with some previous studies suggesting the pastoralist Yamnaya people, a dominant herding group of people, who lived in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, were responsible for spreading the revolutionary skill. However, it seems the earliest domestic horses were being used by the Botai people 5,500 years ago further East in Central Asia but these people were completely unconnected with the Yamnaya pastoralists.

A further twist to the story is that Botai descendants were later pushed out from the central steppe by migrations from the west. Their horses were replaced too, indicating that horses were domesticated in other regions as well. Professor Willerslev said, “The Yamnaya were considered to be the people, who first domesticated the horse because they were sheep herders, that were, already, making use of wheeled vehicles.

People had suggested that Botai people, on the other hand, needed outside influence to make such significant advance but we find that they did it independently. It is among the most important cultural events in history because it completely transformed what we could do as humans.” The study did not find a genetic link between the Yamnaya people and the Botai people, critical to understand the eastward movement of Yamnaya people. Apparently, the eastward Yamnaya expansion bypassed the Botai people completely, travelling 3,000 kilometres across the steppe to the Altai Mountains in Central and East Asia.

It was previously discovered that the Botai people had kept horses with bit wear in their mouths and milk residue was found, which showed they had been milking the horses. Professor Alan Outram, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter, who is one of the paper’s authors, said, “We now know that the people, who first domesticated the horse in Central Asia were the descendants of ice age hunters, who went on to become the earliest pastoralists in the region. Despite their local innovations, these peoples were overrun and replaced by European steppe pastoralists in the middle and later Bronze Age and their horses were replaced too.”

The authors, also, demonstrated the oldest known Indo-European language, Anatolian Hittite, did not result from a massive population migration from the Eurasian Steppe as previously claimed.  By looking at various studies of Europe in the Bronze Age, the researchers offer important new insights on how population and language spread across Asia by demonstrating that the spread of language and genetic ancestry is better understood by groups of people mixing together rather than simply groups moving around the world.

Mr Gojko Barjamovic, Senior Lecturer on Assyriology at Harvard University, said, “In Anatolia, which was densely settled by complex urban societies, the history of language spread and genetic ancestry is better described in terms of contact and absorption than simply a movement of population.”

Dr Rui Martiniano, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge and one of the lead authors, said, “The spread of the Indo-European languages into Europe, Northern India and Pakistan is likely to have been facilitated by the increased mobility brought by the domestication of the horse. The Yamnaya left a great genetic impact in Europe but we now know that they had a more limited direct impact in Asia. Instead, subsequent migrations occurring around the late Bronze Age, may have been, responsible for the introduction of these languages in South Asia.”

By analysing the sedentary Copper Age Namazga farmer culture from what is now Turkmenistan, the authors found that while the Yamnaya expansion did not leave a traceable genetic impact in South Asia, the introduction of farming through ancient populations brought western Eurasian genetic ancestry to South Asia. Professor Richard Durbin, of the Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge and Wellcome Sanger Institute, who jointly led the study, said, “Now is an extremely exciting time when the computational analysis of ancient and modern genome data is refining and revising our view of human history.”

In this study geneticists, historians, archaeologists and linguists all find common ground, pointing to increased interaction between the steppe and the Indus Valley during the Late Bronze Age as the most plausible time of entry of Indo-European languages in South Asia. Several authors of the paper had radically conflicting views before a final interpretation was achieved.

Dr Guus Kroonen, historical linguist at Leiden and Copenhagen University, said, “The recent breakthroughs in ancient genomics poses challenges for archaeologists, linguists and historians because old hypotheses on the spread of languages and cultures can now be tested against a whole new line of evidence on prehistoric mobility. As a result, we now see that geneticists are inspired by key questions from the humanities, and that research within the humanities is revitalised. In the future we will hopefully see more cross-disciplinary co-operations, such as, the one leading to this study.”

The Nature paper analyses 137 ancient alongside the sequences of a lot of people living across Eurasia today. It studied the genetic connections between different historical groups of people to see how they interacted with each other. The authors traced the changes in genetic components of the inhabitants of the steppe region from the end of the Bronze Age through the Iron Age to the present day.

The authors demonstrated that the mounted Scythian Nomads of the steppe, who were of European genetic origin and spoke an Indo-Iranian language were gradually mixed with East Asian Turkic-speaking people, who later, under the name of Huns, nearly, brought the Roman Empire to a fall, when they invaded. This was followed by the Justinian plague, whose origin, for the first time, can be identified into Central Asia, with its spread linked to intensified contact, perhaps, along the Silk Road, an ancient network of trading routes.

Professor Kristian Kristiansen, from the Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg, led the second paper with Professor Willerslev. He said, “Genetically and linguistically what happened is the people living in the steppe were being gradually replaced from European ancestry to being East Asian.”

Mr Peter de Barros Damgaard, PhD student from the Centre for Geo-Genetics, Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen and first author on the paper, said, “We discovered that the Eurasian steppe was incredibly dynamic, an area of major transformations all the way into Medieval times. And as we moved into these more recent periods, we could, also, correlate our genetic data with written historical sources documenting several invasions and political replacements.

Often these came from the East but, also, forming confederations with European groups. In several cases, we would see European newcomers buried alongside Mongolian newcomers. This was a period of major transformation and constantly shifting military confederations, which is reflected in an incredible genetic heterogeneity.”

Professor Willerslev said, “It is because of the domestication of the horse that the Silk Road, a major trading route between Europe and Asia, appeared. It was an extremely important part of the world to control in terms of taxing people. As soon as you get the mounted horse, it’s like getting a sports car on a highway.”

The domestication of the horse, also, allowed the Huns, a nomadic tribe, to travel all the way to Rome to invade. Professor Kristiansen said,  “They became an incredible military force, that people have to protect against. The Great Wall of China was, also, built against Mongolia, when the forerunners of the Huns were there.” ::: ω.

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Cold: What Cold: Prehistoric People Went Ahead Along Showing Their Resilience Through the Cold-Spell in the Face of Extreme Climate Events

|| March 30: 2018: University of Southampton News || ά. Pioneering early people, who lived at the end of the last ice age, actually, carried on with life as usual, despite plummeting temperatures, according to research focused at a world-famous archaeological site in North Yorkshire, suggests. Leading researchers, based at Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of York and the University of Southampton, found that a dramatic climate event with a sudden drop in average temperatures, severe enough to halt the development of woodland, had no substantial impact on human activity at Star Carr, a middle Stone Age archaeological site dating to around 9,000 BC.

The study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, sheds new light on significant debate about the sensitivity of hunter-gatherer societies to environmental change. The rich archaeological record at Star Carr gave the researchers the rare opportunity to directly compare the palaeo-climate record with evidence of human activity through time in the same location. The prehistoric community, who persevered through the cold snap, that would last more than 100 years, left a plethora of worked wood, animal bones, antler headdresses and flint blades buried in layers of mud as evidence of their continued productivity and endurance.

The research team identified two episodes of extreme cooling, which saw average temperatures drop by more than three degrees in the space of a decade. The first of these events occurred very early after humans began to return to the area after the last ice age. The evidence indicates that these conditions, may have, slowed down the progress and activity of a community in the nascent stages. However, the second of these events, which occurred later, when the community was more established, appears to have had very little impact.

Southampton researchers Professor Pete Langdon, of Quaternary Science in Geography and Environment, and Dr Catherine Langdon, Visiting Research Fellow within Geography and Environment, provided the analyses of prehistoric fossil insects, chironomids, non-biting midges, which led to the summer temperature reconstructions. These were, then, compared with another proxy measures of past climate, oxygen stable isotopes, to understand fully the climate around the time of the human occupations.

“It’s a fascinating study and, for the first time, allows us to compare the impact of local abrupt climate change events on early societies in the UK.” Professor Pete Langdon says. “Only through having the archaeological and climate records from the same site and with both having high resolution chronologies, can you attempt to do this.”

The early Holocene, the current geological epoch, which started some 11,500 years ago, when the glaciers began to retreat, was dominated by climatic instability, characterised by extreme weather events, triggered by ice-ocean interaction during the final wastage of the northern hemisphere ice sheets.

The researchers examined human activity by looking at archaeological remains, recovered from layers of wetland deposits at the edge of the extensive former lake basin in the Vale of Pickering. They found evidence of houses, large wooden platforms built on the lake edge and large quantities of artefacts and bones preserved in the lake muds and these were radiocarbon dated. Pollen, macrofossils and isotopes, taken from lake sediment cores allowed the researchers to build a high-resolution picture of the climate of the area over thousands of years.

Professor Simon Blockley, Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway and Lead Author of the study, said, “It has been argued that abrupt climatic events, may have, caused a crash in Mesolithic populations in Northern Britain but our study reveals, that, at least, in the case of the pioneering colonisers at Star Carr, early communities were able to cope with extreme and persistent climate events.

We found people were, in fact, far more affected by smaller, localised changes to their environment; Star Carr was once the site of an extensive lake and people lived around its edge. Over time, the lake, gradually,  became shallower and boggier, turning into fenland, which, eventually,  forced settlers to abandon the area.”

Professor Nicky Milner, Senior Author, at the University of York, says, “Perhaps, the later, more established community at Star Carr were buffered from the effects of the second extreme cooling event, which is likely to have caused, exceptionally, harsh winter conditions, by their continued access to a range of resources at the site, including, red deer.

We have been working at Star Carr for about 15 years and the site has produced an incredibly rare glimpse into the world of our Mesolithic ancestors, who lived at the end of the ice age, about 11,000 years ago. Putting this archaeological data into the context of the climate and environment is very exciting and shows that we need to keep an open mind, when thinking about the effects of extreme climate on early populations.”

The work was funded by the European Research Council, Historic England, the Natural Environment Research Council, The British Academy, The Vale of Pickering Research Trust and the Universities of York, Manchester and Chester. ::: ω.

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Where is My Crayon: It's in the Lake: And What Has It Been Doing There for 10,000 Years: Probably Speaking with the Stones: And What Language Have They Been Using: Probably Mesolithinglish


|| February 07: 2018: University of York News || ά. Archaeologists say that they, may, have discovered one of the earliest examples of a ‘crayon’,  possibly, used by our ancestors 10,000 years ago for applying colour to their animal skins or for artwork. The ochre crayon was discovered near an ancient lake, now blanketed in peat, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. An ochre pebble was found at another site on the opposite side of the lake.

The pebble had a heavily striated surface, that is likely to have been scraped to produce a red pigment powder. The crayon measures 22mm long and 07mm wide. Ochre is an important mineral pigment used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers across the globe. The latest finds suggest people collected ochre and processed it in different ways during the Mesolithic period. The ochre objects were studied as part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Departments of Archaeology and Physics at the University of York, using advanced techniques to establish their composition.

The artefacts were found at Seamer Carr and Flixton School House. Both sites are situated in a landscape rich in prehistory, including, one of the most famous Mesolithic sites in Europe, Star Carr.

A pendant was discovered at Star Carr in 2015 and is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain. Here, more than 30 red deer antler headdresses were found, which, may, have been used as a disguise in hunting or during ritual performances by shamans, when communicating with animal spirits. Lead author, Dr Andy Needham from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said that the latest discoveries helped further our understanding of Mesolithic life.

He said, “Colour was a very significant part of hunter-gatherer life and ochre gives you a very vibrant red colour. It is very important in the Mesolithic period and seems to be used in a number of ways.

One of the latest objects we have found looks exactly like a crayon; the tip is faceted and has gone from a rounded end to a really sharpened end, suggesting it has been used. For me it is a very significant object and helps us build a bigger picture of what life was like in the area; it suggests it would have been a very colourful place.“

The research team say that Flixton was a key location in the Mesolithic period and the two objects help paint a vibrant picture of how the people interacted with the local environment.

The pebble and crayon were located in an area, already, rich in art. It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps, for colouring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork.”

The study, which involved collaboration with the Universities of Chester and Manchester, is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The Paper: The application of micro-Raman for the analysis of ochre artefacts from Mesolithic palaeo-lake Flixton: Andy Needham, Shannon Croft, Roland Kröger, Harry K.Robson, Charlotte C.A. Rowley, Barry Taylor, Amy Gray Jones and cChantal Conneller

Caption: The crayon revealed a sharpened end and the ochre pebble revealed a heavily striated surface: Image: Paul Shields: University of York ::: ω.

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