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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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
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.
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
A fossil more than two million years old could help explain why man became so brainy.
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.
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.
Study Suggests Hominin Could Walk and Swing Through Trees
Gizmodo reports that a new study of a human ancestor’s shoulder blade and collarbone suggests that Australopithecus Prometheus was able to swing through trees some 3.7 million years ago.
Discovered in South Africa in the 1990s, the fossilized remains of an individual known as “Little Foot” were carefully excavated from the concrete-like rock over a period of 15 years.
The specimen called StW 573 or Little Foot, was an Australopithecus Prometheus.
The fossil was finally fully excavated in 2018, over 20 years after its discovery when palaeontologists finished extricating the fossil from the breccia it was encased in. Immediately, Little Foot offered a remarkable glimpse into human origins.
Research describing the shoulder joint’s morphology was published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution. The research team inspected Little Foot’s pectoral girdle: literally, the specimen’s shoulder blade and collar bone.
By comparing the girdle’s formation to that in other human relatives, including some of the great apes, the team sussed out how Little Foot and others in its species got around.
“By understanding how the shoulder joints of early hominins are structured, and more broadly how their shoulder blades are capable of moving on their torsos, we can understand how they used their upper limbs while interacting with the environment,” said Kristian Carlson, a biological anthropologist at the University of Southern California and lead author of the new paper, in an email. “This is a crucial question during this period of our evolutionary history.
In its subtle shape, the pectoral girdle of Little Foot indicated to the researchers that the hominin did exploit trees for its survival, perhaps for acquiring a meal or to avoid becoming one. That lines up with research last year on the specimen’s vertebrae, which suggested Little Foot was capable of head movements (useful for climbing) that go beyond modern human capacities. That said, Little Foot was still bipedal, featuring the upright gait associated with humans.
The new finding brings up an interesting comparison with Ardi (a specimen of Ardipithecus ramidus), a lesser-known ancient relative from 4.4 million years ago.
Paleoanthropologists recently suggested that Ardi’s hands were built for swinging in trees, though some experts disagreed, saying Ardi was more human-like than ape-like.
Though the fossil record is as ossified as can be, the conclusions drawn from the bones we pull from the ground remain fickle. It’ll take some time to see whether the interpretations of Little Foot’s lifestyle, drawn from these shoulder bones, stick.
Little Foot’s pectoral girdle is the earliest evidence of such a skeletal structure so close to when hominins split off from ape and bonobo ancestors. That upper limb is a crucial piece of the puzzle, though Carlson said it can only tell us so much.
“As special as Little Foot is, it is only one individual,” he explained. “While we are still intensely investigating other anatomical regions of the Little Foot skeleton, we also must continue to appreciate the growing morphological variability that appears to exist within the early hominin fossil record, for example in Australopithecus.”
Based on their comparisons, Carlson’s team determined that Little Foot’s shoulder structure may be a good indicator for what that structure looked like in even older human relatives, in the 7- to 8-million-year-old time frame.
Such a discovery would make Little Foot look like a spring chicken. But until that happens, looks like we’re stuck with one of the most complete Australopithecine fossils ever found, the continued analysis of which reveals new details and theories with each pass. Woe is us!
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.’