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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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EEF, Black Sea MAP
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
'Ship Graveyard' Discovered in the Black Sea Provides New Insights into Maritime History
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Rendering of a Roman ship hull by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

In 2015, to learn how prehistoric humans dealt with the coastal impact of climate change, an international team of researchers in Bulgaria embarked on a multiyear geophysical survey of the Black Sea. Little did they know that the undertaking would morph into what's been dubbed "one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever staged": As IFLScience reports, the team ended up discovering dozen of shipwrecks, dating from the 19th century all the way back to the 5th century BCE.

News of the "ship graveyard," as researchers have taken to calling it, was first announced in 2016. Following three field seasons, marine scientists have just returned from their final trip with recovered artifacts and new insights about ancient ship design and trade patterns.

Scientists from the Black Sea Maritime Project (Black Sea MAP), conducted by the University of Southampton's Center for Maritime Archaeology, used a host of high-tech equipment to survey the Black Sea's floor and take pictures. In all, they located around 60 ships spanning 2500 years of history.

The vessels were in remarkable condition, considering their age. The Black Sea is uniquely suited for preserving organic materials, as it contains two separate layers of water: a top layer that contains oxygen and salt, and a second salty layer with little oxygen or light. Organisms that eat organic matter can't survive in this environment, which is why the site's ships stayed relatively intact.

According to National Geographic, researchers were still able to make out the chisel and tool marks on planks, along with carved decorations. They also saw rigging materials, rope coils, tills, rudders, standing masts, and cargo.

Ships were discovered from the Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, with the oldest dating back to the 4th or 5th century BCE. One particularly exciting find was an ornately carved Ottoman ship, which researchers nicknamed Flower of the Black Sea due to its floral deck carvings. Meanwhile, a potentially Venetian ship from the 13th or 14th century provided scientists with a first-ever glimpse of the ships that were the precursors to those used during the Age of Exploration.

"That's never been seen archaeologically," expedition member Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz told The New York Times in 2016. "We couldn't believe our eyes."

To reconstruct how these vessels once looked, researchers used 3D software to combine thousands of still photos shot from different angles. This photogrammetric method allowed them to create digital models of the vessels and identify historical features that were once a mystery to archaeologists.

"There's one medieval trading vessel where the towers on the bow and stern are pretty much still there," said Ed Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP, according to IFLScience. "It's as if you are looking at a ship in a movie, with ropes still on the deck and carvings in the wood."

A 3D recreation of a Roman galley discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
A 3D rendering of a Roman galley, created by Black Sea MAP project researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea Map

A Roman shipwreck discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
Divers with the Black Sea MAP project examining the Roman galley.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Scientists say the ship graveyard will help them learn more about ancient trade routes, and how various Black Sea coastal communities were connected. That said, they're still committed to their initial goal of investigating ancient changes in the region's environment, using sedimentary core samples and other methods to learn more about the impact of sea level change after the last glacial cycle.

"Our primary aims are focused on the later prehistory of the region and in particular on human response to major environmental change," said Jon Adams, the project's chief investigator and a founding director of the University of Southampton's Centre for Maritime Archaeology, in a news statement. "We believe we now have an unparalleled archive of data with which to address these big questions about the human past."

[h/t IFLScience]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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