Skull surgery used to treat post-traumatic osteomyelitis 4,900 years ago

Did Chalcolithic surgeons possess medical knowledge which remains poorly-understood to this day?

It sounds counter-intuitive, but there is some evidence to suppose that long-bone fractures heal faster if patients have also sustained traumatic skull injuries. The exact mechanism is not fully-understood, but may involve the cytokine interleukin-6, bone morphogenic proteins, and prolactin, all of which are released in response to a brain injury. What is remarkable is this might have been known in Chalcolithic times – and used as a treatment. Continue reading

New hominin species reported from Ethiopia

Australopithecus deyiremeda was a contemporary of ‘Lucy’

Hominin remains comprising a complete lower jawbone, a partial lower jawbone and two partial upper jawbones, together with some accompanying teeth have been described as a new species, Australopithecus deyiremeda. The fossils were excavated in 2011 in the Woranso–Mille study area, central Afar, Ethiopia. They were found in deposits dated from 3.3 to 3.5 million years old, making Australopithecus deyiremeda a contemporary of Australopithecus afarensis (the species to which the well-known fossil ‘Lucy’ belongs) and the controversial hominin species Kenyanthropus platyops. The specific name deyiremeda means ‘close relative’ in the local Afar language and follows a now-established tradition of using local languages to name hominin species.

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Killed with a blunt instrument

Evidence for lethal interpersonal violence in the Middle Pleistocene

Evidence of interpersonal violence between humans resulting is (perhaps surprisingly) rare in the Pleistocene. Examples include the Shanidar 3 and St. Césaire 1 Neanderthals, from Iraq and southwestern France respectively. Shanidar 3 suffered a penetrating injury from a projectile weapon, and St. Césaire 1 suffered a fractured skull consistent with a deliberate blow from a sharp object. It cannot be ruled out that the injuries were the result of accidents: a hunting injury in the case of Shanidar 3 and a fall in the case of St. Césaire 1 (though the location of the injury at the apex rather than side of the cranial vault makes this unlikely). Neither incident was fatal, at least not immediately so, as both lived long enough thereafter for healing to begin. There are also cases where bones have been de-fleshed and broken open to extract marrow, suggesting cannibalism – although it is unclear whether individuals were attacked and killed, or whether they were already dead and possibly eaten by their companions.

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Earliest stone tools found in Kenya

3.3-million-year-old tool tradition significantly predates first humans

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has suggested that the making of stone tools predates the emergence of the earliest humans. In the 1990s, Oldowan-type tools dating to around 2.6 million years ago were found at the Gona River study area in Ethiopia. The tools slightly predated the then-earliest known humans, but as they were not associated with hominin remains there was no way of telling who the toolmakers had been. Towards the end of the decade, evidence of carcass butchery dating to around 2.5 million years ago was found at the nearby Bouri Formation. Bones of large mammals with cut-marks thought to be made by stone tools in the process of de-fleshing the carcasses were associated with australopithecine remains. Unfortunately, on this occasion, no actual stone tools were found. Continue reading