Tag Archives: Journal of Archaeological Science

Human Hair Confirmed in Prehistoric Hyena Feces



Via News Discovery

Human hair found in fossilized hyena poop suggests that our ancestors satisfied the hunger of others during prehistoric times.

The fossilized dung, part of a “hyena latrine,” will be described in the upcoming October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The latrine was first found a few years ago at Gladysvale cave in the Sterkfontein Valley of South Africa, but it recently went through an additional barrage of testing.

Our ancestors there lived around a literally wild bunch about 257,000 years ago.



“Based on the fossil hairs identified here, this research has established that brown hyenas shared the Sterkfontein Valley with hominins, warthog, impala, zebra and kudu,” authors Phillip Taru and Lucinda Backwell of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote.

They continued, “Apart from humans, these animals are associated with savanna grasslands, much like the Highveld environment of today.”

It sounds like there are three ways in which the hairs could have wound up where they did:

  1. The hyena ate a person(s). This happens even today, so it’s very possible.
  2. The hyena scavenged a dead person’s body.
  3. Somehow the hyena consumed a blob of human hair. Hey, you never know. If the hyena were hungry enough, it might have sampled all kinds of weird things.

What’s clear, at least, is that humans were at the site.

NEWS: Ancient Humans May Have Dined on Hyenas


As the researchers wrote, “Hair provides evidence of inland occupation by archaic Homo sapiens or modern humans.” The hair lacked scales, which could provide yet another useful clue.

“A lack of hair scales has been documented in human hair subject to pathology, a condition observed when studying our diabetic colleague’s hair as part of the human comparative sample,” Taru and Backwell explained.

Life in a cave could have led to many bad hair days, though. “Abrasion of the hair resulting from inhabiting rock crevices” could have led to lack of scales, according to the authors.

It’s impressive how valuable an old hair stuck in hyena poop can be. Future investigations will likely focus on the region in South Africa to learn more about our human ancestors there and how they interacted with other species.



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Filed under Human Evolution, Middle Stone Age, Paleolithic



Via Past Horizons

While we grapple with the impact of climate change, archaeologists suggest we spare a thought for Aboriginal Australians who had to cope with the last ice age.

“The period scientists call the Last Glacial Maximum, or LGM for short, is the most significant climatic event ever faced by humans on this continent,” Associate Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University in Cairns said.


The Snowy Mountains. Image: Pee Tern (Wikimedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

Meeting the challenges of extreme climate change

Research recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science sheds new light on the ways Aboriginal peoples met the challenges of extreme climate change during the Last Glacial Maximum, which peaked around 20,000 years ago.
“The magnitude of change was phenomenal,” said Professor Ulm, a lead researcher on the project and Deputy Director of JCU’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science.

“Lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts expanded, animals went extinct and vast swathes of the Australian land mass would have been simply uninhabitable.”

10 degrees below present-day level

Annual temperatures plummeted by as much as 10 degrees below present-day levels, with massive reductions in rainfall. Glaciers appeared in the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania.
“This was a time of massive change,” Professor Ulm said. “Sea levels fell more than 120 metres during the LGM, exposing much of the continental shelf and connecting mainland Australia to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania.”
Australian researchers from James Cook University, the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales teamed up with colleagues from Oxford University in the United Kingdom and Simon Fraser University in Canada to use advanced geospatial techniques to analyse archaeological radiocarbon dates from across Australia.

“We are trying to understand how people responded to these extreme conditions,” Professor Ulm said.


Localised environmental ‘refuges’

The researchers found that during times of high climatic stress, human populations contracted into localised environmental ‘refuges’, in well-watered ranges and along major riverine systems, where water and food supplies were reliable.
Co-leader of the study, Alan Williams from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University, said surviving the last ice age required Aboriginal communities to adapt to massive change.
“As much as 80 per cent of Australia was temporarily abandoned by Aboriginal people at the height of the LGM, when conditions were at their worst,” he said.
“Along Australia’s east coast, people contracted to refuge areas with good water supplies – most likely the result of increased summer snow melt coming off mountain ranges like the Victorian Alps, or glacier-fed river systems such as those of the central highlands of Tasmania.”

Significant changes

Professor Ulm said that while those better-watered areas would have provided more reliable resources, Aboriginal people needed to make significant changes to their way of life in order to survive.
“The archaeological evidence reflects major changes in settlement and subsistence patterns at this time,” he said. “Many previously occupied areas were abandoned”.
“There were changes to hunting practices, the types of food people were eating, and the technologies they were using, to deal with new circumstances”.
“We expect there would have been huge impacts on social relationships and religious beliefs as well, but these types of changes are much harder to detect in the archaeological record.
“One thing we can say for sure is that extreme climate change results in the fundamental social and economic reorganisation of society.
“This was certainly true in the past and will be true in the future.”


The research will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Filed under Australia, Climate Change, Glacial Refugia, Human Behaviour, Human Evolution, Last Glacial Maximum, Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic