Very Old Primate Fossil Is Very Big Deal

Say hello to “Ida,” the small, 47 million-year-old fossil unearthed in Germany and unveiled yesterday at a news conference in New York. She’s a fascinating and important find—and she’s now a media darling (thanks to a huge publicity campaign), with her own Web site, book, and History Channel documentary.
Why is she so fascinating, besides the fact that she’s so old? Her anatomy puts her at a bridge point between two groups of primates: the haplorhines, which include monkeys, apes, and humans, and the strepsirrhines, which include lemurs. Ida, formally known as Darwinius masillae, has features from the strepsirrhine line (like lemurs) but is more related to the human evolutionary line, the research team argues. They say she appears to be a very early haplorhine, with forward-facing eyes, opposable thumbs, fingertips with nails, and an ankle bone like ours, only smaller. While her skeleton is like a lemur’s, she doesn’t have the characteristic “grooming claw” on her second toe or a fused row of teeth called a “toothcomb.”
She’s also remarkably well preserved. Ida is about 95 percent complete, which means scientists have been able to get lots of information from her. They’re able to see almost all her bones, remnants of tissue and hair, and what she had for her last meal (fruit and leaves).

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How Early Did Humans Think Symbolically?

A few years ago, I wrote a story about shell beads found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. Before they were found, the accepted wisdom was that humans in Europe began making symbolic art and decoration 40,000 years ago, but these beads dated back about 75,000 years. With the discovery, scientists began to reconsider when symbolic thinking began and the “timing of the appearance of one of the behaviors that seems more distinctive of the human species, that of artificially changing the appearance of our body using techniques such as personal ornamentation, tattooing, scarification, body painting,” said Francesco d’Errico, a member of the team and a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.
Now, a group of archaeologists has found a bunch of older shell beads in a limestone cave in eastern Morocco. Shell ornaments were found in 82,000-year-old deposits in the cave a couple years back, and other perforated shells, some also covered with red ochre, have been discovered in even earlier layers. What’s striking, the researchers say, is that the same species of shell was used both there and in South Africa, two regions that are far from each other.
Finding the older Moroccan beads is “exciting,” says University of Oxford archaeologist Nick Barton, who led the research team, “because they show bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behavior were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’’
The findings will appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. —Heather Wax


Discovery Linked to Biblical Stone Structures

In the Jordan valley, researchers from the University of Haifa have found five structures, each designed in the shape of a giant human “foot.” The structures, says archaeologist Adam Zertal, who led the team, “are the first sites that the People of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot.” The foot, he says, was a symbol used to mark ownership of a territory, control over an enemy, and a link between people and the land.
The stone structures, it’s believed, could be connected with what’s known in the Bible as”gilgal” (in Hebrew), sites that were used for ceremonial assemblies and rituals. The excavated “feet” seem to have been built at the right time, and are the right shape and size to have been used for human gatherings. “I am an archaeologist and only deal with the scientific findings,” Zertal says, “so I do not go into the additional meanings of the discovery, if there are any.”
Here’s what’s neat: The Hebrew word for “foot”—regel—is also used to refer to a festival, holiday, and ascending to see the face of God. The Hebrew term “aliya la-regel,” which literally means “ascending to the foot,” has come to be known as a “pilgrimage” in English. Eventually, “aliya la-regel” became associated with Jerusalem—which became Israel’s religious center—but it seems the “foot” structures in the Jordan valley could be the source of the term. “Now, following these discoveries,” Zertal says, “the meanings of the terms become clear. Identifying the ‘foot’ enclosures as ancient Israeli ceremonial sites leads us to a series of new possibilities to explain the beginnings of Israel, of the People of Israel’s festivals and holidays.” —Heather Wax


Earliest Nuclear Family Found—Embracing

A team of researchers has found the oldest molecular genetic evidence of a nuclear family, in one of four graves dating back about 4,600 years to the Stone Age. Using DNA analysis, the researchers identified the remains in one grave as a mother, father, and two sons ages 8 or 9 and 4 or 5. A second grave contained three children, two of which who had the same mother, though they are buried with another woman, likely a paternal aunt or possibly a step-mother. In total, the remains of 13 people were found, all of whom were interned at the same time.
Evidence—like a stone projectile point found embedded in the vertebra of one female and the defense injuries to the forearms and hands found on several of the bodies—suggest that the community was violently attacked by another group. It’s believed that those who survived the raid later returned and, using their knowledge of the familial bonds among the dead, took great care to bury the dead according to their relationships in life. Several pairs were arranged face to face, with their arms and hands linked.
The graves were discovered at the early farming site of Eulau in Germany. Before humans began to farm, which caused them to stay in one place, they lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers—and the basic unit of social organization, anthropologists believe, was not the nuclear family, but rather the band or tribe. “By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe—to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far,” says Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Their unity in death suggests a unity in life. However, this does not establish the elemental family to be a universal model or the most ancient institution of human communities.” —Heather Wax

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