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Were Other Humans The First Victims Of The Sixth Mass Extinction?

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Were Other Humans The First Victims Of The Sixth Mass Extinction?
Photo Credit: The Conversation

Nick Longrich, The Conversation

Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homoneanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homoerectus lived in Indonesia, and Homorhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homonaledi in South Africa, Homoluzonensis in the Philippines, Homofloresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern AfricaHomosapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?

Human evolution. Nick Longrich (Author Provided)
Human evolution. Nick Longrich (Author Provided)

We are a uniquely dangerous species. We hunted wooly mammoths, ground sloths and moas to extinction. We destroyed plains and forests for farming, modifying over half the planet’s land area. We altered the planet’s climate. But we are most dangerous to other human populations, because we compete for resources and land.

History is full of examples of people warring, displacing and wiping out other groups over territory, from Rome’s destruction of Carthage, to the American conquest of the West and the British colonisation of Australia. There have also been recent genocides and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Darfur and Myanmar. Like language or tool use, a capacity for and tendency to engage in genocide is arguably an intrinsic, instinctive part of human nature. There’s little reason to think that early Homosapiens were less territorial, less violent, less intolerant – less human.

Optimists have painted early hunter-gatherers as peaceful, noble savages, and have argued that our culture, not our nature, creates violence. But field studies, historical accounts, and archaeology all show that war in primitive cultures was intense, pervasive and lethal. Neolithic weapons such as clubs, spears, axes and bows, combined with guerrilla tactics like raids and ambushes, were devastatingly effective. Violence was the leading cause of death among men in these societies, and wars saw higher casualty levels per person than World Wars I and II.

Old bones and artefacts show this violence is ancient. The 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, from North America, has a spear point embedded in his pelvis. The 10,000-year-old Nataruk site in Kenya documents the brutal massacre of at least 27 men, women, and children.

It’s unlikely that the other human species were much more peaceful. The existence of cooperative violence in male chimps suggests that war predates the evolution of humans. Neanderthal skeletons show patterns of trauma of trauma consistent with warfare. But sophisticated weapons likely gave Homosapiens a military advantage. The arsenal of early Homosapiens probably included projectile weapons like javelins and spear-throwers, throwing sticks and clubs.

Complex tools and culture would also have helped us efficiently harvest a wider range of animals and plants, feeding larger tribes, and giving our species a strategic advantage in numbers.

The Ultimate Weapon

But cave paintings, carvings, and musical instruments hint at something far more dangerous: a sophisticated capacity for abstract thought and communication. The ability to cooperate, plan, strategies, manipulate and deceive may have been our ultimate weapon.

The incompleteness of the fossil record makes it hard to test these ideas. But in Europe, the only place with a relatively complete archaeological record, fossils show that within a few thousand years of our arrival, Neanderthals vanished. Traces of Neanderthal DNA in some Eurasian people prove we didn’t just replace them after they went extinct. We met, and we mated.

Elsewhere, DNA tells of other encounters with archaic humans. East Asian, Polynesian and Australian groups have DNA from Denisovans. DNA from another species, possibly Homoerectus, occurs in many Asian people. African genomes show traces of DNA from yet another archaic species. The fact that we interbred with these other species proves that they disappeared only after encountering us.

But why would our ancestors wipe out their relatives, causing a mass extinction – or, perhaps more accurately, a mass genocide?

13,000-year-old spear points from Colorado. Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution
13,000-year-old spear points from Colorado. Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

The answer lies in population growth. Humans reproduce exponentially, like all species. Unchecked, we historically doubled our numbers every 25 years. And once humans became cooperative hunters, we had no predators. Without predation controlling our numbers, and little family planning beyond delayed marriage and infanticide, populations grew to exploit the available resources.

Further growth, or food shortages caused by drought, harsh winters or overharvesting resources would inevitably lead tribes into conflict over food and foraging territory. Warfare became a check on population growth, perhaps the most important one.

Our elimination of other species probably wasn’t a planned, coordinated effort of the sort practised by civilisations, but a war of attrition. The end result, however, was just as final. Raid by raid, ambush by ambush, valley by valley, modern humans would have worn down their enemies and taken their land.

Yet the extinction of Neanderthals, at least, took a long time – thousands of years. This was partly because early Homosapiens lacked the advantages of later conquering civilisations: large numbers, supported by farming, and epidemic diseases like smallpox, flu, and measles that devastated their opponents. But while Neanderthals lost the war, to hold on so long they must have fought and won many battles against us, suggesting a level of intelligence close to our own.

Today we look up at the stars and wonder if we’re alone in the universe. In fantasy and science fiction, we wonder what it might be like to meet other intelligent species, like us, but not us. It’s profoundly sad to think that we once did, and now, because of it, they’re gone.

Top image: A Neanderthal skull shows head trauma, evidence of ancient violence.  Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The article “ Were other humans the first victims of the sixth mass extinction? ” by Nick Longrich was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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Island In The Clouds: Is Mount Roraima Really A ‘Lost World’ Where Dinosaurs May Still Exist?

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Island In The Clouds: Is Mount Roraima Really A ‘Lost World’ Where Dinosaurs May Still Exist?
Photo Credit: All That Interesting

Deep within the rainforests of Venezuela, a series of plateaus arise more than 9000 feet (2743 meters) off the ground. From above, they look like islands in the sky. These are the Tepuis (a Pemón Indian word for mountain), the most famous of which is called Mount Roraima. The Tepuis are so unique in their geography that thousands of plant species exist nowhere else on the planet except on these plateaus. The mystical mountains fascinated explorers and writers for centuries, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who described an ascent of Mount Roraima in his 1912 novel The Lost World. In Doyle’s novel, a group of explorers found that dinosaurs and other extinct creatures were still alive and well on the remote plateaus. Some people today still believe this to be a real possibility.

An illustration from Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ in which explorers encounter dinosaurs atop Mount Roraima. (public domain)
The Real Lost World

Once impenetrable to all but the Pemón indigenous people, Mount Roraima really was a lost world. The mountain plateaus were already established when South America was linked with Africa to form the supercontinent Gondwana, meaning they were first formed perhaps 400 to 250 million years ago. During this time, molten rock forced its way up through cracks in the sandstone landmass. At the same time, wind and water swept across Gondwana to erode the raised highlands into mountain ranges. The region would come to look much like it does now around 20 million years ago.

Because the Tepuis have been isolated for so long atop their high, lonely plateaus, the flora and fauna of the Tepuis provide an organic illustration of the processes of evolution. It is guessed that “at least half of the estimated 10,000 plant species here are unique to tepuis and surrounding lowlands. New species are still being discovered.” (George, 1989). Although all of the Tepuis have been climbed, only a few have been extensively explored. Could this mean that supposedly extinct species, even dinosaurs, may still exist atop these remote plateaus?

Mount Roraima. (Feel the Planet)
Mount Roraima. (Feel the Planet)
Could the Legends be Real?

The Roraima plateaus are so remote and so unique that it is not difficult to imagine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creating a world alive with prehistoric plants and dinosaurs in his novel The Lost World. Doyle was fascinated with the accounts of British botanist Everard Im Thurn, who climbed to the top of Mount Roraima in December 1884.

Ascending Mount Roraima in 1989 for the National Geographic Society, German explorer Uwe George said, “None of us who followed Im Thurn to Roraima have found primordial creatures or their fossil remains there, but the terrain is so difficult that only a fraction of the Tepui’s 44 square miles has so far been explored” (George, 1989). Since his writing, more of Mount Roraima has been investigated and, unsurprisingly, no traces of dinosaurs have been found.

It is not hard to imagine dinosaurs walking atop these remote and ancient lands, but no evidence has been found to suggest this could be the case. ( Drwallpaper)
It is not hard to imagine dinosaurs walking atop these remote and ancient lands, but no evidence has been found to suggest this could be the case. (Drwallpaper)
Sacred Ground

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the natives of Venezuela viewed the tepuis as having special mythical significance. According to the Pemón Indians, Mount Roraima is “the stump of a mighty tree that once held all the fruits and tuberous vegetables in the world,” however it was “felled by one of their ancestors, the tree crashed to the ground, unleashing a terrible flood” (Naeem, 2011). They believed that if a person ascended to the top of the tepuis, he or she would not come back alive.

Mysterious Islands in the Sky Unlock Secrets of Our Past: Return to Tepuis | Short Film Showcase
A ‘Crystal Mountain Covered with Diamonds and Waterfalls’

Climbing the Tepuis is exceedingly difficult and is made all the more so by the frequent rains that makes the rocky footpaths slippery and muddy. The first European explorer to write about the Tepuis was Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595. He wrote of a crystal mountain covered with diamonds and waterfalls:

“There falleth ouer it a mightie riuer which toucheth no parte of the side of the mountaine but…falleth to the grounde with a terrible noyse and clamor, as if 1000 great belles were knockt one against another…but what it hath I knowe not, neyther durst he or any of his men ascende to the toppe of the saide mountaine, those people adioyning being his enemies (as they were) and the way to it so impassible.” (Raleigh quoted in George, 1989).

There is a good chance that Sir Raleigh was describing Angel Falls, so named for the mid-20th century American Jimmie Angel who was the first person to fly over the area. Angel Falls were recently featured in Disney’s Up, where the falls are referred to as Paradise Falls.

A scene from Disney movie ‘Up’ showing ‘Paradise Falls’, which were based on Angel Falls at Mount Roraima.
A scene from Disney movie ‘Up’ showing ‘Paradise Falls’, which were based on Angel Falls at Mount Roraima.

While today’s travellers may not stumble upon dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, they will be able to see black frogs and tarantulas that exist nowhere else on the planet. It is believed there are many other species unique to Roraima that are yet to be discovered.

This article (Island In The Clouds: Is Mount Roraima Really A ‘Lost World’ Where Dinosaurs May Still Exist?) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Scientists Discover 400-Year-Old Greenland Shark Likely Born Around 1620

Greenland sharks are now the longest-living vertebrates known on Earth, according to scientists.

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Photo Credit: Dive Magazine

Researchers used radiocarbon dating of eye proteins to determine the ages of 28 Greenland sharks, and estimated that one female was about 400 years old. The former vertebrate record-holder was a bowhead whale estimated to be 211 years old.

As lead author Julius Nielsen, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen, put it: “We had our expectations that we were dealing with an unusual animal, but I think everyone doing this research was very surprised to learn the sharks were as old as they were.”

Scientists Discover 400-Year-Old Greenland Shark Likely Born Around 1620
Greenland sharks swim through the cold waters of the Arctic and the North Atlantic at such a sluggish pace that has earned them the nickname “sleeper sharks.” Image credit: Julius Nielsen

Greenland sharks are huge and can grow up to 5m in length. Yet, they grow at just 1cm a year. They can be found, swimming slowly, throughout the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic.

The team believes the animals only reach sexual maturity when they are 4m-long. And with this new, very lengthy age-range, it suggests this does not occur until the animals are about 150 years old.

A newly tagged Greenland shark returns to the deep and cold waters of the Uummannaq Fjord in western Greenland. Image credit: Julius Nielsen

The research was made possible, in part, by the atmospheric thermonuclear weapons tests conducted during the 1960s, which released massive amounts of radiocarbon that were then absorbed by organisms in ocean ecosystems. Sharks that showed evidence of elevated radiocarbon in the nucleus of their eye tissue were therefore born after the so-called “bomb pulse,” and were younger than 50 years old, while sharks with lower radiocarbon levels were born prior to that, and were at least 50 years old or older, the study authors wrote.

The scientists then calculated an age range for the older sharks based on their size, and on prior data about Greenland sharks’ size at birth and growth rates in fish.

A Greenland shark near the ocean surface after its release from research vessel Sanna in northern Greenland. Image credit: Julius Nielsen
A Greenland shark near the ocean surface after its release from research vessel Sanna in northern Greenland. Image credit: Julius Nielsen

According to the results of the analysis – which has a probability rate of about 95% – the sharks were at least 272 years old, and could be as much as 512 years old (!) with 390 years as the most likely average life span, according to Nielsen.

Oldest Shark in the World – 512 Year Old Greenland Shark

But why do Greenland sharks live so long?

Their longevity is actually attributed to their very slow metabolism and the cold waters that they inhabit. They swim through the cold waters of the Arctic and the North Atlantic at such a sluggish pace that has earned them the nickname “sleeper sharks.” Seal parts have been found in their bellies, but the sharks move so slowly that experts have suggested that the seals must have been asleep or already dead when the sharks ate them.

The slower you go, the farther you will be.

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Viking Grave Found Under The Floorboards Of A Home In Norway

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Viking Grave
Photo Credit: Nordland County

A Norwegian couple made an unusual historic discovery during renovations of their home. They found a number of Viking era artifacts, and now archaeologists believe that they have found a Viking grave, right there, under their floor. Experts are currently carrying out a survey of the site and the grave is being hailed as a very significant find.

The couple made the find while tearing up some floorboards in their family home in Seivåg near Bodø in Northern Norway. They were laying insulation when they came across some strangely shaped rocks.

Naturally, they were curious, and then they saw something round glinting in the light. They knew that it had to be old because the house had been built in 1914 and the floorboards had not been moved since. The house has been in the same family for over a century.

This Valuable Viking Grave is Missing Something Important
Viking Burial Under the Boards

Based on the shape of the object “they first believed it was the wheel of a toy car” according to The Local. The couple only later realized that what they had found could be something historic.

After some further digging, the couple found an iron axe head and some other metallic objects, that were all obviously old. ‘It wasn’t until later that we realized what it could be” Mariann Kristiansen, one of the owners of the house, told The Local.

Viking ax head, representation of the find at the Viking burial site in Norway. (British Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Viking ax head, representation of the find at the Viking burial site in Norway. (British Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The couple contacted the local authorities and experts from the local Nordland county government came to inspect the finds. Martinus Hauglid told the couple that they had most likely found a grave from the Iron Age in Norway. This was the era when the Vikings ruled in Scandinavia and terrified most of the known world.

The archaeologist told The Local that the couple had found an “axe dated between 950 and 1050 AD.” The bead of glass, which was revealed to be blue dates from the same period.

A glass bead was among the first objects discovered in the Viking grave. ( Nordland County )
A glass bead was among the first objects discovered in the Viking grave. (Nordland County)
Viking Cairn

It is believed that the stones found underneath the flooring came from a burial. The stones were likely part of a cairn. In this type of burial, a mound of stones and rocks are erected over the deceased which was a very common burial practice in the Iron Age.

A number of similar cairns were found in the Lendbreen Mountain Pass in Norway when a glacier melted. This was an important trade route in the Middle Ages.

Martinus congratulated the couple on their find and stated that they had done a good job, by reporting things so soon. The archaeologist said that it was the first instance of a Viking grave being found under a private dwelling in his 30 year career.

Archaeologists have begun an investigation of the grave. Forbes reports that under Norwegian Law any human artifacts or “activity before 1537 are automatically preserved.” The items found by the couple have been transported to a museum for conservation and safekeeping.

These stones formed the top of what archaeologists believe is a Viking burial ground. ( Nordland County )
These stones formed the top of what archaeologists believe is a Viking burial ground. (Nordland County)
End of the Viking Age

Martinus is quoted by Forbes as stating that the finds under the floorboards date back to a time “when Norway transitioned to Christianity to become one kingdom.” This was the time when kings like Olaf Tryggvason, attempted to dominate the many chiefdoms and create a centralized state.

Some of these monarchs sought to impose Christianity on the pagan Norse as part of their efforts at state-building and this led to many civil wars. The grave could help researchers to better understand this crucial period in Norwegian history which saw the demise of the Viking Age.

It appears that the original builders of the house, over a century ago, were not aware that they were building a private residence on a grave. It is quite possible that they unearthed items and simply discarded them. This raises the possibility that some Viking-era grave goods were lost or destroyed during the construction of the family home.

Viking era grave goods displayed at the National Museum of Iceland. (A.Davey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Viking era grave goods displayed at the National Museum of Iceland. (A.Davey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

This article (Viking Grave Found Under The Floorboards Of A Home In Norway) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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18,000-Year-Old Puppy Frozen In Permafrost Puzzles Scientists

Was this 18,000-year-old puppy frozen in Siberian permafrost the ancestor of wolves, dogs or both?

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18000 Year Old Puppy Frozen In Permafrost Puzzles Scientists
Photo Credit: Sergey Fedorov

Meet Dogor, an 18,000-year-old pup recently unearthed in Siberian permafrost whose name means ‘friend’ in the Yakut language. The remains of the prehistoric pup are baffling researchers because genetic testing shows it’s not a wolf or a dog, meaning it could be an elusive ancestor of both.

Locals found the creature’s remains in the summer of 2018 in a frozen lump of ground near the Indigirka River, according to the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk. The puppy’s full body, thick hair, muzzle, and even whiskers and eyelashes had been preserved by permafrost, so much so that researchers at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden were able to sequence the animal’s DNA using a piece of rib bone. According to the results, Dogor was male, but even after two rounds of analysis the team could not determine whether he was a dog or a wolf.

Image credit: Sergey Fedorov

It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,’ David Stanton, a Centre for Palaeogenetics research fellow, told Amy Woodyatt at CNN. ‘We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both to dogs and wolves.

So the reason why scientists cannot determine the exact species could be that the find comes from the point where dogs were domesticated. According to Stanton, Dogor comes from an interesting time in canine evolution, when wolf species were dying out and early dogs were beginning to emerge.

‘As you go back in time, as you get closer to the point that dogs and wolves converge, [it becomes] harder to tell between the two,’ Stanton noted.

Image credits: Sergey Fedorov
Image credit: Sergey Fedorov
Image credits: Sergey Fedorov
Image credit: Sergey Fedorov

The history of just how and when dogs split from wolves is unclear. There’s a general agreement among scientists that modern gray wolves and dogs split from a common ancestor 15,000 to 40,000 years ago, explains Brian Handwerk previously for Smithsonian.com. How dogs became dogs, however, is contested. Some research suggests that dogs were domesticated by humans once, while other studies have found dogs were domesticated multiple times. Exactly where in the world wild canines became man’s best friend is also disputed. The origin of the human-animal bond has been traced to Mongolia, China and Europe.

Scientists disagree about how dogs ended up paired with people, too. Some suspect humans captured wolf pups and actively domesticated them. Others suggest that a strain of “friendly,” less aggressive wolves more or less domesticated themselves by hanging out near humans, gaining access to their leftover food.

Dorgor’s DNA could help unravel these mysteries. The team plans to do a third round of DNA testing that may help definitively place Dogor in the canine family tree. At the same time, since climate change is affecting the Siberian permafrost, people will be finding more and more ancient creatures unthawing.

Image credit: Sergey Fedorov
Image credits: Sergey Fedorov
Image credit: Sergey Fedorov

This article (18000 Year Old Puppy Frozen In Permafrost Puzzles Scientists) was originally created for Earthly Mission and is published here under Creative Commons.

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