Last month the story was that Neanderthals and ancient humans interbred in southern Europe hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought, totally upending the out-of-Africa theory which had held that one small band left Africa around 100,000 years ago and became the basis for all of us today. Now people must talk of more than one out-of-Africa migration. And apparently, too, it wasn’t just Neanderthals that mingled with ancient hominids – Denisovians did too, and maybe others as well. NOW comes evidence that modern humans reached Australian over 65,000 years ago, 18,000 years earlier than previously thought. This means they sailed across the open sea in boats, out of sight of land, enough of them to start a community and then a continent-wide occupation. Could it be that the tectonic plates of human origins are cracking, and shifting? Is the out-of-Africa theory under siege? A theory, once accepted, is defended like death. But true science sometimes shatters theories. Must shatter theories.
I am waiting, eagerly, for the first documented find of ancient humans, people who lived more than 50,000 years ago, somewhere on North or South America. Just because no evidence has yet been found (that has been verified) does not mean no evidence exists.
The battle – and it is a battle, always – over the theories as to the development of modern humans seems to be taking a major turn. For the last 40 years, more or less, the theory has held that modern man arose in northeastern Africa and from there populated the earth. This is the Out of Africa theory. Just recently – see the article below – a major find in northwestern Africa, fully across the continent from Ethopia and the east coast, has turned theories of modern humanity’s origins on its head. Yes, they are still talking about Out of Africa, but this find upsets everything in many ways, and the ramifications won’t emerge for months, maybe years. I think we are on the precipice of a NEW theory of modern human origins, but cannot even guess what it might be….
The bear is, in many cultures, a totem animal, a being of power and wisdom. The largest bears today are either Polar Bears or the Alaskan Brown Bear. They can weigh up to 1700 pounds. Bears are omnivorous – they can eat anything, and usually do – berries, small mammals, certain plants, and of course fish, salmon. I have seen bears in the wild a few times, usually black bears, which if not with cubs are relatively harmless and safe. Once I was hiking alone on the Skyline Trail in Olympic National Park, miles form anyone else and up high, and a magnificent black bear, so black its coat shone purple, rose thirty years down the slope from me, facing me, watching. We stared at each other for a long time. Then the bear shrugged and turned back downhill.
A bear once roamed North America that was the largest land mammal predator that ever lived, anywhere on earth. This was the short face bear. This bear weighed over a ton, stood 12 feet high, could reach as high as 15 feet, could run 40 miles an hour, and only ate meat. This great bear went extinct 12,000 years ago, when the ice age ended, when all the other great animals – the dire wolf, the American lion, the mammoth, the mastodon – disappeared as well. There was a period when we humans lived alongside short face bears – a short time if current theories of human migration to North America over the land bridge are believed, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago – or a long time, maybe thousands of years, if you believe humans have been in North America for 60,000, 80,000 even 150,000 years. And this means that humans had to survive, clothe ourselves, capture food, and find shelter, while these carnivorous bears roamed the land.
Imagine running into one of these. This is an accurate reproduction of a short face bear, with me standing before it to show scale, that was displayed in the Victoria Canada Royal Museum last fall. Just think about it. This is what leapt into the tale I was writing. I had to deal with it. It wasn’t easy.
A new article published in Science Magazine, and discussed on the Blog Ancient Origins, reveals that it may now be possible to extract ancient hominid DNA from the dirt in caves, and hence determine which humans may have used the cave, without needing skeletal evidence. Check out this article. I think the field is about to really bury us with new information, from all over the world, which will totally upend long held theories….for example, what if they now find Neanderthal and Erectus DNA in caves in Oregon or British Columbia? Just saying….
DNA Can Now be Extracted from Dirt! New Tech May Solve Many Mysteries of Human Origins
An amazing technological innovation in the study of DNA has been called a ‘game changer’ in the research into ancient humans and hominids. It may solve many of the mysteries that exist in relation to the origins of humans and could completely rewrite our family tree.
A new study published in the journal Science has revealed a technique that can extract human and hominid DNA from dirt – no bones needed! This means that by simply taking half a teaspoon of soil from a cave and running it through the new analysis, scientists will know if species of ancient hominids lived in that cave and who or what they were.
“This is pretty damn incredible,” said Rob Scott, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers. Tom Higham, an Oxford professor who specializes in dating bones, called the discovery a “new era in Paleolithic archaeology.”
Paul Kozowyk, a PhD student working under the supervision of Marie Soressi, collecting sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Les Cottés, France. Credit: Marie Soressi.
Scientists have known for over a decade that DNA, which may have come from urine, feces, sweat, blood, semen or a decomposed body, can survive in ancient sediments, even for hundreds of thousands of years, but they had no way to analyze it. Just a teaspoon of dirt can contain trillions of fragments of DNA from dozens of different species.
However, research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that they could cut through the clutter with a molecular ‘hook’ made from the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans. This means that essentially, they were able to pull out the fragments of DNA that specifically belonged to a human or hominid species.
The scientific team collected 85 sediment samples from seven archeological sites in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia and Spain, covering a span of time from 550,000 to 14,000 years ago. With the new method, they were able to capture DNA fragments from Neanderthals and Denisovans, an enigmatic human ancestor that so far has only been found in single cave in Russia. They even identified Neanderthal DNA in a cave in Belgium where no bones had ever been found.
Denisova Cave in Russia, where the only trace of Denisovan DNA has been found (CC by SA 4.0)
“By isolating DNA directly from sediments, we can dramatically expand what we know about where people were, when they got there, and how long they stayed,” Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told ScienceMag.
It is expected that the new technique will now become a standard method of analysis in the field of archaeology, much like radiocarbon dating. The next step will be to examine archaeological sites that have stone tools but no evidence of who made them. Many mysteries can now be solved.
“It could also reveal even more hominid species that we have not found bones for,” reports SmithsonianMag, “creating an even more complete human family tree.”
Top image: Vindija Cave in Croatia where Neanderthal DNA was found in cave sediment (CC by SA 2.0)
I think the howling, posturing, and great ruffling of academic feathers is about to seriously begin. It was one thing for a spear point in a Mastadon bone found in Sequim, Washington to be dated to 13,800 years ago, well before the supposed “Clovis” first human arrivals theory of 12,000 years ago. Then there’s a site up in the Yukon which recently verified findings over 24,000 years old, contested, of course. But NOW here is an article about Mastadon bones found in California, broken apart by humans for use and food, dated to 130,000 years ago. That was back during the Eemian warm period between glaciations 120,000 – 130,000 years ago, when sea levels were 20 feet higher than today, the weather 2 degrees C warmer…If this is true, if these dates hold, human evolutionary theory and paradigms will totally shift.
I’m just waiting for that totally verified 80,000 year old site emerging somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state with a modern human skeleton….whenever I’m out there, hiking, I’m looking for it, and some day it will appear. I know this.
Check out this article about worldwide trends over the last 200 years as regards human health, life expectancy, extreme poverty, and disease. In this current moment of “the sky is falling, we are doomed, everything is going to hell, the word is about to END” (sadly, this last might be true if military posturing results in miscalculation) it might be useful to see what the arc of several aspects of human health and life shows…..I know, I know, the next comments will be, “yeah, but…what about all the refugees, and wars, and resource constraints, and climate change?” Life is complex. But now and then maybe it’s a good thing to look at some real data over time, just to get perspective. Lord knows, we need a little of that, it seems…
Samples taken from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean, 10,000 meters deep, by hydrothermic vents, indicate that living organisms might exist as much as four miles deeper, well within the rock and vent structure. The attached link cautions these findings may be incorrect, but raise the intriguing possibility that life might thrive deep in the earth’s mantle,far from oxygen but in the presence of water. This has fascinating implications for the chances of life on other planets, not to mention the implications for our own planet…
Check out this article about the exciting work the Hakai Institute has been doing up in British Columbia, furthering the theory that the first people who visited North America came along the coast, and arrived earlier than current dogma holds….This institute and the archeologist Daryl Fedje have been doing groundbreaking work, work that is shifting the entire paradigm of human presence in the Western Hemisphere…