Skull of two-million-year-old human ‘cousin’ unearthed in South Africa
In an archaeological excavation deep in a South African cave system led by Australian, a 2-million-year-old cranium from a big dented remote human cousin was discovered.
The finding is the oldest known and best-preserved case of Paranthropus robustus, a small-brained hominine called Paranthropus robustus, La Trobe University researchers say.
The almost complete male skull, found in the Drimolen cave system near Johannesburg in 2018, may also lead to a new understanding of human microevolution.
Paranthropus robustus walked the Earth at roughly the same time as our direct ancestor Homo erectus, palaeoanthropologist Angeline Leece said, referring to hominins, a small-brained member of the human family tree.
“But these two vastly different species — Homo erectus with their relatively large brains and small teeth, and Paranthropus robustus with their relatively large teeth and small brains — represent divergent evolutionary experiments,” she said.
“While we were the lineage that won out in the end, two million years ago the fossil record suggests that Paranthropus robustus was much more common than Homo erectus on the landscape.”
Until recently, scientists believed Paranthropus robustus existed in social structures similar to gorillas, with large dominant males living in a group of smaller Paranthropus robustus females.
This rare male fossil is closer in size to female specimens previously found at the site, providing the first high-resolution evidence for microevolution within early hominin species.
Researchers argue this discovery could lead to a revised system for classifying and understanding the palaeobiology of human ancestors — a significant development for their field.
Archaeologist Andy Herries said the skull, which was painstakingly reconstructed from hundreds of bone pieces, represented the start of a very successful Paranthropus robustus lineage that existed in South Africa for a million years.
“Like all other creatures on Earth, to remain successful our ancestors adapted and evolved in accordance with the landscape and environment around them,” he said.
“We believe these changes took place during a time when South Africa was drying out, leading to the extinction of a number of contemporaneous mammal species.
“It is likely that climate change produced environmental stressors that drove evolution within Paranthropus robustus.”
Findings from the new discovery in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind were published in Nature Ecology and Evolution on Tuesday.
Large 2,000-year-old cat discovered in Peru’s Nazca lines
Southern Peru’s dunes, carved with the geoglyphs of a hummingbird, a monkey and an orca-a figure some would dearly love to believe is an astronaut – have now revealed the form of an enormous cat lounging across a desert hillside.
During the work to increase access to one of the hills that offers a natural vantage point from which many of the designs can be seen, the Feline Nazca line was found, which dates from 200 to 100BC.
A Unesco world heritage site since 1994, the Nazca Lines, which are made up of hundreds of geometric and zoomorphic images, were created by removing rocks and earth to reveal the contrasting materials below. They lie 250 miles (400km) south of Lima and cover about 450 sq km (175 sq miles) of Peru’s arid coastal plain.
“The figure was scarcely visible and was about to disappear because it’s situated on quite a steep slope that’s prone to the effects of natural erosion,” Peru’s culture ministry said in a statement this week.
“Over the past week, the geoglyph was cleaned and conserved, and shows a feline figure in profile, with its head facing the front.” It said the cat was 37 metres long, with well-defined lines that varied in width between 30cm and 40cm.
“It’s quite striking that we’re still finding new figures, but we also know that there are more to be found,” Johny Isla, Peru’s chief archaeologist for the lines, told the Spanish news agency Efe.
“Over the past few years, the use of drones has allowed us to take images of hillsides.”
Isla said between 80 and 100 new figures had emerged over recent years in the Nazca and Palpa valleys, all of which predated the Nazca culture (AD200-700). “These are smaller in size, drawn on to hillsides, and clearly belong to an earlier tradition.”
The archaeologist said the cat had been put out during the late Paracas era, which ran from 500BC to AD200.
“We know that from comparing iconographies,” said Isla. “Paracas textiles, for example, show birds, cats and people that are easily comparable to these geoglyphs.”
2-Million-Year-Old Human Ancestor Preserved Tissue Maybe the oldest skin ever discovered
The remains of six skeletons are believed to have uncovered fossilised skins of an ancient human ancestor, who lived two million years ago.
Anthropologists believe they have found the preserved skin tissue of an early human species known as Australopithecus sediba in an ancient cave near Johannesburg, in South Africa.
It could be the oldest example of human soft tissue to ever be found and is set to reveal new details about what this now-extinct species of human was like. Scientists who have been leading the excavation, which began with the discovery of the remains of a 4ft 2 inch tall male juvenile in 2008, believe they have also found the remains of the ancient humans’ last meals still preserved in their teeth.
Professor Lee Berger, an anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who has been leading the excavation, said: ‘We found out this wasn’t just a normal type of rock that they were contained in – it was a rock that was preserving organic material.
‘Plant remains are captured in it – seeds, things like that – even food particulates that are captured in the teeth, so we can see what they were eating.
‘Maybe more remarkably, we think we’ve found fossil skin here too.’
Professor Berger, who made his comments in an interview with the Naked Scientists, discovered the first remains of Australopithecus sediba in 2008 after his son Matthew stumbled upon a fossilised bone in the Malapa Nature Reserve near Johannesburg.
They later excavated an almost complete skull, together with shoulder bones, a hand, wrist bones and ankle bones. Professor Berger announced the discovery to the world in 2010. He described the early human as a new species that he called Australopithecus sediba and is thought to be a transitional species between earlier Australopithecus species and early Homo species.
However, the discovery has been controversial, with some anthropologists insisting that the remains do not belong to a new species at all, but are in fact a combination of several different early humans.
But since 2010, Professor Berger and his team have unearthed the remains of five other individuals at the Malapa site, including two almost complete skeletons along with a variety of animal fossils.
These, he insists, have helped to confirm the attribution of Australopithecus sediba as a unique species. The researchers believe the site was once an ancient cave that perhaps contained a pool of water that attracted a range of animals that fell in. The cave later collapsed, preserving everything down there.
On two fragments of hominid skull excavated from the ground, however, Professor Berger and his team noticed an unusual surface. Embedded in the cemented rock, known as breccia, that surrounded the cranial remains of the original fossil and a second found at the site were some small, thin layers that looked like preserved soft tissue. Professor John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison who is helping lead the project, said: ‘They do not appear to be skin impressions within the matrix, they appear to be thin layers that are a different substance from the surrounding matrix.
‘In the initial CT-scanning of the MH1 cranium, team members noticed an area where the matrix surrounding the skull appeared irregular.
As they prepared this out, it became clear that the breccia itself had pulled away from the cranium across a small region, and the breccia had a thin layer of material at its surface there. This is not the outer table of the bone – which is intact in the corresponding area – nor is it apparently an impression of the bone. An additional section of possible soft tissue emerged as the female MH 2 mandible was prepared.
‘Upon magnification, these pieces do appear to have a structure.’
The team have been using 3D scanning, microscopy and chemical analysis in an attempt to examine the samples. The researchers also hope to find out whether, if it is soft tissue, it had been dried or soaked in water as it was preserved in the rock. The remains of plants and insects have also been found preserved in the cement-like breccia alongside the skeletons. It is thought that sediment in the bottom of a pool of water may have helped to protect the organic material from bacteria that would have caused them to rot and break down.
Professor Berger and his team are now trying to create a live laboratory on top of the site so they can continue working on the fossils while they are still in the ground without damaging them. The laboratory will also have a platform that will allow members of the public to look down into the site where the remains are being excavated. Professor Berger said he had no idea how many more individuals they may find at the site. Speaking to Naked Scientists said: ‘That’s why we’re building this laboratory over the top that we’ve begun excavation.
‘But so far, what is exposed on the surface have been two main skeletons and at least the remains of 4 other individuals that we found so far. But every time we open up a little bit of rock here and move a little bit of dirt, we see someone new. We’re introduced to another one of these people that died 2 million years ago.
‘The cave is like a big swimming pool that you’d fill up with concrete throwing bones intermediately into it and in this case, some of those and in fact, quite a lot of them were skeletons of this early human ancestor species.’ He added that his team were still attempting to piece together exactly how these species fit into the evolutionary history of humans.
He said that the skeletons they found have many features similar to Homo – such as the shape of their pelvis, hand and teeth, but they also have quite primate-like features too. Professor Berger added: ‘They walk on two legs. They would probably only be standing about 1.3 metres tall. They have also been more lightly built. They would’ve been quite skinny.
‘They had longer arms than we do, more curved fingers. So, they’re clearly climbing something. They also would’ve moved a little different. Their hips were slightly different than ours and their feet are slightly different.
‘So, their gait would’ve probably been a more rolling type gait, slightly different from the more comfortable long-distance stride we had. As they got closer to you, you’d be struck by for the most obvious thing which would be, their heads are tiny.’
Lost City in South Africa Discovered Hiding Beneath Thick Vegetation
What was once thought to be a scattering of ancient stone huts on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, has turned out to be the remnants of a thriving city, lost to history for 200 years?
Beneath the dense vegetation, there isn’t much to see with the naked eye. And after three decades of careful research, archaeologists in South Africa have barely scratched the surface of this long-lost settlement.
Now, however, thanks to the cutting-edge laser technology of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), this site has been revealed for what it truly was: a veritable metropolis made up of hundreds of households and trade networks.
The research has brought this city, called Kweneng, back to life. Home to a Tswana-speaking ethnic group, Kweneng’s 800 homesteads are now thought to have housed no less than 10,000 people.
“What this means is filling in a huge historical gap, especially for southern Africa, because we know the pre-colonial history of southern Africa has no written record,” explains Fern Imbali Sixwanha, an archaeologist at the University of Witwatersrand involved in the research.
“So now we’re starting to fill in the gaps using this LIDAR technology.”
It’s the same technology that scientists used to locate that ancient Mayan megalopolis early last year. Today, it’s helping to fill a massive historical blindspot in southern Africa.
Bouncing billions of laser light pulses off the lower western slopes of the Suikerbosrand hills near Johannesburg, the researchers were able to virtually ‘see’ through all the vegetation and preconceived notions that have obscured this once-bustling city.
Studies now reveal that Kweneng, which spanned about 20 square kilometers (8 square miles), was at its prime between the 15th and 19th centuries. And in its heyday, the researchers think it was probably a rich and thriving city.
Several pairs of parallel rock walls suggest there were numerous passageways into the city, many of which look like cattle drives, built to herd cows and other livestock through parts of the city.
What’s more, in the middle of Kweneng are remnants of two massive enclosures, which together take up a space estimated at 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet). Archaeologists on the case think these may have been kraals that housed nearly a thousand head of cattle.
But just like many other Tswana cities, this one is also thought to have fallen into decline after civil unrest.
Gone are the citizens, the stone towers, the homesteads, the livestock, the wealth. Thanks to LIDAR, however, history will live on.
“One of the most enlightening things is, as I’ve been able to understand what we were doing in our past you know, it gives us a broader idea of the people of southern Africa who they were and the types of activities that they did because you can now rediscover that activity line and just general interaction within the society,” Sixwanha told Africa News.
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, 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”