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Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia

Abstract

Clarifying the geographic, environmental and behavioural contexts in which the emergence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens occurred has proved difficult, particularly because Africa lacked adequate geochronological, palaeontological and archaeological evidence. The discovery of anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils at Herto, Ethiopia1, changes this. Here we report on stratigraphically associated Late Middle Pleistocene artefacts and fossils from fluvial and lake margin sandstones of the Upper Herto Member of the Bouri Formation, Middle Awash, Afar Rift, Ethiopia. The fossils and artefacts are dated between 160,000 and 154,000 years ago by precise age determinations using the 40Ar/39Ar method. The archaeological assemblages contain elements of both Acheulean and Middle Stone Age technocomplexes. Associated faunal remains indicate repeated, systematic butchery of hippopotamus carcasses. Contemporary adult and juvenile Homo sapiens fossil crania manifest bone modifications indicative of deliberate mortuary practices.

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Acknowledgements

J.D.C., a legend in African archaeology, founded and co-led the Middle Awash project until his death in February 2002. We thank A. Almquist, A. Asfaw, M. Asnake, T. Assebework, D. Brill, J. DeHeinzelin, A. Getty, Y. Haile-Selassie, A.-R. Jaouni, B. Latimer, C. Pehlevan, K. Schick, S. Simpson, P. Snow and Y. Zeleka for fieldwork and analytical studies; the Earth Environmental Sciences Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, for access to electron microprobe and other support; D. DeGusta, F. C. Howell, C. O. Lovejoy, L. Hlusko, F. Bibi, R. Klein, L. Jellema and E. Vrba for review and/or assistance; and J. Feathers, and J. Westgate and A. Sandhu for assessing the feasibility of luminescence and fission track dating, respectively, on some of the tephra. We thank the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, the Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage, and the National Museum of Ethiopia for permissions; the Afar Regional Government and the Afar people of the Middle Awash, particularly the Bouri–Modaitu community and H. Elema; and many additional individuals for contributions. This research was supported by the NSF (US), the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (University of California at Los Alamos National Laboratory), and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Additional financial contributions were made by the Hampton Fund for International Initiatives, Miami University.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Tim D. White.

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Further reading

Figure 1: Geographic and stratigraphic placement of the Herto Bouri hominid fossils and archaeological artefacts.
Figure 2: Cultural modification of the Herto adult and child crania.

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