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Concept: Prehistory


Anthropological and genetic data agree in indicating the African continent as the main place of origin for anatomically modern humans. However, it is unclear whether early modern humans left Africa through a single, major process, dispersing simultaneously over Asia and Europe, or in two main waves, first through the Arab Peninsula into southern Asia and Oceania, and later through a northern route crossing the Levant.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Asia, Human evolution, Prehistory, Archaic Homo sapiens, Humans, Homo sapiens idaltu


Analysis of organic residues in pottery vessels has been successful in detecting a range of animal and plant products as indicators of food preparation and consumption in the past. However, the identification of plant remains, especially grain crops in pottery, has proved elusive. Extending the spectrum is highly desirable, not only to strengthen our understanding of the dispersal of crops from centres of domestication but also to determine modes of food processing, artefact function and the culinary significance of the crop. Here, we propose a new approach to identify millet in pottery vessels, a crop that spread throughout much of Eurasia during prehistory following its domestication, most likely in northern China. We report the successful identification of miliacin (olean-18-en-3β-ol methyl ether), a pentacyclic triterpene methyl ether that is enriched in grains of common/broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), in Bronze Age pottery vessels from the Korean Peninsula and northern Europe. The presence of millet is supported by enriched carbon stable isotope values of bulk charred organic matter sampled from pottery vessel surfaces and extracted n-alkanoic acids, consistent with a C4 plant origin. These data represent the first identification of millet in archaeological ceramic vessels, providing a means to track the introduction, spread and consumption of this important crop.

Concepts: Poaceae, Cereal, Neolithic, Crops, Archaeology, Prehistory, Bronze Age, Millet


The earliest cranial surgery (trepanation) has been attested since the Mesolithic period. The meaning of such a practice remains elusive but it is evident that, even in prehistoric times, humans from this period and from the Neolithic period had already achieved a high degree of mastery of surgical techniques practiced on bones. How such mastery was acquired in prehistoric societies remains an open question. The analysis of an almost complete cow cranium found in the Neolithic site of Champ-Durand (France) (3400-3000 BC) presenting a hole in the right frontal bone reveals that this cranium underwent cranial surgery using the same techniques as those used on human crania. If bone surgery on the cow cranium was performed in order to save the animal, Champ-Durant would provide the earliest evidence of veterinary surgical practice. Alternatively, the evidence of surgery on this cranium can also suggest that Neolithic people practiced on domestic animals in order to perfect the technique before applying it to humans.

Concepts: Human, Skull, Meaning of life, Neolithic, Paleolithic, Holocene, Stone Age, Prehistory


Fossil evidence points to an African origin of Homo sapiens from a group called either H. heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis. However, the exact place and time of emergence of H. sapiens remain obscure because the fossil record is scarce and the chronological age of many key specimens remains uncertain. In particular, it is unclear whether the present day ‘modern’ morphology rapidly emerged approximately 200 thousand years ago (ka) among earlier representatives of H. sapiens or evolved gradually over the last 400 thousand years. Here we report newly discovered human fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and interpret the affinities of the hominins from this site with other archaic and recent human groups. We identified a mosaic of features including facial, mandibular and dental morphology that aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans and more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology. In combination with an age of 315 ± 34 thousand years (as determined by thermoluminescence dating), this evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established. Furthermore, it shows that the evolutionary processes behind the emergence of H. sapiens involved the whole African continent.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Africa, Human evolution, Prehistory, Archaic Homo sapiens, Humans, Homo sapiens idaltu


Prehistoric dental treatments were extremely rare, and the few documented cases are known from the Neolithic, when the adoption of early farming culture caused an increase of carious lesions. Here we report the earliest evidence of dental caries intervention on a Late Upper Palaeolithic modern human specimen (Villabruna) from a burial in Northern Italy. Using Scanning Electron Microscopy we show the presence of striations deriving from the manipulation of a large occlusal carious cavity of the lower right third molar. The striations have a “V”-shaped transverse section and several parallel micro-scratches at their base, as typically displayed by cutmarks on teeth. Based on in vitro experimental replication and a complete functional reconstruction of the Villabruna dental arches, we confirm that the identified striations and the associated extensive enamel chipping on the mesial wall of the cavity were produced ante-mortem by pointed flint tools during scratching and levering activities. The Villabruna specimen is therefore the oldest known evidence of dental caries intervention, suggesting at least some knowledge of disease treatment well before the Neolithic. This study suggests that primitive forms of carious treatment in human evolution entail an adaptation of the well-known toothpicking for levering and scratching rather than drilling practices.

Concepts: Human, Teeth, Dental caries, Scanning electron microscope, Tooth enamel, Paleolithic, Stone Age, Prehistory


The timing and location of the emergence of our species and of associated behavioural changes are crucial for our understanding of human evolution. The earliest fossil attributed to a modern form of Homo sapiens comes from eastern Africa and is approximately 195 thousand years old, therefore the emergence of modern human biology is commonly placed at around 200 thousand years ago. The earliest Middle Stone Age assemblages come from eastern and southern Africa but date much earlier. Here we report the ages, determined by thermoluminescence dating, of fire-heated flint artefacts obtained from new excavations at the Middle Stone Age site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, which are directly associated with newly discovered remains of H. sapiens. A weighted average age places these Middle Stone Age artefacts and fossils at 315 ± 34 thousand years ago. Support is obtained through the recalculated uranium series with electron spin resonance date of 286 ± 32 thousand years ago for a tooth from the Irhoud 3 hominin mandible. These ages are also consistent with the faunal and microfaunal assemblages and almost double the previous age estimates for the lower part of the deposits. The north African site of Jebel Irhoud contains one of the earliest directly dated Middle Stone Age assemblages, and its associated human remains are the oldest reported for H. sapiens. The emergence of our species and of the Middle Stone Age appear to be close in time, and these data suggest a larger scale, potentially pan-African, origin for both.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Human evolution, Prehistory, Hominini


More than 1500 fossils from the Rising Star cave system in South Africa have been assigned to a new human species, Homo naledi, which displays a unique combination of primitive and derived traits throughout the skeleton.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Africa, Species, Chromosome, Mammal, Charles Darwin, Prehistory


To date, the earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa are dated to around 90,000 to 120,000 years ago at the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh. A maxilla and associated dentition recently discovered at Misliya Cave, Israel, was dated to 177,000 to 194,000 years ago, suggesting that members of the Homo sapiens clade left Africa earlier than previously thought. This finding changes our view on modern human dispersal and is consistent with recent genetic studies, which have posited the possibility of an earlier dispersal of Homo sapiens around 220,000 years ago. The Misliya maxilla is associated with full-fledged Levallois technology in the Levant, suggesting that the emergence of this technology is linked to the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, as has been documented in Africa.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Thought, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Prehistory, Megafauna, Homo sapiens idaltu


Landscapes and features of the everyday world were scarcely represented in Paleolithic art, especially those features associated with the human landscape (huts and campsites). On the contrary, other figurative motifs (especially animals) and signs, traditionally linked to the magic or religious conceptions of these hunter-gatherer societies, are the predominant themes of Upper Paleolithic art. This paper seeks to present an engraved schist slab recently found in the Molí del Salt site (North-eastern Iberia) and dated at the end of the Upper Paleolithic, ca. 13,800 years ago. This slab displays seven semicircular motifs that may be interpreted as the representation of dome-shaped huts. The analysis of individual motifs and the composition, as well as the ethnographic and archeological contextualization, suggests that this engraving is a naturalistic depiction of a hunter-gatherer campsite. Campsites can be considered the first human landscape, the first area of land whose visible features were entirely constructed by humans. Given the social meaning of campsites in hunter-gatherer life-styles, this engraving may be considered one of the first representations of the domestic and social space of a human group.

Concepts: Human, Meaning of life, Anthropology, Human evolution, Prehistory, Landscape, Upper Paleolithic, Behavioral modernity


The destructive distillation of birch bark to produce tar has recently featured in debates about the technological and cognitive abilities of Neandertals and modern humans. The abilities to precisely control fire temperatures and to manipulate adhesive properties are believed to require advanced mental traits. However, the significance given to adhesive technology in these debates has quickly outgrown our understanding of birch bark tar and its manufacture using aceramic techniques. In this paper, we detail three experimental methods of Palaeolithic tar production ranging from simple to complex. We recorded the fuel, time, materials, temperatures, and tar yield for each method and compared them with the tar known from the Palaeolithic. Our results indicate that it is possible to obtain useful amounts of tar by combining materials and technology already in use by Neandertals. A ceramic container is not required, and temperature control need not be as precise as previously thought. However, Neandertals must have been able to recognize certain material properties, such as adhesive tack and viscosity. In this way, they could develop the technology from producing small traces of tar on partially burned bark to techniques capable of manufacturing quantities of tar equal to those found in the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record.

Concepts: Human, Cognition, Science, Thought, Distillation, Neolithic, Prehistory, Destructive distillation