East Africa is famously the birthplace of humankind and the location where our ancient hominin ancestors first invented sophisticated stone tools. This technology, dating back to 2.6m years ago, is then thought to have spread around Africa and the rest of the Old World later on.
But new research, published in Science, has uncovered an archaeological site in Algeria containing similar tools that may be as old as 2.44m years. The team, led by the archaeologist Mohamed Sahnouni, excavated stone tools at the site Ain Boucherit that they estimate are between 1.92m and 2.44m years old. This suggests that human ancestors spread to the region much earlier than previously thought or that the stone tool technology was simultaneously invented by earlier hominin species living outside east Africa.
The artefacts belong to the “Oldowan” – the oldest known stone tool industry. Rounded river cobbles, used as hammer stones, were used to flake other cobbles, turning them into simple cores. The flakes were then transformed into scrapers and various knives by resharpening their edges. Essentially this was a tool kit for processing animal tissue, such as marrow, bone and brain tissue, but also plant material. However, it is not known for sure which hominin species first created Oldowan tools – potentially Australopithecus or Homo habilis.
The stone tools are very similar to those of early Oldowan sites in East Africa. Bones at the site even have cut marks, where a stone tool has gouged into the bone during butchery. The cut marks may mean these hominins were actively hunting.
But we have only ever found early Oldowan tools in the east African rift valley before, more than 4,000km away. We have always assumed that it started there some 2.6m years ago, so we shouldn’t find it so far from its original home at that age unless we have missed something.
Many archaeologists do indeed suspect there is an unseen ghost somewhere in the machine. There have been discoveries of early hominin sites to the south, in Chad, that suggest that some of our earliest ancestors lived well beyond East Africa. Oldowan-like sites have also been found outside of Africa, in Georgia, beginning at 1.8m years ago – which seems surprisingly early.
The new discovery is telling us that our focus on East Africa as the birthplace of early humans is too narrow – we should be doing what Sahnouni and others have done all along and looking elsewhere. The same team recently published findings about another Oldowan site in Algeria that is about 1.75m years old, but to find early Oldowan tools well over half a million years earlier is a bit of a game changer.
It all hinges on how reliable that 2.44m-year-old date really is. Dating specialists will be scrutinising the details very carefully. According to the paper, four different techniques were used. Palaeomagnetic dating measures the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field in sediments – this is locked into rocks when they form, helping to tell us how old they are.
The team found that the upper level mapped onto a short period of normal polarity taking place between 1.77m and 1.94m years ago. The lower level’s sediments fitted into a long period of reversed direction at between 1.94m and 2.58m years ago.
To get more precise dates, the team turned to a dating technique called electron spin resonance dating, which measures radioactive decay in quartz sand grains. However, they used a less common version of the technique that was operating close to its upper limit of reliability at this age range. The measurement delivered an age of 1.92m years old, younger than suggested by paleomagnetism.
There are some concerns about how suitable this last method is but the team has been honest about that. They also compared the dates with extinction times of animals present at the site, which suggested the date wasn’t impossible.
To get a better idea of the maximum age of the tools, they used a technique for estimating the rates of sedimentation – basically how long the different layers at the site took to build up. You have to throw in some fancy statistical work though, and map it onto the palaeomagnetic results. Extrapolating backwards in time, the team calculated that the actual age of the lower level is 2.44m years old. I suspect dating specialists will be looking at this carefully.
Now to our ghost. The oldest tools ever found outside of Africa are the ones from Georgia dated to 1.8m years ago. There is a small Oldowan-like site in Pakistan from around the same time and more core-and-flake sites in east China at 1.66m years ago. If the Georgian site represents the first move out of Africa, then these early African migrants got to Pakistan and China extremely quickly.
In Georgia, the tools may have been made by early Homo erectus, which dates back to about 1.8m years ago. As there is a Homo erectus specimen from China dated to 1.6m years old, it is easy to assume that Homo erectus must have been the species that spread the tool technology around the world – and much quicker than we had thought.
But we cannot be sure of that. What if our ghost was an earlier hominin species from Africa predating Homo erectus – such as Homo habilis? Perhaps the Oldowan actually began earlier than 2.6m years ago, and was already widespread throughout Africa by 2.4m years ago.
Maybe our mysterious hominin began to migrate out from Africa before 1.8m years ago, and carried its core-and-flake industry eastwards. That would certainly give it more time to cover those huge distances. Perhaps Homo erectus only migrated eastwards out of Africa later, following in the footsteps of an earlier traveller that we know nothing about.
So that’s a lot of maybes, but then nobody expected there to be Oldowan tools in Georgia when they were first found. It caused a lot of controversy, but now most archaeologists are comfortable with the finding. The Georgian archaeologists went back, did more work and proved their case. I don’t doubt Sahnouni and his team will be doing the same.
In an attempt to develop Tahrir Square and to show the whole world Egypt’s unique civilisation, eight blocks of one of Ramses II’s obelisks, found in his temple at San Al-Haggar archaeological site in Zagazig, arrived in Cairo on Friday.
They will be restored, assembled and erected in Tahrir Square.
Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the transportation of the parts of the obelisk was carried out under tight security by the tourism and antiquities police, within the framework of the government’s plan to beautify and develop Tahrir Square as part of the Historic Cairo Development project.
The obelisk is carved in red granite and decorated with scenes depicting Ramses II standing before the gods with his different titles written alongside. After restoration and assembly, the obelisk will be 17 metres tall and weight 90 tonnes.
Mohamed Al-Saeidy, director of the SCA’s Technical Office, said that the antiquities ministry completed the first phase of the development project at San Al-Haggar archaeological site last September.
A collection of two obelisks, two colossi and two columns from the temple of Ramses II were restored, assembled and re-erected in their original location.
Now, he continued, the ministry has started the second phase of the project, which aims to restore, assemble and re-erect more obelisks, colossi and columns.
In collaboration with the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO), the antiquities ministry has recently launched a project to upgrade the facilities and services provided to the site’s visitors, including the establishment of a visitor centre, the installation of signage, and the development of a website for the site.
the U.S. had minimal dealings with Egypt when it was controlled by the Ottoman Empire (before 1882) and Britain
President G A Nasser (1956–70) antagonized the U.S. by his pro-Soviet policies and anti-Israeli rhetoric, but the U.S. helped keep him in power by forcing Britain and France to immediately end their invasion in 1956. American policy has been to provide strong support to governments that supported U.S. and Israeli interests in the region, especially presidents Anwar Sadat (1970–81) and Hosni Mubarak (1981–2011).
Fast forward to Tuesday, March 5, 2019, and to this story of Egypt Today.
CAIRO – 5 March 2019: Egypt and the United States
‘governments unveiled Sunday finalizing the new groundwater lowering system at
of Kom El-Shuqafa, Alexandria.
In a Monday statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, it was stated that
in support of Egypt’s vital tourism industry, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Thomas
Goldberger joined Minister of Antiquities Khaledal-Anany and Alexandria
Governor Abdul Aziz Qansua to celebrate the completion of a groundwater lowering
system at the Catacombs of Kom El-Shuqafa on Sunday, March 3.
“This site has rich cultural significance and has the potential to attract
tourists and generate revenue,” Goldberger said, adding that the United States
is committed to continuing the partnership with the Government of Egypt to
conserve Egypt’s cultural heritage and increase tourism.
The U.S. Government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), contributed $5.7 million for a system to lower the groundwater level
in partnership with the Ministry of Antiquities and the National Organization
for Potable Water and Sanitary Drainage. The system preserves the site from
erosion and enables tourists to access the lowest level of the Catacombs.
Since 1995, the American people, through USAID, have provided $100 million in
assistance to conserve monuments and masterpieces spanning over the full range
of Egypt’s long cultural heritage – from Pharaonic times to the late Ottoman
period. USAID-financed restoration and training programs helped ensure that
Egypt can capitalize on the sector’s traditional role as an engine of economic
growth and employment.
Since 1978, the American people have invested $30 billion to further Egypt’s
human and economic development.
How climate change caused the world’s first ever empire to collapse by Vasile Ersek, Northumbria University, Newcastle is another story of scientists saying yet again that in the past, shifts in climate impacted one way or another life on earth.
The picture above is that of the author while researching data from a cave in Romania to document the effects of climate change on humankind evolution.
Gol-e-Zard Cave lies in the shadow of Mount Damavand, which at more than 5,000 metres dominates the landscape of northern Iran. In this cave, stalagmites and stalactites are growing slowly over millennia and preserve in them clues about past climate events. Changes in stalagmite chemistry from this cave have now linked the collapse of the Akkadian Empire to climate changes more than 4,000 years ago.
Akkadia was the world’s first empire. It was established in Mesopotamia around 4,300 years ago after its ruler, Sargon of Akkad, united a series of independent city states. Akkadian influence spanned along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from what is now southern Iraq, through to Syria and Turkey. The north-south extent of the empire meant that it covered regions with different climates, ranging from fertile lands in the north which were highly dependent on rainfall (one of Asia’s “bread baskets”), to the irrigation-fed alluvial plains to the south.
It appears that the empire became increasingly dependent on the productivity of the northern lands and used the grains sourced from this region to feed the army and redistribute the food supplies to key supporters. Then, about a century after its formation, the Akkadian Empire suddenly collapsed, followed by mass migration and conflicts. The anguish of the era is perfectly captured in the ancient Curse of Akkad text, which describes a period of turmoil with water and food shortages:
… the large arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated fields yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds did not rain.
Drought and dust
The reason for this collapse is still debated by historians, archaeologists and scientists. One of the most prominent views, championed by Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss (who built on earlier ideas by Ellsworth Huntington), is that it was caused by an abrupt onset of drought conditions which severely affected the productive northern regions of the empire.
Weiss and his colleagues discovered evidence in northern Syria that this once prosperous region was suddenly abandoned around 4,200 years ago, as indicated by a lack of pottery and other archaeological remains. Instead, the rich soils of earlier periods were replaced by large amounts of wind-blown dust and sand, suggesting the onset of drought conditions. Subsequently, marine cores from the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea which linked the input of dust into the sea to distant sources in Mesopotamia, provided further evidence of a regional drought at the time.
Many other researchers viewed Weiss’s interpretation with scepticism, however. Some argued, for example, that the archaeological and marine evidence was not accurate enough to demonstrate a robust correlation between drought and societal change in Mesopotamia.
A new detailed climate record
Now, stalagmite data from Iran sheds new light on the controversy. In a study published in the journal PNAS, led by Oxford palaeoclimatologist Stacy Carolin, colleagues and I provide a very well dated and high resolution record of dust activity between 5,200 and 3,700 years ago. And cave dust from Iran can tell us a surprising amount about climate history elsewhere.
Gol-e-Zard Cave might be several hundred miles to the east of the former Akkadian Empire, but it is directly downwind. As a result, around 90% of the region’s dust originates in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.
That desert dust has a higher concentration of magnesium than the local limestone which forms most of Gol-e-Zard’s stalagmites (the ones which grow upwards from the cave floor). Therefore, the amount of magnesium in the Gol-e-Zard stalagmites can be used as an indicator of dustiness at the surface, with higher magnesium concentrations indicating dustier periods, and by extension drier conditions.
The stalagmites have the additional advantage that they can be dated very precisely using uranium-thorium chronology. Combining these methods, our new study provides a detailed history of dustiness in the area, and identifies two major drought periods which started 4,510 and 4,260 years ago, and lasted 110 and 290 years respectively. The latter event occurs precisely at the time of the Akkadian Empire’s collapse and provides a strong argument that climate change was at least in part responsible.
The collapse was followed by mass migration from north to south which was met with resistance by the local populations. A 180km wall – the “Repeller of the Amorites” – was even built between the Tigris and Euphrates in an effort to control immigration, not unlike some strategies proposed today. The stories of abrupt climate change in the Middle East therefore echo over millennia to the present day.
Humanity originated on the African continent at least 300,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence in southern Greece and the Levant (modern-day Israel) that some early members of our species expanded beyond Africa around 200,000 years ago, and again between 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. They likely travelled through the Sinai peninsula, which formed the only land bridge connecting the continent of Africa to the rest of the world, before moving north into a landscape with a Mediterranean climate.
But it was not known at what point humans turned south after crossing the Sinai peninsula, reaching modern day Saudi Arabia. It is also often assumed that they may have taken a coastal route, avoiding the currently harsh desert interior. Previous fossil finds show this was not the case, with humans moving into the heart of Arabia at least 85,000 years ago. Now, new research pushes this date back even further.
Colleagues and I discovered human and other animal footprints embedded on an ancient lake surface in the Nefud Desert in Saudi Arabia that are around 120,000 years old. These findings represent the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on the Arabian Peninsula, and demonstrates the importance of Arabia for understanding human prehistory.
The Nefud Desert in modern-day Saudi Arabia lies around 500km to the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, the Arabian deserts are some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They would form an impassable barrier for prehistoric humans or large mammals. Imagine standing at the foot of a hyper-arid desert equipped with stone tools and not much else. Could you get across? Probably not.
Scientific analysis shows that for most of their recent history, they were climatically similar to today: hyper-arid and impassable. But there is also evidence to show that at certain times in the past, the deserts transformed into savannah-like grasslands littered with freshwater resources. These “green” phases were likely short, probably lasting no more than a few millennia. Nonetheless, they provided windows of opportunity for humans and other animals to move into a new green landscape.
We know from fossil lake sediments that the Nefud Desert was one of those that periodically transformed into a more attractive landscape in the past, and the new footprints prove that early humans took advantage of one such window.
We were able to date the footprints by using a technique called luminescence dating to a period of time 102-132,000 years ago. Based on wider regional evidence for increased rainfall, we suggest they date to a period roughly 120,000 years ago, called the last interglacial.
We know that around this time that vast river systems spread across the Sahara Desert, with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology scattered along them. Other evidence for increased rainfall at this time comes from fossil stalagmites found in caves in desert regions in Arabia and ~500 km north of the Nefud in the Negev Desert. These features only grow in conditions where rainfall is greater than 300mm per year; substantially more than the amount (<90mm per year) they receive today.
While it is difficult to know for sure which species of human left these prints, we think they were most likely left by our own, Homo sapiens. This is based on the fact that Homo sapiens were present in the Levant, 700km to the north of the Nefud Desert, at a similar time. Neanderthals were absent from the Levant in this period and did not move back into the region until thousands of years later, when cooler conditions prevailed. Estimates of the humans mass and statue based on the footprints are also more consistent with our species than Neanderthals.
In addition to human footprints, elephant, horse and camel prints were also found. These footprints, studied in detail by Mathew Stewart at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, provide a wealth of new information regarding prehistoric interactions between humans, animals and the environment.
Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence as they provide precise snapshots in time that typically represent a few hours or days. This is a resolution we do not get from other records. They also allow us to understand the behaviour of their makers, which is something we cannot get from fossils.
This allows us to understand the relationship between humans and other large mammals at a geologically precise moment in time.
Environmental analysis on the lake sediments show that the lake contained fresh “drinkable” water, while the variety of footprints shows that humans, elephants, camels and horses were using this resource at a similar time. Human and large-mammal movements would have been closely tied to fresh water and the pattern of footprints show both foraged on the lake bed when it was temporarily exposed. Humans may have been drawn to the area as they tracked large mammals, who would potentially serve as prey.
Surveys and analysis of fossils recovered from the site also shows that there are no stone tools or butchery of fossils. This indicates that the footprint-makers only very briefly visited the lake, foraging for resources before continuing on their journey.
It is not clear what happened to the people who left the footprints, but evidence suggests that they, along with the other early Homo sapiens explorers, either died out or retreated to more favourable environments as aridity returned to the desert.
The United Nations (UN) celebrated on May 10th, 2021, the first edition of the International Day of the Argan Tree, an endemic tree in Morocco.
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