Category Archives: SOUTH AFRICA

240,000-year-old ‘Child of Darkness’ human ancestor discovered in narrow cave passageway

240,000-year-old ‘Child of Darkness’ human ancestor discovered in narrow cave passageway

Deep within South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, in a dark passageway barely 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide, scientists have discovered the fragmented skull of a Homo naledi child they’re calling “Leti.” How the little skull ended up in such a remote part of the cave is a mystery, though the discoverers suspect it could be evidence of an intentional burial.

240,000-year-old ‘Child of Darkness’ human ancestor discovered in narrow cave passageway
The reconstructed skull of “Leti,” a young Homo naledi. The skull was found inside a tiny passageway deep within a South African cave, and probably dates back more than 241,000 years.

“Leti,” short for “Letimela,” or “Lost One” in the Setswana language of South Africa, probably lived between 335,000 and 241,000 years ago, based on the ages of other remains found in the enigmatic cave.

Fossil fragments belonging to about 24 Homo naledi individuals have been found in the cave system since 2013, when the first fossils from this human ancestor were discovered in what’s now known as the Dinaledi Chamber. 

The presence of so many individuals from a single species in the cave is mysterious. The only way in is a 39-foot (12 meters) vertical fracture known as “The Chute,” and geologists and spelunkers have so far found no evidence of alternative entrances into the passageways.

Leti’s small skull was found scattered in pieces on a limestone shelf about 2.6 feet (80 cm) above the cave floor. The spot sits in “a spiderweb of cramped passages,” Maropeng Ramalepa, a member of the exploration team, said in a statement. 

Research team members exploring the cave had to squeeze through spaces barely 6 inches (15 cm) wide when exploring the labyrinth of passages where Leti was found.
Teeth from the Homo naledi child “Leti.” The teeth indicate that Leti died around the time of the eruption of the first permanent molars, which would be between the ages of 4 and 6 in modern humans.

A complicated ancestor

The area is barely navigable for experienced spelunkers with modern equipment, according to a new paper published Thursday (Nov. 4) in the journal PaleoAnthropology. There is no evidence that animals carried the H. naledi bones into the cave — there are no gnaw marks or evidence of predation. The bones also appear to have been placed in the cave, not washed in, as they were not found mixed with sediment or other debris. 

That leaves open the possibility that more than 240,000 years ago, human ancestors with orange-size brains deliberately entered a dark, maze-like cave, perhaps through a vertical chute that narrows to 7 inches (18 cm) in places, and placed their dead inside. 

No tools or artifacts have been found alongside the Rising Star cave system fossils. There are few signs of other animals entering the caves, beyond two specimens of juvenile baboons, at least one of which may be much older than the Homo naledi remains. 

This human ancestor lived at the same time as early Homo sapiens, John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the remains, told Live Science in 2017. Their apparent forays into the cave suggest that they were among modern humans’ smarter ancestors, and that they had mastered the use of fire to light their explorations, Hawks said. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, H. naledi walked upright, stood about 4 feet, 9 inches (1.44 m) tall and weighed between 88 and 123 pounds (about 40 and 56 kilograms). 

The new skull — which fits into the palm of a modern human hand — should reveal more about H. naledi’s growth and development. While a few jaw fragments from juveniles have been found in the cave, this is the first time researchers have discovered bones from the skull case, or cranium. They also discovered six teeth.

Bones and teeth

The bones and teeth were found during an exploration of the narrow, twisting passageways around Dinaledi Chamber. Researchers mapped 1,037 feet (316 m) of these passageways, looking for evidence of another way into that chamber and several others nearby where remains have been found. They saw no evidence of another route. 

“Exploration of the narrow passages within the Dinaledi Subsystem involves considerable effort, navigating areas with irregular floors and walls, numerous obstructions and fissures less than 30 cm [11.8 inches] wide,” archaeologist Marina Elliott of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, wrote in the PaleoAnthropology paper. 

The researchers did, however, find more fossils in this subterranean maze. These included the second-ever piece of evidence of a juvenile baboon in the cave; a single arm bone probably belonging to H. naledi; a trove of 33 bone fragments that also likely belonged to an H. naledi individual or individuals; and Leti. Details on Leti’s skull were also published Nov. 4 in the journal PaleoAnthropology. 

The partially preserved skull was broken into 28 fragments. When reconstructed, these fragments revealed much of the child’s forehead and some of the top of the head. The teeth consisted of four unworn permanent teeth and two worn baby teeth. Their development and wear indicate that the child was at the age where the first permanent molars were breaking through the gum. In a human child, this would correspond to about 4 to 6 years of age. It’s not known if H. naledi developed faster; if so, Leti may have been younger than 4 when he or she died.

The size of the skull indicates that Leti’s brain had a volume of between 29 and 37 cubic inches (480 and 610 cubic cm) — about 90% to 95% of the brain volume of adults of her species.

“[T]his begins to give us insight into all stages of life of this remarkable species,” Louisiana State University anthropologist Juliet Brophy, who led the study on Leti’s skull, said in the statement.

200,000-Year-Old Bedding Found in South Africa May Be World’s Oldest

200,000-Year-Old Bedding Found in South Africa May Be World’s Oldest

Archaeologists studying the interior of a cliffside cave in South Africa have found what may be the world’s oldest bedding, reports Cathleen O’Grady for Science magazine.

200,000-Year-Old Bedding Found in South Africa May Be World’s Oldest
Archaeologists discovered these fossilized fragments of grass deep inside South Africa’s Border Cave.

Dated to more than 200,000 years ago, the grass bedding—discovered in the Lebombo Mountains’ Border Cave—was placed atop layers of ash, perhaps to keep crawling insects like ticks at bay.

The findings, published in the journal Science, push the earliest record of human-constructed bedding back by at least 100,000 years. Previously, notes George Dvorsky for Gizmodo, the oldest known specimen was 77,000-year-old grass bedding found in Sibudu, South Africa.

Humans inhabited the Border Cave, so named because it sits near the border of South Africa and eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland), sporadically between 227,000 and 1,000 years ago. More recently, the site has yielded an array of significant archaeological finds related to these early residents.

Lead author Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, tells Gizmodo that excavations at the cave revealed “ephemeral fossilized grass.” She says the layer of grass was probably at least a foot thick and “would have been as comfortable as any camp bed or haystack.”

Wadley and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopes and infrared spectroscopy to identify fossilized plant materials. In addition to broad-leafed grasses, the team found traces of burned camphor bush, which is still used by people in rural East Africa as an aerial insect repellent, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.

The Border Cave rock shelter in the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa

Because the ash is thought to have come from the same grass used in the bedding, the researchers suggest that Border Cave’s occupants periodically burned and replaced their mats with fresh plant matter. Per the paper, the ash repelled crawling insects by blocking “their breathing and biting apparatus and eventually [leaving] them dehydrated.”

Wadley says the findings are indicative of considerable sophistication on the part of early humans.

“Through the use of ash and medicinal plants to repel insects, we realize that they had some pharmacological knowledge,” she explains.

“Furthermore, they could extend their stay at favoured campsites by planning ahead and cleaning them through burning fusty beds. They therefore had some basic knowledge of health care through practising hygiene.”

Mixed in with the bedding, the team found ocher particles and flakes of stone possibly chipped off during toolmaking. The slivers of rock may indicate that the soft bedding was used as a seat for daily chores, while the red pigment may have rubbed off of individuals’ skin or other Stone Age canvases.

The researchers can’t be absolutely certain that ancient humans slept on the grass bedding. But Javier Baena Preysler, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid who was not involved in the study, tells Science that this is the “most plausible interpretation.”

To estimate the proposed bedding’s age, Wadley and her team conducted radiocarbon testing on a pair of teeth discovered in the same strata of the cave’s sediments.

Speaking with Science, Dani Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa who was not involved in the research, deems this methodology “a bit shaky.” He points out that relying on just two teeth rather than analysis of the actual plant remnants could have yielded inaccurate dates.

Since the final layer of plant bedding was left unburned, the archaeologists suggest that the humans who had once lined the Border Cave’s floor with soft, green grass eventually abandoned the site.

Ancient Human Relative, Australopithecus sediba, “Walked Like a Human, But Climbed Like an Ape”

Ancient Human Relative, Australopithecus sediba, “Walked Like a Human, But Climbed Like an Ape”

An international team of scientists has discovered a two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from an extinct species of ancient human relative. New lower back fossils are the “missing link” that settles a decades old debate proving early hominins used their upper limbs to climb like apes and their lower limbs to walk like humans.

Ancient Human Relative, Australopithecus sediba, “Walked Like a Human, But Climbed Like an Ape”
Life reconstruction of Australopithecus sediba com-missioned by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

An international team of scientists from New York University, the University of the Witwatersrand, and 15 other institutions announced today, in the open access journal e-Life, the discovery of two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from an extinct species of ancient human relative.

The recovery of new lumbar vertebrae from the lower back of a single individual of the human relative, Australopithecus sediba, and portions of other vertebrae of the same female from Malapa, South Africa, together with previously discovered vertebrae, form one of the most complete lower backs ever discovered in the early hominid record and give insight into how this ancient human relative walked and climbed.

The fossils were discovered in 2015 during excavations of a mining trackway running next to the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, just northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Malapa is the site where, in 2008, Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand and his then nine-year old son, Matthew, discovered the first remains of what would be a new species of ancient human relative named Australopithecus sediba.

Fossils from the site have been dated to approximately two million years before present. The vertebrae described in the present study were recovered in a consolidated cement-like rock, known as breccia, in near articulation.

Australopithecus sediba silhouette showing the newly-found vertebrae (colored) along with other skeletal remains from the species.

Rather than risking damaging the fossils, they were prepared virtually after scanning with a Micro-CT scanner at the University of the Witwatersrand, thus removing the risk of damaging the closely positioned, delicate bones during manual preparation.

Once virtually prepared, the vertebrae were reunited with fossils recovered during earlier work at the site and found to articulate perfectly with the spine of the fossil skeleton, part of the original Type specimens of Australopithecus sediba first described in 2010.

The skeleton’s catalogue number is MH 2, but the researchers have nicknamed the female skeleton “Issa,” meaning protector in Swahili. The discovery also established that like humans, sediba had only five lumbar vertebrae. 

“The lumbar region is critical to understanding the nature of bipedalism in our earliest ancestors and to understanding how well adapted they were to walking on two legs,” says Professor Scott Williams of New York University and Wits University and lead author on the paper. “Associated series of lumbar vertebrae are extraordinarily rare in the hominin fossil record, with really only three comparable lower spines being known from the whole of the early African record.”

The discovery of the new specimens means that Issa now becomes one of only two early hominin skeletons to preserve both a relatively complete lower spine and dentition from the same individual, allowing certainty as to what species the spine belongs to.

“While Issa was already one of the most complete skeletons of an ancient hominin ever discovered, these vertebrae practically complete the lower back and make Issa’s lumbar region a contender for not only the best-preserved hominin lower back ever discovered, but also probably the best preserved,” says Berger, who is an author on the study and leader of the Malapa project. 

He adds that this combination of completeness and preservation gave the team an unprecedented look at the anatomy of the lower back of the species.

Previous studies of the incomplete lower spine by authors not involved in the present study hypothesised that sediba would have had a relatively straight spine, without the curvature, or lordosis, typically seen in modern humans. They further hypothesised Issa’s spine was more like that of the extinct species Neandertals and other more primitive species of ancient hominins older than two million years.

Lordosis is the inward curve of the lumbar spine and is typically used to demonstrate strong adaptations to bipedalism. However, with the more complete spine, and excellent preservation of the fossils, the present study found the lordosis of sediba was in fact more extreme than any other australopithecines yet discovered, and the amount of curvature of the spine observed was only exceeded by that seen in the spine of the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana boy (Homo erectus) from Kenya and some modern humans.

Australopithecus sediba silhouette showing the newly-found vertebrae along with other skeletal remains from the species. The enlarged detail (a photograph of the fossils in articulation on the left; micro-computed tomography models on the right) shows the newly discovered fossils, in color on the right between previously known elements in grey.

“While the presence of lordosis and other features of the spine represent clear adaptations to walking on two legs, there are other features, such as the large and upward oriented transverse processes, that suggest powerful trunk musculature, perhaps for arboreal behaviors,” says Professor Gabrielle Russo of Stony Brook University and an author on the study.

Strong upward oriented transverse spines are typically indicative of powerful trunk muscles, as observed in apes. Professor Shahed Nalla of the University of Johannesburg and Wits, who is an expert on ribs and a researcher on the present study, says: “When combined with other parts of torso anatomy, this indicates that sediba retained clear adaptations to climbing.”

Previous studies of this ancient species have highlighted the mixed adaptations across the skeleton in sediba that have indicated its transitional nature between walking like a human and climbing adaptations. These include features studied in the upper limbs, pelvis, and lower limbs.

“The spine ties this all together,” says Professor Cody Prang of Texas A&M, who studies how ancient hominins walked and climbed. “In what manner these combinations of traits persisted in our ancient ancestors, including potential adaptations to both walking on the ground on two legs and climbing trees effectively, is perhaps one of the major outstanding questions in human origins.”

The study concludes that sediba is a transitional form of ancient human relative and its spine is clearly intermediate in shape between those of modern humans (and Neandertals) and great apes.

“Issa walked somewhat like a human, but could climb like an ape,” says Berger.

Fossil of an early hominid child who died almost 250,000 years ago found in South Africa

Fossil of early hominid child who died almost 250,000 years ago found in South Africa

The fossil remains of an early hominid child who died almost 250,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa by a team of international and South African researchers.

The team announced the discovery of a partial skull and teeth of a Homo Naledi child who died when it was approximately four to six years old.

The remains were found in a remote part of the cave that suggests the body had been placed there on purpose, in what could be a kind of grave, Professor Guy Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who led the team said in an announcement Thursday.

Fossil of early hominid child who died almost 250,000 years ago found in South Africa
The fossil remains of an early hominid child have been discovered in a cave in South Africa by a team of international and South African researchers

The placement “adds mystery as to how these many remains came to be in these remote, dark spaces of the Rising Star Cave system,” he added.

Homo Naledi is a species of archaic human found in the Rising Star Cave, Cradle of Humankind, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. Homo Naledi dates to the Middle Pleistocene era 335,000–236,000 years ago.

The initial discovery, first publicly announced in 2015, comprises 1,550 specimens, representing 737 different elements, and at least 15 different individuals.

“Homo Naledi remains one of the most enigmatic ancient human relatives ever discovered,” said Berger. “It is clearly a primitive species, existing at a time when previously we thought only modern humans were in Africa.”

He added that “its very presence at that time and in this place complexifies our understanding of who did what first concerning the invention of complex stone tool cultures and even ritual practices.”

The new discovery is described in two papers in the journal, PaleoAnthropology.

Archaeologists Find Oldest Home in Human History, Dating to 2 Million Years Ago

Archaeologists Find Oldest Home in Human History, Dating to 2 Million Years Ago

Archaeologists have identified Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa’s the Kalahari Desert as the world’s oldest home, thanks to new evidence confirming the theory that early humans were already occupying the site 2 million years ago.

Excavations at Wonderwerk Cave have determined it was occupied by humans some two million years ago, making it the world’s oldest-known home. Photo courtesy of Michael Chazan.

The dates for the cave—named for the Afrikaans word for “miracle”—were determined by testing the cave sediments, according to a new paper in Quaternary Science Reviews by researchers from the University of Toronto and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“We can now say with confidence that our human ancestors were making simple Oldowan stone tools inside the Wonderwerk Cave 1.8 million years ago,” lead author Ron Shaar said in a statement.

Wonderwerk is “a key site for the Earlier Stone Age,” according to the paper, but archaeologists have never found human remains there. Instead, the dating was obtained by investigating the different rock laters, also known as the stratified sedimentary sequence, reports Haaretz.

The cave contains traces of basal sediment, produced by retreating glaciers grinding against the bedrock, which would have to have been tracked in by early humans.

Archaeologists Find Oldest Home in Human History, Dating to 2 Million Years Ago
Ron Shaar taking samples for paleomagnestisim at Wonderwerk Cave.

Using magnetostratigraphy, a branch of stratigraphy that detects variations in the magnetic properties of rocks, the researchers dated 178 samples from the cave.

Measuring the magnetic signal of these ancient clay particles revealed the direction of the earth’s magnetic field—which changes poles every half million years or so—when the dust first entered the cave.

“Since the exact timing of these magnetic ‘reversals’ is globally recognized, it gave us clues to the antiquity of the entire sequence of layers in the cave,” Shaar explained.

The findings dated some of the sediment to 2 million years old. That matched the results that study team member Michael Chazan reached using cosmogenic dating in 2008. That earlier research, which many scholars rejected, measured cosmogenic nuclides caused by exposure to cosmic rays, which are produced and decay at a known rate. The new study also used this technique as a secondary dating method.

Wonderwerk Cave.

“Quartz particles in the sand have a built-in geological clock that starts ticking when they enter a cave,” Ari Matmon, another coauthor of the paper, added. “In our lab, we are able to measure the concentrations of specific isotopes in those particles and deduce how much time had passed since those grains of sand entered the cave.”

The cave also contains ancient stone tools such as hand axes, and the first evidence of early humans using fire, some one million years ago, as first reported in a 2012 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The evidence of the fire was found deep enough in the cave that it could only have been the result of human activity, not brought there by wildfire.

Though humans occupied the cave continuously over the last 2 million years, it was not discovered by modern humans until farmers came upon it in the 1940s. Excavations have been ongoing ever since.

Ron Shaar testing for paleomagnestisim at Wonderwerk Cave.
A 3-D scan of the excavated area that was sampled for dating.
Wonderwerk Cave.
A hand axe from Wonderwerk Cave, seen in front of the cave entrance.

South Africa’s Bandit Slaves And The Rock Art Of Resistance

South Africa’s Bandit Slaves And The Rock Art Of Resistance

Not all South African rock art is ancient; some dates back to the colonial period – and was created by runaway slaves. It tells a remarkable story.

With the founding of the Cape Colony in 1652, European colonists were forbidden from enslaving the indigenous Khoe, San and African farmers. They had to look elsewhere for a labour force. And so slaves, captured and sold as property, were unwilling migrants to the Cape, transported – at great expense – from European colonies like Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, the East Indies (now Indonesia), India and Sri Lanka.

Far cheaper was the illegal trade in indigenous slaves that grew in the borderlands of the colony. Khoe-San people were forced into servitude as colonists took both land and livestock. Together with immigrant slaves, they were the labour force for the colonial project.

Louis van Mauritius (a) led a rebellion of 300 enslaved people in 1808 and ‘Portrait of Júli, a Faithful [Khoe-San]’ (b) by William Burchell, 1822.

Desertion was their most common form of rebellion. Runaway slaves escaped into the borderlands and mounted stiff resistance to the colonial advance from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. In most cases, the fugitives joined forces with groups of skelmbasters (mixed outlaws), who themselves were descended from San-, Khoe- and isiNtu-speaking Africans (hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers).

Thus, we find recorded examples of mixed bandit groups hiding out in mountain rock shelters, within striking distance of colonial farms. Using guerrilla-style warfare they raided livestock and guns. In their refuge, they made rock art, images within their own belief systems that relate to escape and retaliation.

These sites can be reliably dated because they include rock art images of horses and guns. In our most recent study of rock art in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, we see that this art also provides us with the raiders’ perspective. Our fieldwork enables us to view something of the slave and indigenous resistance from outside the texts of the colonial record.

The paintings

These mountainous regions house many rock shelters with paintings of the traditional corpus of ‘San rock art’ (antelope and dances) that have become world-famous. But owing to almost 2,000 years of contact with incoming African herders and farmers, the hunter-gatherer art changed in appearance, if not in the essence of its meaning. The ‘disconnect’ was most stark, however, during colonisation. The artists’ societies were deeply affected, disrupted and decimated. Where any art continued it was that of the mixed outlaws, often referred to simply as ‘Bushmen’ but who was actually a composite of many cultural backgrounds.

In the colonial borderlands, paintings with (a) horses and guns and (b) ostriches and baboons.

The paintings themselves are also mixed – some brush-painted, some finger-painted – but are united by subject matter pertaining to spiritual beliefs concerning escape and protective power. Certain motifs, including baboons and ostriches, continued to be used, but now appearing alongside motifs such as horses and guns. This suggests some continuity in the recognition of these animals, mystical or otherwise, as subject matter pertinent to people’s changed circumstances.

Despite these changes, bandit groups, however mixed they were, held onto, and even highlighted, some specific traditional beliefs.

Ritual specialists

The location of one band of mixed outlaws, in the Mankazana River Valley in today’s Eastern Cape, comes from the record of the 1820 settler, poet and abolitionist Thomas Pringle. During our fieldwork in this area we found rock paintings of horses, riders with guns and cattle raids that can be reliably dated to approximately when Pringle was writing.

That diverse groups of bandits painted depictions of cattle raids suggests that raiding was a fundamental concern for these groups. If we have learnt anything from the last five decades of southern African rock art research, it is that images are not the mere depictions of what the artists saw around them. Rather, they are of what ritual specialists see while travelling through the spirit world.

In the case of bandit groups, the ritual specialist often performed the role of war-doctor, who supplied traditional medicines to ensure protection in dangerous situations, including cattle raids and the flight from servitude.

Finger-painted and fine-line horses attest to the mixed nature of bandit groups, note the baboons beneath the black horse.

It is telling that these images also include motifs relating to protection during raids as can be seen in the appearance of certain animals, especially baboons and ostriches.

Baboons are associated with protection across Khoe-San and African farmer society. The |Xam San people of the 1800s claimed that the baboon chewed a stick of so-/oa, a root medicine which would alert the user (animal or human) to approaching danger and keep it safe. Among the Xhosa there is a cognate belief in uMabophe – arguably the same root medicine. Like so-/oa, uMabophe was supplied by ritual specialists to those who wished to exert supernatural influence over projectile weapons, including turning ‘bullets to water’.

Protective animals

Many of these images are painted with a fine-line, unshaded technique. But there are also images that are finger-painted in black or bright orange pigment, which have a distinctly Khoe-speaker inflection. In technique they strongly resemble the art of the Korana raiders, to the north of the colony, who were known to take in runaway slaves.

Further into the hinterland, as if to mark the fighting retreat of bandit groups as the colonial frontier expanded, we discovered rock shelters in the Stormberg and Zuurberg that exhibit yet more features of an indigenous resistance idiom. In one are images of people with horses and guns, as well as baboons and ostriches.

The ostrich was recognised by Khoe-San groups as particularly adept at escaping danger. It could outrun most predators and leap over hunters’ nets. Khoe-San would, and still do, tie the tendons from ostrich legs to their own legs to combat fatigue. Ostrich eggshell was recognised as a medicine that could be ground and consumed as a fortifying tonic. In the art of bandits, images of ritual specialists transforming into ostriches or baboons attest to them drawing on the powers of protective animals to ensure their own escape from former captors or following stock raids.

The bandit’s view

Although never officially recognised as slaves, the Khoe-San were uprooted from their land and lifeways by European settlers and forced into bondage. This brought them into contact with immigrant slaves, alongside whom they often escaped. In defiance they raided their former captors and other settlers and in rocky hideouts they painted their concerns.

The rock art of bandit groups is bound up with beliefs in the ability to call upon the protection of the supernatural. Baboons and ostriches, painted with images of livestock and people on horseback with firearms, were heralded for their associated powers pertaining to escape and protection while raiding. For these runaway slaves, rock art was one of several crucial ritual observances performed to prevent the likelihood of ever returning to a life of oppression.

Ancient ostrich eggshell reveals new evidence of extreme climate change thousands of years ago

Ancient ostrich eggshell reveals new evidence of extreme climate change thousands of years ago

Evidence from an ancient eggshell has revealed important new information about the extreme climate change faced by human early ancestors.

The research shows parts of the interior of South Africa that today are dry and sparsely populated, were once wetland and grassland 250,000 to 350,000 years ago, at a key time in human evolution.

Philip Kiberd and Dr Alex Pryor, from the University of Exeter, studied isotopes and the amino acid from ostrich eggshell fragments excavated at the early Middle Stone Age site of Bundu Farm, in the upper Karoo region of the Northern Cape.

It is one of very few archaeological sites dated to 250,000 to 350,000 in southern Africa, a time period associated with the earliest appearance of communities with the genetic signatures of Homo sapiens.

This new research supports other evidence, from fossil animal bones, that past communities in the region lived among grazing herds of wildebeest, zebra, small antelope, hippos, baboons and extinct species of Megalotragus priscus and Equus capensis, and hunted these alongside other carnivores, hyena and lions.

After this period of equitable climate and environment the eggshell evidence — and previous finds from the site — suggests after 200,000 years ago cooler and wetter climates gave way to increasing aridity. A process of changing wet and dry climates recognised as driving the turnover and evolution of species, including Homo sapiens.

The study, published in the South African Archaeological Bulletin, shows that extracting isotopic data from ostrich eggshells, which are commonly found on archaeological sites in southern Africa, is a viable option for open-air sites greater than 200,000 years old.

The technique which involves grinding a small part of the eggshell, to a powder allows experts to analyse and date the shell, which in turn gives a fix on the climate and environment in the past.

Mandible of small antelope in calcrete.

Using eggshells to investigate past climates is possible as ostriches eat the freshest leaves of shrubs and grasses available in their environment, meaning eggshell composition reflects their diet.

As eggs are laid in the breeding season across a short window, the information found in ostrich eggshells provides a picture of the prevailing environment and climate for a precise period in time.

Bundu Farm, where the eggshell was recovered is a remote farm 50km from the nearest small town, sitting within a dry semi-desert environment, which supports a small flock of sheep.

The site was first excavated in the late 1990s the site with material stored at the McGregor Museum, Kimberley (MMK). The study helps fill a gap in our knowledge for this part of South Africa and firmly puts the Bundu Farm site on the map.

Philip Kiberd, who led the study, said: “This part of South Africa is now extremely arid, but thousands of years ago it would have been Eden-like landscape with lakes and rivers and abundant species of flora and fauna.

Our analysis of the ostrich eggshell helps us to better understand the environments in which our ancestors were evolving and provides an important context in which to interpret the behaviours and adaptations of people in the past and how this ultimately led to the evolution of our species.

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.’