Category Archives: Lower Paleolithic

The Denisovans were not alone

H. heidelbergensis from Atapuerca
Cranium 5 “Miguelón”
(CC by José Manuel Benito)
About half an hour ago, somewhat cryptic comments in this blog and my email woke me up, more abruptly than I would have desired maybe, to a new game-breaking finding: researchers have sequenced the mtDNA of a 400,000 years old Homo heidelbergensis from Atapuerca (Iberian Peninsula, Europe) and it was not at all like most would have expected.
Mathhias Mayer et al., A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/nature12788]


Excavations of a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain have unearthed hominin fossils that range in age from the early Pleistocene to the Holocene1. One of these sites, the ‘Sima de los Huesos’ (‘pit of bones’), has yielded the world’s largest assemblage of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils2, 3, consisting of at least 28 individuals4 dated to over 300,000 years ago5. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits6, 7, 8. Here we determine an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos and show that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochondrial genomes of Denisovans9, 10, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals. Our results pave the way for DNA research on hominins from the Middle Pleistocene.

The key figure is this one, which phylogenetically relates the newly sequenced mtDNA with the known Homo ones:

Figure 4: Bayesian phylogenetic tree of hominin mitochondrial relationships based on the Sima de los Huesos mtDNA sequence determined using the inclusive filtering criteria.
All nodes connecting the denoted hominin groups are supported with posterior probability of 1. The tree was rooted using chimpanzee and bonobo mtDNA genomes. The scale bar denotes substitutions per site.

It has been argued by all sides (myself included) that the H. heidelbergensis of Atapuerca and other European locations are ancestral to Neanderthals. Some say that also to H. sapiens, while others argue that ours is a wholly distinct line, derived from H. rhodesiensis, and yet others claim that H. rhodesiensis is not different from H. heidelbergensis in spite of being older and rooted, it seems, in South Africa.
The clear evidence for migrations out of Africa, before our species, is limited to two periods: (1) the c. 1.8 Ma old migration of H. erectus/georgicus with Olduwayan technology (mode 1, “choppers”), and (2) the c. 1 Ma old migration of H. ergaster/antecessor (sometimes also confusingly called H. erectus) with Acheulean technology (mode 2, typically “hand axes”). Archaeological evidence for later migrations does not exist.
See: Late human evolution maps at Leherensuge.
So we could well ask, if H. heidelbergensis is not ancestral to Neanderthals, then where do Neanderthals come from?
It must be answered that we do not know yet if H. heidelbergensis is or not ancestral to Neanderthals or in what degree it is. The mitochodrial (maternal) lineage may well be misleading in this sense. Denisovans themselves were much more related to Neanderthals via autosomal (nuclear) DNA than the mtDNA, so it may also be the case with European Heidelbergensis.
In fact it is still possible that these individuals represent some sort of admixture between older and newer layers of human expansion. But there is no clear answer yet. What is clear is that no Neanderthals have these mitochondrial sequences but others closer to those of H. sapiens – and this is the most puzzling part in fact. 
But one thing is clear: the World is much bigger than just Europe, and that was also the case back in Paleolithic times. Our answer may well lay under the sands of some tropical desert, the waters of the sea or whatever other place in Asia or Africa.
Even if we’d find the “missing link”, so to say, we might not be able to discern it as such without genetic sequencing and that is often not even possible at all. However this pioneer research, as well as its precursors on a bear also from Atapuerca and a 700,000 years old horse (the true record of ancient DNA recovery), give us some hope of getting an improved, even if sometimes perplexing, understanding of the complexity of the human adventure.

Stoning at Dmanisi

Homo Georgicus IMG 2921
H. georgicus

Lots of cobbles have been found in a gully near Dmanisi, Georgia, the oldest known site of Homo erectus (or habilis or georgicus) in Eurasia. The cobbles could not have arrived there naturally and are not found in other areas of the site (Olduwayan style tools have been found instead). 

The researchers suspect that the abundance of cobbles in the gully was caused because it was a pass our ancient relatives used to attack carnivores, by stoning them, and rob them their prey. The unusually high frequencies of carnivore bones in the site would seem to support this kind of strategy and ratify our earliest relatives as active scavengers who could rob their prey to other predators by using the skills nature gave them: sociality, intelligence and two free hands. 

Archaeonews from South Asia

The latest Archaeonews bulletin is full of interesting information on South Asian prehistory, from Nepal to Kerala:
Nepal mountain burials
27 people buried in caves at c. 4000 meters above sea level have been found in the Himalayan country and dated between 3000 and 1500 years ago. 
67% of the bodies were defleshed, a mysterious burial practice, which may relate to a contemporary Tibetan one (sky burial) or, alternatively,  Zoroastrian rituals (who in the past defleshed the bodies and fed the meat to animals – nowadays they feed the whole bodies to vultures in special grounds). 
Full stories at República and National Geographic.
Kerala Megalithic dome
A new Megalithic tomb has been found at Kodiyeri with a curious pillar (left), a similar dome is recalled to have been found 40 years ago (but nobody seems to know its destiny anymore).
Full story at The Hindu.
Kerala claims oldest non-African Paleolithic site
With and age of 1.83 million years at the deepest layer, Bukit Bunuh may be one of the first homes of our cousins Homo erectus (or H. georgicus or…), when they migrated to Asia.  The site was apparently chosen for its excellent ecology that would have provided our cousins with all they needed for a living: fresh water, hunt, plants and stone to make handaxes. 
The site also shows more recent inhabitation dates of 40,000 and 30,000 years ago which surely belong to modern humans.
Protection from UNESCO as World Heritage Site has been requested. 
Full story at University Sains Malaysia and Asia Research News.

Note (Mar 31):

I wrote earlier in regards to this Indian site: Also, maybe more in detail, at Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors (by archaeologist Michael Petraglia, who includes a link to a relevant paper in press).

But this one is actually another site, in nearby Tamil Nadu, with a confirmed age of 1.6-1.4 million years on a more careful (and hence credible) measure. David Sánchez has an excellent review of this finding and its implication in Spanish language today.


Posted by on March 20, 2011 in India, Iron Age, Lower Paleolithic, Nepal, South Asia


Clothes, lice, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals

New genetic research on clothing lice and its relative hair lice, using molecular clock estimate methods, suggests that our ancestors began using clothes only some 170,000 years ago, roughly the age of Homo sapiens as distinct species per the archaeological record. 
But the usual warning of all molecular clock estimates applies (with special emphasis, see below).
Loss of body hair is estimated to have happened c. 1.2 million years ago, in the H. ergaster phase, or arguably even earlier based on the genetics of pubic lice (3 Ma.) However it seems now that people did not use clothes until much later.
Or at least people within the H. sapiens lineage…

Fig. 1

Notice please the first evidence of hide scrapers in the graphic above: it is a clear indication of working skins. Of course skins may have been used for other purposes than just clothing, like containers maybe…
However it is worth noticing that this reference directs to Carbonell 1999, which discusses the archaeology of Atapuerca, a famous Iberian site related to Neanderthals and their predecessors. In Europe the need for clothes was much more urgent obviously and the ancestors of Neanderthals got to work on it out of need.
I’d like to know when are dated the first scrapers from Africa because I do not think they are so old. Are they? Obviously in Tropical Africa, the evolutionary homeland of our species, the need for clothing was almost none. Even today many peoples live almost or even totally naked in Sudan, while in India, many religious people do as well and in Papua clothing is often just a penis cover (or delusional enhancement maybe) out of a gourd. 
It is worth mentioning that this paper incurred in the common error of calibrating using Chimpanzee louse as outgroup, attributing to the Pan-Homo divergence the lowest possible age per the literature: 5.0 to 5.5 Ma. (when we know it is of at least 8 Ma.) Hence the age estimate should be multiplied by 1.45 or 1.6, getting a more likely age of at least 250,000 years for the coalescence of modern clothing lice and hence use of clothes by our ancestors (excepting probably Neanderthals). 
At that time (all of them) we were still living in Tropical Africa. Why would people begin to use clothes then? I am hunching here that maybe there was some need in order to colonize or otherwise exploit the Ethiopian highlands. Certainly the oldest fossil generally acknowledged as Homo sapiens, dated to c. 190,000 years ago, is from the southern slopes of that impressive massif. Also this area between Ethiopia and Southern Sudan looks to me, based on mtDNA spread, a most likely candidate for the original homeland of our species.

Location of Omo (black bubble) on a topographical map of Ethiopia

Video: Lower and Middle Paleolithic knapping

The video illustrates and almost makes it look easy the three classical modes of knapping prior to Upper Paleolithic (Spanish/English text but notice that the word silex should translate as flint and is not translated):

Mode 1: Oldowayan or Chopper industries, usually related with H. erectus
Mode 2: Acheulean, usually related with H. ergaster and derivates
Mode 3: Mousterian and MSA, Levallois technique, usually related with H. neanderthalensis and early H. sapiens
Found at Pileta de Prehistoria, uploaded at YouTube by historiaunlu.

Important Tamil Nadu Paleolithic site discovered

From Times of India (via Archaeo News).

Archaeologists S. Rama Krishna Pisipaty and S. Shanmugavelu have researched what may be a key site in a dry lake bed at Singadivakkam, a village some 65 km south of Chennai (Madras). The site is known as Kancheepuram.

The site has so far provided some 200 tools and, crucially, it seems to have no disruption from the Lower Paleolithic (thought to be work of H. erectus) and the Middle Paleolithic (maybe work of H. sapiens), unlike all other sites in the subcontinent. The tools found include hand axes, borers, scrappers, choppers and pointed tools, as well as microliths.

Kancheepuram was ideal for early settlers with its large number of safe water bodies a lifeline for any human settlement, said Pisipaty.