Denmark, Vedbæk, a Mesolithic cemetery of the Ertebølle culture.

The richest burial is that of one of the juvenile women, who was buried together with a baby on a swan’s wing. As personal goods the mother and her child had a flint knife and a leather garment with ornaments made of red deer canines or incisors, now visible near the mother’ skull.

It appears that the age of the women determined the grave goods: the mature women received no grave goods apart from ochre, while the sole adult woman in the cemetery received a blade and bones of a roe deer.

Source: The process of Neolithisation, Leiden University (PDF)

Happy Birthday to Mary Leakey

The pioneering paleoanthropologist was born on this day in 1913. 

Via the New York Times

Mary Leakey died 19 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1996. Her colleagues uniformly remember her as an extraordinary character. Leakey was exacting in her science, and expected the same of her workers. (Her artifact tagging and recording systems are now considered standard practice within archaeology and paleoanthropology.) After her husband, the pioneering paleontologist Louis Leakey, died in 1972, she commanded teams of mostly men when it was still exceedingly rare for a woman to lead an archaeological dig, especially in Africa.

Watch an animated video about Leakey’s life and achievements. 


I think I might be a little in love with Mary Leakey.  To wit:

“[Her mother] placed Mary in a local Catholic convent to be educated, following the example of her own life. Later, Mary boasted of never passing an examination there.Mary could not even excel at French, although she spoke it fluently, because her teacher frowned upon her provincial accent. She was expelled for refusing to recite poetry, and then expelled from a second convent school for causing an explosion in a chemistry laboratory.” (wiki article)

Not to mention that she was a pretty badass paleoanthropologist in her own right.  She found the first Paranthropus boisei skull while out walking her dogs at ass o'clock, while Louis was sick/possibly sleeping off a hangover back at camp.


Little Foot is oldest complete Australopithecus, new stratigraphic research shows

After 13 years of meticulous excavation of the nearly complete skeleton of the Australopithecus fossil named Little Foot, South African and French scientists have now convincingly shown that it is probably around 3 million years old.

In a paper published March 14, 2014 in the Journal of Human Evolution, the latest findings by Professor Ron Clarke from the University of the Witwatersrand and his colleagues refute previous dating claims that suggested Little Foot is younger.

The paper is titled: “Stratigraphic analysis of the Sterkfontein StW 573 Australopithecus skeleton and implications for its age,” and is the result of a detailed study of the stratigraphy, micro-stratigraphy, and geochemistry around the skeleton.

Little Foot’s Story

The Sterkfontein caves of Gauteng, South Africa have been world famous since 1936 for producing large numbers of fossils of the ape-man Australopithecus. However, for sixty years, these fossils consisted only of partial skulls and jaws, isolated teeth and fragments of limb bones. These were obtained by blasting or drilling and breaking of the calcified ancient cave infill or by pick and shovel excavation of the softer decalcified infills.

Questions arose about the age of these fossils, of how they came to be in the caves, and also of how a complete skeleton would appear. Then in 1997 Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe of the University of the Witwatersrand discovered an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton with skull embedded in hard, calcified sediment in an underground chamber of the caves. They began to carefully excavate this skeleton in order to expose it in place in the cave and to understand the ancient processes that contributed to its burial and preservation.

This was the first time that such an excavation of an Australopithecus has taken place in an ancient calcified deposit. During the course of this excavation, it became clear that the skeleton had been subjected to ancient disturbance and breakage through partial collapse into a lower cavity and that calcareous flowstone had subsequently filled voids formed around the displaced bones.

Despite this fact being published, some other researchers dated the flowstones and claimed that such dates represent the age of the skeleton. This has created a false impression that the skeleton is much younger than it actually is.

A French team of specialists in the study of limestone caves, Laurent Bruxelles, Richard Maire and Richard Ortega, together with Clarke and Dominic Stratford of Wits University, have now, with this research published in the Journal of Human Evolutiontoday, shown that the dated flowstones filled voids formed by ancient erosion and collapse and that the skeleton is therefore older, probably considerably older, than the dated flowstones.

Little Foot is probably around 3 million years old, and not the 2.2 million years that has been wrongly claimed by other researchers. The skeleton has been entirely excavated from the cave and the skull, arms, legs, pelvis and other bones have been largely cleaned of encasing rock.

Professor Clarke has concluded from study of the skull that it belongs toAustralopithecus prometheus, a species named by Professor Raymond Dart in 1948 on fragmentary ape-man fossils from Makapansgat in what is now Limpopo Province.

Thus at Sterkfontein, there existed two species of ape-man, Australopithecus africanus(for example, Mrs Ples) and Australopithecus prometheus, many specimens of which have been identified by Clarke from two deposits at Sterkfontein.


The genus Homo is older than thought…

A 2.8-million-year-old mandible with five teeth discovered atop a hill in Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia was published today in the journal Science. The mandible fossil is very much transitional… It displays traits from both Australopithecus andHomo, and indicates the genus Homo is half million years older than thought. The geological analysis has also been published in Science.

[
[Read more at NPR]

‘Breaking the time barrier’: 700,000-year-old horse fossil oldest ever found from DNA mapped animal
From a tiny fossil bone found in the frozen Yukon, scientists have deciphered the genetic code of an ancient horse about 700,000 years old — nearly 10 times older than any other animal that has had its genome mapped.

Scientists used new techniques and computing to take DNA from a 5-inch (13-centimetre) fossil fragment — most of which was contaminated with more modern bacteria — and get a good genetic picture of an ancestral horse. The work was published Wednesday in the journal Nature and discussed at a science conference in Helsinki. (AP Photo/Przewalski’s Horse Association via Nature, Claudia Feh // AP Photo/Ludovic Orlando via Nature)


Fossils, Taxonomy and Debate: Is fossil classification fundamentally flawed?

  • Guest post by Winston Zack, Department of Geography (University of North Texas)

Linnaeus improved the organization of taxa into related groups, but this is still fundamentally a flawed system of organizing biology given that the foundations of evolutionary principles are a continuum of constant genetic changes and mutations. Therefore, there is no such thing as a ‘static’ taxon or species; rather these animals are always evolving and always show anatomical variations. Therefore, when it comes to classifying fossils, especially those of early hominids (e.g., early genus Homo), I find these debates to be unnecessarily complicated. Archaeology should consider that we have only just scratched the surface when understanding our early human past and not try to hurry and classify fossils or get bogged down about classifying an unusual hominin fossil as a ‘new species’.  We still have much to learn about how early human fossils relate to each other. Our sample sizes of early hominin fossils are extremely small as well and come from millions of years of history and across thousands of miles of earth. Different populations, especially if ‘isolated’ for long-periods of time, should show increased biological/anatomical variations from contemporaneous species found elsewhere. A case in point is the Dmanisi fossils, which after 20+ years since they have been discovered, a consensus as to where they fall into the hominin family tree (i.e., their species) has not been formally classified and the debate continues. I personally feel the Dmanisi team is taking very good and cautionary measures before settling upon which ‘species’ is at Dmanisi; although in journals and other published works the Dmanisi team has labeled these hominin fossils to many different species over the years, including but not limited to: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, Homo georgicus; the first three species listed all lived at the same time while the last species, Homo georgicus, is a potentially new species classification.

So, is the Linnaean taxonomic system flawed?

Personally, such a characterization of biology distinct from the Linnaean system would call every individual a unique taxon because we all have slightly different physical characteristics which make us all unique. The Linnaean system will not go away and may very likely stay here forever. But for fossil classification, when we lack populations of individuals that were recovered from the same area from about the same time, it is difficult to understand how a few fossils may relate to the greater scheme of evolution. All archaeologists and paleoanthropologists, and anyone else trying to interpret the past from fossil evidence should use as much caution as possible prior to classifying fossils…and many of these professionals do this.

Author Biography:

Winston Zack is a geoarchaeologist and graduate student at University of North Texas. His work has thus far primarily been conducted on Plio-Pleistocene and Pleistocene sites such as Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia and several hominid fossil-bearing sites in Spain. He begins work in Germany on several Pleistocene sites this summer. Much of his research has focused on archaeological sediments and stratigraphy, artefact densities and what these analyses can tell us about hominid procurement, transport and provisioning behaviours. He is currently in the process of coauthoring an article for Quaternary Science Reviews, which will be published in the near future.

Image Sources:
2048: Hominin Species Edition

A custom version of 2048, the addictive tile-matching game.

I just did a thing.

This custom 2048 includes, in this order:

  • Sahelanthropus tchadensis 
  • Kenyanthropus platyops
  • Australopithecus afarensis
  • Australopithecus africanus
  • Paranthropus bosei
  • Paranthropus robustus
  • Homo habilis
  • Homo ergaster
  • Homo erectus
  • Homo neanderthalensis
  • Homo sapiens idaltu

(Note: I mostly made it to help myself A) procrastinate and B) remember the order of the species. This isn’t a “these species are inherently and progessively ‘better’ ” thing its a “this is the sort-of-but-not-completely-chronological order” thing. Also I couldn’t include every single hominin species because there is a limited number of tiles you can name.)


A new New York Times video examines the life and legacy of Mary Leakey.

The short documentary remembers the pioneering paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, who discovered footprints of human ancestors on the African savanna. Her colleagues, several of whom help narrate, including American Museum of Natural History Curator Emeritus Ian Tattersall, uniformly remember her as an extraordinary character. Leakey was exacting in her science, and expected the same of her workers. 

Watch the video.

Oldest Human Fossils Identified

Human fossils found 40 years ago in Africa are 65,000 years older than previously thought, a new study says—pushing the dawn of “modern” humans back 35,000 years.

New dating techniques indicate that the fossils are 195,000 years old. The two skulls and some bones were first uncovered on opposite sides of Ethiopia’s Omo River in 1967 by a team led by Richard Leakey. The fossils, dubbed Omo I and Omo II, were dated at the time as being about 130,000 years old. But even then the researchers themselves questioned the accuracy of the dating technique.

The new findings, published in the February 17 issue of the journal Nature, establish Omo I and II as the oldest known fossils of modern humans. The prior record holders were fossils from Herto, Ethiopia, which dated the emergence of modern humans in Africa to about 160,000 years ago.

“The new dating confirms the place of the Omo fossils as landmark finds in unraveling our origins,” said Chris Stringer, director of the Human Origins Group at the Natural History Museum in London.

The 195,000-year-old date coincides with findings from genetic studies on modern human populations. Such studies can be used to determine when the earliest modern humans lived.

The findings also add credibility to the widely accepted “Out of Africa” theory of human origins which holds that modern humans (later versions of Homo sapiens) first appeared in Africa and then spread out to colonize the rest of the world.

(Source: National Geographic News)