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Steve Drury

The earliest humans to leave Africa, in China

Since discovery in 2010 that remains of the genus Homo at Dmanisi in Georgia were about 1.85 Ma old several more instances of bones and stone tools a few hundred thousand years less than that age have turned up in China. All have been ascribed to H. erectus, although there are dissimilarities with African examples of the species and its predecessor H. ergaster. The technological breakthrough that led H. erectus/ergaster to knap the distinctive bifacial or Acheulean ‘handaxe’ was achieved at about the same time as the Dmanisi humans left Africa, yet there is no sign of such tools in eastern Asia until much later, most ancient artefacts there being of a more primitive, ‘Oldowan’ type. That is perhaps because more serviceable tools were fashioned from less durable materials than fine-grained rock that takes an edge. Maybe the skills were lost en route or the forebears of eastern Asian tool makers left Africa before the breakthrough. At any rate, the genus Homo is generally conferred on any being that had a tool-making culture, so that the presence of tools alone in a sedimentary deposit signifies that humans probably once inhabited that site. The earliest tools (3.3 Ma) from the Turkana area of Kenya were made half a million years before the first known appearance of well-documented remains of an un-named member of the genus Homo at  Ledi-Geraru in Afar, Ethiopia (2.8 Ma). At sites in Olduvai, Tanzania (1.9 Ma) and Turkana, Kenya (2.1 Ma) fossils of Homo habilis are found in association with ‘Oldovan’ stone tools.

Sites where early human fossils an tools have been found. (Credit: John Kappelman, Nature 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05293-9)

The latest development in the origin and wanderings of early humans has emerged from studies of a thick deposit of windblown silt or loess that makes up the Loess Plateau (Latitude 34°N) between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in central-east China. The loess is divided into several sequences by thin soil horizons (palaeosols). The entire stratigraphy contains tiny grains of iron minerals whose magnetic polarity was aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field at the time of deposition. This allows periods of normal and reversed geomagnetic polarity to be detected with considerable precision. Measurements have been taken at 10 cm intervals throughout the loess, to give an unbroken record of events throughout the Pleistocene Epoch that can be matched to a dated reference called the geomagnetic polarity timescale (GPTS). Palaeoclimate researchers have been able to show that the layers of loess correspond to successive glacial stages, whereas the palaeosol represent warm interglacials, exactly as recorded in sea-floor sediment profiles   A team of archaeologists from China and Britain have found primitive, Oldowan-type, artefacts in both the loess and palaeosol horizons at 17 different levels (Zhu, Z. and 10 others 2018. Hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau since about 2.1 million years ago. Nature, v. 559 advance publication online doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0299-4. See also). The artefacts are positioned at levels dated at between 1.26 to 2.12 Ma by the palaeomagnetic dating (from the Réunion to Cobb Mountain normally polarized subchrons).

Primitive stone tool (four sides shown) from the Loess Plateau of China. (Credit: Zhu et al./Nature 2018)

So, in both cool and warm conditions (34°N has cold winters today) toolmakers were regularly present in central, east China for almost 900 ka. The earliest must have made a 14 thousand km trek from tropical Africa across several climatic zones, and been physically, cognitively and technologically capable of surviving and reproducing for the one- to three-thousand years the journey must have taken (based on a dispersal rate of 5 to 15 km a year estimated from modern hunter-gatherers’ activities). Either there were repeated migrations of this scale or a pioneer population survived on or within reach of the loess steppe for hundreds of thousand years. The earliest emigrants would have been neither Homo erectus nor ergaster, for neither had evolved. Their age suggests that they may have been H. habilis, a view that has been expressed for the ancestors of the diminutive H. floresiensis known to have been present of the Indonesian island of Flores for around 700 ka. Until actual fossils are unearthed – not easy as the sequence is exposed in very steep slopes characteristic of dissected loess terrains – who the first occupants of China were remains mysterious. But one thing stands out: If early humans from that long ago could arrive, survive and prosper half a world away from their place of origin, then paleoanthropologists must consider the possibility of continual diffusion of the genus Homo away from its African origins once equipped with the ability to make tools. China may become the focus for early-human research as it became for that into the origins of birds and feathered dinosaurs.

You can read more about early humans and their evolution here.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

A new kind of seismology

The detection and analysis of earthquake waves has played a major role in the study of how the Earth works for more than a century. Seismology has laid bare the deep structure of our planet. Using records from seismographs that showed the arrival times at different sites of body waves propagated by a 1909 earthquake near Zagreb Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovičić deduced that the upper Earth was layered. His name is given to the boundary between the crust and underlying mantle; the Mohorovičić Discontinuity (Moho for short). Applying the principles of wave reflection and refraction to wave-arrival times from major seismic events at seismographic stations across the Earth’s surface resulted in the discovery of deeper discontinuities in the mantle and the structure of the core. As the number of stations increased, largely as a result of the need to detect and pin-point tests of nuclear weapons, reversing the principles enabled the 3-D positions of lesser events to be plotted. The resulting swathes of seismicity defined the boundaries of tectonic plates, and from the varying depths at which earthquakes occurred came ideas about their nature; especially important for the mapping of subduction zones. Expansion and standardisation of the global seismographic network and the millions of records that it has produced, together with advances in their digital analysis, has created the current method of charting deep-Earth properties using seismic tomography. A remarkable outcome of such studies is the strikingly named ‘The Atlas of the Underworld’.

Up to now there has been a limit to the scope of such studies, particularly their resolution of features in the Earth’s mantle. Almost all the recording stations are on land, leaving the 70% of the surface covered by oceans devoid of data. Yet that might be set to change. The building of the Internet’s World Wide Web has largely depended on a growing network of telecommunications optic-fibre cables that criss-cross the oceans as well as the continents, stretching about a million kilometres. Using lasers at each end of a cable and interferometric analysis of two light signal that takes up a tiny proportion of the cable’s bandwidth it is possible to detect noise due to disturbances of the cable that result from earthquakes. On land this is compromised by local effects, such as traffic noise, but the ocean floors are remarkable quiet. Giuseppe Marra of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory discovered the potential of using optic fibre while testing a 79 km length cable linking atomic clocks at NPL and Reading (Marra, G. And 11 others 2018. Ultrastable laser interferometry for earthquake detection with terrestrial and submarine cables. Science online publication; doi:10.1126/science.aat4458). Purely by chance he observed unusually high spikes in noise during 2016. By no stretch of the imagination could they have been caused by events along the course of the cable. Curious, he eventually tracked the signals down to a series of earthquakes beneath Norcia in central Italy that cause death and destruction between 24 August and 30 October 2016. With a magnitude of 6.5, the last was the largest seismic event in Italy for 36 years. Subsequently, he and colleagues picked up the signal of a far less energetic event beneath the Mediterranean Sea (magnitude 3.4) from a cable linking Malta and Sicily.

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Map of submarine optic-fibre cables (credit: TeleGeography’s Telecom Resources)

With records from three suitably equipped cables an earthquake focus could be located precisely using triangulation. Together with the recorded signals, it would also be possible to use high magnitude earthquakes detected by optic-fibre cables to add to conventional seismic tomography, thereby sharpening the 3-D images of the deep Earth, which at present are plagued by blurring of much useful detail. Since both submarine and terrestrial cables might be used, such a method may become a bonanza for geophysicists

See also: Hand, E, 2018. Seafloor fibre optic cables can listen for earthquakes. Science, v. 360, p. 1160.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

A hint of life on Mars

We can be certain that life was around on Planet Earth around 3.5 billion years ago, if not before, because unmetamorphosed sedimentary rocks of that age from Western Australia in which stromatolites occur contain a black to brownish, structureless material known as kerogen. The material is a hodgepodge of organic compounds that form during the breakdown of proteins and carbohydrates in living matter. It is the source material for petroleum compounds when kerogen-rich rocks are heated during burial. The vast bulk of organic compounds preserved on Earth are in the form of ancient kerogen, whose mass exceeds that of the living biosphere by about 10 thousand times. A good sign that it does represent ancient life lies in sedimentary kerogen’s depletion in ‘heavy’ 13C compared with 12C (negative values of δ13C), because in metabolising carbon dioxide living cells preferentially use the lighter of these two isotopes. Conceivably, 13C can be removed from inorganic carbon by metamorphic processes, so low values of δ13C in metasediments from West Greenland might be organically derived or, equally, they might not.

At the time of writing, geoscientists specialising in Martian matters had become excited by some results from the geochemical system aboard the surviving functional NASA rover. Curiosity has slowly been making its way up Mount Sharp at the centre of Gale Crater near to Mars’s equator. Analysis of high-resolution images taken from orbit suggest that the rocks forming the mountain are sediments. the lowest and oldest strata are suspected to have been deposited in a crater lake when conditions were warmer and wetter on Mars, about 3 billion years ago. Curiosity was equipped with a drill to penetrate and sample sediment unaffected by ultraviolet radiation that long ago would have destroyed any hydrocarbons exposed at the surface. In late 2016, before the rover had reached the lake sediments, the drill’s controller broke down. Since then, Curiosity had moved on to younger, less promising sediments. More than a year later mission engineers fixed the problem and the rover backtracked to try again. Heating the resulting samples to almost 900°C yields any volatile components as a gas to a mass spectrometer, results from which give clues to the molecules released.

‘Selfie’ of Curiosity rover en route to Mount Sharp. (Credit: NASA)

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) team report a range of thiophenic, aromatic and aliphatic molecules of compounds of carbon, hydrogen and sulfur (Eigenbrode, J.L and 21 others 2018. Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudtsones at Gale crater, Mars. Science, v. 360, p. 1096-1101; doi:10.1126/science.aas9185). The blend of pyrolysis products closely resembles those which form from heated terrestrial kerogens and coals, but also from pyrolysis of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. So, the presence of Martian kerogen is not proven. But the results are so promisingly rich in hydrocarbons that another weapon in SAM’s armoury will be deployed, dissolving organic compounds directly from the drill cuttings. This may provide more convincing evidence of collagen. Yet only when samples are returned to labs on Earth will there be a chance to say one way or the other that there was once life on Mars. The results reported in Science’s 8 June issue will surely add weight to the clamour for the Mars 2020 sample-return mission to be funded. Whether or not there is life on Mars demands a great deal more investment still…

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

The great Cambrian unconformity

My first field trip from the Geology Department at the University of Birmingham in autumn 1964 was located within hooter distance of the giant British Leyland car plant at Longbridge. It involved a rubbish-filled linear quarry behind a row of shops on the main road through south Birmingham. Not very prepossessing but it clearly exposed a white quartzite, which we were told was a beach deposit laid down by a massive marine transgression at the start of the Cambrian. An hour later we were shown an equally grim exposure of weathered volcanic rocks in the Lickey Hills; they were a sort of purple brown, and said to be Precambrian in age. Not an excellent beginning to a career, but from time to time other Cambrian quartzites sitting unconformably on Precambrian rocks entered our field curriculum: in the West Midlands, Welsh Borders and much further afield in NW Scotland, as it transpired on what had been two separate continental masses of Avalonia and Laurentia. This had possibly been a global marine transgression.

In North America, then the Laurentian continent, what John Wesley Powell dubbed the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon has as its counterpart to the Lickey Quartzite the thrillingly named Tonto Group of the Lower Cambrian resting on the Vishnu Schists that are more than a billion years older. Part of the Sauk Sequence, the Tonto Group is, sadly, not accompanied by the Lone Ranger Group, but the Cambrian marine transgression crops out across the continent. In fact it was a phenomenon common to all the modern continents. Global sea level rose relative to the freeboard of the continents then existing. A recent study has established the timing for the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon by dating detrital zircons above and below the unconformity (Karlstrom, K, et al. 2018. Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons. Nature Geoscience, v. 11, p. 438-443; doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0131-7). Rather than starting at the outset of the Cambria at 542 Ma, the marine transgression was a protracted affair that began around 527 Ma with flooding reaching a maximum at the end of the Cambrian.

Extensive flooding of the continents at the end of the Cambrian (credit: Ron Blakey , Colorado Plateau Geosystems)

It seems most likely that the associated global rise in sea level relative to the continents was a response to the break-up of the Rodinia supercontinent by considerable sea-floor spreading. The young ocean floor, having yet to cool to an equilibrium temperature, would have had reduced density so that the average depth of the ocean basins decreased, thereby flooding the continents. The creation of vast shallow seas across the continents has been suggested to have been a major factor in the explosive evolution of Cambrian shelly faunas, partly by expanding the range of ecological niches and partly due to increased release of calcium ions to to seawater as a result of chemical weathering.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Humans and mass extinction

It is often said that the biosphere is currently undergoing species losses that may rival those of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction, with the rate of new extinctions being estimated at about 100 times the background rate during geological time. Scientifically, this is probably a dodgy assumption for palaeobiologists simply do not have the evidence to suggest what such a ‘normal’ rate might be. The fossil record is notoriously incomplete for a whole variety of reasons largely to do with both preservation and fossil collection strategies. For instance, as today, some genera may have been very common and widespread in past times, whereas others rare and restricted to small ecological niches. The record of life is prone to huge errors so that only huge, global shifts in diversity, such as mass extinctions, can be viewed with statistical rigour; and then only with caveats. For sure, the rapid demise of species today is cause for alarm and dismay, and more taxa – mainly of smaller and more restricted groups – probably have escaped identification, and will continue to do so. In the context of growing human impacts on ecosystems across the globe extinction is an increasingly emotive topic, as witness the clamour among some geoscientists for adding a new Anthropocene Epoch to the to the Stratigraphic Column. Does that require renaming the Holocene, beginning 11,700 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, during which agriculture began? Should its start be assigned to some event during recorded history, such as the European invasion of the Americas after 1493, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or the explosion of the first thermonuclear weapons in the 1940s and 50s? Or did humans begin significantly to affect the biosphere once their spread from Africa started after about 130 ka ago, i.e. in the late Pleistocene? That argument may well run and run: it is foremost a scientific issue, to which rules apply. A cogent example is that of the fate of megafaunas on the major continents except Antarctica as humans migrated far and wide.

The demise of the large flightless birds of Madagascar and New Zealand form a well known case as they almost certainly followed first colonisation by humans around 200 BC and 1300 CE respectively. The megafaunas of the much larger continents of Australia and the Americas have been deemed to have been more than decimated in the same way after about 65 ka and 15 ka respectively. There are no longer giant armadillos and ground sloths in South America, mammoths ceased to roam North America, and giant wombats, marsupial predators and kangaroos only remain as bones, to name but a few. It has been argued that their extinctions stemmed from the first human migrants literally eating their way through vast terrains. Yet the vast herds of Africa seem not to have been affected in the same way, until much more recently as population grew and modern projectile weapons became widely available. That has been suggested to have resulted from co-evolution of humans and megafauna over two million years, together with instinctive caution among large African beasts, whereas the ‘naivety’ of their counterparts in the Americas and Australia doomed them to extinction. Of course, it is likely that things were a great deal more complicated in every case, as argued in a review of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions by Gilbert Price of the University of Queensland, and colleagues from Australia, the US and Denmark (Price, G.J. et al. 2018. Big data little help in megafauna mysteries. Nature, v. 558, p. 23-25;  doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05330-7).

The gist of Price and colleagues’ critique of meta-analyses of data – 32 since 1997 – concerning allegedly human-induced extinctions is that much of the pertinent data is either low quality or poorly understood. For starters, much of the dating is questionable, either using inaccurate and outdated methods or based on inference. For instance, fossils of some alleged victim, e.g.  Australian land crocodiles (Quinkana) and giant wombats (Ramsayia), have never been dated. Moreover, dates of the last known fossils are used when they may have remained extant until more recently: wooly Eurasian mammoths were long supposed not to have survived the last glacial maximum, yet recently mammoth bones from Wrangel island were found to be as young as the second millennium BCE. In 2010 spores of the fungus Sporormiella, in sediment cores, which grows only on digested plant matter in herbivore dung, was used as a proxy for the former presence or absence of large herbivore herds. Its decline in sediments after 13 ka in North America happened to coincide roughly with the start of the North American Clovis hunter culture, which was used to show that extinctions of large herbivores were linked to human predation. Yet such fungi also live on excrement of many animals both large and small, and its preservation is affected by changes in climate and water flow. To properly link declines and extinctions in human prey animals requires concrete evidence of predation, such as cut marks on identifiable bones within middens associated with human habitation, such as hearths.

When emotion, ambition and bandwagon tendencies become associated with science, objectivity sometimes gets compromised.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Sea-level rise following a Snowball Earth

The Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma) of the Neoproterozoic is named for the intense glacial episodes recorded in strata of that age. There were two that palaeomagnetism  in glaciogenic sedimentary rocks indicates that ice covered all of the continents including those in the tropics, and a third, less extreme one. These episodes, when documented in the 1990s, became dubbed, aptly enough, as ‘Snowball Earth’ events. But evidence for frigidity does not pervade the entire Cryogenian, the glacial events being separated by long periods with no sign anywhere of tillites or glaciomarine diamictites shed by floating ice. Each Snowball Earth episode is everywhere overlain by thick carbonate deposits indicating clear, shallow seas and a massive supply of calcium and magnesium ions to seawater. The geochemical change is a clear indicator of intense chemical weathering of the exposed continents. The combination of Ca and Mg with carbonate ions likewise suggests an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. For frigidity episodically to have pervaded the entire planet indicates a distinct dearth of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere during those events. The likely explanation for Snowball Earths is one of booms in the abundance of minute marine organisms, perhaps a consequence of the high phosphorus levels in the oceans during the Neoproterozoic when seawater was alkaline. The carbon-isotope record suggests that there were periodic, massive bursts of organic matter that would have drawn down atmospheric CO2, which coincide with the evidence for global frigidity, although marine life continued to flourish.

Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Under such ice-bound conditions the build-up of continental glaciers would have resulted in huge falls in global sea level, far exceeding the 150 m recorded during some late-Pleistocene glacial maxima. The end of each Snowball Earth would have led to equally dramatic rises and continental flooding. Such scenarios are well accepted to have occurred when accumulation of volcanic CO2 during full ice cover reached a threshold of global warming potential that could overcome the reflection of solar radiation by the high albedo of ice extending to the tropics. That threshold has been estimated to have been between 400 to 500 times the CO2 content of the atmosphere at present. Yet it has taken an intricate analysis of sedimentary structures that are commonplace in marine sediments of any age – ripple marks – to quantify the pace of sea-level rise at the end of a Snowball Earth event (Myrow, P.M. et al. 2018. Rapid sea level rise in the aftermath of a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. Science, v. 360, p. 649-651; doi:10.1126/science.aap8612).

The Elatina Formation of South Australia, deposited during the Marinoan (~635 Ma) glaciation, is famous for the intricacy of its sedimentary structures especially in the clastic sedimentary rocks beneath the cap carbonate that marks the end of glacial conditions. Among them are laminated silts and fine sands that were originally thought to be the equivalent of modern varved sediments that form annually as lakes or shallow seas freeze over and then melt with the seasons. Since they contain ripple marks the laminates of the Elatina Formation clearly formed as a result of current flow and wave action – the sea surface was therefore ice free while these sediments accumulated. Careful study of the larger ripples, which are asymmetrical, shows that current-flow directions periodically reversed, suggesting that they formed as a result of tidal flows during the bi-monthly cycle of spring and neap tides in marine deltas. Data from experiments in wave tanks shows that the shapes (expressed as their amplitude to wavelength ratio) of wave ripples depend on the orbital motion of water waves at different depths. The smaller ripples are of this kind. So Myrow and colleagues have been able to tease out a time sequence from the tidal ripples and also signs of any variation in the water depth at which the smaller wave ripples formed.

Ripples on a bedding surface in the Elatina Formation, South Australia. They formed under the influence of tidal current flow. (Credit, University of Guelph, https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/handle/10214/9367?show=full)

Just over 9 metres of the tidal laminate sequence that escaped any erosion was deposited in about 60 years, giving a sedimentation rate of 27 cm per year. This is extremely high by comparison with those in any modern marine basins, probably reflecting the sediment-charged waters during a period of massive glacial melting. Throughout the full 27 m sequence smaller, wave ripples consistently show that water depth remained between 9 to 16 m for about a century. Over such a short time interval any tectonic subsidence or sag due to sediment load would have been minuscule. So sea-level rise kept pace with deposition; i.e. at the same rate of 27 cm per year. That is at least five times faster than during any of the Pleistocene deglaciations and about a hundred times faster than sea-level rise today that is caused by melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps and thermal expansion of ocean water due to global warming. It has been estimated that the Marinoan ice sheets lowered global sea level by between 1.0 to 1.5 km – ten times more than in the last Ice Age – so deglaciation to the conditions of the cap carbonates, shallow, clear seas at around 50°C, would have taken about 6,000 years at the measured rate.

To read more on the Snowball Earth hypothesis and other early glacial epochs click here

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Late Palaeozoic glacial features in Chad

The longest and most extreme glacial epoch during the Phanerozoic took place between 360 and 260 Ma ago, when it dominated the Carboniferous and Permian sedimentary sequences across the planet. On continents that lay athwart the Equator during these times, sedimentation was characterised by cycles between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions. These are epitomised by the recurring ‘Coal-Measure’ cyclothem of, from bottom to top: open-sea limestone; near-shore marine mudstone; riverine sandstone; coal formed in swamps. This sequence represents a rapid rise in sea level as ice sheets melted, sustained during an interglacial episode and then falling sea level as ice once again accumulated on land to culminate in a glacial maximum when coal formed in coastal mires. During the Late Palaeozoic Era a single supercontinent extended from pole to pole. The break-up of Pangaea was charted by Alfred Wegener in 1912, partly by his using glacial deposits and ice-gouged striations on the southern continents. With the present widely separated configuration of major landmasses glacial sediments and the directions of inferred ice movements could only be reconciled by reassembling Africa, India, South America, Antarctica and Australia in the form of a single, congruent southern continent that he called Gondwanaland. In Wegener’s reconstruction the glacial features massed together on Gondwanaland with the striations radiating outwards from what would then have been the centre of a huge ice cap.

There are many localities on the present southern continents where such striations can be seen on the surface of peneplains etched into older rocks that underlie Carboniferous to Permian tillites, but later erosion has removed the continuity of the original glacial landscape. There are, however, some parts of central Africa where it is preserved. By using the high-resolution satellite images (with pixels as small as 1 m square) that are mosaiced together in Google Earth, Daniel Paul Le Heron of Royal Holloway, University of London has revealed a series of 1 to 12 km wide sinuous belts in a 6000 km2 area of eastern Chad that are superimposed unconformably on pre-Carboniferous strata (Le Heron, D.P. 2018. An exhumed Paleozoic glacial landscape in Chad. Geology, v.46(1), p. 91-94; doi:10.1130/G39510.1). They comprise irregular tracts of sandstone to the south of a major Carboniferous sedimentary basin. Zooming in to them (try using 17.5° N 22.25°E as a search term in Google Earth) reveals surfaces dominated by wavy, roughly parallel lines. Le Heron interprets these as mega-scale glacial lineations, formed by ice flow across underlying soft Carboniferous glacial sediments as seen in modern glacial till landforms in Canada. In places they rest unconformably on older rocks, sometimes standing above the level of the sandstone plateaux as relics of what may have been nunataks. There are even signs of elliptical drumlins.

An oblique Google Earth view looking to the south-east shows mega-scale glacial lineations from a glacial flow way in eastern Chad. The lower-right quadrant shows the unconformity atop older bedded strata that are dipping to the west. Click on the image to see a full resolution view. (Credit: Google Earth)

Glacial tillites and glaciofluvial sediments of Late Palaeozoic age are common across the Sahara and in the Sahelian belt, but in areas as remote as those in eastern Chad. So a systematic survey using the resolving power of Google Earth may well yield yet more examples. It is tedious work in such vast areas, unless, of course, one bears in mind Alfred Wegener, the founder of the hypothesis of continental drift and ‘Big’ Earth Science as a whole, who would have been gleeful at the opportunity.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Neanderthals on the BBC

Since it began in 2000 Earth-Pages News has been covering the emergent science concerning the Neanderthals. To say that it has been a fertile field would be a considerable understatement, and I am certain that it will continue to be so. The first EPN item to mention them concerned the British Channel 4 TV documentary Neanderthals. In it I quoted Steve Jones FRS, former Head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, who is always good for a humorous take on his science, and much more besides. ‘If you met an unwashed Cro Magnon dressed in a business suit on the Underground, you would probably change seats.  If you met a similarly garbed Neanderthal, you would undoubtedly change trains’. That they had the build of world-champion freestyle wrestlers, beetling brows and extremely large noses was illustrated in the programme by reconstructions based on their skeletal remains; yes, they did look  dangerous. But Jones’s theory is put to the test with a suitably attired actor made up as a Neanderthal man in new two-part series on BBC2, Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors (follow the link to watch the first programme – you need to create an account at BBC iPlayer and claim that you do have a British TV licence). Some commuters did give the chap a slightly worried glance, but there was not a rush for the doors. Ella Al-Shamahi, one of the presenters, even commented that some of her friends may well have actively sought a date with him! He certainly did not seem out of place in cosmopolitan London, and the same might be said for a cattle auction in rural Cumbria. On the New York subway he would undoubtedly have been ignored. Steve Jones was wrong!

An actor made-up to resemble a Neanderthal man in a business suit traveling on the London Underground. (Source: screen-grab from BBC2 Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors)

We now know that the majority of people who live on the planet today have Neanderthal segments in their genome. So between 80 and 30 ka ago to dally with Neanderthals and vice versa was as acceptable as it might be today, if they were around; probably more so, considering the amount of their DNA that is retained 2000 generations after the last possible contact. Most of the discoveries concerning Neanderthals that EPN has covered over the last 17 years are used by the two programmes to arrive at the best concept to date of just who Neanderthals were and what they were able to do.

The first episode focuses on the use of skeletal remains to visualise male and female Neanderthals, using digital techniques of forensic face and body reconstruction. Over several hundred thousand years their physiology had adapted to the fluctuating conditions of western Asia and Europe, including repeated cold episodes that ranged from full glacials to interstadials. They had also adapted to forest ecosystems where hunting would have relied on ambushing prey. Their build was suited to bursts on sprinting, probably faster than Usain Bolt could manage at his best. But they were not built for the kind of endurance needed by evolving modern humans in Africa to chase down prey in savannah scrub until they succumb to heat exhaustion. Interestingly, the right, upper-arm bones of male Neanderthals are more robust than those on the left, muscle attachment scars revealing that in life they developed large biceps, probably to use spears in powerful upward lunges into the underside of large prey, such as mammoths and aurochs. They were close-combat experts and carry the signs of injury that every such hunt would have risked. However, the series goes beyond reconstruction, by using the power of CGI motion-capture techniques developed for modern animated films and games. Actors perform the moves, and are morphed to accommodate Neanderthal physique and probable gait in the resulting action sequences – fearsomely and convincingly realistic. Analysis of a single complete hyoid bone (the hard component of the ‘voice box’ and ‘Adam’s Apple’) digitally inserted into reconstruction of the Neanderthal neck, and digital reconstruction of their possible vocal range results in demonstration of how close to human pronunciation they could have been, albeit with a pronounced distortion of the vowel Aah but almost indistinguishable for other vowels. Their faces were capable of much the same range of expressions as ours.

The second episode, available on BBC iPlayer after Sunday 20 May 2018, focuses on the genetic relations between us and Neanderthals. We gained both advantages and sets-back. It also uses what evidence there is to investigate just how like us they were in their social and intellectual behaviour. It seems they were doing OK in the grim climatic scenario of the run-up to the last glacial maximum, but succumbed to extinction during the ten thousand years following the permanent entry of anatomically modern humans into Europe and western Asia after 40 ka. Why did that happen? Every human outside  sub-Saharan Africa contains Neanderthal genes: on average about 2%. Yet each of us contains a different set, so that up to 70% of the full Neanderthal genome remains in humanity as a whole. Is it possible that they could be reconstructed? Crucially, should that ever be attempted it would pose a huge moral dilemma.

To read more on the evolutionary relationships between modern humans and Neanderthals click here.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Clear signs of a hominin presence on the Philippines at around 700 ka

For over half a century the presence of crude stone tools on several SE Asian islands, such as Flores and Sulawesi in Indonesia and Luzon in the Philippines, have hinted at their colonisation by Asian Homo erectus. Hominin fossils have yet to be exhumed, outside of Flores (Homo floresiensis) and dating the earlier finds has been imprecise, but evidence continues to accumulate. As regards the Philippines, the earliest hominin fossil is a modern human toe bone dated at 66.7 ka. Another curious feature of these isolated parts of what might be termed  ’Wallacea’, on broader floral and faunal grounds, is the presence in the Pleistocene fossil record of large mammals, or at least dwarfed species of megafauna found in mainland Asia. These include elephants, rhinos and deer.

Topography of the Philippines, showing location of the Kalinga site. Palest blue sea would have been above sea level during glacial maxima. At such times Borneo would have been part of Sundaland – linked to mainland Asia (credit: Wikipedia)

A large team, with members from France, Philippines, Australia, Spain, Germany, Holland, Spain and Greece, has been excavating a tool- and fossil-rich site in thick alluvium at Kalinga in northern Luzon since 2014 (Ingicco, T. and 22 others 2018. Earliest known hominin activity in the Philippines by 709 thousand years ago. Nature, published online). It occurs in an erosional channel filled with mud. Stone artefacts comprise 56 flakes, hammer stone and cores, the tools being crude – a common feature of the Asian H. erectus lithic culture, unlike that in Africa and Europe. As well as fragments of other animals, the site is notable for a 75% complete, but disarticulated, skeleton of a rhinoceros scattered over a small area. That in itself suggests that the beast may have been butchered, and is confirmed by cut marks and signs of smashing on several of the bones. Uranium-thorium dating of one of the animal’s teeth (709±68 ka) and sediment grains from above and below the fossiliferous unit by electron-spin resonance (701±70 and 727±30 ka respectively) confirms the great antiquity of the site. Dating of volcanic plagioclase crystals from sediments by the 40Ar/39Ar method yields even older dates around 1 Ma, but the crystals may have been washed for older volcanic ash deposits.

It seems beyond doubt that early hominins, possibly H. erectus, colonised Luzon some 700 ka ago, yet, according to the authors, ‘it still seems too farfetched to suggest that H. erectus, or another unknown Pleistocene ancestral candidate … were able to construct some sort of simple watercraft and deliberately cross sea barriers’. That seems to be pushing caution a little too far. Do the authors not believe their own – to me compelling – evidence and analyses? But the paper spent a year in review, so maybe they came up against a singularly pernickety referee (three are named but one remains anonymous). Presumably, if a hominin fossil turns up during on-going excavations, that would change everything apart from the question, ‘Did they walk, swim or navigate?’ Luzon and the Philippines archipelago as a whole are surrounded by sea shallow enough for them to have been a single landmass during a glacial maximum when sea level was around 100 m lower than at present. At such a juncture a less than 20 km sea journey would have separated the Philippines from Borneo, then part of a vast area of lowland to the SW (Sundaland) that was connected to the Asian mainland.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook