Long ago

Kevin Lewis

July 23, 2017

Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago
Chris Clarkson et al.
Nature, 20 July 2017, Pages 306–310

The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Here we report the results of new excavations conducted at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia. Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments. Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Researching the Nature of Fire at 1.5 Mya on the Site of FxJj20 AB, Koobi Fora, Kenya, Using High-Resolution Spatial Analysis and FTIR Spectrometry
Sarah Hlubik et al.
Current Anthropology, forthcoming

Some scholars explain the major anatomical characteristics that differentiate Homo erectus from its predecessor, Homo habilis, as the result of Homo erectus being adapted to use fire for cooking and other tasks. However, many scholars contend that the evidence of fire in Homo erectus sites is very scant and is not convincingly anthropogenic. This study presents a methodology to evaluate the evidence of fire associated with the 1.5-million-year-old Homo erectus site FxJj20 AB, Koobi Fora, Kenya. The evidence is in the form of thermally altered lithics, soil aggregates, and bone fragments identified using visual inspection and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). We conducted high-resolution excavation focused on the recovery and high-resolution mapping of large and small finds (<2 cm). ArcGIS spatial analysis and soil micromorphology were used to assess whether the evidence of fire at the site has a natural or anthropogenic origin. Preliminary results indicate that the spatial pattern of heated and unheated archaeological material is not inconsistent with prehistoric anthropogenic fire features found in archaeological sites of Europe and West Asia.

Long-distance connections in the Copper Age: New evidence from the Alpine Iceman’s copper axe
Gilberto Artioli et al.
PLoS ONE, July 2017

25 years after the discovery in the Ötztal Italian Alps, the 5,300-year-old mummy keeps providing key information on human biological and medical conditions, aspects of everyday life and societal organization in the Copper Age. The hand axe found with the body of the Alpine Iceman is one of the rare copper objects that is firmly dated to the early Copper Age because of the radiocarbon dating of the axe wooden shaft. Here we report the measurement of the lead isotope ratios of the copper blade. The results unambiguously indicate that the source of the metal is the ore-rich area of Southern Tuscany, despite ample evidence that Alpine copper ore sources were known and exploited at the time. The experimental results are discussed within the framework of all the available coeval archaeometallurgical data in Central-Southern Europe: they show that the Alps were a neat cultural barrier separating distinct metal circuits. The direct evidence of raw metal or object movement between Central Italy and the Alps is surprising and provides a new perspective on long-distance relocation of goods and relationships between the early Copper Age cultures in the area. The result is in line with the recent investigations re-evaluating the timing and extent of copper production in Central Italy in the 4th millennium BC.

Chronotype variation drives night-time sentinel-like behaviour in hunter–gatherers
David Samson et al.
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 12 July 2017

Sleep is essential for survival, yet it also represents a time of extreme vulnerability to predation, hostile conspecifics and environmental dangers. To reduce the risks of sleeping, the sentinel hypothesis proposes that group-living animals share the task of vigilance during sleep, with some individuals sleeping while others are awake. To investigate sentinel-like behaviour in sleeping humans, we investigated activity patterns at night among Hadza hunter–gatherers of Tanzania. Using actigraphy, we discovered that all subjects were simultaneously scored as asleep for only 18 min in total over 20 days of observation, with a median of eight individuals awake throughout the night-time period; thus, one or more individuals was awake (or in light stages of sleep) during 99.8% of sampled epochs between when the first person went to sleep and the last person awoke. We show that this asynchrony in activity levels is produced by chronotype variation, and that chronotype covaries with age. Thus, asynchronous periods of wakefulness provide an opportunity for vigilance when sleeping in groups. We propose that throughout human evolution, sleeping groups composed of mixed age classes provided a form of vigilance. Chronotype variation and human sleep architecture (including nocturnal awakenings) in modern populations may therefore represent a legacy of natural selection acting in the past to reduce the dangers of sleep.

Cyclical Population Dynamics of Automatic Versus Controlled Processing: An Evolutionary Pendulum
David Rand et al.
Psychological Review, forthcoming

Psychologists, neuroscientists, and economists often conceptualize decisions as arising from processes that lie along a continuum from automatic (i.e., “hardwired” or overlearned, but relatively inflexible) to controlled (less efficient and effortful, but more flexible). Control is central to human cognition, and plays a key role in our ability to modify the world to suit our needs. Given its advantages, reliance on controlled processing may seem predestined to increase within the population over time. Here, we examine whether this is so by introducing an evolutionary game theoretic model of agents that vary in their use of automatic versus controlled processes, and in which cognitive processing modifies the environment in which the agents interact. We find that, under a wide range of parameters and model assumptions, cycles emerge in which the prevalence of each type of processing in the population oscillates between 2 extremes. Rather than inexorably increasing, the emergence of control often creates conditions that lead to its own demise by allowing automaticity to also flourish, thereby undermining the progress made by the initial emergence of controlled processing. We speculate that this observation may have relevance for understanding similar cycles across human history, and may lend insight into some of the circumstances and challenges currently faced by our species.

Chimpanzee super strength and human skeletal muscle evolution
Matthew O’Neill et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 July 2017, Pages 7343–7348

Since at least the 1920s, it has been reported that common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) differ from humans in being capable of exceptional feats of “super strength,” both in the wild and in captive environments. A mix of anecdotal and more controlled studies provides some support for this view; however, a critical review of available data suggests that chimpanzee mass-specific muscular performance is a more modest 1.5 times greater than humans on average. Hypotheses for the muscular basis of this performance differential have included greater isometric force-generating capabilities, faster maximum shortening velocities, and/or a difference in myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoform content in chimpanzee relative to human skeletal muscle. Here, we show that chimpanzee muscle is similar to human muscle in its single-fiber contractile properties, but exhibits a much higher fraction of MHC II isoforms. Unlike humans, chimpanzee muscle is composed of ∼67% fast-twitch fibers (MHC IIa+IId). Computer simulations of species-specific whole-muscle models indicate that maximum dynamic force and power output is 1.35 times higher in a chimpanzee muscle than a human muscle of similar size. Thus, the superior mass-specific muscular performance of chimpanzees does not stem from differences in isometric force-generating capabilities or maximum shortening velocities — as has long been suggested — but rather is due in part to differences in MHC isoform content and fiber length. We propose that the hominin lineage experienced a decline in maximum dynamic force and power output during the past 7–8 million years in response to selection for repetitive, low-cost contractile behavior.

Humans permanently occupied the Andean highlands by at least 7 ka
Randall Haas et al.
Royal Society Open Science, June 2017

High-elevation environments above 2500 metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.) were among the planet's last frontiers of human colonization. Research on the speed and tempo of this colonization process is active and holds implications for understanding rates of genetic, physiological and cultural adaptation in our species. Permanent occupation of high-elevation environments in the Andes Mountains of South America tentatively began with hunter–gatherers around 9 ka according to current archaeological estimates, though the timing is currently debated. Recent observations on the archaeological site of Soro Mik'aya Patjxa (8.0–6.5 ka), located at 3800 m.a.s.l. in the Andean Altiplano, offer an opportunity to independently test hypotheses for early permanent use of the region. This study observes low oxygen (δ18O) and high carbon (δ13C) isotope values in human bone, long travel distances to low-elevation zones, variable age and sex structure in the human population and an absence of non-local lithic materials. These independent lines of evidence converge to support a model of permanent occupation of high elevations and refute logistical and seasonal use models. The results constitute the strongest empirical support to date for permanent human occupation of the Andean highlands by hunter–gatherers before 7 ka.

Aridity and hominin environments
Scott Blumenthal et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 July 2017, Pages 7331–7336

Aridification is often considered a major driver of long-term ecological change and hominin evolution in eastern Africa during the Plio-Pleistocene; however, this hypothesis remains inadequately tested owing to difficulties in reconstructing terrestrial paleoclimate. We present a revised aridity index for quantifying water deficit (WD) in terrestrial environments using tooth enamel δ18O values, and use this approach to address paleoaridity over the past 4.4 million years in eastern Africa. We find no long-term trend in WD, consistent with other terrestrial climate indicators in the Omo-Turkana Basin, and no relationship between paleoaridity and herbivore paleodiet structure among fossil collections meeting the criteria for WD estimation. Thus, we suggest that changes in the abundance of C4 grass and grazing herbivores in eastern Africa during the Pliocene and Pleistocene may have been decoupled from aridity. As in modern African ecosystems, other factors, such as rainfall seasonality or ecological interactions among plants and mammals, may be important for understanding the evolution of C4 grass- and grazer-dominated biomes.

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