Phytoliths as an indicator of early modern humans plant gathering strategies, fire fuel and site occupation intensity during the Middle Stone Age at Pinnacle Point 5-6 (south coast, South Africa).
ABSTRACT: The study of plant remains in archaeological sites, along with a better understanding of the use of plants by prehistoric populations, can help us shed light on changes in survival strategies of hunter-gatherers and consequent impacts on modern human cognition, social organization, and technology. The archaeological locality of Pinnacle Point (Mossel Bay, South Africa) includes a series of coastal caves, rock-shelters, and open-air sites with human occupations spanning the Acheulian through Middle Stone Age (MSA) and Later Stone Age (LSA). These sites have provided some of the earliest evidence for complex human behaviour and technology during the MSA. We used phytoliths-amorphous silica particles that are deposited in cells of plants-as a proxy for the reconstruction of past human plant foraging strategies on the south coast of South Africa during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, emphasizing the use and control of fire as well as other possible plant uses. We analysed sediment samples from the different occupation periods at the rock shelter Pinnacle Point 5-6 North (PP5-6N). We also present an overview of the taphonomic processes affecting phytolith preservation in this site that will be critical to conduct a more reliable interpretation of the original plant use in the rock shelter. Our study reports the first evidence of the intentional gathering and introduction into living areas of plants from the Restionaceae family by MSA hunter-gatherers inhabiting the south coast of South Africa. We suggest that humans inhabiting Pinnacle Point during short-term occupation events during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5 built fast fires using mainly grasses with some wood from trees and/or shrubs for specific purposes, perhaps for shellfish cooking. With the onset of MIS 4 we observed a change in the plant gathering strategies towards the intentional and intensive exploitation of dry wood to improve, we hypothesise, combustion for heating silcrete. This human behaviour is associated with changes in stone tool technology, site occupation intensity and climate change.
Project description:Hunter-gatherer societies have distinct social perceptions and practices which are expressed in unique use of space and material deposition patterns. However, the identification of archaeological evidence associated with hunter-gatherer activity is often challenging, especially in tropical environments such as rainforests. We present an integrated study combining ethnoarchaeology and geoarchaeology in order to study archaeological site formation processes related to hunter-gatherers' ways of living in tropical forests. Ethnographic data was collected from an habitation site of contemporary hunter-gatherers in the forests of South India, aimed at studying how everyday activities and way of living dictate patterns of material deposition. Ethnoarchaeological excavations of abandoned open-air sites and a rock-shelter of the same group located deep in the forests, involved field observations and sampling of sediments from the abandoned sites and the contemporary site. Laboratory analyses included geochemical analysis (i.e., FTIR, ICP-AES), phytolith concentration analysis and soil micromorphology. The results present a dynamic spatial deposition pattern of macroscopic, microscopic and chemical materials, which stem from the distinctive ways of living and use of space by hunter-gatherers. This study shows that post-depositional processes in tropical forests result in poor preservation of archaeological materials due to acidic conditions and intensive biological activity within the sediments. Yet, the multiple laboratory-based analyses were able to trace evidence for activity surfaces and their maintenance practices as well as localized concentrations of activity remains such as the use of plants, metals, hearths and construction materials.
Project description:High-elevation environments above 2500?metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.) were among the planet's last frontiers of human colonization. Research on the speed and tempo of this colonization process is active and holds implications for understanding rates of genetic, physiological and cultural adaptation in our species. Permanent occupation of high-elevation environments in the Andes Mountains of South America tentatively began with hunter-gatherers around 9?ka according to current archaeological estimates, though the timing is currently debated. Recent observations on the archaeological site of Soro Mik'aya Patjxa (8.0-6.5?ka), located at 3800?m.a.s.l. in the Andean Altiplano, offer an opportunity to independently test hypotheses for early permanent use of the region. This study observes low oxygen (?18O) and high carbon (?13C) isotope values in human bone, long travel distances to low-elevation zones, variable age and sex structure in the human population and an absence of non-local lithic materials. These independent lines of evidence converge to support a model of permanent occupation of high elevations and refute logistical and seasonal use models. The results constitute the strongest empirical support to date for permanent human occupation of the Andean highlands by hunter-gatherers before 7?ka.
Project description:Ongoing debates about the emergence of modern human behavior, however defined, regularly incorporate observations from the later part of the southern African Middle Stone Age and emphasize the early appearance of artifacts thought to reflect symbolic practice. Here we report a large sample of 270 fragments of intentionally marked ostrich eggshell from the Howiesons Poort at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa. Dating from approximately 60,000 years ago, these pieces attest to an engraving tradition that is the earliest reliable evidence of what is a widespread modern practice. These abstract linear depictions were made on functional items (eggshell containers), which were curated and involved in daily hunter-gatherer life. The standardized production of repetitive patterns, including a hatched band motif, suggests a system of symbolic representation in which collective identities and individual expressions are clearly communicated, suggesting social, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings that overlap with those of modern people.
Project description:The coastal environments of South Africa's Cape Floristic Region (CFR) provide some of the earliest and most abundant evidence for the emergence of cognitively modern humans. In particular, the south coast of the CFR provided a uniquely diverse resource base for hunter-gatherers, which included marine shellfish, game, and carbohydrate-bearing plants, especially those with Underground Storage Organs (USOs). It has been hypothesized that these resources underpinned the continuity of human occupation in the region since the Middle Pleistocene. Very little research has been conducted on the foraging potential of carbohydrate resources in the CFR. This study focuses on the seasonal availability of plants with edible carbohydrates at six-weekly intervals over a two-year period in four vegetation types on South Africa's Cape south coast. Different plant species were considered available to foragers if the edible carbohydrate was directly (i.e. above-ground edible portions) or indirectly (above-ground indications to below-ground edible portions) visible to an expert botanist familiar with this landscape. A total of 52 edible plant species were recorded across all vegetation types. Of these, 33 species were geophytes with edible USOs and 21 species had aboveground edible carbohydrates. Limestone Fynbos had the richest flora, followed by Strandveld, Renosterveld and lastly, Sand Fynbos. The availability of plant species differed across vegetation types and between survey years. The number of available USO species was highest for a six-month period from winter to early summer (Jul-Dec) across all vegetation types. Months of lowest species' availability were in mid-summer to early autumn (Jan-Apr); the early winter (May-Jun) values were variable, being highest in Limestone Fynbos. However, even during the late summer carbohydrate "crunch," 25 carbohydrate bearing species were visible across the four vegetation types. To establish a robust resource landscape will require additional spatial mapping of plant species abundances. Nonetheless, our results demonstrate that plant-based carbohydrate resources available to Stone Age foragers of the Cape south coast, especially USOs belonging to the Iridaceae family, are likely to have comprised a reliable and nutritious source of calories over most of the year.
Project description:Stone tools and mastodon bones occur in an undisturbed geological context at the Page-Ladson site, Florida. Seventy-one radiocarbon ages show that ~14,550 calendar years ago (cal yr B.P.), people butchered or scavenged a mastodon next to a pond in a bedrock sinkhole within the Aucilla River. This occupation surface was buried by ~4 m of sediment during the late Pleistocene marine transgression, which also left the site submerged. Sporormiella and other proxy evidence from the sediments indicate that hunter-gatherers along the Gulf Coastal Plain coexisted with and utilized megafauna for ~2000 years before these animals became extinct at ~12,600 cal yr B.P. Page-Ladson expands our understanding of the earliest colonizers of the Americas and human-megafauna interaction before extinction.
Project description:We present here evidence for an early Holocene case of decapitation in the New World (Burial 26), found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in 2007. Lapa do Santo is an archaeological site located in the Lagoa Santa karst in east-central Brazil with evidence of human occupation dating as far back as 11.7-12.7 cal kyBP (95.4% interval). An ultra-filtered AMS age determination on a fragment of the sphenoid provided an age range of 9.1-9.4 cal kyBP (95.4% interval) for Burial 26. The interment was composed of an articulated cranium, mandible and first six cervical vertebrae. Cut marks with a v-shaped profile were observed in the mandible and sixth cervical vertebra. The right hand was amputated and laid over the left side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the chin and the left hand was amputated and laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the forehead. Strontium analysis comparing Burial 26's isotopic signature to other specimens from Lapa do Santo suggests this was a local member of the group. Therefore, we suggest a ritualized decapitation instead of trophy-taking, testifying for the sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas during the early Archaic period. In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborated architecture, Lapa do Santo's inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death.
Project description:Dental caries is an infectious disease that causes tooth decay. The high prevalence of dental caries in recent humans is attributed to more frequent consumption of plant foods rich in fermentable carbohydrates in food-producing societies. The transition from hunting and gathering to food production is associated with a change in the composition of the oral microbiota and broadly coincides with the estimated timing of a demographic expansion in Streptococcus mutans, a causative agent of human dental caries. Here we present evidence linking a high prevalence of caries to reliance on highly cariogenic wild plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from North Africa, predating other high caries populations and the first signs of food production by several thousand years. Archaeological deposits at Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco document extensive evidence for human occupation during the Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age (Iberomaurusian), and incorporate numerous human burials representing the earliest known cemetery in the Maghreb. Macrobotanical remains from occupational deposits dated between 15,000 and 13,700 cal B.P. provide evidence for systematic harvesting and processing of edible wild plants, including acorns and pine nuts. Analysis of oral pathology reveals an exceptionally high prevalence of caries (51.2% of teeth in adult dentitions), comparable to modern industrialized populations with a diet high in refined sugars and processed cereals. We infer that increased reliance on wild plants rich in fermentable carbohydrates and changes in food processing caused an early shift toward a disease-associated oral microbiota in this population.
Project description:BACKGROUND:The archaeological incidence of ancient human faecal material provides a rare opportunity to explore the taxonomic composition and metabolic capacity of the ancestral human intestinal microbiome (IM). Here, we report the results of the shotgun metagenomic analyses of an ancient South African palaeo-faecal specimen. METHODS:Following the recovery of a single desiccated palaeo-faecal specimen from Bushman Rock Shelter in Limpopo Province, South Africa, we applied a multi-proxy analytical protocol to the sample. The extraction of ancient DNA from the specimen and its subsequent shotgun metagenomic sequencing facilitated the taxonomic and metabolic characterisation of this ancient human IM. RESULTS:Our results indicate that the distal IM of the Neolithic 'Middle Iron Age' (c. AD 1460) Bantu-speaking individual exhibits features indicative of a largely mixed forager-agro-pastoralist diet. Subsequent comparison with the IMs of the Tyrolean Iceman (Ötzi) and contemporary Hadza hunter-gatherers, Malawian agro-pastoralists and Italians reveals that this IM precedes recent adaptation to 'Western' diets, including the consumption of coffee, tea, chocolate, citrus and soy, and the use of antibiotics, analgesics and also exposure to various toxic environmental pollutants. CONCLUSIONS:Our analyses reveal some of the causes and means by which current human IMs are likely to have responded to recent dietary changes, prescription medications and environmental pollutants, providing rare insight into human IM evolution following the advent of the Neolithic c. 12,000?years ago. Video Abtract.
Project description:This paper investigates how former hunter-gatherers living along the southern North Sea coast in NW Europe adapted to long-term and short-term climatic and environmental changes at the beginning of the Holocene. It is argued that contemporaneous hunter-gatherers repeatedly changed their hunting equipment in response to changing climate and environment, not just for functional reasons but mainly driven by socio-territorial considerations. Based on a Bayesian analysis of 122 critically selected radiocarbon dates a broad chronological correlation is demonstrated between rapid changes in the design and technology of stone projectiles and short but abrupt cooling events, occurring at 10.3, 9.3 and 8.2 ka cal BP. Combined with the rapid sea level rises and increased wildfires these climatic events probably impacted the lifeways of hunter-gatherers in such a way that they increasingly faced resource stress and competition, forcing them to invest in the symbolic defense of their social territories.
Project description:The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is associated with early evidence for symbolic material culture and complex technological innovations. However, one of the most visible aspects of MSA technologies are unretouched triangular stone points that appear in the archaeological record as early as 500,000 years ago in Africa and persist throughout the MSA. How these tools were being used and discarded across a changing Pleistocene landscape can provide insight into how MSA populations prioritized technological and foraging decisions. Creating inferential links between experimental and archaeological tool use helps to establish prehistoric tool function, but is complicated by the overlaying of post-depositional damage onto behaviorally worn tools. Taphonomic damage patterning can provide insight into site formation history, but may preclude behavioral interpretations of tool function. Here, multiple experimental processes that form edge damage on unretouched lithic points from taphonomic and behavioral processes are presented. These provide experimental distributions of wear on tool edges from known processes that are then quantitatively compared to the archaeological patterning of stone point edge damage from three MSA lithic assemblages-Kathu Pan 1, Pinnacle Point Cave 13B, and Die Kelders Cave 1. By using a model-fitting approach, the results presented here provide evidence for variable MSA behavioral strategies of stone point utilization on the landscape consistent with armature tips at KP1, and cutting tools at PP13B and DK1, as well as damage contributions from post-depositional sources across assemblages. This study provides a method with which landscape-scale questions of early modern human tool-use and site-use can be addressed.