A massive lake glistens beneath the sun, cutting a clear expanse across an otherwise lush wetland, some 200,000 years ago. Here, a new species – Homo sapiens – has gathered. These modern humans have evolved from their Neanderthal ancestors, and humankind has at last started its reign. Yet scientists have just now pinpointed the surprising place where it all began.
In fact, geneticist Vanessa Hayes of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney led a study that used specific scientific data to pinpoint this exact verdant locale. In particular, Hayes and her expert team had to rely on mitochondrial DNA, which they had gathered from the cells of 1,217 samples. This battery-shaped genetic material passes from mothers to their children, so the researchers naturally had to find a population with a maternal line that stretched far into the past.
With the right DNA information gathered and analyzed, then, the research team highlighted a general area of origin. And after that came further archaeological and geological research that in turn helped Hayes and co to find something spectacular: evidence of a massive, ancient lake that broke down into wetlands. Its lush greenery was the backdrop for the first humans to walk the Earth, they say, and its modern-day location may just surprise you.
Experts have, of course, long believed that humankind traced all the way back to the African continent. But mapping evolutions and migrations has been a difficult task, to say the least. It was about seven million years ago when human beings began to evolve, after all, splitting off from primates such as the chimpanzee and the bonobo.
So it’s virtually impossible to find every link between humans and primates, since scientists simply don’t have enough fossil records to achieve this. In fact, entire species may have come and gone without leaving a trace for experts to uncover today. That’s why, in some cases, there are only bits and pieces of evidence to work with.
Yet the picture of humankind’s ancestral roots becomes clearer as scientists move nearer to the present day. They know, for example, that Neanderthals roamed Europe and even trekked into Siberia and Central Asia – although not as far as Africa. But while this population may have paved the way for modern humans, they did not actually originate the species.
Instead, it would be the evolution of Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus that gave way to Homo sapiens. And these new humans presented a variety of slight differences that separated them from the likes of the Neanderthal population who roamed the continent before them. For one, Homo sapiens took on a more slender build than the stockier Neanderthals up north.
In addition, modern humans mastered the art of making tools in a way that Neanderthals hadn’t. The African contingent styled their weapons to have sleek, elongated blades, for example. They also fashioned their weapons into more sophisticated throwing spears – which made their hunting more effective. The Neanderthals, by contrast, wielded clunkier weapons that had been chiseled from large stones.
But the fact that both the Homo sapien and Neanderthal populations had similar lifestyles did initially confound modern-day experts. As a result, then, scientists formulated two main theories about how and where humankind had developed. Some believed in what’s called the multi-regional hypothesis. This states that human ancestors spread across the globe – thus allowing modern humans to evolve in a handful of different places worldwide.
Then there is a single-origin concept known as the Out-Of-Africa theory. As the name suggests, this idea purports that modern humans grew and evolved on the continent for millennia before migrating to other areas of the Earth. And during the 1980s, scientists seemed to have gathered what appeared to be a clear confirmation of the Out-Of-Africa theory.
This was due to DNA testing. In fact, DNA testing completely revolutionized science in a number of ways. In terms of determining humankind’s ancestral roots, though, scientists could – using these tools – analyze the genetic information of modern populations. From there, they traced multiple subjects’ lineages back into the distant past, and these mappings seemingly always led researchers to one place of origin: Africa.
In these original studies, too, experts relied on mitochondrial DNA when tracing their subjects’ ancestral lineages. This part of the genetic code comes from people’s mothers. In addition, this section of DNA will present mutations more readily than others. So it’s therefore easier to follow how mutations have passed from mothers to children for generations.
In fact, in repeatedly tracing this mitochondrial DNA back all the way to the cradle of civilization, experts realized that one woman’s genetic code has been carried through to everyone on Earth today. She’s known to scientists as “Eve” – although she’s not the same as the biblical figure. She is not considered as the first ever human woman on Earth, after all.
Rather, this Eve lived when the entire human population consisted of a mere 10,000 people. So Eve was neither the only – nor the oldest – of our ancient predecessors. She just happened to have an unbroken line of daughters who passed her mitochondrial DNA onto their baby girls and down through the ages right through to the present day.
In short, Eve is regarded as humankind’s “most recent common ancestor,” according to Smithsonian magazine. A 2008 DNA analysis confirmed, too, that she is the only woman of that time to have an unbroken lineage of daughters. And the scientists behind the study also concluded that Eve had originated in Africa – more specifically, the eastern area of the continent.
Eve’s DNA therefore seemed to reveal the start of humankind’s story. Yet the experts had lots of other questions. If the species originated in Africa, for instance, how did they spread out to other continents? And why are such a disproportionate number of fossils from Europe? To answer these queries, then, the researchers combined the same DNA evidence with archaeological finds.
And all of this information pointed to major migrations that started between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. At that time, then, modern humans seemingly left their African origins for Asia. By about 45,000 years ago, though, they had already moved into Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, too. Then, 5,000 years after that, bands would leave Africa for Europe.
Humans who journeyed from Africa to Europe likely took one of two pathways to get north. Some would have traced the Mediterranean coast to get onto the continent, while others probably passed through Turkey and along the Danube. Their insurgence also pushed Neanderthals into a few mountainous areas – until the species disappeared altogether about 25,000 years ago.
The final step in humankind’s journey would bring them to the Americas. This happened about 15,000 years ago and actually began in Asia. From there, you see, Homo sapiens traveled across the Pacific to reach North America. And once on land, some members of the species continued to wander until they settled in South America as well.
It’s hard to believe that all of this information comes with little fossil evidence of the first humans who started it all. And this is especially surprising considering the changes that have occurred on the African continent – where humankind is said to have originated. Today, in fact, the dry landscape easily erodes and reveals the bones of those who died there centuries ago.
Yet archaeologists have had little luck in uncovering the remains of the earliest Homo sapiens – whether they dig in Africa or in Europe. Still, the experts believe that the first humans maybe did not bury their dead like the Neanderthals, choosing instead to cremate them or leave them to decompose out in the open.
In spite of this lack of skeletal remains, though, modern science and technology has allowed researchers to pinpoint human origins. Yes, a 2019 study helmed by geneticist Vanessa Hayes of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney relied once again on mitochondrial DNA for answers.
As previously mentioned, Hayes and her team gathered 1,217 mitochondrial DNA samples from people who currently live in southern Africa. Some of the test subjects even came from the Khosian population – an indigenous group who speak with clicking consonants and have long foraged for their sustenance.
From those samples, Hayes and the team traced what’s known as the L0 lineage in the subjects’ mitochondrial DNA. The L0 lineage goes all the way back to Eve – humankind’s common ancestor. Over time, then, Eve’s original DNA split into five main branches as people left Africa and diversified.
The L0 line, as it’s called, also has its own deviations. For instance, it branched about 130,000 years ago, when some of the human population moved from their original homes as heavy rains transformed dry lands into vegetation that could support human life. While some people followed this greenery to the southwest, though, others moved northeast to become farmers and foragers.
But the L0 mitochondrial DNA started somewhere, and Hayes and her team were able to pinpoint precisely where. Generally, they found that L0 and all of its sub-branches once again placed the earliest humans in Africa. Its territory in fact stretched from Namibia into Botswana and then on to Zimbabwe.
Then Hayes and the research team added geological, fossil and archaeological evidence into their findings. And while some of the areas of interest may seem uninhabitable in the modern era, the information gleaned about this potential point of human origin showed that it used to look very different.
The massive Lake Makgadikgadi – roughly the size of New Zealand – once covered a huge swathe of modern-day Botswana. About 200,000 years ago, though, it started to transform from lake into wetland. And according to Hayes and her team, this marshy expanse was the cradle of modern humankind.
Looking at the region today, however, it’s hard to believe that the origins of human life on Earth could have grown from this arid area. The one-time wetland sits south of the Zambezi River, and it’s nothing like it was in its water-logged past. Instead, it has dried up into sprawling salt pans, with white expanses of the mineral glistening in the sun.
According to Hayes, though, the area looked a lot different 200,000 years ago. In place of the unforgiving salt pans was a resource-laden wetland. As she told The Guardian in 2019, “It would have been very lush, and it would have provided a suitable habitat for modern humans and wildlife to have lived.”
At the time, Hayes says, the Botswana-based wetland would have served as an oasis for the arid area surrounding it. So humankind may have started there 200,000 years ago and remained in the area for 70,000 more years. But it’s believed that a shift in climate eventually pushed the founding humans from the wetlands.
As the Earth’s orbit and tilt shifted, in fact, it brought rains to new stretches of African land. Precipitation then encouraged plant growth, which sprung up in lengthy, lush corridors. These green pathways then gave humans a reason to branch out of their wetland homes and into new territories. This was a precursor to their great global migration, which began about 60,000 to 80,000 years ago.
Essentially, then, Hayes and her team reiterated the long-held origin of humankind’s roots – but they pinpointed the spot as a wetland in Botswana. Hayes said, “We have known for a long time that modern humans originated in Africa and roughly 200,000 years ago, but what we hadn’t known until this study was where exactly.”
Not all experts felt convinced by Hayes’ research, however. Chris Stringer, an expert in human origins at London’s Natural History Museum, admitted that modern DNA samples might not be entirely representative of the past. He explained, “I’m definitely cautious about using modern genetic distributions to infer exactly where ancestral populations were living 200,000 years ago – particularly in a continent as large and complex as Africa.”
Stringer also felt that Hayes and her team had been overly reliant on the mitochondrial DNA – and L0 lineage – as the main factor in their research. He cautioned, “Like so many studies that concentrate on one small bit of the genome, or one region, or one stone tool industry, or one ‘critical’ fossil, it cannot capture the full complexity of our mosaic origins once other data [is] considered.”
Other studies have also traced humankind’s ancestors back to other pockets of the African continent. In fact, Stringer highlighted a study that focused on the Y chromosomes that only men inherit. This research actually suggested that migration had commenced from west Africa – quite a distance from landlocked Botswana in the south.
Another study also found that those who left Africa for other lands carried genomes that traced back to the continent’s eastern areas. Stringer concluded, “These and many other data suggest that we are an amalgam of ancestry from different regions of Africa with, of course, the addition of interbreeding from other human groups outside the continent.”
Ultimately, Stringer called Hayes’ findings an “over-reach.” He told BBC News, “You can’t use modern mitochondrial distributions on their own to reconstruct a single location for modern human origins. I think it’s over-reaching the data because you’re only looking at one tiny part of the genome, so it cannot give you the whole story of our origins.”
Some scientists also still believe that humankind came from more than one single place. In fact, University of Cape Town archaeologist Rebecca Ackermann told The Guardian that our roots could be in Africa – and beyond. She noted, “Drawing sweeping conclusions about places of origin from analyses of this tiny part of the modern genome is deeply problematic and outdated.”
Nevertheless, Hayes’ study did pinpoint one potential origin for humankind – and many experts have long believed that the species did, indeed, evolve in Africa. Yet even with modern science and DNA testing, it still may prove an impossible question to answer definitively. For now, though, we can consider life as it may have been 200,000 years ago – with the first humans finding their way in a Botswana wetland.
Of course, this is not the first time that archaeologists have uncovered potentially revolutionary evidence. In the Black Desert of Jordan, for instance, archaeologists spent several years investigating a site called Shubayqa 1. Why? Because the experts believed that the people who lived there long ago could reveal more about one of humanity’s greatest innovations. So, searching the ruins of a fireplace, the researchers found the ashes of an ancient meal. And the meal’s contents may turn traditional ideas about the development of agriculture on their head.
We know that the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, of course. Our forebears would, then, forage for edible plants and hunt animals for sustenance. Yet as the seasons changed, so did the availability of food. People would therefore have to migrate to find new sources of nourishment. This way of living actually spans the larger portion of human history. So agriculture and the sedentary life that accompanies it are relatively new inventions.
But there are still a few hunter-gatherer societies in existence. These include the San in the southern part of Africa, the Mbuti in Central Africa and the Copper Inuit in the Arctic. This could be because the areas where these people live are not good places to grow crops or keep animals. So their lifestyles have been studied to help experts understand what ancient hunter-gatherer societies may have been like.
Every hunter-gatherer community is different, of course. Yet they do share some similar traits too. Most are quite small, for instance, with just a few dozen members. And often the labor in hunter-gatherer societies is divided: hunting tends to be the province of men; women are in charge of foraging. Other than gender and age, though, there appears to be little differentiation between the positions and roles of members of these communities.
In terms of human agriculture, however, the transition from hunting and gathering to settled farming was probably a gradual thing. It seems, in fact, that several different societies around the world began to practice agriculture independently of one another. For instance, great civilizations from Ancient Egypt, Sumer in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley of northern India all had sophisticated agricultural practices.
Evidence also suggests that some of our ancestors’ first steps towards agriculture were taken after the Pleistocene Ice Age had ended. That would have been around 11,700 years ago. The conclusion of this era marked a notable change in the climate, which in turn affected ecosystems around the world. So people of the time may well have been managing non-domesticated plants and animals in a forerunner of what would become farming.
Hunting and gathering was a difficult way to live, after all. And cultivating their own crops may have given early farmers confidence that they would not run out of food during the lean seasons. Ground, baked food could provide more energy than a raw plant, if you knew how to manipulate the crop. While farmed cows and sheep could be stable sources of milk and meat, which were not guaranteed from wild animals.
So it is thought that plants were first being domesticated around 12,000 years ago, while animals were tamed around 2,000 years after that. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, though, people in East Asia and the Americas also began to cultivate different crops. For instance, wheat and barley were prominent in Southwest Asia, rice dominated in East Asia, and squash appeared in countries that are now Mexico and Peru.
And as former hunter-gatherer societies settled in one place, people constructed homes that would last for extended periods of time. Populations therefore increased. In Southwest Asia, in fact, farming villages were being built around 10,000 years ago. This part of the world is now known as the Fertile Crescent. At the time, though, it became Mesopotamia – birthplace of one of humanity’s first great civilizations.
Across the Americas, though, different forms of agriculture were practiced dependent on different environments. And as there were no animals suited for pulling ploughs, farming technology was different to that in other parts of the world. The Inca built terraced fields in Peru, for instance, and the Maya and Aztecs used complex irrigation systems to support their societies.
China also saw the early development of farming communities, meanwhile. There’s even evidence that the Chinese grew rice, millet, hemp and Chinese cabbage – to up to 8,000 years ago. Paddy fields were later invented – in around 4330 BC, as far as we know – to provide the ideal wetland environment for growing rice. Similar crops would eventually be grown in what are now Korea and Japan too.
One community who lived during the transition to agriculture in Southwest Asia were the Natufians. This hunter-gatherer culture was mainly based in the area’s Mediterranean woodlands. But Shubayqa 1 is actually the first Natufian site outside of this “core zone” to be thoroughly explored by archaeologists. It is apparently proving to be a treasure trove of new information about hunter-gatherer food habits too.
Shubayqa 1 is located in the part of eastern Jordan known as the Black Desert. This area is so-called because of the black, basalt stones that make up much of its landscape. And you’ll find it near the border with Syria, around 82 miles from the Jordan’s capital city of Amman. The site is actually home to several areas of archaeological interest, of which Shubayqa 1 is just one.
Another site in the Black Desert is, for instance, called Jebel Qurma. This area has been studied extensively because of the art found on rocks nearby. In fact, the 2,000-year-old inscriptions suggest that the desert was not always an arid and inhospitable place. It’s even possible that there was once a significant population. Yet Shubayqa 1 predates the art here and seemingly proves that the Natufians were in the area far earlier.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the Black Desert is actually a volcanic field. This field also spans parts of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, making it the largest volcanic field in Arabia. The total area is more than 19,000 square miles, in fact. And it’s the source of the local basalt – a rock that can form in lava flows.
When the Natufians were living at Shubayqa 1 over 14,000 years ago, though, it was 4,000 years before farming became widespread in the area. The Natufians did, however, seemingly experience a more sedentary lifestyle than the cultures that preceded them. And as the excavations at Shubayqa show, this had a profound impact on their diet.
These digs took place at Shubayqa 1 between 2012 and 2015 – even though the site itself was first discovered in the 1990s. With the support of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen led the work. Other experts involved came from the University of Cambridge and University College London (UCL).
And while there were probably once multiple buildings at Shubayqa 1, the researchers’ focus was on the two that were best preserved. It seems that these stone structures had been constructed out of the basalt that is common in the area. And discoveries inside the buildings included tools and animal bones. A human skeleton was found in one wall too.
The team found that the buildings had also had their own fireplaces. Much like the buildings, too, these three-foot-wide fireplaces had been formed with basalt boulders. And radiocarbon dating of the ashes inside showed that the structures were in fact from the Natufian era. Yet rather than cleaning the fireplaces out, the Natufians had seemingly just left them as they were. So the researchers could therefore analyze the ashes to see what the Natufians had been cooking and eating.
And fortunately, during the time of the Natufians, Shubayqa 1 would probably have been a wetland. So while today’s arid conditions may make it difficult to grow crops here, it would have been a different story back then. Some produce, such as wheat, already grew naturally in the area, in fact. Yet archaeologists previously believed that the Natufians lived thousands of years before agriculture had started in Southwest Asia.
That’s what makes what was discovered at Shubayqa 1 so special. You see, researchers took 49 samples from the fireplaces to be later analyzed by the most advanced microscopy. And what the results found was that, despite not being farmers, the Natufians had somehow developed all the processes necessary to create their own bread.
Today, of course, bread can be found all around the world and forms an essential part of many diets. Yet despite this, little is actually known about the foodstuff’s early development. It had been thought, for instance, that bread didn’t become a dietary staple until Neolithic farmers could rely on their own cereal cultivation to help them produce it. So the fact that the Natufians had seemingly been making it without growing their own crops has fascinated researchers.
The Shubayqa 1 discovery is not the first time that prehistoric bread has been investigated, mind you. New technology, however, means that scientists can examine its composition with more accuracy than ever before. So the Shubayga 1 samples were sent to UCL, where they could be looked at with a method called scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Interestingly, it’s hoped that this technique can one day be used to reanalyze remains from previously discovered sites too.
Lara Gonzalez Carratero led the team at UCL investigating the ashes. However, this task isn’t as simple as it perhaps sounds. First, the research student had to establish criteria to separate bread from other ancient cereal products, such as porridge, before she could even begin. To do this, the microscopy allowed Carratero to see the particles and microstructures inside the remains. And then she could compare the samples to bread produced experimentally for the study.
You see, the most basic forms of bread only need flour and water. This mixture is then usually baked with dry heat. It’s actually the inclusion of gluten or other protein in the flour that gives bread its shape and texture. As part of a human diet, then, bread provides a range of nutrients, including iron, magnesium and B vitamins. The foodstuff is also a good source of carbohydrates and fiber. Bread would have therefore been a good way for hunter-gatherers to make up for the lack of calories in the raw plants that they had consumed.
Anyway, Carratero needed to see whether the Shubayga 1 samples matched her definition of bread. And the microscopy revealed that the ashes contained a mix of einkorn wheat, oats, barley and club-rush tubers. Of those, too, 24 samples fit Carratero’s criteria. So this means that the plant matter would likely have been ground together to make a fine flour of surprisingly high quality. The bread would also have been made without yeast or any other kind of raising agent. It was therefore flatbread, probably like a modern pita in appearance.
The plant that appeared most frequently in the fireplaces was the club-rush tubers. And according to botanical expert Amaia Arranz Otaegui, who also co-authored the subsequent July 2018 study, the tubers on their own taste “a little sweet and a bit salty and had a gritty texture.” But Otaegui did argue that could have been due to the scientists not cleaning them properly.
On their own, though, the club-rush tubers would have produced a brittle bread that easily crumbled. So by adding the wheat, the Natufians would have introduced the gluten necessary to change the texture of the dough. This would have allowed them to bake the bread more easily. There was no evidence of ovens at Shubayqa 1, however, so the bread was probably baked on a hot stone next to the fire or in the ashes themselves.
The ability to be baked without an oven is likely one reason why flatbreads were popular in the ancient world, in fact. Another is probably that they are easy to stack, making transportation and storage simple. It’s not the first time that historical unleavened flatbreads have been found, either. There are actually Roman and even Neolithic sites in both Europe and Turkey that have revealed similar remains. The oldest of these, though, was 9,100 years old. The bread in Jordan predates this significantly.
Yet the archaeologists were not entirely surprised by their discovery. After all, previous explorations of Natufian sites have revealed ancient grinding tools and sickle blades made of flint. These suggested that the Natufians had been interacting with and manipulating plants. And so now the researchers finally have evidence to support their theories.
Indeed, Antonella Pasqualone, a food technologist not involved in the study, seemed to agree with the study’s findings. Pasqualone is an expert in the science behind cereals, while bread has been the focus of several studies she has authored. And she’s said that flatbreads may have been an ideal way to “bridge between hunter-gatherers and stable farmers” because of their advantages over other types of bread.
Another point of view was put forward by Patrick McGovern from the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania. McGovern’s expertise is ancient beer. And in July 2018 he considered it likely that if the Natufians had been manipulating cereals for bread, then they could very well have made beer too. In September 2018, in fact, a Natufian cave in Israel did reveal evidence of a 13,000-year-old brewery.
Yet as creating bread is a labor-intensive process, the Natufians must have had good reason to make the effort. In fact, the Natufians would have had to dehusk and grind the cereals and then knead and bake the dough. So something about this must have been special. It’s possible, for instance, that the lengthy production process had felt necessary to impress special guests.
The importance of bread, even in the modern world, is about much more than its nutritional value, after all. Otaegui, for one, thinks that bread has “this additional powerful place in contemporary culture with links to religion and important ceremonies.” The expert even considers that bread is an important part of a shared cultural history between modern people and their ancestors.
To see the symbolic value given to bread in modern society, of course, you only have to look as far as the Christian communion. This is one of the most important ceremonies in Christianity, and it involves eating a piece of bread as well as drinking a sip of wine. As part of the ritual, the wine represents the blood of Jesus Christ, while the bread represents the body.
Elsewhere, bread and wine feature in the Last Supper and as part of the Jewish festival of Pesach or Passover. The holiday of Passover actually celebrates how God was said to have rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Even today, in fact, Jewish people honor Passover as one of their holiest festivals. And one way in which they do so is by eating matzo, a kind of unleavened bread.
So if bread was important enough to the Natufians, they may have even been motivated to start growing their own cereals. Agriculture may therefore have started because the Natufians had wanted to produce more bread. So investigating whether the making of bread was a factor in people beginning to cultivate cereals is one of the next aims of the researchers. For now, though, the team have published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Danish Council for Independent Research has awarded more money to continue the research too. And the experts want to further explore early plant and animal consumption in light of their newest discoveries. This includes identifying which plants were preferred for breadmaking and whether they were the plants that would go on to be cultivated by farmers.
Otaegui also wants to recreate the Natufian bread. The first step towards this was making flour with club-rush tubers – but initial results didn’t seem suited to modern taste buds. It may in fact take some adjustment for today’s humans to consume such an ancient recipe. Otaegui still sees it as another way of connecting with our Natufian ancestors, though.
McGovern also agrees that studying ancient people is fascinating partly because of the ways in which they are similar to us. So it seems that the bread discovery at Shubayqa 1 may not just tell us more about agricultural history; it could tell us about humanity as a species and how we have developed into who we are now.