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Madagascar inhabited long before Austronesian arrival

These findings revolutionize the understanding of the prehistory of the island, until now believed to have remained uninhabited until the arrival of peoples of Austronesian stock some 1500 years ago (with some scattered evidence of earlier inhabitation but nothing too conclusive). New archaeological data pushes back the first colonization period to some 4000 years ago, a time when Malayo-Polynesian culture was still restricted to, roughly, the Philippine archipelago.
Robert E. Deward et al., Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS 2013. Pay per view (6-month embargo) → LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1306100110]

Abstract

Past research on Madagascar indicates that village communities were established about AD 500 by people of both Indonesian and East African heritage. Evidence of earlier visits is scattered and contentious. Recent archaeological excavations in northern Madagascar provide evidence of occupational sites with microlithic stone technologies related to foraging for forest and coastal resources. A forager occupation of one site dates to earlier than 2000 B.C., doubling the length of Madagascar’s known occupational history, and thus the time during which people exploited Madagascar’s environments. We detail stratigraphy, chronology, and artifacts from two rock shelters. Ambohiposa near Iharana (Vohémar) on the northeast coast, yielded a stratified assemblage with small flakes, microblades, and retouched crescentic and trapezoidal tools, probably projectile elements, made on cherts and obsidian, some brought more that 200 km. 14C dates are contemporary with the earliest villages. No food remains are preserved. Lakaton’i Anja near Antsiranana in the north yielded several stratified assemblages. The latest assemblage is well dated to A.D. 1050–1350, by 14C and optically stimulated luminescence dating and pottery imported from the Near East and China. Below is a series of stratified assemblages similar to Ambohiposa. 14C and optically stimulated luminescence dates indicate occupation from at least 2000 B.C. Faunal remains indicate a foraging pattern. Our evidence shows that foragers with a microlithic technology were active in Madagascar long before the arrival of farmers and herders and before many Late Holocene faunal extinctions. The differing effects of historically distinct economies must be identified and understood to reconstruct Holocene histories of human environmental impact.

Notice that this colonization is also older than the Bantu expansion and therefore these settlers must have been pre-Bantu peoples of East African roots.

Source: Al-Hakawati
The sites are located in the North tip of the island, what is consistent with arrival through Comoros, the most natural route between East Africa and Madagascar, which  requires the sailing of some 190 miles (~350 Km) of open sea.
Otherwise the narrowest extent of the Mozambique Channel, between Angoche and Tambohorano, is of some 460 Km. The small island or Juan de Nova (uninhabited except for a military garrison) lies to the south of this other potential sailing route.
The toolkit found in the key site of Lakaton’i Anja includes many microliths, as well as some larger tools, made of chert and obsidian. This last must have been brought from far away, as there are no sources of the volcanic glass in Northern Madagascar.

An important point is that these new dates show that human inhabitation did not kill the Malagasy megafauna right away but that instead humans and giant animals shared the environment without immediate catastrophic consequences, which would only happen in the last two millennia.
 

The human colonization of Australia and Near Melanesia

Continuing with the joint series of articles on the expansion of Homo sapiens, David Sánchez published last week an interesting piece[es] on the original colonization of Australia and Papua at Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, which I’ll try to synthesize here.

Earliest evidences of human occupation of Australia and Near Melanesia (all before 30 Ka BP)

Maybe the most interesting detail is that Lake Mungo 3 has dates that clearly establish a colonization of the continent at least 60,000 years ago:

81.000 +- 21.000 U (Uranium series)
62.000 +- 6.000 ESR/U (Electron spin resonance/Uranium)
61.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)
40.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)

The sites of Nauwalbila I and Malakunanja II have provided similar dates: 60-50 Ka BP (OSL) and 61,000 BP +9,000/-13,000 (TL) respectively. So we can safely discard the conservative approach that only allowed for at most 50 Ka as earliest colonization boundary for the Oceanian continental landmass. 
The depiction of a Genyornis, giant duck-like bird extinct before 40 Ka, in Australian rock art ago also supports a very early date for the settlement of Australia. In Highland Papua human presence is also confirmed to at least 49 Ka ago, as I reported in 2010.
Naturally the settlers must have arrived by sea, the most commonly accepted candidate for such a vessel is a humble raft still used by some Papuan populations and which has parallels in Southern Asia (also still in use in some places):

Such a journey was attempted with a similar but larger raft, equipped with a simple sail named Nale Tasih 2. This craft had no trouble in reaching the continental platform of Australia from Timor in just six days and they actually managed to reach the modern Australian coast, although they desisted of beaching by night in the middle of a storm in an area infested by the largest crocodiles on Earth, being evacuated by the coastguard instead (the barge was later recovered in perfect state).
 

Evidence of marine exploitation 250,000 years ago in North Africa

Dr. Cantillo in a cave access
According to news reports, Juan Jesús Cantillo the University of Cádiz has argued in his (successful) doctoral thesis that the exploitation of marine resources in Benzú Cave (Ceuta, North Africa) has some 250,000 years of antiquity instead of the mere 100,000 that has been proposed for such kind of economy by other scholars always in search of absolutist dividing lines between what is “modern human” and what is something else. 
99% of the coastal resources exploited by the ancient inhabitants of Benzú are limpets, albeit of a variant quite larger than modern ones. While no bones have been found that could inform us of the human species involved in this economy of coastal exploitation, some artifacts appear to be similar to those used by Neanderthals across the Gibraltar Strait. If confirmed, this would also imply intercontinental navigation, even if across a narrow strait of maybe some 5 km (in the worst of the Ice Ages, today it has 14.3 km).
Source[es]: El Pueblo de Ceuta (h/t Pileta de Prehistoria). I could not find the thesis online yet but it says it was successfully defended earlier this month.
 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in navigation, Neanderthal, North Africa

 

Bronze Age rock art in Azores

The claim, even if very unexpected, seems legitimate enough to have been made by the President of the Portuguese Association of Archaelogical Research (APIA), Dr. Nuno Ribeiro, within a conference titled “pre-Portuguese human presence in Azores, myth or reality?”
Among the findings cataloged in the last few years Ribeiro mentioned building remains that seem prehistorical, a Roman era inscription, a rock art site in Terceira island and several megalithic structures. Only in the last year, five tombs of the hypogeum kind and three sanctuaries also dug in the rock were located. All the findings are still pending radiocarbon dating however but the style of the rock art is similar to Bronze Age ones from Iberia. 
However red tape by the regional government is blocking further research: in 2011 for lack of financing and in 2012 for not being withing the frame of a legal decree.  The archaeologist denounced that all these extraordinary findings are therefore in state of abandonment. In one case, works in the local airport, carried without the corresponding archaeological survey, may have damage a site.
These findings strongly suggest that the navigation skills of Bronze Age peoples of the Eastern North Atlantic (Western Europe, NW Africa) were much more advanced than we usually admit.
Source: RTP[por] (h/t Pileta).
See also these articles in English language at the Portuguese American Journal: art1, art2.

Azores are located far away into the North Atlantic Ocean (CC by Tyk)
 
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Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Azores, Bronze Age, Megalithism, navigation, Portugal, rock art, sea

 

Early Neolithic boat and row fragments found in Korea

The remains were originally uncovered in 2005 in Ujin but only now it seems to have reached the international media. They are made of camphor wood and are stratigraphically from the Early Neolithic period (c. 8000 years ago). 

What remains of the boat is 3 meters long and 60 centimeters wide,
whereas the original ship is thought to have been at least 4 meters
long. 

The artifacts show how advanced carpentry was already in that period.
Sources and more details: Yahoo Groups: Austric, Korea Times, Yonhap, Delta World, Pileta[es].
Oldest Korean farm
In a related news item, the remains of the oldest known Korean farm were unearthed at Goseong earlier this year.
See: PhysOrg.
The site of the farm: lines indicate habitation or farming (white earlier, blue later)
 
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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in archaeology, East Asia, Korea, navigation, Neolithic

 

Neolithic ship and obsidian cargo found near Naples

A sunken vessel has been discovered off the island of Capri (Campania, Italy), not far from Naples. The ship, whose details are unknown to me at the time of writing it, was tentatively dated to at least c. 5000 years ago, in the Neolithic (or earliest Chalcolithic) period. It carried a load of obsidian, a prime quality material for tools and weapons (which is said to produce sharper edges than modern surgical scalpels).
Sadly, I could not find much information on this most interesting discovery. I wonder if the obsidian was extracted from the Campi Flegrei at Naples Bay and who may have been demanding such a large cargo?

Archaeological map of Capri: red: Neolithic, yellow: Chalcolithic, other: later periods
(CC by Morn)

Sources: ANSA, Pileta.

 

Review of Tropical Neolithic flows

Michael Petraglia at Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors blog draws our attention to a quite interesting review on the Neolithic of the various regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, all them of rather tropical climate:
I strongly recommend full reading as I can only dedicate some space here and the study, while not really long, covers many diverse aspects of plant and animal domestication and translocation around the Indian Ocean. 
South Asia and Africa
First the authors deal with the issue of how the most important tropical crops of South Asia, which are mostly of African origin, arrived there. They conclude that the transfer took place at the very end of the Harappa (IVC) period, rather than earlier, even if it is confirmed that Harappa and the Persian Gulf (but not yet East Africa apparently) kept trading relations since much earlier. These African crops (millet and sorghum specially) were critical, as we know, in enabling the expansion of farming towards Southern India.

In return India gave Africa the zebuine species of cow, which, after hybridization, fueled the expansion of East African pastoralists into Equatorial areas.
This route between East Africa and South Asia is declared to be the precursor of the spice trade of later days:

The first hint of this spice trade comes from the findings of valued black peppercorns that were used to fragrance the nostrils of the deceased Pharaoh Ramses II (c. 1200 BC) (Plu 1985). This spice is endemic only to the wet forests of southern India (Asouti & Fuller 2008: 47), and in all likelihood was supplied by hunter-gatherer groups to coastal groups (Morrison 2002).

Tropical Asian crops
Another section deals with the transfer of diverse crops between South and SE Asia (and even as far as New Guinea).
Indian pulses migrated to the East, while a number of other crops (areca nut, sandalwood, betle leaf and maybe banana) did in the opposite direction. The origin of mangos and lemons is also discussed and seems distributed between both regions. 
Many of these flows may have been from approximately the same time as the African-Indian connection, in the late 2nd millennium BCE.
The Malagasy connection
Finally a third layer of agricultural flows appear to connect SE Asia with Africa, the most notable being the banana, but also yams, taro and chickens. 
This one seems most likely related to Austronesian (Malay) flows in westward direction, leading to the formation of the Malagasy people and the colonization of Madagascar. 
In their journey westwards, the proto-Malagasy appear to have left some maritime vocabulary in Sri Lanka, SW India and the Maldives, where they also left their outrigger technology. A variant of this one, with two outriggers, is also widespread through East Africa, from Somalia to Mozambique and, of course, Madagascar. 
The Austronesians would have spread these crops and the chicken to Africa, bringing also possibly some commensals like the rat, the mouse and the Asian shrew, as well as a weed. Some of these may however been introduced in several episodes.
 

Neolithic village and ship found underwater in Croatia

The finding has been made offshore the town of Umag-Umago (Istria). The village, established on wooden pillars (probably on shallow water) is dated between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. 
The ship, measuring 6m long and 2.4m wide, was made with the technique of plank-sewing (or stitching), known to have been used also in Atlantic Europe. It has been carbon-dated to the first millennium BCE (latest Chalcolithic or early Bronze Age).
Lots of animal bones and pottery fragments have also been found.
Ref. La Vanguardia[es], Parentium[hr].
 

Neanderthals crossed the sea at least once

New research has found that the Ionian islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos were never united to land, what implies that the Mousterian findings (probably Neanderthal-made) belong to peoples who crossed from the mainland, almost necessarily on boat or raft of some sort (they could have swam in theory but hardly with kids and all the family, you know).
Source and more data at New Scientist (found via Pileta).
Reference paper: G. Ferentinos et al., Early seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, Mediterranean Sea. Journal of Archaeological Science 2012. Pay per view.
 

Echoes from the Past (Jan 18)

Again lots of short news and hopefully interesting links I have been collecting in the last weeks:
Lower and Middle Paleolithic 
Cova del Gegant Neanderthal jaw
Catalonia: Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA sequenced for the first time. The sequence, obtained from a jaw from Cova del Gegant (Giant’s Cave), is fully within normal Neanderthal range ··> Pileta de Prehistoria[es], NeanderFollia[cat], relevant paper[cat] (PDF)

Castile: Stature estimates for Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca) discussed by John Hawks.

Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic

Romania: stratigraphies and dates revised by new study (PPV) ··> Quaternary International.

Andalusia: oldest ornament made of barnacle’s shell (right) found in Nerja Cave ··> Pileta de Prehistoria[es], UNED[es], Universia[es].

England: Star Carr dig to shed light on transition from Paleolithic to Epipaleolithic ··> short article and video-documentary (32 mins) at Past Horizons.

Basque Country: archaeologists consider a barbarity that only 65m are protected against the quarry at Praileaitz Cave (Magdalenian) ··> Noticias de Gipuzkoa[es].

Yemen: 200 tombs said to be Paleolithic discovered in Al Mahwit district, west of Sanaa. Tools and weapons were also found. Other thousand or so artifacts from the same period were found in the Bani Saad area  ··> BBC

Peruvian rock art
Sarawak: Niah Cave being dug again for further and more precise data on the colonization of the region by Homo sapiens ··> Heritage Daily.

Siberia was a wildlife-rich area in the Ice Age ··> New Scientist.

Peru: 10,000 years old cave paintings (right) discovered in Churcampa province ··> Andina.

Neolithic and Chalcolithic

Iberia and North Africa: Southern Iberian and Mediterranean North African early Neolithic could be the same process according to new paper (PPV) ··> Quaternary International.
Galicia: Neolithic and Metal Ages remains to be studied for DNA ··> Pileta de Prehistoria[es].
Texas: very informative burnt hut reveals clues of the natives of the San Antonio area c. 3500 years ago.
Mexico: 2000-years old paintings found Guanajuato ··> Hispanically Speaking News (notice that the photo appears to be act of shameless journalistic low quality, being a European bison painted with European style, probably from Altamira).
Metal ages and historical period
Croatia: oldest known astrological board unearthed at Nakovana (Roman period). The cave was probably some sort of shrine back in the day, maybe because a striking phallic stalagmite. Besides the ivory astrological device, lots of pottery has been found as well ··> Live Science.

The best preserved fragment depicts the sign of Cancer (full gallery)
Basque Country: Iruña-Veleia affair:  Basque autonomous police does not have means to test the authenticity of the findings. The Commission for the Clarification of Iruña-Veleia asks for the tests to be performed in one of the few European laboratories able to do that ··> Noticias de Álava.
Cornwall: replicating sewn-plank boats of the Bronze Age ··> This is Cornwall.
India: cremation urn from the Megalithic period excavated in Kerala ··> The Hindu.

Human genetics and evolution

The six flavors
Centenarians don’t have any special genes ··> The Atlantic.
Fat is a flavor: newly discovered sixth flavor in human tongue identifies fat (and usually likes it) ··> Science Daily.
Hominin tooth found in Bulgaria dates from 7 million years ago ··>  Daily Mail.
Anthropology (senso stricto)
The journey of the Tubu women: fascinating documentary in Spanish language about these trans-Saharan trader women available at Pasado y Futuro[es].
Small capuchin monkey bands fight as well as large ones because members are more motivated and have many less defections, even in peripheral conflicts  ··> Science Daily.
Other
Horse genetics again ··> new paper at PLoS Genetics

Fig. 4 – Phylogenetic tree of extant Hippomorpha.