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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : September 2000 : Dig turns out to be something deeper

Dig turns out to be something deeper

The Houston Chronicle
September 10, 2000

DMANISI, Georgia - DMANISI, Georgia - A small team of archaeologists had worked for years here piecing together what they could of an old medieval fortress town perched high above two rivers, but then the rhinoceros crashed the party. And that set in motion a different sort of archaeology that now has come up with the oldest human remains ever unearthed outside Africa.

Fossils and relics show that, more than 1.7 million years ago, the first intercontinental wanderers found their way here, bringing with them simple stone tools and setting themselves up by the shores of two prehistoric lakes. They may well be the ancestors of every Asian, European and Native American alive today. They found here the abundant sunlight, water and vegetation that the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains still provides. But the neighborhood had a different cast all the same: Where sheep, goats and pigs now graze and root for food, ostriches and giraffes once came down to the lakes, and so did saber-toothed tigers, panthers and, yes, rhinoceroses. That was the key. Since 1936, archaeologists have been coming here trying to learn more about what life was like in those comparatively not-so-distant times. Jumber Kopaliani, who heads the project, gladly takes a visitor on a tour of his 32-acre domain. There's the private bathhouse for the commander of the fortress. There's the inscription over the door of the church, exempting newlyweds from taxes. There's the 5th-century sarcophagus inside the church. But he knows that the excitement today is underground.

Everything began to change about 20 years ago, on the day when one of the archaeologists decided he might learn something by looking through a medieval garbage pit. Hardly more than three feet down, he came upon some bones and a tooth that looked like the probable remains of a courtly feast, but he showed them to a paleontologist friend, Abesalom Vekua, who saw something altogether different: That tooth had come out of the mouth of a rhinoceros. After the rhino tooth was found, interest quickened when, in 1984, a medievalist spotted some prehistoric stone tools and realized what they were.

This was the first sign of a human presence. A human jaw was found in 1991, and a metatarsal - one of the bones in the foot - was unearthed in 1995, but the dating and identity of these fossils was challenged by some paleontologists.

Last summer, though, the ambiguity vanished when heavy rains revealed two skull fragments at a site being excavated by a team that now included both Georgian and German scientists. Three different methods were used to date the finds - by examining the magnetic polarization of the underlying basalt, measuring the decay of potassium-40, and using a technique called "argon-argon dating," which was performed by the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. The results were reported at a conference in France earlier this year and in Science magazine in May, and have been widely hailed as a spectacular discovery.

The fossils are at least 500,000 years older than any found before in Europe. Asian finds are closer in age, but less definitively dated. Near where the human fossils were found, the archaeologists also have turned up an unusually large number of bones of large predatory animals. Whether the people hunted down the animals and dragged them to this spot, or vice versa, isn't clear. The vegetation here was similar to what the immigrants (or their forebears) had left behind at Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, where Homo ergaster originated. The Caucasus Mountains offered protection from the harsher climate to the north. The Black and Caspian seas, which were somewhat closer then, moderated the weather. "It was very pleasant here," said Vekua, the man who identified that rhinoceros tooth. "They had water, food, materials for weapons and tools." The fossils were found at the edge of what had been a small basin. A thin layer of sediment separated them from the volcanic basalt below.

David Lordkipanidze, head of the paleontology department at the Georgia State Museum, speculates that they were covered with mud in one quick stroke, probably in a flood of some kind. After that, a top layer of sediment was baked into a hard crust. "And this crust is our friend," Lordkipanidze said. "It protected everything."



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