Ancient history

Kevin Lewis

April 10, 2016

Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies

Joseph Watts et al.

Nature, forthcoming

Evidence for human sacrifice is found throughout the archaeological record of early civilizations, the ethnographic records of indigenous world cultures, and the texts of the most prolific contemporary religions. According to the social control hypothesis, human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification. Support for the social control hypothesis is largely limited to historical anecdotes of human sacrifice, where the causal claims have not been subject to rigorous quantitative cross-cultural tests. Here we test the social control hypothesis by applying Bayesian phylogenetic methods to a geographically and socially diverse sample of 93 traditional Austronesian cultures. We find strong support for models in which human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification once stratification has arisen, and promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems. Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.


Bigger Brains Led to Bigger Bodies?: The Correlated Evolution of Human Brain and Body Size

Mark Grabowski

Current Anthropology, forthcoming

Most investigations of hominin brain and body size evolution assume that different selection pressures acted on each trait or that brain and body size are linked physiologically via the energetic demands of large brains. However, evidence from model organisms suggests that some genes cause variation in both brain and body size, with the result that selection on either trait can lead to a correlated response in the unselected trait. If brain and body size covariation exists in our lineage, correlated evolution could mean that changes observed in the fossil record are poor predictors of past selection pressures that produced those changes. This study shows that modern humans, chimpanzees, and all primates included here have significant and roughly similar levels of evolutionary constraints from brain and body size covariance, arguing that similar levels were present in earlier hominins. Building on these findings, results suggest that strong selection to increase brain size alone played a large role in both brain and body size increases throughout human evolution and may have been solely responsible for the major increase in both traits that occurred during the transition to Homo erectus. This switch in emphasis has major implications for adaptive hypotheses on the origins of our genus.


Ancient mitochondrial DNA provides high-resolution time scale of the peopling of the Americas

Bastien Llamas et al.

Science Advances, April 2016

The exact timing, route, and process of the initial peopling of the Americas remains uncertain despite much research. Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of humans as far as southern Chile by 14.6 thousand years ago (ka), shortly after the Pleistocene ice sheets blocking access from eastern Beringia began to retreat. Genetic estimates of the timing and route of entry have been constrained by the lack of suitable calibration points and low genetic diversity of Native Americans. We sequenced 92 whole mitochondrial genomes from pre-Columbian South American skeletons dating from 8.6 to 0.5 ka, allowing a detailed, temporally calibrated reconstruction of the peopling of the Americas in a Bayesian coalescent analysis. The data suggest that a small population entered the Americas via a coastal route around 16.0 ka, following previous isolation in eastern Beringia for ~2.4 to 9 thousand years after separation from eastern Siberian populations. Following a rapid movement throughout the Americas, limited gene flow in South America resulted in a marked phylogeographic structure of populations, which persisted through time. All of the ancient mitochondrial lineages detected in this study were absent from modern data sets, suggesting a high extinction rate. To investigate this further, we applied a novel principal components multiple logistic regression test to Bayesian serial coalescent simulations. The analysis supported a scenario in which European colonization caused a substantial loss of pre-Columbian lineages.


Impact of meat and Lower Palaeolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans

Katherine Zink & Daniel Lieberman

Nature, 24 March 2016, Pages 500-503

The origins of the genus Homo are murky, but by H. erectus, bigger brains and bodies had evolved that, along with larger foraging ranges, would have increased the daily energetic requirements of hominins. Yet H. erectus differs from earlier hominins in having relatively smaller teeth, reduced chewing muscles, weaker maximum bite force capabilities, and a relatively smaller gut. This paradoxical combination of increased energy demands along with decreased masticatory and digestive capacities is hypothesized to have been made possible by adding meat to the diet, by mechanically processing food using stone tools, or by cooking. Cooking, however, was apparently uncommon until 500,000 years ago, and the effects of carnivory and Palaeolithic processing techniques on mastication are unknown. Here we report experiments that tested how Lower Palaeolithic processing technologies affect chewing force production and efficacy in humans consuming meat and underground storage organs (USOs). We find that if meat comprised one-third of the diet, the number of chewing cycles per year would have declined by nearly 2 million (a 13% reduction) and total masticatory force required would have declined by 15%. Furthermore, by simply slicing meat and pounding USOs, hominins would have improved their ability to chew meat into smaller particles by 41%, reduced the number of chews per year by another 5%, and decreased masticatory force requirements by an additional 12%. Although cooking has important benefits, it appears that selection for smaller masticatory features in Homo would have been initially made possible by the combination of using stone tools and eating meat.

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