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Category Archives: Prehistory

"Modern human behavior" is out, generic human potential is in

There is a hypothetical model in Prehistory on something vague and ethereal which has been called “Modern human behavior” (MHB). It’s not about nuclear weapons, Internet addiction nor commuting to work; it’s not either about the printing machine, the Industrial Revolution and the ideals of Human Rights; it’s not even about farming, living in cities and through sailing the seas… it’s about something extremely vague and ill-defined but which, by definition would set apart “modern humans” (H. sapiens) from “archaic humans” (other Homo species, particularly Neanderthals).
While it is almost intangible and every day more dubious, a large number of prehistorians, some as notorious as Mellars, Stringer or Bar-Yosef, strikingly influenced by religious ideas setting an arbitrarily absolutist line between “humans” (i.e. Homo sapiens) and the rest (including other humans), have insisted for decades on the validity of such notion. Now three researchers challenge the model radically:
Christopher J. H. James, Julien Riel-Salvatore & Benjamin R. Collins, Why We Need an Alternative Approach to the Study of Modern Human Behaviour. Canadian Journal of Archaeology Volume 37, Issue 1 (2013). Pay per viewLINK

Abstract

In this paper we review recent developments in the debate over the emergence of modern human behaviour (MHB) to show that despite considerable diversity among competing models, the identification of given material traits still underpins almost all current perspectives. This approach, however, allows assumptions over the biological relationship between archaic and modern humans to permeate the definitions of MHB and, as a result, has effectively stultified archaeology’s potential contribution to the issue. We suggest that the concept of MHB as currently defined is flawed. It must either be redefined in strictly behavioural terms before reincorporation into the debate over modern human origins or, more productively, discarded all together to avoid the harsh and unrealistic dichotomy it creates between a modern and non-modern archaeological record.
They essentially argue that: that the model (of which there are several, often contradictory variants) is extremely useless and confusing, that there are “archaic humans” with many or even all traits of MHB and there are “modern humans” without many or even most of them.
They tentatively argue for a throughout revision of the model but then they seem to lean rather for the whole abandonment of the idea suggesting instead a mosaic and punctuated evolution pattern that is socio-cultural rather than merely genetic or essentialist:


(…) the rapidly accumulating evidence for a mosaic pattern of behavioural change (…) and the evidence of behavioural advances appearing and rapidly disappearing in the MSA, make the harsh dichotomy model untenable. What it does suggest is a punctuated or saltation model that led to widespread adoption of more complex behavioural patterns once the demographic circumstances were appropriate (…).

Somehow this made me recall one of my all-time favorite bands: Suicidal Tendencies and their 1990 hit “Disco’s out, murder’s in” (surely not apt for pop, techno and folk music lovers):
 

Ancient Homo sapiens from Laos (46-63,000 years ago)

Tam-Pa-Ling skull
While this is not the only nor even probably the oldest remain of the so-called anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens, our kin) in Eastern or SE Asia, it seems to be the less controversial one so far, what should help to consolidate our knowledge of the period of colonization of the Eurasian region East of Bengal.
Fabrice Demeter et al., Anatomically modern human in Southeast Asia (Laos) by 46 ka. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (6 months embargo) ··> LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1208104109]
Abstract
Uncertainties surround the timing of modern human emergence and occupation in East and Southeast Asia. Although genetic and archeological data indicate a rapid migration out of Africa and into Southeast Asia by at least 60 ka, mainland Southeast Asia is notable for its absence of fossil evidence for early modern human occupation. Here we report on a modern human cranium from Tam Pa Ling, Laos, which was recovered from a secure stratigraphic context. Radiocarbon and luminescence dating of the surrounding sediments provide a minimum age of 51–46 ka, and direct U-dating of the bone indicates a maximum age of ∼63 ka. The cranium has a derived modern human morphology in features of the frontal, occipital, maxillae, and dentition. It is also differentiated from western Eurasian archaic humans in aspects of its temporal, occipital, and dental morphology. In the context of an increasingly documented archaic–modern morphological mosaic among the earliest modern humans in western Eurasia, Tam Pa Ling establishes a definitively modern population in Southeast Asia at ∼50 ka cal BP. As such, it provides the earliest skeletal evidence for fully modern humans in mainland Southeast Asia.
Some more details can be found at the press release by the University of Illinois (h/t Pileta).
There are some skulls and skull fragments from East Asia that can be actually older than this one but they may be less straightforward either in their dating or their identification as Homo sapiens:
  • Liujiang skull (at Don’s Maps, at P. Brown’s site, at Bradshaw Foundation), from Guangxi-Zhuang, is clearly a modern Homo sapiens but the exact date is not known because it was originally dug with very limited means. Recent datings of nearby sediment suggest an age of 68-139 Ka but this is hotly debated.
  • Zhirendong jaw (at this blog, at PhysOrg), also from Guangxi-Zhuang and dated to before 100,000 years ago (110,000 years ago according to first reports), is argued to be a modern Homo sapiens but its very ancient date and some unavoidable ambiguity of such limited skeletal evidence allow for some skepticism, if you are so inclined.
  • Callao cave metatarsal (foot) bone (at Leherensuge) is dated to before 67,000 years ago and comes from Luzon, the largest Filipino island, but because of its small size cannot be ascribed to any human species safely. All we can say is that they knew how to use rafts or boats – but then Homo floresiensis (H. erectus?) did too. 
  • Also some non-skeletal evidence to consider:

Whichever is your personal take, it is clear that this skull adds up in support of a very old colonization of East Asia. The question is: exactly how old?

Update: a creative reconstruction by H. Zänder:

 

The Neolithic site of Leopard Cave (Namibia)

A new interesting open access paper on the Neolithic of Southern Africa has been published:

Abstract
The origins of herding practices in southern Africa remain controversial. The first appearance of domesticated caprines in the subcontinent is thought to be c. 2000 years BP; however, the origin of this cultural development is still widely debated. Recent genetic analyses support the long-standing hypothesis of herder migration from the north, while other researchers have argued for a cultural diffusion hypothesis where the spread of herding practices took place without necessarily implicating simultaneous and large population movements. Here we document the Later Stone Age (LSA) site of Leopard Cave (Erongo, Namibia), which contains confirmed caprine remains, from which we infer that domesticates were present in the southern African region as early as the end of the first millennium BC. These remains predate the first evidence of domesticates previously recorded for the subcontinent. This discovery sheds new light on the emergence of herding practices in southern Africa, and also on the possible southward routes used by caprines along the western Atlantic coast.

The caprine (sheep) remains are the oldest ones of the whole region, being dated to c. 2270 BP, almost 200 years (est.) before the next oldest one with a good date (Spoegrivier, Western South Africa, dated to c. 2100 BP). Notice however the “uncertain” much older date for the Orowanjo site near the Angolan border (c. 3100 BP) in the map below:

Fig. 4Later Stone Age sites of southern Africa with early evidence of caprines
Caprines are a focus of this research but they are only a minority (2) of the animals identified in Leopard Cave, with bovines (cows) being the most important (16) among domesticates and in general if we exclude ostrich eggshells. Unspecified rodents and birds reach similar figures to those of bovine cattle but these belong to diverse species with all likelihood. 
Besides animal remains the cave has also yielded a dearth of stone artifacts and some pottery. 
It is unclear to which modern ethnic group, if any, can the site be associated with but the area has been traditionally inhabited by the Damara people, who speak either Khoekhoe or sometimes Herero languages but who, like their peculiar Northern Neighbors, the Himba people, are generally speculated to be a different ethnic, cultural and probably also genetic stock from both Khoisan and Bantu peoples. Sadly I do not know of any genetic study on either ethnic group, which may be of great interest for ethnographic and prehistoric reconstruction purposes.

Update (Jul 29): for a new study on Khoesan (and also Damara, Himba, etc.) autosomal genetics see HERE.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2012 in Africa, Namibia, Neolithic, Prehistory

 

Bronze Age temple of Tel Haror, Palestine

The Archaeology Network mentions the finding of a pre-Jewish temple at Tel Haror, near Beersheba, dated to c. 1800-1550.
The finding is interesting because of the many sacrificial burials of young dogs and corvids. Puppies were ritually slaughtered in some West Asian religious rituals, the use of corvids is not documented however. It is also known that the Jewish mythological text declared both animals impure and that it banished the ritual of slaughtering dog cubs by breaking their necks. 
 
 

Bantu expansion damaged the Central African rainforests

Some 3000 years ago the sediments of the Congo river’s mouth were suddenly altered in an unexpected way: it is the signature of the first forest agriculture, which implied opening patches of the rainforest, allowing weathering of the soil.
The researchers analyzed the cores for elements like hydrogen that leave distinctive signatures in sediment. These geochemical markers correspond with past precipitation levels, which influence weathering. They also examined ratios of aluminum and potassium, which indicate weathering intensity, because potassium is a highly mobile element whereas aluminum is one of the most immobile. As expected, the weathering patterns closely followed precipitation levels—that is, until about 3000 years ago. At that point, Bayon says, the pattern became completely different. The sediment appeared to have undergone intense chemical weathering, which the climate alone could not explain. So the team began suspecting another factor was responsible. 

Hat tip to Stone Pages’ Archaeonews.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Africa, ecology, Iron Age, Neolithic, Prehistory

 

Coconut scatter shows that, once established, a population structure is hard to alter

You may have heard of this by now:
I was a bit perplex at first because what I have read around is that this paper somehow demonstrates that coconuts only spread with human domestication and colonizing flows. This is a most extreme claim which hardly fits the nature of this plant, which is not truly a domesticate but a widely exploited wild plant in fact. It is a very hardy plant that grows primarily at the high tide line and is naturally transported across the oceans by mere drift.
Fig. 2 has the essence of the paper
It is evident from this paper that coconuts have at least two distinct ancestral populations: one seemingly originated in South Asia and the other from SE Asia/Pacific, that its dispersal to the Atlantic Ocean happened necessarily with human help and that the East African population while essentially the Indian variety, has some admixture from the SE Asian/Pacific variants.

Coconut germinating on Black Sand Beach, Island of Hawaii
Coconut germinating at a volcanic beach
This last element is argued by the authors to signify human influence by means of the Austronesian colonists of Madagascar. While this is plausible I see no definitive argument for this logic in fact. Similarly I fail to see the hand of Austronesians in the Pacific  scatter as something cast on iron, rather as just a possibility. 
The only clear case of human intervention are the Dwarf variants because they are self-pollinating and this is not a trait you typically find in wild plants. But the Dwarf component is relatively rare and is not even present in the alleged Austronesian-mediated arrivals to East Africa and South America (Panama variant). 
So I am not really persuaded of their thesis that most of this structure was caused by humans. It is possible but very far from demonstrated in fact. 
Regardless, what eventually brought me to write this entry was after all their other discovery, which is quite solid and obvious: that in spite of the palm being so widely exploited and moved around in the Modern Era, the original genetic structure has persisted almost unaffected. 
This is quite astonishing because copra (dried coconut flesh) and palm oil, as well as the fibre and the fresh fruit, so suitable as natural preserve for the long travels of sailors of not so long ago, make the coconut a clear candidate for extensive alteration of its ancestral genetic landscape, yet it has resisted all that almost impassible in all its range from Africa to South America. 
A lesson to be assimilated by all those who happily proclaim that established populations can easily be altered. It can happen indeed but it is not easy.
 

Did agriculture worsen life conditions?

This is the thesis proposed by Amanda Mummert and colleagues: that Neolithic was not so good, or rather that it had at least very poor trade-offs. We tend to think having regular sources of food as something good but when that means eating mostly one or two vegetable foods all year long it may well be a problem.
Whatever the reason what Mummert discovered is that the health and size of Europeans  suffered with the introduction of farming. 
Source: Science Daily
Incidentally a couple of days ago, I stumbled upon the Wikipedia page on life expectancy and I noticed that same pattern in the list of documented life expectancy variation over time: the record before the Middle Ages was in the Paleolithic period, when newborns could expect to live 33 years. Then, with Neolithic, it fell to a mere 20 years, recovering only very slowly.
 
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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in health, Neolithic, Prehistory, Upper Paleolithic

 

Early farming was inefficient compared to foraging

Early farming was only able to generate some 60% of what foraging (hunting and gathering) did, according to new research:
Samuel Bowles, Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging. PNAS, 2011. Pay per view (depending on world region and time).

Abstract

Did foragers become farmers because cultivation of crops was simply a better way to make a living? If so, what is arguably the greatest ever revolution in human livelihoods is readily explained. To answer the question, I estimate the caloric returns per hour of labor devoted to foraging wild species and cultivating the cereals exploited by the first farmers, using data on foragers and land-abundant hand-tool farmers in the ethnographic and historical record, as well as archaeological evidence. A convincing answer must account not only for the work of foraging and cultivation but also for storage, processing, and other indirect labor, and for the costs associated with the delayed nature of agricultural production and the greater exposure to risk of those whose livelihoods depended on a few cultivars rather than a larger number of wild species. Notwithstanding the considerable uncertainty to which these estimates inevitably are subject, the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the productivity of the first farmers exceeded that of early Holocene foragers. Social and demographic aspects of farming, rather than its productivity, may have been essential to its emergence and spread. Prominent among these aspects may have been the contribution of farming to population growth and to military prowess, both promoting the spread of farming as a livelihood.
A news article is also available at PhysOrg.
Is the alternative explanation correct?
I find this discovery most interesting because the assumption has generally been that automatically farming was more productive than the old human way of life: foraging what Nature had to offer. 
Yet this assumption did not explain why farming had not evolved earlier or why the, generally very pragmatic, peoples of the World, did not adopt it earlier, as they were no doubt aware of how gardening could be done.
It reminds me somewhat of the very much comparable misunderstanding on the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age: iron had by then been known for very long but it was brittle in comparison with bronze, quasi-bronze (copper and arsenicum) and even the old good flint stone. Actually I read somewhere recently that another good old friend of humankind, obsidian, makes such great blades that compete favorably with steel scalpels.
Things are not so simple: steel began to be developed (as sweet iron is not really good for most uses) after tin resources began to fail in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the communications with Atlantic Europe (where most tin mines were back then) may have collapsed when the two classical Iberian civilizations, El Argar and Zambujal (VNSP), did as well for reasons not well understood and not too relevant to discuss here. 
It was therefore problems in the bronze industry, so critical for the military of the time, what pushed steel technology ahead, inaugurating the Iron Age.
Molino neolítico de vaivén
Seed milling was done long before Neolithic too
Therefore I’d like to consider what may have caused people to adopt farming instead of just continue foraging, as they had done successfully until that time. We know that farming was preceded by a period we call Mesolithic and that is characterized by intensive foraging of wild cereals or other foraging behaviors that somehow announce the advent of farming or herding. 
So, in the Fertile Crescent, there was for a time, since about the end of the Ice Age, a focus on a pre-farming type of foraging. As I have not read the paper yet, I do not know if Bowles has factored this period in his equations. As for me, I’d think that this kind of foraging (maybe already associated to some early gardening practices) we call Mesolithic, seems to respond to an ecological pressure of some sort, no doubt related to the then ongoing climate change. 
Another issue I am pondering is that, even before cereal farming was fully developed in Palestine, herding of sheep and goat was adopted in Kurdistan, followed by cow herding in Anatolia (near the well-named Taurus mountains). Maybe herding had to be developed in order to make farming effective? Cattle (be it bovine or ovi-caprine) provides nutrients in form of manure and, goats specially but not only, can also be used to clear up wild vegetation areas, while pigs are great to plow the fields.
So I am wondering if animal domestication was a condition to make cereal (and pulse and flax) farming an economically effective way of life. 
Honestly I prefer a true economic explanation rather than one based on very conjectural preferences about sedentarism, and this may be made up of:
  • The push factor of climate change at the end of the Ice Age
  • The pull factor of animal domestication, increasing the yields of agriculture until it became economically worthwile
What do you think?
 

Challenging ‘behavioral modernity’

This issue of behavioral modernity is something I have never really accepted from mainstream Prehistory and Anthropology. In this conceptual paradigm or intellectual fetish (whatever you prefer to call it), humankind almost suddenly emerged from the amorphous shadows of what we could call (by contrast) behavioral primitivism and began being us, maybe when they decided to create some perdurable art like that we can find in the caves of Southwestern Europe and the related technologies defined as mode four (or blade-based stone industries or Upper Paleolithic in the narrowest possible sense). 
The reference is silly and eurocentric but very real in these academic fields. As of late, the finding of other, more ancient and not really European expressions of prehistoric artwork, notably in Palestine, North Africa and South Africa (in this chronological order per the available data) allowed the concept to escape its original sin of Eurocentrism somewhat but, regardless, is the concept real?
A new study by John J. Shea, published in Current Anthropology (pay per view, discussed at Science Daily), challenges this, already quite shattered perception of some almost miraculous transition towards behavioral modernity on scientific grounds: Shea analyzes the rather well documented early Humankind in East Africa between 250,000  and 6000 years ago, and finds no linear pattern of evolution but rather an outstanding array of nonlinear diversity. 
From the news article:

A systematic comparison of variability in stone tool making strategies over the last quarter-million years shows no single behavioral revolution in our species’ evolutionary history. Instead, the evidence shows wide variability in Homo sapiens toolmaking strategies from the earliest times onwards. Particular changes in stone tool technology can be explained in terms of the varying costs and benefits of different toolmaking strategies, such as greater needs for cutting edge or more efficiently-transportable and functionally-versatile tools. One does not need to invoke a “human revolution” to account for these changes, they are explicable in terms of well-understood principles of behavioral ecology.
 
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Anthropology, human evolution, Prehistory, Sociology

 

Wiki created

Waiting to be filled with content…

A lot of debates take place here and elsewhere but often I feel the lack of a more solid and encyclopedic goal-oriented repository. Blog posts seldom get any attention for more than a few days (and when they do there’s a huge risk that they have become obsolete). So I think a more stable repository is needed.
Feel free to add to it, within the basic criteria of objectivity and neutral point of view. If you need to write subjectively (opinion article), make a subpage on the main subject and describe it as opinion article and sign it (on top).
 
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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in population genetics, Prehistory, wiki