Highlights from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting, Portland, Ore., April 11-14

Stone Age finds in Southeast Asia, chat among Neandertal ancestors and early cannibalism

Stone Age Southeast Asians
Researchers have discovered the oldest known human remains in Southeast Asia, a partial human skull dating to at least 40,000 years ago. Excavations at Tam Pa Ling cave in northern Laos produced a dozen pieces from a Stone Age person’s skull, including a skullcap and a lower jaw, anthropologist Laura Shackelford of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported April 14. Small front teeth, a rounded brain case and other traits identify the reassembled fossil as a modern Homo sapiens, Shackelford said. The find supports proposals that at least some human migrations out of Africa around 100,000 years ago followed a southern route that led to Southeast Asia.

Neandertal ancestors speak up
A proposed ancestor of Neandertals and Homo sapiens that lived around 500,000 years ago in a mountainous part of what’s now Spain may have had the gift of gab. A new analysis of a Homo heidelbergensis individual’s skull and upper spine bones, as well as a horseshoe-shaped neck bone called the hyoid, suggests that this long-extinct species could have produced speech sounds, paleontologist Ignacio Martínez of the University of Alcalá, Spain, reported on April 12. Humanlike inner ear bones made it possible for H. heidelbergensis to hear conversational speech, Martinez said. “We don’t know if H. heidelbergensis spoke, but it possessed anatomical characteristics for efficient production and perception of speech,” he concluded.

Cannibals and cave graves
Neandertals cannibalized three of their own and buried them in a European cave around 40,000 years ago, anthropologist Hélène Rougier of California State University Northridge reported April 14. Rougier’s team discovered 75 Neandertal bones and teeth that had been stored with animal bones following excavations at Belgium’s Goyet cave more than a century ago. Incisions on the Neandertal fossils match those on bones from animals butchered by Neandertals at the cave. Goyet Neandertals may have been consumed as part of a ritual or purely for food, Rougier proposed. Evidence suggests that simple burials occurred at Goyet and nearby caves visited by Neandertals, she said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Humans