Neanderthals may have used projectile spears

Bone abnormality suggests repetitive movements similar to those documented for professional throwing athletes

Three long bones from a Neanderthal left arm have been found at Tourville-la-Rivière, Normandy. The bones are somewhere between 183,000 and 236,000 years old and paleo-ecological indicators suggest an date towards the end of the MIS 7 interglacial (245,000 to 190,000 years ago).

An abnormal crest has been found on the humerus, which is thought to represent a deltoid muscle enthesis. The abnormality could have resulted from trauma connected to repetitive movements similar to those seen for professional throwing athletes.

It has long been assumed that Neanderthals used only thrusting rather than projectile spears, but the Tourville-la-Rivière findings provide evidence,albeit inderect, that this might not have been the case. Such a suggestion is consistent with the recent discovery of 280,000-year-old projectile points in Ethiopia.Though these were not made by Neanderthals, they nevertheless indicate that archaic humans could master projectile technology.

The findings are published in the open-access journal PLoS One.

Reference:

1. Faivre, J. et al., Middle Pleistocene Human Remains from Tourville-la-Rivière (Normandy, France) and Their Archaeological Context. PLoS One 9 (10), e104111 (2014).

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Cave art from Sulawesi was contemporary with Upper Palaeolithic European cave-painting tradition

U-series re-dating suggests that Indonesian cave art is almost 40,000 years old

The arrival of modern humans in Europe is marked by the appearance in the archaeological record of a sophisticated artistic tradition, which includes portable art objects and cave art. Archaeologists have long been puzzled by an apparent lack of antecedents for this artwork, either in Africa or on early modern human migration routes. It is difficult to see how a seemingly mature artistic tradition could arise de novo in Upper Palaeolithic Europe – but if the 40,000 year old cave paintings at sites such as Altamira and El Castillo really were the earliest cave art anywhere in the world, this must have been the case.

In the 1950s, rock art was reported from limestone caves in the Maros and Pangkep regions of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Over 90 rock art sites are known, which have been extensively studied by Indonesian scholars and appear to belong two distinct periods. The art of the earlier period comprises hand stencils produced by spraying pigment over hands pressed against rock surface, together with a smaller number of large, naturalistic paintings of large Sulawesi mammals, including the anoa (a small bovid), the Celebes warty pig and the babirusa (a member of the pig family). The artwork of the later period is typified by small anthropomorphic depictions and a wide range of geometric signs, typically drawn using a black pigment. This later period has been associated with Austronesian migrants on stylistic grounds, and is thought to be no more than a few thousand years old.

The art of earlier period, though much older than that of the later period, was still thought to be less than 10,000 years old. However, recently-reported uranium series dates obtained for 14 paintings (12 hand stencils and two animal paintings) located at seven different sites indicate that it is much older. The oldest hand stencil was at least 39,900 years old and the oldest animal painting was at least 35,700 years old. The most recent hand stencil was no older than 27,200 years old, suggesting a tradition that endured for at least 13,000 years – comparable to the duration of the European cave painting tradition.

That contemporary traditions of cave art occurred in two regions as far apart as Europe and Indonesia implies either independent development or a common origin dating much further back in time. If the latter was the case, we can hope that even earlier depictions of human hands, figurative art and other images await discovery.

Reference:

1. Aubert, M. et al., Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223-227 (2014).

Levallois technology originated independently in Africa and Eurasia

Armenian findings provide insight into Lower to Middle Palaeolithic transition

The Middle Stone Age/Middle Palaeolithic saw a shift in emphasis from hand-axe (biface) manufacture to prepared-core methods. In the former, flakes detached from a stone core are regarded as waste products; in the latter, flakes detached from a pre-shaped stone core are the desired products. The shift to prepared-core industries probably came about as toolmakers began to recognise that debitage (waste flakes) could often be useful tools in their own right. Such methods are economical in their use of raw materials, because many flakes may be struck from the same core.

Prepared-core techniques include the Levallois method. It is named after the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret, where examples of prepared cores were found in the nineteenth century. The Levallois method involves at least five or six clearly separate stages, each of which requires careful preplanning. Flakes were first struck off around the periphery of a raw stone nodule; the scars from this process were then used as striking platforms (the point where a stone core is struck by a hammerstone) to remove flakes from one surface of the nodule. From the resulting core, one or more flakes could now be detached, the shape and size of which being predetermined by the core preparation. Flakes so produced were fashioned into as many as forty distinct tool types, each with its own specific cutting, scraping or piercing function. There was a much greater standardisation in the form of the tools made, indicating a clearer mental template and greater manipulative skill applied to their manufacture.

What has been unclear is whether this method was developed just once, and spread with populations, or whether it was independently invented on multiple occasions. In Africa, the Early to Middle Stone Age transition is characterised by the gradual replacement of bifaces by flakes, points, and blades produced through various prepared-core methods, principally the Levallois method. On the single-invention picture, such a gradual transition would not be seen elsewhere; rather there would be a discontinuity as human groups dumped their outmoded Acheulean hand-axes and adopted the new technology.

However, recent findings from the site of Nor Geghi 1, Armenia (NG1) suggest that this was not the case. A mixture of Acheulean and Levallois artefacts have been recovered, 316 in all, made from locally-available obsidian. The artefacts are around 300,000 years old and are the earliest examples of this technology to be found outside of Africa.

The findings support the hypothesis that Levallois technology arose gradually from Acheulean technology on multiple occasions and its presence in Africa and Eurasia represents technological convergence rather than a ‘technical breakthrough’ that spread from a single point of origin.

Reference:

1. Adler, D. et al., Early Levallois technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic transition in the Southern Caucasus. Science 345 (6204), 1609-1612 (2014).