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.
1.8-million-year-old skull shakes mankind’s family tree
According to experts, the discovery eight years ago of a 1.8-million-year-old human ancestor’s skull found underneath a medieval Georgian village suggests our family tree may have fewer branches than some believe, scientists say.
The skull, along with other partial remains previously found at the rural site, offers a glimpse of a population of pre-humans of various sizes living at the same time — something that scientists had not seen before in such an ancient era.
This diversity bolsters one of two competing theories about the way our early ancestors evolved, spreading out more like a tree than a bush, according to a study published in the journal Science.
When examined with the earlier Georgian finds, the skull “shows that this special immigration out of Africa happened much earlier than we thought, and a much more primitive group did it,” said David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgia National Museum and the study’s lead author.
“This is important to understanding human evolution,” he said.
For years, some scientists have said humans evolved from only one or two species, much like tree branches out from a trunk. Others say the process was more like a bush, with several offshoots that went nowhere.
Even bush-favouring scientists say these findings show a single species nearly 2 million years ago at the site in the former Soviet republic. But they disagree that the same conclusion can be made about bones found elsewhere, such as in Africa.
Lordkipanidze and colleagues point out that the skulls found in Georgia are different sizes but are considered to be the same species. So, they reason, it’s probable that various skulls found in different places and from different periods in Africa may not be different species but variations in one species.
To see how a species can vary, just look in the mirror, they say.
“Danny DeVito, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal are the same species,” Lordkipanidze said.
The adult male skull found in Georgia wasn’t from our species, Homo sapiens; it was from an ancestral species in the genus Homo. Scientists say the Dmanisi population is probably an early part of our long-lived primary ancestral species, Homo erectus.
Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley wasn’t part of the study but praised it as “the first good evidence of what these expanding hominids looked like and what they were doing.”
Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a proponent of a bushy family tree with many species, disagreed with the study’s overall conclusion, but he lauded the Georgia discovery as critical and even beautiful.
“It really shows the process of evolution in action,” he said.
Spoor said it seems to have captured a crucial point in the evolutionary process where our ancestors transitioned from Homo habilis to Homo erectus — although the study authors said that depiction is going a bit too far.
The researchers found the first part of the fossil, a large jaw, below a medieval fortress in 2000. Five years later — on Lordkipanidze’s 42nd birthday — they unearthed the well-preserved skull, gingerly extracted it, put it into a cloth-lined case and popped champagne. It matched the jaw perfectly.
They were probably separated when the individual lost a fight with a hungry carnivore, which pulled apart his skull and jaw, Lordkipanidze said.
The skull was from an adult male just shy of 5 feet with a massive jaw and big teeth but a small brain, implying limited thinking capability, study co-author Marcia Ponce de Leon, of the University of Zurich, said. It also seems to be from the evolutionary point where legs were getting longer, for walking upright, and hips smaller, she said.
Pornographic Pompeii wall paintings reveal the raunchy services offered in ancient Roman brothels 2,000 years ago
The sexual behaviours of ancient Italians have been exposed in wall paintings found in a renowned Pompeii brothel. The ‘Lupanar of Pompeii‘ is adorned with wall murals showing vivid sex scenes that date back centuries.
The sex house was once a hangout for wealthy businessmen and politicians before the Roman city was famously wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD.
Researchers believe the erotic paintings depicting group sex and other acts may have indicated the services offered by prostitutes.
The Lupanar of Pompeii was the centre point for the doomed city’s thriving red-light district.
The ancient Roman brothel was originally discovered in the nineteenth century. It was closed but was recently re-opened to the public in October 2006.
While the brothel is neither the most luxurious nor the most important historic building in what remains of Pompeii, it is the most frequently visited by tourists from across the world.
Prostitutes at the brothel were not exclusively women.
Men, especially young former slaves, sold themselves there too – to both men and women. The erotic lives of Pompeii’s prostitutes were recently illustrated by Western University professor, Kelly Olson. Professor Olson focuses her work on the role of women in Roman society, and the apparent open sexuality visible in the many frescos and sculptures.
The Classical Studies professor travelled to the ancient city as a featured expert on Canadian broadcaster CBC’s programme ‘The Nature of Things. Speaking of life in ancient Pompeii brothels, she said: ‘It’s not a very nice place to work.’
‘It’s very small, dank and the rooms are rather dark and uncomfortable,’ she told CBC.
‘Married men could sleep with anyone as long as they kept their hands off other men’s wives,’ she said.
‘Married women were not supposed to have sex with anyone else.’
The building is located in Pompeii’s oldest district.
The two side streets that line the brothel were once dotted with taverns and inns. Upon entering the building, visitors are met by striking murals of erotic scenes painted on the walls and ceilings.
In each of the paintings, couples engage in different sexual acts.
According to historians, the paintings weren’t merely for decoration – they were catalogues detailing the speciality of the prostitute in each room. Two thousand years ago, before the devastating volcanic eruption, prostitution was legal in the Roman city.
Slaves of both sexes, many imported from Greece and other countries under Roman rule, were the primary workforce. The Unesco World Heritage Site is of special importance because, unlike other Pompeii brothels at the time, the Lupanar of Pompeii was built exclusively for prostitution appointments, serving no alternative function.
Its walls remain scarred by inscriptions left by past customers and working girls. Researchers have managed to identify 120 carved phrases, including the names of customers and employees who died almost two thousand years ago.
Many of these inscriptions include similar phrases to that one would find in a modern-day bathroom, including men boasting of their sexual prowess.
On the top floor of the building sit five rooms, each with a balcony from which the working girls would call to potential customers on the street.
Much like in ancient Rome, researchers speculate that Pompeii prostitutes were required to legally register for a licence, pay taxes, and follow separate rules to regular Pompeii women.
For example: When out on the street, Pompeii’s working girls wore strict attire – they wore a reddish-brown coat at all times, and dyed their hair blonde. Prostitutes were separated into different classes depending on where they worked and the customers they served.
Though the historic sex site has been ‘closed for business for some time, that hasn’t stopped some raunchy holidaymakers attempting to re-christen the building. In 2014, three French holidaymakers were arrested for trespassing after breaking into the brothel ruins for a late-night sex romp.
A Frenchman and two Italian women, all aged 23 to 27, allegedly broke into the Suburban Baths to fulfil their fantasies inside a former brothel that is still decorated with centuries-old wall paintings depicting explicit sex scenes.
But authorities brought the group’s middle-of-the-night threesome to a premature end.
Hoard of silver coins may have been part of the historic ransom to save Paris
A hoard of silver coins minted in the Carolingian Empire about 1,200 years ago has been unearthed in northeastern Poland and may have been part of a historic ransom to save Paris from a Viking invasion.
It’s the first time anyone has found so many Carolingian coins in Poland. Only three such coins — of a distinctive style with Latin inscriptions and a central crucifix — have been found in the country before now.
The Carolingian Empire was founded by the Frankish king Charlemagne — Charles the Great — and spanned much of modern France, Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy in the eighth and ninth centuries.
Archaeologists think the newfound coins may have come from the Viking trading town of Truso, which was then located near the Baltic coast about 60 miles (100 kilometres) west of the farmer’s field where they were found.
And if the coins did come from Truso, it’s possible that they were part of an immense ransom of gold and silver paid by a Carolingian king to prevent invading Vikings from sacking the city of Paris.
“If a larger number of the coins can be attributed to Paris, then yes, it is possible — and some have already been attributed to Paris,” said Mateusz Bogucki, an archaeologist and coin expert at the University of Warsaw in Poland. But “it is way too early to give such an interpretation,” he told Live Science.
Regardless, the distinctiveness of the coins raises interesting questions about their origins, Bogucki said. At the time the hoard was hidden or lost, the first medieval Polish kingdom had yet to be established, and the Slavic tribes in the region used mainly Arabian silver dirhams paid in exchange for slaves by traders from the Muslim caliphate, based in Baghdad far to the south.
Metal detectorists discovered the first handful of the coin hoard in November 2020, in a field near the town of Biskupiec.
The finders, who had permission from the provincial government for their activities, stopped any further searching and kept the location secret until experts from the nearby Museum of Ostróda could investigate the find.
By March 2021, archaeologist Luke Szczepanski and his team had unearthed a total of 118 coins from the field — 117 of them minted during the reign of the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious, who ruled from A.D. 814 until 840, and one coin minted during the reign of his son Charles the Bald, who ruled until A.D. 877.
Such coins are extremely rare in Poland, which was well beyond the lands ruled by the Carolingian dynasty. The only three Carolingian coins previously unearthed were found at the archaeological site at Truso, which had been established by Norse traders by the eighth century and was famous for its trade in amber, furs and slaves.
It seems likely that the owner of the hoard of coins found near Biskupiec had obtained them in Truso, Bogucki said, but there is a possibility that they had come from somewhere else and were being taken to Truso for trading. The coins have no marks that show exactly where and when they were minted, but researchers can learn more about their origins by studying characteristics like the shapes of the letters in their Latin inscriptions, he said.
The archaeologists aren’t sure how the hoard of silver coins came to be hidden or lost near Biskupiec. The region was probably an uninhabited wilderness at the time, and archaeologists have not found any traces of a nearby settlement, Szczepanski told Science in Poland.
One intriguing possibility, however, is that the coins came from Truso and that they were originally part of a ransom paid by the Carolingian king Charles the Bald to Vikings threatening Paris, his capital city.
Norse raiders frequently attacked the Frankish heartlands of the Carolingian Empire — today’s northern France and western Germany — after the late eighth century. Historical records compiled by monks suggest that in A.D. 845 a large fleet of Viking ships sailed up the Seine and laid siege to Paris, then located on an island in the river.
Charles the Bald reportedly paid the invaders 7,000 livres, or more than 5 tons of silver and gold, to prevent them from sacking the city, Bogucki said, and it’s possible that some of the coins found near Biskupiec were part of that ransom.
Charlemagne was King of the Franks in the late eighth century when his armies conquered most of western Europe. He was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the pope in Rome in A.D. 800; his rule and those of his dynasty are known as the Carolingian Empire, which later became Europe’s Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious succeeded him as emperor in 814, and the empire was divided among Louis’ sons in 840.
Charles the Bald, one of Louis’ sons, ruled the western kingdoms and became the Carolingian emperor in 875. Portrayals from the time show him with a full head of hair; historians speculate that he may, in fact, have been very hairy and that the nickname was used ironically, or that his “baldness” referred to his initial lack of lands compared with those of his brothers.
DNA Analysis Reunites Viking Relatives 1,000 Years Later
The AFP reports that DNA analysis has linked the remains of two men who died some 1,000 years ago.
Separated for 1,000 years, two Viking warriors from the same family were reunited on Wednesday at Denmark’s National Museum, as DNA analysis helps shed light on the Vikings’ movements across Europe.
One of the Vikings died in England in his 20s in the 11th century, from injuries to the head. He was buried in a mass grave in Oxford.
The other died in Denmark in his 50s, his skeleton bearing traces of blows that suggest he took part in battles.
DNA mapping of skeletons from the Viking era — from the eighth to the 12th century — enabled archaeologists to determine by chance that the two were related.
“This is a big discovery because now you can trace movements across space and time through a family,” museum archaeologist Jeanette Varberg told AFP.
Two of her colleagues spent more than two hours on Wednesday piecing together the skeleton of the man in his 20s, from the remains freshly arrived from Oxford.
The 150 bones have been lent to the Danish museum by the Oxfordshire Museum in Britain for three years.
The historical consensus is that Danish Vikings invaded Scotland and England from the late eighth century.
The younger of the two men “may have been cut down in a Viking raid, but there is also a theory that they (the skeletons in the mass grave) were victims of a royal decree by English King Ethelred the Second, who commanded in 1002 that all Danes in England should be killed,” Varberg said.
It is very rare to find skeletons that are related, though it is easier to determine the relationships for royals, according to Varberg.
While the two were confirmed to be relatives, it is impossible to determine their exact link.
They may have been half-brothers, or a grandfather and grandson, or an uncle and nephew.
“It’s very difficult to tell if they lived in the same age or they differ maybe by a generation because you have no material in the grave that can give a precise dating. So you have a margin of 50 years plus or minus,” Varberg said.
Is This 400,000-Year-Old Hominin the Great Grandpa of Neanderthals?
According to new research, a 400,000-year-old hominid skull contains a few telltale features that imply it’s more of a Neanderthal than a Homo sapiens relation, a new study finds.
The cranium, discovered in a Portuguese cave, is helping anthropologists understand how hominins, particularly Neanderthals, evolved during the middle Pleistocene epoch in Europe, the researchers said.
The team isn’t sure whether the skull belongs to a newfound species of hominin, but noted that the skull appeared “broadly ancestral” to the Neanderthals, said study co-researcher Rolf Quam, an associate professor of biological anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.
In addition, the scientists unearthed hand axes in the cave, a stone-crafted technology that was likely developed in the Middle East about 500,000 years ago.
Thanks to the excavations, researchers now have proof that this technology spread as far west as Portugal within 100,000 years of being developed in the Middle East, Quam said.
Researchers found the skull on the last day of their field season in 2014. During previous fieldwork at the Gruta da Aroeira cave from 1998 to 2002, researchers found human teeth, animal remains and stone-made hand axes. But the latest discovery, the skull, was the excavation’s prize find, Quam said.
The team discovered the cranium in the back of the cave, buried in petrified sediment.
“The archaeologists, when they found it, weren’t sure how to get it out,” Quam told Live Science. “They basically had to use a circular saw to cut out a huge block chunk that included the skull.”
The researchers brought the block to a restoration laboratory in Madrid, and a fossil preparator spent 2.5 years extracting the skull.
“That is an incredible amount of labor to get this thing out,” Quam said.
Once they freed the skull, the researchers put it in computed tomography (CT) scanner, which allowed them to create a 3D virtual reconstruction of the bone.
“The skull is only half a skull,” Quam said. “With the CT scans, we were able to mirror-image it and make the other half, so it’s more complete now.”
The skull, nicknamed the “Aroeira cranium” after the Portuguese cave in which the item was found, is the oldest hominin fossil ever discovered in Portugal, Quam said. (A hominin is a group that includes modern humans and their recent ancestors, including Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo habilis and several species of Australopithecus.)
With a cranial capacity of more than 67 cubic inches (1,100 cubic centimeters), the Aroeira skull is about the same size as other hominin skulls found from that time period.
Modern humans have larger cranial capacities, of about 79 cubic inches (1,300 cubic cm), according to the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, which was not involved with the new study.
Interestingly, the Aroeira cranium has Neanderthal-like features, Quam said. Those include a Neanderthal-shaped brow and a bony projection behind the ear, known as a mastoid process, which is small like a Neanderthal’s, Quam said.
However, the Aroeira individual lived long before the Neanderthals, which existed from about 200,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago, when they went extinct. Still, the skull “can help us understand the origin and evolution of Neanderthals better,” Quam said. “The fact that it is so well-dated is critical because that’s going to help us think about the evolutionary process — what changed first” as Neanderthals emerged on Earth.
Israeli archaeologists unveiled a 7,000-year-old clay seal impression used for commerce and protection of property, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) said.
A team of archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) made a rare discovery when they unearthed a small clay seal impression dating back some 7,000 years.
The impression, with two different geometric stamps imprinted on it, was discovered in Tel Tsaf, a prehistoric village located in Israel’s Beit She’an Valley in the country’s north.
The finding was uncovered as part of an excavation headed by HU’s Professor Yosef Garfinkel and two of his students, Professor David Ben Shlomo and Dr Michael Freikman, both of whom are currently researchers at Ariel University, between 2004 and 2007.
One hundred and fifty clay sealings were originally found at the site, with one being particularly rare and of distinct, historic importance. The object was published in the journal the Levant.
Sealings, also known as bulla, are little pieces of clay that were used in ancient times to seal and sign texts, preventing others from reading their contents.
The sealing discovered at Tel Tsaf is important because it is the first indication of the employment of seals to identify shipments or shutter silos or barns. When a barn door was opened, its seal impression would break – a telltale sign that someone had been there and that the contents inside had been touched or taken.
“Even today, similar types of sealing are used to prevent tampering and theft,” explained Garfinkel. “It turns out that this was already in use 7,000 years ago by landowners and local administrators to protect their property.”
The shard, which was less than a millimetre across, was discovered in excellent condition due to the dry environment of the Beit She’an valley. Symmetrical lines denote the sealing.
While many sealings discovered in the First Temple Jerusalem (about 2,600 years ago) incorporate a personal name and occasionally biblical figures, the sealing from Tel Tsaf dates from a time before writing was invented.
Instead of lettering, their seals were embellished with geometric designs. The presence of two separate stamps on the seal imprint may suggest a type of business operation in which two separate persons were participating.
The found fragment underwent extensive analysis before researchers could determine that it was indeed a seal impression.
According to Garfinkel, this is the earliest evidence that seals were used in Israel approximately 7,000 years ago to sign deliveries and keep store rooms closed. While seals have been found in that region dating back to 8,500 years ago, seal impressions from that time have not been found.
Based on a careful scientific analysis of the sealing’s clay, the researchers found it wasn’t locally sourced but came from a location at least ten kilometres away. Other archaeological finds at the site reveal evidence that the Tel Tsaf residents were in contact with populations far beyond ancient Israel.
“At this very site we have evidence of contact with peoples from Mesopotamia, Turkey, Egypt and Caucasia,” Garfinkel added. “There is no prehistoric site anywhere in the Middle East that reveals evidence of such long-distance trade in exotic items as what we found at this particular site.”
The site also yielded clues that the area was home to people of considerable wealth who built up large stores of ingredients and materials, indicating considerable social development.
This evidence points to Tel Tsaf as having been a key position in the region that served both local communities and people passing through.
“We hope that continued excavations at Tel Tsaf and other places from the same time period will yield additional evidence to help us understand the impact of a regional authority in the southern Levant,” concluded Garfinkel.
Preserved in poop: 1,000-year-old chicken egg found in Israel
Archaeologists discover an almost fully intact but nearly empty egg and three rare Islamic-period bone dolls in the excavation of settlement dating from the Byzantine period.
During recent digs in the central village of Yavne, archaeologists unearthed an exceedingly unusual, almost fully intact 1,000-year-old chicken egg, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The unexpected discovery was made during an IAA salvage excavation of a historic cesspit going back to the Islamic period, which was carried out ahead of a new neighbourhood construction.
Archaeologists were astounded to uncover a fragile ancient chicken egg that had been perfectly preserved a millennium ago by being originally pillowed in soft human dung within a cesspit, according to an IAA news statement.
“The egg’s unique preservation is evidently due to the conditions in which it lay for centuries, nestled in a cesspit containing soft human waste that preserved it,” IAA archaeologist Alla Nagorsky, the site’s excavation director, said. “Even today, eggs rarely survive for long in supermarket cartons. It’s amazing to think this is a 1,000-year-old find!”
Since the shell was slightly cracked, most of its contents leaked out, but part of the yoke was still inside, which will allow further analysis in the future.
Chicken has been raised in Israel for consumption of eggs and meat for some 2,300 years since the Hellenist period and early Roman period.
Bone assemblages in the land indicate that from the 7th century when the Islamic period began, pork consumption drastically decreased compared to previous centuries.
“Families needed a ready protein substitute that does not require cooling and preservation, and they found it in eggs and chicken meat,” Perry Gal said.
The egg further cracked when it was removed from the site, but was restored to its original state in the IAA organics lab.
The cesspit also contained some other objects, including three bone dolls from the same period.