Fishermen in Argentina’s Greater Buenos Aires region keep making an unusual catch: shells of prehistoric armadillo ancestors. In October of 2019, a group of fishermen found a mostly intact shell which has been dated to over 10,000 years old. And four years earlier, on Christmas Day of 2015, Jose Antonio Nievas found a shell in mud by a stream in his farm.
Both turned out to be glyptodonts’ shells. Glyptodonts were not a single species, but an animal genus containing seven known species, among them the ancestors of modern armadillos. Glyptodonts had large, heavy shells and armored tails which they could use as clubs. They emerged in South America no earlier than 35 million years ago, and went extinct around the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Whether or not their extinction was related to humans’ arrival on the continent around the same time… well, that’s still up for debate.
Forty years ago, a Buddhist monk found a human mandible bone at Baishiya Karst Cave, perched 10,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau. The bone they found has now been dated to 160,000 years ago. And analysis of the proteins caught in its teeth demonstrate that the mandible belonged to the Denisovan branch of the hominin family.
This is the first evidence for Denisovans found outside of southern Siberia’s Denisova Cave. That cave is just 2,300 feet above sea level. It is also about 1,750 miles northwest of Baishiya Karst Cave. The mandible therefore revealed the Denisovans were widely distributed, and able to adapt to extremely high altitudes.
This is likely related to the mutation, found in previous Denisovan genetic studies, that assists survival in low-oxygen environments such as the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau. The same mutation has been found in present-day Tibetans. And given that the Denisovans once lived in the area, perhaps a long-ago intermarriage introduced the gene to the Tibetans? It seems more likely than the exact same gene randomly mutating twice.
In 1849, part of a fossilized arm bone belonging to an extinct giant turtle was found in a New Jersey streambed. It belonged to an Atlantochelys mortoni, who lived during the upper Cretaceous period, about 75 million years ago. From tip to tail it would have been ten feet (3 m) long! That’s larger than any living turtle species.
And in 2012, the other half of the arm bone was found by an amateur paleontologist in New Jersey. Which is especially amazing since the 1849 specimen was the first example of the genus and the species, and the older bone was also without a match of any kind.
Two incomplete craniums, found in Greece’s Apidima Cave in the 1970s, has long been a bit mysterious. Dating them was difficult because first, they are incomplete, and to make matters more difficult, they were distorted by the process of fossilization, and found without any additional paleontological or archaeological evidence. One has now been identified as the oldest Homo Sapiens in Eurasia.
Recent analyses on the skull date it to at least 210,000 years ago. The oldest modern humans in Eurasia were previously in Israel, between 130,000 and 100,00 years ago, although recent evidence from Mlsliya, Israel, was dated to the even older 180,000 years ago. But if the new analysis holds up, Apidima’s human is even older.
A leading anthropologist suggests that protohumans’ decrease in reactive aggression, alongside developing greater intelligence, cooperation, and social learning abilities, were key to homo sapiens becoming what we are today. These just happen to be the characteristics that increase when humans domesticate animals. Did we, perhaps, domesticate ourselves too?
Humans are pretty adaptable compared to other hominin species, and other apes, which may have been key to the survival of our species. Most animals stick to particular habitats, or are wide-ranging, and based on that scientists classify species on a continuum between generalist and specialist.
But homo sapiens are unique in that they can specialize, and they can generalize. We are specialist-generalists. Some humans have adapted intensively to one ecological niche, most famously high-altitude zones, while other wander across ecological zones. Yet we are still all one species, able to intermarry, or switch regions and adapt. That makes homo sapiens unique across species.
Israeli cave finds challenge our theories about evolution’s winners and losers. Because the archaeological evidence shows that homo sapiens lived in the area between 115,000 and 75,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived in the area around the same time, successfully maintaining a population without interbreeding with the neighboring homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens are thinner, adapted for warmer and wetter climates. Neanderthals are stockier and carry more heat, adapted for cooler and drier climates.
So when the climate of the area changed, steppe-glaciers advancing and forests disappearing, homo sapiens retreated while Neanderthals stayed. It’s unclear if the homo sapiens living in the area died out, or moved south to more favorable climes. The archaeological record does not say.
But we do know that it about 5,000 years later, around 60,000 years ago, homo sapiens sent a second successful wave of settlers into the area. And of course, in the long run, the Neanderthals were the ones who died out. But the
evidence from Israel’s caves show that outcome was not always inevitable.
Obscure engravings on animal bones from the site of Lingjing in Henan Province suggest that early hominins who lived there 125,000 years ago may have had more advanced cognitive abilities than once believed. The mysterious markings proved to have been etched into the bone. The bone was then rubbed with red ochre powder to make the markings more visible. It is unknown why they made these marks, or what they represent.
A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish, and had serrated sharp teeth, perfect for tearing bites off its prey. That’s very unusual since most species in its order were shellfish eaters with flat, crushing teeth.
Even more amazing – some of the fossil’s victims were in the limestone with it! Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found nearby, confirming that the new find was indeed a flesh-eating bony fish, the first one on record.
The fossil has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. The genus name is “Piranha” (you can guess why) plus “mesodon,"a common suffix for bony fish of this order, and the species name is Latin for "fin-cutter.”