Category Archives: SOUTH AFRICA

200,000-Year-Old Beds Analyzed in South Africa

200,000-Year-Old Mattress Analyzed in South Africa

Around 200,000 years ago people from Southern Africa not only slept on grass bedding but occasionally burned it, apparently to keep from going buggy. There was no tog rating on the duvet and an electric blanket was definitely out of the question.

But Stone Age mattresses were far comfier than the era’s name might suggest – and they were even designed to keep the bedbugs at bay.

Archaeologists have uncovered traces in a cave of ancient bedding from 200,000 years ago, made with a mixture of grasses and ash. Until now, the oldest known use of humans using plants to sleep on had dated back to around 77,000 years ago.

The cave where the discovery was made is near the border between South Africa and Swaziland, and is home to a well preserved record of on-off human occupation spanning 230,000 years
Archaeologists have uncovered traces in a cave of ancient bedding from 200,000 years ago. Pictured: Archaeologists work at the site of the discovery in the caves

The cave, near the border between South Africa and Swaziland, contains a well-preserved record of on-off human occupation spanning nearly 230,000 years, researchers said.

They found that the real-life Flintstones used a variety of leaved grasses for beds, including the Panicum maximum tufted grass which is still growing in front of the cave. 

The researchers also found charred remains of camphor bush, an aromatic plant that is still used in East Africa to repel creepy-crawlies.

They said: ‘Ash was possibly raked from hearths to create a clean, odor-controlling base for bedding.

‘Ash repels crawling insects, which cannot easily move through fine powder because it blocks their breathing and biting apparatus and eventually leaves them dehydrated.’

Dr. Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the Wits University’s Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, said that as well as Stone Age man’s bedding, they found ‘stone tools and, possibly, ground red and orange ochre to colour objects and perhaps their skin’.

The scientists used a range of techniques, which involved microscopic and chemical analysis, to examine the fossilized grass samples from the Border Cave site.

Dr. Wadley added: ‘People also used medicinal plants to repel insects. Sometimes they burned their grass bedding and this would have killed pests and cleaned the site.’

The researchers say that the findings suggest ‘an early potential for the cognitive, behavioral, and social complexity’ of Stone Age humans that became more apparent from around 100,000 years ago.

Dr. Wadley said: ‘Before 200,000 years ago, close to the origin of our species, people could produce fire at will.

‘They used fire ash and medicinal plants to maintain clean, pest-free camps.

‘The simple strategies we have seen at the Border Cave give us a glimpse into the lifeways of people in the deep past.’

Preserved grass fragments uncovered in a South African cave, left, are by far the oldest known examples of grass bedding, researchers say. Close-up images of those fragments taken by a scanning electron microscope, such as the one shown at right, helped to narrow down what type of grasses were used for bedding.

La Doncella: The Best Preserved Child Mummy in History

La Doncella: The Best Preserved Child Mummy in History

A team of Johan Reinhard ‘s expedition carried out an archaeological excavation in Argentina in 1999, near the summit of the highest active volcano in the world, Mount Llullaillaco. The crew set their camp 6,600 meters above sea level where the temperature dropped to -40 ° C.

A shock arose when a group member shouted “Mummy!” And so they discovered the “best burial site” in the world and, above all, the most preserved mummy in history.

On the site archeologists found 3 child mummies (the other two are La niña del rayo and El niño). However, the child mummy La Doncella (translated as The Maiden) was the most notable one.

500-year-old La Doncella

La Doncella is the mummy of a 15-year-old Incan girl. Over 500 years ago, she was offered as a sacrifice to the Incan God of Sun. Scientists determined that before La Doncella was taken high up in the Andes Mountains, she was given chicha, a corn beer that made her fall into a deep sleep.

Coca leaves were found on her lips, which was used by the Incans to decrease the effects of altitude sickness. Furthermore, coins were found in La Doncella’s palm, alluding to her status as a messenger to heaven.

The Inca Empire and the Incan culture were wiped out by the Spanish conquerors. There exist such few traces of this civilization that once dominated South America.

As a result, the well-preserved ceramics and artefacts found alongside La Doncella carry vital importance. They illuminate the past and tell us a lot about the vanished Incan culture.

The site where the mummies were found / Johan Reinhard

Virgins of the Sun

Virgins of the Sun were young girls who, around the age of 10, were chosen, or in some cases endowed by their families, to become servants or sacrifices to the Incan God of Sun.

The Virgins of the Sun had minimal duties, such as preparing offerings to the God. At a certain age, most of these virgin girls would be selected as concubines to the royal Incan court. Only a few of them would be selected as human sacrifices to the Sun God.

On the contrary to how people may react to this proposition today, back then, to be chosen as a sacrifice to the Sun God was a great honor. It was documented by the Incans that the virgins who were given the privilege to be sacrificed were treated as demi-god princesses.

A depiction of La Doncella as a Virgin of the Sun

Hair Samples from La Doncella

White Hair: Genetics or Stress?

Upon examining the body of La Doncella, scientists were struck by the fact that the young girl had strands of white hair. A highly unusual case for a 15-year old, this was thought to be on account of two possible factors: genetics or a high number of stressors in the girl’s life.

Her diet was changed to prepare her for the sacrifice

Scientists from University of Bradford, England, found out about La Doncella’s diet after examining her hair samples.

A year before her death, La Doncella’s diet consisted of vegetables and potatoes, a diet typically consumed by those in the lower class. However, later on her diet had changed to maize and meat, which was considered as the food of the upper classes.

As the research suggests, this shift in her diet dates back to the start of her life as a Virgin of the Sun, during which La Doncella was being prepared for sacrifice.

Her hair was braided right before she died

Where is La Doncella exhibited?

As of September 2007, La Doncella has been exhibited at the High Mountain Archeological Museum in Salta, Argentina. A special display was built for her keeping true to the conditions in which she was found.

Child mummy La Doncella in display

A 9,000-year-old head with amputated hands laid over could be the oldest ritual beheading in the Americas

A 9,000-year-old head with amputated hands laid over could be the oldest ritual beheading in the Americas

The Amazon rain forest has long inspired gruesome stories of ritualistic violence from 19th-century tales of tribes searching for “trophy heads” to Hollywood films such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

But a much longer history than commonly believed can be portrayed of civilizations such as the Incas, Nazcas, and the Wari cultures making human sacrifices in South America may have a much longer tradition than previously thought.

Recent research, reported in PLOS One, records the discovery of a 9,000-year-old case of ritualized human decapitation that seems to be the oldest in the Americas by some margin.

Amputated hands had been laid over the face of the decapitated skull and arranged opposite each other

Execution or burial?

The researchers found the remains of the beheaded young man from a rock shelter in Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil. Quite astonishingly the decapitated remains date to between 9,100 and 9,400 years ago.

The decapitated skull was found with an amputated right hand laid over the left side of the face, with fingers pointing to the chin. It also had an amputated left hand laid over the right side of the face with fingers pointing to the forehead, making it highly ritualistic and extremely unusual.

Plastered skull from Jericho in the British Museum.

However, the process of extracting the body parts from the victim seems straight out of a horror movie. The man was decapitated by blows from a sharp instrument to the neck, but there was also evidence that the head was distorted and twisted in places, suggesting there was difficulty getting the head off the body.

Furthermore, the cuts left on the bones were signs that the flesh had been removed from the head prior to it being buried. However, there’s no evidence to suggest decapitation was the cause of death.

Discovered parts.

The decapitation is reminiscent of Neolithic skull cults from the Middle East, which often buried their deceased under the floors of their homes – sometimes with the skull removed, plastered, and painted.

The placement of the hands is also similar to partial coverage of facial gestures that we see in different cultural settings today (such as signs of tiredness, shock, horror, etc).

This ritualistic behavior may seem barbaric to us today but it is becoming clearer that during the Neolithic period decapitations, skull cults, and ancestor worship were an important cultural practice. Excavations of neolithic sites in the Middle East have uncovered ancestors that had their fleshed removed in a similar way before being buried in the houses of their relatives.

The rituals undoubtedly involved many of the community to honour their ancestors and may be similar to what has been discovered at Lapa do Santo.

Local but unusual man

The researchers also undertook a number of scientific analyses to find out more about the individual. One of these was to analyze the teeth for isotopes of strontium, which is taken up in the human body through food and water.

The analysis of the tooth enamel, which is formed during childhood can be compared to the isotope signatures in the local geology. This can tell whether or not the individual was related to the place they were buried.

The analysis showed that the man was clearly associated with his place of burial. This implies he was a local man who grew up in the area and not a captured trophy from a warring faction.

But perhaps most intriguingly, they took measurements of the skull and compared it to measurements of other skeletons, including ones excavated at the same site. In this case, the young man’s head was a little bit of an outlier on the overall size of the skull, being slightly larger. Did he look different from the other men? Was he somehow distinctive? The remarkable evidence from this site suggests he was unique to their community but living with them and perhaps chosen for this reason?

This forensic approach to understanding archaeological remains is now shedding light on how much information can be gleaned from these deposits and the value of careful and meticulous work.

More broadly, this is one of many revelations that are starting to appear regarding South American archaeology ranging from evidence of early extensive burning of the landscape 9,500 years ago, through to large-scale deforestation and the production of glyphs by pre-European culture.

It remains to be seen how many more discoveries like this will be made in the future but there is one clear message, losing your head in South America is not a new phenomenon!

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs

In the most minor details, an international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa was able to re-construct the skulls of some of the world’s oldest documented 3D dinosaur embryos by using powerful and non-destructive ESRF synchrotron technology.

The skulls evolve as the crocodiles, ducks, turtles, and Lizards today. They are in the same order The results are published in scientific reports

In an article in Scientific Reports, the University of Witwatersrand releases 3D reconstructions of the nearly 2 cm long skulls of some of the oldest dinosaur embryos in the world.

Dinosaur egg concept Dinosaur 'Easter eggs' reveal their secrets in 3D thanks to X-rays and high-powered computers.
Dinosaur egg concept Dinosaur
‘Easter eggs’ reveal their secrets in 3D thanks to X-rays and high-powered computers.

Embryos, discovered in 1976, related to the legendary South African dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus (five-meter long herbivores nestled in the Free state region 200 million years ago in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park (Free State Region, South Africa).

The scientific usefulness of the embryos was previously limited by their extremely fragile nature and tiny size. In 2015, scientists Kimi Chapelle and Jonah Choiniere, from the University of Witwatersrand, brought them to the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble, France for scanning.

At the ESRF, an 844 meter-ring of electrons travelling at the speed of light emits high-powered X-ray beams that can be used to non-destructively scan matter, including fossils.

The embryos were scanned at an unprecedented level of detail — at the resolution of an individual bone cell. With these data in hand, and after nearly 3 years of data processing at Wits’ laboratory, the team was able to reconstruct a 3D model of the baby dinosaur skull.

“No lab CT scanner in the world can generate these kinds of data,” said Vincent Fernandez, one of the co-authors and scientists at the Natural History Museum in London (UK).

“Only with a huge facility like the ESRF can we unlock the hidden potential of our most exciting fossils. This research is a great example of a global collaboration between Europe and the South African National Research Foundation,” he adds.

Up until now, it was believed that the embryos in those eggs had died just before hatching. However, during the study, lead author Chapelle noticed similarities with the developing embryos of living dinosaur relatives (crocodiles, chickens, turtles, and lizards).

By comparing which bones of the skull were present at different stages of their embryonic development, Chapelle and co-authors can now show that the Massospondylus embryos were actually much younger than previously thought and were only at 60% through their incubation period.

The team also found that each embryo had two types of teeth preserved in its developing jaws. One set was made up of very simple triangular teeth that would have been resorbed or shed before hatching, just like geckos and crocodiles today.

The second set was very similar to those of adults and would be the ones that the embryos hatched with. “I was really surprised to find that these embryos not only had teeth but had two types of teeth. The teeth are so tiny; they range from 0.4 to 0.7mm wide. That’s smaller than the tip of a toothpick!” explains Chapelle.

The conclusion of this research is that dinosaurs developed in the egg just like their reptilian relatives, whose embryonic developmental pattern hasn’t changed in 200 million years.

“It’s incredible that in more than 250 million years of reptile evolution, the way the skull develops in the egg remains more or less the same. Goes to show — you don’t mess with a good thing!,” concludes Jonah Choiniere, professor at the University of Witwatersrand and also co-author of the study.

The team hopes to apply their method to other dinosaur embryos to estimate their level of development.

They will be looking at the rest of the skeleton of the Massospondylus embryos to see if it also shares similarities in development with today’s dinosaur relatives.

The arms and legs of the Massospondylus embryos have already been used to show that hatchlings likely walked on two legs.

‘Little Foot’ skull reveals how this more than 3 million-year-old human ancestor lived

‘Little Foot’ skull reveals how this more than 3 million-year-old human ancestor lived

High-resolution micro-CT scanning of the skull of the fossil specimen known as “Little Foot” has revealed some aspects of how this Australopithecus species used to live more than 3 million years ago.

Comparison of the nearly intact first cervical vertebra of ‘Little Foot’ and two other Australopithecus from Sterkfontein in South Africa and from Hadar in Ethiopia showing how to complete ‘Little Foot’ is as compared to the rest of the fossil record.

The ~3.67 million-year-old fossil specimen’s meticulous excavation cleaning and testing of the skull showed the most complete Australopithecus adult first cervical vertebra yet found.

A description of the vertebra by Wits University researchers Dr. Amélie Beaudet and the Sterkfontein team was published in the Scientific Reports.

Little Foot’s skeleton was first revealed in 2017.

The Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, the International Palaeontological Trust, the National Research Foundation the University of the Witwatersrand and the French National Center for Scientific Research, through the French Institute of South Africa, support this research program.

The first cervical vertebra (or atlas) plays a crucial role in vertebrate biology. Besides acting as the connection between the head and the neck, the atlas also plays a role in how blood is supplied to the brain via the vertebral arteries.

By comparing the atlas of “Little Foot” with other fossils from South and East Africa as well as living humans and chimpanzees, the Wits University team shows that Australopithecus was capable of head movements that differ from modern humans.

“The morphology of the first cervical vertebra, or atlas, reflects multiple aspects of an organism’s life,” says Beaudet, the lead author of the study.

“In particular, the nearly complete atlas of ‘Little Foot’ has the potential to provide new insights into the evolution of head mobility and the arterial supply to the brain in the human lineage.”

The shape of the atlas determines the range of head motions while the size of the arteries passing through the vertebrae to the skull is useful for estimating blood flow supplying the brain.

“Our study shows that Australopithecus was capable of head movements that differ from us. This could be explained by the greater ability of Australopithecus to climb and move in the trees.

However, a southern African Australopithecus specimen younger than ‘Little Foot’ (probably younger by about 1 million years) may have partially lost this capacity and spent more time on the ground, like us today.”

The overall dimensions and shape of the atlas of “Little Foot” are similar to living chimpanzees. More specifically, the ligament insertions (that could be inferred from the presence and configuration of bony tubercles) and the morphology of the facet joints linking the head and the neck all suggest that “Little Foot” was moving regularly in trees.

Because “Little Foot” is so well-preserved, blood flow supply to the brain could also be estimated for the first time, using evidence from the skull and vertebrae.

These estimations demonstrate that blood flow, and thus the utilization of glucose by the brain was about three times lower than in living humans and closer to those of living chimpanzees.

“The low investment of energy into the brain of Australopithecus could be tentatively explained by a relatively small brain of the specimen (around 408cm3), a low-quality diet (low proportion of animal products) or high costs of other aspects of the biology of Australopithecus (such as upright walking). In any case, this might suggest that the human brain’s vascular system emerged much later in our history.”

Eggshell beads made by hunter-gatherers 33,000 years ago used as a social network

Eggshell beads made by hunter-gatherers 33,000 years ago used as a social network

New U of T Scarborough research offers physical evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were exchanging ostrich eggshell beads in order to form large-scale social networks. 

The exchange of ostrich eggshell beads is thought to be the earliest example of social networking among humans. While it’s been theorized for decades this was the case, this study offers the first hard evidence supporting the claim.

“This is evidence of a very early social innovation humans were using to help adapt to their physical environment,” says Genevieve Dewar, associate professor in the department of anthropology and one of the authors of the research.

“The exchange of ostrich eggshell beads, some dating back to the late middle stone age, offers proof that humans were using cultural tools to develop these large networks in order to reduce the risk of living in harsher environments.”  

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), the research looked at the archaeological evidence of ostrich eggshell beads in two sites within highland Lesotho in southern Africa.

Ostrich eggshell beads have been used to cement relationships in Africa for more than 30,000 years.

Through isotopic analyses, Dewar and colleagues at the University of Michigan found that the practice stretched back at least 33,000 years ago, the age of the oldest beads found at the archeological sites.

Genevieve Dewar is an associate professor in the department of anthropology at U of T Scarborough and an expert on the origins of modern human behaviour

The exchange of ostrich beads, which persists even today among hunter-gatherers in southern Africa’s the Kalahari Desert, is part of a system of delayed reciprocity known as Hxaro.

The purpose is to solidify relationships among groups, so if one suffers a lack of resources through drought or lack of food, they can rely on other groups living in areas of relative plenty.

“It’s a form of reciprocity that strengthens social bonds,” explains Dewar, an expert on the origins of modern human behaviour.

“If I give you a gift of an eggshell necklace, you are socially obliged to give me one in return. It works best if it’s not done right away, as it establishes a trading relationship between the two parties. Part of the social obligation includes allowing me to come and stay with you when my resources are low, and vice-versa.”

Through further isotopic analyses, the researchers found that beads were originating from at least 350 km, showing that this type of social networking was taking place on a large scale.

Since hunter-gatherers will forage up to 10 km per day looking for food, Dewar says committing so much time and resources to create a tool with no immediate practical purpose show how important the beads were to forging social bonds. 

Archeologists work at rock shelters at Sehonghong and Melikane in southern Africa to uncover beads and the evidence of their origin.

Ostrich eggshell was used by hunter-gatherers to make beads because it’s a fairly common raw material. In fact, the beads are found in archeological sites across southern Africa. 

Dewar says it offers some clues into how Homo sapiens were able to leave Africa and essentially colonize the planet rapidly.

“Previous species, like Homo erectus, were able to leave Africa, but they didn’t adapt as successfully to very diverse environments as humans, so there are important innovations that allowed us to do this.”

She adds that anthropologists are trying to unpack these specific social innovations that humans used in order to move into areas of the world lacking in abundant resources.

“If you have a lifeline back to a place that you know is predictable and plentiful, then you are probably more willing to push on into the unknown.” 

Ancient astronaut theorists take note as scientists trace ancestral home of all humans to southern Africa

Ancient astronaut theorists take note as scientists trace ancestral home of all humans to southern Africa

According to researchers, all modern human beings could have descended from people now in Botswana.

Scientists believe they have discovered for the first time the “cradle of humanity,” where the first modern human beings evolved before spreading throughout the world.

In the prehistoric wetland of Makgadikgadi – Okavango just to the south of the Zambezi River are believed to have flourished.

Researchers have shown that the genetic root of every modern person comes from this region 200,000 years ago, a study of DNA records and migration patterns shows.

The wetland was a warm, lush green Garden of Eden in which early humans thrived before migrating when a wobble in the earth’s axis 130,000 years ago caused the climate to turn dry.  

And direct descendants of these pioneers can still be found living in the arid Kalahari desert today.

The first humans are believed to have developed in the prehistoric Makgadikgadi–Okavango wetland, just to the south of the Zambezi River. Their direct descendants – the Kehoe San people – still live there today
The Zambezi river pouring into Victoria Falls, near to the Kehoe San people’s homeland in Botswana
Zambezi River borders of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe & Botswana

‘It has been clear for some time anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago,’ said the lead researcher, Professor Vanessa Hayes.

‘What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors.’

Professor Hayes, from Sydney University, studied the DNA of more than 1,200 living African people to pinpoint the origin of modern humanity.

She took samples from people called the Kehoe San, who live in rural Africa and who are known to be the most closely related to the original humans, and people genetically linked to them.

Her team could trace common ancestors of all the distinct groups back to the Makgadikgadi area of Botswana, which they have deemed the origin of man.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, add to existing geological and fossil evidence that proves Lake Makgadikgadi was home to early humans. In the past, scientists have suggested that smaller pockets of humans evolved in various places around Africa before spreading.

But Professor Hayes said the original humans evolved in the Makgadikgadi–Okavango wetland and remained there for a whopping 70,000 years.

‘There was a very large lake,’ she said. ‘By the time modern humans arrived, it was breaking up into smaller ones – creating a wetland.’

And she claims ‘green corridors’ of vegetation grew out of the wetland, which developed from a lake twice the size of the 23,000-square-mile Lake Victoria in Tanzania and Uganda, allowing people to migrate north-east and south-west.

Wetland is one of the healthiest ecosystems for sustaining life and would have been abundant enough for the human species to become established.

The climate then changed, drying out the land and causing the wetland to become what is now a region of salt pans and desert – this forced people to migrate.

Professor Hayes said: ‘The first migrants ventured northeast, followed by a second wave of migrants who traveled southwest.

‘A third population remained in the homeland until today. ‘In contrast to the northeasterly migrants, the southwesterly explorers appear to flourish, experiencing steady population growth.’

9-Year-Old Kid Literally Stumbled on Stunning Fossils of a New Hominid

9-Year-Old Kid Literally Stumbled on Stunning Fossils of a New Hominid

In South Africa, a young boy walking his dog has unconsciously stumbled through a pair of about 2 million years old which is now supposed to fill an integral gap in our knowledge of human evolution.

Nine-years-old Matthew Berger and his dog stumbled in a cavern close Johannesburg in 2008, in Malapa, South Africa, over the partially fossilized bones of an adult woman and a young man.

Since then, there has been much debate over whether these remains are genuinely distinct from previously discovered species.

Nine-year-old Matthew Berger upon the skeleton’s discovery.

The bones were found to be a close relative of the Homo genus and have come to be known as Australopithecus sediba (Au. Sediba) — “Australopithecus” means “southern ape.” And now, according to a new study, the remains are believed to be the bridge in human evolution between early humans and our more apelike ancestors.

Australopithecus sediba is thought to come between the 3-million-year-old apelike species known as Australopithecus afarensis (from which the famous “Lucy” specimen comes) and the “Handyman” species known as Homo habilis, who used tools 1.5 million to 2.1 million years ago.

And these latest Au. Sediba skeletons are even more complete than the famous “Lucy,” whose 1974 discovery was previously unprecedented.

“The anatomies we are seeing in Australopithecus sediba are forcing us to reassess the pathway by which we became human,” reported Jeremy DeSilva, co-author of the study.

The skeleton of Au. sediba on display at Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.

Though some researchers have noted this discovery as indeed that of a unique species since its uncovering in 2008, this latest study illustrates precisely how Au. sediba is, in fact, distinct.

The study thoroughly describes the new species’ anatomy and has found similarities with early members of the Homo genus “suggesting a close evolutionary relationship.”

The hands of the nearly 2-million-year-old Au. sediba resemble those of Homo habilis but are not the same, which suggests that the former was also able to use tools or at the very least, had a more precise grip than that of earlier species.

Australopithecus sediba is also now believed to have walked on two feet, though it would have spent much of its time in the trees, “perhaps for foraging and protection from predators,” the study said.

And all this, remember, came from an accidental discovery.

“Imagine for a moment that Matthew stumbled over the rock and continued following his dog without noticing the fossil,” the authors wrote.

“If those events had occurred instead, our science would not know about Au. sediba, but those fossils would still be there, still encased in calcified clastic sediments, still waiting to be discovered.”