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Earliest human traces

Fingerprints

Although older Neanderthal fingerprints exist, the earliest Homo sapiens fingerprints mentioned in the Journal of Ancient Fingerprints were found on the world’s oldest ceramics—on pellets and figurines from Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov, in South Moravia. They were fired in the Upper Palæolithic period at least 25,000 years ago. Measurements on 56 fingerprints from 29 sherds showed that the imprints had been made by 12 year old children.

 

 

Footprints

The earliest known footprints made by H. sapiens are at Ngare Sero in northern Tanzania. They are embedded in an ash layer that has been radiometrically dated as approximately 120,000 years old. 58 prints have been uncovered, apparently made by at least three different individuals. An account of their discovery in 2009 may be found at Appalachian.

photo of one of the 58 footprints

One of the 58 footprints

(Photo: Cynthia Liutkus)

Death mask

The earliest surviving death mask is probably that of the canonised Franciscan missionary Bernardino da Siena (1380–1444) [Undying Faces]

Life masks are of more recent vintage.

photo of the death mask of Bernardino da Siena

(Photo: from Ernst Benkard & Margaret Green (1927)

Undying Faces, A Collection of Death Masks

New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

 

Organic remains

Whole bodies

The most ancient surviving entire human body is the mummy number EA 32751, formerly known as 'Ginger', dating to approximately 3400 BCE. Currently on display in Room 64 in the British Museum in London, EA 32751 is thought to have been discovered buried in desert sand in Gebelein in Egypt where conditions can naturally preserve bodies, as the hot and dry sand naturally absorbs the water that constitutes 75% of the human weight. Without this moisture bacteria can't breed and cause decay, and so the body is preserved. Though EA 32751's mummification may have been wholly natural, since he was buried with pottery vessels it is likely that the mummification was a result of the preservation techniques of those who buried him. Stones may have been piled on top of the grave to prevent the corpse from being eaten by jackals and other scavengers, and the pottery might have held food and drink which may have been placed with the body to sustain the deceased during the journey to the after life. [British Museum]

photo of the mummy known as Ginger

Mummy EA 32751

(Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Body parts

The most ancient mummified human head is the well preserved naturally mummified head found in 1936 by Justiniano Torres Aparicio, with two other mummies, at the site of Inca Cueva #4, level 1A, at 3680 m.o.s.l. [sic, but I think this must mean metres above sea level], in the Quebrada of Chulin (Prov. of Jujuy, Argentina). A sample of temporal skin from the head of Chulina has been radiocarbon dated as having a calibrated age of 6080 ± 100 years (within 82% probability). [Dubal]

 

 

The remains of the world's oldest human brain, estimated to be over 5,000 years old, were found in 2009 in a cave in southeastern Armenia. An analysis performed by the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, confirmed that one of three human skulls found at the site contains particles of a human brain dating to around the first quarter of the 4th millennium BCE. The team in Armenia, comprising 26 specialists from Ireland, the United States and Armenia, had been excavating the three-chamber cave where the brain was found since 2007.

The skull with the brain was found in a chamber that contained three buried ceramic vessels containing the skulls of three women, about 11 to 16 years old. The cave's damp climate helped preserve red and white blood cells in the brain remains. What part of the brain the 9 x 7 cm brain fragment comes from is still being determined. Microscopic analysis revealed blood vessels and traces of a brain hæmorrhage, perhaps caused by a blow to the head. [Abrahamyan]

 

photo of the most ancient mummified human head

The naturally mummified human head labelled J.T.A.-240 in the Museum Torres Aparicio (Photo: L. Dubal)

Fossilised bones

The earliest known fossilised bones of Homo sapiens are known as Omo 1, having been found by Richard Leakey, between 1967 and 1974, at a site near the Omo River, in south-western Ethiopia. They have been dated as 198,000 years old, ± 14,000 years. [Nature, Journal of Human Evolution]

Paul Pettit, however, describes the Omo finds as transitional, rather than fully modern H. Sapiens. The earliest anatomically modern fossils may be those from Border Cave, South Africa, which may date from between 230,000 and 145,000 years ago, though there's still some uncertainty about their stratigraphic provenance. A number of fossils from the caves of the Mugharet es-Skhūl and Jebel Qafzeh, in Israel—the remains of over 20 individuals—are generally accepted as dating from 110,000 to 90,000 years ago, based on electron spin resonance and luminescence dating techniques.

photo of the earliest known fossilised bones

Omo 1

(Photo: Michael Day)

Hair

The oldest surviving human hair is found on the Chinchorro mummies of Chile, the oldest of which—the so-called 'Black Mummies' (given a clay mask coated with black manganese)—date to up to 5000 years before the present. [Archaeology]

 

In 2009 much older hair was recovered from fossilized hyena dung found in Gladysvale Cave, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Dating of the cave's limestone layers showed that the dung had been deposited some time between 257,000 and 195,000 years ago. It is not known, however, whether the hair is from H. sapiens or the co-eval H. heidelbergensis. [Hoffman, Journal of Archaeological Science]

photo of the oldest surviving human hair

5,000-year-old remains of a woman, mummified in the black style and surrounded by whalebone, recovered from the site of El Morro in downtown Arica, Chile, in 1983

(Photo: © Philippe Plailly / EURELIOS)

DNA

In October 2014 it was announced that a man's entire genome had been sequenced, using part of his femur—radiocarbon-dated to around 45,000 years ago—found by the Irtysh river near the settlement of Ust’-Ishim in western Siberia. The date is close in time to the arrival of the first humans in Europe. Containing about 2% Neanderthal DNA—a similar proportion to that found in Europeans today—it suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals had interbred some 50-60,000 years ago. The discoveries were made by a team of scientists led by Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. [Nature, Zimmer, Ghosh]

The most ancient DNA found in a living person was first identified in 2013, with the publication of an article in the American Journal of Human Genetics, released on 7 March. The DNA analysis of an African-American male from South Carolina was found to contain single-nucleotide polymorphisms that contained vestigial remnants of mutations of the Y chromosome that were estimated by an international group of geneticists to have a time to the most recent common ancestor corresponding to 338,000 years ago. This appreciably predates the age of the earliest Homo sapiens fossils. [Discovery News; Examiner]

 

 

Blood

Debate continues around the validity of conclusions drawn from the analysis of blood protein residues on stone tools. However, evidence of human blood does appear to have been found on stone tools from the De Long Mountains of northwestern Alaska, believed to date from between 9570 and 8000 Before Present. [Arctic, Vish]

In May 2012 it was reported that actual red blood cells had been recovered from the wounds on the body of the famous Tyrolean iceman, Ötzi. [Janko, Stark, and Zink]

Menstrual blood was recovered in 2007 from woven aprons worn by Native American women in SE Utah and northern Arizona over a period extending back to 2400 BP. [Quids]

 

photo of red blood cells recovered from Ötzi the iceman

Red blood cells recovered from

 Ötzi the Iceman

(Photo: J. Roy. Soc. Interface)

Saliva

In 2007 a team at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University, successfully analysed mitochondrial DNA extracted from human saliva that had been deposited onto the fibrous leaves of yucca plants that had been chewed as 'quids' by Native Americans in SE Utah and northern Arizona over a period extending back to 2400 BP. [Quids]

 

 

Urine

In 2004 Greenwich workmen found a sealed jug about 1.5m below ground. It was a bellarmine—a salt-glazed jar made in the Netherlands or Germany, stamped with the face of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino. When the jug was shaken it splashed and rattled, and the Greenwich Maritime Trust asked retired chemist Alan Massey to study it.

Immediate X-ray revealed pins and nails stuck in the neck, consistent with the jug having been buried upside down. CT scans at Liverpool University showed it to be half-filled with liquid. It was clear that this was a witch bottle.

Liquid was drawn through the cork of the Greenwich bottle with a long-needled syringe. Complex chemical studies that included recording a proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum, and then gas chromatography / mass spectrometry analysis of organic acids by Richard Cole (Leicester Royal Infirmary) and inorganic analysis by Helen Taylor (British Geological Survey), allow Massey to say that the liquid "is unequivocally human urine". Past claims for urine in witch bottles have rested solely on inorganic material.

Cole identified cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine: the urine had been passed by a smoker. [British Archaeology]

 

C T scan of a 17th century witch bottle, showing human urine, pins and nails

CT scan of a 17th century 'witch bottle', showing human urine, pins and nails

(Photo: Mike Pitts / British Archaeology)

Faeces

The earliest dateable human coprolites (fossilized faeces) I've so far succeeded in locating on the Internet were found at Wadi Kubbaniya in southern Egypt, and originate from between 18,500 and 17,000 BP. [The Antiquity of Man]

 

 

Semen

Information not found.

 

 

Full references for printed works

Paul Pettit (2013) 'The Rise of Modern Humans', in Chris Scarre, ed. (2013) The Human Past. World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies. 3rd edn, London: Thames & Hudson

 

 

Note: this page, and the companion page on Earliest evidence of human individuality, entered my mind as in some way necessary adjuncts to my series of pages on Firsts in the recording of sight and sound. As will be very apparent, this and the Traces page rely heavily on Internet-based research, so should not be regarded as authoritative in any way. I am, as ever, very happy to accept corrections.

 

 

This page was last revised on 2014-10-31.

 

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