Meipu teeth shed light on the human settlement of Asia
María Martinón-Torres and José María Bermúdez de Castro, researchers at the Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), have participated in a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, on one of the few human fossils known from late Early Pleistocene China, the Meipu teeth, which provides new information on the early settlement of continental Asia.
These are four dental pieces encountered at the start of the 1970s in the locality of Meipu, southern China.
These teeth. dated to between 780,000 and 990,000 years old, present a series of primitive characteristics that distinguish them from Homo erectus, the predominant species on the Asian continent during most of the Pleistocene.
The CENIEH researchers, together with scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, have studied this sample, which had not been analyzed for five decades using image techniques not then available, like computerized axial microtomography, and compared it with today’s much more abundant fossil record.
“These teeth are one of the few manifestations we have from China of the earliest migrations out of Africa”, comments Bermúdez de Castro, coordinator of the Paleobiology Program at the CENIEH.
To date, the oldest fossils outside the African continent were found at the Dmanisi site in the Republic of Georgia and have been dated to 1.8 million years ago.
The Meipu fossils lack the specializations which characterize classic Homo erectus, such as the deep wrinkles or “crenulations” in the dentin, the tissue lying below the dental enamel.
Between the Dmanisi fossils and those of classic Homo erectus from China, the majority of which belong to the Middle Pleistocene, between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, there is an important gap that hinders comprehension of what happened between the first arrival of hominins in continental Asia and the advent of Homo erectus.
An African story in Asia
In certain characteristics, like the moderate convexity of the incisors or the shape of the upper premolar, the Meipu teeth are more similar to those from human populations of the Early Pleistocene, such as Homo ergaster, or the hominins found at Dmanisi.
“We believe that the Meipu fossils predate the appearance of Homo erectus”, says Martinón-Torres, researcher and director of CENIEH.
Even though they have similar chronologies, the researchers highlight the differences from Homo antecessor, the species found at the Gran Dolina site in Atapuerca (Burgos).
“Meipu continues to tell an African story, while Homo antecessor has already embarked on its own truly European journey”, concludes Martinón-Torres.
World’s Oldest Known Figurative Paintings Discovered in Borneo Cave Indonesia
According to recent research that indicates that humans may have taken this art tradition with them as they moved from Africa, prehistoric cave paintings of animals and human hands in Indonesia are as old as similar paintings found in Western Europe.
“Until now, we’ve always believed that cave painting was part of a suite of complex symbolic behaviour that humans invented in Europe,” says archaeologist Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. “This is actually showing that it’s highly unlikely that the origin of painting caves was in Europe.”
For decades, Indonesian researchers have known about rock art in limestone caves and rock shelters on an island called Sulawesi. The hand stencils and images of local animals, such as the “pig-deer,” or babirusa, were assumed to be less than 10,000 years old because scientists thought that the humid tropical environment would have destroyed anything older.
“The truth of it was, no one had really tried to date it,” says Matt Tocheri of the Human Origins Program of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “It’s not easy to date rock art.”
Now, though, in the journal Nature, a group of researchers from Indonesia and Australia, led by Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm, have analyzed mineral deposits that formed on top of these paintings in seven caves.
Their analysis shows that one hand stencil is at least 39,900 years old and a painting of a babirusa is at least 35,400 years old.
Those ages are comparable to the age of a painted rhinoceros from the famous Chauvet Cave in France, which has been dated to 35,300 to 38,827 years ago. The oldest known cave painting is a red disk found on the wall of a Spanish cave that’s at least 40,800 years old.
The fact that people in Indonesia were also painting cave walls way back then suggests “it is possible that rock art emerged independently at around the same time and at roughly both ends of the spatial distribution of early modern humans,” the research team writes in Nature.
But another possibility is that this type of art is much older, though scientists haven’t found evidence of it in the archaeological record.
“When something like this shows up almost instantaneously, all over the distribution of humans, within say 10,000 years, the odds are it’s something from our ancestors,” says John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York.
In Africa, our species goes back 200,000 years, Shea notes. But archaeological sites there tend to be found in shallow caves that are relatively exposed to wind and the hot, humid conditions — unlike the deep, cold caves in Europe that are ideal for preserving artwork.
“What we can find in older archaeological sites is evidence of symbolic behaviour, such as the production of little beads and personal adornments, the production of mineral pigments — of red ochre and other kinds of coloured pigments that people used, presumably, to decorate themselves — and traces of artistic embellishments on stone tools and on bone artefacts,” says Shea.
Figurative artwork depicting animals has been found on stone slabs in a rock shelter known as Apollo 11 in Namibia, points out Alison Brooks of George Washington University, who says these images were made more than 30,000 years ago.
“What this suggests is that this whole ability to make these things and possibly the tradition of making them is part of the cultural repertoire of the people who left Africa,” says Brooks.
She says that the paintings in Indonesia are very similar to images seen in Europe — for example, the babirusa in profile, with hair, is similar to European depictions of hairy mammoths.
But the Indonesian animals have stick legs and feet, instead of more detailed limbs. And there’s a hint of a red line that might depict the ground surface of the land that the animal is standing on, which is not found in other places.
“There are some things that are a little bit different about this,” says Brooks, though “it does seem to be that its part of the tradition.”
Jiroft Civilization, one of the oldest in the world
A major cultural center
For about a century we have been aware that ancient Persia was a major factor in the complex of populations that laid the foundations for the development of civilizations, but actual proof of this fact has been made available only through very recent discoveries. Now we know for certain that already in very ancient times this country played a leading role in the formulation and elaboration of technological and artistic progress.
The recent archaeological excavations carried out in southeast Iran demonstrate that, at the dawn of urban civilization, the Persian plateau and Susiana were just as important as Mesopotamia.
Archaeological research still in progress in the Halil Rud Valley, south of Kerman, was first concerned with protecting the prehistoric necropolises from clandestine, large-scale looting on the part of the inhabitants of the region.
Local people were systematically looting the tombs, and the stolen treasures were sent to the leading art markets in the Western world — London, Zürich, New York, etc. Taken out of their context, these objects lost their cultural importance and ended up having only commercial value, thereby becoming isolated and therefore ‘voiceless’ artifacts for historians, art historians, and anthropologists.
The official ban on plundering, together with the emergence of scientific surveys organized by Iranian archaeologists, have demonstrated that the region was the center of culture and art that developed around 3100 BC. The architectural and sculptural creations brought to light in the areas situated between Kerman and the Strait of Hormuz, at an altitude of 1968 ft (600 m) above sea level and in a region of palm orchards surrounded by mountains peaks over 13,000 ft (4000 m) high, are of the utmost importance and interest. The works unearthed by the archaeologists were contemporaneous with the flowering of Sumerian art at the ancient city of Ur, El Obeid, Uruk, or Telloh (Lagash), and in certain respects rival the production of these famous sites.
The largest city in Elam in that period Was in fact Susa, situated at the confluence of the valleys of the Kherka and Karun rivers, which are perennial and flow into the Tigris and Euphrates in Lower Mesopotamia and then empty into the Persian Gulf. However, the digs carried out in these Khuzistan lowlands from 1883 on by the French mission at Susa ruined this site so badly that it is now impossible to establish chronological data with any degree of certainty. The aim of the excavations at that time was to concentrate on gathering objects (pottery and sculpture) rather than attempting to establish dates on the basis of the stratigraphy.
Consequently, archaeologists are now unable to provide precise dates for the superb pottery of Susa, which was unearthed over a century ago. The dates published by André Parrot in 1960 regarding these artifacts — the beginning of the IV millennium BC — must therefore be accepted with caution. In any case, we will return to this subject further on.
The Iranian archeologist Youssef Majidzadeh who is now in charge of the research at the site of Halil Rud (in particular Jiroft, a locality after which the art of the region was named) has accumulated a collection of hundreds of delicately decorated stone objects. The special quality of the local material — a type of chlorite —makes it particularly suitable for sculpture: vases, bowls, cylindrical bottles, statuettes, weights (in the shape of ‘purses’), and animal figures, all accompanied by various ceramic objects.
The research carried out at the tepes of Konar Sandal A and Konar Sandal B, carried out with stratigraphic excavations, has brought to light unfired brick ramparts that are 36 ft (11m) thick and has also unearthed terraces that crowned the uppermost part of the tepes.
These summit platforms, which arc from 36 to 50 ft (11 to 15 m) above the ground, have a surface area of about 10 acres (4 hectares), for centuries people lived here, repeatedly rebuilding their dwellings made of unfired bricks and clayey earth compressed with straw and rubble. Since this material was brittle, it could not resist the climate and the onslaughts of neighboring peoples or nomads, so the inhabitants had to continuously build new constructions over the ruined ones. This led to the creation of artificial mounds known as tepes.
Archaeologists identified 12, 15, or 18 superposed levels by digging carefully into these unique hillocks that dot the Iranian plateau, much like the tells in Mesopotamia.
One of the most amazing aspects of the culture that grew up in southeast Iran is the presence of a form of writing known as proto-Elamitic, which probably dates from the lVth millennium BC and was discovered on tablets whose inscriptions are now being studied meticulously in order to find a key to decipherment. The first tablets, discovered in Susa in 1901, consisted of about 200 pieces, and another 490 were found in 1923. In 1949 the specialists found 5,529 different signs.
Analogous tablets found at Tepe Sialk, near Kashan, have allowed scholars to consider the Iranian plateau the center of this early form of writing. Later on, the discovery of other tablets at Tepe Yahya, in the heart of the Jjroft site, proved that the cradle of this writing — like that of the chlorite sculpture — might very well be the Haul Rud region, south of Kerman.
Jiroft Ziggurat – Origin of the Concept
An entire repertory is given over the motif of architecture, which is another amazing subject in the artistic production of this time. On cylindrical bowls, there are images of regular facades, with pilasters that form tall plinths.
The chambers with doors and windows are surmounted by flexed architraves, whose curves seem to be produced by the weight of the structure on rather feeble palm-tree trunks. However, the most striking motifs are the images of constructions in the shape of ziggurats. Many cylindrical vases have representations of an edifice with three or four gradually receding stories, which reflect the concept of the classical Mesopotamian ziggurat. This type of object is often surmounted by a pole or ‘horn,’ which according to later Babylonian texts indicates their sacred nature. Now while the decorated vases at Jiroft have been dated at 3100-2600 BC, these small ziggurats from the Persian steppes seem to be more ancient than the structures built in the Mesopotamian plain, which are similar in some respects but much more impressive.
This fact alone means that Persia was the wellspring of these ‘artificial mountains,’ the enormous stepped bases of the temples that dotted the Land of Two Rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates). It is even possible that the storied tower originally crowned the tall terrace of the tepes, thus becoming the top part of a city as well as its religious symbol and insignia of power
At this stage, mention should be made of the votive or emblematic pieces representing tall perforated images of animals (eagles, scorpions, and even men-scorpions). These objects, which were carved tablets, have engraved guilloche decoration (interlaced bands with openings containing round devices) that is animated by polychrome stones. In this case, only a function connected to power — a ‘royal’ insignia or sacred symbol of a priest — would explain the motive behind such creations, which are from 12 to 15 inches (30 to 40 cm) high and may have been used as scepters.
Haunting pictures show a mass grave of 113 ancient human remains buried in clay pots in China
These haunting images show a mass grave of 113 ancient human remains buried in household clay pots. Archaeologists have discovered a group of 2,000-year-old tombs using a unique ancient burial method in central China.
A total of 113 human remains have been found and each of them was wrapped with two to three clay containers, reported the People’s Daily Online.
Chinese historians said the finding of the large-scale tomb site was significant in helping them understand the burial customs of the Western Han Dynasty (202BC-8).
The group tombs are located in Huanghua City, northern China’s Hebei province, which was thought to be the site of an ancient city called Fudi.
Archaeologists discovered six tombs. The excavation efforts afterwards revealed that the site contained more than 100 chambers.
So far, experts have located 113 tombs.
All the remains were buried using a method called ‘urn burial’, which means the corpses were wrapped using two to three large clay containers, such as urns, pots and bowls.
A small hole would be drilled at a side of the clay coating. It’s believed that this was to let the soul of the deceased come and go freely.
It was previously thought that ‘urn burial’ was only used on children. However, on this newly discovered site, six tombs were of adults while 107 belonged to children.
Zhang Baogang, the head of the Huanghua Museum, told a reporter from China’s Xinhua News Agency: ‘Due to river digging and the destruction of nature in the past 2,000 years, we have only managed to excavate part of the tomb site.
‘We have discovered remains some 150 metres (492 miles) south of the site, which means the number of adults having been buried in urns could be much higher.’
This was the first time Chinese archaeologists had found ‘urn burial’ being used on adults, Zhang said during an earlier interview.
Zhang said that the tombs were thought to belong to civilians. As a result, the discovery was significant in helping them understand the burial customs of people living in Fudi, a fortress city built during the Western Han Dynasty (202BC-8)
Advanced 1,50,000-year-old pipework found under Chinese Pyramid
Who could have built such a complex structure 150,000 years ago, at a time when the man had barely started using fire?
The Baigong pipes are one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world. They can be found inside a badly-eroded pyramid standing on top of Mount Baigong in the Qinghai Province of northwestern China.
The collapsing pyramid once had triangular entrances on all three sides but over time, two of them caved in and are currently out of reach.
The one that remains goes deep inside the mountain. Iron scraps and strange-looking stones litter the floor, suggesting that a long time ago, this place saw activity.
The only surviving cave houses an intricate network of metal pipes, with diameters as large as 1.5 feet and as small as a toothpick. Dozens of pipes run straight into the mountain, leading who knows where.
Some of the archaeologists who inspected the site consider the pipework could have once supplied water inside the pyramid.
Their theory seems to be backed up by a multitude of iron pipes found on the shores of nearby Lake Toson. Those are also available in a range of lengths and diameters, some reaching above the water surface, others buried below.
Intrigued by these out of place artifacts, the Beijing Institute of Geology analyzed the pipes using a technique called thermoluminescence. This method allowed them to determine when the pipes were last subjected to high temperatures. The analysis revealed the pipes must have been crafted over 150,000 years ago.
And the mystery deepens even further. Analysis performed at a government-operated smeltery couldn’t determine all the exact compounds forming the pipes. Although the pipes were made up of ferric oxide, silicon dioxide, and calcium oxide, they also contained 8% of an unknown material.
There is no easy way to explain this mind-boggling discovery. Human presence in the region can be traced back to 30,000 years ago but was mainly composed of nomadic tribes. It would have been impossible for a primitive society to leave behind such an advanced structure.
A number of theories tried to explain who could have built these pipes and what purpose they might have served. An advanced but long-forgotten human civilization could have built a facility that required coolant, and the pipes leading to the nearby lake are all that’s left.
Another intriguing aspect is that the water in the lake is salty. And although there is a freshwater lake in the vicinity, there are no pipes leading into it. Why were they doing with all the saltwater?
A potential answer is an electrolysis. When an electric current is run through salt water, it breaks down the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Such products are a must-have for any civilization operating aircraft. That particular civilization doesn’t even have to be human.
At the other end of the theory spectrum, we have several geologists who believe the pipes are simply some type of unusual but natural formation.
The fact of the matter is that these are all just theories attempting to explain something that simply doesn’t fit with our currently accepted system of beliefs.
One thing is certain – until history is rewritten, anomalous artifacts such as the Baigong Pipes have no place in conventional textbooks.
Hilltop Buddhist Monastery Uncovered in Eastern India
The first hilltop Buddhist monastery of the Gangetic Valley has been found at Lal Pahari in Lakhisarai district of the state, said its excavation team director Anil Kumar. Excavated during a joint collaboration of the Bihar Heritage Development Society, a part of the department of art, culture and youth affairs and the Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, this finding is believed to be a great centre of Mahayana Buddhism.
The 11th-12th century common era (CE) monastery has some unique features rarely found elsewhere in the country and certainly not in Bihar. Besides wooden votive tablets found, it is the first Buddhist monastery which had a woman monk named Vijayashree Bhadra as its chief. She used to receive donations from Pala queen Mallika Devi.
A large number of metal bangles have been found and all its cells had doors, something unusual for the Buddhist monasteries excavated so far, suggesting that either it was exclusively for woman monks or a mixed one.
The two burnt clay seals recovered from the site record the name Srīmaddharmahāvihārik āryabhikṣusaṅghasya (the council of monks of Śrīmaddhama vihāra). The language used is Sanskrit and the script is Siddhamātṛkā of about 8th-9th century CE.
The name is equally significant as it indicates how much prestige the Mahāyāna Buddhism enjoyed in early medieval Magadha.
The wooden votive tablets of 5.3×2.3cm each have the figure of a person, probably Buddha, sitting in Padmasana in Bhumisparsha mudra. The lintel at the entrance of the main sanctum sanctorum represents the two Bodhisattvas — Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara.
Anil, who is the head of the ancient history and archaeology department at Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, said it’s the first ‘vihara’ in the state, which probably gave Bihar its name, like those found at Nalanda, Vikramshila and Telhara were ‘mahaviharas’.
Also, after Nalanda and Telhara in Bihar, any monastic sealing has mentioned the monastery name. While a number of mahāvihāras and in one instance a vihārikā is known from epigraphic and archaeological records of eastern India, no evidence of a ‘vihara’-level monastic architecture has been so far discovered from any part of Bihar.
The only parallel evidence is found in a monastery excavated at Jagjivanpur in northern Bengal, he said.
These findings will be significant in the understanding of the history of monastic Buddhism in early medieval Magadha in general and the history of the historically identified Kṛmilā region in Lakhisarai in particular. This evidence clearly proves that the monastery atop Lal Pahari at Jaynagar was a ‘vihāra’, he explained.
He said the interconnected cells, wooden door frames, three huge bastions on each side of the monastery, the discovery of dozens of wooden inscribed seals/sealings and the evidence of application of red, green, yellow, white and black colours on lime-plastered floors make the architecture of this monastery the first of its kind among the eastern Indian Buddhist establishments.
Anil said this was the first excavation project completed within 3 years in Bihar after getting a licence from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Bihar government in 2017. CM Nitish Kumar had inaugurated the Lal Pahari excavation site on November 25, 2017.
“We have documented 500 sculptures lying all around the site and brought 200 of them to Lakhisarai. The state government should urgently preserve these sculptures as Lal Pahari is one of the five protected monuments of Bihar government in Lakhisarai.
The other four are Satsanda, Bichhwe, Ghosi Kundi and Lai. The 6th site at Nongarh is also being considered for inclusion in the list,” Anil told TOI.
The tomb, which contains a coffin bed and screen made of white marble carved with patterns resembling those found in Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, belonged to a previously unknown couple named Qu Qing.
An epigraph unearthed from the tomb records the life experience of the tomb owners, a couple with the name Qu Qing, who never appeared in any historical files before.
The epigraph provides new evidence for character evolution and the art of calligraphy during the Sui Dynasty, according to the Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, adding that it also has great value as complementing the institute’s history section.
Various patterns strongly in the style of Zoroastrianism were carved on the coffin bed and the screen, showing the daily life of the tomb owners and some religious allusions.
“The Qu family lived in the Longxi area, which occupied the main part of the Silk Road for a long time, so they were deeply influenced by European, West Asian and Central Asian cultures,” said Kong Deming, head of the institute.
The discovery of the coffin bed and dozens of relief patterns carved in Buddhist and Zoroastrian styles can be seen as a witness to the exchanges and mutual learning between Eastern and Western civilizations along the Silk Road, Kong said.
Furthermore, a large number of exquisite white Xiangzhou kiln porcelain was unearthed at the site.
According to Kong, the porcelain shows the high production level of the Xiangzhou kiln in Anyang during the Sui Dynasty.
It can also fill in the blanks in the research on Xiangzhou kiln porcelains and provide valuable materials for the origin and development of Chinese white porcelain.
Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a play dough-like material from mammoth ivory
It is stated in The Siberian Times that Evgeny Artemyev of the Russian Academy of Sciences has studied 12,000-year-old archaeological objects that have been found some 20 years ago at the Afontova Gora-2 archaeological site, which is situated on the banks of the Yenisei River in south-central Siberia.
The items include objects made from the spongey parts of woolly mammoth bones.
The finds were made in early 2000 but were re-examined recently by Dr Evgeny Artemyev who said that the figurines can be either Ice Age toys made by people who populated this area of the modern-day Siberia, or a form of primaeval art.
‘When you look at them at different angles, they resemble different types of animals.
‘It is possible that this is the new form of Palaeolithic art, that the international scientific community is not aware of yet’, the archaeologist said.
The two prehistoric figurines appear similar to a bear and a mammoth, says Dr Artemyev, who has worked at the site since the 1990s.
Looked at from another angle, one of the figurines maybe a sleeping human.
The ivory bars, some of them phallic-shaped, discovered at the same site were created with a technique which made them almost ‘fluid-like’.
‘The mammoth tusk was softened to the extent that it resembled modern-day playdough. We don’t know yet how ancient people achieved that’, Dr Artemyev said.
‘On the items, we can see traces of stone implements and the flows of the substance before it stiffened. This means that the tusk was softened significantly, the consistency was viscous.
‘Most likely it was not for the entire tusk, but its upper part which was processed’, explained Artemyev.
The archaeologist said that he didn’t come across similar finds on other Palaeolithic sites.
‘Perhaps we don’t get to see reports about such finds because scientific teams rarely publish about items that can’t be properly explained. These elongated ivory bars could be blanks prepared to make making implements, or tools, or future toys – or anything else, we can only guess’, Dr Artemyev said.
While scientists can’t yet fathom why these shapes were made, the ‘playdough’ crafting technique helps them realise that these ancient people had much greater skills than they have imagined.
‘We tend to think of them as more primitive than they were. Yet they had technologies we cannot properly understand and describe, such as this softening of the tusks’, the archaeologist said.