Dishing the dirt on an early man cave

September 26, 2019

Fossil animal droppings, charcoal from ancient fires and bone fragments litter the ground of one of the world's most important human evolution sites, new research reveals.

The latest evidence from southern Siberia shows that large cave-dwelling carnivores once dominated the landscape, competing for more than 300,000 years with ancient tribes for prime space in cave shelters.

A team of Russian and Australian scientists have used modern geoarchaeological techniques to unearth new details of day-to-day life in the famous Denisova Cave complex in Siberia's Altai Mountains.

Large carnivores such hyena, wolves and even bears and at least three early nomadic human groups (hominins) - Denisovans, Neanderthals, and early Homo sapiens - used this famous archaeological site, the researchers say in a new Scientific Reports study examining the dirt deposited in the cave complex over thousands of years.

"These hominin groups and large carnivores such as hyenas and wolves left a wealth of microscopic traces that illuminate the use of the cave over the last three glacial-interglacial cycles," says lead author, Flinders University ARC Future Fellow Dr Mike Morley.

"Our results complement previous work by some of our colleagues at the site that has identified ancient DNA in the same dirt, belonging to Neanderthals and a previously unknown human group, the Denisovans, as well as a wide range of other animals".

But it now seems that it was the animals that mostly ruled the cave space back then.

Microscopic studies of 3-4 metres of sediment left in the cave network includes fossil droppings left by predatory animals such as cave hyenas, wolves and possibly bears, many of their kind made immortal in ancient rock art before going extinct across much of Eurasia.

From their 'micromorphology' examination of the dirt found in Denisova Cave, the team discovered clues about the use of the cave, including fire-use by ancient humans and the presence of other animals.

The study of intact sediment blocks collected from the cave has yielded information not evident to the naked eye or gleaned from previous studies of ancient DNA, stone tools or animal and plant remains.

Co-author of the new research, University of Wollongong Distinguished Professor Richard (Bert) Roberts, says the study is very significant because it shows how much can be achieved by sifting through sedimentary material using advanced microscopy and other archaeological science methods to find critical new evidence about human and non-human life on Earth.

"Using microscopic analyses, our latest study shows sporadic hominin visits, illustrated by traces of the use of fire such as miniscule fragments, but with continuous use of the site by cave-dwelling carnivores such as hyenas and wolves," says Professor Roberts.

"Fossil droppings (coprolites) indicate the persistent presence of non-human cave dwellers, which are very unlikely to have co-habited with humans using the cave for shelter."

This implies that ancient groups probably came and went for short-lived episodes, and at all other times the cave was occupied by these large predators.

The Siberian site came to prominence more than a decade ago with the discovery of the fossil remains of a previously unknown human group, dubbed the Denisovans after the local name for the cave.

In a surprising twist, the recent discovery of a bone fragment in the cave sediments showed that a teenage girl was born of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father more than 90,000 years ago.

Denisovans and Neanderthals inhabited parts of Eurasia until perhaps 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they were replaced by modern humans (Homo sapiens).
-end-
The paper, 'Hominin and animal activities in the microstratigraphic record from Denisova Cave (Altai Mountains, Russia)' 2019 (9:13785) by MW Morley, P Goldberg, VA Uliyanov, MB Kozlikin, MV Shunkov, AP Derevianko, Z Jacobs and RG Roberts has been published in Scientific Reports DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-49930-3

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research.

High-resolution photos and video/audio available upon request. See https://www.dropbox.com/sh/60uo20w5bylfb60/AAB1lvox7pYIBohXn6HH8vrLa?dl=0

Flinders University

Related Neanderthals Articles from Brightsurf:

Neanderthals already had their characteristic barrel-shaped rib cages at birth
Neanderthal babies were born with the characteristic barrel-shaped rib cage shape previously identified in adult specimens, according to an analysis of digitally reconstructed rib cages from four Neanderthal infants.

Early admixture with humans led to Y chromosome replacement in late Neanderthals
In one of the first studies to comprehensively analyze Y chromosomes of humans' two closest relatives, Denisovans and Neanderthals, researchers report what prior studies have suggested: early gene flow events between archaic and modern humans led to the eventual replacement of archaic Neanderthal Y chromosomes by introgressed Homo sapiens Y chromosomes.

A 48,000 years old tooth that belonged to one of the last Neanderthals in Northern Italy
A child between 11 and 12 years of age lost it near the ''Riparo del Broion'' on the Berici Hills in Veneto.

How Neanderthals adjusted to climate change
Climate change occurring shortly before their disappearance triggered a complex change in the behaviour of late Neanderthals in Europe: they developed more complex tools.

Neanderthals of Western Mediterranean did not become extinct because of changes in climate
According to paleoclimatic reconstructions analysing stalagmites sampled in some caves in the Murge plateau (Apulia, Italy), Neanderthals might have become extinct because Sapiens employed more sophisticated hunting technologies

Doubts about the Nerja cave art having been done by neanderthals
Prehistory research staff at the University of Cordoba is investigating the reliability of Uranium-thorium dating for a chronological study of Paleolithic art and is contesting that Neanderthals made the Paeolithic art in Spanish caves.

ADHD: genomic analysis in samples of Neanderthals and modern humans
The frequency of genetic variants associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has decreased progressively in the evolutionary human lineage from the Palaeolithic to nowadays, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Supercomputer model simulations reveal cause of Neanderthal extinction
IBS climate scientists discover that according to new supercomputer model simulations, only competition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens can explain the rapid demise of Neanderthals around 43 to 38 thousand years ago.

Icelandic DNA jigsaw-puzzle brings new knowledge about Neanderthals
An international team of researchers has put together a new image of Neanderthals based on the genes Neanderthals left in the DNA of modern humans when they had children with them about 50,000 years ago.

Neanderthal cord weaver
Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals were no less technologically advanced than Homo sapiens.

Read More: Neanderthals News and Neanderthals Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.