DNA shows Scythian warrior mummy was a 13-year-old girl

DNA shows Scythian warrior mummy was a 13-year-old girl

DNA shows Scythian warrior mummy was a 13-year-old girl
Remains of the young ancient Scythian warrior

The story of a clan of warrior women was formed in Greek mythology during a time when there were ancient gods, warriors, and rulers. These powerful female combatants from Asia Minor said to be daughters of the gods, have captured people’s imaginations for ages and continue to pervade popular culture today as mythical Amazon warriors.

For a long time, these warrior women were assumed to be figments of ancient imaginations, but archaeological evidence has since revealed that the warrior women, who may have inspired these myths, really did exist. Late last year, an archaeological discovery of two women thought to be nomadic Scythians from around 2,500 years ago (4th century BCE) was revealed. They were buried in what’s now the western Russian village of Devitsa, with parts of a horse-riding harness and weapons, including iron knives and 30 arrowheads.

“We can certainly say that these two women were horse warriors,” said archaeologist Valerii Guliaev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology at the time.

The Scythian remains with the headdress.

They were found in a burial mound with two other women – one aged between 40-50 years old, who wore a golden headdress with decorative floral ornaments. The other, aged 30-35, was buried alongside two spears and positioned like she was riding a horse.

“During the last decade, our expedition has discovered approximately 11 burials of young armed women. Separate barrows were filled for them and all burial rites which were usually made for men were done for them,” explained Guliaev.

Plate from headdress made from an alloy of 65-70 percent gold.

Now, another team from Russia has mapped the genome of 2,600-year-old Scythian remains that had been discovered in a wooden sarcophagus with an array of weapons back in 1988. 

“This child was initially considered to be male because with him were found characteristics [usually attributed to male] archaeological finds: an axe, a bow, arrows,” archaeologist Varvara Busova from the Russian Academy of Sciences told ScienceAlert.

But the child’s DNA revealed the remains were actually female. “That means we can say with some probability that [Scythian] girls have also participated in hunting or military campaigns,” Busova added.

The warrior girl was buried in Siberia’s modern-day Tuva republic, with an axe, a birch bow and a quiver with ten arrows – some wood, bone or bronze tipped. Due to the larch coffin sealing tightly against fresh air, her remains were partially mummified.

The Scythian girl’s battle axe.

“This young ‘Amazon’ had not yet reached the age of 14 years,” said lead author of the new research, archaeologist Marina Kilunovskaya from the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences.

The girl was clothed in a long fur coat, a shirt, and trousers or a skirt. Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers found her coat was composed of a patchwork of skins from a rodent related to Jerboa. And carbon dating of other grave items placed the burial complex from 7th-5th centuries BCE, which is early Scythian times.

Busova said the research team would now like to get more accurate dating of the young warrior girl’s remains, investigate the composition of the metal grave objects, and work to restore and conserve what they have found. They’re also hoping CT scans of the remains may give them clues on how the young female warrior died.

The young warrior’s arrows.

The finding “unwittingly brings us back to the myth about the Amazons that have survived to this day thanks to Herodotus (Herod. IV: 110-118),” the team wrote in their paper.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed Amazons fought the Scythians, but it seems they could actually be the Scythian women who trained, hunted and fought alongside their male counterparts.

“About one-third of all Scythian women are buried with weapons and have war injuries just like the men,” historian Adrienne Mayor told National Geographic in 2014.

“They lived in small tribes, so it makes sense that everyone in the tribe is a stakeholder. They all have to contribute to the defence and to war efforts and hunting.”

Through the centuries, myths of the Amazons have been embellished with outrageous claims, from cutting off their own breasts to improve their archery, to murdering their male children.

But we now have the opportunity to learn more about the true female warriors behind the myths thanks to modern archaeological studies and DNA techniques.

1,800-year-old Roman Chariot with horses found buried in Croatia

1,800-year-old Roman Chariot with horses found buried in Croatia

In Croatia, archaeologists discovered the fossilized remnants of a Roman chariot that had been buried with two horses as part of a burial ritual.

A large burial chamber for an ‘extremely wealthy family’ was found in which the carriage with what appears to be two horses had lain.  

Archaeologists from the City Museum Vinkovci and Institute of Archaeology from Zagreb discovered the Roman carriage on two wheels (known in Latin as a cisium) with horses at the Jankovacka Dubrava site close to the village of Stari Jankovci, near the city of Vinkovci, in eastern Croatia. 

1,800-year-old Roman Chariot with horses found buried in Croatia
The horses’ remains and the chariot were all buried together in what appears to have been a ritual reserved for very wealthy families.

The discovery is believed to be an example of how those with extreme wealth were sometimes buried along with their horses. 

Curator Boris Kratofil explained to local media that the custom of burial under tumuli (an ancient burial mound) was an exceptional burial ritual during the Roman period in the south of the Pannoinan Basin.

He said: ‘The custom is associated with extremely wealthy families who have played a prominent role in the administrative, social and economic life of the province of Pannonia.’

The discovery is estimated to be from the third century AD but the team of scientists are working to confirm its age.

Archaeologists say the discovery will allow them to know a little more about the family whose members were buried in this area 1,800 years ago.

The director of the Institute of Archaeology Marko Dizdar said that it was a sensational discovery that is unique in Croatia.

He said: ‘After this comes a long process of restoration and conservation of the findings, but also a complete analysis of the findings.

‘In a few years, we will know a little more about the family whose members were buried in this area 1,800 years ago.

‘We are more interested in the horses themselves, that is, whether they were bred here or came from other parts of the empire, which will tell us more about the importance and wealth of this family.

‘We will achieve this through cooperation with domestic as well as numerous European institutions.’

9,000-Year-Old Obsidian Tools Found at Bottom of Lake Huron

9,000-Year-Old Obsidian Tools Found at Bottom of Lake Huron

9,000-Year-Old Obsidian Tools Found at Bottom of Lake Huron
A scuba diver near a submerged hunting structure at the bottom of Lake Huron.

Obsidian, or volcanic glass, is a prized raw material for knappers, both ancient and modern, with its lustrous appearance, predictable flaking, and resulting razor-sharp edges.

As such, it was used and traded widely throughout much of human history. Obsidian from the Rocky Mountains and the West was an exotic exchange commodity in Eastern North America.

“Obsidian from the far western United States is rarely found in the east,” said Dr Ashley Lemke, an anthropologist in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The two ancient obsidian artefacts were recovered from a sample of sediment that was hand excavated at a depth of 32 m (105 feet) in an area between two submerged hunting structures at the bottom of Lake Huron.

“This particular find is really exciting because it shows how important underwater archaeology is,” Dr. Lemke said.

“The preservation of ancient underwater sites is unparalleled on land, and these places have given us a great opportunity to learn more about past peoples.”

Photomicrographs of the two obsidian flakes from Lake Huron. Scale is in millimetres.

The larger artifact is a mostly complete, roughly triangular, biface thinning flake made from black and translucent material with a sub-vitreous texture.

The second artefact is a small, very thin, translucent flake on a material visually similar to the larger specimen.

“These tiny obsidian artefacts reveal social connections across North America 9,000 years ago,” Dr. Lemke said.

“The artifacts found below the Great Lakes come from a geological source in Oregon, 4,000 km (2,485 miles) away — making it one of the longest distances recorded for obsidian artifacts anywhere in the world.”

The findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE.

British teacher finds long-lost relative: 9,000-year-old man

British teacher finds long-lost relative: 9,000-year-old man

Adrian Targett visited the home of a close relative yesterday. He had to put on Wellington boots because the floor is muddy. The relative was not in. Hardly surprising: he died 9,000 years ago.

9,000-Year-Old Cheddar Man Has Living Descendant Still Living in The Same Area

But there is no doubt: Mr Targett, a 42-year-old history teacher in Cheddar, Somerset, has been shown by DNA tests to be a direct descendant, by his mother’s line, of “Cheddar Man“, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain, and now also the world’s most distant confirmed relative.

Even the Royal Family can only trace its heritage back to King Ecgbert, who ruled from 829AD to 830AD. By contrast, Cheddar Man, a hunter-gatherer who pre-dated the arrival of farming, lived in 7150BC.

The news caught everyone by surprise. Mr Targett’s wife, Catherine, said: “This is all a bit of a surprise, but maybe this explains why he likes his steaks rare”.

The discovery came about during tests performed as part of a television series on archaeology in Somerset, Once Upon a Time in the West, to be shown later this year.

DNA found in the pulp cavity of one of Cheddar Man’s molar teeth was tested at Oxford University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine, and then compared with that of 20 people locally, whose families were known to have been living in the area for some generations.

To make up the numbers, Mr Targett, an only child who has no children, joined in. But the match was unequivocal: the two men have a common maternal ancestor. The mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the egg, confirmed it.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed,” Mr Targett said on hearing of the match. “It is very strange news to receive – I’m not sure how I feel at the moment.”

His pupils were delighted (“He has never had a nickname … until now,” one 16-year-old said with relish) and so were scientists. The finding could provide a key to the debate about the process by which early humans settled down to agricultural life.

Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903, 20 metres inside Gough’s cave, which is the largest of 100 caverns in Cheddar Gorge – Britain’s prime site for Palaeolithic human remains. He had been buried alone in a chamber near the mouth of a deep cave, about 1,000 years before hunter-gathering began to give way to farming.

Visiting the site, Mr Targett said: “I’m glad I don’t live down here – it’s very dark, dank and dismal. I have been down here before but, of course, I never dreamed that I was standing in my ancestor’s home.”

Dr Larry Barham, an archaeology lecturer at Bristol University, said: “There is debate over whether farmers arrived from eastern Europe and ousted the hunter-gatherers – or whether the idea of farming spread through the population. This discovery strongly suggests an element of the second.”

In Cheddar Man’s time, the area would have been sparsely populated, with dense forests. He would have hunted deer, rabbits, waterfowl and perhaps fish, and gathered nuts, fruit and edible roots. “There were wild boar, bears and beavers.

There were packs of wild wolves, too, but apart from that life was probably pretty good. Cheddar Gorge would have looked similar then and must have been a good spot, with ready-made homes, a spring and forest nearby,” Dr Barham said.

Physically, Cheddar Man would have looked like a modern man. “You could put a suit on him and he wouldn’t look out of place in an office. In fact, he probably wore tailored clothes of leather or skins sewn together,” Dr Barham added.

“It is likely he was part of an extended group of families of 30 or so people. They lived too late to see a woolly mammoth, and too soon to see the earliest farming.”

The link between Cheddar Man and Adrian Targett easily outstrips the existing record for distant ancestors.

The oldest previously recorded relative was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Confucius who lived in the eighth century BC. Two of Confucius’s 85th lineal male descendants today live in Taiwan.

In Italy, a giant water tank has been linked to prehistoric rituals.

In Italy, a giant water tank has been linked to prehistoric rituals.

The Noceto Vasca Votiva is a unique wood structure that was unearthed on a small hill in northern Italy in 2005. Built primarily of oak and slightly larger than a backyard swimming pool, the exact purpose of the in-ground structure has remained a mystery, as has the date of its construction. Italian researchers estimated its origins go back to the late Middle Bronze Age, sometime between 1600 and 1300 BCE.

In Italy, a giant water tank has been linked to prehistoric rituals.
The Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory received wood samples from the Noceto Vasca Votiva’s lower and upper tanks, then used dendrochronology and a form of radiocarbon dating called “wiggle-matching” to date their origins to 1444 and 1432 B.C., respectively.

While that gap might not seem huge, in archaeological terms it’s like comparing the culture that invented the steam engine with the one that produced the iPad.

A Cornell University team led by Sturt Manning, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Classics and director of the Tree-Ring Laboratory, used dendrochronology and a form of radiocarbon dating called ‘wiggle matching to pinpoint, with 95% probability, the years in which the structure’s two main components were created: a lower tank in 1444 BCE, and an upper tank in 1432 BCE Each date has a margin of error of four years.

The finding confirms that the Noceto Vasca Votiva was built at a pivotal moment of societal change, and bolsters the Italian researchers’ theory that the structure was used for a supernatural water ritual.

The team’s paper, “Dating the Noceto Vasca Votiva, a Unique Wooden Structure of the 15th Century BCE, and the Timing of a Major Societal Change in the Bronze Age of Northern Italy,” published June 9 in PLOS ONE.

Manning has led the Tree-Ring Laboratory since 2006, and his team has advanced a range of tools and techniques that have successfully challenged common assumptions about historical artefacts and timelines. Among the lab’s specialities is tree-ring sequenced radiocarbon “wiggle-matching,” in which ancient wooden objects are dated by matching the patterns of radiocarbon isotopes from their annual growth increments (i.e., tree rings) with patterns from datasets found elsewhere around the world. This enables ultra-precise dating even when a continuous tree-ring sequence for a particular species and geographic area is not yet available.

“Working at an archaeological site, you’re often trying to do dendrochronology with relatively few samples, sometimes in less than ideal condition, because they’ve been falling apart for the last 3,500 years before you get to see them. It’s not like a healthy tree that is growing out in the wild right now,” Manning said. “We often measure the samples a number of times to extract as much signal as we can.”

The Noceto Vasca Votiva is about 12 meters long, 7 meters across and roughly four meters deep—although the depth was a little ambiguous at first.

When the site was fully excavated, the researchers found that the structure had a second tank beneath it, which had been built first but collapsed before it was finished. It was initially unclear how much time elapsed between the creation of the two tanks, which shared some of the same materials.

Judging by the size of the structure and the extensive labour that would have been required to excavate the earth and drag timber to the uphill location, the Italian researchers recognized that the Noceto Vasca Votiva was a major undertaking for its era and theorized its purpose. But they were unable to determine the precise date of its origins, and so turned to the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory.

Manning’s team made multiple attempts with different samples. While the wood from the Noceto site was well-preserved—a rarity, given its age—there was an unexpected challenge when the samples did not seem to fit the international radiocarbon calibration curve that is used for matching tree-ring sequences. This suggested the curve needed revising for certain time periods, and in 2020 a new version was published. The Noceto data finally fit.

By combining radiocarbon dating calibrated via dendrochronology from southern Germany, Ireland and North America, along with computer-intensive statistics, the Cornell team was able to establish a tree-ring record that spanned several hundred years. They pegged the construction of the lower and upper tanks at 1444 and 1432 BCE, respectively; and they determined the finished structure was in use for several decades before it was abandoned, for reasons that may never be known.

The new timeline is particularly significant because it synchs up with a period of enormous change in Italian prehistory.

“You’ve had one way of life in operation for hundreds of years, and then you seem to have a switch to fewer, larger settlements, more international trade, more specialization, such as textile manufacture, and a change in burial practices,” Manning said. “There is something of a pattern all around the world. Nearly every time there’s a major change in social organization, there tends often to be an episode of building what might be described as unnecessary monuments. So when you get the first states forming in Egypt, you get the pyramids. Stonehenge marks a major change in southern England. Noceto is not the scale of Stonehenge, but it has some similarities—an act of major place-making.”

Because the structure was located atop a hill and not in the centre of a village, it wasn’t used as a reservoir or well. The smooth layers of sediment that filled in the structure, and the absence of channels, implying it wasn’t used for irrigation. In addition, the researchers discovered a large set of objects deliberately deposited inside the tank, including numerous ceramic vessels, figurines and a range of stone, wood and organic items. All of that evidence indicates the structure was used in some kind of supernatural water ritual.

“It’s tempting to think it was about creating a reflective surface that you can see into, and where you put some offerings, but you’re also looking at the sky above and the linking of land, sky and water (rain),” Manning said.

Given the fact that nearby settlements in this southern edge of the Po Plain were built with dikes and terraces, and the region was agriculturally productive with much water management, water was clearly important for all aspects of the builders’ lives. At least for a time.

“The collapse of the whole social and economic system in the area around 1200 BCE seems to occur because it becomes much drier,” Manning said.

Is this the rock that proves Vikings did discover America?

Is this the rock that proves Vikings did discover America?

They are infamous for terrorising the coastlines of Europe in their distinctive longships, but the Vikings may be able to claim another victory over their medieval neighbours. New evidence has been uncovered that suggests the Vikings may have discovered North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his famous journey to the New World. Scientists claim to have uncovered what they believe to be a Viking settlement on the Canadian island of Newfoundland that appears to have been built between 800AD and 1300AD.

Is this the rock that proves Vikings did discover America?
New evidence of a Viking settlement in North America has been unearthed in Newfoundland (a hearth where iron ore appears to have been roasted is pictured) which suggests the Scandinavians were the first Europeans to set foot in the New World around 500 years before Christopher Columbus

It is only the second known Viking site to be discovered in North America and helps to confirm that they were the first Europeans to reach the New World. This new site, discovered in an area called Point Rosee in southern Newfoundland, is 400 miles (643km) south west of a Viking settlement found in L’Anse aux Meadows during the 1960s. Archaeologists said the discovery potentially opens ‘a new chapter’ in history by showing the Vikings had explored far further into the New World than previously believed possible.

Dr Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, explained: ‘This new site could unravel more secrets about the Vikings, whether they were the first Europeans to ‘occupy’ briefly in North America and reveal that the Vikings dared to explore much further into the New World than we ever thought.

The new Viking settlement was found on the edge of Point Rosee in Newfoundland (illustrated above) 400 miles south of another site at L’Anse aux Meadows. They suggest that the Vikings’ mastery of the seas allowed them to venture to North America (illustrated on the map)

‘Typically in archaeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books, but what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.’

The Vikings are well known to have been adept seafarers, using the sun and the stars to help pick their way across open stretches of ocean away from the coastline. It is thought the Vikings first discovered America by accident in the autumn of 986AD, according to one historical source, the Saga of the Greenlanders. It tells how Bjarni Herjolfsson was stumbled across North America after being blown off course as he attempted to sail from Norway to Greenland, but he did not go ashore. Inspired by his tales, however, another Viking Leif Ericsson then mounted his own expedition and found North America in 1002.

Finding it fertile land, rich in grapes and berries, he named it Vinland. Eriksson also named two further ‘lands’ on the North American coast – one with flat stones, which he called Helluland, and one that was flat and wooded, named Markland. The discovery of the settlement at Point Rosee now helps to confirm that these legends were in fact true. The settlement uncovered by Dr Parcak, who has been working with the BBC and a team of experts, was initially spotted using high resolution near-infrared images taken by satellites.

Archaeologists found evidence of stones blackened by iron ore processing (pictured), something that the indigenous North American population were not thought to do. It suggests the buildings that stood at the site were inhabited by Vikings, who made extensive use of iron
Using infrared images (pictured) of the site, the archaeologists were able to see the outlines of what they believe were longhouses similar to those used by the Vikings

Over time the structures have altered the soil and the way it retains moisture, changing the vegetation that grow above, making it possible to see the outline of the structures in satellite images. These helped them identify intriguing patterns in Point Rosee, which indicated there were some manmade features and the possible outline of a longhouse similar to those used by the Vikings. During excavations of the site, the team uncovered evidence possible bog iron ore processing.

The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was the only other site where pre-Columbian iron processing has been found in North America. The archaeologists discovered around 28lbs of slag in a hearth that they believe was used to roast iron ore before it was smelted in a furnace. Blackened stones, scorched by the extreme heat in this process, were also unearthed at the site. 

Point Rosee is a peninsula on the most south westerly tip of the island of Newfoundland (pictured). It provided a perfect location for the Vikings to set up an outpost, the archaeologists claim
Researchers found pieces of slag (pictured) in a hearth that they believe was used to roast iron ore prior to smelting it in a furnace at the site in Newfoundland, which suggests it was inhabited by Vikings

While Inuits are thought to have used some iron from meteors, there is no other evidence of indigenous people processing iron.  The longhouse building they identified appears to have been built using turf, in much the same style as other Viking structures. Black bands in the soil as the team excavated betrayed the presence of turf building blocks that had been used to construct a building. Douglas Bolender said: ‘Right now the simplest answer is that it looks like a small activity area maybe connected to a larger farm that’s norse.

‘If we were in Iceland we wouldn’t think twice about that. But the thing that makes you pause and check every last little bit of it, is that it is in Newfoundland.’ 

If they are right, it means Rosee Point is the most westerly Viking outpost yet discovered. Dr Bolender told National Geographic it could mean that the Viking sagas detailing journey’s to what has been interpreted as North America are true rather than merely legends.

He said: ‘We’re looking here because of the sagas. Nobody would have ever found L’Anse aux Meadows if it weren’t for the sagas. But, the flipside is that we have no idea how reliable they are.’

The remains of a Viking ship burial unearthed in Estonia also features in the BBC documentary (Dan Snow with some of the weapons and artefacts found there are pictured)
Smashed bones thought to have belonged to a Viking were found at a battlefield in Estonia (pictured)

Although the archaeologists leading the excavation are convinced the site was inhabited by Vikings, they say further work is needed to conclusively prove it was a Viking settlement. Nonetheless, Professor Judith Jesch, director of Nottingham University’s Centre for the Study of the Viking Age who was not involved in the discovery, described the find as ‘exciting’. 

She told the told The Telegraph that L’Anse aux Meadows may have been a way-centre as the Vikings ventured further south and that it is likely other sites may yet be unearthed.

She said: ‘Finding Vikings in the United States is the Holy Grail for many people, not least because there are many Americans of Scandinavian descent who would like to think that they were following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

‘But I don’t think they made significant progress past New Brunswick, in Canada.’

The discovery is outlined in a one-off 90 minute BBC documentary called Vikings Uncovered. It will be aired on BBC One in the UK. During the program, historian Dan Snow travels throughout the lands inhabited by the Vikings to explore just how far their influence spread.

Among the other discoveries outlined in the documentary are the remains of a battlefield in Estonia. Smashed bones were found alongside weapons and a Viking ship burial. In Portmahomack in Easter Ross, in the Scottish Highlands, archaeologists have discovered evidence that a monastery there was utterly destroyed by a Viking raid. Smashed sculptures were found with the ashes of the buildings of what had been once a prosperous community.

Skull fragments found at the site – thought to have belonged to monks – reveal the violence of the attack. Speaking about the find in Newfoundland, Mr Snow said: ‘The Vikings Uncovered was one of the most exciting projects of my career.

‘I was able to follow Dr Sarah Parcak and her team as they carried out pioneering research, using satellite imagery, in an attempt to unlock one of history’s greatest mysteries.

‘Were the Vikings really the first Europeans to settle North America? We know of one Viking site on the very northern tip of Newfoundland but was this part of a wider Viking territory?

‘It felt like Sarah’s team were making history, both in the high tech labs and on the ground in windswept Newfoundland, and I got to watch the entire process.’

Fossil child skull from 2.2 million years ago reveals how humans out-smarted the other great apes – and the key is the soft heads of our babies

Fossil child skull from 2.2 million years ago reveals how humans out-smarted the other great apes – and the key is the soft heads of our babies

A fossil more than two million years old could help explain why man became so brainy.

The Taung fossil, an early hominid which was discovered in South Africa in 1924, was significant features which could shed light on the evolution of intelligence

The Taung fossil, an early hominid that was discovered in South Africa in 1924, was significant features that could shed light on the evolution of intelligence.

Importantly it has a ‘persistent metopic suture’ – an unfused seam – in the frontal bone, which allows a baby’s skull to be pliable in childbirth. In great apes, this closes shortly after birth but in humans, it doesn’t fuse until around two years of age – allowing brain growth.

The unfused seam allows babies to be born with larger brains, and the delay in fusing allows the brain to grow larger in early life, reports Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Taung fossil has become the ‘type specimen,’ or main model, of the genus Australopithecus africanus.

An australopithecine is any species of the extinct genera Australopithecus or Paranthropus that lived in Africa, walked on two legs and had relatively small brains.

Dr Dean Falk, of Florida State University, said: ‘These findings are significant because they provide a highly plausible explanation as to why the hominin brain might grow larger and more complex.

‘The persistent metopic suture, an advanced trait, probably occurred in conjunction with refining the ability to walk on two legs.

‘The ability to walk upright caused an obstretric dilemma.

‘Childbirth became more difficult because the shape of the birth canal became constricted while the size of the brain increased. The persistent metopic suture contributes to an evolutionary solution to this dilemma.

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‘The later fusion was also associated with the evolutionary expansion of the frontal lobes, which is evident from the endocasts of australopithecines such as Taung.’

1.8-million-year-old skull shakes mankind’s family tree

1.8-million-year-old skull shakes mankind’s family tree

According to experts, the discovery eight years ago of a 1.8-million-year-old human ancestor’s skull found underneath a medieval Georgian village suggests our family tree may have fewer branches than some believe, scientists say.

This 2005 photo provided by the journal Science shows a pre-human skull found in the ground at the medieval village Dmanisi, Georgia. The discovery of the estimated 1.8-million-year-old skull of a human ancestor captures early human evolution on the move in a vivid snapshot and indicates our family tree may have fewer branches than originally thought, scientists say.

The skull, along with other partial remains previously found at the rural site, offers a glimpse of a population of pre-humans of various sizes living at the same time — something that scientists had not seen before in such an ancient era.

This diversity bolsters one of two competing theories about the way our early ancestors evolved, spreading out more like a tree than a bush, according to a study published in the journal Science.

When examined with the earlier Georgian finds, the skull “shows that this special immigration out of Africa happened much earlier than we thought, and a much more primitive group did it,” said David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgia National Museum and the study’s lead author.

“This is important to understanding human evolution,” he said.

For years, some scientists have said humans evolved from only one or two species, much like tree branches out from a trunk. Others say the process was more like a bush, with several offshoots that went nowhere.

Even bush-favouring scientists say these findings show a single species nearly 2 million years ago at the site in the former Soviet republic. But they disagree that the same conclusion can be made about bones found elsewhere, such as in Africa.

Lordkipanidze and colleagues point out that the skulls found in Georgia are different sizes but are considered to be the same species. So, they reason, it’s probable that various skulls found in different places and from different periods in Africa may not be different species but variations in one species.

To see how a species can vary, just look in the mirror, they say.

“Danny DeVito, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal are the same species,” Lordkipanidze said.

The adult male skull found in Georgia wasn’t from our species, Homo sapiens; it was from an ancestral species in the genus Homo. Scientists say the Dmanisi population is probably an early part of our long-lived primary ancestral species, Homo erectus.

Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley wasn’t part of the study but praised it as “the first good evidence of what these expanding hominids looked like and what they were doing.”

Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a proponent of a bushy family tree with many species, disagreed with the study’s overall conclusion, but he lauded the Georgia discovery as critical and even beautiful.

“It really shows the process of evolution in action,” he said.

Spoor said it seems to have captured a crucial point in the evolutionary process where our ancestors transitioned from Homo habilis to Homo erectus — although the study authors said that depiction is going a bit too far.

The researchers found the first part of the fossil, a large jaw, below a medieval fortress in 2000. Five years later — on Lordkipanidze’s 42nd birthday — they unearthed the well-preserved skull, gingerly extracted it, put it into a cloth-lined case and popped champagne. It matched the jaw perfectly.

They were probably separated when the individual lost a fight with a hungry carnivore, which pulled apart his skull and jaw, Lordkipanidze said.

The skull was from an adult male just shy of 5 feet with a massive jaw and big teeth but a small brain, implying limited thinking capability, study co-author Marcia Ponce de Leon, of the University of Zurich, said. It also seems to be from the evolutionary point where legs were getting longer, for walking upright, and hips smaller, she said.

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