Ancient Wisdom

Kevin Lewis

March 21, 2020

Hunter-gatherer multilevel sociality accelerates cumulative cultural evolution
Andrea Migliano et al.
Science Advances, February 2020


Although multilevel sociality is a universal feature of human social organization, its functional relevance remains unclear. Here, we investigated the effect of multilevel sociality on cumulative cultural evolution by using wireless sensing technology to map inter- and intraband social networks among Agta hunter-gatherers. By simulating the accumulation of cultural innovations over the real Agta multicamp networks, we demonstrate that multilevel sociality accelerates cultural differentiation and cumulative cultural evolution. Our results suggest that hunter-gatherer social structures [based on (i) clustering of families within camps and camps within regions, (ii) cultural transmission within kinship networks, and (iii) high intercamp mobility] may have allowed past and present hunter-gatherers to maintain cumulative cultural adaptation despite low population density, a feature that may have been critical in facilitating the global expansion of Homo sapiens.

Mother's social status is associated with child health in a horticulturalist population
Sarah Alami et al.
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 11 March 2020


High social status is often associated with greater mating opportunities and fertility for men, but do women also obtain fitness benefits of high status? Greater resource access and child survivorship may be principal pathways through which social status increases women's fitness. Here, we examine whether peer-rankings of women's social status (indicated by political influence, project leadership, and respect) positively covaries with child nutritional status and health in a community of Amazonian horticulturalists. We find that maternal political influence is associated with improved child health outcomes in models adjusting for maternal age, parental height and weight, level of schooling, household income, family size, and number of kin in the community. Children of politically influential women have higher weight-for-age (B = 0.33; 95% CI = 0.12–0.54), height-for-age (B = 0.32; 95% CI = 0.10–0.54), and weight-for-height (B = 0.24; 95% CI = 0.04–0.44), and they are less likely to be diagnosed with common illnesses (OR = 0.48; 95% CI = 0.31–0.76). These results are consistent with women leveraging their social status to enhance reproductive success through improvements in child health. We discuss these results in light of parental investment theory and the implications for the evolution of female social status in humans.

Insights into human genetic variation and population history from 929 diverse genomes
Anders Bergström et al.
Science, 20 March 2020


Genome sequences from diverse human groups are needed to understand the structure of genetic variation in our species and the history of, and relationships between, different populations. We present 929 high-coverage genome sequences from 54 diverse human populations, 26 of which are physically phased using linked-read sequencing. Analyses of these genomes reveal an excess of previously undocumented common genetic variation private to southern Africa, central Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, but an absence of such variants fixed between major geographical regions. We also find deep and gradual population separations within Africa, contrasting population size histories between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist groups in the past 10,000 years, and a contrast between single Neanderthal but multiple Denisovan source populations contributing to present-day human populations.



Ostrich eggshell bead strontium isotopes reveal persistent macroscale social networking across late Quaternary southern Africa
Brian Stewart et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming 


Hunter-gatherer exchange networks dampen subsistence and reproductive risks by building relationships of mutual support outside local groups that are underwritten by symbolic gift exchange. Hxaro, the system of delayed reciprocity between Ju/’hoãn individuals in southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, is the best-known such example and the basis for most analogies and models of hunter-gatherer exchange in prehistory. However, its antiquity, drivers, and development remain unclear, as they do for long-distance exchanges among African foragers more broadly. Here we show through strontium isotope analyses of ostrich eggshell beads from highland Lesotho, and associated strontium isoscape development, that such practices stretch back into the late Middle Stone Age. We argue that these exchange items originated beyond the macroband from groups occupying the more water-stressed subcontinental interior. Tracking the emergence and persistence of macroscale, transbiome social networks helps illuminate the evolution of social strategies needed to thrive in stochastic environments, strategies that in our case study show persistence over more than 33,000 y.

Evidence of Cosmic Impact at Abu Hureyra, Syria at the Younger Dryas Onset (~12.8 ka): High-temperature melting at >2200 °C
Andrew Moore et al.
Scientific Reports, March 2020


At Abu Hureyra (AH), Syria, the 12,800-year-old Younger Dryas boundary layer (YDB) contains peak abundances in meltglass, nanodiamonds, microspherules, and charcoal. AH meltglass comprises 1.6 wt.% of bulk sediment, and crossed polarizers indicate that the meltglass is isotropic. High YDB concentrations of iridium, platinum, nickel, and cobalt suggest mixing of melted local sediment with small quantities of meteoritic material. Approximately 40% of AH glass display carbon-infused, siliceous plant imprints that laboratory experiments show formed at a minimum of 1200°–1300 °C; however, reflectance-inferred temperatures for the encapsulated carbon were lower by up to 1000 °C. Alternately, melted grains of quartz, chromferide, and magnetite in AH glass suggest exposure to minimum temperatures of 1720 °C ranging to >2200 °C. This argues against formation of AH meltglass in thatched hut fires at 1100°–1200 °C, and low values of remanent magnetism indicate the meltglass was not created by lightning. Low meltglass water content (0.02–0.05% H2O) is consistent with a formation process similar to that of tektites and inconsistent with volcanism and anthropogenesis. The wide range of evidence supports the hypothesis that a cosmic event occurred at Abu Hureyra ~12,800 years ago, coeval with impacts that deposited high-temperature meltglass, melted microspherules, and/or platinum at other YDB sites on four continents.

From pack animals to polo: Donkeys from the ninth-century Tang tomb of an elite lady in Xi'an, China
Songmei Hu et al.
Antiquity, forthcoming


Donkeys facilitated trade and transport in much of the ancient world, but were seldom used in elite or leisure activities. While Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) texts indicate that noble women played polo riding donkeys, this has never been documented archaeologically. Here, the authors present the first archaeological evidence of the significance of donkeys for elite Tang women through analyses of donkey remains recovered from the tomb of a Tang noblewoman in Xi'an, China. These findings broaden our understanding of the donkey's historic roles beyond simple load bearing.

Dairy pastoralism sustained eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5,000 years
Shevan Wilkin et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 2020, Pages 346–355


Dairy pastoralism is integral to contemporary and past lifeways on the eastern Eurasian steppe, facilitating survival in agriculturally challenging environments. While previous research has indicated that ruminant dairy pastoralism was practiced in the region by circa 1300 BC, the origin, extent and diversity of this custom remain poorly understood. Here, we analyse ancient proteins from human dental calculus recovered from geographically diverse locations across Mongolia and spanning 5,000 years. We present the earliest evidence for dairy consumption on the eastern Eurasian steppe by circa 3000 BC and the later emergence of horse milking at circa 1200 BC, concurrent with the first evidence for horse riding. We argue that ruminant dairying contributed to the demographic success of Bronze Age Mongolian populations and that the origins of traditional horse dairy products in eastern Eurasia are closely tied to the regional emergence of mounted herding societies during the late second millennium BC.

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