Category Archives: LAOS

A child’s 130,000-year-old tooth could offer clues to an extinct human relative

A child’s 130,000-year-old tooth could offer clues to an extinct human relative

Palaeontologists in Laos have uncovered an ancient molar that likely belonged to a young Denisovan girl. The discovery is a big deal, as the Laotian cave in which the molar was found is now one of only three spots known to host these enigmatic humans.

The suspected Denisovan molar.

In addition to Siberia and the Tibetan Plateau, we can now add Laos to the achingly shortlist of places that have yielded fossils of an elusive human species known as the Denisovans.

A team of palaeontologists found the suspected Denisovan molar at the Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave in the Annamite Mountains of Laos. The molar dates to the middle Pleistocene, and it’s the first Denisovan fossil ever to be found in southeast Asia. A paper detailing this discovery is published today in Nature Communications.

Laura Shackelford, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the new study, was excited to learn that Denisovans, like their Neanderthal cousins, inhabited a variety of environments, some of them extreme.

The entrance to Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave, also known as Cobra Cave.

“Although we only have a few fossils representing the Denisovans, this new fossil from Laos demonstrates that much like modern humans, Denisovans were widespread and they were highly adaptable,” Shackelford explained in an email. “They lived in the cold arctic temperatures of Siberia, in the cold, [oxygen poor] environment of the Tibetan Plateau, and now we know they were also living in the tropics of southeast Asia.”

What’s more, the new discovery “further attests” that southeast Asia was “a hotspot of diversity for the genus Homo” during the middle to late Pleistocene, as the scientists write in their study. So in addition to Denisovans, this part of the world was once home to H. Erectus, Neanderthals, H. floresiensis, H. luzonensis, and H. sapiens.

That a Denisovan fossil was found in Laos is not a huge surprise. Traces of Denisovan DNA have been detected within the genomes of modern southeast Asian and Oceanian populations. The Ayta Magbukun—a Philippine ethnic group—have retained approximately 5% of their Denisovan ancestry, the highest of any human group in the world. Denisovans branched off from Neanderthals at some point between 200,000 and 390,000 years ago. They eventually went extinct, but not before interbreeding with modern humans. The Laotian molar is just the 10th Denisovan fossil to be found and the first outside of Siberia and Tibet.

The Annamite Mountains contain an abundance of limestone caves. Each year, Shackelford and her colleagues dispatch geologists to the area in hopes of finding spots worthy of further paleontological investigation.

“In 2018, our geologists spent the morning surveying and returned to the site before lunch with their pockets full of sediment samples that they had collected from a potential new site, what we now know as Tam Ngu Hao 2 or Cobra Cave,” Shackelford told me. “In these first samples, among fragments of fossil animal teeth, we found the tooth.”

By dating the sediment in which the molar was found, the team aged the fossil to between 164,000 and 131,000 years old. Protein analysis of the tooth’s enamel identified the fossil as belonging to a member of the Homo genus, but this test couldn’t pin down the exact species.

Study co-author Fabrice Demeter analyses the molar.

“We do know that this is the tooth of a girl who died when she was between about 4 to 8 years old,” said Shackelford. “Since this tooth comes from a child, we are currently doing additional analyses of tooth growth and development.”

Clément Zanolli, an expert on the evolution of human teeth and a co-author of the new study, said the identification of the Denisovan molar arose from multiple lines of morphological evidence.

The Laotian molar, he told me, bears a resemblance to teeth found on the partial Denisovan mandible from Tibet, including large tooth dimensions and various distinguishing features that separate it from other Homo species known to inhabit southeast Asia, including Neanderthals and modern humans.

“Among the human groups previously cited, the molar from Laos is closest to Neanderthals, and we know from paleogenetics that Denisovans were a sister group of Neanderthals, meaning that they were closely related and shared morphological features,” Zanolli, who works at the University of Bordeaux, explained in an email. “For these reasons, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that the tooth that we found in Laos belongs to a Denisovan individual.”

It’s not impossible that the molar belonged to a Neanderthal, but if that’s the case, that “would make it the south-eastern-most Neanderthal fossil ever discovered,” according to the paper.

“We are confident it is Denisovan,” Fabrice Demeter, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the study, told me in an email. But to “further confirm our results if needed, genetic analyses would be useful,” he said. Unfortunately, however, “DNA tends to fragment more quickly and intensely in tropical environments,” and it’s for this reason that “no ancient DNA from any Pleistocene human has been sequenced so far,” he added.

The new fossil is important because it affirms something already hinted at by the genetic data—that Denisovans once inhabited a wide area of southeast Asia. What’s more, it “confirms that Denisovans were present in this region and could have met with Late Pleistocene modern humans,” according to Zanolli. And lastly, it shows that Denisovans could live in both cold, high-altitude environments and the tropical forests of southeast Asia.

The Denisovans appear to have been an adaptable group. But that just makes their sudden disappearance some 50,000 years ago all the more mysterious.

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery

The eerie ‘Plain of Jars’ in Laos maybe thousands of years older than previously thought, and have been in use for even longer. Limestone vessels dotting the landscape of northern Laos were placed there up to 3,300 years ago, according to an analysis of quartz crystals in the sediment underneath them.

However, the majority of the fossils discovered in the area were buried between 700 and 1,200 years ago. According to the researchers, this indicates that the jars had ‘enduring ceremonial significance.’ ‘They were important for a very long time.’

They believe the containers were used to expose dead bodies to the elements until only the bones remained, which were then buried nearby.  Mysterious stone jars are spread across thousands of square miles of northern Laos’ Xiangkhouang plateau, commonly known as the ‘Plain of Jars.’

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery
Mysterious stone jars spread across northern Laos’ Xiangkhouang plateau have given the region the nickname ‘Plain of Jars.’ New analysis of the jars suggest they are centuries older than previously believed

The massive vessels are made of sandstone and limestone and vary in size, reaching up to 10 feet tall and weighing two tons.

While local legends claim they were goblets used by a horde of drunken giants, the scientific consensus is that the region was a sprawling cemetery and the containers were ‘burial urns’ used for storing human remains.

In the 1930s, French geologists excavated a cave near one cluster, determining it had served as a crematorium. In 2019, archaeologist Louise Shewan uncovered 1,000-year-old remains of nearly a dozen dead babies near jars in a location near Ban Nahoung, dubbed Site 1.

An example of a full skeleton buried at Site 1 in the Plain of Jars. Most remains found near the stone jars date from between 700 and 1,200 years ago

While some places only have a handful of jars, Site 1 contains around 400 vessels, scattered across more than 60 acres. For the past five years, Shewan, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, has studied Site 1 and other jar locations with Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University and Thonglith Luangkoth of the Laos Department of Heritage.

They’ve uncovered three basic types of burials: One where a full skeleton was laid out; another where just bundles of bones were buried, and a third variety where remains were placed inside smaller ceramic jars.

Previous radiocarbon dating of the remains suggests most they’ve found were buried between 700 and 1,200 years ago. Now Shewan and her colleagues have examined the sediment under the jars to estimate their age.

They used optically stimulated luminescence, a technique that dates the last time quartz sediment was exposed to sunlight.

‘Directly under one jar, we had a date range of 1350 to 730 B.C., and under another, we had 860 to 350 B.C.,’ Shewan told Live Science. ‘I think we’re going to find a range of dates as we continue the analysis.’

That means the larger stone vessels are centuries older than many of the bodies buried nearby. What we surmise from that is the enduring ritual significance of these sites,’ Shewan said. ‘They were important for a very long time.’ Earlier research had dated the jars more recently, between 500 BC to 500 AD. 

The team believes bodies were placed in the large jars until they decomposed, then the bones were buried nearby.  It’s not clear if different societies used the jar sites at various times or if descendants of the people who made them continued the tradition.

‘Whether they were culturally related to the people who made the jars is a question that we can’t define yet,’ O’Reilly told Live Science.

Some jars were found with decorated stone discs and smaller clay jars and a variety of other artefacts, including beads and jewellery. Images on the discs buried with their decorated sides face-down include animals, human figures, and patterns of concentric circles.

Each has a cylindrical shape with the bottom wider than the top and most have lip rims, leading to speculation they all had lids. Little is known about how they were made but some archaeologists speculate they were carved with iron chisels.

The jars appear to have been quarried from several areas in the Xiangkhouang foothills before being spread over more than 90 sites, some housing just a handful and others hundreds.

In their new report, published in the journal PLOS One, the researchers also analyzed lead and uranium isotopes in a jar at Site 1 and found it had been mined at a sandstone quarry some five miles away.

How it was brought to the site is still unknown, they said.

10-Foot-Tall Stone Jars ‘Made by Giants’ Stored Human Bodies in Ancient Laos

10-Foot-Tall Stone Jars ‘Made by Giants’ Stored Human Bodies in Ancient Laos

Stonehenge inspires awe, but there’s an even more mysterious ancient scene in Laos. The Plain of Jars consists of thousands of prehistoric stone vessels scattered over hundreds of square kilometres near Phonsavan, in the northeastern part of the country—a hilly area, despite the “plain” in the name. The huge jars form a surreal sight—some are up to ten feet tall and weigh several tons. It’s an archaeological wonder that experts still haven’t pinned down. 

Several human burials, thought to be around 2,500 years old, have been found at some of these sites in Laos, but nothing is known about the people who originally made the jars.

An expedition of archaeologists from Laos and Australia visited the Xiangkhouang region in February and March this year to document known jar sites and to search for new jars-of-the-dead sites and stone quarries.

Local legends say the carved stone jars were created by a race of giants to brew rice beer, but archaeologists think they were used in burial rituals.

The new finds show that the mysterious culture that made the stone jars were geographically more widespread than previously thought, said Louise Shewan, an archaeologist at the University of Melbourne, and one of the expedition leaders.

The joint Australian and Laos archaeological expedition searched for new jar sites in the Xiangkhouang region and excavated a previously known jar site.

The largest and best-known jar site is the famous Plain of Jars, located in relatively open country near the town of Phonsavan. That site contains around 400 carved stone jars, some as tall as 10 feet (3 m) and weighing more than 10 tons (9,000 kilograms), and the first archaeological investigation of it was made in the 1930s.

But Shewan said that the majority of the jar sites usually contained fewer than 60 carved stone jars, and were found in forested and mountainous terrain surrounding the Plain of Jars, spread over thousands of square miles.

Ancient stone jars

Shewan told Live Science that the search for new jar sites took the expedition into “extremely rugged, forested terrain,” as the researchers looked for ancient relics reported by local people.

Relying on local knowledge meant the archaeologists could avoid the ever-present danger of unexploded Vietnam War-era bombs, she said. U.S. warplanes dropped an estimated 270 million cluster bombs on Laos during the war.

The Laos government agency that oversees clearance efforts reports that more than 80 million unexploded bombs are scattered around the country.

Although the region is best known for the stone jars on the Plain of Jars, most of the ancient jar sites are in heavily forested and mountainous areas.

The latest expedition, in addition to accurately mapping many of the reported sites in the Xiangkhouang region, found 15 new jar sites, containing a total of 137 ancient stone jars.

Shewan said that the newly discovered jars were similar to those found on the Plain of Jars, but some varied in the types of stone that they were made from, their shapes and the way the rims of the jars were formed.

Burial rituals

Local legends include a story that the enormous stone jars were made by giants, who used the vessels to brew rice beer to celebrate a victory in war. But archaeologists think that at least some of the carved stone jars were used to hold dead bodies for a time before their bones would be cleaned and buried.

Australian and Lao archaeologists found more than 137 ancient stone jars at 15 new sites in the remote and rugged Xiangkhouang region.

Although the remains of elaborate human burials have been found at some of the jar sites, archaeologists aren’t sure if the jars were made for the purpose of the burials or if the burials were performed later.

Excavations in 2016 revealed that some of the stone jars were surrounded by pits filled with human bones and by graves covered by large carved disks of stone. These appear to have been used to mark the grave locations.

The latest expedition also found buried disks and other artefacts. Those included several beautifully carved stone disks, decorated on one side with concentric circles, human figures and animals. Curiously, the stone discs were always buried with the carved side face down.

“Decorative carving is relatively rare at the jar sites, and we don’t know why some disks have animal imagery and others have geometric designs,” expedition co-leader Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra, said in a statement.

The excavations around some of the stone jars also revealed decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, decorative disks that were worn in the ears and spindle whorls for cloth making. Researchers also discovered several miniature clay jars that looked just like the giant stone jars and that were buried with the dead.

The scientists will now use the data and photographs from the new jar finds to reconstruct the sites in virtual reality at Monash University; then, archaeologists across the globe can use the VR to examine the sites in detail.