Lebanon News

Lebanon fossils cast light on early humans

BEIRUT: The hollow shells, colored in hues of brown and red, form the beads of an ancient jewel. In such simple beginnings, the dawn of civilization can be traced.

The marine shell beads were used to make necklaces more than 40 millennia ago. The simple ornaments, which were found in Lebanon, are part of the body of evidence pointing to the emergence of modern humans.

Today, scientists studying fossils found in Lebanon are shedding new light on the migration of the early “anatomically modern humans” from Africa more than 40,000 years ago, in an attempt to trace humanity’s trajectory in one of the most mysterious epochs of the species’ history. 

Their findings show that modern humans existed in Lebanon around 42,000 BC, at the same time as early European humans, illuminating aspects of human migration from their origins in the jungles of Africa.Modern humans are generally believed to have evolved and migrated out of Africa into the Middle East and Asia, before arriving in Europe.

But it is difficult to prove the theory since fossils from the Middle East of early modern humans are tantalizingly rare. The only two fully modern known specimens are Egbert and Ethelruda, the fossil remains of two humans found at Ksar Akil, a cave 10 km outside of Beirut near Antelias.

“Ksar Akil is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the Near East,” said Katerina Douka, a researcher at Oxford University who led the study, the results of which were published this month in PLOS, a peer-reviewed, open-source science journal.

Ksar Akil was first excavated in the 1930s and 40s. Work resumed in 1969 but stopped because of the Civil War. Egbert, a modern human skull, was first discovered in 1938. The fossil was lost, but a reconstruction of it survives and it is believed to belong to a young girl, age 7-9.

Ethelruda was initially thought to belong to a Neanderthal, a species that co-existed with humans, but is now believed to belong to a modern, female adult. Her remains were lost for a long time, but were recently discovered in storage at the Beirut National Museum.

Douka, along with scientists and archaeologists from the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands, tested marine shell beads found in Ksar Akil near the fossils of Egbert and Ethelruda and dated them using a technique called radiocarbon dating, which can estimate how old an object is based on how many of its carbon atoms have decayed.The marine beads are a sign of modernity, because the hollow shells indicate that they were likely used to make necklaces.

Modern humans are thought to have become established in Europe and the Middle East around 45,000 B.C., when the fossil record suddenly began showing evidence of diverse tools and weapons, as well as ornaments and early forms of jewelry, with the bones of fully modern humans.

Earlier human groups, such as the Neanderthals, did not use jewelry.The Neanderthals are a species closely linked to modern humans, but who are now extinct, likely because they were crowded out by an invasion of modern humans or assimilated into modern human society through inter-species breeding. 

Humans today carry elements of Neanderthal DNA.Radiocarbon dating of the marine shell beads indicates that Egbert lived between 39,200 B.C. and 40,800 B.C. Ethelruda was discovered to be slightly older, likely living between 41,700 B.C. and 42,400 B.C. This means that Ethelruda and Egbert, the oldest modern humans found in the Middle East, lived around the same time that the earliest humans were colonizing Europe.

The so-called “out of Africa” theory suggested that humans first evolved in Africa and then migrated in waves to the Middle East.The first wave, between 130,000-80,000 B.C., likely went died out, an early flare of human exploration. 

The second wave was in 50,000 B.C., and scientists used to believe that they migrated from the Middle East directly to Europe and the rest of Asia.

The Levant is thought to be a region of particular significance as a crossroads for humanity through which the species spread around the globe.

At first glance, the migration through the Middle East makes intuitive sense. 

When modern humans left Africa, large swathes of Europe were covered in ice sheets while the Mediterranean offered a more welcoming climate and abundant forests and food sources.But the findings cast doubt on the centrality of the Levant to early human migration, suggesting that modern humans may have left Africa through myriad different routes.

Scientists do not know exactly which routes out of Africa may have been favored by modern humans, and Douka believes other regions of Asia should also be investigated thoroughly. Evidence of human groups in Arabia around the same time also indicates they may have traveled through Iran, Syria and Central Asia to Europe.

But even more intriguing is how the Levant could also offer some insight into the interaction between humans and Neanderthals.Neanderthals populated the region at least 150,000 years before humans arrived, having moved in from Europe attracted by abundant food, fresh water sources and material to make tools.

There is no direct evidence for interaction between the two species in the area yet, though new genetic evidence indicates interbreeding between modern humans and the Neanderthals. Some scientists speculate that this assimilation is what led to the Neanderthal’s extinction and other believe that interbreeding occurred in the Levant before modern humans migrated into Europe.

Douka said there would have been clear differences in appearance and societal organization between the two human groups.Humans lived in larger groups with extended families and networks, while Neanderthals are thought to have lived in smaller, more isolated groups. While Neanderthals were shorter and more robust, and probably paler, modern humans were taller, leaner and maybe darker, at least those who came from regions south of the Levant, Douka said.

Douka said that it was challenging to find fossils of modern humans anywhere because of the small size of the populations that migrated out of Africa and because we do not know where they buried their dead.

Neanderthal remains are more common in the Middle East, possibly because they lived in the area for much longer than modern humans and would often leave their dead at areas such as caves, where archaeologists most usually excavateIn any case, the hints of that modern society which spawned Egbert and Ethelruda are fascinating because they were fundamentally modern, even recognizable to us today.

“These people lived certainly in caves, but also at open air camps, they had sophisticated clothing, tools and social organization,” Douka said. “They looked very similar if not identical to us today and we would certainly recognize them as fellow modern humans.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2013, on page 2.

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