Rise of Civilization Made Possible by Fish

(p. C7) The subtitle of “Fishing” rather misleads: Mr. Fagan, an archaeological writer and emeritus professor at U.C. Santa Barbara, devotes nearly half this book to the way fishing was practiced for hundreds of thousands of years in subsistence cultures around the world, beginning with pre-Neanderthal hominids trapping catfish in shallow pools or shrinking rivers. He goes on to survey ancient fishing practices in the East and the West, the Old World and the New, and then the rise and fall of civilizations, the ascendancy of commerce, and such contemporary tools as lines 60 miles long bearing 30,000 baited hooks.
Along the way we find that fishing not only sustained ancient empires and modern nations to a degree we may not have grasped before–the pyramids of Giza, Mr. Fagan notes, could not have been built without hundreds of workers processing thousands of Nile fish each day, both fresh and dried, for laborers–but nurtured them as well.
The cooperative nature of fishing, wherever catches were rich and stable, fostered complex and hierarchical communities long before cities arose. The technologies of boat-building and seamanship seeded exploration. Shells, beads and dried or salted fish sustained long-distance trade networks, and even today, Mr. Fagan writes, fish are “the most traded commodity in the world.” And of course preserved fish–nutritious, lightweight, long-lasting–were the primary fuel of merchant fleets, navies and conquering armies.
No coincidence, then, that civilizations flourished along seacoasts or river systems, and yet we conceive of civilization as primarily an agricultural phenomenon, and we celebrate the farmer as its founder and culture hero. By contrast, fishermen, writes Mr. Fagan, “lived at the obscure margins of society, anonymous, hard-working, and laconic, and largely outside the dramas that interest historians.”

For the full review, see:

Richard Adams Carey. “What the Land Owes to the Sea.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 23, 2017): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 22, 2017.)

The book under review, is:
Fagan, Brian. Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

300,000-Year-Old Homo Sapien Fossils Found

(p. A6) Fossils discovered in Morocco are the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens, scientists reported on Wednesday [June 7, 2017], a finding that rewrites the story of mankind’s origins and suggests that our species evolved in multiple locations across the African continent.
“We did not evolve from a single ‘cradle of mankind’ somewhere in East Africa,” said Philipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and a co-author of two new studies on the fossils, published in the journal Nature. “We evolved on the African continent.”
Until now, the oldest known fossils of our species dated back just 195,000 years. The Moroccan fossils, by contrast, are roughly 300,000 years old. Remarkably, they indicate that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.
. . .
Resetting the clock on mankind’s debut would be achievement enough. But the new research is also notable for the discovery of several early humans rather than just one, as so often happens, said Marta Mirazon Lahr, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the new study.
“We have no other place like it, so it’s a fabulous finding,” she said.
The people at Jebel Irhoud shared a general resemblance to one another — and to living humans. Their brows were heavy, their chins small, their faces flat and wide. But all in all, they were not so different from people today.
“The face is that of somebody you could come across in the Metro,” Dr. Hublin said.
The flattened faces of early Homo sapiens may have something to do with the advent of speech, speculated Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
“We really are at very early stages of trying to explain these things,” Dr. Stringer said.
The brains of the inhabitants of Jebel Irhoud, on the other hand, were less like our own.
Although they were as big as modern human brains, they did not yet have its distinctively round shape. They were long and low, like those of earlier hominins.
Dr. Gunz, of the Max Planck Institute, said that the human brain may have become rounder at a later phase of evolution. Two regions in the back of the brain appear to have become enlarged over thousands of years.
“I think what we see reflect adaptive changes in the way the brain functions,” he said. Still, he added, no one knows how a rounder brain changed how we think.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelles and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
The flint is interesting for another reason: Researchers traced its origin to another site about 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud. Early Homo sapiens, then, knew how to search out and to use resources spread over long distances.

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “MATTER; Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Species.” The New York Times (Thurs., JUNE 8, 2017): A6.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 7, 2017, and has the title “MATTER; Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Our Species.”)

I believe the two Nature articles mentioned above, are:
Hublin, Jean-Jacques, Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, Shara E. Bailey, Sarah E. Freidline, Simon Neubauer, Matthew M. Skinner, Inga Bergmann, Adeline Le Cabec, Stefano Benazzi, Katerina Harvati, and Philipp Gunz. “New Fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the Pan-African Origin of Homo Sapiens.” Nature 546, no. 7657 (June 8, 2017): 289-92.
Richter, Daniel, Rainer Grün, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Teresa E. Steele, Fethi Amani, Mathieu Rué, Paul Fernandes, Jean-Paul Raynal, Denis Geraads, Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, Jean-Jacques Hublin, and Shannon P. McPherron. “The Age of the Hominin Fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the Origins of the Middle Stone Age.” Nature 546, no. 7657 (June 8, 2017): 293-96.

“Warfare Among Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers”

(p. A7) The scene was a lagoon on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The time about 10,000 years ago. One group of hunter-gatherers attacked and slaughtered another, leaving the dead with crushed skulls, embedded arrow or spear points, and other devastating wounds.
The dead, said the scientists who reported the discovery Wednesday [January 20, 2016] in the journal Nature, seem to have been scattered in no apparent order, and eventually covered and preserved by sediment from the lake. Of 12 relatively complete skeletons, 10 showed unmistakable signs of violent death, the scientists said. Partial remains of at least 15 other people were found at the site and are thought to have died in the same attack.
The bones at the lake, in northern Kenya, tell a tale of ferocity. One man was hit twice in the head by arrows or small spears and in the knee by a club. A woman, pregnant with a 6- to 9-month-old fetus, was killed by a blow to the head, the fetal skeleton preserved in her abdomen. The position of her hands and feet suggest that she may have been tied up before she was killed.
Violence has always been part of human behavior, but the origins of war are hotly debated. Some experts see it as deeply rooted in evolution, pointing to violent confrontations among groups of chimpanzees as clues to an ancestral predilection. Others emphasize the influence of complex and hierarchical human societies, and agricultural surpluses to be raided.
. . .
Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert A. Foley, of Cambridge University and the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and a team of other scientists, concluded in Nature that the find represented warfare among prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
Luke A. Glowacki, a postdoctoral researcher in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University not involved with the discovery, agreed. “There’s no other find like it,” he said.
With Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, Dr. Glowacki has traced the evolutionary roots of human warfare in chimpanzee behavior. And, he said, this find “shows warfare occurred before the invention of agriculture.”

For the full story, see:
JAMES GORMAN. “Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers.” The New York Times (Thurs., JAN. 21, 2016): A7.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 20, 2016, and has the title “Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers.”)

The Nature article mentioned above, is:
Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung, J. M. Maillo Fernandez, C. Kiarie, J. Lawrence, A. Leakey, E. Mbua, H. Miller, A. Muigai, D. M. Mukhongo, A. Van Baelen, R. Wood, J. L. Schwenninger, R. Grün, H. Achyuthan, A. Wilshaw, and R. A. Foley. “Inter-Group Violence among Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya.” Nature 529, no. 7586 (Jan. 21, 2016): 394-98.

Prehistoric Hunter Suffered from Ulcer-Causing Microbe

(p. A7) Microbes that once troubled the stomach of a prehistoric hunter known as “Otzi the Iceman,” who died on an Alpine glacier 5,300 years ago, are offering researchers a rare insight into the early settlement of Europe.
In findings reported Thursday [January 7, 2016] in Science, an international research group analyzed remnants of ulcer-causing microbes called Helicobacter pylori exhumed from the well-preserved mummy of the Neolithic nomad. With modern DNA sequencing technology, they reconstructed the genetic structure of this ancient microbe–the oldest known pathogen sequenced so far.
. . .
“We know he had a rough lifestyle,” said Frank Maixner at the European Academy Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, who led the team of 23 scientists. “We found a lot of pathological conditions.”
. . .
The researchers also determined that the bacteria had inflamed his stomach lining, indicating that the prehistoric hunter, fleeing into the icy highlands where he was shot in the back with an arrow and beaten, may have been feeling ill on the day he was murdered.

For the full story, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “Iceman’s Gut Sheds Light on Human Migration.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Jan. 8, 2016): A7.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 7, 2016, and has the title “Otzi the Iceman’s Stomach Sheds Light on Copper-Age Migration to Europe.”)

The research summarized in the passages quoted above, was more fully reported in:
Maixner, Frank, Ben Krause-Kyora, Dmitrij Turaev, Alexander Herbig, Michael R. Hoopmann, Janice L. Hallows, Ulrike Kusebauch, Eduard Egarter Vigl, Peter Malfertheiner, Francis Megraud, Niall O’Sullivan, Giovanna Cipollini, Valentina Coia, Marco Samadelli, Lars Engstrand, Bodo Linz, Robert L. Moritz, Rudolf Grimm, Johannes Krause, Almut Nebel, Yoshan Moodley, Thomas Rattei, and Albert Zink. “The 5300-Year-Old Helicobacter pylori Genome of the Iceman.” Science 351, no. 6269 (Jan. 8, 2016): 162-65.

Modern Technology Adds to Knowledge of Culture and Religion

(p. A6) Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.
Just such a technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.
It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.
The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll’s blackened and beaten-up exterior. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it,” said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Scholars say this remarkable new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled.
. . .
The experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
. . .
The feat of recovering the text was made possible by software programs developed by W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. Inspired by the hope of reading the many charred and unopenable scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, Dr. Seales has been working for the last 13 years on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll.
. . .
He succeeded in 2009 in working out the physical structure of the ruffled layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum scroll.
He has since developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS WADE. “Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Biblical Scroll.” The New York Times (Thurs., SEPT. 22, 2016): A6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 21, 2016, and has the title “Modern Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll.”)

Cancer 1.7 Million Years Ago in Human Ancestor

(p. D3) Carcinogens abounded 1.7 million years ago in Early Pleistocene times when a nameless protohuman wandered the South African countryside in what came to be known as the Cradle of Humankind.
Then, as now, ultraviolet radiation poured from the sun, and radon seeped from granite in the ground. Viruses like ones circulating today scrambled DNA. And there were the body’s own carcinogens, hormones that switch on at certain times of life, accelerating the multiplication of cells and increasing the likelihood of mutations.
That, rather than some external poison, was probably the cause of a bone tumor diagnosed as an osteosarcoma found fossilized in Swartkrans Cave, a paleoanthropological trove northwest of Johannesburg. A paper in the current South African Journal of Science describes the discovery, concluding that it is the oldest known case of cancer in an early human ancestor.
. . .
The seemingly small number of malignant tumors reported by anthropologists is probably an illusion. The only cancers that can be found in long-decomposed remains are those that originated in the skeleton or somehow left a mark there. They include cancers that spread from other organs or, like myeloma, could scar the skeleton in other ways. For most ancient cancers, the evidence rots away. Mummified bodies are rare, but here, too, an occasional cancer has been found.

For the full story, see:
Johnson, George. “RAW DATA; After 1.7 Million Years, a Bone Cancer Diagnosis.” The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 23, 2016): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 22, 2016, and has the title “RAW DATA; The Known: Cancer Is Really, Really Old. The Unknown: How Common It Was.”)

The academic article mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:
Edward, J. Odes, S. Randolph-Quinney Patrick, Steyn Maryna, Throckmorton Zach, S. Smilg Jacqueline, Zipfel Bernhard, Augustine Tanya, Beer Frikkie De, W. Hoffman Jakobus, D. Franklin Ryan, and R. Berger Lee. “Earliest Hominin Cancer: 1.7-Million-Year-Old Osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa.” South African Journal of Science 112, no. 7/8 (July/Aug. 2016): 1-5.

Meat Residue on Stone Blades from 250,000 Years Ago

(p. D2) James Pokines, a forensic anthropologist at the Boston University School of Medicine, and his colleagues uncovered several 250,000-year-old blades and hand axes, with bits of rhinoceros, horse and camel on them, in Jordan.
. . .
The findings, which were published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, may be the oldest evidence of protein residue on stone tools.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS ST. FLEUR. “Etched in Stone: Early Carving Knives.” The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 23, 2016): D2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date AUG. 22, 2016, and has the title Carving the Meat Before Meals, 250,000 Years Ago.”)

The research mentioned above, is elaborated in the academic article:
Nowell, A., C. Walker, C. E. Cordova, C. J. H. Ames, James T. Pokines, D. Stueber, R. DeWitt, and A. S. A. al-Souliman. “Middle Pleistocene Subsistence in the Azraq Oasis, Jordan: Protein Residue and Other Proxies.” Journal of Archaeological Science 73 (Sept. 2016): 36-44.

Cancer Is Not Due to Modernity

(p. 1A) Scientists’ conventional opinion about cancer was that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon caused by the stresses of modern life.

Dietary changes, behavioral changes and man-made changes to our environment have subjected humans to toxins that contribute to cancers, they say.

But new findings from researchers at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand published in the South African Journal of Science challenge that assumption.

Paleontologists found a benign tumor in a 12 or 13-year-old boy specimen that dates back almost 2 million years.

More significantly, they also found a malignant tumor that’s 1.7 million years old on the little toe bone of a left foot.

Previously the oldest discovered human cancer was between 780,000 and 120,000 years old.

. . .

(p. 2A) “The evidence is out there that these conditions have been with us a long time and we’ve been kind of hoodwinked that cancer is a modernity,” said Patrick Randolph-Quinney, one of the study’s authors. “These things are ancient.”

The greatest predictor of cancer, the study argues, even in our ancestors, is longevity. The longer we live, the more chances something in our bodies goes wrong, the more chances that something is a tumor.

For the full story, see:
The Washington Post. “Ancient tumor upends notion of cancer as modern affliction; 1.7-million-year-old malignant growth is causing scientists to rethink diseases and human history.” Omaha World-Herald (Sat., JUNE 20, 2016): 1A & 2A.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The scientific article mentioned above, is:
Patrick, S. Randolph-Quinney, A. Williams Scott, Steyn Maryna, R. Meyer Marc, S. Smilg Jacqueline, E. Churchill Steven, J. Odes Edward, Augustine Tanya, Tafforeau Paul, and R. Berger Lee. “Osteogenic Tumour in Australopithecus Sediba: Earliest Hominin Evidence for Neoplastic Disease.” South African Journal of Science (July/Aug. 2016), DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150470.

How Many Government Staff Members Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb in King Tut’s Display Case?

(p. A7) The intense attention paid by experts to Tutankhamen’s tomb has not always been matched by staff members at the run-down Egyptian Museum. In January the government said eight people at the state-run museum were being disciplined for their role in a botched repair job that caused minor but lasting damage to King Tut’s golden burial mask.
The repair job was an attempt to correct the damage caused by workers who had accidentally knocked the beard from the 3,300-year-old artifact in August 2014 as they repaired a light fixture in its display case.

For the full story, see:
DECLAN WALSH. “King Tut’s Blade, and ‘Iron From the Sky’.” The New York Times (Fri., JUNE 3, 2016): A7.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 2, 2016, and has the title “King Tut’s Dagger Made of ‘Iron From the Sky,’ Researchers Say.”)

Haramiyids May Be Missing Link Between Reptiles and Mammals

(p. A17) With technologies like CT scans and 3-D printing, a team of scientists reported on Monday that it had solved a mystery about the family tree of mammals that started with a single tooth a century and a half ago.
The tooth, found in Germany in 1847, was tiny and distinctive in shape — not quite reptile, not quite mammal. More fossils of that kind were found around Europe, but always just single teeth. Scientists named this group of animals haramiyids — Arabic for “trickster.”
The teeth were embedded in rocks as old as 210 million years, an era in which ancestors of the first mammals were evolving.
. . .
What was unclear was whether Haramiyavia was a direct part of the family tree of mammals — that would push the emergence of mammals back to more than 200 million years ago — or an evolutionary branch that split off before common ancestors of mammals emerged, the view of paleontologists who believe that the first mammals evolved 170 million to 160 million years ago.

For the full story, see:
KENNETH CHANG. “Jawbone in Rock May Solve Mammal Family Mystery.” The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 17, 2015): A17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 16, 2015, and has the title “Jawbone in Rock May Clear Up a Mammal Family Mystery.”)

Denisovans May Have Mated with As-Yet-Undiscovered Hominin Species

(p. A17) A tooth fossil discovered in a Siberian cave has yielded DNA from a vanished branch of the human tree, mysterious cousins called the Denisovans, scientists said Monday [November 16, 2015].
Their analysis pushes back the oldest known evidence for Denisovans by 60,000 years, suggesting that the species was able to thrive in harsh climates for thousands of generations. The results also suggest that the Denisovans may have bred with other ancient hominins, relatives of modern humans whom science has yet to discover.
Todd Disotell, a molecular anthropologist at New York University who was not involved in the new study, said the report added to growing evidence that our species kept company with many near relatives over the past million years.
. . .
Some of the DNA in the Denisova 8 tooth hints at an even older interbreeding. While most of the genetic material in the tooth bears a close kinship with Neanderthals, some of it seems only distantly related to Neanderthal or human DNA.
One possible explanation, Dr. Paabo said in an interview, is that Denisovans interbred with another hominin species that lived in Asia. It is conceivable that this hominin was a species already known from fossil discoveries, such as Homo erectus. But it could also be a related species.
“If you would have told me five years ago I would be talking about species we don’t have any fossils for, I would have thought you were crazy,” Dr. Disotell said.

For the full story, see:
CARL ZIMMER. “Tooth in Cave Adds Earlier Evidence of Some Very Old Cousins, the Denisovans.” The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 17, 2015): A6.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 16, 2015, and has the title “In a Tooth, DNA From Some Very Old Cousins, the Denisovans.”)