Updating the past

I was struck by a headline about how the discovery of ancient pottery in China “could change [the] history of mankind.” The history of humans (and other hominids) is indeed changing as we learn more about it. Here are links to some recent stories.

  • The pottery fragments found in China come from the oldest known ceramic containers. They were dated back to around 19,000–20,000 years ago (10,000 years before the beginnings of agriculture), and are 2,000–3,000 years older than a previous find which used to be the oldest known pottery. Burn marks on some of the pottery suggest that the hunter-gatherers who made and used it were cooking some of their food well before the advent of agriculture and settled communities. Science News has an article on this. The paper was published in Science (only the abstract is available to nonsubscribers).
  • Another study, reported in Science NOW, suggests that the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that lived in Europe 8,500 to 3,000 years ago, before farming caught on, might have been genetically and culturally more similar than expected. However, the study is based on analysis only two Mesolithic skeletons (~7,000 years old, from Iberia), so there is a lot of room for debate. The paper is available online at Current Biology (nonsubscribers can see only the summary).
  • Last but not least, we’re learning more about the primate Australopithecus sediba, which was identified in 2010 and shows an interesting combination of primitive traits resembling those of other apes and modern human-like traits (e.g., they had long arms but apparently walked upright at least some of the time). The latest news is about what they ate; according to an analysis of teeth from two A. sediba skeletons, their diet was surprisingly similar to that of chimps and even giraffes (more bark and leaves, for example), and different from that of other known human ancestors. Again, it’s a small sample, but an interesting result nonetheless. Scientific American has a blog post on the story. Nature just published the research online (subscription required).