Kevin Lewis

July 06, 2024

Narrative cave art in Indonesia by 51,200 years ago
Adhi Agus Oktaviana et al.
Nature, forthcoming

Previous dating research indicated that the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is host to some of the oldest known rock art. That work was based on solution uranium-series (U-series) analysis of calcite deposits overlying rock art in the limestone caves of Maros-Pangkep, South Sulawesi. Here we use a novel application of this approach -- laser-ablation U-series imaging -- to re-date some of the earliest cave art in this karst area and to determine the age of stylistically similar motifs at other Maros-Pangkep sites. This method provides enhanced spatial accuracy, resulting in older minimum ages for previously dated art. We show that a hunting scene from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, which was originally dated using the previous approach to a minimum of 43,900 thousand years ago (ka), has a minimum age of 50.2 ± 2.2 ka, and so is at least 4,040 years older than thought. Using the imaging approach, we also assign a minimum age of 53.5 ± 2.3 ka to a newly described cave art scene at Leang Karampuang. Painted at least 51,200 years ago, this narrative composition, which depicts human-like figures interacting with a pig, is now the earliest known surviving example of representational art, and visual storytelling, in the world. Our findings show that figurative portrayals of anthropomorphic figures and animals have a deeper origin in the history of modern human (Homo sapiens) image-making than recognized to date, as does their representation in composed scenes.

Evidence for an earlier Magdalenian presence in the Lone Valley of southwest Germany
Benjamin Schürch et al.
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, forthcoming

After the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) people associated with the Magdalenian resettled Central Europe, which had been uninhabited, or very sparsely inhabited, during the LGM. The precise timing and origin of this resettlement, however, remain unclear. We present new data from the Lone Valley of the Swabian Jura in southwestern Germany to improve our spatial and temporal understanding of this resettlement. Our work focuses on two Paleolithic sites: Vogelherd, a well-known cave originally excavated in 1931, and Langmahdhalde, a rock shelter approximately 2 km from Vogelherd that has been excavated since 2016. We report radiocarbon dates associated with the Magdalenian from both sites, lithic and organic artifact analysis from Vogelherd, and zooarchaeological, microfaunal, and preliminary lithic data from Langmahdhalde. These results reveal an earlier presence of people in the Lone Valley than previously thought, dating to before the Upper Magdalenian, while providing an improved paleoecological context of this resettlement. The available data suggest ephemeral use of the Lone Valley between ca. 19,500 and 16,500 cal yr BP, followed by regular occupation of the region. Our study highlights the advantages of bringing together data from multiple sites that are close together and were used during the same time in the past. In this case, the data from each site compliments each other and allows us to gain important insights into the Paleolithic settlement dynamics of southwestern Germany.

Ancient Plasmodium genomes shed light on the history of human malaria
Megan Michel et al.
Nature, 4 July 2024, Pages 125–133

Malaria-causing protozoa of the genus Plasmodium have exerted one of the strongest selective pressures on the human genome, and resistance alleles provide biomolecular footprints that outline the historical reach of these species1. Nevertheless, debate persists over when and how malaria parasites emerged as human pathogens and spread around the globe. To address these questions, we generated high-coverage ancient mitochondrial and nuclear genome-wide data from P. falciparum, P. vivax and P. malariae from 16 countries spanning around 5,500 years of human history. We identified P. vivax and P. falciparum across geographically disparate regions of Eurasia from as early as the fourth and first millennia BCE, respectively; for P. vivax, this evidence pre-dates textual references by several millennia. Genomic analysis supports distinct disease histories for P. falciparum and P. vivax in the Americas: similarities between now-eliminated European and peri-contact South American strains indicate that European colonizers were the source of American P. vivax, whereas the trans-Atlantic slave trade probably introduced P. falciparum into the Americas. Our data underscore the role of cross-cultural contacts in the dissemination of malaria, laying the biomolecular foundation for future palaeo-epidemiological research into the impact of Plasmodium parasites on human history. Finally, our unexpected discovery of P. falciparum in the high-altitude Himalayas provides a rare case study in which individual mobility can be inferred from infection status, adding to our knowledge of cross-cultural connectivity in the region nearly three millennia ago.

A history of olive and grape cultivation in Southwest Asia using charcoal and seed remains
Katleen Deckers et al.
PLoS ONE, June 2024

Evaluating archaeobotanical data from over 3.9 million seeds and 124,300 charcoal fragments across 330 archaeological site phases in Southwest Asia, we reconstruct the history of olive and grape cultivation spanning a period of 6,000 years. Combining charcoal and seed data enables investigation into both the production and consumption of olive and grape. The earliest indication for olive and grape cultivation appears in the southern Levant around ca. 5000 BC and 4th millennium BC respectively, although cultivation may have been practiced prior to these dates. Olive and grape cultivation in Southwest Asia was regionally concentrated within the Levant until 600 BC, although there were periodic pushes to the East. Several indications for climate influencing the history of olive and grape cultivation were found, as well as a correlation between periods of high population density and high proportions of olive and grape remains in archaeological sites. While temporal uncertainty prevents a detailed understanding of the causal mechanisms behind these correlations, we suggest that long distance trade in olives, grapes and their associated products was integral to the economic, social, and demographic trajectories of the region.

Middle and Late Pleistocene Denisovan subsistence at Baishiya Karst Cave
Huan Xia et al.
Nature, forthcoming

Genetic and fragmented palaeoanthropological data suggest that Denisovans were once widely distributed across eastern Eurasia. Despite limited archaeological evidence, this indicates that Denisovans were capable of adapting to a highly diverse range of environments. Here we integrate zooarchaeological and proteomic analyses of the late Middle to Late Pleistocene faunal assemblage from Baishiya Karst Cave on the Tibetan Plateau, where a Denisovan mandible and Denisovan sedimentary mitochondrial DNA were found. Using zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry, we identify a new hominin rib specimen that dates to approximately 48–32 thousand years ago (layer 3). Shotgun proteomic analysis taxonomically assigns this specimen to the Denisovan lineage, extending their presence at Baishiya Karst Cave well into the Late Pleistocene. Throughout the stratigraphic sequence, the faunal assemblage is dominated by Caprinae, together with megaherbivores, carnivores, small mammals and birds. The high proportion of anthropogenic modifications on the bone surfaces suggests that Denisovans were the primary agent of faunal accumulation. The chaîne opératoire of carcass processing indicates that animal taxa were exploited for their meat, marrow and hides, while bone was also used as raw material for the production of tools. Our results shed light on the behaviour of Denisovans and their adaptations to the diverse and fluctuating environments of the late Middle and Late Pleistocene of eastern Eurasia.

Collective action problems led to the cultural transformation of Sāmoa 800 years ago
Ethan Cochrane et al.
PLoS ONE, June 2024

In this research we identify the processes leading to hierarchical society in a region of Sāmoa, the often-labelled ʻbirthplace’ of the Polynesian chiefdoms. Our analyses in the Falefa Valley on ʻUpolu island combine lidar mapping and ground survey to reveal an extensive system of archaeological features: rock walls, ditches, and platforms. Excavation and radiocarbon dating underpin a feature chronology and characterize feature variation. Soil nutrient analyses and geoarchaeological coring indicate spatial differences in the agricultural potential of the valley and human modification of the environment over time. Our results demonstrate that the construction of large rock walls, some several hundred meters long, began approximately 900–600 years ago, shortly after rapid population rise in Sāmoa. This was followed by the building of small rock walls, often enclosing rectilinear fields or platforms. Both rock wall types are concentrated in the western and northern regions of the valley and greater rock wall densities are associated with areas of higher agricultural potential. The earliest wall construction was penecontemporaneous with partial forest removal that created a more productive wetland environment in the southeastern region of the valley, an area later a focus of agricultural ditching. We propose that with population rise the variable fertility of agricultural land became a significant resource gradient, influencing the population in two ways. First, areas of more fertile agricultural land promoted territorial behaviour, including large rock walls, and led to a collective action problem. Second, niche construction in the form of human-induced environmental change created a productive wetland agricultural system that was enhanced with a reticulate ditch network, the maintenance of which also led to a collective action problem. We conclude that in the Falefa Valley, the second largest catchment in Sāmoa, collective action problems were the cause of increased social hierarchy and may underlie the origins of chiefdoms throughout Polynesia.


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