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Fossils reveal special relationship between humans, monkeys 12,000 years ago

News Desk

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Sat, July 13, 2019  /  01:03 pm
Fossils reveal special relationship between humans, monkeys 12,000 years ago

In an evening lecture titled 'Humans and Monkeys in Java 12,000 Years Ago' hosted by the French Institute of Indonesia (IFI), Ingicco details an interesting finding from the Song Terus cave in Pacitan regency, East Java. (Institut Fran├žais Indonesia/File)

Humans and animals have coexisted for millennia, but the story of when or how relationships form between them is buried deep in time under layers of soil and sediment.

The Neolithic era saw the advent of agriculture and the proliferation of domesticated animals, but even before then there were signs of special relationships between nonhuman primates and our ancestors in the hunter-gatherer Paleolithic era.

Unearthing these stories are archeologists, who dig up soil and fossils to look for clues – among them is Thomas Ingicco, and he talks about an interesting phenomenon from 12,000 years ago that may provide some insight.

In an evening lecture titled “Humans and Monkeys in Java 12,000 Years Ago” hosted by the French Institute of Indonesia (IFI), Ingicco details an interesting finding from the Song Terus cave in Pacitan regency, East Java.

The initial findings revealed an anomalous amount of Macaca iris monkey remains alongside human burial grounds.

Based on the butchering marks found on all Macaca iris remains and bone tools found in the cave, the team concluded that the Macaca iris species were the primary hunting targets of nomadic humans in the region whose flesh was harvested as food and bones crafted into tools.

However further investigation reveals evidence of a deeper relationship that suggested a commensal, or even the taming of these monkeys found in their skeletal remains.

While the terms "domestication" and "taming" are similar, the distinction is important when looking at human – animal relationships.

To put it simply, domestication affects a whole species, while taming -which is a step towards domestication- affects individual animals. A similar case is how domestic dogs began as young wolves that grew alongside humans and learned domestic behavior.

“What's interesting is that as early as 12,000 years ago those Paleolithic people in Java already had the same concept of production of food that the Neolithic people would have later on,” Ingicco explained during the lecture.

He went on to say that the concept was there, but somehow it did not result in true domestication.

The explanation is conveyed in analysis of three main findings from the Song Terus cave.

The abrupt appearance of Macaca iris remains from 12,000 years ago

Precisely dating archeological finds can be a complicated process that need advanced methods like carbon dating, but sometimes it is as simple as, “the deeper the find, the older the fossil.”

Skeletal remains of the Macaca iris species were found to suddenly appear in the upper layers of the Song Terus cave’s soil, and the frequency of these findings spark around the 12,000-year mark.

Unlike bovine or pig remains which date back up to 300,000 years in the past, these monkeys remains suddenly appeared abruptly 12,000 years ago - meaning the monkeys are not native to the region. They were suddenly brought to the Song Terus cave.

Such an unnatural pattern was likely the handiwork of humans – as they were hunted in their native habitat and transported back to Song Terus cave.

Read also: Monkey experiments offer clues on origin of language

Graves, bones, tools and caves

How and where the bones were found in the cave is also important.

The markings found on the bone suggested the cadaver was systematically processed - dismembered, defleshed, and skinned. Hence, it’s likely that these monkeys were the primary source of protein for humans in the area and the sharper bones were used as tools or accessories found alongside the human graves.

Furthermore, unlike any other animal, some Macaca iris were buried alongside some humans with their skulls largely intact and placed above the human’s chest cavity. This finding supposedly reflect a special relationship between certain humans and nonprimates.

Dietary distractions

After scrutinizing the monkey’s bones under a microscope, signs point to a sudden change to the diet of monkeys found within the graves.

Looking at teeth under a microscope, different markings depending on an animal’s diet can be identified.

Animals who eat leaves have long striations on their teeth from the friction of the finer particles found in leaves, whereas fruits leave small indentations as seeds grinded against the teeth over time.

Macaca iris naturally eat leaves, so finding both types of markings in the skeletal remains at Song Terus cave likely means these monkeys were being fed fruits in captivity since there were no environmental factors at the time that forced this change.

From the above, Ingicco and his team concluded that these nonhuman primates were mostly hunted but occasionally tamed.

“I think the main interest was for a few individuals just locally, nothing to do with the management of the population [in the same way as] the Neolithic people,” he explains. “They are still hunter-gatherers and still nomadic. Most likely this is the main boundary for domestication.”

Ingicco went on to say that this relationship provides a clearer glimpse into animal-human relationships before the advent of agriculture and domestication.

“There are particular relationships like that in other places like Sri Lanka and special relationships to the forest [between] forest [dwelling] individuals and [other] species just like those monkeys. So, we might have something broader, but we don't know yet." (ayr/mut)

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