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

Abstract

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

ADVANCES

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).

OUTLOOK

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 geology.gsapubs.org

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.

ScienceDaily:

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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Spread of agriculture was not only by migration but also by diffusion

The Baltic region developed agriculture before the large migrations of the bronze age. The Neolithic transition therefore was not only by migration (as in Southern Europe) but also by the diffusion of culture to hunter gatherers in the Baltic region.

Daniel G. Bradley et al. The Neolithic Transition in the Baltic Was Not Driven by Admixture with Early European Farmers. Current Biology, February 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.060

Highlights

  • A degree of genetic continuity from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the Baltic
  • Steppe-related genetic influences found in the Baltic during the Neolithic
  • No Anatolian farmer-related genetic admixture in Neolithic Baltic samples
  • Steppe ancestry in Latvia at the time of the emergence of Balto-Slavic languages

Summary

The Neolithic transition was a dynamic time in European prehistory of cultural, social, and technological change. Although this period has been well explored in central Europe using ancient nuclear DNA [ 1, 2 ], its genetic impact on northern and eastern parts of this continent has not been as extensively studied. To broaden our understanding of the Neolithic transition across Europe, we analyzed eight ancient genomes: six samples (four to ∼1- to 4-fold coverage) from a 3,500 year temporal transect (∼8,300–4,800 calibrated years before present) through the Baltic region dating from the Mesolithic to the Late Neolithic and two samples spanning the Mesolithic-Neolithic boundary from the Dnieper Rapids region of Ukraine. We find evidence that some hunter-gatherer ancestry persisted across the Neolithic transition in both regions. However, we also find signals consistent with influxes of non-local people, most likely from northern Eurasia and the Pontic Steppe. During the Late Neolithic, this Steppe-related impact coincides with the proposed emergence of Indo-European languages in the Baltic region [ 3, 4 ]. These influences are distinct from the early farmer admixture that transformed the genetic landscape of central Europe, suggesting that changes associated with the Neolithic package in the Baltic were not driven by the same Anatolian-sourced genetic exchange.

Science Daily reports:

New research indicates that Baltic hunter-gatherers were not swamped by migrations of early agriculturalists from the Middle East, as was the case for the rest of central and western Europe. Instead, these people probably acquired knowledge of farming and ceramics by sharing cultures and ideas — rather than genes — with outside communities.

Scientists extracted ancient DNA from a number of archaeological remains discovered in Latvia and the Ukraine, which were between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. These samples spanned the Neolithic period, which was the dawn of agriculture in Europe, when people moved from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled way of life based on food production.

We know through previous research that large numbers of early farmers from the Levant (the Near East) — driven by the success of their technological innovations such as crops and pottery — had expanded to the peripheral parts of Europe by the end of the Neolithic and largely replaced hunter-gatherer populations.

However, the new study, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that the Levantine farmers did not contribute to hunter-gatherers in the Baltic as they did in Central and Western Europe.

The research team, which includes scientists from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Cambridge, and University College Dublin, says their findings instead suggest that the Baltic hunter-gatherers learned these skills through communication and cultural exchange with outsiders.

The findings feed into debates around the ‘Neolithic package,’ — the cluster of technologies such as domesticated livestock, cultivated cereals and ceramics, which revolutionised human existence across Europe during the late Stone Age.

Advances in ancient DNA work have revealed that this ‘package’ was spread through Central and Western Europe by migration and interbreeding: the Levant and later Anatolian farmers mixing with and essentially replacing the hunter-gatherers.

But the new work suggests migration was not a ‘universal driver’ across Europe for this way of life. In the Baltic region, archaeology shows that the technologies of the ‘package’ did develop — albeit less rapidly — even though the analyses show that the genetics of these populations remained the same as those of the hunter-gatherers throughout the Neolithic.

Andrea Manica, one of the study’s senior authors from the University of Cambridge, said: “Almost all ancient DNA research up to now has suggested that technologies such as agriculture spread through people migrating and settling in new areas.”

“However, in the Baltic, we find a very different picture, as there are no genetic traces of the farmers from the Levant and Anatolia who transmitted agriculture across the rest of Europe.”

“The findings suggest that indigenous hunter-gatherers adopted Neolithic ways of life through trade and contact, rather than being settled by external communities. Migrations are not the only model for technology acquisition in European prehistory.” ………

neolithic-transition-europe

A mix of migration and cultural diffusion


 

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Yellow River sedimentary evidence dates the Great Flood of China, and the start of the Xia dynasty, at 1920 BCE

Sedimentary evidence from the Yellow River may have settled the chronological discrepancy between the historical and the archaeological chronology as to when Yu the Great introduced his ground-breaking (no pun intended) methods of flood control. For his accomplishments he was made King, and that in turn turned out to be the introduction of dynastic rule in China by starting what was to be the Xia dynasty which lasted just over 1,000 years.

WikipediaYu the Great (大禹 c. 2200 – 2100 BC) was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character.

The dates proposed for Yu’s reign precede the oldest known written records in China, …….. he does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the Western Zhou period (c. 1045–771 BC). The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of Yu. ……. Yu is one of the few Chinese rulers posthumously honored with the epithet “the Great”

The earliest historical records of Yu start only about 1,000 years after his death. It was thought that Yu lived around 2,200 BCE. A new paper in Science reports on studies of Yellow River sediments and suggest that the cause of the flood was a landslide, caused by an earthquake, that planted a massive natural dam across the Yellow River where it travels through the Jishi Gorge after emerging from the Tibetan plateau. The dam would have risen some 800 feet above the river’s present level. Using stratigraphic data and radiocarbon dating, Wu et al. verify that the flood occurred and place the start of the Xia dynasty at about 1900 BC, thus reconciling the historical and archaeological chronologies. They present evidence for an enormous landslide dam break 1922 ± 28 BCE  that coincided with the major cultural transition from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age in China and that also helps explain curious details of Yu’s story.

Qinglong Wu et al, Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty, Science,  05 Aug 2016. Vol. 353, Issue 6299, pp. 579-582, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0842

Jishi Gorge

Jishi Gorge

AbstractChina’s historiographical traditions tell of the successful control of a Great Flood leading to the establishment of the Xia dynasty and the beginning of civilization. However, the historicity of the flood and Xia remain controversial. Here, we reconstruct an earthquake-induced landslide dam outburst flood on the Yellow River about 1920 BCE that ranks as one of the largest freshwater floods of the Holocene and could account for the Great Flood. This would place the beginning of Xia at ~1900 BCE, several centuries later than traditionally thought. This date coincides with the major transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley and supports hypotheses that the primary state-level society of the Erlitou culture is an archaeological manifestation of the Xia dynasty.

The New York Times writes:

Ancient Chinese texts record a mix of historical events and legends. Some records, such as those relating to China’s second and third dynasties, were confirmed in surprising detail when archaeologists turned up inscriptions on oracle bones and ancient bronzes. …… 

But records of the first dynasty, that of the Xia, contain stories of a Great Flood with a Noah-like savior, the Emperor Yu, who gained the mandate of heaven after dredging canals to dispel the floodwaters and make the land safe. Historians have long wondered whether this flood account was a creation-style myth, the folk memory of a real event, or some mixture of the two. Some have dismissed the story of Emperor Yu as a fiction intended to justify centralized rule and, in the absence of any evidence of a massive flood at the time, many have regarded the stories of the Xia dynasty as more myth than history. 

A team of archaeologists and geologists led by Qinglong Wu of Peking University in Beijing has now discovered evidence of a massive flood that they say could be the Great Flood mentioned in the Chinese annals. ….. 

For six to nine months, Dr. Wu’s team estimates, the river ceased to flow as water accumulated in the new lake behind the dam. Then, as the water overtopped the dam’s crest, the dam rapidly gave way, releasing up to 3.8 cubic miles of water, one of the largest known floods in the last 10,000 years. The outburst flood wave could have traveled as far as 1,250 miles downstream, breaking the river’s natural banks, causing extensive flooding and even making the Yellow River switch course.

Floods are often hard to date. But the same earthquake that dammed the river provided a date by destroying a village called Lajia some 16 miles downstream. Fissures caused by the earthquake are completely filled with sediment from the outburst flood, with no annual deposit of the windblown earth that is common in the region, which means the flood occurred the same year as the earthquake, Dr. Wu’s team says.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones of three children killed by the earthquake establish that the event took place around 1920 B.C.


 

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Rope making more than 40,000 years old

It seems humans had twine and ropes some 40,000 years ago in the depths of the ice age. They used tools to twist plant material and vines to make rope. And while these would have been indispensable for hunter-gatherers, it also indicates that they must have had bases or “settlements” which they maintained for sufficiently long to bring their “technologies” into play. My image of hunter-gatherers is one where clans and tribes were mobile but spent weeks together at beneficial “bases”. Possibly the beginnings of summer and winter camps.

If they had rope and twine, they had thread. If they had thread, they probably had some form of garments. If they had twine, they had the “technology” for bows and arrows. If they had rope they would also have had the capability to drag heavy weights across primitive rollers.

Speech and counting were also coming into play around 50,000 years ago. Wolves – or some of their less aggressive members – were probably “cooperating” with humans at around this time.

In relative terms, the developments taking place some 50,000 years ago were probably as epoch-making as the changes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rope making tool from mammoth ivory from Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, ca. 40,000 years old. Photo: Copyright University of Tübingen

Rope making tool from mammoth ivory from Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, ca. 40,000 years old. Photo: Copyright University of Tübingen

Press Release: 

Prof. Nicholas Conard and members of his team, present the discovery of a tool used to make rope in today‘s edition of the journal: Archäologische Ausgrabungen Baden-Württemberg.
Rope and twine are critical components in the technology of mobile hunters and gatherers. In exceptional cases impressions of string have been found in fired clay and on rare occasions string was depicted in the contexts of Ice Age art, but on the whole almost nothing is known about string, rope and textiles form the Paleolithic.
A key discovery by Conard’s team in Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany and experimental research and testing by Dr. Veerle Rots and her team form the University of Liège is rewriting the history of rope.
The find is a carefully carved and beautifully preserved piece of mammoth ivory 20.4 cm in length with four holes between 7 and 9 mm in diameter. Each of the holes is lined with deep, and precisely cut spiral incisions. The new find demonstrates that these elaborate carvings are technological features of rope-making equipment rather than just decoration.
Similar finds in the past have usually been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments. Thanks to the exceptional preservation of the find and rigorous testing by the team in Liège, the researchers have demonstrated that the tool was used for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels. “This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic”, says Veerle Rots, “a question that has puzzled scientists for decades.”
Excavators found the rope-making tool in archaeological horizon Va near the base of the Aurignacian deposits of the site. Like the famous female figurines and the flutes recovered from the Hohle Fels, the rope-making tool dates to about 40,000 years ago, the time when modern humans arrived in Europe. The discovery underlines the importance of fiber technology and the importance of rope and string for mobile hunters and gatherers trying to cope with challenges of life in the Ice Age.

Posted in AMH, Origins and inventions | Tagged | 1 Comment