Bread from 14,400 years ago suggests a long transition to the Neolithic

The University of Copenhagen reports:

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge have analysed charred food remains from a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site – a site known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan. The results, which are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide the earliest empirical evidence for the production of bread:

“The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1 is an exceptional find, and it has given us the chance to characterize 14,000-year-old food practices. The 24 remains analysed in this study show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking. The remains are very similar to unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey. So we now know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming. The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all,” said University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui, who is the first author of the study.

…… The charred food remains were analysed with electronic microscopy at a University College London lab by PhD candidate Lara Gonzalez Carratero (UCL Institute of Archaeology), who is an expert on prehistoric bread:

“The identification of ‘bread’ or other cereal-based products in archaeology is not straightforward. There has been a tendency to simplify classification without really testing it against an identification criteria. We have established a new set of criteria to identify flat bread, dough and porridge like products in the archaeological record. Using Scanning Electron Microscopy we identified the microstructures and particles of each charred food remain,” said Gonzalez Carratero.

This would support the view that the transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists was a long period which may well have started some 50,000 years ago and evolved through a form of transient agriculture. to eventually reach settled agriculture around 12-10,000 years ago.

And then came the cities.


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Aboriginals stagnated for 50,000 years as hunter-gatherers and missed the agricultural revolution

Australian Aboriginals are regarded in a very romantic light these days but the reality is that they are an example of a human population which, whether for cultural or genetic reasons or both, missed the agricultural revolution which swept the world between 10 and 15,000 years ago. They are an example of a human population which remained isolated for 50,000 years and which eked out a survival as hunter-gatherers and did not develop either cognitively or in technology. The colonisation which followed the rediscovery of Australia in 1606 (or 1592?) met no resistance from an indigenous population that was in any way capable of protecting their habitat. They were still hunter-gatherers then – and fairly backward hunter-gatherers at that.

How Did Aboriginal Australians Arrive on the Continent? DNA Helps Solve a Mystery

By Carl Zimmer, March 8, 2017

Human skeletons and archaeological remains in Australia can be traced back nearly 50,000 years before the trail disappears. Before then, apparently, Australia was free of humans. So how did people get there, and when? Where did humans first arrive on the continent, and how did they spread across the entire landmass?

Answers to some of these questions are stored in the DNA of Aboriginal Australians. A genetic study of 111 Aboriginal Australians, published on Wednesday, offers an interesting — and, in some respects, unexpected — view of their remarkable story. All living Aboriginal Australians descend from a single founding population that arrived about 50,000 years ago, the study shows. They swept around the continent, along the coasts, in a matter of centuries. And yet, for tens of thousands of years after, those populations remained isolated, rarely mixing.

The DNA used in the new study comes from aboriginal hair collected during a series of expeditions between 1926 and 1963. The Board for Anthropological Research at the University of Adelaide sent researchers to communities across Australia, where they collected vast amounts of information about aboriginal languages, ceremonies, artwork, cosmologies and genealogy.  …….

………… Fifty thousand years ago, sea levels were so low that Australia and New Guinea formed a single continent. Humans moved from Southeast Asia onto this landmass, some settling in what is now New Guinea, others traveling farther south into Australia.

They kept to the coastlines until they reached southern Australia 49,000 years ago. But once this great migration was finished, the new study suggests, the ancestors of today’s aborigines hunkered down in their new homes — for tens of thousands of years.

The mitochondrial DNA contains no evidence that these populations mixed in any significant way, ………… 

Farming explains the difference, Dr. Cooper suggests. Unlike Africa, Asia and Europe, Australia did not experience the rise of agriculture several thousand years ago. “If you don’t have cheap carbohydrates, you don’t increase in population size,” he said.

Populations grew on other continents, but they often risked catastrophic crop failure. When that happened, Dr. Cooper said, “there’s only one response — mass migration.” In Australia, however, aborigines did not depend on crops and lived as nomads in discrete regions. They never needed to move across the continent.

So the narrative is of ancient but anatomically modern humans arriving in Australia when sea levels were low, spreading around the coast, but then of becoming fairly sedentary local populations without much intercourse with each other, let alone with any non-Australian populations. They eked out a survival as hunter-gatherers. They had neither the impetus of cultural exchange or of any genetic exchange with other populations to instigate development. The agricultural revolution that swept the rest of the world never happened for them. Without access to carbohydrates the population never grew significantly. Language existed as did some pictorial representations but writing never took off. Without farming and its attendant population growth, settlements never developed to become towns or cities. There was no surplus to drive specialisation. There was no development of any significance for 50,000 years and there were no cultural or genetic impulses which could lead to development.

It may not be politically correct to say so but the reality is that before the colonisation by Europeans, the Australian Aboriginals were in a cultural and genetic dead-end.

image wikipedia


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The single Out-of-Africa theory is dying

A new paper shows that it is likely that modern humans had left Africa by at least 177,000 years ago. The single Out-of-Africa theory is dying if not completely dead. Certainly some of the earlier excursions out of Africa may not have survived. I am still sticking to my narrative of the peopling of the world being mainly due to (at least) two waves of expansion from AfricArabia; one before the Toba eruption (74,000 years ago) and one after.

Hershkovitz et al, The Earliest Modern Humans outside Africa, Science  26 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 456-459, DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8369

Abstract: Recent paleoanthropological studies have suggested that modern humans migrated from Africa as early as the beginning of the Late Pleistocene, 120,000 years ago. Hershkovitz et suggest that early modern humans were already present outside of Africa more than 55,000 years earlier (see the Perspective by Stringer and Galway-Witham). During excavations of sediments at Mount Carmel, Israel, they found a fossil of a mouth part, a left hemimaxilla, with almost complete dentition.

The sediments contain a series of well-defined hearths and a rich stone-based industry, as well as abundant animal remains. Analysis of the human remains, and dating of the site and the fossil itself, indicate a likely age of at least 177,000 years for the fossil—making it the oldest member of the Homo sapiens clade found outside Africa.

Dinekes summarises this succinctly on his blog.

The sensational discovery of modern humans in the Levant 177-194 thousand years ago should cause a rethink of the currently held Out-of-Africa orthodoxy.

By Out-of-Africa, I mean here the origin of anatomically modern humans, as opposed to the earlier origin of the genus Homo or the later origin of behaviorally fully modern humans.

Two main pieces of evidence supported the conventional OOA theory:

1. The observation that modern Eurasians possess a subset of the genetic variation of modern Africans.
2. The greater antiquity of AMH humans in the African rather than the Eurasian palaeoanthropological record.

Both these observations are in crisis.

1a. The oldest African fossil AMH is in North Africa (Morocco, Jebel Irhoud); modern genetic variation does not single out this region as a potential source of modern humans. In short, modern genetic variation has nothing to say about where AMH originated.
1b. Eurasians can no longer be seen as a subset of Africans, given that they possess genetic variation from Denisovans, a layer of ancestry earlier than all extant AMH. While it is still true that most Eurasian genetic material is a subset of that of modern Africans, it is also true that the deepest known lineage of humans is the Denisovan-Sima de los huesos, with no evidence for any deeper African lineage. Within humans as a whole, Africans possess a subset of Eurasian genetic variation.
2a. African priority received a boost by 0.1My by the redating of Jebel Irhoud last year. And, non-African AMH received a boost of 0.05My by the Hershkovitz et al. paper yesterday. A very short time ago, Ethiopia boasted the oldest AMH by 0.07My and now it’s tied with the Levant and beaten by Morocco. It’s a bit silly to argue for temporal priority based on the spotty and ever-shifting palaeoanthropological record.
2b. It is virtually untenable to consider the ~120,000 year old Shkul/Qafzeh hominins as a failed Out-of-Africa, since it now seems that they may have been descendants from the Mislya Cave population of >50,000 or even >100,000 years earlier.


Out of Africarabia


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The Peopling of Asia

It now looks increasingly likely that there were multiple migrations out of AfricArabia eastwards, starting from well before the Toba eruption (74,000 years ago). My narrative of the peopling of India containing both pre-Toba and post-Toba waves (see Out of Africarabia) is not so implausible.

Christopher J. Bae, Katerina Douka, Michael D. Petraglia. On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectivesScience, 2017; 358 (6368): eaai9067 DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9067

Science 08 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6368, eaai9067


The traditional “out of Africa” model, which posits a dispersal of modern Homo sapiens across Eurasia as a single wave at ~60,000 years ago and the subsequent replacement of all indigenous populations, is in need of revision. Recent discoveries from archaeology, hominin paleontology, geochronology, genetics, and paleoenvironmental studies have contributed to a better understanding of the Late Pleistocene record in Asia. Important findings highlighted here include growing evidence for multiple dispersals predating 60,000 years ago in regions such as southern and eastern Asia. Modern humans moving into Asia met Neandertals, Denisovans, mid-Pleistocene Homo, and possibly H. floresiensis, with some degree of interbreeding occurring. These early human dispersals, which left at least some genetic traces in modern populations, indicate that later replacements were not wholesale.


The earliest fossils of Homo sapiens are located in Africa and dated to the late Middle Pleistocene. At some point later, modern humans dispersed into Asia and reached the far-away locales of Europe, Australia, and eventually the Americas. Given that Neandertals, Denisovans, mid-Pleistocene Homo, and H. floresiensis were present in Asia before the appearance of modern humans, the timing and nature of the spread of modern humans across Eurasia continue to be subjects of intense debate. For instance, did modern humans replace the indigenous populations when moving into new regions? Alternatively, did population contact and interbreeding occur regularly? In terms of behavior, did technological innovations and symbolism facilitate dispersals of modern humans? For example, it is often assumed that only modern humans were capable of using watercraft and navigating to distant locations such as Australia and the Japanese archipelago—destinations that would not have been visible to the naked eye from the departure points, even during glacial stages when sea levels would have been much lower. Moreover, what role did major climatic fluctuations and environmental events (e.g., the Toba volcanic super-eruption) play in the dispersal of modern humans across Asia? Did extirpations of groups occur regularly, and did extinctions of populations take place? Questions such as these are paramount in understanding hominin evolution and Late Pleistocene Asian paleoanthropology.


An increasing number of multidisciplinary field and laboratory projects focused on archaeological sites and fossil localities from different areas of Asia are producing important findings, allowing researchers to address key evolutionary questions that have long perplexed the field. For instance, technological advances have increased our ability to successfully collect ancient DNA from hominin fossils, providing proof that interbreeding occurred on a somewhat regular basis. New finds of H. sapiens fossils, with increasingly secure dating associations, are emerging in different areas of Asia, some seemingly from the first half of the Late Pleistocene. Cultural variability discerned from archaeological studies indicates that modern human behaviors did not simply spread across Asia in a time-transgressive pattern. This regional variation, which is particularly distinct in Southeast Asia, could be related at least in part to environmental and ecological variation (e.g., Palearctic versus Oriental biogeographic zones).


Recent findings from archaeology, hominin paleontology, geochronology, and genetics indicate that the strict “out of Africa” model, which posits that there was only a single dispersal into Eurasia at ~60,000 years ago, is in need of revision. In particular, a multiple-dispersal model, perhaps beginning at the advent of the Late Pleistocene, needs to be examined more closely. An increasingly robust record from Late Pleistocene Asian paleoanthropology is helping to build and establish new views about the origin and dispersal of modern humans.


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The case for pre-Toba peoples reaching Australia is strengthened

The Toba super-volcano eruption took place 74,000 years ago and wiped out humanity over a large region of SE Asia – but there were some survivors. The traditional, single, out-of-Africa narrative puts the expansion wave beginning after the Toba eruption. My preferred narrative is of multiple waves out of Africa and into Arabia long before the Toba eruption and the main post-Toba expansion being from Africarabia. This narrative then includes admixture and assimilation of survivors from pre-Toba waves of expansion who were found along the way. Peoples from pre-Toba expansions who had settled in SE Asia would probably not have survived the eruption. Some of the pre-Toba peoples survived in isolated areas of India and points west and were mainly assimilated by later post-Toba waves.

Toba fallout: from

The theory has been that it was post-Toba waves of humans which reached Australia around 40,000 years ago at the earliest. But evidence is emerging that humans were in Austalia at least 65,000 years ago. Distinctive stone tool assemblages including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads have been found in Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia and dated to 65,000 years ago (stratigraphic and optical dating).

That would suggest that the first human Australians came either directly from a pre-Toba expansion or post-Toba from peoples in SE Asia who had themselves oioginated from a pre-Toba expansion.

Clarkson, et al, Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago, Nature 547, 306–310 (20 July 2017), doi:10.1038/nature22968

Abstract: The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Here we report the results of new excavations conducted at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia. Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments. Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

My preferred narrative has at least three waves leaving Africarabia, starting perhaps around 120,000 years ago.


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The peopling of the Indian sub-continent

I have a macro-picture of the peopling of the sub-continent that seems plausible and consistent with current evidence. The entire sub-continent was peopled by hominin peoples long before the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago. Whether any survived after the eruption is debatable but tools found above the ash layers suggest that some did. Whether these pre-Toba hominin were AMH (anatomically modern humans) or a precursor to AMH or an extinct branch is also uncertain. However the indications that there were many waves of AMH out of Afric-Arabia from about 110,000 years ago and later, suggests to me that there was an initial wave (waves?) which reached the sub-continent (and points further east) before the Toba eruption. Most but not all of these perished then, but some probably survived. Further waves of AMH arrived post-Toba (70- 50,000 years ago) and probably in many waves from the North-West. The settlements which later became the Indus-Saraswati Valley civilisation started arriving in the North West from a fertile Persian Gulf (where sea levels were 50 – 100 m lower than today) after the end of the last glaciation around 10 – 12,000 years ago. These were the first real agriculturalists and they gradually assimilated or displaced the existing populations southwards. The existing populations at that time were already admixtures of several waves of pre-Toba and post-Toba migrations. The migrants from the North-West brought with them the proto-Indo-European language which later became Sanskrit. The displaced peoples took away with them their own proto-Dravidian languages already to some extent infected with some proto-Indo-European. It was with desertification of the Thar that the Indus-Saraswati Valley civilisation (the Harappans) disappeared, most probably by gradual dissemination south and east over a period of some 1,000 years. The influence of the Harappans was probably being disseminated south and east along the waterways even at the height of their civilisation (5,000 years ago).

This looks like a sign of the arrival of the first Indo-European speakers, who arose amongst the Bronze Age peoples of the grasslands north of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas.  They were male-dominated, mobile pastoralists who had domesticated the horse ……

I suspect that the origins of Hinduism and guild-based caste system lies here in the clash and interaction and intermixing of the proto-Dravidian speaking hunter gatherers and the Indo-European speaking agricultarlists, with the Indis-Saraswati Valley being the melting pot rather than a battle ground.

A new paper looks at the genetic chronology of the sub-continent based on present day genes.

Marina Silva et al,  A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2017; 17 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12862-017-0936-9

University of Huddersfield press release

IN addition to its vast patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, the Indian Subcontinent also harbours huge genetic diversity.  Where did its peoples originate?  This is an area of huge controversy among scholars and scientists.  A University of Huddersfield PhD student is lead author of an article that tries to answer the question using genetic evidence.

A problem confronting archaeogenetic research into the origins of Indian populations is that there is a dearth of sources, such as preserved skeletal remains that can provide ancient DNA samples.  Marina Silva and her co-authors have instead focused on people alive in the Subcontinent today.

They show that some genetic lineages in South Asia are very ancient.  The earliest populations were hunter-gatherers who arrived from Africa, where modern humans arose, more than 50,000 years ago.  But further waves of settlement came from the direction of Iran, after the last Ice Age ended 10-20,000 years ago, and with the spread of early farming.

These ancient signatures are most clearly seen in the mitochondrial DNA, which tracks the female line of descent.  But Y-chromosome variation, which tracks the male line, is very different.  Here the major signatures are much more recent.  Most controversially, there is a strong signal of immigration from Central Asia, less than 5,000 years ago.

This looks like a sign of the arrival of the first Indo-European speakers, who arose amongst the Bronze Age peoples of the grasslands north of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas.  They were male-dominated, mobile pastoralists who had domesticated the horse – and spoke what ultimately became Sanskrit, the language of classical Hinduism – which more than 200 years ago linguists showed is ultimately related to classical Greek and Latin.

Migrations from the same source also shaped the settlement of Europe and its languages, and this has been the subject of most recent research, said Marina Silva.  She has tried to tip the balance back towards India, and her findings are discussed in the article titled A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals.  It appears in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Authors of the new article include Professor Martin Richards, who heads the University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group.  Member of the group are also co-authors of another recent paper, which focuses in depth on just one of the lineages found in India, Origin and spread of mitochondrial haplogroup U7, which has just appeared in the journal Scientific Reports

Saraswati paleochannel sarkar et al nature doi -10.1038 slash srep26555

The melting pot


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From agriculture to gardens

Scientists from the Spanish National Research Council have discovered a 4,000-year-old funerary garden- the first such garden ever to be found- on the Dra Abu el-Naga hill in Luxor, Egypt.  Such gardens have been observed in images but this is the first time that physical evidence has been found.

The shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists is thought to have started around 12,000 years ago (Neolithic – New Stone Age). But I suspect that just 8,000 years for the development from intentional cultivation to purely decorative gardens may be an underestimate. Early farming by semi-nomadic tribes is probably much older than 12,000 years ago. Around the equator conditions were conducive for farming even during the glacial maximum. In fact there are suggestions that the roots of agriculture lie in the depths of the pre-Holocene glacial maximum. From the evidence of stones used to grind grains these beginnings lie at least 23,000 years ago.

A period of some 20,000 years to go from cultivation for survival to decorative gardens seems more plausible to me.


The Djehuty Project, led by research professor, José Manuel Galán, from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), has discovered a 4,000-year-old funerary garden- the first such garden ever to be found- on the Dra Abu el-Naga hill in Luxor, Egypt. The discovery comes during the 16th year of archaeological excavations which are sponsored this year by Técnicas Reunidas and Indra.

Funerary garden Luxor
Credit: CSIC Communications

The discoveries made by this project shed light on a key epoch when, for the first time, Thebes (now Luxor) became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt about 4,000 years ago.

Dr. Jose Galán explains, “We knew of the possible existence of these gardens since they appear in illustrations both at the entrances to tombs as well as on tomb walls, where Egyptians would depict how they wanted their funerals to be. The garden itself consisted of a small rectangular area, raised half a meter off the ground and divided into 30 cm2 beds. In addition, next to the garden, two trees were planted. This is the first time that a physical garden has ever been found, and it is therefore the first time that archaeology can confirm what had been deduced from iconography. The discovery and thorough analysis of the garden will provide valuable information about both the botany and the environmental conditions of ancient Thebes, of Luxor 4,000 years ago.”

Galán continues, “The plants grown there would have had a symbolic meaning and may have played a role in funerary rituals. Therefore, the garden will also provide information about religious beliefs and practices as well as the culture and society at the time of the Twelfth Dynasty when Thebes became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time. We know that palm, sycamore and Persea trees were associated with the deceased’s power of resurrection. Similarly, plants such as the lettuce had connotations with fertility and therefore a return to life. Now we must wait to see what plants we can identify by analysing the seeds we have collected. It is a spectacular and quite unique find which opens up multiple avenues of research.”

“Digging in a necropolis not only allows us to discover details about the world of funerals, religious beliefs and funerary practices, it also helps us discover details about daily life, about society and about the physical environment, both plant and animal. The necropolis thus becomes, as the ancient Egyptians themselves believed, the best way to understand and embrace life,” concludes the CSIC researcher.

The garden, or funeral garden, was unearthed in an open courtyard at the entrance of a Middle Kingdom rock-cut tomb very probably from the Twelfth Dynasty, circa 2000 BCE. The garden, measuring 3m x 2m, is raised and is divided into a grid arrangement of 30 cm2 beds distributed in rows of five or seven beds.

According to experts, these small beds may have contained different types of plants and flowers. In addition, at the centre of the raised garden there two beds which are set higher than the others where small trees or shrubs probably grew.

In one corner, the researchers recovered a still upright tamarisk shrub complete with its roots and 30cm-long trunk, beside which was a bowl containing dates and other fruit which may have been given as an offering.

In addition, attached to the facade of the tomb, which the garden is related to for the time being, a small mud-brick chapel (46cm high x 70cm wide x 55cm deep) with three stelae, or stone tombstones, in its interior was also uncovered. These are dated later than the tomb and the garden, coming from the Thirteenth Dynasty, around the year 1800 BCE. One of them belongs to Renef-seneb, and the other to “the soldier (“citizen”) Khememi, the son of the lady of the house, Satidenu.” On each, reference is made to Montu, a local god from ancient Thebes, and to the funerary gods Ptah, Sokar and Osiris.

Funerary garden luxor artist impression image CSIC


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