29 December 2009
Modern behavior of early humans found earlier than thought
Recent work at Neanderthal sites has demonstrated that our evolutionary cousins divided up their living spaces into activity areas. New research at rock shelters like Abric Romaní in Spain and Tor Faraj in Jordan, where Neandertals lived between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago - before modern humans migrated into Europe and Asia - has demonstrated spatial organization at times indistinguishable from that typical of H. sapiens. Now, a team working at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (GBY), a 790,000-year-old site in northern Israel's Hula Valley, claims that a much older species also showed tendencies toward tidiness.
Analysis of the spatial distribution of the findings there reveals a pattern of specific areas in which various activities were carried out. This kind of designation indicates a formalized conceptualization of living space, requiring social organization and communication between group members. Such organizational skills are thought to be unique to modern humans. Attempts until now to trace the origins of such behavior at various prehistoric sites in the world have concentrated on spatial analyses of Middle Paleolithic sites, where activity areas, particularly those associated with hearths, have been found dating back only to some 250,000 years ago. The new Hebrew University study describes an Acheulian (an early stone tools culture) layer at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov that has been dated to about 750,000 years ago. The evidence found there consists of numerous stone tools, animal bones and a rich collection of botanical remains.
Analyses of the spatial distribution of all these finds revealed two activity areas in the layer: the first area is characterized by abundant evidence of flint tool manufacturing. A high density of fish remains in this area also suggests that the processing and consumption of many fish were carried out in this area. In the second area, identified evidence indicates a greater variation of activitiesall of which took place in the vicinity of a hearth. Processing of basalt and limestone was spatially restricted to the hearth area, where activities indicate the use of large stone tools such as hand axes, chopping tools, scrapers, and awls. The presence of stone hammers, and in particular of pitted anvils (used as nutting stones), suggest that nut processing was carried out near the hearth and may have involved the use of nut roasting. In addition, fish and crabs were probably consumed near the hearth.
The team concludes, in its report on the findings, that the GBY hominins' division of their living space into designated activity areas is a sign of 'sophisticated cognition' once thought to be the special preserve of modern humans. Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the new work confirms other research showing that H. heidelbergensis "was a very tidy species." At the 500,000-year-old site of Boxgrove in southern England, Gamble points out, "across a landscape with no hearths they followed rules about where to get, make, and throw away their stone tools. There was nothing random in these activities, and GBY now extends this pattern back in time." But Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, sounds a cautionary note. "The GBY site is remarkable and the use of space there is more complex than one might expect for the age of the occupation," Wadley says. But she thinks it would be a sure sign of sophisticated cognition only if the GBY hominins had attributed symbolic meanings to the way they divided their living quarters-something the research team has yet to demonstrate.
Sources: LiveScience (17 December 2009), ScienceNOW (18 December 2009), The New York Times, EurekAlert! (21 December 2009), Science Daily (22 December 2009)