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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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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
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Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
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iStock

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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