Portugal’s Oldest Skull Adds to Puzzle of Human Evolution

Virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium as seen from the front (A), back (B), top (C), and side (D). Image Credit: Zilhão et al. in PNAS, 2017

 
When archaeologists were digging up the dirt floor at the Aroeira cave in central Portugal in 2014, they were already well on their way to understanding the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers who took shelter there during the Middle Pleistocene.

The researchers had found Acheulean handaxes—the most advanced technology of the day—that were used for cutting, scraping, and butchering. They also found burnt deer bones, suggesting that whoever camped out at this cave 400,000 years ago had the know-how to make fires—then a relatively new human achievement.

Then, at the end of the field season, the excavators unexpectedly struck paleoanthropological gold. They were using demolition hammers to break through the cave’s hard fragmented rock when they chipped a piece of bone.

“Immediately we knew we were dealing with a human fossil,” said University of Barcelona archaeologist João Zilhão, the director of the excavation. His team removed a block of the sediment surrounding the fossil, and preparators in Madrid spent two years carefully revealing a human cranium encased inside. Their findings are reported in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s exceptionally rare to find human remains from this period. It’s even more rare to find them in a good archaeological context, among artifacts like tools and animal bones. So the discovery of this skull—the oldest ever found in Portugal—is exciting for some paleoanthropologists.

Below, you can see the researchers' discovery, removal, cleaning, and finally restoration of the ancient cranium.

Zilhão et al. in PNAS

 
The prehistoric skull from Aroeira shares some similarities with human fossils of the same era found in Spain, France, and Italy—including some fossils thought to be early Neanderthals, which were just starting to emerge in Europe, and some fossils that had been attributed to another species, Homo heidelbergensis. But the new specimen doesn’t fit neatly into a species category, and could help researchers argue for a diversity of human populations in Europe before the rise of modern humans.

Mental_floss spoke to a trio of experts in human evolution for their take on the current study, which they were not involved in. “This find adds more complexity to the European picture, as we are also seeing in Africa and Asia,” Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum, says.

University College London paleoanthropologist Maria Martinón-Torres sees the skull as a potential ancestor to the Neanderthal. “I think this finding obliges us to abandon the idea that Neanderthal evolution is a single and lineal process,” she says.

She noted that there are several fossils from similar mid-Pleistocene sites, such as Sima de los Huesos in Atapuerca, Spain and Arago in France, that share some Neanderthal traits but have very different combinations of those traits.

“We see now that there is no linearity in the combination of these traits,” Martinón-Torres says. “This is probably due to the fragmentation and isolation of these populations due to the hard climatic conditions in Europe at that time.” She said that when climatic conditions are harsh, populations can get isolated and evolve their own particular distinctive features. Then, when conditions get better, these groups meet and recombine again. “So for a long period we will find a Neanderthal-like but highly variable population,” she says.

Bence Viola, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto, notes that with the addition of the Aroeira skull we now have a few different humans fossils that look quite different from one another despite being from the same period. He says the new skull seems more primitive than the fossils found nearby at Sima de los Huesos, which, ancient DNA results have shown, represent early Neanderthals. “This cranium makes this scenario of having several different populations in Europe in the middle Pleistocene seem likely,” says Viola, who adds that he would be very interested to see what this specimen’s DNA looks like.

Stringer points out that the skull would be even more illuminating if it weren't missing some key parts, including the back of the cranium: “Unfortunately, this new fossil, interesting as it is, doesn’t have the most useful bits to put it into this puzzle."

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Blue Water Ventures International
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Gold Artifacts Discovered in 19th-Century Shipwreck That Was the ‘Titanic of Its Time’
Blue Water Ventures International
Blue Water Ventures International

On June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski was sailing off the coast of North Carolina, headed for Baltimore, when one of its boilers exploded, killing numerous passengers and causing colossal damage to the ship. It sank in less than an hour, taking two-thirds of its passengers with it. In January 2018, divers finally found the wreckage, and their latest expedition has brought back numerous new treasures, according to The Charlotte Observer, including a gold pocket watch that stopped just a few minutes after the boiler reportedly blew up.

The Pulaski disaster, which the Observer refers to as “the Titanic of its time,” was notable not just for its high death toll, but for whom it was carrying when it went down. The luxury steamship’s wealthy passengers included former New York Congressman William Rochester and prominent Savannah banker and businessman Gazaway Bugg Lamar, then one of the richest men in the region. At the time, the North Carolina Standard called the sinking “the most painful catastrophe that has ever occurred upon the American coast.”

An engraving showing the 'Pulaski' exploding
An 1848 illustration of the Pulaski explosion
Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Divers from Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group (which owns the rights to the site) have located a number of artifacts that support the belief that the wreck they found is, in fact, what’s left of the Pulaski.

While they have yet to find the engraved ship’s bell (the main object used to authenticate a wreck), divers identified a few artifacts engraved with the name Pulaski, as well as numerous coins that were all produced prior to 1838. The 150 gold and silver coins discovered thus far are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. They’ve also discovered silverware, keys, thimbles, and the ship's anchor.

A close-up of the gold pocket watch
Blue Water Ventures International

And in their most recent expedition, the divers found a unique gold watch that further supports the claim that this ship is the Pulaski. The hands of the engraved solid gold pocket watch on a gold chain—a piece only the wealthiest of men could afford—are stopped at 11:05, just five minutes after the boiler reportedly exploded.

The excavation of the remains of the ship will hopefully illuminate more of its story. Already, it has changed what we know about the ship’s final night: The wreck was discovered 40 miles off the North Carolina coast, a bit farther than the 30 miles estimated in initial newspaper reports of the disaster.

The investigators hope to eventually find evidence that will allow them to pinpoint why the deadly explosion occurred. While such explosions weren’t rare for steamships at the time, the crew may have pushed the ship beyond its limits in an attempt to reach its destination faster, causing the boiler to burst. Expeditions to the wreckage are ongoing.

[h/t The Charlotte Observer]

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Evening Standard, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
$2.5 Million in World War II-Era Cash Discovered Beneath Winston Churchill's Former Tailor's Shop
Evening Standard, Getty Images
Evening Standard, Getty Images

A valuable secret has been hiding beneath the floorboards of a sporting goods store in the UK since World War II. As the BBC reports, about £30,000 in roughly 80-year-old British bank notes was unearthed by a renovation project at the Cotswold Outdoor store in Brighton. Adjusting for inflation, their value would be equal to roughly $2.5 million today.

Owner Russ Davis came across the hidden treasure while tearing out decades-worth of carpet and tiles beneath the property. What he initially assumed was a block of wood turned out to be a wad of cash caked in dirt. Each bundle held about £1000 worth of £1 and £5 notes, with about 30 bundles in total.

The bills are badly damaged, but one surviving design element holds an important clue to their history. Each note is printed in blue, the color of the emergency wartime currency first issued by the Bank of England in 1940.

At the time the money was buried, the property was home to the famous British furrier and couturier Bradley Gowns. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Lady Clementine Churchill, were reportedly regular customers.

The reason the fortune was stowed beneath the building in the first place remains a mystery. Davis imagines that it might have come from a bank robbery, while Howard Bradley, heir to the Bradley Gowns family business, suspects it might have been stashed there as a getaway fund in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, as he told the New York Post.

The hoard will remain in the possession of the Sussex police as more details on the story emerge.

[h/t BBC]

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