Humans hunted for meat 2 million years ago
Evidence from ancient butchery site in Tanzania shows early man was capable of ambushing herds up to 1.6 million years earlier than previously thought
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 23 September 2012
Ancient humans used complex hunting techniques to ambush and kill antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest and other large animals at least two million years ago. The discovery – made by anthropologist Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University – pushes back the definitive date for the beginning of systematic human hunting by hundreds of thousands of years.
Two million years ago, our human ancestors were small-brained apemen and in the past many scientists have assumed the meat they ate had been gathered from animals that had died from natural causes or had been left behind by lions, leopards and other carnivores.
But Bunn argues that our apemen ancestors, although primitive and fairly puny, were capable of ambushing herds of large animals after carefully selecting individuals for slaughter. The appearance of this skill so early in our evolutionary past has key implications for the development of human intellect.
"We know that humans ate meat two million years ago," said Bunn, who was speaking in Bordeaux at the annual meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE). "What was not clear was the source of that meat. However, we have compared the type of prey killed by lions and leopards today with the type of prey selected by humans in those days. This has shown that men and women could not have been taking kill from other animals or eating those that had died of natural causes. They were selecting and killing what they wanted."
That finding has major implications, he added. "Until now the oldest, unambiguous evidence of human hunting has come from a 400,000-year-old site in Germany where horses were clearly being speared and their flesh eaten. We have now pushed that date back to around two million years ago."
The hunting instinct of early humans is a controversial subject. In the first half of the 20th century, many scientists argued that our ancestors' urge to hunt and kill drove us to develop spears and axes and to evolve bigger and bigger brains in order to handle these increasingly complex weapons. Extreme violence is in our nature, it was argued by fossil experts such as Raymond Dart and writers like Robert Ardrey, whose book African Genesis on the subject was particularly influential. By the 80s, the idea had run out of favour, and scientists argued that our larger brains evolved mainly to help us co-operate with each other. We developed language and other skills that helped us maintain complex societies.
"I don't disagree with this scenario," said Bunn. "But it has led us to downplay the hunting abilities of our early ancestors. People have dismissed them as mere scavengers and I don't think that looks right any more."
In his study, Bunn and his colleagues looked at a huge butchery site in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The carcasses of wildebeest, antelopes and gazelles were brought there by ancient humans, most probably members of the species Homo habilis, more than 1.8 million years ago. The meat was then stripped from the animals' bones and eaten.
"We decided to look at the ages of the animals that had been dragged there," said Benn. "By studying the teeth in the skulls that were left, we could get a very precise indication of what type of meat these early humans were consuming. Were they bringing back creatures that were in their prime or were old or young? Then we compared our results with the kinds of animals killed by lions and leopards."
The results for several species of large antelope Bunn analysed showed that humans preferred only adult animals in their prime, for example. Lions and leopards killed old, young and adults indiscriminately. For small antelope species, the picture was slightly different. Humans preferred only older animals, while lions and leopards had a fancy only for adults in their prime.
"For all the animals we looked at, we found a completely different pattern of meat preference between ancient humans and other carnivores, indicating that we were not just scavenging from lions and leopards and taking their leftovers. We were picking what we wanted and were killing it ourselves."
Bunn believes these early humans probably sat in trees and waited until herds of antelopes or gazelles passed below, then speared them at point-blank range. This skill, developed far earlier than suspected, was to have profound implications. Once our species got a taste for meat, it was provided with a dense, protein-rich source of energy. We no longer needed to invest internal resources on huge digestive tracts that were previously required to process vegetation and fruit, which are more difficult to digest. Freed from that task by meat, the new, energy-rich resources were then diverted inside our bodies and used to fuel our growing brains.
As a result, over the next two million years our crania grew, producing species of humans with increasingly large brains – until this carnivorous predilection produced Homo sapiens.
Oldest ivory workshop in the world discovered in Saxony-Anhalt
26 September 2012
Excavations at the mammoth hunting site of Breitenbach near Zeitz uncover 35,000 year old ivory workshop
In an international co-operation project, archaeologists from the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for the Evolution of Hominin Behaviour, part of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, (RGZM) and the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege and Archäologie in Saxony-Anhalt are excavating the 35,000 year old site of Breitenbach, close to Zeitz in Saxony-Anhalt. Other co-operation partners are the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Leiden (NL), the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (ArchPro) in Vienna, the Institute of Geoinformatics i3mainz of the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz as well as the Institutes of Geosciences at the universities of Mainz, Tübingen and Cologne.
During this year’s campaign, site directors Dr. Olaf Jöris and Tim Matthies and their team found the oldest evidence for clearly distinct working areas which are interpreted as standardized workshops for working mammoth ivory. It was possible to identify a zone where pieces of ivory were split into lamella, as well as a second area where the pieces had been carved and their waste had been discarded. Some ivory beads and rough outs of unfinished products were also found amongst this debris, alongside several other ivory objects, including a decorated rod and fragments of a three-dimensionally modified object, very likely an object of art. The manufacturers were early modern humans similar to ourselves, who obtained mammoth ivory which had probably lain around at this site for some time, either from the carcasses of mammoths which had died here naturally or from the bodies of the victims of expert hunters. In the case of the latter scenario, the mammoths could have been hunted by modern humans or even by Neanderthals, since Neanderthals had only become extinct a few thousand years before the site was occupied by modern humans.
The clear spatial deposition of the finds in different working areas allows us to draw conclusions about the use of space at around 35,000 years ago, a concept apparently still unknown to Neanderthals.
The settlement at Breitenbach covers an area of at least 6,000 m2 and perhaps as much as 20,000 m2, making it one of the largest sites of the younger Palaeolithic period (Upper Palaeolithic) known to date. The first archaeological excavations were carried out in the 1920’s; the more recent campaigns have investigated some 70 m2 of the site. Many students from 25 countries have helped to excavate the site. Close to 3,000 finds have been recovered so far in this year alone.
Finds comparable in age to the ones from Breitenbach are most commonly found in caves, where the utilisation of space was governed by the natural formation of the cave walls. This led to restrictions on, and compromises by, the cave inhabitants. In addition, the same areas of caves were repeatedly inhabited over a long period of time, superimposed over and often blurring details of earlier settlement remains. In the open, as at Breitenbach, humans had the possibility to organise their space more or less free of restrictions or preconditions and establish structures which allow us to reconstruct the daily life of this period at the highest resolution.
Field work at Breitenbach has provided new insights into the spatial activities of people at the beginning of the younger Old Stone Age (Upper Palaeolithic), especially into the spatial organisation of settlement sites and thus of daily life during the Aurignacian at around 40,000-34,000 years ago. This is ultimately of great importance for our understanding of the roots of modern human behaviour itself, since indications for “organizing oneself”in a well-defined and regulated manner which we are accustomed to today, are recognized for the first time worldwide through the new features discovered at the site of Breitenbach.
Due to the unparalleled large size of the settlement area, the Breitenbach site offers a unique opportunity to undertake a detailed investigation of an open site of the Aurignacian period. This will enable us to gain new insights into the complexity and spatial organisation of an early Upper Palaeolithic settlement site, where evidence of personal adornment, art, music or even burials, which are to date hardly known from this period, can also be expected.
La Bastida (Totana, Murcia) Unearths Impressive 4,200-Year-Old Fortification, Unique in Continental Europe
27 September 2012 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
- Similar characteristics have not been observed in other constructions of the Bronze Age, with three-metre thick walls, square towers originally measuring up to seven metres, a monumental entrance and an ogival arched postern gate; a fully conserved architectural element unique in Europe in that period.
- The wall protected a city measuring 4 hectares located on top of a hill. With architectural elements reminiscent of people with Eastern styled military skills, its model is typical of ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, such as the second city of Troy.
- The alignment and characteristics reveal a shrewd defence strategy which represented a new way of fighting, and the implementation of a violent and class-based power structure which conditioned the development of other communities in the Iberian Peninsula during the following seven centuries.
- The discovery poses new questions about what is known of the origin of economic and political inequalities in Europe, the formation of the military and the role violence played in the formation of identities.
- The discoveries made in the past few years at La Bastida point to the importance of this site in Prehistoric Europe, comparable only to the Minoan civilisation of Crete, and represent a strong addition to the projection of heritage in the region of Murcia, Spain and Europe in general.
The archaeological excavations carried out this year at the site of La Bastida (Totana, Murcia) have shed light on an imposing fortification system, unique for its time. The discovery, together with all other discoveries made in recent years, reaffirm that the city was the most advanced settlement in Europe in political and military terms during the Bronze Age (ca. 4,200 years ago -2,200 BCE-), and is comparable only to the Minoan civilisation of Crete.
The discovery was presented today by Pedro Alberto Cruz Sánchez, Secretary of Culture of the Region of Murcia and Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and director of the excavation. The event also included the presence of Iván Martínez Flores, executive administrator of the research and head of the UAB Area for Strategic Projects.
The fortification consisted of a wall measuring two to three metres thick, built with large stones and lime mortar and supported by thick pyramid-based towers located at short distances of some four metres. The original height of the defensive wall was approximately 6 or 7 metres. Until now six towers have been discovered along a length of 70 metres, although the full perimeter of the fortification measured up to 300 metres. The entrance to the enclosure was a passageway constructed with strong walls and large doors at the end, held shut with thick wooden beams.
One of the most relevant architectural elements discovered is the ogival arched postern gate, or secondary door, located near the main entrance. The arch is in very good conditions and is the first one to be found in Prehistoric Europe. Precedents can be found in the second city of Troy (Turkey) and in the urban world of the Middle East (Palestine, Israel and Jordan), influenced by the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This indicates that people from the East participated in the construction of the fortification. These people would have reached La Bastida after the crisis which devastated their region 4,300 years ago. It was not until some 400 to 800 years later that civilisations like the Hittites and Mycenaeans, or city-states such as Ugarit, incorporated these innovative methods into their military architecture.
A Construction Designed for Combat
The fortification of La Bastida is an impressive construction due to its monumentality, the expertise demonstrated in architecture and engineering, its antiquity and because it helps us today to learn about such a distant past which is also easily recognisable in the present.
It also represents an innovation in the art of attacking and defending fortifications, especially on the military front. The construction was designed solely for military purposes, by people experienced in fighting methods unknown in those times to the West.
The towers and exterior walls denote advanced knowledge of architecture and engineering, with slopes of over 40 per cent. The lime mortar used offered exceptional solidity to the construction, strongly holding the stones and making the wall impermeable, as well as eliminating any elements attackers could hold on to.
The postern gate, as a hidden and covered entrance, demanded great planning of the defensive structure as a whole and of the correct engineering technique to fit it perfectly into the wall.
Continental Europe’s First Bronze Age City
The latest excavations and the result of Carbon 14 dating indicate that La Bastida was probably the most powerful city of Europe during the Bronze Age and a fortified site since it was first built, in circa 2,200 BCE, with a defence system never before seen in Europe.
The fortification was not the only discovery made. From 2008 to 2011, excavations unearthed large residences measuring over 70 square metres distributed throughout the city's four hectares. These large houses and public buildings were alternated with other smaller constructions, all separated by entries, passageways and squares. A large pool held by a 20-metre dyke with a capacity for almost 400,000 litres of water also clearly denotes that the city's population was of a complexity and that it used advanced techniques incomparable to other cities of its time.
The discoveries made at La Bastida reveal a military, political and social rupture: the establishment of a violent and classist ruling society, which lasted seven centuries and conditioned the development of other communities living in the Iberian Peninsula. Overall, archaeologists are redefining what is known of the origin of economic and political inequalities in Europe, as well as military institution and the role played by violence in the formation of identities.
A Unique Archaeological Park in Spain
The excavations at La Bastida are directed by the Research Group in Mediterranean Social Archaeoecology (ASOME) of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), formed by lecturers Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Cristina Rihuete and Roberto Risch. The research group receives the support and funding of the Department of Culture Regional Cultural Ministry of Murcia, the UAB, and the Totana City Council. The Spanish Ministries of Industry, Trade and Tourism, and of Economics and Competitiveness also give financial support to the project.
La Bastida will be systematically excavated with the aim of becoming a unique archaeological park open to the public and consisting in a monographic museum, a research and documentation centre, and part of the site open to visitors. Advancing and maintaining this project will depend on the commitment shown by the different public institutions and social agents taking part in the excavation of La Bastida.
More information on La Bastida:
Ancient Stinging Nettles Reveal Bronze Age Trade Connections
ScienceDaily (Sep. 28, 2012)
A piece of nettle cloth retrieved from Denmark's richest known Bronze Age burial mound Lusehøj may actually derive from Austria, new findings suggest. The cloth thus tells a surprising story about long-distance Bronze Age trade connections around 800 BC.
2,800 years ago, one of Denmark's richest and most powerful men died. His body was burned. And the bereaved wrapped his bones in a cloth made from stinging nettle and put them in a stately bronze container, which also functioned as urn.
Now new findings suggest that the man's voyage to his final resting place may have been longer than such voyages usually were during the Bronze Age: the nettle cloth, which was wrapped around the deceased's bones, was not made in Denmark, and the evidence points to present-day Austria as the place of origin.
"I expected the nettles to have grown in Danish soil on the island of Funen, but when I analysed the plant fibres' strontium isotope levels, I could see that this was not the case," explains postdoc Karin Margarita Frei from the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen.
"The levels indicate that the nettles grew in an area with geologically old bedrock. We can only find rock with similar levels of strontium isotope in Sweden and Norway as well as in Central Europe."
Karin Margarita Frei had to conclude that Bronze Age Danes did not use local stinging nettle for their nettle textiles.
Strontium tells us where we come from
It is Karin Margarita Frei who has developed the method to determine plant textiles' strontium isotope levels that has led to the surprising discovery.
Strontium is an element which exists in Earth's crust, but its prevalence is subject to geological and topographical variation. Humans, animals, and plants absorb strontium through water and food. By measuring the strontium level in archaeological remains, researchers can determine where humans and animals lived, and where plants grew.
The new discovery is the result of a collaboration between an international team of researchers from the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, the University of Bergen in Norway, and the National Museum of Denmark. The findings are described in an article that has just been published in Nature's online journal Scientific Reports.
Made in Austria
Karin Margarita Frei's work and the grave's archaeological remains suggest that the cloth may have been produced as far away as the Alps.
A bronze container, which had been used as urn, is of Central European origin and probably from the Kärnten-Steiermark region in Austria. The strontium isotope analysis of the cloth indicates that it may very well be from the same region. This assumption is supported by yet incomplete analyses of pitch found in the Lusehøj grave.
Textile archaeologist Ulla Mannering from the National Museum of Denmark offers an explanation as to how an Austrian cloth ended up in Funen, Denmark.
"Bronze Age Danes got their bronze from Central Europe, and imports were controlled by rich and powerful men. We can imagine how a bronze importer from Funen in Denmark died on a business trip to Austria. His bones were wrapped in an Austrian nettle cloth and placed in a stately urn that his travel companions transported back to Denmark," Ulla Mannering suggests.
Nettles made good textile
The strontium isotope analyses have surprised Ulla Mannering.
She concludes on the basis of the analyses that Central Europeans still used wild plants for textile production during the Bronze Age while at the same time cultivating textile plants such as flax on a large scale. Nettle textiles could apparently compete with textiles made from flax and other materials because top quality nettle fabrics are as good as raw silk.
The strontium isotope analyses also mean that Danish textile history needs revision.
"Until recently the Lusehøj nettle cloth was the oldest nettle cloth we knew, and the only Bronze Age nettle cloth, but with our new findings we actually have no evidence that nettle textiles were produced in Denmark at all during the Bronze Age," Ulla Mannering points out.
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of Copenhagen.
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.
C. Bergfjord, U. Mannering, K. M. Frei, M. Gleba, A. B. Scharff, I. Skals, J. Heinemeier, M. -L Nosch, B. Holst. Nettle as a distinct Bronze Age textile plant. Scientific Reports, 2012; 2 DOI: 10.1038/srep00664
Out of this world: Buddhist statue made from meteorite
September 27, 2012 by Filed Under: News
A 1,000-year-old Buddhist statue taken from Tibet by Nazi scientists is the first-known carving of a human figure made from a meteorite, newly-published research says.
With stylistic links to the 11th century Bön culture, the sculpture is thought to depict the Buddhist god Vaisravana.
Despite measuring just 24cm in height, the object weighs 10kg (22lb). Now geochemical analysis by the University of Stuttgart, published in Meteoritics and Planetary Science, has revealed that the artefact is made of ataxite, a rare class of iron meteorite with a high nickel content.
‘The statue is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved into a meteorite,’ said project-leader Dr Elmar Buchner, from the university’s Institute of Planetology. ’It was chiseled from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago.’
He told CWA: ‘Stylistically, it is not absolutely typical for Buddhist or pre-Buddhist art, but during the 11th century there was a style of religious art in the Himalayan area, that can be described as a hybrid style between the two. It was called Bön culture, and this figure is typical of that style.
There are similar figurative illustrations of gods – and also of local dignitaries – from the 11th century, made from wood, stone or other material – but not of a meteorite!’
Called the ‘Iron Man’, the statue was brought to Germany by an SS-backed expedition investigating the origins of Aryanism in Tibet in 1938-1939. It is not known exactly how or where the statue was found, but the large swastika carved into the centre of the figure – an ancient symbol representing good fortune – may have encouraged the team to take it with them. After decades in a private collection, the artefact became available for study following an auction in 2009.
Meteorites have inspired veneration in a number of cultures, from Inuits in Greenland to the aboriginal peoples of Australia. The Black Stone in the Kaaba (the building circled by Muslim pilgrims during the Hajj) at Mecca is also believed to be a stony meteorite.
Weatherwatch: Climate helped Genghis Khan create the Mongol empire
The Guardian, Sunday 23 September 2012 22.30 BST
Lush grasslands helped Genghis Khan fuel his armies in their conquest of Asia and parts of Europe. Photograph: North Wind Picture Archives /Alamy
The Mongol empire in the 13th century conquered great swaths of Asia, the Middle East and even parts of Europe at staggering speed, but how did Genghis Khan and his armies manage to conquer so much and so fast? The answer may lie in some ancient dead trees found recently in an old volcanic lava flow in Mongolia. The trees were so well preserved that their annual growth rings were still visible and gave an astonishing insight into the climate of the 1200s. The wood rings were spaced wide apart showing that the trees grew well, thanks to plenty of rain. And because the trees did well, the chances are that the grasslands of the vast Mongolian plains also grew lush in the wet climate. Those rich grasslands would have fuelled the Mongol armies, giving plenty of grazing land for the thousands of horses that the troops relied on, and livestock to feed the soldiers.
But the tree rings also showed a sudden lurch into much colder, drier conditions around 1258, when the trees hardly grew. This was around the time the Mongol empire began to fall apart and the Mongols moved their capital into what is now Beijing. It was part of a global climate event, and a recent archaeological dig in London revealed that a catastrophic famine struck England at the same time, leading to thousands of deaths. The downturn in climate was caused by a massive volcanic eruption that blanketed the globe in ash and cut down sunlight across the world.