Cheddar Man’s Family

Scientists call Britain’s oldest complete skeleton “Cheddar Man.” He lived around 7150 B.C.E., when forest covered Britain and antelope roamed, along with wild horses. Cheddar Man’s people were hunter-gatherers, and they ate the antelope and horses — along with each other, most likely. Butcher marks on his skeleton suggest someone carved him up, possibly after murdering him. Continue reading “Cheddar Man’s Family”

We Evolved to Eat Vegetables and Meat, Not Grains and Dairy

Some bad history (or prehistory) from the U. S. Department of Agriculture
Some bad history (or prehistory) from the U. S. Department of Agriculture

MyPlate is a graphic from the USDA that advises Americans how to eat. But I think it’s based on bad history (and bad biology too). It tells us to get almost half of our calories from grains and dairy. Yet through almost all of our history (or prehistory), we fed ourselves by hunting and gathering, and that didn’t involve grains or dairy. Continue reading “We Evolved to Eat Vegetables and Meat, Not Grains and Dairy”

Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?

Homo floresiensis
Homo floresiensis (reconstructed)

The Indonesian island of Flores and its neighbors host two unusual languages, called Ke’o and Ngadha. They have extremely simple grammar — surprising for Austronesian languages, which generally have complex grammar. Languages often simplify when they share land with foreign-language speakers, and the two groups communicate through a “creole” or simplified dialect. (English simplified that way after the Vikings invaded.) But until recently, Flores history hasn’t offered an obvious candidate for the foreigners in question. In 2004, however, anthropologists discovered fossils on Flores from a species they named Homo floresiensis: a small relative of ours often called “hobbits.” (See my post on hobbits and other pre-humans.) Linguist John McWhorter has suggested these hobbits provide Flores’ missing linguistic link. Continue reading “Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?”

Homo ghostus

I reported in an earlier post that Homo sapiens once shared the world with at least four other hominins: four other species of upright, tool-making, fire-burning people. The four are Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Flores hobbits (Homo floresiensis), and the Denisova hominins. We know of the Denisovans only from a single fossilized finger bone, or possibly two fossils. Scientists identified them as a separate species through extracted DNA. Well, now we’ve got evidence of a fifth species in the Lord of the Rings world of prehistory, and it’s more mysterious even than the Denisovans. That’s because we have no fossils for the fifth species. Continue reading “Homo ghostus”

Speech May Have Begun with Clicks Instead of Words

A San of the Kalahari: a Khoi-San speaker
A San (f.k.a. “Bushman”) of the Kalahari

Southern Africa’s Khoi-San languages use clicks alongside more familiar consonants and verbs. Some have more than a hundred tongue-made ticks, clops, troks, and other sorts of clicks, giving them around 150 sounds. That’s more than any other language. (Compare the paltry 44 sounds available in English.) And that’s interesting. Languages collect sounds over time — if they don’t move around and run into lots of foreign-speakers who pressure them to simplify. So 150 sounds suggests an extremely old language. Plus, the Khoi-San languages have a very wide range of structures and grammars. That suggests they’ve had no common ancestor for a long time — that they go way back. Continue reading “Speech May Have Begun with Clicks Instead of Words”

The Lost World of Neanderthals, Hobbits, and Other Hominins

It seems fantasies like The Lord of the Rings have cornered the market on “multi-species worlds”: on worlds peopled by dwarves, elves, goblins, and other not-quite-humans. Yet history has a claim on the multi-species world too. Or rather prehistory does. For most of prehistory, we Homo sapiens shared the planet with several species of upright, tool-making, fire-burning people.

Neanderthal child (imagined)

“Hominin” refers to Homo sapiens and our closest relatives: to extinct creatures far closer to us than chimps and bonobos, our closest relatives today. It’s likely our Stone Age ancestors ran into fellow hominins on a regular basis, or at least once in a while. Continue reading “The Lost World of Neanderthals, Hobbits, and Other Hominins”