Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Pre-Homo Sapiens Hominin Presence In California? Probably Not.

Archaeologists found mastodon bones in San Diego, California that were revealed in connection with road work, that were uranium isotype dated to 130,700 years old plus or minus 9,400 years. So far, unsurprising and nothing different from the kinds of finds that have been coming out of the Le Brea tar pits not far from there are decades.

What is surprising is the claim that has been made about these bones:
Based on several lines of evidence—the way the bones are broken, the way they lay, the presence of large stones that show curious patterns of wear and are out-of-place in the surrounding sediment—the team think that early humans used rocks to hammer their way into the mastodon’s bones. That wouldn’t have been contentious in itself, but the team also claims that the bones from the “Cerruti Mastodon” are 130,000 years old. That would push back the earliest archaeological evidence for humans in North America by a whopping 115,000 years. . . .
To put that in perspective, for decades, the first American settlers were thought to be the Clovis people, who arrived 13,000 years ago. But by discovering older sites with strong evidence of human activity, archaeologists confirmed that the continent had a pre-Clovis presence that dates back 14,600 years—or perhaps even further. Genetic studies have also suggested that modern humans entered America from Asia even earlier, around 23,000 years ago. . . .
They found the mastodon’s bones in a couple of concentrated clusters rather than in a scattered mess. The tops of both thigh-bones had broken off and were lying side-by-side, amid a concentration of other bones. One of the tusks was lying horizontally in the sediment, the other was sticking up vertically. The team think that the remains of a naturally decaying mastodon wouldn’t have ended up in such distinctive patterns—and the bones of nearby bones of wolves and horses certainly didn’t.

And although fragile bones like ribs and vertebrae were still intact, stronger ones like molars and thigh-bones were broken. The fractures aren’t consistent with chewing teeth or trampling feet; instead they look like the breaks you get when you deliberately smash a still-living bone. The team even tried doing this: they smacked modern elephant and cow bones with rocks, and got fractures very similar to the ones on the Cerruti mastodon.

At the site, the team found five large stones (cobbles) amid their clusters of bones, which could have acted as hammers and anvils. These rocks sat in a layer of fine, silt-like sediment, and were far bigger and harder than anything around them. “How did they get there?” says Deméré. “They weren’t being transported by flowing water at the same time as the silt.” Instead, he suggests that they were carried to the site and used to infiltrate the mastodon bones—presumably to get at the marrow within. Sure enough, the rocks showed signs of impact, and the team even managed to fit several detached flakes back onto the “parent” stones.
The gap between the genetic date and the archaeological one is attributed to the "Beringian standstill theory" which holds that the founding population of the Americas entered Beringia around 23,000 years ago, couldn't go further to enter North America from this location due to massive glaciers at the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum, and then started to migrate south to the Americas starting around 15,000 years ago when a gap in the ice emerged.

A date 130,000 years ago would make this find contemporaneous with, or even a few thousand years earlier than, the earliest modern human presence outside of Africa in the Levant and Arabia, and long before any evidence that modern humans had managed to get as far as what is now Turkey, Iran, Pakistan or India.

In other words, if it was a hominin at all, it would probably have to be an archaic hominin, such as Homo Erectus, a Neanderthal, a Denisovan, or a "Hobbit". But, to make the trip to from Siberia to the Pacific Coast of California, you have to pass through the Arctic and near Arctic territory in that vicinity which there is no evidence that "Hobbits" or Homo Erectus ever could.

Now, there is evidence that there were Neanderthals in the Altai Mountains at the Southern rim of Siberia, as late as 100,000 years ago, and Denisovans would also have been in that vicinity in roughly the right time frame, and either of them could have chased herds of megafauna that led them to North America. But, there is no definitive evidence of either Neanderthals or Denisovans east of the Altai, and certain no evidence of either of them in the Americas at any time.

And, they would have to get there at just the right time. Beringia is only a passable land bridge during major global ice ages. So, they would have had to make the trek sometime before 130,000 years ago during an ice age as severe as the Last Glacial Maximum of 20,000 years ago.

There were indeed some ice ages in the relevant time period.

A date 130,000 +/- 9,400 years ago could have been in the period immediately following an ice age that peaked around 145,000 years ago followed by rapid warming. An ice age peak 340,000 years ago (which may not have been severe enough to give rise to a land bridge) and an ice age peak about 430,000 years ago (which would have been comparable to the Last Glacial Maximum) may have been severe enough to give rise to passable land bridges from Siberia to North America. But before that, there probably wouldn't have been a Eurasian hominin species that could have made the trek.

The trouble is that no one has ever found any hominin or even great age remains in North America or South America that are not modern human, no one has found any hominin remains  (or other other clear traces like footprints) in North America or South America that old, and no one has found any convincingly hominin made tools that old in North America or South America, at least until now.

There are alternative potential explanations. Maybe giant sloths or bears figured out how to use very primitive tools. Maybe the bones really were 130,000 years old, but the hominins who tried to break them up and process them with large stones came along 115,000 years later. Maybe the stones were formed by natural processes and the beast that took them down was a bit OCD. But, the huge gap in the archaeological record until this find appears prompts the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, while the evidence at this sight is highly indirect, highly inferential, and ultimately pretty marginal.

While this is an interesting hypothesis to entertain, and this find is enough to form the basis of a legitimate scientific hypothesis, ultimately, it is too little to support such an extraordinary paradigm shift by itself.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Are Ergative Languages A Sign Of An Ancient And Now Diminished Language Family?

Before being displaced by Semitic and Indo-European languages, most of the languages of Mesopotamia (e.g. Sumerian), the highland of West Asia (e.g. Elamite, Kassite, Hurrian), Anatolia (Hattic, Urartian, Kaskian), and the Caucasus mountain region (almost all Northwestern, Northeastern and Southern Caucasian languages) were ergative languages, a linguistic feature related to verb tense that is not notable for historic linguistic purposes for being a deep structural grammatical feature of certain languages than it is for the details of how it works when you are using the language.

There are also a few outlier ergative languages that exist today of uncertain provenance. Basque is ergative. A couple of Western Berber languages seem to have an ergative substrate.

I suspect that many pre-IE Aegean languages, including Minoan and a Peloponnese language which is a substrate in Greek share this grammatical trait.

I also suspect that the Harappan language shares this trait (and FWIW, I strongly suspect that the Harappans did not speak a language in the same family as Dravidian with one source of evidence being the nature of the apparent substrate in Vedic Sanskrit - an interesting article on Vedic Indian is here). One clue: "A lot of Indo-Iranian languages are partially ergative as well, with the Kurdish languages, Pashto, and Baloch". This is suggestive of an ergative substrate in the Harappan trade zone which makes sense given that Elamite of West Asia is ergative and that Harappans have trade ties to Sumeria and probably arrives as West Asian farmers from the Fertile Crescent where their agricultural package was developed over Persia to the Indus River Valley. (Notably, there appears to be genetic continuity between early West Asian farmers and modern Iranian Zoroastrians).

It is possible, even likely, that this was also a feature of the language of the early Caucasian Farmers even pre-Uruk.

Kurdish, an Indo-European language spoken in a historically ergative language region, has ergative traits. Related is that: "There is also ergativity in Northeastern Neo-Aramaic dialects, which I’m pretty sure is the only case in the whole Semitic family. Probably the result of Kurdish influence (1,000-2,000 years of diglossia, in some cases)—but possibly a direct holdover from the Iron Age ergative highlands?" Again, substrate or strong areal influences.

I also suspect that there was an early metal age migration from the Caucasus/Armenia region into Anatolia, possibly elite led, that gave rise to the Hattic culture from there, the Minoan culture, that was in place before the rise of the Indo-European Hittites there, which replaced the first wave Neolithic culture of Anatolia that had probably prevailed until then.

It is also possible that this was true even of the early Anatolian farmers although the Anatolian farmer possibility is more of a stretch, but there are plausible alternative sources for ergative languages in Anatolia since then. But, if it was true, then the language of Early European Farmers (LBK and CP) was probably ergative and the possibility of Basque being a language of the first farmers acquired by migrant men in Iberia from their local wives, rather than a transplant from a homeland where an ergative language was spoken. If not, Basque must have been part of a language family that was ergative spoken near where Y-DNA R1b and steppe ancestry were common - a metal working, cow husbandry utilizing civilization that is genetically very much like the proto-Indo-Europeans, but was linguistically very different.

Linguists studying these languages tend to be splitters and not lumpers. But, my own strong intuition is that all of these languages have a common linguistic family relationship, although perhaps at a sufficient time depth that it is difficult to reconstruct a proto-language using the strict comparative method, especially when many of the languages in question are dead and only attested in a fragmentary manner. They have too many features in common and are too distinct, while in close geographic proximity to each other, not to be related.

One plausible means by which this language family may have spread is via the Uruk colonies established in the South and North Caucasus ca. 3500 BCE to 3100 BCE discussed here. It isn't clear when the first farmers reached these areas, but their elaborate phonetics and grammar suggest that these language have had few new language learners or outside influences for many thousands of years. They are relict languages. Razib explains that he is: "alluding to the period between 3500 and 3100 BCE in the Near East when the city of Uruk was the nexus for and a source of a massive cultural and mercantile expansion. I’ll quote Wikipedia:"
Around 3600 BC, during the Middle Uruk period, Uruk trade networks started to expand to other parts of Mesopotamia, and as far as North Caucasus. According to archaeologist Konstantine Pitskhelauri, this expansion started even earlier, at the end of the 5th millennium BC, and continued in the 4th millennium. 
Large masses of Uruk migrants settled in the South, and later in the North Caucasus. The sites in this general area include Habuba Kabira in Syria, and Arslantepe in Turkey. Uruk expansion to the northeast included sites like Godin Tepe in Iran. Tepe Gawra, in northwest Iraq, is another important site with deep stratigraphy that includes the Uruk period in later layers. Hamoukar is a large site in northeastern Syria that has been recently excavated; it includes Uruk and pre-Uruk layers. 
Uruk enclaves have also been identified at Tell Brak and Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, and on the Syrian Euphrates at Qrayya, and Jebel Aruda. On the Euphrates in Anatolia, Uruk enclaves were found at Hassek Hoyuk, Samsat, and Tepecik (Elazığ Province, near Keban Dam).
Razib suggests that these were Roman-like colonies of migrants, rather than being integrated with local peoples other than through treaties with local tribal chiefdoms and trade. They vanished as completely as they arose.