Category Archives: Human evolution

Wild speculation: could the Bruniquel Cave Neanderthal structures represent a mammoth?

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As I’ve mentioned before (e.g. here and here) the field of human evolution is one that has long fascinated me and I could have quite easily been deflected into paleoanthropology as a profession had not the lure of plants and pollinators been stronger.  So I’ve followed with interest this week’s fascinating announcement of the ancient origins of some enigmatic structures found deep within a French cave complex.  The journal Nature published the research paper by Jaubert et al., and has produced a wonderful accompanying video that you can view here.

Something struck me as I watched this video for the 3rd or 4th time: the aerial view of the structures seen at about 48 seconds looks very like the head of a young mammoth, seen from the front, with the mounds representing the two eyes and the smaller circle lower left a curling trunk.  There’s even a large stalactite/stalagmite positioned where we might expect to see a small tusk.

Mammoths were hunted by Neanderthals and we know that they made structures (possibly dwellings) from their bones.  Much later, Palaeolithic humans painted prey animals such as mammoths on the walls of caves.  OK, if it is a mammoth it can only be viewed from above, but then that’s also true of the Nazca Lines.

So is it completely bonkers to suggest that these Neanderthals were building representations of animals they were familiar with in these caves?  We are very good at seeing patterns in otherwise random assemblages of markings, for example the face of Jesus in a rock or on a frying pan, or tomatoes, cats and houses that look like Hitler.  But this is rather different – we know that the structure is not natural, it was constructed.  We don’t know why it was constructed or what, if anything, it was meant to represent.  Perhaps a mammoth is not too fanciful an idea?

The biodiversity of the human family tree just got bigger

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Today’s announcement of the discovery in South Africa of a new extinct species in the genus Homo, named Homo naledi, is a major scientific discovery that may prove to be one of the findings of the year, if not the decade.  As I’ve mentioned previously, human evolution fascinates me and I could easily have been sucked into the frustrating, controversial and important world of the professional hominid hunter.  But I’m content to view and appreciate from a distance as palaeo-anthropologists make their amazing discoveries about human ancestral biodiversity, and I thought I’d collate the links to some of the main stories and items relating to today’s events:

The scientific paper describing Homo naledi has been published in the open-access online journal eLife, rather than a journal such as Nature or Science, the more usual outlet for such discoveries, presumably because the importance of the find certainly demands rapid publication.  Interestingly its Altmetric score is already 281, having been picked up by numerous news outlets, tweeted, blogged about, etc.

I first saw the story earlier today on the BBC News website; the long article has a video interview with Professor Lee Berger, lead author of the paper.  There is also video footage from today’s press conference in South Africa, presented by Professor John Hawks, in which he describes in more detail the significance of this fossil, with its mix of both primitive and more derived anatomical features.

The Guardian also ran the story, this time with some different video footage, including a view inside the cave where the fossils were found, and there’s a 40 minute podcast.

Finally, National Geographic, which funded the study, has some videos on YouTube, including a fascinating account of the workshop that was convened to study the fossils and more discussion of its significance and amazing footage of how the fossils were recovered from the cave, and how the species was reconstructed.

This is a story that will run and run: we don’t know how old the species is and there’s lots of speculation about the significance of finding such a large number of individuals all together in what appears to be a burial chamber.  It’s an exciting time to be interested in human evolution.