Nav: Home

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:

Modern humans, Neanderthals share a tangled genetic history, study affirms
A new study reinforces the concept that Neanderthal DNA has been woven into the modern human genome on multiple occasions as our ancestors met Neanderthals time and again in different parts of the world.
Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources
An international team have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE.
Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too
Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals fed themselves on mussels, fish and other marine life.
Europe's Neanderthals relied on the sea as much as early modern humans
The first significant evidence of marine resource use among Europe's Neanderthals is detailed in a new report, demonstrating a level of marine adaptation previously only seen in their contemporary modern humans living in southern Africa.
Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation
The journal Science has published a study led by the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86,000 and 106,000 years ago.
Neanderthal migration
At least two different groups of Neanderthals lived in Southern Siberia and an international team of researchers including scientists from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now proven that one of these groups migrated from Eastern Europe.
Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells
A new study suggests that Neanderthals in what is today Italy may have dived into the Mediterranean Sea to collect clam shells.
Stanford scientists link Neanderthal extinction to human diseases
Complex disease transmission patterns could explain why it took tens of thousands of years after first contact for our ancestors to replace Neanderthals throughout Europe and Asia.
Insight into competitive advantage of modern humans over Neanderthals
A team of Japanese and Italian researchers, including from Tohoku University, have evidenced mechanically delivered projectile weapons in Europe dating to 45,000-40,000 years -- more than 20,000 years than previously thought.
Did a common childhood illness take down the neanderthals?
A new study suggests that the extinction of Neanderthals may be tied to persistent, life-long ear infections due to the structure of their Eustachian tubes, which are similar to those of human infants.
More Neanderthals News and Neanderthals Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Space
One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.