Surviving the Past

Kevin Lewis

March 30, 2024

Hominin population bottleneck coincided with migration from Africa during the Early Pleistocene ice age transition
Giovanni Muttoni & Dennis Kent
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 March 2024

Two recently published analyses make cases for severe bottlenecking of human populations occurring in the late Early Pleistocene, one case at about 0.9 Mya based on a genomic analysis of modern human populations and the low number of hominin sites of this age in Africa and the other at about 1.1 Mya based on an age inventory of sites of hominin presence in Eurasia. Both models point to climate change as the bottleneck trigger, albeit manifested at very different times, and have implications for human migrations as a mechanism to elude extinction at bottlenecking. Here, we assess the climatic and chronologic components of these models and suggest that the several hundred-thousand-year difference is largely an artifact of biases in the chronostratigraphic record of Eurasian hominin sites. We suggest that the best available data are consistent with the Galerian hypothesis expanded from Europe to Eurasia as a major migration pulse of fauna including hominins in the late Early Pleistocene as a consequence of the opening of land routes from Africa facilitated by a large sea level drop associated with the first major ice age of the Pleistocene and concurrent with widespread aridity across Africa that occurred during marine isotope stage 22 at ~0.9 Mya. This timing agrees with the independently dated bottleneck from genomic analysis of modern human populations and allows speculations about the relative roles of climate forcing on the survival of hominins.

The impact of climate change on the agriculture and the economy of Southern Gaul: New perspectives of agent-based modelling
Nicolas Bernigaud et al.
PLoS ONE, March 2024

What impact did the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO) and the Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA) have on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire? Our article presents an agent-based modelling (ABM) approach developed to evaluate the impact of climate change on the profitability of vineyards, olive groves, and grain farms in Southern Gaul, which were the main source of wealth in the roman period. This ABM simulates an agroecosystem model which processes potential agricultural yield values from paleoclimatic data. The model calculates the revenues made by agricultural exploitations from the sale of crops whose annual volumes vary according to climate and market prices. The potential profits made by the different agricultural exploitations are calculated by deducting from the income the operating and transportation costs. We conclude that the warm and wet climate of the Roman period may have had an extremely beneficial effect on the profitability of wine and olive farms between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE, but a more modest effect on grain production. Subsequently, there is a significant decrease in the potential profitability of farms during the Late Antique Little Ice Age (4th-7th century CE). Comparing the results of our model with archaeological data enables us to discuss the impact of these climatic fluctuations on the agricultural and economic growth, and then their subsequent recession in Southern Gaul from the beginning to the end of antiquity.

Stable isotopes show Homo sapiens dispersed into cold steppes ~45,000 years ago at Ilsenhöhle in Ranis, Germany
Sarah Pederzani et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 2024, Pages 578–588

The spread of Homo sapiens into new habitats across Eurasia ~45,000 years ago and the concurrent disappearance of Neanderthals represents a critical evolutionary turnover in our species’ history. ‘Transitional’ technocomplexes, such as the Lincombian–Ranisian–Jerzmanowician (LRJ), characterize the European record during this period but their makers and evolutionary significance have long remained unclear. New evidence from Ilsenhöhle in Ranis, Germany, now provides a secure connection of the LRJ to H. sapiens remains dated to ~45,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest forays of our species to central Europe. Using many stable isotope records of climate produced from 16 serially sampled equid teeth spanning ~12,500 years of LRJ and Upper Palaeolithic human occupation at Ranis, we review the ability of early humans to adapt to different climate and habitat conditions. Results show that cold climates prevailed across LRJ occupations, with a temperature decrease culminating in a pronounced cold excursion at ~45,000–43,000 cal BP. Directly dated H. sapiens remains confirm that humans used the site even during this very cold phase. Together with recent evidence from the Initial Upper Palaeolithic, this demonstrates that humans operated in severe cold conditions during many distinct early dispersals into Europe and suggests pronounced adaptability.

The ecology, subsistence and diet of ~45,000-year-old Homo sapiens at Ilsenhöhle in Ranis, Germany
Geoff Smith et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 2024, Pages 564–577

Recent excavations at Ranis (Germany) identified an early dispersal of Homo sapiens into the higher latitudes of Europe by 45,000 years ago. Here we integrate results from zooarchaeology, palaeoproteomics, sediment DNA and stable isotopes to characterize the ecology, subsistence and diet of these early H. sapiens. We assessed all bone remains (n = 1,754) from the 2016–2022 excavations through morphology (n = 1,218) or palaeoproteomics (zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (n = 536) and species by proteome investigation (n = 212)). Dominant taxa include reindeer, cave bear, woolly rhinoceros and horse, indicating cold climatic conditions. Numerous carnivore modifications, alongside sparse cut-marked and burnt bones, illustrate a predominant use of the site by hibernating cave bears and denning hyaenas, coupled with a fluctuating human presence. Faunal diversity and high carnivore input were further supported by ancient mammalian DNA recovered from 26 sediment samples. Bulk collagen carbon and nitrogen stable isotope data from 52 animal and 10 human remains confirm a cold steppe/tundra setting and indicate a homogenous human diet based on large terrestrial mammals. This lower-density archaeological signature matches other Lincombian–Ranisian–Jerzmanowician sites and is best explained by expedient visits of short duration by small, mobile groups of pioneer H. sapiens.

Initial Upper Palaeolithic material culture by 45,000 years ago at Shiyu in northern China
Shi-Xia Yang et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 2024, Pages 552–563

The geographic expansion of Homo sapiens populations into southeastern Europe occurred by ∼47,000 years ago (∼47 ka), marked by Initial Upper Palaeolithic (IUP) technology. H. sapiens was present in western Siberia by ∼45 ka, and IUP industries indicate early entries by ∼50 ka in the Russian Altai and 46–45 ka in northern Mongolia. H. sapiens was in northeastern Asia by ∼40 ka, with a single IUP site in China dating to 43–41 ka. Here we describe an IUP assemblage from Shiyu in northern China, dating to ∼45 ka. Shiyu contains a stone tool assemblage produced by Levallois and Volumetric Blade Reduction methods, the long-distance transfer of obsidian from sources in China and the Russian Far East (800–1,000 km away), increased hunting skills denoted by the selective culling of adult equids and the recovery of tanged and hafted projectile points with evidence of impact fractures, and the presence of a worked bone tool and a shaped graphite disc. Shiyu exhibits a set of advanced cultural behaviours, and together with the recovery of a now-lost human cranial bone, the record supports an expansion of H. sapiens into eastern Asia by about 45 ka.

Reconsidering the link between past material culture and cognition in light of contemporary hunter-gatherer material use
Duncan Stibbard-Hawkes
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, forthcoming

Many have interpreted symbolic material culture in the deep past as evidencing the origins sophisticated, modern cognition. Scholars from across the behavioural and cognitive sciences, including linguists, psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, primatologists, archaeologists and paleoanthropologists have used such artefacts to assess the capacities of extinct human species, and to set benchmarks, milestones or otherwise chart the course of human cognitive evolution. To better calibrate our expectations, the present paper instead explores the material culture of three contemporary African forager groups. Results show that, while these groups are unequivocally behaviourally modern, they would leave scant long-lasting evidence of symbolic behaviour. Artefact-sets are typically small, perhaps as consequence of residential mobility. When excluding traded materials, few artefacts have components with moderate-strong taphonomic signatures. Present analyses show that artefact function influences preservation probability, such that utilitarian tools for the processing of materials and the preparation of food are disproportionately likely to contain archaeologically traceable components. There are substantial differences in material-use between populations, which create important population-level variation preservation probability independent of cognitive differences. I discuss the factors -- cultural, ecological and practical -- that influence material choice. In so doing, I highlight the difficulties of using past material culture as an evolutionary or cognitive yardstick.


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