Zalasiewicz is one geologist who has given some thought to what will remain in 10,000 years. Certainly some record of cities, plastics and the millions of fossil-fuel wells and mines will persist as what he calls technofossils. The concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could still be out of whack from the emissions resulting from the burning of all those fossil fuels in just the last few decades. In a million years, barring profound shifts, the climate should have returned to its natural rhythms but any cities buried in sediment by rising seas should still be preserved, along with those signs of anthroturbation, human-induced disturbances underground, like the plutons from underground explosions of nuclear bombs. Those are good for 10 million even 100 million years, or until plate tectonics lifts them back to the surface and exposes those strata to the rain that will, ever so slowly, erode these signs away. For certain, nothing made by contemporary humanity will be left at the surface that far in the future, even stone edifices like the pyramids or Mount Rushmore will be wiped away, though the fine imprints of plastic objects, like say a vinyl record, may be legible—and even perhaps listenable—in the rock like the fronds of a fern.

Ten thousand years is all that separates today’s people from those who lived at Catalhöyük in Turkey, a city whose mud-brick homes had doors in the roofs. The inhabitants were seemingly obsessed with leopards, slept on their own ancestors’ graves and occasionally kept the skulls as mementoes. In the far future will anyone even understand the binary code and English scrawlings in the Roman alphabet in which the very idea of the Anthropocene is recorded? The Rosetta stone was required to unlock the mysteries of hieroglyphics from a mere 5,000 years ago and the world is no closer to understanding the hash marks left by ancient hominins hundreds of thousands of years ago. One million years ago, Homo sapiens did not exist and our hominin ancestors stalked the savannas of Africa and perhaps not much else, the human population explosion still far in the future.

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The genetic ancestry of the earliest Europeans survived the ferocious Ice Age that took hold after the continent was initially settled by modern people.

That is the suggestion of a study of DNA from a male hunter who lived in western Russia 36,000 years ago.

His genome is not exactly like those of people who lived in Europe just after the ice sheets melted 10,000 years ago.

But the study suggests the earliest Europeans did contribute their genes to later populations.

Europe was first settled around 40,000 years ago during a time known as the Upper Palaeolithic.

But conditions gradually deteriorated until ice covered much of the European landmass, reaching a peak 27,000 years ago.

The ice melted rapidly after 10,000 years ago, allowing populations from the south to re-populate northern Europe – during a time known as the Mesolithic. But the genetic relationships between pre- and post-Ice Age Europeans have been unclear.

Some researchers have in the past raised the possibility that pioneer populations in Europe could have gone extinct some time during the last Ice Age.

And one recent study looking at the skull features of ancient Europeans found that Upper Palaeolithic people were rather different from populations that lived during the later Mesolithic period.

In the latest study, an international team of researchers sequenced the genome (the genetic “blueprint” for a human) of a man buried in Kostenki, Russia.

They discovered a surprising genetic “unity” running from the first modern humans in Europe, through to later peoples. This, they claim, suggests that a “meta-population” of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers managed to survive the Ice Age and colonise the landmass of Europe for more than 30,000 years.

“That there was continuity from the earliest Upper Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic, across a major glaciation, is a great insight into the evolutionary processes underlying human success,” said co-author Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES).

“For 30,000 years ice sheets came and went, at one point covering two-thirds of Europe. Old cultures died and new ones emerged – such as the Aurignacian and the Gravettian – over thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherer populations ebbed and flowed.

“But we now know that no new sets of genes are coming in: these changes in survival and cultural kit are overlaid on the same biological background.”

She added: “It is only when farmers from the Near East arrived about 8,000 years ago that the structure of the European population changed significantly.”

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Scientists have unearthed rare, ancient human remains in silts close to the River Seine in France.

The left arm bones are dated to about 200,000 years ago, and look to be Neanderthal – although the researchers say that with no other fossils it is impossible to make a full description

Not much can be said about the individual because it is represented solely by the three long bones of the arm – the humerus, ulna and radius.

Their robustness would support a Neanderthal interpretation, says the team, and they could have come from a juvenile or young adult.

One interesting observation is a raised crest, or ridge, on the upper-arm bone that may be the result of muscle damage at the shoulder.

The team speculates in its paper that the individual might have been hurt by repeatedly throwing something.

The scarring looks very similar to what has been documented in professional throwing athletes.

“We have a particular morphology on the humerus where we have this very important crest that is related probably to a specific movement – a specific movement that has been repeated by this individual,” Dr Maureille told the BBC.

“Right at that point, we have a kind of micro-trauma, which could be related to a movement that is more difficult, and it has created this strange relief.”

Quite what that repetitive movement might have been is open to debate.

“If the evidence for the strong development of the deltoid region on the humerus has been interpreted correctly, this could provide an important clue that thrown spears were already in use in Europe about 200,000 years ago, something which many experts have questioned,” commented Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London.

“There has been a widespread view that Neanderthals and earlier humans were reliant on thrusting spears, used for dangerous close-range confrontational hunting, and that only modern humans perfected launched projectiles – that view could now be questioned.”

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The discovery on the island of Sulawesi vastly expands the geography of the first cave artists, who were long thought to have appeared in prehistoric Europe around that time. Reported in the journal Nature, the cave art includes stencils of hands and a painting of a babirusa, or “pig-deer,” which may be the world’s oldest figurative art.

“Overwhelmingly depicted in Europe and Sulawesi were large, and often dangerous, mammal species that possibly played major roles in the belief systems of these people,” says archaeologist and study leader Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

The finds from the Maros cave sites on Sulawesi raise the possibility that such art predates the exodus of modern humans from Africa 60,000 or more years ago.

As site after site was found in Europe, the view emerged that modern people must have arrived there from Africa and undergone a cultural shift as they competed with Neanderthals for prey and for caves. (Related: “Newly Discovered Engraving May Revise Picture of Neanderthal Intelligence.”)

Instead, the newly discovered cave painting suggests that art may have been universal among early modern people, including those who left Africa and traveled across southern Arabia to Indonesia and Australia within the past 50,000 years. (Related: “Migration to Australia.”)

Cave art may have left Africa with early modern humans, the study authors suggest, or possibly it sprang up independently among different groups. The earliest examples of other kinds of art are even older, such as decorative perforated shell beads and pigments that date to more than 75,000 years ago.

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When explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell ventured into Australia’s inland in the early 1800s, he recorded in his journals his impressions of the landscape. Around him he noted expanses of bright yellow herbs, nine miles of grain-like grass, cut and stooped, and earthen clods that had been turned up, resembling ‘ground broken by the […]

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Sunken Lands Sync Log: from Dogger Island to Sundaland

  People lived on Dogger Island 7000 years ago. It now lies beneath the North Sea. #archaeology — Matthew Ward (@HistoryNeedsYou) September 21, 2014 // Shall we play a game of synchronicity? Like, say you wake up and scoop this tweet out of your Matrix like information flow timeline. Google Alt-Earth To which @changeist […]

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Neanderthals made some of Europe’s oldest art

Rock art is notoriously tricky to date because it is not immediately linked to human or animal bones that can be carbon-dated. Finlayson, however, is confident that the etching was made by Neanderthals more than 39,000 years ago. A layer of sediment that once covered the engraving contained stone tools typical of those made by Neanderthals dating to between 30,000 and 39,000 years ago. This means that the engraving must be even older, Finlayson says, perhaps 40,000 to 45,000 years old. Humans did not arrive at Gorham’s Cave until more than 10,000 years later, and long after Neanderthals were gone.

The team’s dating of the Gorham etching makes it one of the oldest examples of cave art in Europe. A smudge of pigment in the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain dates to more than 40,000 years ago, but it is not clear whether Homo sapiens or Neanderthals created it.

To better understand the engraving, Finlayson’s team tried replicating them using original Neanderthal stone tools. They found that only dozens of purposeful, repeated motions could create similar etchings. “We wanted to show that this was not a doodle, a casual thing,” he says, unlike the helter-skelter scratchings that the authors left when they sliced fresh pork skin on rock, for instance. The team’s results appear in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals made some of Europe’s oldest art

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As work progressed, a portrait of [9000 year old] Kennewick Man emerged. He does not belong to any living human population. Who, then, are his closest living relatives? Judging from the shape of his skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan.

“Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley.

Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jōmon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jōmon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

Jōmon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the landmasses were still connected to the mainland. These seafarers built boats out of sewn planks of wood. Outstanding mariners and deep-water fishermen, they were among the first people to make fired pottery.

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans.

Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.

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A group of scientists, including UC Santa Barbara’s James Kennett, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science, posited that a comet collision with Earth played a major role in the extinction. Their hypothesis suggests that a cosmic-impact event precipitated the Younger Dryas period of global cooling close to 12,800 years ago. This cosmic impact caused abrupt environmental stress and degradation that contributed to the extinction of most large animal species then inhabiting the Americas. According to Kennett, the catastrophic impact and the subsequent climate change also led to the disappearance of the prehistoric Clovis culture, known for its big game hunting, and to human population decline.

“We conclusively have identified a thin layer over three continents, particularly in North America and Western Europe, that contain a rich assemblage of nanodiamonds, the production of which can be explained only by cosmic impact,” Kennett said. “We have also found YDB glassy and metallic materials formed at temperatures in excess of 2200 degrees Celsius, which could not have resulted from wildfires, volcanism or meteoritic flux, but only from cosmic impact.”

To date, scientists know of only two layers in which more than one identification of nanodiamonds has been found: the YDB 12,800 years ago and the well-known Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary 65 million years ago, which is marked by the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, ammonites and many other groups.

“The evidence we present settles the debate about the existence of abundant YDB nanodiamonds,” Kennett said. “Our hypothesis challenges some existing paradigms within several disciplines, including impact dynamics, archaeology, paleontology and paleoceanography/paleoclimatology, all affected by this relatively recent cosmic impact.”

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The uncovering of the engraving, in 1864, was the handiwork of a joint British-French archaeological expedition and it provided the first, unambiguous evidence that human beings had once shared this planet with long-extinct animals such as the mammoth. Its discovery was also an act of extraordinary good fortune, it transpires.

“The site has since lent its name to a period known as the Magdalenian era, which thrived across Europe between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago, and which we now appreciate was a time of incredible artistic creativity,” says Professor Chris Stringer, curator of the Natural History Museum exhibition.

The site has certainly produced many wonders, but in terms of their sheer scientific importance none can match the splintered mammoth figurine that was spotted by Lartet and Falconer on that day in May 1864. In their hands lay fragments, freshly dug from the earth, of a beautiful engraving of a mammoth, with its distinctive domed head, that was, for good measure, made of mammoth ivory.

“You couldn’t really top that in terms of proving that humans had lived at the same time as mammoths,” says Stringer. “Indeed, when you examine the piece you can see details of the mammoth’s anatomy that we only know about today from the frozen mammoth carcasses that we have found in Siberia.”

In other words, only an artist who had shared that ancient landscape (the Madeleine mammoth was carved about 14,000 years ago) with these creatures would have been able to record one with such precision and flair – and on a piece of the animal’s own ivory.


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