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What is a primate? When did these first appear?

The primate order

Primates are an order within the mammal class and the animal kingdom. This order was created in 1758 by Linné in the 10th edition of his Systema naturae.

Figure 1: Primate classification.

As mammals, primates are iteroparous, meaning they can reproduce several times during their lifetime. Primates also have a specific growth pattern that stops once they reach sexual maturity. Like mammals, primates are a senescent species. Individual mortality rates increase with age. Finally, mammals are animals with chromosomal sex determination.

The order Primates includes over 500 species of primates, divided into 12 or 13 families. Primates are found all over the world, but with the exception ofHomo sapiens, Macaca sylvanus in Gibraltar and Macaca fuscata in Japan, they are restricted to tropical and subtropical zones, in forest environments or environments with both savannahs and steppes. Primate species are extremely diverse. Some are diurnal, while others are nocturnal. The smallest primate species weighs 30 grams (Madagascar microcebe), while gorillas can weigh up to 250 kilograms. Most primates are arboreal, although some species, such as macaques, are semi-terrestrial. The definition and classification of primates still raises questions due to the great morphological diversity within this order.

What are the characteristics of primates?

Primates share many common characteristics. Here are just a few examples:

  • The volume of the olfactory organs is smaller than the cranial volume
  • The orbits are positioned on the front of the face, enabling stereoscopic vision, i.e. 3D vision.
  • An upright posture of the trunk in the seated position, which frees up the hands
  • Feet have opposable thumbs (with the exception ofHomo sapiens , whose big toe is aligned with the rest of the foot, but this is the product of recent evolution).
  • Five fingers on each hand
  • At least the first finger has a flat nail instead of a claw
  • Absence of a third incisor: 2 incisors per hemi-mandible
  • A brain that is relatively larger than the body’s proportions

Nevertheless, the various subdivisions within the primates each have their own morphological characteristics.

When did they appear?

The first true primates, called Euprimates, appeared, according to our current knowledge, around 55 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma). These Euprimates are classified into two groups: Adapiformes and Omomyiformes. Their geographical origin is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, fossil species have been found in North America, Eurasia and on the Arab-African continent.

These primates are classified into two suborders: Strepsirrhiniens and Haplorhiniens. The Adapiformes share a number of derived characters with the Strepsirrhiniens, enabling them to be grouped together in this clade. The relationship of the Omomyiformes to the Haplorhiniens is less clear, as they do not possess the characters derived from the latter. This difference in classification is based on the structure of these primates’ faces. If we disregard the fossil groups (Adapiformes and Omomyiformes), here are some features to understand the Strepsirrhiniens and Haplorhiniens dichotomy.

Table 1: Summary of some of the characteristics that differentiate Strepsirrhiniens from Haplorhiniens.
Figure 2: Presence and absence of a rhinarium in a lemur (A) and a gorilla (B)
Figure 3: Lemur catta skull (A) and Papio (B). Matteo De Stefano/MUSE – Wikipedia.
Institute of Human Paleontology

Most Euprimata species disappeared around 34 Ma at the time of a major climatic crisis known as the “Great Divide”. This crisis was survived by the Simiiformes, the first apes proper, which appeared during the Eocene either alongside the Adapiformes and Omomyiformes, or as offspring of one or the other.

Around 33 Ma, the Simiiformes split into two new groups: the Platyrrhines and the Catarrhines. Platyrrhines, nicknamed “New World monkeys”, are exclusively American. They have a prehensile tail and 36 teeth (3 premolars per hemi-mandible). “Platyrrhinian” means “flat-nosed” and, indeed, these monkeys have the peculiarity of their nostrils being spread apart and facing outwards. Catarrhinians, also known as “Old World monkeys”, have nostrils that are close together and point downwards. Their dentition consists of 32 teeth (2 premolars per hemi-mandible). A new subdivision within the Catarrhinians occurred around 24-20 Ma. This division separates the Cercopithecoidea and Hominoidea. The former correspond, for example, to macaques or baboons and are characterized by pronogrady, i.e. a tilted trunk. In contrast, the Hominoidea, to which Homo sapiens belongs, are orthograde, i.e. their trunks are upright. The Hominoidea group includes Man and his closest relatives, the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan, gibbon and siamang. These species are divided into the following families: Hylobatidae, Pongidae and Hominidae(Homo sapiens).

Figure 4: Primate classification.

As you can see, Homo sapiens is a primate and an ape like any other! Homo sapiens is the only primate species without an opposable thumb on its foot! We hope you now know each other a little better!

Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Dominique Grimaud-Hervé et al., Histoire d’ancêtres. La grande aventure de la Préhistoire, Errances, 5e édition, 2015.

[2] C. F. Ross, R.D Martin, “The role of vision in the Origin and Evolution of Primates, In book: Evolution of Nervous Systems, Publisher: Academic Press, 2007.

[3] Chris Springer, Peter Andrews, The complete world of Human Evolution, Thames & Hudson Ltd Revised edition, 2011.

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Toumaï, a knuckle-walker?

Marc R. Meyer et al, “Knuckle-walking in Sahelanthropus? Locomotor inferences from the ulnae of fossil hominins and other hominoids”, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 179, 2023

The debate over whether Toumaï, whose scientific name is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, belongs to the Hominins is still raging, and a new article may well provide the final blow.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis was discovered in 2001 at Toros-Menalla in Chad. Dated at around 7 million years, it is one of the 3 candidates for the title of oldest representative of the human lineage. For some researchers, Toumaï is indeed a member of the Hominins, since he was bipedal. Its bipedalism is confirmed by the anterior position of the foramen magnum, similar to that found in our own species. For other researchers, Toumaï is not bipedal and therefore not a Hominin. One of the arguments put forward, for example, is the conformation of the femur, which resembles a chimpanzee femur more than aHomo sapiens femur.

However, an article published in the Journal of Human Evolution has reshuffled the deck, demonstrating that Toumaï was in fact a significant knuckle-walker. To achieve this, the study carried out combined analyses of the conformation of the diaphysis and the proximal complex of the ulna. The results show that the ulna of S. tchadensis displays typical knuckle-walking characteristics. The authors propose 2 hypotheses to justify such a result. The first is that S. tchadensis is a very ancient Hominin having “retained” knuckle-walking behavior. The second is that Toumaï is indeed not a Hominin, but practiced knuckle-walking like that found in chimpanzees. However, such results need to be confirmed.

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Wine lovers beware!

Dong et al, “Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution” Science 379, 892-901, 2023

A study published in the journal Science sets back the domestication of the vine by almost 3,000 years! To achieve this result, the authors genetically sequenced 3,525 vine samples, including 2,503 from Vitis vinifera (the domestic vine) and 1,022 from Vitis sylvestris (the wild vine). Genetic data and statistical analysis have shed light on many aspects of the vine’s history.

The wild vine, Vitis sylvestris, split into 2 lineages in response to climatic fluctuations during the Pleistocene. A first line is developing in the Caucasus region and Western Asia (named Syl-E), while a second line is developing in Central Europe and the Iberian Peninsula (named Syl-W). Surprisingly, two independent but concomitant domestication events took place from the Syl-E lineage, giving rise to the domesticated vine, Vitis vinifera. A first center of domestication emerged in the Caucasus for vines used to make wine. The second center of domestication appears in Western Asia for table grapes. This calls into question the then-accepted view that vines for wine production were domesticated before vines for table grapes.

The domestication of the vine therefore took place in the east of our continent, in the Caucasus and in western Asia. This is estimated to be 11,000 years old, compared with 8,000 years ago. So the domestication of the vine took place very early on, at the same time as the beginnings of agriculture! Grapevines then spread along human migration routes in Europe and North Africa. Various interbreeding events took place between the Syl-E and Syl-W groups, contributing to a diversification of grape types.

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An exceptional discovery!

Braga et al, “Hominin fossils from Kromdraai and Drimolen inform Paranthropus robustus craniofacial ontogeny”, Sci. Adv. 9, 3 May 2023

Fossil cranial remains of four immature (=juvenile) individuals belonging to the species Paranthropus robustus have been discovered at the Kromdraai and Drimolen sites in South Africa. This is an exceptional discovery, since it is the first time that immature fossils belonging to this species have been found. The Paranthropus robustus species, which lived between 2.2 and 1.2 million years ago in South Africa, is characterized by particularly robust cranial features. The study of these immature individuals sheds light on the craniofacial development of this species, which is so different from our own. Indeed, we know very little about the ontogenic development of other Hominin species, and tend to infer data from what we know about our own species, Homo sapiens. However, it is highly probable that the developments were different! This discovery also enables us to compare the development of Paranthropus robustus with another Hominin species for which an immature has also been discovered, Australopithecus africanus.

Published in May 2023 in the journal Science Advances, the study shows that most of the facial morphological features ofParanthropus robustus appear late in development.

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The subdivisions of Prehistory

Periodization in Africa

Prehistory in Africa, a continent sometimes called the cradle of humanity, is subdivided into three periods according to different lithic industries: the Early Stone Age (ESA), the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and the Later Stone Age (LSA).

This periodization begins about 3.3 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma), the estimated age of the first tools discovered at Lomekwi, a complex of prehistoric sites located on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Map of Africa with Lomekwi location
Figure 1: Map of Africa with the location of the Lomekwi 3 site.

The name Lomekwien refers to this lithic industry characterized by large tools. The biggest ones weigh 15 kg! It was not therefore the genus Homo, which emerged at the earliest around 2.8-2.5 Ma, who created these first tools.

The lithic industry called the Oldowayen succeeds the Lomekwien. It is characterized by the shaping of pebbles known as arranged pebbles. The Acheulean, which succeeded it from 1.8 Ma, is identifiable by its production, among other things, of bifaces and choppers. These three lithic industries are grouped together in an ensemble called Early Stone Age (ESA).

Lithic industry found in Africa and Europe
Figure 2: Photographs A) Landscaped pebble, Salé plateau, Morocco B) Hachereau, Sahara C) Biface from the Saint-Acheul site, France. Institut Paléonthologie Humaine

The Middle Stone Age (MSA), which lasts from 300,000 to 40,000 years ago, succeeds the Early Stone Age. The MSA is marked by several technical innovations such as the production of pressed blades and tips. The MSA also sees many innovations in the symbolic and socio-economic spheres. The MSA was followed by the Later Stone Age (LSA) which appeared between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Prehistory in Africa map
Figure 3: Timeline of the division of Prehistory in Africa.

The transition from one chronoculture to another is often based on the differences between lithic industries, but other criteria, such as the mode of production of tools, the use or not of bone material, or markers of human activity, can be used. Indeed, these divisions are chronocultural. They therefore depend on the cultures and vary in time and space.

Periodization in Europe

Prehistory in Europe is subdivided into three major periods: the Paleolithic, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic.

This periodization begins about 1.4 Ma, the date of the oldest known sites occupied in Europe, excepting that of Dmanissi in Georgia, testifying to the presence of Hominins. The Lower Paleolithic extends to about 300,000 years ago. It is divided into two periods called respectively the Archaic industry on pebbles and the Acheulean period.

The Middle Paleolithic, which follows from 300,000 to 40,000 years ago, is marked by the Mousterian culture, a lithic industry characterized by the appearance of debitage and the production of tools on chips.

Between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago came the Upper Paleolithic, which was divided into numerous industries, each with regional specificities throughout Europe. This period was characterized by the production of tools on elongated supports called blades or flakes, but also by an unprecedented geographical extension of the population, an intensification of the production of figurative art and an evolution of subsistence techniques with the intensive use of new resources and raw materials.

Prehistory in Europe map
Figure 4: Timeline of the division of Prehistory in Europe.

Most of the names of the chronocultural periods are derived from the names of the sites where the corresponding lithic industries were found for the first time. For example, Acheulean comes from Saint-Acheul in the Somme, Mousterian from the shelter of Moustier in Dordogne and Solutrean from Solutré in Saône-et-Loire.

The Mesolithic, which succeeds the Paleolithic around 9,600 B.C., ends with the beginning of the Neolithic around 5,200 B.C. This period is marked by the development of bow hunting, the increased use of microliths and a more diversified exploitation of plant, aquatic and land resources.

The Neolithic, the last period of prehistory, is the beginning of sedentarization, agriculture and animal domestication.

Prehistory in Europe timeline
Figure 5: Timeline of Prehistory in Europe showing the beginnings and ends of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic.

The examples of Africa and Europe show that the periodization of prehistory depends strongly on the continents and even on the regions. Moreover, several lithic industries or chronocultures can coexist in close but also distant geographical regions. The transition from one to the other is gradual.

The geological time scale

Geological subdivisions are established within the international chronostratigraphic chart. We must look at this chart as a calendar of the geological times of the Earth.

The different geological periods are determined according to climatic, geological and paleomagnetic events. Chronocultural and geological names are sometimes used synonymously. However, they do not mean exactly the same thing: one corresponds to a cultural stage and the other to a geological stage.

Overlay of cultural frieze and geological cut-outs Prehistory
Figure 6: Superposition of the cultural and geological friezes of the Prehistoric division. We note that according to the regions of the world, Prehistory does not correspond exactly to the same thing. Each region has its own specificities! Moreover, the geological division of time does not correspond to the different chronocultures either.

Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, TikTok and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Article Bibliography:

  • [1] Balzeau Antoine, De Beaune Sophie A., La Préhistoire, collection Chroniques de l’Homme, CNRS editions, 2009.
  • [2] Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “The Archaeological Framework of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution,” Diogenes, vol. 214, no. 2, 2006, pp. 3-23.
  • [3] De Beaune Sophie A., Qu’est-ce que la Préhistoire ?, éditions Gallimard, collection Folio Histoire, 2016.
  • [4] Groenen Marc, Introduction to Prehistory, ELLIPSES editions, 2009.
  • [5] RadioFrance broadcast of March 1, 2016, “What is Prehistory?”,
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Jean Guilaine

Name : Jean Guilaine

Date of birth December 24, 1936 (Carcassonne, Aude)

Short biography:

  • Publication of his first book “La Civilisation du vase campaniforme dans les Pyrénées françaises”. (1967)
  • Director of studies at the CNRS (1973-1978)
  • Director of the EHESS (1978)
  • Founder of the Center for the Anthropology of Rural Societies (1978)
  • Grand Prix of Archaeology of the Ministry of Culture (1985)
  • Director of the journal Gallia-Préhistoire (1986-1994)
  • Professor at the Collège de France, holder of the Chair of “Civilizations of Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Age”. (1994-2007)
  • Scientific co-direction of the film “Le sacre de l’Homme” (2007)
  • Elected to the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (2011)

Insert – Jean Guilaine and Prehistory

Author of a thesis on the Bronze Age, Jean Guilaine is today a French archaeologist specialized in recent prehistory and the Bronze Age.

He is known for defending the following conviction: the Neolithic is a pivotal period in the history of humanity. He is also convinced of the importance of multidisciplinary research. This is why he founded, with Daniel Fabre, the Centre d’Anthropologie des Sociétés Rurales of the EHESS and the CNRS (which later became the Centre d’Anthropologie). This center brought together archaeologists, ethnologists, cultural anthropologists, anthropo-biologists and geneticists.

A man of the field, he teaches in several establishments. He is also the author of several scientific articles and books but also of popularization.

Indicative bibliography for Jean Guilaine

  • [1967] La civilisation du vase campaniforme dans les Pyrénées françaises, Carcassonne, ed. Gabelle, 1967, 240 p..
  • [1976] Jean Guilaine (ed.), La Préhistoire française, t. 2 (1 vol.): Les civilisations néolithiques et protohistoriques de la France (published on the occasion of the IXthCongrèsUISPP (Union Internationale des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques), Nice, 1976. t. 1: Civilisations paléolithiques et mésolithiques de la France (dir. Henry de Lumley, pref. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, 2 vols.); t. 2: Civilisations néolithiques et protohistoriques de la France (dir. Jean Guilaine, 1 vol.)), Éditions du CNRS, 1976, 912 p.(ISBN 978-2-222-01969-5).
  • [1980] The France of before France. From the Neolithic to the Iron AgeParis, Hachette, 1980 (repr. 1985, Hachette, pocket edition, coll. “Pluriel”, 350 p.), 296 p..
  • [1989] La Préhistoire d’un continent à l’autre, Larousse, 1989, 288 p.(ISBN 2037400012 and 9782037400015).
  • [1994] La mer partagée. La Méditerranée avant l’écriture : 7000-2000 avant J.-C., Paris, Hachette, 1994 (repr. 2005 : Hachette, édition poche, coll. ” Pluriel “, 910 p.), 454 p.(online presentation[archive]).
  • [Guilaine & Zammit 2001] Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit, The warpath. Faces of prehistoric violenceParis, Le Seuil, coll. ” Le Grand Livre du Mois[archive]”, 2001, 380 p.(abstract[archive], online presentation[archive]). Spanish edition: Ariel, Barcelona, 2002; English/American/Australian edition: Blackwell, 2005.
  • [2002] Matériaux, production et circulation du Néolithique à l’âge du bronze, Paris, éd. Errance, 2002, 245 p.(ISBN 2-87772-232-5, online presentation[archive]).
  • [2003] From the wave to the grave. The Neolithic conquest of the Mediterranean (8000-2000 BC)Paris, Le Seuil, 2003, 380 p.(online presentation[archive]).
  • [2015] The Second Birth of Man. The Neolithic, Paris, ed. Odile Jacob, 2015, 200 p.(online presentation[archive]).
  • [Guilaine & Alibert 2016] Jean Guilaine and Ch. Alibert, Paul Tournal , founder of Prehistory, Paris, ed. Odile Jacob, coll. “OJ. Préhistoire Archéologie “, 2016, 314 p.(ISBN 978-2738134288, online presentation[archive]).
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Gabriel de Mortillet

Name Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet

Date of birth August 29, 1821 (Meylan, Isère)

Date of death September 25, 1898 (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines)

Short biography:

  • Studied for 5 years at the Jesuit College of Chambéry;
  • He studied at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris where he acquired a solid knowledge of geology (geological engineer) before taking courses in botany, chemistry, zoology and geology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris;
  • Both a republican and a revolutionary, he had to flee France for press offenses (he was the author of a pamphlet entitled La guillotine). He fled to Savoy before going into exile in Switzerland where he made his debut in the field of prehistory;
  • 1851: moved to Geneva where he classified the collections of the National Museum of Natural History;
  • 1856: participation as a geological engineer in the construction of the Lombardy-Venice railroad;
  • 1863: return to France following his amnesty in 1859;
  • 1864: foundation of the journal Matériaux pour l’histoire positive et philosophique de l’Homme which became the official journal of Prehistory in French-speaking Europe;
  • 1866-1867: participates in the classification of the prehistoric collections of Jacques Boucher de Perthe in the museum of Saint-Germain en Laye (the current museum of national archaeology);
  • 1868: Appointed attaché of conservation of the museum of Saint-Germain en Laye. The museum became his place of study and he developed his typological classifications of human industries;
  • Participation in the creation of the International Congresses of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology
  • 1875: Co-founder with Paul Broca of the Paris School of Anthropology
  • From 1876: Holder of the chair of prehistoric anthropology at the School of Anthropology in Paris
  • 1883: publication of his first book, Le Préhistorique, Antiquité de l’Homme (available in digital version on Gallica-BnF). It is both a synthesis of several years of research and a didactic work for the public and anyone interested in prehistoric archaeology. Going from the Tertiary era to the Gallic era and structured according to different themes (archaeological documents, geological data, etc.), this work allows Mortillet to develop his chronology of the different cultural periods based on the lithic industry on which he has been working for several years already

Gabriel de Mortillet and Prehistory

Often considered as one of the founding fathers of Prehistory.

In 1869, Gabriel de Mortillet proposed a first chronocultural system in which he used the stratotype principle which consists in using the name of a place to define a culture (the Mousterian described from the industry found at the Moustier site, the Solutrean from the Solutré site, etc.). He also used this principle to describe the Acheulean period for the first time in 1872, based on the lithic industry found at the Saint-Acheul site.

The chronological question is at the heart of Gabriel de Mortillet’s work because it makes it possible to establish the stages of development of past societies. Mortillet has a progressive and linear vision of the evolution of human societies, which can be felt throughout his work. For example, he distinguishes between two main kingdoms: that of flint and that of bone. According to him, the reign of the flint is prior to the reign of the bone because the latter involves more advanced technologies than those used during the reign of the flint. Thus, populations that cut flint are less evolved than populations that use both flint and bone. This presupposition will lead him to make chronological errors, as is the case, for example, for the Aurignacian, which Mortillet considers to be a more recent culture because of the presence of bone assegais.

Reign of the flint:

Period of Solutré

The Moustier era

Reign of the bone:

Era of the Madeleine

Aurignac’s era

Nevertheless, in the field, this does not work and the Aurignacian is found in stratigraphic layers prior to the Magdalenian. Gabriel de Mortillet will then remove the Aurignacian from his chronology. Gabriel de Mortillet reigns unchallenged on Prehistory and it will be necessary to wait 30 years for a new chronology published in 1912 by Henri Breuil to give back its place to the Aurignacian. This event will be known thereafter as “the battle of the Aurignacian” which will be settled on the ground and that will win Henri Breuil, another extremely important figure of the Prehistory.

Gabriel de Mortillet remains an important figure in prehistory. Indeed, it will contribute to make prehistory a scientific discipline in its own right.

Indicative bibliography of Gabriel de Mortillet:

  • [1868] “L’Homme dans les temps géologiques”, Bulletin de la Société géologique de France, t. 25,2nd series, meeting of December 2, 1867, p. 180-184(read online[archive] [at]).
  • [1872] “Classification of the Stone Age,” Materials for the Primitive and Natural History of Man, vol. 7, year eight,2nd series, t. 3, 1872, p. 464-465.
  • [1874] “On the non-existence of a people of the dolmens” (reproduction of a communication presented at the Congress of Stockholm), Materials for the primitive and natural history of the Man, vol. 9,2nd series, t. 5, 1874, p. 349-353(read online[archive] [on gallica]).
  • [1874] “The Bronze Age,” Materials for the Early and Natural History of Man, vol. 9,2nd series, t. 5, 1874, p. 353-356(read online[archive] [on gallica]).
  • [1875] “L’Acheuléen et le Moustérien. à propos du Mont Dol et du Bois du Rocher,” Matériaux pour l’histoire primitive et naturelle de l’Homme, vol. 10,2nd series, t. 6, 1875, p. 174-176(read online[archive] [on gallica]).
  • [1876] “Tableau du système de classification des périodes préhistoriques selon Mortillet,” Matériaux pour l’histoire primitive et naturelle de l’Homme, vol. 11,2nd series, t. 7, 1876, p. 545(read online[archive] [on gallica]).
  • [1878] “Exact determination of the Solutrean position,” Materials for the Early and Natural History of Man, vol. 13,2nd series, t. 9, 1878, p. 15-17(read online[archive] [on gallica]).
  • [Mortillet & Mortillet 1881] Prehistoric Museum, Paris, ed. Reinwald, 1881.
  • [1883] La Préhistoire: origine et antiquité de l’homme [“Prehistory: origin and antiquity of man”], Paris, libr. Schleicher Frères, coll. “Bibliothèque des sciences contemporaines”, 1883 (repr. 1900, 1910[archive]), 642 pp.(read online[archive] [PDF] on
  • [1897] Formation of the French nation: texts, linguistics, paleontology, anthropology, Paris, ed. Félix Alcan, coll. ” International Scientific Library,” 1897, on gallica(read online[archive]).
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Bear alert!

Art- Ivo Verheijen et al, “Early evidence for bear exploitation during MIS 9 from the site of Schöningen 12 (Germany)”

Journal of Human Evolution 177 (2023) 103294

A recent study demonstrates the exploitation of bears at a site dated to the Lower Paleolithic, the Schöningen site in Germany. This site, already known for its extremely well-preserved archaeological artifacts of organic material, provides new evidence of bear exploitation at a time when such artifacts are rare. Indeed, most traces of bear exploitation date from the Late Pleistocene, as for example at the site of Hohle fels in Germany. The fossil remains of bears found in Schöningen belong to the species Ursus thibetanus, the Asiatic black bear, and to the species Ursus deningeri/spealeus, the cave bear lineage.

These remains represent 10% of the faunal assemblage at the site and the two fossils of most interest here are a metatarsal and a phalanx that show evidence of cutting. These traces were observed under the microscope and their locations, characteristics and similarities with fossils from other sites indicate that they are the result of a butchering to recover the animal’s skin, perhaps to make a fur. Moreover, since the bear skin had to be collected quickly after the death of the animal in order to be exploited, this indicates an active hunting of the bear by the Hominins. During the Paleolithic period, the bear was omnipresent in Europe during both cold and warm periods.

These results will have to be confirmed with the discovery of other remains, but the question of the exploitation of the bear, whether for its meat or for its skin, is important in the study of the subsistence behaviors of Hominins in Europe.

Read the full article here

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Two species, two different environments

Art – Kaedan O’Brien, Nicholas Hebdon, J. Tyler Faith, “Paleoecological evidence for environmental specialization in Paranthropus boisei compared to early Homo”

Journal of Human Evolution 177 (2023), 103325

Available online April 2023

Between 2.7 and 1.2 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma), several species of hominins coexisted in Africa. This was the case, for example, of Paranthropus boisei, a species that became extinct around 1.2 Ma and is characterized by extremely developed cranial structures, and Homo habilis, the first species belonging to the genus Homo that emerged around 2.8 Ma. A recurring question is the ecological niches occupied by these species. It is commonly accepted thatHomo habilis is more ecologically flexible and adapts to different types of environments while Paranthropus boisei is more “specialized” to one type of environment. Nevertheless, it is difficult to test this hypothesis quantitatively. This is why this study proposes to quantify these environmental associations based on the study of faunal assemblages (=a set of fossils belonging to non-human animals), and more particularly of cattle.

Indeed, animal species, like plant species, are dependent on a climate and an environment. Researchers used Hominin fossils and faunal assemblages from the Koobi Fora Formation (Kenya, Africa). Indeed, this site has delivered a significant quantity of animal fossils dated between 1.98 and 1.38 Ma as well as remains of Hominins present in these same archaeological levels. This important fauna allows us to establish a high resolution of the environmental variability at this time. In this study, statistical methods are used to determine if there is a relationship between the type of environment and the Hominin species studied.

We must be careful here about conservation biases between the different faunal assemblages studied, but the results show that Homo habilis does indeed seem to occupy a greater variety of environments, ranging from dry savannah-type environments to grasslands, via forest environments. Conversely, P. boisei seems to be more restricted to a wooded savannah type environment.

Read the full article here

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Notice to paleopathology enthusiasts!

Christopher J. Knüsel, Adrien Thibeault, Sébastien Villotte, “A cranial injury from the earliest Gravettian at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter (Vézère Valley, Dordogne, southwest France)”

Journal of Human Evolution 177 (2023) 103329

Available online 2 March 2023

A new study of the cranium of the specimen named Cro-Magnon 2 shows that the impact present at the level of the frontal of this individual is the result of an ante-mortem wound. The remains of the individuals nicknamed “Cro-Magnon men” were discovered in 1868 at Eyzies-de-Tailhac in Dordogne (France) at the Cro-Magnon shelter.

It is besides the name of this shelter which will give the nickname “Cro-Magnon” to the discovered fossils. These individuals, which belong to the species Homo sapiens, are dated between 33 000 and 31 000 cal BP. As soon as these remains were discovered, researchers noticed a perforation in the frontal bone of the cranium of the individual named Cro-Magnon 2. Nevertheless, since this discovery, opinions differ as to the ante- or post-mortem nature of this perforation, i.e. whether the impact occurred before the death of the individual or whether it is the result of a degradation of the bone following its burial. Researchers have recently re-studied this cranium in order to evaluate the pathological or non-pathological character of this impact.

To do this, they made both visual observations but also generated scans and 3D images of the fossil using a micro X-ray tomograph. Cranial fractures that occurred before death have different characteristics that can be seen on the bones, such as the shape of the fracture or signs of healing. The study conducted here demonstrates that this perforation of the frontal bone is the result of an impact produced by a blunt object that occurred during the individual’s lifetime.
Traces of intracranial hemorrhage, the presence of a hematoma as well as porous bones indicate that the individual would have survived at least 15 days after this injury. It is impossible to affirm that this one was mortal but it is probable that this individual died of the consequences of this wound as for example of an infection. For the researchers, the position of the injury is consistent with the individual having been attacked and therefore not the result of an accident.

This raises the question of interpersonal violence during the Paleolithic, a question already raised with other fossil remains showing traces of injuries.

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