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A New Human Relative

Johannesburg, South Africa


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten Homo NalediScientists have long searched for the transitional species between apelike australopithecines, such as Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), and early humans, such as Homo habilis. And now, deep in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, they may have unearthed it.


When amateur cavers told Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, that they had located hominin remains in the nearby cave system, he knew he could not make it in to retrieve them himself. The passageway was extremely narrow, just seven inches wide at one point. So Berger put out a call on Facebook for diminutive, non-claustrophobic scientists and recruited a team of six women who fit the criteria.


Marina Elliott, an archaeologist from Simon Fraser University in Canada, was the first to enter the chamber. “I was stunned,” she says. “I shone my headlight around and picked up flashes of bone all over the place.” Elliott and her colleagues retrieved more than 1,500 specimens, from at least fifteen different individuals. A larger team of scientists, led by Berger, determined that the remains belong to a previously unknown species, which they named Homo naledi after its resting place—naledi means “star” in the local Sesotho language.


Top Ten Naledi SkullThe newly discovered species had a novel mix of primitive and modern features. Its head was tiny, with a brain the size of an orange, but its skull was humanlike in shape. Its hands were adapted for manipulating objects and its feet for walking upright, but its shoulders and fingers were built for climbing. “We never expected to see a combination of characteristics like this,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “but they’re all in Homo naledi, and that’s surprising.”


The researchers suspect Homo naledi may be among the earliest members of the genus Homo, which would mean it most likely existed around 2.5 million years ago. However, they have so far been unable to date the remains.

Earliest Stone Tools

West Turkana, Kenya


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten LomekwiStone toolmaking has been considered one of the defining characteristics of members of the genus Homo, but this year it was announced that newly discovered tools predate the first known humans. A research team led by Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University found the tools at a site called Lomekwi 3 in Kenya. They are believed to be 3.3 million years old, predating Homo habilis—the first known member of the genus Homo—by about 700,000 years. A group of fossils roughly contemporaneous with the tools was discovered nearby in 1999 and dubbed Kenyanthropus platyops, a small-brained hominin that seemed unlikely to have used tools—until now. Harmand believes that stones were just one part of the early hominin toolkit and says, “Why not think that our ancestors from the beginning were using many, many tools?”

Bronze Age Bride

Copenhagen, Denmark


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten Egtved Girl


In 1921, the well-preserved remains of a young woman who died around 1370 B.C. were discovered in an elite burial near the town of Egtved, Denmark. For almost a century, she was thought to have been a local, and became known as the “Egtved Girl,” but new research has amended her story and what it may say about Bronze Age marriage alliances.


Top Ten Egtved BurialA waterlogged, acidic environment had preserved the young woman’s clothing, hair, tooth enamel, fingernails, and parts of her brain and skin. Also preserved were the cremated remains of a young child. A team led by Karin Frei of the National Museum of Denmark analyzed strontium isotopes in the young woman’s tooth enamel and found she did not grow up on the Jutland Peninsula, where Egtved is located. Instead, she was most likely raised in the Black Forest region of southern Germany, around 500 miles away. The researchers believe she was sent from her home to marry a chieftain in Jutland. Further analysis of the young woman’s fingernails and hair shows that, in the final years of her life, she appears to have moved from the Black Forest to Jutland, back to the Black Forest, then back to Jutland again shortly before her death.


The remains of the child found with the young woman may help explain these travels. “Dynastic marriages were often followed by an exchange of ‘foster brothers’ to secure the alliance,” says Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg. In such a scenario, after marrying the chieftain in Jutland, the young woman would have been sent back to the Black Forest along with a boy from Jutland, who would have been raised by her people. She would then have returned to Jutland with a young male relative, who would be raised there. The child’s cremated remains led Kristiansen to propose that the death occurred en route and the remains were buried later with the young woman when she, too, died after her return to Jutland.

The First Artists

Sulawesi, Indonesia


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten Cave Art


Dating cave art is notoriously difficult. But a team of researchers has taken advantage of serendipitous conditions in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to establish that images there rival any known from Western Europe in terms of age. A stencil created as the artist blew pigment around a hand is at least 39,900 years old, they report, and a painting of a piglike animal was laid down at least 35,700 years ago.


The researchers established the designs’ minimum ages by calculating the dates of deposits that had built up on top of the pigment. They had observed that, as mineral-laden water percolates through the caves’ limestone walls, calcite gradually accumulates on their surfaces. These deposits contain uranium, which decays to thorium at a known rate, so their age can be ascertained from the ratio of the two elements.


The discovery raises a new question: Did people in Southeast Asia and Western Europe develop artistic expression independently, or was it pioneered by early humans before they left Africa? “We don’t know,” says Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Australia, “but my opinion is it probably developed a long time ago, in Africa, and then it just spread out.”

Tomb of a Highborn Celt

Lavau, France


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten CauldronDuring a routine investigation of an area slated for construction in the village of Lavau in north-central France, archaeologists happened upon one of the most remarkable Iron Age discoveries of the past century. Beneath a mound measuring 130 feet in diameter, researchers from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research were stunned to find the burial of an early Celtic “prince” dating to the fifth century B.C. They were initially unable to determine the individual’s gender, and some of the accoutrements associated with dress found near the body suggested the skeleton belonged to a woman. But testing has now confirmed with certainty that the deceased was, in fact, male.


This wealthy Iron Age prince was buried with an assortment of luxury items, including imported Mediterranean vessels, gold jewelry, and a chariot. A finely crafted bronze wine cauldron decorated with the heads of animals and mythological creatures, and a black-figure Greek wine pitcher, indicate that the Celts in this area had robust trade and political ties with the Greeks and Etruscans—and also distinguish this as the grave of a significant person. “He had to be at the top of the local aristocracy,” says archaeologist Bastien Dubuis. “All this wealth is a reflection of the central importance of the character buried here, who exercised economic and political power in the region.”


Imported Mediterranean wine was a key commodity for the early Celts. This burial and others like it demonstrate that rituals and paraphernalia associated with the drinking and distribution of wine played a vital role in Celtic society.