Monday, January 18, 2016

Two Notable Pre-Holocene Traces Of Hominins In Asia

* Maju notes the discovery of 118,000 year old flaked stone tools on the island of Sulawasi (formerly known as Celebres) in what is now called Indonesia (which would be advanced and unexpected for Homo Erectus) on the Papuan side of the Wallace line.   This is 58,000-78,000 years before any previously evidence of hominin presence on the island.

The term "flaked stone tools" used in the Guardian newspaper of London story that he references can hide a multitude of sins and isn't specific enough to distinguish tools typically associated with one hominin species from another.  Even tools from the Oldowan Industry, which was utilized by very early Homo Erectus and earlier Homo species could arguably be described as flaked.

Thus, while the tools were surely made by hominins (assuming for the time being that the characterization of the discovery as flaked tools and the dating by the investigators interviewed is accurate), the description in the story is insufficient to distinguish any of the hominin species that made it to Eurasia from each other based upon the technological distinctiveness alone, although a more precise description of these tools might make it possible to rule out some potential hominin species.

Wikipedia sums up the prehistory of the island prior to the report he references in the Guardian newspaper of London as follows:
Before October 2014, the settlement of South Sulawesi by modern humans had been dated to c. 30,000 BC on the basis of radiocarbon dates obtained from rock shelters in Maros. No earlier evidence of human occupation had at that point been found, but the island almost certainly formed part of the land bridge used for the settlement of Australia and New Guinea by at least 40,000 BCE. There is no evidence of Homo erectus having reached Sulawesi; crude stone tools first discovered in 1947 on the right bank of the Walennae River at Berru, Indonesia, which were thought to date to the Pleistocene on the basis of their association with vertebrate fossils, are now thought to date to perhaps 50,000 BC.

Following Peter Bellwood's model of a southward migration of Austronesian-speaking farmers, radiocarbon dates from caves in Maros suggest a date in the mid-second millennium BC for the arrival of an a group from east Borneo speaking a Proto-South Sulawesi language (PSS). Initial settlement was probably around the mouth of the Sa'dan river, on the northwest coast of the peninsula, although the south coast has also been suggested. Subsequent migrations across the mountainous landscape resulted in the geographical isolation of PSS speakers and the evolution of their languages into the eight families of the South Sulawesi language group. If each group can be said to have a homeland, that of the Bugis – today the most numerous group – was around lakes Témpé and Sidénréng in the Walennaé depression. Here for some 2,000 years lived the linguistic group that would become the modern Bugis; the archaic name of this group (which is preserved in other local languages) was Ugiq. Despite the fact that today they are closely linked with the Makasar, the closest linguistic neighbours of the Bugis are the Toraja.

Pre-1200 Bugis society was most likely organised into chiefdoms. Some anthropologists have speculated these chiefdoms would have warred and, in times of peace, exchanged women with each other. Further they have speculated that personal security would have been negligible, and head-hunting an established cultural practice. The political economy would have been a mixture of hunting and gathering and swidden or shifting agriculture. Speculative planting of wet rice may have taken place along the margins of the lakes and rivers.

In Central Sulawesi there are over 400 granite megaliths, which various archaeological studies have dated to be from 3000 BC to AD 1300. They vary in size from a few centimetres to around 4.5 metres (15 ft). The original purpose of the megaliths is unknown. About 30 of the megaliths represent human forms. Other megaliths are in form of large pots (Kalamba) and stone plates (Tutu'na).

In October 2014 it was announced that cave paintings in Maros had been dated as being about 40,000 years old. Dr Maxime Aubert, of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, said that the minimum age for the outline of a hand was 39,900 years old, which made it "the oldest hand stencil in the world" and added, "Next to it is a pig that has a minimum age of 35,400 years old, and this is one of the oldest figurative depictions in the world, if not the oldest one."
Maju ponders if this could represent a very early modern human relic, and also considers that it might perhaps involved tools left behind by an archaic hominin, such as the species that left Denisovan DNA in Papuans and Aboriginal Australians which he associates with H. Hiedelbergensi, or perhaps H. Florensis, which may or may not be a dwarf species of H. Hiedelbergensi in his estimation.

I don't claim an equal level of certainty about the skeletal remains that should be associated with Denisovan DNA, but agree that an archaic hominin is a likely possibility.

This time period is largely a blank slate in Indonesia due to a lack of archaeological evidence.

While I agree that modern humans were in SW Asia by 120,000 years ago or so, I am not yet convinced by the thin available evidence that modern humans made it to Indonesia or East Asia that early on, although a few finds like this one, if the technology could be determined to be definitely modern human could convince me otherwise.

The need for maritime travel so very, very early on also casts doubt on a modern human explanation even if the East Asian traces of modern human-like evidence turns out to have been correct.  There would be times earlier and later in history when low sea levels could have compensated for inferior seafaring by modern humans or other hominins 120,000 years ago or more ago, but the window from time from Out of Africa to this site is too small and lacks the sea levels to be explained this way.

* Dienekes' Anthropology Blog, meanwhile, notes evidence supporting a much larger range of Upper Paleolithic modern humans (in degrees of latitude and time frame) than was previously supported by archaeological evidence.

Specifically, this is about 1,080 miles further North and at least 10,000 years earlier than any previous trace of a hominin presence in northern Eurasia, tends to coincide with the appearance of modern humans in Europe (which came at least 10,000 years after the commonly accepted beginning on the Upper Paleolithic era), and may disturb the correspondence between the Siberian mass extinction event and a modern human presence in the area which had previously been assumed to tightly correspond to each other.

The abstract and paper are as follows:
Archaeological evidence for human dispersal through northern Eurasia before 40,000 years ago is rare. In west Siberia, the northernmost find of that age is located at 57°N. Elsewhere, the earliest presence of humans in the Arctic is commonly thought to be circa 35,000 to 30,000 years before the present. A mammoth kill site in the central Siberian Arctic, dated to 45,000 years before the present, expands the populated area to almost 72°N. The advancement of mammoth hunting probably allowed people to survive and spread widely across northernmost Arctic Siberia.
Vladimir V. Pitulko, Alexei N. Tikhonov et al., "Early human presence in the Arctic: Evidence from 45,000-year-old mammoth remains". 351/6270 Science 260-263 (January 15, 2016).

He rightly notes that the case for this mammoth kill being made by modern humans rather than Neanderthals is circumstantial but strong.

The Neanderthal range, per Wikipedia.

Neanderthals didn't generally make it further North than ca. 50°N latitude, and was only found at even lower latitudes in Northern Asia.

The appearance of a Neanderthal mammoth kill more than 1584 miles north of Africa at the precise moment in time when modern humans start to appear in Europe after hundreds of thousands of years of Neanderthal presence in West Eurasia is just too much of a coincidence to be credible, while this is a quite natural, incremental possibility for a modern human mammoth kill.


terryt said...

"the island almost certainly formed part of the land bridge used for the settlement of Australia and New Guinea by at least 40,000 BCE."

Not quite correct. Sulawesi is technically east of Wallace's Line as even at times of lowest sea level it was separated from Borneo by open water. However the barrier in that region is nowhere near as well-defined as is the Lombok/Bali line. There has obviously been some movement into the island from the Asian mainland as shown by the very aberrant Barbarossa pig and the tail-less macaque.

andrew said...

The sentence that follows is far more important: "There is no evidence of Homo erectus having reached Sulawesi[.]"

Maju said...

I do not claim they are H. sapiens, just consider it within the range of possibilities. As for H. erectus (senso lato) we have the clear case of H. floresiensis, also in Wallacea, also needing to have navigated one way or another to that island (further away than Sulawesi from Sundaland).

There is also a foot bone from Philipines (Callao maybe?) of quite an old age and unclear affiliation but do not remember how old it is right now. It was in any case beyond what is reachable by mere walking and therefore part of the puzzle of early human navigation.

Another indirect evidence suggesting an archaic hominid, H. heidelbergensis (alias Denisovans), can be the fact that Denisovan admixture is concentrated almost exclusively beyond Wallace Line. If the admixture even happened in mainland Asia we could expect to find more Denisovan genetics this side of Wallace line (we do find something but it's tiny, nothing comparable to what is found SE of it).

andrew said...

It would be helpful to know how the Sulawesi stone tools compare to those of H. Florensis, H. Heidelbergensis, H. Erectus, Neanderthals, and contemporaneous H. Sapiens in SW Asia and Africa. This would at least provide some clues.

I am not convinced that the puzzle pieces fit together yet and see lots of possibilities that are hard to discriminate from each other.

Maju said...

Flake industry! It's very hard to make distinctions with that simple technology, which was used in parts of SE Asia until very late in time. That's a true problem with East Asian archaeology until the arrival of the "mode 4" or "blade" or "Upper Paleolithic" tech via Altai.

andrew said...

I agree that it is hard to make distinctions if that is really the technology involved. But, I don't consider a newspaper report to be a reliable source for such a fine distinction. Even a pretty good reporter wouldn't necessary pick up on the difference between different modes of stone tools in a second hand account of an academic paper. Have you looked for, or found, the research that is being reported upon in the story?

andrew said...

Scratch that. John Hawks has good posts with references on both Sulawesi and the Siberian paper.

andrew said...

Hawks answers my question: "These artifacts are not diagnostic of any particular industry, so there is no possibility of connecting them to any culture." He speculates more eloquently than you and I have on the subject, but reaches essentially the same conclusion: that the evidence is insufficient to distinguish between a number of plausible alternatives.

Maju said...

Flake industry, I told you. ;p

BTW, have you already heard about the new solar system planet? That's big! O.O