Figurative Cave Art at Least 43,900 Years Old

(p. A15) In December 2017, Hamrullah, an archaeologist on an Indonesian government survey, was exploring a cave system in Sulawesi, a large island in central Indonesia. He noticed a tantalizing opening in the ceiling above him. A skilled spelunker, Hamrullah (who only uses one name, like many Indonesians) climbed through the gap into an uncharted chamber. There, he laid eyes on a painting that is upending our understanding of prehistoric humans.

The dramatic panel of art, dating back at least 43,900 years, is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” a group of scientists said in a paper published Wednesday [Dec. 11, 2019] in Nature, although additional research will be needed to confirm the age of every character in the painting.

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.

. . .

“This finding is very significant because it was previously thought that figurative painting dated to a time shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe, perhaps circa 40,000 years ago, but this result shows it has an origin outside Europe,” said Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England, who was not involved in the study.

For the full story, see:

Becky Ferreira. “Cave May Possess World’s ‘Earliest Figurative’ Art.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 12, 2019): A15.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 11, 2019, and has the title “Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans.”)

The academic paper in Nature, mentioned above, is:

Aubert, Maxime, Rustan Lebe, Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Muhammad Tang, Basran Burhan, Hamrullah, Andi Jusdi, Abdullah, Budianto Hakim, Jian-xin Zhao, I. Made Geria, Priyatno Hadi Sulistyarto, Ratno Sardi, and Adam Brumm. “Earliest Hunting Scene in Prehistoric Art.” Nature (Dec. 11, 2019), DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y.

When Sleep Was Hard and Dangerous

(p. A15) Before the Industrial Revolution, no shortage of perils, real or imaginary, made for uneasy nights, from satanic demons to the unholy trinity of bedbugs, fleas and lice. A 17th-century verse sought deliverance at night “from sudden death, fire and theeves, stormes, tempests, and all affrigtments.” Worst in this age—before penicillin, before analgesics—was illness.

Less often, at least among propertied households, did beds themselves disrupt sleep, except when plush mattresses hampered one’s movements. Lower down the social scale, peasants who “hit the hay” at night enjoyed a measure of comfort unknown to paupers forced “to lie at the sign of the star.” Despite John Locke’s contention that tranquil slumber “matters not, whether it be on a soft bed” or on a board, the hard earth must have been agonizing for emaciated frames with minimal body fat for padding.

For the full review, see:

A. Roger Ekirch. “BOOKSHELF; How We Hit the Hay; A consideration of the bed—site of countless births, deaths and famous last words—as a prop with which to elaborate upon the “theater of life.” The New York Times (Friday, Oct. 25, 2019): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 24, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘What We Did in Bed’ Review: How We Hit the Hay; A consideration of the bed—site of countless births, deaths and famous last words—as a prop with which to elaborate upon the “theater of life.”)

The book under review, is:

Fagan, Brian, and Nadia Durrani. What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

Neanderthal’s “Body Was Archaic” but “Spirit Was Modern”

(p. B14) Starting in the mid-1950s, leading teams from Columbia University, Dr. Solecki discovered the fossilized skeletons of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals who had lived tens of thousands of years ago in what is now northern Iraq.

Dr. Solecki, who was also a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist at the time, said physical evidence at Shanidar Cave, where the skeletons were found, suggested that Neanderthals had tended to the weak and the wounded, and that they had also buried their dead with flowers, which were placed ornamentally and possibly selected for their therapeutic benefits.

The exhumed bones of a man, named Shanidar 3, who had been blind in one eye and missing his right arm but who had survived for years after he was hurt, indicated that fellow Neanderthals had helped provide him with sustenance and other support.

“Although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern,” Dr. Solecki wrote in the magazine Science in 1975.

Large amounts of pollen found in the soil at a grave site suggested that bodies might have been ceremonially entombed with bluebonnet, hollyhock, grape hyacinth and other flowers — a theory that is still being explored and amplified. (Some researchers hypothesized that the pollen might have been carried by rodents or bees, but Dr. Solecki’s theory has become widely accepted.)

“The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’” Dr. Solecki wrote.

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts.  “Ralph Solecki, 101, Archaeologist Who Uncovered the Inner Life of Neanderthals.”  The New York Times  (Wednesday, April 17, 2019):  B14.

(Note:  the online version of the obituary has the date April 11, 2019, and has the title “Ralph Solecki, Who Found Humanity in Neanderthals, Dies at 101.”)

Homo Sapiens Drew Figurative Art for at Least 40,000 of Their 300,000 Years

(p. A10) On the wall of a cave deep in the jungles of Borneo, there is an image of a thick-bodied, spindly-legged animal, drawn in reddish ocher.
It may be a crude image. But it also is more than 40,000 years old, scientists reported on Wednesday, making this the oldest figurative art in the world.
Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.
. . .
The finding . . . demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart.
“It’s essentially happening at the same time at the opposite ends of the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and a co-author of the report, published in the journal Nature.
. . .
One thing is clear: Figurative art came late in the history of our species.
The oldest fossils of Homo sapiens, found in Morocco, are 300,000 years old. A study last year of genetic diversity among people today indicates that populations began diverging from one another in Africa between 260,000 and 350,000 years ago.
Today, every culture makes art of some sort, and it is likely that humans in Africa over 200,000 years ago had the capacity to create it.
But for thousands of generations, there’s no evidence that people actually made figurative art. The closest thing to it are abstract engravings etched on shells or pieces of ocher.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “Cave Contains World’s Oldest Figurative Art, Dating Back Over 40,000 Years.”The New York Times (Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 7, 2018, and has the title “In Cave in Borneo Jungle, Scientists Find Oldest Figurative Painting in the World.”)

The Nature article, mentioned above, has been published online in advance of the print version:
Aubert, M., P. Setiawan, A. A. Oktaviana, A. Brumm, P. H. Sulistyarto, E. W. Saptomo, B. Istiawan, T. A. Ma’rifat, V. N. Wahyuono, F. T. Atmoko, J. X. Zhao, J. Huntley, P. S. C. Taçon, D. L. Howard, and H. E. A. Brand. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature (Nov. 7, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0679-9.

Stylus Line Drawing Found from 73,000 Years Past

(p. A13) Researchers say they’ve found the world’s oldest known line drawing in a seaside cave in South Africa–a red cross-hatched grid sketched on a broken grindstone by early humans 73,000 years ago.
The discovery, made public Wednesday [September 12, 2018] in Nature, offers evidence of an important addition to the artist’s tool kit, the scientists said. Experts in human origins have discovered many images of greater antiquity made by engraving or by painting, but this appears to be the oldest example of a picture made by using a stylus.
“It was definitely drawn with a pen or pencil,” said archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen in Norway, who led the team that analyzed the drawing. If so, the abstract image appears to be about 30,000 years older than other early drawings in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
. . .
In the prehistory of human creativity, the invention of drawing combines a new skill and a new tool. Drawing with a stylus of some sort is a breakthrough in portability and spontaneous expression that can turn any surface into a message board. “If you can draw, you can walk across a landscape and leave a message or a symbol anywhere you want,” Dr. Henshilwood said.

For the full story, see:
Robert Lee Hotz. “Ancient Hashtag Reveals Origins of Drawing.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018): A13.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 12, 2018, and has the title “Is This the World’s Oldest Hashtag?”)

New Tools May Have Allowed Hominins to Leave Africa Far Earlier Than Previously Known

(p. D1) The oldest stone tools outside Africa have been discovered in western China, scientists reported on Wednesday [July 11, 2018]. Made by ancient members of the human lineage, called hominins, the chipped rocks are estimated to be as much as 2.1 million years old.
The find may add a new chapter to the story of hominin evolution, suggesting that some of these species left Africa far earlier than once believed and managed to travel over 8,000 miles east of their evolutionary birthplace.
. . .
(p. D3) The trigger for that migration? Maybe it was figuring out how to make sharp stone tools.
“Suddenly you had a primate that could obtain meat from a carcass, and it opened up a new world for them,” Dr. Dennell said. “That simple technology was enough to get them out of Africa and right across Asia.”

For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. “Ancient Tools Provide New Insight.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 11, 2018, and has the title “Archaeologists in China Discover the Oldest Stone Tools Outside Africa.”)

Ancient Skeletons Harbor a Common Cause of Liver Cancer

(p. A9) Scientists reported on Wednesday [May 9, 2018] that they have recovered DNA from the oldest viruses known to have infected humans — and have succeeded in resurrecting some of them in the laboratory.
The viruses were all strains of hepatitis B. Two teams of researchers independently discovered its DNA in 15 ancient skeletons, the oldest a farmer who lived 7,000 years ago in what is now Germany.
Until now, the oldest viral DNA ever recovered from human remains was just 450 years old.
The research may provide clues to the continuing evolution of hepatitis B, a plague that infects an estimated 257 million people worldwide and contributes to an epidemic of liver cancer.
. . .
Chronic infections can lead to liver cancer. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates, hepatitis B kills 887,000 people. Researchers have long wondered how it became a worldwide menace.
. . .
. . . the skeletons in which the Cambridge geneticists found hepatitis range from 820 to 4,500 years old. The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates that hepatitis B existed across Europe and Asia as early as the Bronze Age.
. . .
Johannes Krause and his colleagues examined DNA extracted from the teeth of 53 ancient people in what is now Germany. Three of them were infected with hepatitis B, it turned out: one who lived about 1,000 years ago, a second person who lived 5,300 years ago and a third who lived 7,000 years ago.
. . .
Dr. Krause and his colleagues found that their Stone Age viruses were most closely related to strains of hepatitis B found today only in chimpanzees and gorillas.
He speculated that the virus jumped from apes to humans early in the history of our species in Africa. “It’s more likely this is really an old pathogen in humans for the last hundred thousand years or more,” he said.

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “In Ancient Skeletons, Scientists Discover a Modern Foe: Hepatitis B.” The New York Times (Thursday, May 10, 2018): A9.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 9, 2018. The print version cited above is the National Edition.)

The paper by the Cambridge geneticists, mentioned above, is:
Mühlemann, Barbara, Terry C. Jones, Peter de Barros Damgaard, Morten E. Allentoft, Irina Shevnina, Andrey Logvin, Emma Usmanova, Irina P. Panyushkina, Bazartseren Boldgiv, Tsevel Bazartseren, Kadicha Tashbaeva, Victor Merz, Nina Lau, Václav Smrčka, Dmitry Voyakin, Egor Kitov, Andrey Epimakhov, Dalia Pokutta, Magdolna Vicze, T. Douglas Price, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Anders J. Hansen, Ludovic Orlando, Simon Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Lasse Vinner, Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus, Derek J. Smith, Dieter Glebe, Ron A. M. Fouchier, Christian Drosten, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev. “Ancient Hepatitis B Viruses from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period.” Nature 557, no. 7705 (May 9, 2018): 418-23.

The paper co-authored by Krause, and mentioned above, is:
Krause-Kyora, Ben, Julian Susat, Felix M. Key, Denise Kühnert, Esther Bosse, Alexander Immel, Christoph Rinne, Sabin-Christin Kornell, Diego Yepes, Sören Franzenburg, Henrike O. Heyne, Thomas Meier, Sandra Lösch, Harald Meller, Susanne Friederich, Nicole Nicklisch, Kurt W. Alt, Stefan Schreiber, Andreas Tholey, Alexander Herbig, Almut Nebel, and Johannes Krause. “Neolithic and Medieval Virus Genomes Reveal Complex Evolution of Hepatitis B.” eLife 7 (2018): e36666.