Living in a cave

Kevin Lewis

November 18, 2018

Palaeolithic cave art in Borneo
Maxime Aubert et al.
Nature, forthcoming


Figurative cave paintings from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi date to at least 35,000 years ago (ka) and hand-stencil art from the same region has a minimum date of 40 ka. Here we show that similar rock art was created during essentially the same time period on the adjacent island of Borneo. Uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits that overlie a large reddish-orange figurative painting of an animal at Lubang Jeriji Saléh — a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo — yielded a minimum date of 40 ka, which to our knowledge is currently the oldest date for figurative artwork from anywhere in the world. In addition, two reddish-orange-coloured hand stencils from the same site each yielded a minimum uranium-series date of 37.2 ka, and a third hand stencil of the same hue has a maximum date of 51.8 ka. We also obtained uranium-series determinations for cave art motifs from Lubang Jeriji Saléh and three other East Kalimantan karst caves, which enable us to constrain the chronology of a distinct younger phase of Pleistocene rock art production in this region. Dark-purple hand stencils, some of which are decorated with intricate motifs, date to about 21–20 ka and a rare Pleistocene depiction of a human figure — also coloured dark purple — has a minimum date of 13.6 ka. Our findings show that cave painting appeared in eastern Borneo between 52 and 40 ka and that a new style of parietal art arose during the Last Glacial Maximum. It is now evident that a major Palaeolithic cave art province existed in the eastern extremity of continental Eurasia and in adjacent Wallacea from at least 40 ka until the Last Glacial Maximum, which has implications for understanding how early rock art traditions emerged, developed and spread in Pleistocene Southeast Asia and further afield.

Early human dispersals within the Americas
Víctor Moreno-Mayar et al.
Science, forthcoming


Studies of the peopling of the Americas have focused on the timing and number of initial migrations. Less attention has been paid to the subsequent spread of people within the Americas. We sequenced 15 ancient human genomes spanning Alaska to Patagonia; six are ≥10,000 years old (up to ~18× coverage). All are most closely related to Native Americans, including an Ancient Beringian individual, and two morphologically distinct “Paleoamericans.” We find evidence of rapid dispersal and early diversification, including previously unknown groups, as people moved south. This resulted in multiple independent, geographically uneven migrations, including one that provides clues of a Late Pleistocene Australasian genetic signal, and a later Mesoamerican-related expansion. These led to complex and dynamic population histories from North to South America.

Bands of brothers and in-laws: Waorani warfare, marriage and alliance formation
Shane Macfarlan et al.
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 7 November 2018


The root of modern human warfare lies in the lethal coalitionary violence of males in small-scale societies. However, there is a paucity of quantitative data concerning the form and function of coalitionary violence in this setting. Debates exist over how lethal coalitions are constituted, as well as the motivations and benefits for males to join such groups. Data from a lowland Amazonian population, the Waorani of Ecuador, illuminate three issues: (i) the degree to which raiding parties are composed of groups of fraternal kin as opposed to strategic alliances of actual or potential affinal kin; (ii) the extent to which individuals use pre-existing affinal ties to motivate others to participate in war or leverage warfare as a mechanism to create such ties; and (iii) the extent to which participation in raiding is driven by rewards associated with future marriage opportunities. Analyses demonstrate that Waorani raiding parties were composed of a mix of males who were potential affines, actual affines and fraternal kin, suggesting that men used pre-existing genetic, lineal and social kin ties for recruiting raid partners and used raiding as a venue to create novel social relationships. Furthermore, analyses demonstrate that males leveraged raiding alliances to achieve marriage opportunities for themselves as well as for their children. Overall, it appears that a complex set of motivations involving individual rewards, kin marriage opportunities, subtle coercion and the assessment of alliance strength promote violent intergroup conflict among the Waorani. These findings illustrate the complex inter-relationships among kin selection, coalition building and mating success in our species.

Fossil herbivore stable isotopes reveal middle Pleistocene hominin palaeoenvironment in ‘Green Arabia’
Patrick Roberts et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, forthcoming


Despite its largely hyper-arid and inhospitable climate today, the Arabian Peninsula is emerging as an important area for investigating Pleistocene hominin dispersals. Recently, a member of our own species was found in northern Arabia dating to ca. 90 ka, while stone tools and fossil finds have hinted at an earlier, middle Pleistocene, hominin presence. However, there remain few direct insights into Pleistocene environments, and associated hominin adaptations, that accompanied the movement of populations into this region. Here, we apply stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis to fossil mammal tooth enamel (n = 21) from the middle Pleistocene locality of Ti’s al Ghadah in Saudi Arabia associated with newly discovered stone tools and probable cutmarks. The results demonstrate productive grasslands in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula ca. 300–500 ka, as well as aridity levels similar to those found in open savannah settings in eastern Africa today. The association between this palaeoenvironmental information and the earliest traces for hominin activity in this part of the world lead us to argue that middle Pleistocene hominin dispersals into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula required no major novel adaptation.

Human variation in the shape of the birth canal is significant and geographically structured
Lia Betti & Andrea Manica
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 24 October 2018


The human birth canal shows a tight fit with the size of the neonate, which can lead to obstetric complications. This is not the case in other apes, and has been explained as the outcome of conflicting evolutionary pressures for bipedal locomotion and parturition of a highly encephalized fetus. Despite the suggested evolutionary constraints on the female pelvis, we show that women are, in fact, extremely variable in the shape of the bony birth canal, with human populations having differently shaped pelvic canals. Neutral evolution through genetic drift and differential migration are largely responsible for the observed pattern of morphological diversity, which correlates well with neutral genetic diversity. Climatic adaptation might have played a role, albeit a minor one, with populations from colder regions showing a more transversally oval shape of the canal inlet. The significant extent of canal shape variation among women from different regions of the world has important implications for modern obstetric practice in multi-ethnic societies, as modern medical understanding has been largely developed on studies of European women.

A large impact crater beneath Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland
Kurt Kjær et al.
Science Advances, November 2018


We report the discovery of a large impact crater beneath Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland. From airborne radar surveys, we identify a 31-kilometer-wide, circular bedrock depression beneath up to a kilometer of ice. This depression has an elevated rim that cross-cuts tributary subglacial channels and a subdued central uplift that appears to be actively eroding. From ground investigations of the deglaciated foreland, we identify overprinted structures within Precambrian bedrock along the ice margin that strike tangent to the subglacial rim. Glaciofluvial sediment from the largest river draining the crater contains shocked quartz and other impact-related grains. Geochemical analysis of this sediment indicates that the impactor was a fractionated iron asteroid, which must have been more than a kilometer wide to produce the identified crater. Radiostratigraphy of the ice in the crater shows that the Holocene ice is continuous and conformable, but all deeper and older ice appears to be debris rich or heavily disturbed. The age of this impact crater is presently unknown, but from our geological and geophysical evidence, we conclude that it is unlikely to predate the Pleistocene inception of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Similar cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans
Judith Beier et al.
Nature, forthcoming


Neanderthals are commonly depicted as leading dangerous lives and permanently struggling for survival. This view largely relies on the high incidences of trauma that have been reported and have variously been attributed to violent social behaviour, highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyles or attacks by carnivores. The described Neanderthal pattern of predominantly cranial injuries is further thought to reflect violent encounters with large prey mammals, resulting from the use of close-range hunting weapons. These interpretations directly shape our understanding of Neanderthal lifestyles, health and hunting abilities, yet mainly rest on descriptive, case-based evidence. Quantitative, population-level studies of traumatic injuries are rare. Here we reassess the hypothesis of higher cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals using a population-level approach — accounting for preservation bias and other contextual data — and an exhaustive fossil database. We show that Neanderthals and early Upper Palaeolithic anatomically modern humans exhibit similar overall incidences of cranial trauma, which are higher for males in both taxa, consistent with patterns shown by later populations of modern humans. Beyond these similarities, we observed species-specific, age-related variation in trauma prevalence, suggesting that there were differences in the timing of injuries during life or that there was a differential mortality risk of trauma survivors in the two groups. Finally, our results highlight the importance of preservation bias in studies of trauma prevalence.

Locomotor constraints favour the evolution of the human pygmy phenotype in tropical rainforests
Vivek Venkataraman et al.
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 7 November 2018


The convergent evolution of the human pygmy phenotype in tropical rainforests is widely assumed to reflect adaptation in response to the distinct ecological challenges of this habitat (e.g. high levels of heat and humidity, high pathogen load, low food availability, and dense forest structure), yet few precise adaptive benefits of this phenotype have been proposed. Here, we describe and test a biomechanical model of how the rainforest environment can alter gait kinematics such that short stature is advantageous in dense habitats. We hypothesized that environmental constraints on step length in rainforests alter walking mechanics such that taller individuals are expected to walk more slowly due to their inability to achieve preferred step lengths in the rainforest. We tested predictions from this model with experimental field data from two short-statured populations that regularly forage in the rainforest: the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia and the Tsimane of the Bolivian Amazon. In accordance with model expectations, we found stature-dependent constraints on step length in the rainforest and concomitant reductions in walking speed that are expected to compromise foraging efficiency. These results provide the first evidence that the human pygmy phenotype is beneficial in terms of locomotor performance and highlight the value of applying laboratory-derived biomechanical models to field settings for testing evolutionary hypotheses.


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