Crowdfunding Fieldwork on the Early Upper Paleolithic

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Mughr el-Hamamah is a small cave overlooking the Jordan River Valley, opposite the Nablus mountains. It is located in the Jordanian governate of Ajloun. When our first major set of results were published–involving radiocarbon dates on wood charcoal fragments from the Early Upper Paleolithic campfire features we excavated–I reported on our collaborative research. Liv Nilsson Stutz and I work with an extraordinary team, including Chantel White of the University of Pennsylvania. Chantel is an archaeobotanist who specializes in identifying fragments of seeds, nuts and other plant food traces. We are further working with wood charcoal specialist Elenia Asouti (U. Liverpool) and plant phytolith specialists Rosa Albert and Monica Alonso-Eguiluz (U. Barcelona), as Mughr el-Hamamah joins one of a very small handful of Paleolithic sites in the Levant to preserve significant plant remains. Quite conveniently, the other sites come from different time periods. Gesher Benot Ya’akov (Israel) dates to the Lower Paleolithic (ca. 780,00 years ago). Kebara Cave (Israel) dates to the Middle Paleolithic (ca. 60,000 years ago). Ohalo II (Israel) dates to the Late Upper Paleolithic (ca. 23,000 years ago). Kharaneh IV (Jordan) dates mainly to the Early Epipaleolithic, ca. 19,000 years ago. And the Late Epipaleolithic sites of Abu Hureyra and Mureybet (Syria) date to ca. 13,000-12,000 years ago. Mughr el-Hamamah (Jordan) fits in, adding the Early Upper Paleolithic to this seqeuence. Because plant remains–used variously for food, tools, shelter, clothing, and fuel–are so rarely preserved in Paleolithic deposits, all of these sites are important for understanding how the omnivorous and technological dimensions of human environment and adaptive system evolved, over 100s of thousands of years.

I just posted a new labnote on our crowdfunding site to support our 2017 field campaign at Mughr el-Hamamah. The work that Liv, Chantel, and I are planning–with support from Rosa, Monica, and Eleni–will take place in late June and July this summer. Thanks to our collaboration with Chantel, we have tailored our field methods to carefully recover the charred plant remains from the site. You can view the lab note, which explains a bit about the site’s name (Caves of the Doves), here: http://www.experiment.com/u/CeZOVg. You can visit our crowdfunding page here: http://experiment.com/paleoplants. Please consider backing our project and sharing.

How did Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherers Use and Consume Plant Resources?

By Aaron Jonas Stutz

We are omnivores. That is our evolutionary heritage. We’re more intensely omnivorous than any other biological species. Through diverse cultural approaches, human societies extract plant and animal resources alike–some wild and terrestrial, many more more wild and aquatic, most terrestrial and domesticated. Human populations do so at a rate that is good H-G eatsterrifying in comparative ecological perspective. Our omnivorous diets have fed our current, still-growing biomass. (A variety of back-of-the-envelope estimates conclude that our biomass, including all 7.4ish billion of us alive today, exceeds what all of the trillions of ants weigh.)

The ecological advantage of omnivory comes into focus when we consider what kinds of plants we eat most. And it’s not so much the whole plant organism, as it is the plant tissues we prefer. Sure, certain leaves and stalks and roots provide fiber, minerals, vitamins, analgesics, or anti-inflammatory components. But we tend to go for those tissues that help the plant grow, because these are much richer in starch or fats, poorer in fiber: seeds, nuts, fruits, and edible roots and tuber bulbs. If we can gather these plant parts, we can pack a lot of calories into a few bites. Kaplan et al. (2010: 31) emphasize that–even before domestication, farming, cities, industrialization or globalization–our omnivorous niche was well-constructed by generations of hunter-gatherers:

Although human foragers have lived in virtually all the world’s terrestrial habitats, they always occupy one extreme feeding niche, eating the highest quality, most nutrient dense, and difficult to acquire plant and animal foods in their environment.

We get these “nutrient dense” animal and plant tissues thanks to an integrated adaptive system that evolved over millions of years. We cooperate to search for and get food, we use tools to leverage the rich tissues from the wider biosphere into our grasp, we transport the food, we prepare it to make it more digestible, and we share it. And we repeat the whole cycle. While we know the big picture pattern–our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, around 7 million years ago, was a lot less omnivorous than we are today–it’s hardly clear where and when our more recent ancestors in the genus Homo (including H. erectus, Neanderthals, anatomically modern humans) got so omnivorous.

Continue reading How did Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherers Use and Consume Plant Resources?

Homo naledi: Handling a Scientific Rorschach Test

by Aaron Jonas Stutz
Lateral view of Dinaledi Hominin 1, the holotype individual for which the new species Homo naledi has been named (Berger et al., 2015).
Lateral view of Dinaledi Hominin 1, the holotype individual for which the new species Homo naledi has been named (Berger et al., 2015).

The recently announced human fossil find site of Dinaledi really–and I mean really–defines the phrase of great scientific importance.

Already, the research team led by Lee Berger has uncovered more than 1500 human bone fragments. There appear to be thousands more–perhaps from dozens of individuals–yet to be excavated. The skeletal remains from the Dinaledi site in South Africa will provide us with so much information about an ancient human population that we are sure to confirm certain hypotheses about human evolution … and–of course–overturn others … and this will be done with a shatteringly unprecedented level of confidence about that population’s biological variability.

It’ll just take some time.

Continue reading Homo naledi: Handling a Scientific Rorschach Test

Read All About It: Oase I Neandertal Admixture Article Published

by Aaron Jonas Stutz
Oase 1 family tree
Can you find the Neandertal great-great-great grandparent? This plausible family tree is based on the paleogenomic analysis of the Oase I (mostly) anatomically modern mandible (Fu et al., 2015).

The Nature publishing group has taken a welcome step toward making the details of scientific research more widely accessible. The flagship cross-disciplinary journal Nature now provides full PDF text views for published articles linked from major media sites. Thus, the article on ancient genetically admixed Neandertal and modern human DNA recovered from the Oase I mandible–work authored by Qiaomei Fu and colleagues–has now been published, and everyone can read the full-text on nature.com. It’s available to everyone via media outlets such as the BBC here. You can click through the hyperlinked text in the BBC story. Now, you can’t download the PDF, but you can view it (apparently only once, as I discovered in trying to verify the BBC link just now) in its entirety in your web browser. It’s not open access, but it’s “opener.”

So what about the full, published version?

Continue reading Read All About It: Oase I Neandertal Admixture Article Published

Measuring the Beginning of the Upper Paleolithic

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Research on big issues in human evolution–like how Neandertals contributed to our own genetic diversity and to ancient cultural diversity … before they went extinct–certainly involves a level technical nitty gritty that even specialists in the field get worn down by. But sooner or later, we get back up, ready to geek out on the details again. For those of you interested and with institutional access, please check out our newly published article on radiocarbon dating the earliest Upper Paleolithic in the Levant. This is the first major publication on our work on the Mughr el-Hamamah site–work that has been led my Liv Nilsson Stutz and myself … but which has depended on and succeeded thanks to extensive collaboration (Stutz et al., in press). The article may be viewed here, although–as noted above–full access to this Journal of Human Evolution content requires a subscription, so you may be limited to the abstract:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248415001050?np=y

Liv Nilsson Stutz provides a narrated overview of the article here:

http://audioslides.elsevier.com//ViewerLarge.aspx?source=1&doi=10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.04.008

In addition, Emory University’s inimitable Carol Clark has published an great overview of the work here: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2015/06/stone-tools-from-jordan-point-to-dawn.html

In this post, I emphasize the key findings from our collaborative research on the Mughr el-Hamamah site, Jordan, and its importance for understanding the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. I also offer a brief peek at work to come. Continue reading Measuring the Beginning of the Upper Paleolithic