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Archaeologists Find 30,000-Year-Old Jewelry in Indonesia

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Kinez Riza

We have thousands of examples of Ice Age works from Europe—curvy Venus figurines, beads carved from bone, and cave paintings of saber-toothed cats and mammoths dating back some 35,000 years. Those sites are also the best documented in the world, having been studied since the 19th century.

Evidence of the earliest art on other continents is much more scant, but it's increasingly being recorded across the world. In the latest study that attempts to offer a more complete picture of human creativity, researchers report that they’ve discovered jewelry and pigments inside of an Ice Age cave in Indonesia that are between 22,000 and 30,000 years old. They published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues have been seeking traces of the earliest inhabitants of Sulawesi. The island is shaped a bit like a withered starfish and it’s the biggest in Wallacea, the region between the Asian and Australian continental shelves.

The researchers made headlines in 2014 when they discovered [PDF] that cave artwork among the towering karst formations on Sulawesi’s southwestern peninsula could be among the oldest in the world. Using a precise dating method, they documented hand stencils that are nearly 40,000 years old. They also found a figurative painting of a pig-deer (or babirusa) that was more than 35,000 years old, rivaling the age of the animal paintings inside France’s famous Chauvet Cave.

As detailed in the current study, the archaeologists excavated the floor of another cave known as Leang Bulu Bettue.

“We started digging at this limestone cave because it was the only site I had seen in the region which seemed to have escaped the ravages of erosion and disturbance from local farmers digging up the guano-rich cave earth for use as fertilizer,” Brumm, who is an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, tells mental_floss. The cave also had rock art preserved on its walls and ceilings—red and purple hand stencils that are identical to some of the nearby cave paintings described in 2014.

So, the researchers suspected they would find some undisturbed archaeological deposits—and indeed they did.

They dug up stone artifacts carved with geometric patterns like Xs and parallel lines, as well as chunks of ochre, a natural pigment that was used in cave painting. They unearthed a perforated finger bone from a local bear cuscus, a kind of marsupial, that was possibly used for a necklace, and they found unfinished disk-shaped beads made from a babirusa tooth. The artifacts date to between 22,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Prehistoric ornaments excavated from the cave site Leang Bulu Bettue, along with how the archaeologists think they might have been worn. Image Credits: Prepared by M. Langley and A. Brumm; bear cuscus bone image is courtesy of Griffith University/Luke Marsden; bear cuscus and babirusa photographs: Shutterstock

 
Brumm says that of Wallacea’s 2000 islands, only seven have so far yielded archaeological deposits from the Pleistocene, the epoch when the last Ice Age occurred. Therefore, the total number of artifacts from the region is “pitifully small,” he says, perhaps numbering only a dozen or so.

“This profound imbalance in research intensity makes it extremely difficult to draw meaningful comparisons between the ‘Ice Age’ cultures of Wallacea and Europe,” Brumm says.

The fact that the newly discovered artifacts were made from the bones of animals that are only found on Sulawesi suggests that early humans were “drawn to the symbolic potential of the exotic species they encountered” when they colonized this region, Brumm says.

“This speaks of a flexibility in early human culture in this little understood part of the ‘Ice Age’ world—an ability to adapt existing art forms and symbolic culture to entirely new environments and ecosystems,” Brumm adds. And he thinks it’s exactly this kind of flexibility that would have allowed people from this region to colonize an isolated continent like Australia around 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Iain Davidson, an emeritus professor at the University of New England in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, similarly thinks the same skills that allowed people to make watercraft and navigate across Wallacea “should have enabled them to represent their world symbolically.”

Davidson calls the discovery very important "primarily because it adds to the emerging picture of an early rock art world in the region where there has been thought to be none; now it is clear that there is,” Davidson tells mental_floss. “It was always likely, but maybe only a matter of looking and using the appropriate techniques, which is what this team has done really well.”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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