It seems that the past is still an evolving mystery with many secrets yet to reveal. Just when archaeologists think that they have our ancient history nailed, new discoveries occur which undermine all previously-held theories and leave researchers scratching their heads once more.
A new paper, published in the latest PLoS ONE, reveals amazing details about a collection of stone-tipped spears which were unearthed recently at a Stone Age site in Gademotta, Ethiopia, that could mean re-writing ancient history and the human time-line forever. It is thought that the spears date to 280,000 years ago, predating the earliest known human fossils by an staggering 85,000 years.
Yonatan Sahle, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Human Evolution Research Center, analyzed the weapons with other members of his team, who determined that the spears were made from locally-sourced obsidian and would have required considerable skill and concentration to create. The researchers employed the most recent decay constants and age standards following the same procedures and protocols used in previous analyses from the same area.
It has not yet been determined what ancient man would have been hunting with the spears, though the research team are sure that they would have been thrown, javelin-style, at their quarry rather than jabbed into victims at close range as Neanderthal man was thought to do. A jumble of animal remains were found near the spears, and it has not been possible so far to identify each individual species.
The level of sophistication involved in crafting the pointed heads and shafts of the weapons has surprised experts, and suggests that the predecessors of Homo sapiens - which means "wise man" in Latin - were actually far more advanced than their later counterparts.
Homo heidelbergensis, aka Heidelberg Man, lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia from at least 600,000 years ago. Archaeologists think this species was the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.
Sahle postulates that it was certainly possible that individuals within the Homo heidelbergensis species could have developed the knowhow to develop the superior tools:
“Technological advances were not necessarily associated with anatomical changes (among Homo species),” he said. “The advances might have started earlier.”
It is not clear why innovative tools from this period have been found only at the Ethiopian site but Sahle has some theories, including the input of a 'Steve Jobs' type of individual in the local area who may have been responsible for the advanced techniques:
“High-quality raw materials were nearby, so those could have allowed for the full expression of technological skills,” said Sahle.
“Second, a bigger population was supported at the site,” he continued. "With more individuals around, there would have been a greater chance for the spread of innovative ideas. If there was indeed a Steve Jobs-type in the mix, he would have been able to influence more individuals and perhaps even created a prehistoric spear-making assembly line of sorts."
“Thirdly, there was a mega lake at the site,” Sahle said. “It might have attracted stable occupations there, further fueling technological advances.”
Advanced ancient weaponry is not the only secret that has been yielded from our mysterious past recently: in Tibet, the remains of the oldest big cat fossils ever found - from a previously unknown species "similar to a snow leopard" - have been unearthed in the Himalayas.
Skull fragments of the ancient creature were found in 2010 in the remote Zanda Basin in south-western Tibet, by a team including palaeontologists Dr Tseng and his wife Juan Liu. Over 100 pieces of bone were discovered near a river, including an almost complete big cat skull.
"This cat is a sister of living snow leopards - it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it's a little smaller - the size of clouded leopards," said lead author Dr Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California.
Anatomical and DNA data was used to determine that the skulls belonged to an extinct big cat and that they were between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old, which adds weight to a previous hypotheses suggesting that all big cat species evolved in central Asia and not Africa.
"This ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world" said Tseng ."Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record. "
The earliest big cat fossils previously found, pieces of tooth fragments found in Tanzania in the 1970s, were a mere 3.6 million years old; however the latest DNA evidence suggests that the Pantherinae subfamily - including lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards and snow leopards - diverged from the genus Felinae, which includes smaller wild cats such as lynxes and cougars and domestic kitties, about 6.37 million years ago.
"We were very surprised to find a cat fossil in that basin," Dr Tseng told BBC News."Usually we find antelopes and rhinos, but this site was special. We found multiple carnivores - badgers, weasels and foxes."
The find has been received enthusiastically by other experts in the field:
"This is a very significant finding - it fills a very wide gap in the fossil record," said Dr Manabu Sakamoto of the University of Bristol, an expert on Pantherinae evolution."The discovery presents strong support for the Asian origin hypothesis for the big cats. It gives us a great insight into what early big cats may have looked like and where they may have lived."
The findings of the report have been questioned in some academic circles, however, and another expert on the evolution of big cats, Professor William Murphy of Texas A&M University, was doubtful whether the new species was a new-found sister of the snow leopard.
"The authors' claim that this skull is similar to the snow leopard is very weakly supported based on morphological characters alone, and this morphology-based tree is inconsistent with the DNA-based tree of living cats," he told BBC News."It remains equally probable that this fossil is ancestral to the living big cats. More complete skeletons would be beneficial to confirm their findings."
Dr Tseng and his team are therefore planning to return to Tibet next summer to search for more specimens.
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