The first Mediterranean people

Ancient skulls from North AfricaHuman fossils have been found in North Africa of astonishing age. Hominin remains found at Djebel Irhoud in Morocco are so old that they were initially thought to be Neanderthal, but doubts set in. They seemed closer to Modern Man.1J.-J. Hublin, Recent Human Evolution in Northwestern Africa, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, vol. 337 (1992), pp. 185–191. The jaw of an 8-year-old child from Djebel Irhoud provided key insights. It is 160,000 years old. Yet the teeth showed the pattern of delayed development characteristic of Modern Man, which allows a longer childhood learning period than in previous hominids. The shift from ancestral hominids to creatures of language and culture was gradual. The people of Djebel Irhoud could be seen as one of the last steps along the way.2T.M. Smith et al., Earliest Evidence of Modern Human Life History in North African Early Homo sapiens, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 104, no. 15 (10 April 2007), pp. 6128-6133. They are similar to the first modern humans found outside Africa: the fossils from Qafzeh and Es Skhul Caves, Israel, with their mixture of archaic and modern traits. The brain case is similar to modern humans, but they possess brow ridges and a projecting facial profile. 3C. Stringer and N. Barton, Putting North Africa on the map of modern human origins, Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, vol 17, no. 1 (January 2008), pp. 5–7. Perhaps the first modern humans to leave Africa did not have to cross the Sahara to do so. All they had to do was wander along the Mediterranean coast. This is quite a novel idea. Until recently all attention focused on routes from East Africa. For example an Israeli study detected a major cluster of wet episodes in the Negev Desert between 140 and 110 thousand years ago. The disappearance of the desert barrier in the Sinai-Negev land bridge between Africa and Asia would open the way from Africa to the Levant. The authors assumed that those venturesome humans who took advantage of this opportunity had moved up the Nile corridor from East Africa.4A. Vaks et al., Desert speleothems reveal climatic window for African exodus of early modern humans, Geology, vol. 35, no. 9 (September 2007), pp. 831–834. Yet there seems more evidence for Mediterranean ties.

The climatic fluctuations of the Sahara. Click to enlarge in pop-up windowHow had the ancestors of Djebel Irhoud people crossed the Sahara? Homo sapiens evolved far to the south between 190 and 200 thousand years ago. 160,000 years ago the Sahara was going through a long arid phase. One can only guess that a group of early Homo sapiens had wandered north before this arid phase began. The Sahara itself would not have been particularly tempting even then. Isla Castaņeda and her colleagues could discern only three periods in the lifetime of Modern Man when the Sahara was humid enough to support trees (marked on the diagram as green bars).5I.S. Castaņeda et al., Wet phases in the Sahara/Sahel region and human migration patterns in North Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106, no. 48 (1 December 2009), pp.20159-20163. So the most likely route north would be along the western coast of Africa. Once arrived in the Maghreb, these early people could have gradually found themselves cut off from others of their kind by the encroaching desert. The region between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean could provide a refuge - though not the most comfortable - even when most of North Africa was a sand-scoured wasteland. Winds scooping up moisture from the Atlantic would meet the mountains and release their load as life-giving rain.

Aterian Culture

Nassarius shell beads from Skhul Cave, Israel and Oued Djebbana in AlgeriaBouchra: reconstruction by Viktor Deak of an Aterian child The Aterian is a distinctive North African culture, which seems to have developed among these early hunter-gatherers locked into the Algerian and Moroccan Maghreb. The earliest dates for it - 120-110 thousand years ago - come from Dar es-Soltan I on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.6R.N.E. Barton et al., SL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos.19-20 (September 2009), pp. 1914-1931. In 2010 a team of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania discovered the skeleton of an Aterian child from 108,000 years ago in Smuggler’s Cave, Temara, Morocco. The child could have been as young as six when he died. The project leader named him Bouchra, meaning good news in Arabic. Artist Viktor Deak almost seems to have brought this unique discovery back to life in his reconstruction.

By this time the greening of the desert had begun. The Sahara was a land of lakes and rivers. So the Aterian people could spread east across the whole of North Africa. It was sometime around this period that archaic Homo sapiens like those of the Maghreb reached the Levant. The similarities between these people so far apart extend to the life they once lived. They had similar tastes in decoration. Pea-sized Nassarius shells found at Skhul, Mount Carmel, Israel and Oued Djebbana in Algeria were perforated as though they had been strung together like beads in necklaces or bracelets. These sites are remote from the seashore, so the shells must have been carried some distance for a particular use. If it was indeed personal adornment, then these are the earliest known pieces of jewellery made by modern humans, ahead of the 75,000-year-old Nassarius shell beads at Blombos Cave in South Africa.7M. Vanhaeren et al., Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria, Science, vol. 312, no. 5781 (23 June 2006), pp. 1785-1788. Pigments have also been found in the same level at Skhul.8F. d’Errico et al., Pigments from the Middle Palaeolithic levels of Es-Skhul (Mount Carmel, Israel), Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 37, no. 12 (December 2010), pp. 3099-3110. Red ochre was liberally used at Aterian sites. Art and craft are among the defining signs of modern human behaviour.9R.N.E. Barton et al., SL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos.19-20 (September 2009), pp. 1914-1931.

Michael Schillaci has found a close affinity between the skulls of these early modern people of the Levant and those of early Australasians. Neither appear similar to the first modern Europeans. He feels that this lends support to the notion of an early dispersal from Africa by a more ancient lineage of modern human, long before an exodus in the next greening of the Sahara around 50,000 years ago.10M.A. Schillaci, Human cranial diversity and evidence for an ancient lineage of modern humans, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 54, no. 6 (June 2008), pp. 814-826. These early people were driven out of the Levant by a change of climate, so it seems quite possible that some retreated to Africa along with other African fauna, while others moved south-east to the tropics of Asia and Australasia.

Does this ancient lineage have direct descendants today? It seemed unlikely until recently. All present populations share lineages back to common male and female ancestors, Y-DNA Adam and mtDNA Eve, which suggests just a single departure from Africa peopling the rest of the world. However Fulvio Cruciani and colleagues have now revised the root of the Y-DNA tree, detecting a split about 142,000 years ago between the lineage leading to the rare haplogroup A1b and the parent of all other haplogroups. They found only four samples of A1b in Africa, of which that in an Algerian Berber appeared the most ancient.11F. Cruciani et al., A revised root for the human Y chromosomal phylogenetic tree: the origin of patrilineal diversity in Africa, The American Journal of Human Genetics (2011). It would be premature to assume A1b to have arisen among the Aterians, but it is an interesting line of enquiry.

Notes

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  1. J.-J. Hublin, Recent Human Evolution in Northwestern Africa, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, vol. 337 (1992), pp. 185–191.
  2. T.M. Smith et al., Earliest Evidence of Modern Human Life History in North African Early Homo sapiens, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 104, no. 15 (10 April 2007), pp. 6128-6133.
  3. C. Stringer and N. Barton, Putting North Africa on the map of modern human origins, Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, vol 17, no. 1 (January 2008), pp. 5–7.
  4. A. Vaks et al., Desert speleothems reveal climatic window for African exodus of early modern humans, Geology, vol. 35, no. 9 (September 2007), pp. 831–834.
  5. I.S. Castaņeda et al., Wet phases in the Sahara/Sahel region and human migration patterns in North Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106 no. 48 (1 December 2009), pp. 20159-20163.
  6. R.N.E. Barton et al., SL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos.19-20 (September 2009), pp. 1914-1931.
  7. M. Vanhaeren et al., Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria, Science, vol. 312, no. 5781 (23 June 2006), pp. 1785-1788.
  8. Pigments have also been found in the same level at Skhul. F. d’Errico et al., Pigments from the Middle Palaeolithic levels of Es-Skhul (Mount Carmel, Israel), Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 37, no. 12 (December 2010), pp. 3099-3110.
  9. R.N.E. Barton et al., SL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos.19-20 (September 2009), pp. 1914-1931.
  10. M.A. Schillaci, Human cranial diversity and evidence for an ancient lineage of modern humans, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 54, no. 6 (June 2008), pp. 814-826.
  11. F. Cruciani et al., A revised root for the human Y chromosomal phylogenetic tree: the origin of patrilineal diversity in Africa, The American Journal of Human Genetics (2011).