Category: Origins

The Bear

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.



Amazing new information

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

(Read the article on one page)

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.

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

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)

By April Holloway

Ancient humans in North America?

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…


Evidence of life 6km below the sea floor?

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…


This is fantastic research!!!

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…


Even MORE Ancient Seafaring..

There is an argument about whether Neanderthals were the same species as we humans, and even more, were they “modern” in that they had art, culture, could talk, used paint, etc? Many believe these people are a separate line that died out or were killed off by modern humans. This article below makes a rather compelling argument that Neanderthals could voyage by boat across the sea a good distance, miles and miles. As a former fisherman and sailor, I am here to tell you that if these people could sail the sea, they were modern in nearly all respects. And if they could sail the sea, they could have traveled anywhere. Think about it…

Neanderthals On A Boat

Earlier Human Presence Americas?

PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169486. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169486

Earliest Human Presence in North America Dated to the Last Glacial Maximum: New Radiocarbon Dates from Bluefish Caves, Canada

Burgeon, Lauriane, Ariane Burke, and Thomas Higham

The timing of the first entry of humans into North America is still hotly debated within the scientific community. Excavations conducted at Bluefish Caves (Yukon Territory) from 1977 to 1987 yielded a series of radiocarbon dates that led archaeologists to propose that the initial dispersal of human groups into Eastern Beringia (Alaska and the Yukon Territory) occurred during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). This hypothesis proved highly controversial in the absence of other sites of similar age and concerns about the stratigraphy and anthropogenic signature of the bone assemblages that yielded the dates. The weight of the available archaeological evidence suggests that the first peopling of North America occurred ca. 14,000 cal BP (calibrated years Before Present), i.e., well after the LGM. Here, we report new AMS radiocarbon dates obtained on cut-marked bone samples identified during a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the Bluefish Caves fauna. Our results demonstrate that humans occupied the site as early as 24,000 cal BP (19,650 ± 130 14C BP). In addition to proving that Bluefish Caves is the oldest known archaeological site in North America, the results offer archaeological support for the “Beringian standstill hypothesis”, which proposes that a genetically isolated human population persisted in Beringia during the LGM and dispersed from there to North and South America during the post-LGM period.


As science moves into 2017, the proponents of the early peopling of the Americas are jubilating again. It used to be that the professional integrity of a New World archaeologist was achieved by making claims such as “dozens, even scores of sites failed to withstand critical scrutiny” (Meltzer, David. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, p. 11). Geneticists were calibrating their molecular clock by the “secure” dates of the peopling of the Americas furnished to them by archaeologists who attributed the founding migration of Paleoindians from East Asia to the emergence of Clovis culture in North America some 13,000 years ago. Students of world mythology were imagining how Asian myths traveled with people down the putative ice-free corridor into the southern parts of North America.

Then, the academic ice suddenly started to melt. Monte Verde, Buttermilk Creek, Paisley Caves, Page-Ladson and Monte Verde again (Dillehay, T. et al. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile.” PLoS ONE 10(12): e0145471) – all documented the presence of humans in the New World prior to the Clovis times. The ice-free corridor turned out to have been biologically unviable for passing until several hundred years after Clovis (Pedersen, M. W. et al. “Postglacial viability and colonization in North America’s ice-free corridor.”Nature 537 (2016): 45-9). Most importantly, Amerindian genes were detected at the Mal’ta site in Western Siberia as early as 24,000 YBP. Finally, ground-breaking and paradigm-changing archaeological and paleobiological evidence is sometimes so fragmentary (a finger and a tooth in the case of the Denisovan site) that it takes long time and brand-new technologies to actually recover it.

The skeptical community quickly regrouped and argued that Mal’ta DNA (MA-1) documented not the migration of ancient Amerindians into Asia, but the moment when genetic proto-Amerindians began to segregate from one of their Old World antecedents. This is because there were supposedly no archaeological sites in North America as old as Mal’ta. And archaeology has established it beyond reasonable doubt.

Well, this out-of-archaeology logic was again flawed. Burgeon et al. (2016) have just furnished evidence that humans were present in the New World at exactly the same time as Mal’ta. Bluefish Caves in the northern Yukon Territory (Canada) was excavated from 1977 to 1987 by Jacques Cinq-Mars’s team. They claimed to have found evidence for cultural modification of animal and bird bones. Buergeon et al. (2016) confirmed and expanded their findings.

“We recorded a total of fifteen bone samples with cultural modifications confidently attributable to human activities (N = 10 in Cave I and N = 5 in Cave II), based on morphological and morphometrical criteria, and twenty more samples with “probable” cultural modifications for a total of less than 1% of the faunal remains… Different activities are attested including skinning, dismembering and defleshing. Cut marks were observed on horse (Equus lambei), caribou (Rangifer tarandus), wapiti (Cervus elaphus), and possibly Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) and bison (Bison priscus), and include a previously published bird scapula.”

There can be little doubt about the antiquity of these cut marks and about their human origin.

“It is highly unlikely that the cut marks observed on the Bluefish Caves faunal material were generated by nonhuman agents or natural processes. In Cave II, the horse mandible (J7.8.17) and a caribou pelvis (I5.6.5) date the human presence to the LGM, ca. 24–22,000 cal BP. The traces identified on these bones are clearly not the result of climatoedaphic factors or carnivore activity. The presence of multiple, straight and parallel marks with internal microstriations observed on both specimens eliminates carnivores as potential agents. The relatively high breadth ratio (12 and 18 μm, respectively), as well as the depth (91 and 95 μm, respectively) and opening angle (144 and 139 μm, respectively) that we measured are in the range of marks produced by stone tools reported by experimental and archaeological studies; the breadth ratio also differs from marks produced by carnivore teeth. Sedimentary abrasion or trampling are also eliminated since the caribou coxal bone shows no other signs of abrasion and the long, parallel striae on the horse mandible are simply too regular. Furthermore, the anatomical location and orientation of the marks are consistent with filleting marks in the case of the caribou bone, while the presence of multiple cut marks on the medial side of the horse mandible indicates the removal of the tongue. Previous cementochronological analysis of one of the teeth from this mandible indicated that the animal was killed in spring/summer, thus suggesting a human presence in Cave II during the warm season.”

Interestingly, the paucity of the specimens with cut mark at the Bluefish Caves site is not the reason to doubt the veracity of the site. In fact, it reflects objective cultural and climatic realities.

“The small percentage of cut-marked bones at Bluefish Caves I and II is not surprising. Our taphonomic analysis suggests that natural processes, particularly root etching and scavenging activities, may have destroyed some of the evidence of human activity. In other Beringian archaeological sites dated to the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene, taphonomic studies show that cut marks are scarce (less than 1%) or even absent in bone assemblages highly affected by natural processes.”

This is strikingly similar to the Monte Verde II situation: ancient Amerindian cultural signatures were associated with highly perishable organic materials.

Another tantalizing tidbit of information:

“Furthermore, the Bluefish Caves, like other Beringian cave sites, were probably only used occasionally as short-term hunting sites. Thus, they differ from the open-air sites of the Tanana valley in interior Alaska and the Little John site in the Yukon Territory, where hearth features, large lithic collections, bone tools and animal butchery have been identified, reflecting different cultural activities and a relatively longer-term, seasonal occupation.”

This could reflect seasonality but the frequency of cut marks could also mean that at 24,000 YBP human populations in those latitudes were chronically small and diffused. And this fits nicely with molecular evidence for low heterozygosity and high Fst among Amerindians. Considering that such East Eurasian hominin populations with Mid-Pleistocene roots as Neandertals and Denisovans – a potential source for modern humans under the out-of-America II hypothesis – were even more genetically homogeneous than contemporary Amerindians, the Amerindian demographic profile may not represent an outcome of a random recent bottleneck (as the Clovis archaeological horizon would have it) but a more ancient and systemic demographic reality.

Burgeon et al. (2016) believe that the Bluefish Caves site supports the Beringian Standstill hypothesis. It’s unlikely, however, that a single find can support any specific scenario. The Bluefish Caves site’s impact is deeper than that. What it does prove is that 1) humans were in the New World as early as 24,000 YBP, which means no later than the earliest molecular signs of Amerindians detected in the Old World (MA-1); 2) archaeological evidence for older and older sites in America grows with time; 3) archaeology is a moving target as far as establishing the earliest horizons of human habitation in a particular area of the world; 4) the older the site in America the harder it is and the longer it takes to isolate cultural signatures because those signatures are found on perishable materials used by small, highly mobile and isolated populations.

Thanks to German Dziebel for this link