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Palaeontology


Virologist Ms Mari Toppinen: University of Helsinki: Image: Uzi Varon

Once upon a time there was life
How did it live how did it die or
How it grew young or old or how
It fought to live you ask dig out
Out the bones look for the marks

Munayem Mayenin: November 10, 2015

New Gibbon Genus Discovered in Ancient Chinese Tomb



|| June 24: 2018: UCL News || ά. Bones of an entirely new but already extinct genus of gibbon have been discovered in China, showing the magnitude of human-caused extinction of primates, according to a study by UCL and Zoological Society of London:ZSL. The discovery was made by scientists while studying the contents of a burial chamber in Shaanxi Province, central China and the findings were published in Science.

The ancient tomb dates from around 2,300 years ago and, possibly, belonged to Lady Xia, grandmother to China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, the leader, who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors. The tomb, first excavated in 2004, was found to contain 12 burial pits with animal remains, which included gibbon bones. Sophisticated computer modelling shows that these ancient bones represent an entirely new genus and species of gibbon, which the team has named Junzi Imperialis.

Historical records show that Junzi, probably, survived until less than 300 years ago. Professor Helen Chatterjee, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, an expert on gibbons, worked with colleagues to measure key points on the skull and teeth found in the tomb, which were, then, compared to the dimensions found in the four genera of gibbons living today.

Their in-depth analysis showed that the skull and molars differed by so much that the bones belong to a separate genus to today’s gibbons. “It’s not surprising that Junzi Iimperialis is distinct from current gibbon populations as the mammals naturally become isolated from each other in tree tops and can’t cross gaps in the canopy.

Even, today’s four genera have different numbers of chromosomes.” Said Professor Chatterjee. Gibbons are the smallest apes and are characterised by their distinctive song and long arms, which they use for moving through the forest canopy by a form of locomotion, called, brachiation.

They have played an important role in Chinese culture for thousands of years, being present in ancient literature and art. However, despite, probably, having a venerated status, Junzi became extinct due to past human activities, likely to have included deforestation and hunting. All of the world’s apes, chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons, are threatened with extinction today due to human activities but no ape species was thought to have become extinct as a result of historic hunting or habitat loss until now.

The demise of Junzi highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular. “Our discovery and description of Junzi Imperialis suggests that we are underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity.

These findings reveal the importance of using historical archives, such as, the archaeological record to inform our understanding of conservation and stress the need for greater international collaboration to protect surviving populations of gibbons in the wild.” said Lead Author, Dr Samuel Turvey, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Eastern and Southeast Asia are currently home to some of the world’s most threatened mammals, with 73% of Asian primates being threatened, compared to 60% globally.

Two species of gibbon have recently disappeared in China and all surviving Chinese species are currently classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The Hainan gibbon, Nomascus Hainanus, a species of gibbon found on Hainan Island in southern China, is now, probably, the world’s rarest mammal, with only 26 surviving individuals.

Caption: Junzi cranial reconstruction and skull: Image: Dr Samuel Turvey and Professor Helen Chatterjee:::ω.

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The Tasmanian Tigers: They Were Here Once But No Longer Are: But How Did They Live and Grow

|| February 26: 2018: University of Melbourne News|| ά. Researchers from the University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria have CT scanned all 13 known Tasmanian Tiger Joey specimens to create three-D digital models, allowing them to study their skeletons and internal organs and reconstruct their growth and development. This has shown important new insight about how this unique extinct marsupial evolved to look so similar to the Dingo, despite being very distantly related. The digital scans show that when first born the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine or Thylacinus Cynocephalus looked like any other marsupial. But three months later, when they left the pouch, they had taken on the appearance of a puppy and continued to grow with a dog-like appearance.

The research, led by the University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria and in conjunction with an international team of scientists, is published today in Royal Society Open Science. The Tasmanian Tiger was a marsupial, which raised its young in a pouch. Its resemblance to the Dingo is one of the best examples of convergent evolution in mammals. This is where two species, despite not being closely related, evolve to look very similar. The Tasmanian Tiger would have last shared a common ancestor with the canids, dogs and wolves, around 160 million years ago. Dr Christy Hipsley, Research Associate at the University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria, said that after sequencing the Tasmanian Tiger genome in 2017, this research fills one more piece of the puzzle on why they have evolved to look so similar to dogs.

"This is the first digital development series of the Tasmanian Tiger, Australia’s most iconic extinct marsupial predator. Using CT technology we have been able to garner new information on the biology of this iconic species, and its growth and development."

These scans show in incredible detail how the Tasmanian Tiger started its journey in life as a joey, that looked very much like any other marsupial, with robust forearms so that it could climb into its mothers pouch. But by the time it left the pouch around 12 weeks to start independent life, it looked more like a dog or wolf, with longer hind limbs than forelimbs.

Once ranging throughout Australian and New Guinea, the Tasmanian Tiger disappeared from the mainland around 3,000 years ago, likely due to competition with humans and dingos. The remaining Tasmanian Tiger population, isolated on Tasmania, was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, with the last known individual dying at Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Mr Axel Newton, PhD student and Lead Author on the paper notes that until now there have only been limited details on its growth and development. For the very first time, we have been able to look inside these remarkably rare and precious specimens.

Unable to study the living species, the team had to look to the 13 Tasmanian Tiger joey specimens, that exist in museum collections worldwide, including, three from the collection of Museums Victoria. These joey specimens, representing five stages of postnatal development, were scanned using non-invasive X-ray micro-CT scanning technology to create high resolution three-D digital models, in which all their internal structures, such as, skeleton and organs could be studied.

Associate Professor Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne explains that this was an incredibly effective technique to study the skeletal anatomy of the specimens without causing any damage to them. "This research clearly demonstrates the power of CT technology. It has allowed us to scan all the known Thylacine joey specimens in the world and study their internal structures in high resolution without having to dissect or cause damage to the specimen. By examining their bone development, we’ve been able to illustrate how the Tasmanian Tiger matured and identify when they took on the appearance of a dog."

The study has, also, showed the incorrect classification of two specimens held in the collection of the Tasmanian Museums and Art Gallery. Instead, they are most likely to be quolls or Tasmanian Devils, based on the number of vertebrate and presence of large epipubic bones, specialised bones, that support the pouch in modern marsupials.

Senior Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at TMAG, Ms Kathryn Medlock, said that the museum had received many requests to dissect its pouch young over the years but requests were always refused.

"One of the major advantages of this new technology is that it has enabled us to do research and answer many questions without destruction of the sample specimens. This is a significant advancement that, also, has an additional benefit of helping us to learn more about the identity of these specimens, that have been in the TMAG collection for many years."

An exciting outcome of the research is that the three-D digital Tasmanian Tiger models are to be made publicly available as a resource for current and future researchers.
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Rare Ichthyosaur: Here's One of the Two Known Examples

|| February 11: 2018: University of Manchester News|| ά. A rare 200 million-year-old Ichthyosaur specimen has been discovered in a private collection 22 years after it was originally found. The fossil is only the second example of Wahlisaurus Massarae, a new species of Ichthyosaur discovered by the University of Manchester Palaeontologist, Mr Dean Lomax. This fossil was originally found in 1996 and has now been donated to a museum. Ichthyosaurs have recently been in the limelight as the focus of BBC One documentary, ‘Attenborough and the Sea Dragon’. They were a type of sea-going reptile, that lived during the time of the dinosaurs.

Their fossils are plentiful in the UK and in recent years Mr Lomax has described five different species of the prehistoric reptile. In 2016, Mr Lomax described an Ichthyosaur skeleton, that he had examined in the collections of Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. He spotted several unusual features of the bones and determined that the features were unique and represented a new species, which, he called, Wahlisaurus Massarae, in honour of two of his colleagues and mentors: Mr Bill Wahl and Professor Judy Massare. In this new study, Mr Lomax teamed up with Dr Mark Evans, Palaeontologist and Curator at the New Walk Museum, Leicester and Fossil Collector, Simon Carpenter of Somerset.

Mr Lomax said, ''When Wahlisaurus was announced, I was a little nervous about what other palaeontologists would make of it, considering the new species was known only from a single specimen. As a scientist you learn to question almost everything and be as critical as you can be. My analysis suggested it was something new but some palaeontologists questioned this and said it was just ‘variation’ of an existing species.”

 

The study focuses on a specimen Mr Lomax identified in Mr Carpenter's collection, which is an almost complete coracoid bone, part of the pectoral girdle, that has exactly the same unique features of the same bone in Wahlisaurus. The specimen was originally collected in 1996, in a quarry in northern Somerset. Once the specimen’s rarity was realised, Mr Carpenter immediately donated it to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Mr Lomax said, “You can only imagine my sheer excitement to find a specimen of Wahlisaurus in Simon’s collection. It was such a wonderful moment. When you have just one specimen, ‘variation’ can be called upon but when you double the number of specimens you have it gives even more credibility to your research.”

The new discovery is from a time known as the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, right after a world-wide mass extinction. For these reasons, the research team have been unable to determine exactly whether the Ichthyosaur was latest Triassic or earliest Jurassic in age, although, it is roughly 200 million-year-old.

As part of the study, Dr Evans cleaned the bones and removed additional rock from the first specimen. This assisted in a detailed re-examination of the original skull, which led to the discovery of additional bones. This has provided a better understanding of the skull structure.

“The discovery of the new specimen in a private collection helps to recognise the important contribution of dedicated and responsible fossil collectors. I am, especially, grateful to Simon for donating the specimen and collecting all of the data available with the specimen when he found it.” said Mr Lomax.

The new study has been published in the scientific journal, Geological Journal. ω.

The Paper: An ichthyosaur from the UK Triassic–Jurassic boundary: A second specimen of the leptonectid ichthyosaur Wahlisaurus massarae Lomax 2016. Geological Journal: Lomax, D. R., Evans, M. and Carpenter, S. 2018. 10.1002/gj.3155

Caption: Image 01: Dean Lomax, Simon Carpenter and Deborah Hutchinson with the new specimen: Image 02: Ichthyosaur: Image: University of Manchester

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Where are We: Cheddar Man 10,000 Years Later You are Still Here in Great Britain: We Used to Call Her Dornuuarana

|| February 07: 2018: UCL News|| ά. The face of ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest, nearly-complete skeleton at 10,000 years old, is presented for the first time and with unprecedented accuracy by UCL and Natural History Museum researchers. The results indicate that Cheddar Man had blue eyes, dark coloured curly hair and ‘dark to black’ skin pigmentation. Previously, many had assumed that he had reduced skin pigmentation. The discovery suggests that the lighter pigmentation now considered to be a defining feature of northern Europe is a far more recent phenomenon.

The pioneering work was carried out by a team of UCL scientists, Natural History Museum Human Evolution and DNA specialists and the world’s foremost prehistoric model makers, for a new Channel Four documentary, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man. In one of their most challenging human DNA projects to date, no British individual this old has, ever, had their genome sequenced, the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA lab’s Professor Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace carried out the first-ever full reading of Cheddar Man’s DNA.

Professor Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann, from UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, then analysed Cheddar Man’s DNA sequences to establish aspects of his appearance. “Cheddar Man’s genetic profile places him with several other Mesolithic-era Europeans from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg, whose DNA has already been analysed.

These ‘Western Hunter-Gatherer’s’ migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age and the group included Cheddar Man’s ancestors.” explained Professor Thomas. Today, around 10% of indigenous British ancestry can be linked to that population.

Cheddar Man was unearthed in 1903 in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset and has been the topic of constant mystery and intrigue. For over 100 years, scientists have tried to tell his story, posing theories as to what he looked like, where he came from and what he can tell us about our earliest ancestors.

Dornuuarana: O Rain La Rain
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Only now with world-leading research, advanced DNA and facial reconstruction can we see, for the first time, the face of this 10,000 year old man and ask how 300 generations later he relates to us today.

To collect a few milligrams of his bone powder for analysis, scientists in the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA lab drilled a tiny, 02mm wide hole into the ancient skull. As the DNA was unusually well-preserved, possibly, due to the cool, stable conditions in the limestone cave, the team extracted sufficient genetic information to inform the facial reconstruction, as well as, other genetic characteristics.

Model makers, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, used a hi-tech scanner to render Cheddar Man’s skull in full three-dimensional detail, fleshing it out with facial features based on the results of the scientific research.

Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, first excavated at Gough’s Cave 30 years ago, said, “I first studied ‘Cheddar Man’ more than 40 years ago, but could never have believed that we would one day have his whole genome, the oldest British one to date!

To go beyond what the bones tell us and get a scientifically-based picture of what he, actually, looked like is a remarkable and from the results quite surprising achievement!”

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel Four on Sunday, February 18.
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Caption: Cheddar Man's facial reconstruction and Cheddar Man's skull: Image: Channel Four

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Hello Little Foot How Do You Do: Are You Still Inside My Head: No Little Foot Now You are Inside Mine

|| December 09: 2017: University of the Witwatersrand News|| ά. After 20 years of painstaking excavation and preparation, Professor Ron Clarke introduces the most complete Australopithecus fossil ever found to the world. South Africa’s status as a major cradle in the African nursery of humankind has been reinforced with the unveiling of 'Little Foot', the country’s oldest, virtually complete fossil human ancestor. Little Foot is the only known virtually complete Australopithecus fossil discovered to date. It is, by far, the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 01.5 million years, ever found.

It is, also, the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 03.67 million years. The unveiling will be the first time that the completely cleaned and reconstructed skeleton can be viewed by the national and international media. Discovered by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, the fossil was given the nickname of 'Little Foot' by Professor Phillip Tobias, based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small footbones. Its discovery is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and locomotor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.

“This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research and it is a privilege to unveil a finding of this importance today.” says Professor Clarke. After lying undiscovered for more than 03.6 million years deep within the Sterkfontein caves about 40km north-west of Johannesburg, Professor Clarke found several foot bones and lower leg bone fragments in 1994 and 1997 among other fossils, that had been removed from rock blasted from the cave years earlier by lime miners.

Professor Clarke sent his assistants Mr Stephen Motsumi and Mr Nkwane Molefe into the deep underground cave to search for any possible broken bone surface, that might fit with the bones he had discovered in boxes. Within two days of searching, they found such a contact, in July 1997.

Professor Clarke realised soon after the discovery that they were onto something highly significant and started the specialised process of excavating the skeleton in the cave up through 2012, when the last visible elements were removed to the surface in blocks of breccia.

“My assistants and I have worked on painstakingly cleaning the bones from breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton until the present day.” says Professor Clarke. In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been hard at work to excavate and prepare the fossil. Now Professor Clarke and a team of international experts are conducting a full set of scientific studies on it. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in international journals in the near future.

This is the first time that a virtually complete skeleton of a pre-human ancestor from a South African cave has been excavated in the place where it was fossilised. “Many of the bones of the skeleton are fragile, yet, they were all deeply embedded in a concrete-like rock called breccia.” the Professor explains.

“The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave. Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s bones were exposed, the breccia in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab at Sterkfontein.” he says.

The 20-year long period of excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting and analysis of the skeleton has required a steady source of funding, which was provided by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust:PAST, a Johannesburg-based NGO, that promotes research, education and outreach in the sciences related to our origins. Among its many initiatives aimed at uplifting the origin sciences across Africa, PAST has been a major funder of research at Sterkfontein for over two decades.

Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, says, “This is a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa’s heritage. It is through important discoveries like Little Foot that we obtain a glimpse into our past, which helps us to better understand our common humanity.”

PAST’s Chief Scientist Professor Robert Blumenschine labels the discovery a source of pride for all Africans. “Not only is Africa the storehouse of the ancient fossil heritage for people the world over, it was, also, the wellspring of everything, that makes us human, including, our technological prowess, our artistic ability and our supreme intellect.” he says.

The scientific value of the find and much more will be unveiled in a series of papers that Professor Clarke and a team of international experts have been preparing, with many expected in the next year.
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Image: University of the Witwatersrand

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Hello Dorset: This is Durlstotherium Newmani: Speaking From 144 Million Years in the Past: Can You Hear Me: If You Do: Just Make Sure You Understand: Once You Exist You Do It for Forever: Make It Count

|| November 12: 2017: University of Portsmouth News|| ά. Fossils of the oldest mammals related to humanity have been discovered on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. The two teeth are from small, rat-like creatures, that lived 145 million years ago in the shadow of the dinosaurs. They are the earliest undisputed fossils of mammals belonging to the line, that led to human beings. They are, also, the ancestors to most mammals alive today, including, creatures as diverse as the Blue Whale and the Pigmy Shrew. The findings are published in the Journal, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, in a paper by Dr Steve Sweetman, Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth and Co-authors from the same university.

Dr Sweetman, whose primary research interest concerns all the small vertebrates, that lived with the dinosaurs, identified the teeth but it was University of Portsmouth undergraduate student, Mr Grant Smith, who made the discovery. Dr Sweetman said, “Grant was sifting through small samples of earliest Cretaceous rocks collected on the coast of Dorset as part of his undergraduate dissertation project in the hope of finding some interesting remains. Quite unexpectedly he found not one but two quite remarkable teeth of a type never before seen from rocks of this age. I was asked to look at them and give an opinion and, even, at first glance my jaw dropped!

The teeth are of a type so highly evolve,  that I realised straight away I was looking at remains of Early Cretaceous mammals, that more closely resembled those, that lived during the latest Cretaceous, some 60 million years later in geological history. In the world of palaeontology there has been a lot of debate around a specimen found in China, which is approximately 160 million years old. This was, originally, said to be of the same type as ours but recent studies have ruled this out. That being the case, our 145 million year old teeth are undoubtedly the earliest yet known from the line of mammals, that lead to our own species.”

Dr Sweetman believes that the mammals were small, furry creatures and most likely nocturnal. One, a possible burrower, probably, ate insects and the larger, may have, eaten plants as well. He said, “The teeth are of a highly advanced type, that can pierce, cut and crush food. They are, also, very worn, which suggests the animals to which they belonged lived to a good age for their species. No mean feat, when you’re sharing your habitat with predatory dinosaurs!”

The teeth were recovered from rocks exposed in cliffs near Swanage, which has given up thousands of fossils. Grant, now reading for his Master’s degree at the University of Portsmouth, said that he knew he was looking at something mammalian but didn’t realise he had discovered something quite so special. His supervisor, Professor Dave Martill, of Palaeobiology, confirmed that they were mammalian, but suggested Dr Sweetman, a mammal expert should see them.

Professor Martill said, “We looked at them with a microscope but despite over 30 years’ experience these teeth looked very different and we decided we needed to bring in a third pair of eyes and more expertise in the field in the form of our colleague, Dr Sweetman.

Steve made the connection immediately, but what I’m most pleased about is that a student, who is a complete beginner was able to make a remarkable scientific discovery in palaeontology and see his discovery and his name published in a scientific paper. The Jurassic Coast is always unveiling fresh secrets and I’d like to think that similar discoveries will continue to be made right on our doorstep.”

One of the new species has been named Durlstotherium newmani, christened after Charlie Newman, the landlord of the Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers, close to where the fossils were discovered.
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Image: Teeth image: University of Portsmouth

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DNA-Study Shows the Guanches Originated From North Africa

 

|| November 02: 2017: Liverpool John Moores University News|| ά. The aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands, commonly known as, the Guanches, originated from North Africa. A team of international researchers, led by Stockholm University, including, Liverpool John Moores University’s Dr Linus Girdland-Flink as a Senior Author, has now confirmed this long-held hypothesis. The result, published in Current Biology, has been achieved by sequencing ancient DNA extracted from the University of Edinburgh’s collection of skulls from Guanches, who lived on Gran Canaria and Tenerife prior to the European conquest in the 15th century AD.

When and how the Guanches arrived to the Canary Islands have remained poorly understood, not least, since they lacked boats and the knowledge of how to navigate the surrounding seas. In fact, when Europeans colonised the islands in the 15th century CE they discovered a culture, that much resembled Late Stone Age, Neolithic, cultures from Europe and the Mediterranean. This has led to a great deal of speculation about their origins but no conclusive answer has yet been found. The ancient genetic data generated by the team have now resolved some of the outstanding questions. Dr Linus Girdland-Flink, who is based at LJMU’s School of Natural Sciences and Psychology said, “Previous studies on the Guanches have relied on single genetic markers, such as, mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes.

These markers often lack the analytical precision needed to resolve finer levels of population history. By sequencing autosomal DNA we have gained unique insights to the ancestry and origin of these populations.” Dr Ricardo Rodríguez Varela, Researcher at Stockholm University and Lead Author of the study, explains, “By generating the first autosomal genetic data from these populations we can conclusively demonstrate that the Guanches were most closely related to modern North Africans of Berber ancestry than to any other population we included for comparisons, supporting previous studies but adding more detail and nuance.”

Professor Tom Gillingwater, Head of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, said, “This study gives us a fascinating insight into this unique population and we’re delighted to see our collections being used to make such an important contribution to research. It is thanks to our excellent curatorial team, that we are able to give researchers from around the world access to our historic archives. We hope this will be the first of many exciting discoveries to come from the collections in our care.”

Importantly, the new study shows that the Guanches carried a mixture of genetic ancestry. Professor Anders Götherström, Co-author and Director of the ancient DNA laboratory at Stockholm University, explains, “Our analyses show that a small portion of the genetic ancestry of the Guanches was derived from populations most closely related to European Stone Age farmers.

Interestingly, this type of genetic ancestry was introduced to Europe from Anatolia with migrating farmers during the Neolithic expansion around 7,000 years ago. Other North African populations have varying proportions of this ancestry but it is not yet fully understood how and when it spread across North Africa.”

The research team was, also, able to provide new insights to the genetic legacy of the Guanches in modern Canary Islanders. Dr. Torsten Günther, Co-author and researcher at Uppsala University, concludes, “Our analyses show that modern inhabitants of Gran Canaria inherited circa 16-31% of their genomic ancestry from the Guanches.
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The Paper: Genomic Analyses of Pre-European Conquest Human Remains from the Canary Islands Reveal Close Affinity to Modern North Africans: Ricardo Rodríguez-Varela, Torsten Günther, Maja Krzewińska, Jan Storå, Thomas H. Gillingwater, Malcolm MacCallum, Juan Luis Arsuaga, Keith Dobney, Cristina Valdiosera, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, Linus Girdland-Flink

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If You Can Time Travel: Where Would You Go: The Beginning and End Reside at the Same Place: So That Time Travelling One Comes Back to Find One's Whole Self Together Being as Now-Eternal


Image: Uzi Varon

 

|| September 14: 2017: University of Helsinki News: Virve Pohjanpalo Writing || ά. Viral infections leave trace information in our tissues. Researchers can read it like a history book, extending from mediaeval smallpox epidemics to ancient Egypt. Virologist Ms Mari Toppinen began her journey through history at a lecture on identifying war dead, focusing on corpses left on the Russian side of the border after the war between Finland and the Soviet Union. The dead have been transported to Finland for identification, beginning in 1992. “I was listening to professor of forensic medicine, Antti Sajantila and I started wondering if the bones on the former battlefield could have signs of parvovirus, which was one of the research topics of our group.” Ms Toppinen says. “During the infection, the parvovirus multiplies, specifically, in the bone marrow.”

The parvovirus causes a common, typically, harmless disease, known as, fifth disease, which is characterised by an intense red rash. Scientists at the Department of Virology in the Academic Medical Centre in Helsinki place a special significance on it. It was while studying the very parvovirus that they found what a fascinating compendium of information viruses can leave in the tissues of their hosts during their visit. Ms Toppinen and her colleagues joined forces with forensic scientists and found parvovirus DNA in the bones. “We analysed 106 of the war dead. Approximately, every other individual had traces of the virus, despite the bones being exposed to UV radiation and the acidic earth.”

One of the unanswered questions, surrounding the parvovirus is, why it abruptly changed after World War II. While the symptoms remained largely the same, something changed beneath the surface: the type two virus, which had actively circulated in Finland for ages, disappeared before the 1970s and was replaced by the type one virus.

As expected, most of the findings in the war dead were of the old type two virus, but the researchers, also, found a surprise. Two of the dead had experienced an infection caused by the type three virus, which is extremely rare in the Nordic countries. “It turned out that these two had roots in the Caucasus. This means that, even though, we assumed they were Finnish, they, may have been, soldiers from the Red Army.” Ms Toppinen explains.

This case of the men, who made their way from one of the borders between Asia and Europe to Karelia, proved that viral traces could help researchers uncover the life histories of individuals. However, the riddle of the disappearing type two parvovirus remains unsolved.

Ms Mari Toppinen is working on her doctoral dissertation in Professor Klaus Hedman’s Laboratory. The internationally acclaimed professor of clinical virology is similarly preoccupied by the past. “We can suddenly ask the same questions of the past that we have been asking about the present. A whole new world has opened up right behind our back window.”

The primary reason for this new access to the past is new technology, including, gene duplication methods, as well as, new information technology, databases and increased processing power. Professor Hedman and his colleagues are already thinking beyond World War II, to the time of the European colonisation of America and Europe’s smallpox epidemics, even, to ancient Egypt. They are, also, interested in Neanderthals.

“We were surprised when we discovered how many mummies there are. We, originally, thought that we would primarily be analysing bones if we were interested in ancient tissue samples.”

Last year, Professor Hedman and his partners published an article in the Journal Current Biology, which changed the way we think about the origins of smallpox. Smallpox has been one of the deadliest diseases in human history and it is assumed to have originated millennia ago, in ancient Egypt, India and China.

The new research was helped along by a child, a Lithuanian victim of smallpox. Together with researchers from McMaster University in Canada, Professor Hedman’s team studied the background of the child mummy, stored in a crypt in Vilnius. Radio carbon dating showed its age to be approximately 350 years.

Analysing the fragmented viral traces was quite the feat of molecular technology, but they got results. “From this mummy, we managed to reconstruct the mother of all smallpox strains, the oldest smallpox virus ever found.” Professor Hedman gives primary credit for this achievement to postdoctoral researcher Dr Maria Perdomo, who had the main responsibility for the smallpox analysis. The researchers found that the ancestral form of the smallpox virus was born less than 500 years ago, around 1580.

This would mean that stories of smallpox disasters in the courts of the pharaohs are decidedly untrue and that Pharaoh Ramesses V, probably, died of some other disease. “Perhaps the Egyptians suffered from another similar illness.” says Professor Hedman.

The parvovirus is a, relatively, easy research subject, as it leaves traces everywhere, including, the skin, joints and liver. For many other viruses, traces must be sought from a very specific tissue, on a case by case basis. Professor Antti Sajantila,
Genetic and Forensic Medicine, has become an important partner in the study of contemporary illnesses. Professor Hedman’s group intends to go through pathologists’ autopsy-patients, systematically, searching for traces of various viruses. “How wrong were the people, who predicted that the golden age of virology would be over as soon as illnesses, such as rubella and polio are eradicated!”

Professor Klaus Hedman is fascinated by the geographical movements of diseases over the past centuries. “It would be amazing to find out what kinds of diseases circulated in America before the conquistadors came along! Did the Europeans bring illnesses with them or did they bring New World diseases to Europe? And what about, even, further back in history?''

He describes a study conducted by Mr Ville Pimenoff, who relocated to Spain from Finland. Mr Pimenoff’s modelling research showed that the papillomavirus type HPV16, which is responsible for many contemporary cases of cervical cancer, came to modern humans as a sexually transmitted disease from the Neanderthals. “It’s possible that the virus had little effect on Neanderthals.” says Professor Hedman.

He believes that archaeovirology, the study of ancient history by studying the evolution of viruses, is as exciting as hunting for exotic fossils. “Zoologists look to the past and find dinosaurs. What might we find? Perhaps, something that no longer exists, something we can’t even imagine. Every virologist dreams of being able to announce that viruses are as important for humans as the bacteria in our intestines, for example. But nothing points to that, yet.” Professor Klaus Hedman says.

However, the global threat of superbacteria is raising interest in viruses. If antibiotics are ineffective in our battle against these bacteria, we will have to find other methods. One factor is the viral load inside humans, and particularly, the viruses housed inside the bacteria in our bodies, i.e, bacteriophages. Phage therapy is a partial solution as resistance to antibiotics becomes more common. Bacteriophages keep their hosts in check.”

Professor Klaus Hedman’s laboratory specialises in small, non-enveloped  or 'naked' DNA viruses. Non-enveloped viruses only have the nucleoprotein capsid, with no membrane envelope derived from the host cell of the virus. DNA viruses are a group of viruses, whose genetic material is in the form of DNA, as is common in organisms, generally. In other viruses, their genetic information is encoded in RNA.

“Medicine recognises many mystery viruses, whose effects are unknown, and also, diseases with unknown causes. Together with Docent Ms Maria Söderlund-Venermo, we are trying to make this ‘supply’ meet the ‘demand'.'' states the Professor.

During the past decade or so, researchers have discovered one naked DNA virus after another in humans, approximately, twenty in total, that are responsible for a multitude of ailments ranging from respiratory infections to cancer.
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A University and a Zoo: What are They Trying to Do United

The spotted hyena from the collection of the Finnish Museum of Natural History. Image: Perttu Saksa

 

|| August 09: 2017: University of Helsinki News: Virve Pohjanpalo Writing || ά. There are many connections between Helsinki Zoo and the University of Helsinki. The university trains some of the best specialists in animal welfare, while deceased zoo inhabitants, may, end up at the museum, where they are of use to researchers. Founded in 1889, Helsinki Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world. It has collaborated with Helsinki University Museum for several decades. In this time, views on the proper treatment of animals have changed quite a bit, as have animal welfare decrees.

''Helsinki Zoo has been home to many sorts of species. Shared cages for various apes are a good example of how different the living conditions for the animals once were.'' says Mr Henry Pihlström, biologist and researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History. The exotic specimens in the bone collection at the museum include endangered species, as well as, species that are no longer found in the wild. Collection safaris for rare animals have been out of the question for a long time now and exotic specimens have primarily been received from private donators, who wish to be rid of the antelope horns on the wall of the family home or the skin in front of the fireplace and from Helsinki Zoo.

The fate of a spotted hyena, that performed at a Finnish circus before the wars, and eventually, ended up in the museum’s collection is a good example of how differently people used to think about animals. ''Animal-related stories are portrayals of their time. In the 1930s, hyenas were terribly abhorred and people called them cadaver diggers. After its circus career, our hyena met its end at Helsinki Zoo, shot in the head and it wasn’t the only one. We have done our best to glue the damaged specimen back together.''

Perhaps the most tragic and from the museum’s point of view, also, the most prolific, moment in the collaboration with the zoo, also, took place in the 1930s. The museum’s ape collection grew by nine specimens at once.

''There was a fire in the ape house at the zoo in 1938, and apparently, every single ape there died. The destruction was so complete that even the keepers were evidently not able to identify the bodies and many species in the donation received by the museum had been identified wrongly.'' Mr Pihlström says, recalling the now forgotten incident.

When Mr Pihlström’s team went through their old collections of vertebrates a year ago, they found other specimens received from the zoo, that were still lacking proper identification. ''Among other activities, we performed a thorough skeletal and dental examination of a giant kangaroo brought from the zoo and were able to definitely identify it as a red kangaroo.''

The inventory and repair of the bone collection continues this summer. ''We won’t be running out of treasures waiting for attention any time soon!'' The university has received research material and questions from the zoo, but the benefits are mutual. Specialists in biology and animal welfare are in demand at the zoo.

The zoo’s key tasks, by its own definition, are environmental education and species protection. According to Ms Kirsi Pynnönen-Oudman, scientific expert and general curator at Helsinki Zoo, a zoo biologist’s wish is to become redundant: if the populations in the wild were strong enough, zoos would not be needed in order to keep species alive. ''I have no desire to keep animals in cages, but there is no longer room in the wild for many of the world’s species.'' Ms Pynnönen-Oudman said in an interview for the university magazine.

''There is not one single European mink left in the wild in Finland.'' she says, to illustrate the fact. ''There are no suitable zones for them anymore and the American mink has probably brought the species to extinction. Sadly, there are many other examples from around the world.

''If cat plague strikes in the far east of Russia, leopards and tigers will be lost. Zoos can perhaps restore animals to the area.'' Ms Pynnönen-Oudman trained as an animal physiologist and she has, also, taught at the Department of Biosciences at Helsinki University. The Director of Helsinki Zoo, Ms Sanna Hellström, also, worked as researcher at the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine for a decade before taking up her current position.
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Synchrotron Light Used to Show Human Domestication of Seeds From 2000BC



 

|| July 14: 2017 || ά. Scientists from University College London:UCL have used the UK’s synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, to document, for the first time, the rate of evolution of seed coat thinning, a major marker of crop domestication, from archaeological remains. Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors present evidence for seed coat thinning between 2,000 BC and 1,200 BC in the legume horsegram, Macrotyloma uniflorum, a bean, commonly eaten in southern India.

By using the high-resolution X-ray computed tomography:HRXCT technique on Diamond’s I13-2 beamline, the researchers were able to measure the coat thickness throughout the entire seed. “Seed coat thickness is a great indicator of domestication, as thinner coats will mean faster germination of a seed when it is watered.” explains Dorian Fuller, Co-author on the paper. “But conventional methods of looking at the seed coat require breaking and destroying archaeological specimens.”

“Being able to look at the seed coat thickness without breaking the sample is possible by other methods, but you can only look at a spot on the seed.” adds Charlene Murphy, Co-author on the paper. “The beamline at Diamond has allowed us to look at the entire seed and has shown considerable variation within individual specimen’s seed coat thickness.”

This is the first time that HRXCT has been applied to entire archaeological seeds, with results suggesting that previous spot measurement thickness tests could be misleading. Of the twelve samples analysed, the seeds could be categorised into two distinct groups, thicker or wild type seed coats, with averages thicknesses above 17 micrometres and thinner ore more domesticated seed coats between 10 and 15 micrometres.

The results indicated that domestication of horsegram took place during the second millennium BC, with seed coats fair fixed in thickness by the early centuries AD. The findings show the potential for HRXCT to be used to look at a variety of domesticated grains and pulses, such as, peas.

Christoph Rau, Principal Beamline Scientist on I13, where the work was carried out, says, “The beamline is a unique tool and is involved in a wide range of applications from high resolution imaging of biological tissues to palaeontological research. In this case, the beamline has enabled the team to produce three-D images of the seeds with incredible micrometer scale resolution, without damaging their precious samples.”

“We’re continuing to work with Diamond to look at other interesting archaeological seeds and how they’ve become domesticated.” concludes Fuller. “Peas are a great example of this; wild peas are ejected from their pods naturally, but domesticated peas only leave the pod when the cultivator removes them, a quite symbiotic relationship.”

About I13: At 250 metres in length, I13 is Diamond’s longest beamline. It comprises two branchlines, which run independently of each other and provide complementary X-ray imaging techniques. The Diamond Manchester Imaging Branchline:I13-2 performs real space imaging and tomography in the 8-30keV energy range. For work like this, the beamline can image samples of 0.1-10 mm thickness at spatial resolutions that can extend a little beyond a micron.
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Ancient DNA Shows the Role of Near East and Egypt in Cat Domestication

Cat buried in a 6000 year old in Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Image: Hierakonpolis Expedition

 

|| June 25: 2017: University of Leuven News || ά.  DNA found at archaeological sites shows that the origins of our domestic cat are in the Near East and ancient Egypt. Cats were domesticated by the first farmers some 10,000 years ago. They later spread across Europe and other parts of the world via trade hub Egypt. The DNA analysis showed that most of these ancient cats had stripes: spotted cats were uncommon until the Middle Ages. Five subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris are known today.

All skeletons look exactly alike and are indistinguishable from that of our domestic cat. As a result, it’s impossible to see with the naked eye which of these subspecies was domesticated in a distant past. Paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni and his colleagues from KU Leuven and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences set out to look for the answer in the genetic code. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa and Europe.

These remains were between 100 and 9,000 years old. The DNA analysis showed that all domesticated cats descend from the African wildcat or Felis silvestris lybica, a wildcat subspecies found in North Africa and the Near East. Cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago by the first farmers in the Near East.

The first agricultural settlements, probably, attracted wildcats because they were rife with rodents. The farmers welcomed the wildcats as they kept the stocks of cereal grain free from vermin. Over time, humans and animal grew closer and selection based on behaviour, eventually, led to the domestication of the wildcat.

Migrating farmers took the domesticated cat with them. At a later stage, the cats, also, spread across Europe and elsewhere, via trade hub Egypt. Used to fight vermin on Egyptian trade ships, the cats travelled to large parts of South West Asia, Africa and Europe. Bones of cats with an Egyptian signature have even been found at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.

“It’s still unclear, however, whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt.” says researcher Claudio Ottoni. “Further research will have to show.”

The scientists were, also, able to determine the coat pattern based on the DNA of the old cat bones and mummies. They found that the striped cat was much more common in ancient times. This is illustrated by Egyptian murals: they always depict striped cats. The blotched pattern did not become common until the Middle Ages.

This study was led by the Centre for Archaeological Sciences at KU Leuven and by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in collaboration with the genetics lab at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris and dozens of specialists from around the world who provided cat bones retrieved from archaeological sites. ω.

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Ancient Fossil Holds New Insights Into How It All is a Fin to Limb Fish Invasion of Land: Well It's a 340 Million Years Old Tale

 



|| June 23: 2017: University of Calgary News || ά. The fossil of an early snake-like animal, called, Lethiscus stocki, has kept its evolutionary secrets for the last 340 million years. Now, an international team of researchers, led by the University of Calgary, has showed new insights into the ancient Scottish fossil, that dramatically challenge our understanding of the early evolution of tetrapods or four-limbed animals with backbones. Their findings have just been published in the international research journal Nature.

“It forces a radical rethink of what evolution was capable of among the first tetrapods.” said Project Lead Professor Jason Anderson, a Paleontologist and Professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Before this study, ancient tetrapods, the ancestors of humans and other modern-day vertebrates, were thought to have evolved very slowly from fish to animals with limbs. “We used to think that the fin-to-limb transition was a slow evolution to becoming gradually less fish-like.” he said.

“But Lethiscus shows immediate and dramatic, evolutionary experimentation. The lineage shrunk in size and lost limbs almost immediately after they first evolved. It’s like a snake on the outside but a fish on the inside.” Using micro-computer tomography CT scanners and advanced computing software, Professor Anderson and study Lead Author Mr Jason Pardo, a doctoral student supervised by Professor Anderson, got a close look at the internal anatomy of the fossilised Lethiscus.

After reconstructing CT scans, its entire skull was shown, with extraordinary results. “The anatomy didn’t fit with our expectations.” explains Mr Pardo. “Many body structures didn’t make sense in the context of amphibian or reptile anatomy.” But the anatomy did make sense when it was compared to early fish.

“We could see the entirety of the skull. We could see where the brain was, the inner ear cavities. It was all extremely fish-like.” explains Mr Pardo, outlining anatomy that’s common in fish but unknown in tetrapods except in the very first. The anatomy of the paddlefish, a modern fish with many primitive features, became a model for certain aspects of Lethiscus’ anatomy.

When they included this new anatomical information into an analysis of its relationship to other animals, Lethiscus moved its position on the 'family tree', dropping into the earliest stages of the fin-to-limb transition. “It’s a very satisfying result, having them among other animals, that lived at the same time.” says Professor Anderson.

The results match better with the sequence of evolution implied by the geologic record. “Lethiscus, also, has broad impacts on evolutionary biology and people doing molecular clock reproductions of modern animals.” says Professor Anderson. “They use fossils to calibrate the molecular clock. By removing Lethiscus from the immediate ancestry of modern tetrapods, it changes the calibration date used in those analyses.”
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Let the Bones Speak: Significant Impacts: Causes, Consequences and Treatment of Prehistoric Head Injuries at the University of Winchester: April 27

Smallpox virus found in a child’s mummy changes our view of the history of the killer disease. Not much is known about the child mummy in the crypt of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius. The child was less than five years old, and, based on radio carbon dating, died some time between 1643 and 1665. Kuva: KC
 


|| April 16: 2017: University of Winchester News  || ά. How do we know what life was like thousands of years ago? One way is to study the remains, that ancient civilisations have left behind. ​​​​​​In a Talk, 'Significant Impacts: Causes, Consequences and Treatment of Prehistoric Head Injuries' at the University of Winchester taking place on  on Thursday, April 27, Dr Martin Smith, a Biological Anthropologist at the Bournemouth University, will discuss the important clues, that prehistoric human bones can give us about life at that time.

Recent advances in the understanding of how bones fracture, together with the re-examination of human remains from the past, have showed that serious head injuries were far more common throughout prehistory than previously realised. The Talks starts at 18:00 in Room 16, Medecroft, King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester, Hampshire SO22 4NR. The talk is free to attend but booking is essential by emailing Louise.Curth at winchester.ac.uk.

Many of these injuries appear to have been inflicted in assaults with weapons, rather than accidents being the main cause. In his talk, Dr Smith considers what these head injuries might be able to tell us about human behaviour and conflict in the past, and also, the extent to which evidence for early surgery may be related to efforts to treat head wounds.

"Several recent studies have claimed that, despite the picture suggested by modern media reports, violence and conflict amongst human beings is on the decline. Such claims have been controversial, partly because they were difficult to prove.

However, there is a solution, which offers the chance to take a long view, using the most direct and unbiased source of evidence available,  the remains of past people themselves." said Dr Smith.

Regardless of how grim a view we might take from news reports of current events, the picture now being painted by our prehistoric ancestors' bones suggests that, in fact, there has never been a better time to be alive."

The talk forms part of the University's Centre for Medical History​ public seminar series, which is held once a month during the academic year and which this month coincides with the University's Research and Engagement Week, April 24-28, which showcases the research undertaken at Winchester.

For more information about the Centre for Medical History, please contact Professor Louise Hill Curth at louise.curth at winchester.ac.uk and for Research and Engagement Week. ω.

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Once Upon a Time in the Triassic Period 245 Million Years Ago Long Many Millions of Years Ahead of the Appearance of the Dinosaurs There Roamed the Earth a Carnivorous Reptile: Teleocrater Rhadinus: What Did They Look Like: They were Seven to Ten Feet in Length and Had Long Necks: Like Giraffe: Do You Want to Listen to the Story: Yes Go on: Their Tails were Long Too: What Did They Eat: Well, Told You They were Carnivorous: Go on Then: They Walked on Four Crocodile-Like Legs: Can We Go and See Them: Sure: Where: The Museum

Life reconstruction of the new species Teleocrater rhadinus, a close relative of dinosaurs, feasting on an ancient mammal relative,
Cynognathus, in the Triassic of Tanzania. Image: Natural History Museum:Mark Witton
 

 

|| April 15: 2017: University of Birmingham News  || ά. A new species of ancient reptile has been described by scientists at the University of Birmingham, filling a critical gap in the fossil record of dinosaur cousins and suggesting that some features thought to characterise dinosaurs evolved much earlier than previously thought. Described in a paper published in Nature, the carnivorous reptile, Teleocrater rhadinus, was approximately Seven-10 feet in length, had a long neck and tail and walked on four crocodile-like legs. It roamed the Earth during the Triassic Period more than 245 million years ago, pre-dating the first true dinosaurs by around ten million years.

It appears in the fossil record just after a large group of reptiles, known as archosaurs, split into a bird branch, leading to dinosaurs and eventually birds and a crocodile branch, eventually leading to today’s alligators and crocodiles. Teleocrater and its kin are the earliest known members of the bird branch of the archosaurs. The discovery overturns widely-held preconceptions by palaeontologists about the morphology of early dinosaur relatives, with many scientists, anticipating that such creatures would be smaller, bipedal and more ‘dinosaur-like’. ''Teleocrater fundamentally challenges our models of what the close relatives of dinosaurs would have looked like.'' says Professor Richard Butler from the University of Birmingham.

''Dinosaurs were amazingly successful animals. It’s natural to want to know where they came from and how they became so dominant. Teleocrater is hugely exciting because it blows holes in many of our classic ideas of dinosaur origins.'' Professor Butler says

All the specimens used to describe Teleocrater were collected from a rock unit, called, the Manda Beds, in the Ruhuhu Basin of southern Tanzania, Africa. Teleocrater fossils were first discovered in the region in 1933 by palaeontologist F. Rex Parrington and subsequently studied by Alan J. Charig, former Curator of Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds at the Natural History Museum, in the 1950s.

However, due to a lack of crucial bones, such as the ankle bones, Charig could not determine whether Teleocrater was more closely related to crocodylians or to dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he died before he was able to complete his studies. Re-examination of Charig’s specimens by Butler and colleagues, combined with the discovery of additional fossils by a US-led team in Tanzania in 2015, has finally allowed the surprising relationship between Teleocrater and its dinosaur cousins to be shown.

''It’s astonishing to think that it’s taken more than 80 years for the true scientific importance of these fossils to be understood and published.'' says Professor Butler.

Professor Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum, one of the other main authors of the work on Teleocrater, said, ‘My colleague Alan Charig would have been thrilled to see one of ‘his’ animals finally being named and occupying such an interesting position in the Tree of Life. Our discovery shows the value of maintaining and re-assessing historical collections: many new discoveries, like this one, can be made by looking through museum collections with fresh eyes.

The research involved a team of international scientists from institutions including the University of Birmingham, the Natural History Museum, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, the Field Museum, the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, the University of Washington, Uppsala University, Sweden, the Russian Academy of Sciences and Kazan Federal University, Russia.

Funding was received by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant, a National Geographic Society Young Explorers grant, and the Russian Government Program of Competitive Growth of Kazan Federal University.

To avoid confusion, the authors of the paper are keen to stress the following: Teleocrater is NOT a direct ancestor of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs did NOT ‘evolve from’ Teleocrater. Teleocrater is NOT an ancestor of crocodylians and:or birds.
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Rapid Lake Shallowing Event Terminated Preservation of Miocene Clarkia Fossil Konservat-Lagerstätte

Fossil Taxodium leaves with ultrastructures preserved in the Miocene Clarkia deposit. Image: Yang et al


 

|| April 02: 2017: Chinese Academy of Sciences News || ά.  The world-renowned Miocene, 15 Million Year Old, Clarkia deposit in Northern Idaho, has earned many 'firsts': the first, and then the oldest, plant fossil DNA sequence ever reported, the first test of advanced biotechnology innovations, such as PCR and HPLC on geological material. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines around the world have been attracted to this classic example of extraordinarily preserved fossil deposits, Fossil Lagerstätte, that offered the finest plant material for studies of ancient environment and climates. However, the mechanism for this exceptional preservation has been elusive.

By quantifying a range of microbial lipids, known as glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers or GDGTs, a co-operative research group, Professor Liu Weiguo team from Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Professor Yang Hong’s team from Bryant University, USA, provides new insights into the mechanism of the preservation conditions of the Clarkia deposits. Scientists solved one of the long standing puzzles regarding the rare preservation of biomolecules in the world-renowned fossil deposits in Idaho.

The research demonstrated that some of the novel organic geochemical proxies, commonly used in Holocene studies, are applicable to immature Neogene sediments. The research team identified a previously unrecognised, geologically instantaneous drop by over 10m in the Clarkia Lake water level under a stable climatic condition.

The abrupt shallowing event permanently destroyed lake water stratification, causing a mass mortality of fish, which is recorded in a 30 cm transitional layer and switching the depositional conditions for Clarkia Fossil Lagerstätte from a conservation deposit to a concentration deposit.

The researchers proposed that the sudden and irreversible release of lake water was likely due to a physical geologic event, that altered the configurations of the lake basin drainage, given the volcanic history of the region.

"A sudden break in the original basalt lava dam downstream of the lake or a sudden damming and diversion of the main river drainages upstream would have caused the rapid fall of the lake water level, in a fashion, that is similar to the formation of the Miocene Clarkia Lake, although, the precise location, that was responsible for the event is yet to be pinpointed." said Professor Yang Hong.

The Clarkia Fossil Lagerstätte was formed during a time interval with high atmospheric CO2 concentration, which was believed to be similar to the present CO2 concentration increase caused mainly by anthropogenic carbon release, thus, offering the best analogy for the study of environmental change under the current global climate change.

This work published in the current issue of the leading Earth Science journal Geology. This project was supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Key Funds of China, the NASA EPSCoR-RID grant, Bryant Summer Research Stipends, and the Smiley Research Endowment.
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Crete’s Late Minoan Tombs Points Way to Early European Migration


 

|| March 31: 2017: University of Huddersfield News || ά. Archaeogenetic researcher Dr Ceiridwen Edwards will compare ancient DNA samples from one of one of Europe’s earliest civilisations with contemporary Cretans. Researchers at the University of Huddersfield have visited Rethymnon in Crete, to collect samples from the late Bronze Age Necropolis of Armenoi, one of the world’s finest archaeological sites. DNA analysis of the ancient skeletal remains could provide fresh insights into the origins of European civilisation.

Dr Ceiridwen Edwards and PhD student George Foody were permitted to take bone samples and teeth from over 110 of the more than 600 skeletons discovered in the Necropolis, a rock-hewn burial site from the Late Minoan period, dating to more than 4,000 years ago. During their two-week visit, the Huddersfield researchers, part of a team, that included colleagues from Oxford University and the Hellenic Archaeological Research Foundation, also, took DNA swabs from more than 100 contemporary Cretans. They sought people, whose grandmothers were from Crete in order to analyse links to the Minoan period.

When the ancient DNA samples are compared with those of modern Cretans, there is the potential to find solutions to many issues surrounding the ancient migration of people and culture to an island where the Bronze Age Minoans and their successors the Mycenaeans laid foundations for later European civilisation and culture. “The Minoans are one of Europe’s earliest civilisations and research will affect the interpretation of a number of fields, archaeological, historical and social.” said Mr George Foody.

For example, fresh light could be thrown on the migration of the Mycenaeans to Crete and on the origins of the early script known as Linear B. Also, the DNA analysis might establish family relationships between the occupants of the tombs and it might be possible to establish the presence of a high status dynasty. “We are trying to establish family relationships within the necropolis itself, as well as see how the site compares to other Minoan sites and compare it to sites in mainland Greece.” added Mr Foody.

His PhD supervisor, Dr Edwards, is Senior Research Fellow in Archaeogenetics at the University of Huddersfield, which is home to the University’s Archaeogenetics Research Group. It has fully-equipped modern and ancient DNA lab facilities and studies the geographic distribution of human genetic variation, aiming to address questions from archaeology, anthropology and history.

The Research Group is the recipient of a £01 million award by the Leverhulme Trust, under its Doctoral Scholarships scheme, which will train 15 new evolutionary geneticists. George Foody, from Cork in Ireland, is one of the second cohort of doctoral trainees and his visit to Crete was part-funded by the Leverhulme Award. His PhD thesis will focus on the results of this research.

While the Huddersfield researchers and their colleagues were in Crete, there was considerable local media interest, including TV coverage. During her research career, Dr Edwards has studied DNA of archaeological samples from many species, including giant Irish deer, domestic horse, wild boar, domestic pig, brown bear and red deer, dating from 1,000 to 40,000 years ago. Her speciality has been the study of aurochs, the ancestors of domestic cattle, as well as ancient cattle breeds.

Under the Leverhulme doctoral programme, she is, also, supervising the University of Huddersfield PhD student Katherina Dulias, who is investigating the British Isles, with a focus on ancient DNA from Yorkshire, Dorset and Orkney.

Dr Ceiridwen Edwards received her B.Sc Hons in Genetics from the University of York in 1996 and an M.Sc. in Biomolecular Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 1998. Her Ph.D completed in 2002 at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, involved the study of genetic variation in domesticated cattle and wild aurochsen using ancient and modern DNA analyses. Between 1999 and 2008, she was solely responsible for the Bioarchaeology Laboratory at Trinity College Dublin.

She was a Researcher in Ancient DNA Studies at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford, for six years, 2009–2015, during which time she successfully applied for funding to set up an ancient DNA lab. She was appointed by the University of Huddersfield as a Senior Research Fellow in Archaeogenetics in June 2015.

The University of Huddersfield: The University of Huddersfield is an inspiring, innovative provider of higher education of international renown. It has a national reputation in enterprise and innovation and has been the recipient of the Times Higher Education’s University of the Year Award and Entrepreneurial University of the Year as well as a Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. In the 2015, the University was recognised with 5 star status by international ratings organisation QS Stars for teaching, internationalisation, employability and for facilities and access. The University of Huddersfield’s researchers are dedicated to solving the problems and answering the questions posed by industry, science and society as a whole. Our pioneering research is showcased by internationally-recognised centres of excellence, strategic industry relationships and a commitment to providing advanced facilities and equipment. The Chancellor of the University is His Royal Highness The Duke of York, KG, and the Vice-Chancellor is Professor Bob Cryan CBE.
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Can You Still See My Bones and Tissues: I Lived 125-145 Million Years Ago in China: Confuciusornis Bird

 

|| March 23: 2017: University of Manchester News || ά. Researchers from the UK and China have found that living birds have a more crouched leg posture than their ancestors, who are generally thought to have moved with straighter limbs, similar to those of humans. The study, published in Nature Communications, highlights how birds shifted towards this more crouched posture.

Experts from the University of Manchester, the Royal Veterinary College and China’s Nanjing University studied the lower leg of a Confuciusornis bird, which was fossilised in volcanic ash and lake sediments in China 125-145 million years ago. They found that the fossil had amazingly well-preserved soft tissues around the ankle joint, including cartilage and ligaments.

“These soft tissues were not just preserved as an ashen replacement of the former tissue, as sometimes happens, rather, the structure of the tissues was preserved at a microscopic level.” said Professor Baoyu Jiang, a Co-author of the study from Nanjing University.

Imaging methods showed that the detailed anatomical preservation extended to the molecular level, with some of the original chemistry of the bird’s tissues remaining. In particular, the team found evidence of fragments of the collagen proteins that made up the leg ligaments, which matched the preservation at the microscopic tissue level of detail.

These findings tally with an expanding body of evidence that, under special conditions, some biological molecules, including even amino acids or partial proteins - can survive over millions of years in the fossil record.

“The preservation in this fossil was exceptional, and allowed us to resolve subtle but important chemical and structural details within this critical early species of bird.” said Professor Roy Wogelius from the University of Manchester, one of the collaborators on the project.

“The new information we gained about the anatomy of the cartilages and tendons show that this early bird had an ankle whose form fit an intermediate function between that of early dinosaurs and modern birds.” said Professor John R. Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College, who led the study.

“Overall, this reinforced other lines of evidence that the more crouched, zigzag limb posture of birds evolved gradually from early dinosaurs to birds, with even these early birds having limbs that were built and worked differently from those of living birds but were approaching the modern condition.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation of China, Leverhulme Trust, and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. It was enabled by international collaboration between many scientists from fields as diverse as palaeontology and ornithology, biomechanics, geology and geochemistry, medical imaging and physics, and shows how a combination of sophisticated technologies with fast-paced discoveries of spectacular fossils is revealing new insights into how major changes in anatomy, physiology and behaviour took place in animals.

The Paper.

About University of Manchester: The University of Manchester, a member of the prestigious Russell Group of British universities, is the largest and most popular university in the UK. It has 20 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. The University is one of the country’s major research institutions, rated fifth in the UK in terms of ‘research power’ has had no fewer than 25 Nobel laureates either work or study there, and had an annual income of just over £01 billion in 2014:15.
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Prehistoric Ancestor of Leukaemia Virus Found in Bats

Image: University of Glasgow


|| March 11: 2017: University of Glasgow News || ά. Ancient DNA traces from the family of viruses that cause a rare type of leukaemia have been found in the genomes of bats, filling the 'last major gap' in retrovirus fossil record.‌‌‌ The research, which is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was conducted by the University of Glasgow and The Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, offers conclusive evidence that these viruses are between 20 and 45 million years old.

The findings represent the first concrete piece of evidence that the ‘Deltaretrovirus’ group has a truly ancient origin in mammals. The results, also, offer key insights to the characteristics of these viruses and will allow scientists to better understand them in the future. The Deltaretrovirus group, which includes T-lymphotrophic viruses, currently estimated to infect 15 to 20 million people worldwide, can cause a rare type of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma called ‘Adult T-Cell Leukaemia:Lymphoma:ATLL. Infection with this virus is very rare in the UK, however, and most people who carry the virus will not develop the disease.

It has long been thought that deltaretroviruses have infected humans since prehistoric times. However, because these viruses had no ‘fossil record’, their deeper origins have until now remained a mystery. Dr Robert Gifford from the MRC, University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said, “The discovery of this viral sequence fills the last major gap in the fossil record of retroviruses. It provides a means of calibrating the timeline of interaction between deltaretroviruses and their hosts.

Importantly this finding could also be used as a tool for understanding the mechanisms that mammals have evolved specifically to counter the threat from these viruses. Understanding the history of these viruses will help scientists to better understand how they affect people and animals now and in the future.”

A team, working under researcher Dr Daniel Elleder at the Czech Academy of Sciences, identified the remnants of a deltaretrovirus in the genome of  bent-winged bats. The sequence was found to be integrated in a range of distantly related Minopterid species, demonstrating that it originated 20-45 million years ago.

The Prague team, worked with Dr Gifford to characterise the sequence. The team found an unusual and as yet, unexplained, feature of the virus, which is, also, present in contemporary deltaretroviruses. The discovery that this characteristic has defined deltaretroviruses for millions of years indicates that it is somehow key to their biology and could help scientists study them in the future.

The retrovirus fossil record is comprised of DNA sequences, that are derived from ancient retroviruses and have been ‘preserved’ in animal genomes. Over recent years, studies of these sequences have revealed the unexpectedly ancient origins of various retrovirus groups and in doing so, have helped scientists understand the long-term ‘evolutionary arms-race’ between retroviruses and mammals.

The paper, ‘Discovery of an endogenous Deltaretrovirus, in the genome of long-fingered bats’ is published in Proceedings. The work was funded by the Medical Research Council:MRC and the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports under the programme. ω.

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Please, Do Not Argue and Take This Neanderspirin

Dr Laura Weyrich. Image: University of Adelaide



|| March 10: 2017: University of Adelaide, Australia News || ά. Ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neandertals, humans' nearest extinct relative, has provided remarkable new insights into their behaviour, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness.Published today in the journal Nature, an international team led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA:ACAD  and Dental School, with the University of Liverpool in the UK, showed the complexity of Neandertal behaviour, including dietary differences between Neandertal groups and knowledge of medication.

“Dental plaque traps micro-organisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth, preserving the DNA for thousands of years.,” says Lead Author Dr Laura Weyrich , ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow with ACAD. “Genetic analysis of that DNA ‘locked-up’ in plaque, represents a unique window into Neandertal lifestyle, revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behaviour.”

The international team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neandertals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed. “We found that the Neandertals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms.” says Professor Alan Cooper , Director of ACAD.

“Those from El Sidrón Cave, on the other hand, showed no evidence for meat consumption but appeared, instead, to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark, showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups.

One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neandertal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess, visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he, also, had an intestinal parasite, that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin, and we could, also, detect a natural antibiotic mould, Penicillium, not seen in the other specimens.

Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”

Neandertals, ancient and modern humans, also, shared several disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria, that cause dental caries and gum disease. The Neandertal plaque allowed reconstruction of the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced, Methanobrevibacter oralis, a commensal, that can be associated with gum disease. Remarkably, the genome sequence suggests Neandertals and humans were swapping pathogens, as recently as 180,000 years ago, long after the divergence of the two species.

The team, also noted, how rapidly the oral microbial community has altered in recent history. The composition of the oral bacterial population in Neandertals and both ancient and modern humans correlated closely with the amount of meat in the diet, with the Spanish Neandertals grouping with chimpanzees and our foraging ancestors in Africa. In contrast, the Belgian Neandertal bacteria were similar to early hunter gatherers and quite close to modern humans and early farmers.

“Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating but differences in diet and lifestyle, also, seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria, that lived in the mouths of both Neandertals and modern humans.” says Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool.

“Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn, continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the micro-organisms, that lived in us and with us.” ω.

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Ancient Reptile Mystery Solved as Two Extinct Species Found to Be the Same

Image: Bournemouth University


|| March 08: 2017: University of Manchester News || ά. Ichthyosaurs, which are similar-shaped to dolphins and sharks but are reptiles, swam the seas for millions of years during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They were the first, large extinct reptiles, brought to the attention of the scientific world. Dean Lomax, a Palaeontologist and Honorary Scientist at the University of Manchester, working with Professor Judy Massare of Brockport College, New York, have studied 1000s of ichthyosaur fossils and have delved through hundreds of years of records to solve an ancient mystery.

Many ichthyosaur fossils were found in England, during the early 19th century but it was not until 1821 that the first ichthyosaur species was described, called, Ichthyosaurus Communis. This species has become one of the most well-known of all the British fossil reptiles. A sea of Ichthyosaurus fossils can be seen on display at the Natural History Museum, London. In 1822, three other species were described, based on differences in the shape and structure of their teeth. Two of the species were later re-identified as other types of ichthyosaur, whereas one of these species, called, Ichthyosaurus Intermedius, was still considered closely related to I. Communis.

In the years, that followed, many eminent scientists, including Sir Richard Owen, the man, who coined the word dinosaur, studied ichthyosaur fossils, collected from Dorset, Somerset, Yorkshire and other locations in England. Their studies and observations of Ichthyosaurus Communis and I. Intermedius resulted in confusion with the species, with many skeletons identified on unreliable grounds.

Dean said, “The early accounts of ichthyosaurs were based on very scrappy, often isolated, remains. This resulted in a very poor understanding of the differences between species and thus, how to identify them. To complicate matters further, the original specimen of Ichthyosaurus Communis is lost and was never illustrated. Similarly, the original specimen of I. Intermedius is also lost but an illustration does exist. This has caused a big headache for palaeontologists trying to understand the differences between the species”.

In the mid-1970s, Palaeontologist, Dr Chris McGowan was the first to suggest that Ichthyosaurus Communis and I. Intermedius may represent the same species. He could not find reliable evidence to separate the two species. Subsequent studies argued for and against the separation of the species.

In this new study, the duo have reviewed all of the research for and against the separation of the two species. This is the most extensive scientific study ever published, comparing the two. The duo confirm that the species are the same and that features of Ichthyosaurus Intermedius can be found in other ichthyosaur species, including I. Communis.

In recent years, the duo have described three new species and have provided a reassessment of historical species. Their work has provided a far superior understanding of the species than has ever been produced.

Dean Lomax is a multiple award-winning palaeontologist, science communicator and author. He has travelled around the world and worked on many fascinating projects from excavating dinosaurs in the American West to discovering new fossil hunting locations and describing new species of extinct marine reptiles in the UK. An Honorary Scientist at the University of Manchester, Dean is passionate about communicating palaeontology and actively engages with traditional and social media. He has written two books, numerous scientific papers and many popular articles and regularly appears on television, most recently as series advisor and recurring on-screen expert presenter for ITV’s Dinosaur Britain. Dean is also the patron of the UK Amateur Fossil Hunters organisation.

The University of Manchester, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, is the UK’s largest single-site university with 38,600 students and is consistently ranked among the world’s elite for graduate employability. The University is also one of the country’s major research institutions, rated fifth in the UK in terms of ‘research power’. World class research is carried out across a diverse range of fields including cancer, advanced materials, addressing global inequalities, energy and industrial biotechnology. No fewer than 25 Nobel laureates have either worked or studied here. It is the only UK university to have social responsibility among its core strategic objectives, with staff and students alike dedicated to making a positive difference in communities around the world. Manchester is ranked 35th in the world in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016 and 5th in the UK. The University had an annual income of almost £01 billion in 2015:16. ω.

Image of Dean Lomax: Dean Lomax

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The World’s Oldest Fossils of Micro-Organisms Unearthed From a Time When Mars Had Liquid Water on Its Surface

Haematite tubes from the NSB hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth.
The remains are at least 3,770 million years old. Image: Matthew Dodd:University of Leeds
 

|| March 02: 2017: University of Leeds News || ά. Remains of micro-organisms at least 3,770 million years old have been discovered, providing direct evidence of one of the oldest life forms on Earth. An international research team has found tiny filaments and tubes formed by bacteria encased in quartz layers, which contain some of the oldest sedimentary rocks known on Earth. Their study, published yesterday in Nature, describes the discovery in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt:NSB, in Quebec, Canada. Study Co-author Dr Crispin Little, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, played an important role in determining that the filaments and tubes were made by biological organisms rather than through non-biological processes, such as temperature and pressure changes in the rock.

Dr Little said, "These fossils are made of haematite, a form of iron oxide or ‘rust’ and they have the same characteristic branching of iron-oxidising bacteria found near other hydrothermal vents today. The tubes and filaments were found inside structures, called, concretions, which are believed to be products biological decay. When we compared these specimens with those found in younger rocks from Norway, the Great Lakes area of North America and Western Australia, we found them to be mineralogically identical.

The fact that we found these fossils in the NSB, which is believed to have formed part of a habitat for Earth’s first life forms between 3,770 and 4,300 million years ago, suggests these are the remains of one of Earth’s oldest life forms." Prior to this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia and dated at 3,460 million years old but some scientists think they might be of non-biological origins.

The newly-discovered haematite structures were discovered alongside graphite and minerals such as apatite and carbonate, which are found in biological matter including bones and teeth and are frequently associated with fossils.

The researchers also found that the fossils co-occur with spheroidal formations, which usually contain fossils in younger rocks, suggesting that the NSB haematite most likely formed when bacteria that oxidised iron for energy were fossilised in the rock.

First Author Matthew Dodd, from UCL Earth Sciences and the London Centre for Nanotechnology, said, "Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed. This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million year old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by micro-organisms.

These discoveries demonstrate life developed on Earth at a time when Mars and Earth had liquid water at their surfaces, posing exciting questions for extra-terrestrial life. Therefore, we expect to find evidence for past life on Mars 4,000 million years ago, or if not, Earth may have been a special exception."
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The Paper: ‘Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates’, by M.S. Dodd, D. Papineau, T. Grenne, J.F. Slack, M. Rittner, F. Pirajno, J. O’Neil, C.T.S. Little, is published online by Nature on Wednesday 1st March 2017 DOI: 10.1038/nature21377.

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South African Caves and Modern Humans: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Exhibition Showcases Groundbreaking Discoveries: The Exhibition Runs Throughout 2017

The view of the ocean from Pinnacle Point’s cave PP13B. At the time Middle Stone Age people lived
there, the ocean was several kilometres away.
 

|| February 25: 2017: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University: South Africa News || ά. Over the past decade, archaeologists have discovered critical information about our species in the caves along South Africa’s southern Cape coastline. Inter-disciplinary teams of researchers from Arizona State University in the United States, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and many other institutions have been collecting archaeological, botanical, geological, climate-related and other data in and around the Pinnacle Point caves near Mossel Bay, where it is believed that a small group of humans survived an Ice Age between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago and could very likely be the ancestors of everyone alive today.

They have also uncovered an array of evidence that suggests modern humans first developed intellectually along this space of coast: artefacts found show that they used fire to engineer weapons out of stone, used red ochre for purposes of decoration and perhaps even read the lunar cycles to know when the tides would be low enough to forage for shellfish. This advanced intellectual development may have played a key role in the survival of our species. These groundbreaking findings are now being showcased in a unique exhibition at NMMU, titled 'Point of Human Origin'. It was formally launched on February 13 at a closed event at the university’s Exhibition Centre on NMMU’s Second Avenue Campus and will be open to the public from February 14 until the end of the year.

The exhibition is based on the research undertaken through the South African Coast Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthrolopology project:SACP4 project which is led by palaeoanthropologist Professor Curtis Marean, a world leader in his field, from the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation, Templeton Foundation, and Hyde Family Foundations, United States. Marean is an Honorary Professor at NMMU.

NMMU Botany Professor Richard Cowling, an internationally-acclaimed researcher, is a Co-principal Investigator in the project. In 2015, Cowling established the Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at NMMU, which is linked to the SACP4 project.

What is also groundbreaking about the SACP4 project and likely to set a precedent for other major archaeological explorations, is that the research group is not just relying on its own limited understanding to tell the story about how things were. Instead, they are using advanced technology to recreate the palaeoscape, the ancient landscape, based on the archaeological artefacts they find, along with the flora and fauna in the area.

They then create a model of the behaviour of Stone Age humans by 'releasing' them as 'agents' within this computer-simulated landscape, checking how they may have gone about foraging for the available food resources.

“We are using the agent-based model to develop hypotheses about how people would have reacted to resources, how they would have obtained them, the success rates of their hunting, how they would have moved around, how many people would have lived and foraged in a 10km radius and the optimal group sizes for hunting.” said Cowling. “This is a very different approach and it is a world leader in that sense.”

A number of articles about SACP4 have been published in the world’s leading science publications, among them Science, Nature and Scientific American. The exhibition includes a recreation of part of Pinnacle Point’s cave PP13B, the handiwork of Bayworld exhibit builder Marvin Carstens, who has over 20 years’ experience in exhibit building, including being contracted by National Geographic and various museums and institutions, to design and create both static and interactive exhibitions.

For this exhibition, Carstens has also recreated a number of artefacts found in or near the caves, including the skull and horns of a prehistoric buffalo. Dr Erich C. Fisher, an Assistant Research Scientist at the Institute of Human Origins at ASU and an expert in archaeoinformatics, computational archaeology, provided many of the photographs on display as well as several videos. He also co-created the exhibition’s touch screen virtual tour of one of Pinnacle Point’s excavation sites.

Apart from photographs, information panels and video footage about the caves, visitors can access additional information via their mobile phones, at the exhibition’s 'augmented reality' points. Marean, Cowling, NMMU Dean of Arts Professor Rose Boswell as well as Dr Peter Nilssen, who co-discovered the caves, will participate in a panel discussion at the launch, in which they will debate how and why the human ability to co-operate evolved.

“There were so many people who all contributed passionately to this exhibition.” said exhibition curator Christelle Grobler, of NMMU’s Archives and Exhibition Centre.  The exhibition, housed at NMMU’s Exhibition and Archives Centre on the university’s Second Avenue Campus, is open to the public from 09:00-16:00 on Mondays to Fridays. The exhibition will run until the end of the year. ω.

On the image: researchers Professor Curtis Marean, a Palaeoanthropologist from Arizona State University and Honorary Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, together with Professor Richard Cowling and Dr Alastair Potts, Director and National Deputy-Director of NMMU’s Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience, provided extensive research content for NMMU’s. Point of Human Origins'  exhibition. Images: NMMU