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


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]
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:

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.

1 Comment

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.


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.

Posted by on June 18, 2011 in health, Neolithic, Prehistory, Upper Paleolithic