Putting a Face to Eva of Naharon, The Oldest Human Relic Found in the Americas

Putting a Face to Eva of Naharon, The Oldest Human Relic Found in the Americas

Eva of Naharon, also known as the Woman of Naharon, is the name given to the oldest known human remains found in the Americas to date. She met her demise in a cenote (sinkhole) some 13,600 years ago, but modern imaging technology has enabled researchers to reconstruct what the prehistoric woman may have looked like.

Archaeology News Network reports that the reconstruction has been made almost two decades after the remains of Eva of Naharon were found in a cenote in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Her body was found by spelunker (cave explorer) and underwater researcher Octavio del Rio in 2001 while he was exploring the Quintana Roo cenotes for an archaeological research project.

A diver in a Yucatan cenote. ( Public Domain )

Eva of Naharon’s skeleton was analyzed by Alejandro Terrazas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Terrazas found that the remains belonged to a woman measuring about 4.6 feet (140.21 cm) tall. She died between the ages of 20-25 years old and mass spectrometry analysis showed that the body is about 13,600 years old. Not much else has been discerned about Eva of Naharon, but other studies have shown people living in Yucatan at the time were hunter-gatherers.

The Mexican National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) sought the expertise of Brazilian 3D designer Cicero Moraes to digitally reconstruct the face of the Woman of Naharon. Moraes used advanced forensic face reconstruction methods to complete the task. Del Rio explained , “The technique basically entails creating a virtual 3D representation from the real skull.”

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Reconstruction process to recreate the face of Eva of Naharon, who would have lived about 13,600 years ago. (Cicero Moraes/ CC BY 4.0 )

Moraes is respected for his work in reconstructing the faces of St. Anthony of Padua and poet Francesco Petrarca as well.

Other skeletons have been found in cenotes across the region, such as the remains of a girl who has been called “Naia” (a Greek water nymph). Naia was 15 to 17 years old when she died about 12,000 years ago. She probably died by falling into Hoyo Negro, a cave that was not underwater at the time.

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Naia’s cranium ( HoyoNegro.org)

Her bones show that Naia’s life was full of hardships. The state of her leg bones suggests she traveled a lot on foot, her very slim build and the state of her teeth have been given as evidence for her poor nutrition, and her pitted pelvis shows she had given birth at a young age.

In total, eight well-preserved skeletons, ranging in age from 9,000 to 13,000 years old have been recovered from cenotes in the region where Eva of Naharon and Naia have been found. Scientists are still unravelling the secrets that they hold, with hopes of achieving more information on how the Americas were first populated.

A cenote in Quintana Roo, Tulum, Mexico. (L uis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/ CC BY SA 3.0 )


    Putting a Face to Eva of Naharon, The Oldest Human Relic Found in the Americas - History

    Archaeologists work to excavate ancient human artifacts at Cooper's Ferry in Western Idaho.

    Loren Davis/Oregon State University

    Ancient human artifacts found in a remote corner of Northwestern Idaho could deliver a major blow to a long-held theory that North America’s first humans arrived by crossing a land bridge connected to Asia before moving south through the center of the continent.

    The artifacts have been dated to as far back as 16,500 years ago, making them the oldest radiocarbon dated evidence of humans in North America, according to research published Thursday in the journal Science.

    The artifacts are part of a trove discovered where Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, now stands. They are a thousand years older than what has previously been considered North America’s most ancient known human remains. Together with dozens of other archaeological sites stretched across the continent, it helps decipher the story of when, and how, humans first arrived.

    "The traditional model is that people came into the New World from northeast Asia and walked across the Bering land bridge, before coming down the middle of the continent in an ice-free corridor," said Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University and the lead author on the study. Those people supposedly brought the technology to make Clovis-type blades and spear points with them, and then spread their shared culture across the continent. That's the model currently taught in most history books.

    The site at Cooper’s Ferry doesn’t fit with this model. For one, the ice-free corridor probably didn’t exist when humans first arrived at Cooper’s Ferry — scientists think it didn’t open up until about 15,000 years ago, which means these early people had to find a different route south. Other early sites challenged this theory, but none were this old, and the oldest were dated with a method considered less precise than radiocarbon dating.

    Ancient humans may have moved by boat down the coast, and turned left up the Columbia, following the river to its tributaries and their eventual home at Cooper's Ferry.

    Teresa Hall/Oregon State University

    “This is another domino in the collapse of the Clovis-first idea and the idea that people walked down an ice-free corridor some 13,500 years ago,” says Todd Braje, an archaeologist at San Diego State University, who was not involved in the study.

    “What’s really interesting about Cooper’s Ferry is that it takes things a little further,” Braje says, “It offers some potential avenues for figuring out these big questions.”

    Braje supports an alternative theory to the ice-free corridor: one where instead of traveling to the New World by land, ancient Americans came by sea. They traveled from Asia to North America by island-hopping and hugged the shore, following a coastal "kelp highway" full of sheltered bays and rich with food. The idea was once controversial, but in recent years it's gained support.

    Just like the ice-free corridor model is supported by a shared technology and shared culture found across a region, the kelp highway hypothesis also has a uniting technology: stemmed points. These are blades, spear points, knives, and cutting tools all manufactured the same way, and are one of the oldest types of projectiles in the world. While stemmed points are plentiful along the coast of Asia, there were very few found at the older sites in North America, and crucially, even fewer found along the coast.

    Of course, if Braje’s kelp highway theory was true, there would be very few archaeological sites along the West Coast of North America: sea levels have risen dramatically since the Ice Age, so any human settlements would have flooded long ago.

    That’s where Cooper’s Ferry comes in.

    OSU’s Davis first began excavating the site in the 1990s. His team uncovered stemmed points and dated them to over 13,000 years ago. At the time, there were no other examples of that technology from that time in history in North America, “we sort of sat in limbo for a time as people argued about what it might mean,” Davis said.

    They resumed excavation in 2009. And in 2017, Davis and his team once again started finding stemmed points. “The radiocarbon dates we were getting started to tell the same story. And then, it started to show they were even older than we realized. That was super surprising.”

    The stemmed points were extremely similar to a type found in Hokkaido, Japan, also dated to around 16,000 years old.

    Combined, Davis said this supports the hypothesis that the first Americans didn’t arrive by land, but by boats.

    Braje agreed, “When you look at the illustration Davis had in there, of stemmed points from Japan, and the kind he was finding at Cooper’s Ferry, it’s really striking and very exciting.” Though it isn’t definitive, he says, it offers new avenues of study.

    Although the site at Cooper’s Ferry is inland and far from the coast, it sits at the conjunction of two major rivers that serve as tributaries to the Columbia. “If you’re traveling south along the West Coast, the Columbia River is pretty much the first left you can take,” Davis said.

    Cooper's Ferry sits on the Salmon River in Idaho, near where it meets the Snake River. People occupied the area for thousands of years.

    Loren Davis/Oregon State University

    It would be easy enough to then follow the river, rich with fish, to the confluence of two of its tributaries, the Snake and Salmon Rivers, and the spot along their banks where Cooper’s Ferry now stands.

    And the ancient people who first settled at this location apparently liked it there: the archaeological site, which contains fire pits full of mammal bones (including enamel from the tooth of an extinct horse) and numerous tools — signs that it was visited by humans for thousands of years. Indeed, the region was known to the Nez Perce Tribe as the site of an ancient village named Nip.

    If humans did arrive in Idaho by following the Columbia, there may be more archaeological sites along the river and its tributaries. There’s just one problem: about 15,000 years ago, the massive, landscape-shaping Missoula Floods swept down the Columbia. They just missed the location where Cooper’s Ferry stands by a few kilometers. Anything downstream at a lower elevation would have been obliterated.

    Davis thinks archaeologists could find more sites by looking at higher-elevation Columbia tributaries, but he has no plans to search for them yet. He’s got ten years’ worth of artifacts from Cooper’s Ferry to go through.


    This 210,000-Year-Old Skull May Be the Oldest Human Fossil Found in Europe

    In the late 1970s, two fossilized human crania were discovered in the Apidima cave in southern Greece. Researchers were somewhat befuddled by the remains they were incomplete and distorted, for one, and had been found without any archaeological context, like stone tools. But because the skulls had been encased in a single block of stone, experts assumed they were the same age and of the same species—possibly Neanderthals.

    Now, a bombshell study published in Nature posits that one of the crania, dubbed “Apidima 1,” in fact belonged to an early modern human that lived 210,000 years ago. The report has been met with skepticism by some experts, but if its conclusions are correct, Apidima 1 represents the oldest Homo sapiens fossil in Europe by some 160,000 years.

    For the past 40-odd years, Apidima 1 and the other cranium, “Apidima 2,” have been held at the University of Athen’s Museum of Anthropology. Scientists there recently reached out to Katerina Harvati, director of paleoanthropology at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, to see if she would be interested in taking a fresh look at the skulls, reports Maya Wei-Haas of National Geographic.

    Harvati and a team of colleagues analyzed the remains using cutting-edge techniques. First, they CT-scanned both fossils and generated 3D reconstructions in an attempt to get a better picture of what the skulls looked like. Though it had been badly damaged over the centuries, Apidima 2 is the more complete fossil it includes the facial region, and the new models affirmed previous research indicating that the specimen belonged to a Neanderthal. Apidima 1 consists of just the back of the crania, but the team’s reconstructions and analyses revealed something surprising: the fossil’s features were consistent not with those of Neanderthals, but with those of modern humans.

    Tellingly, the Apidima 1 fossil lacks a “chignon,” the distinctive bulge at the back of the skull that is characteristic of Neanderthals. The posterior of the skull is also rounded, which “is considered to be a uniquely modern human feature that evolved relatively late,” Harvati tells Ed Yong of the Atlantic. And when the team dated the fossils by analyzing the radioactive decay of trace uranium in the specimens, they got another shock. Apidima 2 was found to be around 170,000 years old, which is consistent with the age of other Neanderthal fossils in Europe. But Apidima 1 was dated to 210,000 years ago, making it by far the oldest Homo sapiens fossil found on the continent.

    “I couldn’t believe it at first,” Harvati tells Yong, “but all the analyses we conducted gave the same result.”

    This discovery may add a wrinkle to the commonly accepted timeline of modern humans’ dispersal from Africa and arrival in Europe. It is widely accepted that our species evolved in Africa—the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils were found in Morocco and date back 315,000 years ago—and first ventured out of the continent between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago. All the while, Neanderthals were evolving in Europe, genetically isolated from other hominid species. Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived on the scene around 45,000 years ago, interbreeding with Neanderthals and eventually emerging as the dominant species.

    But the authors of the new study contend that their findings “support multiple dispersals of early modern humans out of Africa.” Given that no similarly old human fossils have been found in Europe, it is possible that Apidima 1 belonged to a population that could not compete with the continent’s resident Neanderthals, paleoanthropologist Eric Delson writes in a Nature article about the new paper. “Perhaps one or more times, the two species replaced each other as the main hominin group present in this region,” Delson adds.

    There have been signs that other “failed” human groups were migrating out of Africa at a relatively early date. Last year, for instance, researchers announced the discovery of a 175,000 year old jawbone in Israel, which appeared to belong to a member of Homo sapiens. At the time, the specimen was hailed as “by far the oldest human fossil ever uncovered outside Africa.” Apidima 1 is even older, and “indicates that early modern humans dispersed out of Africa starting much earlier, and reaching much further, than previously thought,” the study authors write.

    But not all experts are convinced. Melanie Lee Chang, an evolutionary biologist at Portland State University, tells Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post that Apidima 1 is an “outlier,” and that she is “not willing to sign on to all of [the researchers’] conclusions here.” And Juan Luis Arsuaga, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Madrid, tells National Goegraphic’s Wei-Haas that he is “astonished” by the team’s interpretation of the fossils. Arsuaga was part of a 2017 study that dated Apidima 2 to approximately 160,000 years ago.

    “I cannot see anything suggesting that [Apidima 1] belongs to the sapiens lineage,” he says.

    Even Chris Stringer, a co-author of the study and paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum, acknowledges in an email to Achenbach that the paper represents “challenging new find.”

    “We don’t have the frontal bone, browridge, face, teeth or chin region, any of which could have been less ‘modern’ in form,” Stringer says, though he notes that Apidima 1 “certainly shows the high and rounded back to the skull that is typical only of H. sapiens.”

    DNA analysis would certainly lend some clarity to this debate, but it isn’t always possible to extract DNA from ancient, decaying specimens. According to Delson, palaeoproteomics, or the analysis of ancient proteins preserved in fossils, might be the next best option this technique was recently used to identify a fossil from a Siberian cave as belonging to a Denisovan.

    “Proteins are composed of a sequence of amino acids, and this sequence is coded for in the genome,” Frido Welker, the author of that study explained at the time. “[A]ncient proteins survive longer than DNA, making them a suitable molecular alternative for evolutionary analyses in cases where ancient DNA does not survive.”

    But for now, Delson maintains, studies like the one by Harvati and her team “provide our best handle on the complex history of our species and our close relatives as these populations dispersed out of Africa—from the early, unsuccessful dispersals to the migrations that eventually succeeded.”


    Putting a Face to Eva of Naharon, The Oldest Human Relic Found in the Americas - History

    Become part of our Initiative while visiting Quintana Roo

    IT'S SIMPLE
    Make a Donation and we give you a refillable bottle and access to FREE water in exchange!

    In 2018 about 13.7 million visitors were recorded in QRoo who used a minimum of 75,000 plastic bottles per day or more than 27.4 million plastic bottlesl per year (assuming that each visitor drank ONLY two bottles of water per day)!

    Unfortunately, recycling in this area is not yet considered as a priority and, as a result, at least a third (or more) have ended up somewhere in landfills, our ocean, cenotes, beaches, jungle, and streets! This is why the local community of business owners and individuals in QRoo have launched the “A Message in a Bottle” Initiative with the common goal to help reduce the quantity of plastic bottle trash in this area and worldwide, and to raise awareness about protecting our ecosystems!

    If we want to relieve our Mother Nature of trash it is imperative that we start changing our habits of using disposable plastic water bottles and start filling refillable bottles instead.


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    According to the researchers, the remains discovered by underwater researcher Octavio del Rio still contained about 80 percent of the skeleton’s original structure. Using forensic facial reconstruction techniques, researchers have revealed what she may have looked like in life

    Yucatan’s caves weren’t always underwater towards the end of the Ice Age, rising sea levels swallowed up the area. Eve's bones (shown), however, remained mostly intact more than 70 feet beneath the surface

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    WHAT CAUSED THE COLLAPSE OF THE MAYAN CIVILISATION?

    For hundreds of years the Mayans dominated large parts of the Americas until, mysteriously in the 8th and 9th century AD, a large chunk of the Mayan civilisation collapsed.

    The reason for this collapse has been hotly debated, but now scientists say they might have an answer - an intense drought that lasted a century.

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    The theory that a drought led to a decline of the Mayan Classic Period is not entirely new, but the new study co-authored by Dr André Droxler from Rice University in Texas provides fresh evidence for the claims.

    The Maya who built Chichen Itza came to dominate the Yucatan Peninsula in southeast Mexico, shown above, for hundreds of years before dissappearing mysteriously in the 8th and 9th century AD

    Dozens of theories have attempted to explain the Classic Maya Collapse, from epidemic diseases to foreign invasion.

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    And they also found that a second drought hit from 1000 to 1100 AD, corresponding to the time that the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá collapsed.

    Researchers say a climate reversal and drying trend between 660 and 1000 AD triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall sociopolitical instability, and finally, political collapse - known as the Classic Maya Collapse.

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    The details of her are largely a mystery, though the people living in Yucatan at the time she was alive were known to be hunter-gatherers.

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    Scientists say they have found the oldest right-handed human

    New research suggests right-handedness in humans goes back at least 1.8 million years.

    Nine out of every 10 people dominantly use their right hands, but most animals don't appear to have a handedness.

    Little is known about the origins of handedness, but researchers say they have found the earliest right-handed person, and it's not a Homo sapiens.

    An H. habilis who lived in what is now Tanzania some 1.8 million years ago appears to also have favored his or her right hand, according to new research published Thursday in the Journal of Human Evolution.

    Until this study, the earliest evidence of right-handedness appeared in Neanderthals and their earlier relatives from about 430,000 years ago, Debra Guatelli-Steinberg, an anthropologist at Ohio State University who was not part of the study, explains. "This is an exciting paper because it strongly suggests right-handed tool use in early Homo around 1.8 million years ago."

    But how can researchers figure out from just bones if an individual was right or left-hand dominant, or if they were handed at all?

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    David Frayer, a paleoanthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, had noticed distinctive scratches on the teeth of the H. habilis fossil when it was first described over a decade ago. These grooves are on the lip-side face of the early human's front teeth and most of them appear to be slanting downward from left to right as if something had been dragged down across them from the right.

    Dr. Frayer, along with an international team of colleagues, decided to take a closer look at what might have created these marks. They found that the scratches were consistent with those left on mouth guards in experiments where subjects used their teeth as a sort of "third hand" while cutting meat or another tough material.

    The scenario goes something like this: The early human had to hold tough meat in place to cut it up into smaller pieces that were easier to chew, so held one end of the meat in their left hand and the other with their front teeth. Then, with his or her right hand, the individual sliced at the meat using a sharp stone tool. But when the right hand slipped, the tool would have scraped across the person's front teeth, leaving predominantly diagonal grooves much like those spotted by Frayer and his colleagues.

    When the first H. habilis fossils were found, the species was dubbed "handy man" because, at the time, it was thought to be the first stone tool maker. "It's interesting that 'handy man' was handed," Frayer says with a laugh in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

    Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University who was not part of the study, cautions that Frayer and his colleagues might be jumping to conclusions too quickly. "My concern is that they really don't spend enough time on other explanations for these phenomena, the presence of these scratches and their directionality," Dr. Wood says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "It's a really interesting observation that only time will tell whether that observation has been over-interpreted."

    Frayer points out that the team tallied 559 marks on the teeth and almost 47 percent align with what would be expected to be produced by this right-handed behavior. In contrast, he says, just about 11 percent appear to have been produced by a left-handed cutting motion.

    Still, this is just one individual H. habilis, and Wood says the findings would be more profound if found in a population of the species.

    Dr. Guatelli-Steinberg agrees. "While [this] specimen indicates right-handed tool use, we will need larger samples from early Homo to assess the frequency of handedness in these hominins—that is the more interesting question from the standpoint of understanding how far back the modern human predilection for right-hand use can be pushed back into time," she writes in an email to the Monitor.

    If researchers were to find evidence of handedness in more H. habilis fossils, that could perhaps tell them something about the evolution of this trait.

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    Some researchers have suggested that handedness arose out of a restructuring of the brain (which they also say led to the rise of language) that happened in early humans and their relatives. If that is so, Frayer suggests, then finding evidence of handedness in H. habilis could help researchers confirm that correlation.

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    A 130,000-Year-Old Mastodon Threatens to Upend Human History

    To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

    San Diego Natural History Museum Paleontologist Don Swanson pointing at rock fragment near a large horizontal mastodon tusk fragment. San Diego Natural History Museum

    To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

    In 1993, construction workers building a new freeway in San Diego made a fantastic discovery. A backhoe operator scraped up a fossil, and scientists soon unearthed a full collection of bones, teeth, and tusks from a mastodon. It was a valuable find: hordes of fossils, impeccably preserved. The last of the mastodons—a slightly smaller cousin of the woolly mammoth—died out some 11,000 years ago.

    But the dig site turned out to be even more revelatory—and now, with a paper in the journal Nature—controversial. See, this site wasn't just catnip for the paleontologists, the diggers who study all fossils. It soon had archaeologists swooping in to study a number of stone tools scattered around the bones, evidence of human activity. After years of debate over the dating technology used on the mastodon, a group of researchers now believes that they can date it and the human tools to 130,000 years ago—more than 100,000 years earlier than the earliest humans are supposed to have made it to North America.

    The researchers expect a bit of controversy from a discovery that pushes back the arrival of humans in North America by a factor of ten. Nature itself put together this video featuring a leading British critic of the paper. Still, lead author Steven Holen, co-director of the Center for American Paleolithic Research is confident that his colleagues have done their homework. “I was skeptical myself,” he says. "But it's definitely an archaeological site."

    This discovery—and the inevitable pushback it will face—center on the power and peril of dating technology. After more than two decades, researchers were finally able to nail down the mastodon’s age with a more advanced kind of chemical dating. But the paper also reveals the limits of that technology in solving ancient archaeological puzzles. Tech can tell you how old things are, but now how they got there or who used them.

    Unbroken mastodon ribs and vertebrae, including one vertebra with a large well preserved neural spine found in excavation unit J4.

    San Diego Natural History Museum

    There are many ways to date fossils—and a lot of them didn’t work for the mastodon skeleton. Radiocarbon dating was the first no-go. The technique uses carbon 14 as a clock of sorts after an organism dies, carbon 14 uptake stops, and it begins to decay at a constant and predictable rate. But the mastodon fossils were so old that they didn’t contain any collagen, the dominant organic component of bones carrying that carbon 14.

    There’s also a technique called optically stimulated luminescence, which detects the last time quartz sediments around the bone were exposed to sunlight. It can only be used if the material isn’t exposed to light, leading some paleontologists to cover up samples as they work. That’s the method that James Paces of the US Geological Survey used to date mammoth bones from Snowmass, Colorado, a site where he met Holen and became interested in the San Diego mastodon. Holen's group used luminescence on the San Diego bones—but it only told them that they were older than 60,000 years. The quartz sediments were so saturated that they weren't useful.

    Finally, the group tried a newer method called uranium-thorium dating, which measures how quickly naturally occurring uranium in bones decays to its daughter isotope of thorium. “Both techniques—uranium and luminescence—are widely used,” said Paces, another author on the Nature paper. “Sometimes one will work better than the other depending on the environment.” Uranium-thorium won out. The mastodon bones had held on to enough thorium that the researchers could finally placed the bones to 131,000 years ago, plus or minus 9,000 years.

    So far, so good. “The job of dating is convincing,” says Warren Sharp, a geochronologist at the Berkeley Geochronology Center who is an expert in uranium-thorium dating. But now the trouble begins, as the researchers try to figure out the relationship between the bones and the human tools scattered around them at the site.

    The evidence for early humans messing with the bones is strong. The San Diego specimens have bones that fractured in a spiral pattern and other markings that indicate someone broke them soon after the animals were killed. The researchers even took giant rock hammers to elephant bones in Africa to replicate the prehistoric smash party, showing that that fresh bones do actually fracture this way. More than that, the rock tools had markings indicating they were used to excavate the bones' nutritious marrow, and the scientists say the marked-up rocks could not have been pushed there by wind or water.

    Now the big unknown is whether the bones were broken by a person more than 100,000 years earlier than we thought possible, or somehow dug up and broken more recently. “The crux of the arguments is whether those bones had to be broken when they were fresh,” says Sharp, who admits that he’s not an archaeologist. “That’s the only way to associate the bone date with presence of humans.”

    There's certainly reason to believe the timing lines up. Fossilized bones fall apart after losing the collagen that keeps fresh bones strong, says Paces. “As soon as it goes away as part of the fossilization process,” he says, “you are left with an old dry bone, and it busts up in a different way.” But there's no way of dating the tools from the mastodon site with the same precision. Researchers will never have the same degree of quantitative certainty about when early humans encountered their mastodon meal.

    Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southamton (UK) and dating expert, thinks additional finds of early human activity in North America will back up the paper’s conclusions. “It is rare that archaeology adopts a single instance of dating as a benchmark, and the smoking gun usually comes from a second, third, or fourth instance of something similar,” Pike writes in an e-mail to WIRED. “I doubt that these individuals butchered just one mastodon ever, so this is our cue to go look for more.”

    More mastodon bones with chisel marks would be good, but 130,000-year-old human fossils would be better. Thomas Demere, curator of paleontology at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, and an author on the new paper, excavated the original site 25 years ago. He notes that there are additional bone beds protected by a freeway sound berm. The answer to this mystery might just lie under a San Diego neighborhood.


    Book of Mormon Elephants In America!

    Joseph Smith Benjamin Franklin and National Geographic all agree!
    Elephants no doubt resided in America!

    According to American Indian legend, their last oral record of a Mastodon killing was around 1730. So Ben Franklin having found a Mastodon tooth and Book of Mormon claims of elephants could well be so!

    A Science Update 7/26/2014 confirms Native American legend that man and Mastodon seemed to live together.


    The Oldest Human Fossils Ever Discovered Have Stories to Tell

    An adult mandible unearthed in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Fossils discovered there paint a surprising picture of the multicultural, migratory past of our species. PHOTOGRAPH BY JEAN-JACQUES HUBLIN / MPI-EVA

    The first fossil skeleton of a human ever discovered was found, in 1823, in southern Wales, ceremonially buried under six inches of soil in a limestone cave facing the sea. William Buckland, the Oxford geologist who unearthed it, didn’t know what he had come upon. Buckland had been busy exploring caves in England and Germany, noting the loamy soils and the animal bones they contained as indications of “the last great convulsion that has affected our planet’’—the Biblical flood, he meant. In Goat’s Hole Cave, in Wales, he found the bones of a hyena, a bear, a rhinoceros, an elephant (actually a mastodon), deer, rats, and birds, and roughly half of a human skeleton, which had been stained with red ochre and laid to rest with periwinkle shells and an assortment of ivory rods and broken armlets. At first, Buckland thought it was a man—perhaps a taxman killed by smugglers—but then he decided that it was a woman, maybe a fortune-teller, or a witch, or a prostitute from the days of the Roman occupation. He called her the Red Lady of Paviland. Whoever she’d been, Buckland wrote, she was “clearly postdiluvian,” a relatively recent deposit.

    Only much later was the Lady revealed to be a man after all, and, in 2009, after decades of effort, scientists determined that the skeleton is thirty-three thousand years old—the oldest human remains ever found in Britain. By now, of course, we know that the history of our species is far more ancient, although the evolutionary tree keeps changing shape and sprouting limbs. For a while, it was thought that modern humans, who were present in Europe by at least forty thousand years ago, descended from Neanderthals, which have been known and recognized as separate creatures since the nineteenth century. In fact, though, Neanderthals were our cousins we shared a common ancestor, and our populations overlapped until about forty thousand years ago, when, probably, we drove them extinct. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, a series of spectacular fossil discoveries made it clear that Homo sapiens arose in Africa. We didn’t shuffle off the continent until a hundred and twenty thousand years ago or less, but it turns out that earlier hominins, Homo erectus, had been spilling out of there for ages already, making stone tools and, eventually, fires.

    The further back we place ourselves in the Paleolithic, the busier the place seems to get—and the less unique we appear to have been. Today, the story got even richer. In a paper in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers announced that they have pushed back the date of the earliest human remains to three hundred thousand years ago. And the specimens in question were found not in East Africa, which has become synonymous with a sort of paleoanthropological Garden of Eden, but clear on the other side of the continent—and the Sahara—in Morocco. “We’re not claiming that Morocco is the cradle of modern humankind,” the lead author, Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said at a press conference yesterday. Rather, he added, our emergence as a species was pan-African. “There is no Garden of Eden in Africa—or if there is, it’s Africa,” Hublin said. “The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa.”

    The site in question, Jebel Irhoud, is part of a network of caves that lies about sixty miles west of Marrakesh. In 1960, a mining operation unearthed an array of animal and human bones there, including a nearly complete hominin skull. But the remains were a puzzle—they were initially dated at forty thousand years old and thought to be Neanderthal, not human. Maybe this was a far-flung outpost of the European populations, the occupant a Neanderthal Robinson Crusoe. In 1968, a child’s jawbone was found the teeth suggested that it belonged to Homo sapiens, and improved dating techniques put it at a hundred and sixty thousand years old. Maybe this was a human site after all, a backwater branch of those early Homo sapiens in East Africa. In 2004, Hublin and his colleagues began to excavate in earnest, and brought the total number of hominin bones to twenty-two. All came from the same stratigraphic layer. Once the researchers had analyzed them, Hublin said, “the dates were a big wow.”

    Jebel Irhoud, a network of caves that lies about sixty miles west of Marrakesh, Morocco. PHOTOGRAPH BY SHANNON MCPHERRON / MPIE-EVA

    PHOTOGRAPH BY SHANNON MCPHERRON / MPIE-EVA

    In 1823, when William Buckland discovered the Red Lady of Paviland, part of what misled him about its age—in addition to his own inability to envisage “antediluvian” humans—was its appearance. Morphologically, a thirty-thousand-year-old specimen of Homo sapiens is all but identical to one walking around today. A persistent question among paleoanthropologists is how far back this similarity goes. Modern humans are distinguishable from, say, Neanderthals by our flatter, more delicate faces and our more globular crania, which encase larger and more complex brains. How closely did the earliest humans resemble us in this regard? How quickly did we come to look the way we do?

    To approach an answer, Hublin’s team used a tomography scanner to examine the Irhoud fossils and compare them with other examples from around the world. This revealed “a series of features that are basically indistinguishable from those in modern humans,” Hublin said. The face was remarkably similar, short and retracted below the brow. “It’s the face of people you could cross in the street today,” he said. The skull, however, was flatter and more elongated­—that’s the feature that has changed most since our days in Irhoud, likely in response to a series of genetic mutations that are known to have improved our brain organization, connectivity, and development. “It was face first, brain after,” Hublin said. John Fleagle, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University, told me, “If you take a human skull and enumerate fifteen things that make it ‘human,’ this thing”—the three-hundred-thousand-year-old Homo sapiens—“has five or six of them. It doesn’t have the full shebang.”

    But, even with that flatter skull, a human from the early days wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, Hublin told me: “In the street you see a lot of different things, eh?” (He added, however, that their “robust” musculature “probably would be the most frightening feature.”) The scientific literature sometimes draws a distinction between recent modern humans and early modern humans—R.M.H. and E.M.H.—but Hublin cautioned against thinking of these as actual separate categories. We’re all one species, very slowly evolving. “There is no gap, no break point, in the lineage leading from Irhoud to us,” he said.

    As the number of fossil Homo sapiens continues to grow, and as their images proliferate in the literature alongside those of Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo naledi, and the other members of the budding genus, we start to look less human and more like every other animal in the animal kingdom. The one trait that we think of as most distinctively human, beyond our fine cheekbones and impressive cerebellum, is the stuff we make, our culture—paintings, beads, figurines, and everything that followed. But this is all relatively recent—within the past hundred thousand years or so—and not unique to us. The Neanderthals used pigments, collected bird feathers, and buried objects with their dead in March, scientists revealed a raven bone that had been aesthetically carved by a Neanderthal, roughly forty thousand years ago.

    In any case, there was a long period—two hundred thousand years, it now appears—during which “human culture” involved only stone tools, as with pretty much every other Paleolithic hominin. Were we like them, or were they like us? We were all subject to the same pressures, and we navigated the same environmental shifts. Africa has seen enormous fluctuations in climate in the past few hundred thousand years, Hublin observed. More than once, the northeast limit of the summer monsoon has moved north, essentially replacing the Sahara with grasslands rich in the kind of wildlife—gazelle, wildebeest, zebra, big cats—whose remains were found in the Irhoud cave. “That is absolutely gigantic,” Hublin said. “The Sahara is the size of the United States, an area that stretches from Tanzania to Morocco. And it happened again and again. It blows our minds.”

    Such episodes would have connected previously isolated regions of Africa, enabling early humans to occasionally disperse across the continent, perhaps in pursuit of migratory game. There would have been relations, a regular exchange of genes, a diversifying, pan-African people. The Paleolithic era starts to sound almost multicultural. Hublin noted that a green-Sahara period occurred around three hundred thousand years ago, just prior to the date of the Irhoud site. The researchers speculate that Irhoud may have been a hunting camp, a pit stop on a longer journey it’s clear that the flint in the tools found there came from miles away. It’s also clear that paleoanthropologists will need to expand their search beyond East Africa, which, it now seems, may be considered the cradle of humankind mostly because it’s so rich in specimens. “There’s a lot of rocks of the right age and a lot of bones to find,” Fleagle told me. Have we been looking for our keys under the street lamp, because that’s where the light is?

    Hublin emphasized that identifying the oldest known human remains doesn’t mean they were the first—far from it. Phylogenetic studies indicate that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals last shared a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, about six hundred and fifty thousand years ago, so our species won’t turn out to be older than that. Still, he said, “what happened in Africa between six hundred thousand and four hundred thousand years ago is basically unknown.”


    Watch the video: Nicole Krauss in conversation With Tali Lavi