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Unusual 100,000-Year-Old Human Skulls Found in China

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Virtual reconstructions of the Xuchang 1 and 2 skulls, superimposed on the archeological site near Xuchang where they were discovered. Image Credit: Xiu-jie Wu

 
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a variety of scruffy hominins roamed the planet, making tools, chasing down dinner, sitting around fires, and looking at the stars. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave much behind. Figuring out how and when these populations spread across the globe and intermingled with each other is a huge puzzle, one with most of the pieces missing.

That’s why scientists are excited about the discovery of two archaic human skulls in China reported in the journal Science today, March 2. These 100,000-year-old fossils have a mix of traits—and even some similarities with Neanderthals—which bolsters the idea that the precursors to modern humans were a diverse bunch who routinely interbred with one another.

Mental_floss spoke to report authors Erik Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and paleoanthropologist Xiu-Jie Wu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, as well as several experts in human evolution who were not involved in the current research.

The two broken skulls were discovered in the outskirts of Xuchang in central China at the Lingjing site, which was a spring for most of its history. The water consistently attracted people and animals over many millennia, and scientists have found at the site thousands bones of creatures like extinct deer and rhino relatives, as well as much more recent Bronze Age remains.

When the water table was lowered in the area in 2007, Lingjing became drier, and scientists were able to start an excavation, says Trinkaus. While digging, the researchers found the two skulls of archaic humans. They died in the Late Pleistocene, about 100,000 years ago.

“These were hunters and gatherers who, if you saw them, would look basically like people today,” Trinkaus says. “We would probably find them rather dirty and uncouth, but they were basically people.”

The skulls show that these almost-people have some similarities with early modern humans, including a large brain size and modest brow ridges. But they also have some important physical differences. Their low and broad braincase is characteristic of earlier, more primitive eastern Eurasian humans. Meanwhile, the shape of the semicircular canals (bones near the inner ear) and arrangement of the back of the skulls are similar to contemporary Neanderthals from western Eurasia.

This mosaic of physical features “suggests a pattern of regional population continuity in eastern Eurasia, combined with shared long-term trends in human biology and population connections across Eurasia,” says Wu. Those long-term trends include increasing brain size and decreasing massiveness of the skull—patterns that are also seen in humans in western Eurasia and Africa during this time period, which suggests some trends could be universal among humans, Trinkaus says.

The human-evolution experts we spoke to gave a number of reasons why the find is significant.

“It is a fascinating new discovery,” says Lynne Schepartz, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. “The presence of the Neanderthal traits is very clear and, in my opinion, unquestionable. This discovery demonstrates the diversity of eastern Asian populations in the Late Pleistocene, reflecting their roots in earlier Homo erectus populations and then increased gene flow and interaction with peoples from the West.”

Fred Smith, an anthropologist at Illinois State University, says the skulls add to two growing points of consensus in paleoanthropology: “Neanderthals had extensive evolutionary influences beyond their core area of western Eurasia, and archaic human groups routinely hybridized with each other, and with early modern humans.”

In fact, this study highlights how the once-common image of Neanderthals as an anomalous European population, distinguished by a set of regional peculiarities, is now “looking increasingly dubious,” according to Boston University anthropologist Matt Cartmill. Instead, he says, recent research suggests that some of the traits we think of as unique to Neanderthals could have been widely distributed in late archaic human populations all across Eurasia. “I am beginning to wonder how useful the concept ‘Neanderthal’ is."

Other researchers say the skulls' combination of primitive features and Neanderthal-like traits should be somewhat expected in archaic humans in East Asia from this time period. “This is exactly what the Denisovans (an Asian sister group of the Western Eurasian Neanderthals) should be,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

The authors of the paper, however, have shied away from assigning a species name or category to these archaic humans just yet. Trinkaus says there isn’t enough known about the Denisovans and that using such a category would not be helpful for understanding the messy population dynamics of archaic humans.

“It’s not the kind of thing that you can make a simple diagram of with lines on a piece of paper,” he explains. “It’s a very complex process.”

But Trinkaus is hopeful that further research at Lingjing, along with discoveries elsewhere in China and East Asia, will shed more light on what these ancestral humans were like. “In the last couple of decades there’s been a renaissance of Pleistocene archaeology and paleontology in that part of the world,” he says.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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Jersey Heritage
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Watch Conservationists Disassemble World's Largest Known Celtic Coin Hoard
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Jersey Heritage

Reg Mead and Richard Miles are proof that striking silver can be just as exciting as hitting gold—especially if the precious metal in question is a massive heap of ancient coins.

In the summer of 2012, the two amateur treasure hunters used metal detectors to discover the world’s largest-known Celtic coin hoard—now known as Catillon II—buried in a field on the Isle of Jersey in the British Channel Islands. The duo had spent more than 30 years searching for the rare stash, after a farmer’s wife (other accounts refer to her as a daughter) told them decades prior that her family had discovered silver coins while plowing a field.

Mead and Miles were granted limited access to the land, which they scoured after harvest season each year. Their persistence paid off when they finally found the treasure: nearly 70,000 Roman and Celtic coins, believed to date from around 30 to 50 BCE, along with some gold and silver jewelry, glass beads, a leather purse, and a woven silver-and-gold bag.

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Long ago, members of a tribe called the Coriosolitae—who once lived in modern-day Brittany and Normandy in France—buried the wealth, presumably to hide it from the Romans.

The hoard was excavated by a team that was composed of members of local history and archaeology organizations Societe Jersiais and Jersey Heritage, along with staff from the Guernsey Museum, located on the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Removing the coin heap from the ground proved to be a challenge: "With earth still attached, it weighed over a ton," Neil Mahrer, a museum conservator with local historic trust Jersey Heritage, told Archaeology. "We had no idea how strong it was, in that it was only held together by the corrosion between the coins."

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Once the treasure was finally unearthed, conservationists and volunteers spent around three years carefully extricating coins from the pile. The arduous project was completed in January 2017—and now, thanks to the magic of video editing, we can watch the entire process in only 30 seconds.

What happens next to the hoard is unclear. Such finds are protected by the Treasure Act.

[h/t Archaeology]

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