'Most recent common ancestor' of all living humans surprisingly recent

Public release date: 29-Sep-2004

Contact: Janet Rettig Emanuel



Yale University


New Haven, Conn. -- In this week's issue of Nature, a Yale mathematician presents models showing that the most recent person who was a direct ancestor of all humans currently alive may have lived just a few thousand years ago.

"While we may not all be 'brothers,' the models suggest we are all hundredth cousins or so," said Joseph T. Chang, professor in the Department of Statistics at Yale University and senior author on the paper.


Chang established the basis of this research in a previous publication with an intentionally simplified model that ignored such complexities as geography and migration. Those precise mathematical results showed that in a world obeying the simplified assumptions, the most recent common ancestor would have lived less than 1,000 years ago. He also introduced the "identical ancestors point," the most recent time -- less than 2,000 years ago in the simplified model -- when each person was an ancestor to all or ancestor to none of the people alive today.


The current paper presents more realistic mathematical and computer models. It incorporates factors such as socially driven mating, physical barriers of geography and migration, and recorded historical events. Although such complexities make pure mathematical analysis difficult, it was possible to integrate them into an elaborate computer simulation model. The computer repeatedly simulated history under varying assumptions, tracking the lives, movements, and reproduction of all people who lived within the last 20,000 years.


These more realistic models estimate that the most recent common ancestor of mankind lived as recently as about 3,000 years ago, and the identical ancestors point was as recent as several thousand years ago. The paper suggests, "No matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu."


The results can also work backwards, into the future. According to Chang, "Within two thousand years, it is likely that everyone on earth will be descended from most of us."



Other authors are Douglas L.T. Rhode of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Steve Olson of Bethesda, MD. The National Institutes of Health supported this research.


Citation: Nature 431: (September 30, 2004). For solicited commentary on this paper, see News & Views and supplementary material in the same issue.



New crack at riddle of Knossos


The Culture Ministry has given the go-ahead for a seismological study that might help provide a scientific answer to one of the most tantalizing questions of Greek archaeology: What caused the collapse of the flourishing Minoan culture on Crete some 3,500 years ago?


Late on Tuesday, the ministry’s Central Archaeological Council agreed to let Greek and international earthquake experts study the ruins of Knossos, the largest of the Bronze Age palatial complexes built by the Minoans.


Scientists will also dig trenches across existing faults in the area of Archanes, a few kilometers to the south, in a bid to record the area’s seismic history. They will not be allowed to excavate in Knossos itself, where no faults are known to exist, but will thoroughly map the area.


The team will be headed by Athanassios Ganas, a remote sensing and geology researcher at the Geodynamic Institute of the National Observatory of Athens.


The destruction of Knossos, around 1450 BC, has been tentatively attributed to an earthquake possibly linked with a vast volcano eruption on the island of Santorini.



Arab scholar 'cracked Rosetta code' 800 years before the West

Robin McKie, science editor

Sunday October 3, 2004

The Observer


It is famed as a critical moment in code-breaking history. Using a piece of basalt carved with runes and words, scholars broke the secret of hieroglyphs, the written 'language' of the ancient Egyptians.


A baffling, opaque language had been made comprehensible, and the secrets of one of the world's greatest civilisations revealed - thanks to the Rosetta Stone and the analytic prowess of 18th and 19th century European scholars.


But now the supremacy of Western thinking has been challenged by a London researcher who claims that hieroglyphs had been decoded hundreds of years earlier - by an Arabic alchemist, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah.


'It has taken years of painstaking research to prove this,' said Dr Okasha El Daly, at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. 'I was convinced that Western scholars were not the first, and I have found evidence that shows Arabian scholars broke the code a thousand years ago.'


The Rosetta Stone was found embedded in a fort wall by French engineers during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. The stone - now displayed in the British Museum - contains a text in Greek, Coptic and hieroglyph, but still required another 23 years' work to be decoded, a task achieved by Jean-François Champollion, a student of ancient languages.


Champollion's breakthrough came in 1822 when he realised hieroglyphs should be read, not as symbols of ideas or objects, but as a phonetic script. The sound associated with each symbol was crucial to deciphering it. It was a 'eureka' moment. 'Je tiens mons affaire (I've done it),' Champollion shouted, before falling into a dead faint for five days. He awoke to continue his work, but died 10 years later of exhaustion and is buried in Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery. Pieces of papyrus are still placed on his grave in recognition of his great work.


But now it is claimed that Champollion had been beaten by Arabian scholars who, eight centuries earlier, had twigged that sounds were crucial to their decoding. 'For two and half centuries, the study of ancient Egypt has been dominated by a Euro-centric view that virtually ignored Arabic scholarship,' said El Daly. 'I felt that was quite unjustified.'


An expert in both ancient Egypt and ancient Arabic scripts, El Daly spent seven years chasing down Arabic manuscripts in private collections around the world in a bid to find evidence that Arab scholars had unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyph. He eventually found it in the work of the ninth-century alchemist, Ibn Wahshiyah. 'I compared his studies with those of modern scholars and realised that he understood completely what hieroglyphs were saying.'


El Daly stressed that Muslim scholars had not simply been handed the secrets of hieroglyphs after Egypt was taken over by Islam.


'The secret of the hieroglyph was lost and then rediscovered by Arab scholars, who used diligent work to break their code, eight centuries before Champollion,' he said. 'These were people who possessed great astronomical and mathematical knowledge. Decoding hieroglyphs was just the kind of thing they would have been good at.'



'European archaeological sensation' unearthed

October 01 2004 at 03:09PM 



An ornament for horses dating back to the 1st century A.D. has been found during excavations of a Roman Empire-era military camp near the southern Croatian city of Drnis, local media reports said on Friday.


Croatian Minister for Culture Bozo Biskupic said the ornament - a small, crescent-shaped object fashioned from bronze and designed to be worn on the animal's head - was a "European archaeological sensation" because it was the biggest such item found and very well-preserved.


A similar item was excavated near Magdeburg, Germany, but it was smaller and less well-preserved, it was said.


Excavations of the camp are still underway and archaeologists believe more precious items could be found. - Sapa-dpa


Excavations of the camp are still underway



6,000-year-old intact tomb found in France

Source: ADN Kronos (23 September 2004)



A French-English team of archaologists have discovered a 6,000-year-old tomb in France. Human bones and ceramic pottery were found inside the tomb. The discovery may help better understanding of Neolithic social structures, according to the French Research Council bulletin.


      The tomb was found at the Prissé la Charriere site, where excavations have been carried out since 1992. The newly-discovered tomb is the first one to have been unearthed completely intact.


      Six human skeletons (two men, a woman and three children) were found inside the tomb, placed one on top of the other. The researchers also identified two ceramic pots (one of them could date back to 4,300 BCE), a spear and some jewellery.






Published on Friday, October 1st 2004


An exciting archaeological find made in Hexham's 14th Century Moot Hall has provided positive proof of the existence of an earlier building on the same site.


But the important discovery will be lost forever unless a benefactor can be found to keep it on public view.


As the concrete floor of the basement of the building was being removed, during refurbishment, the line of a mediaeval wall and a fine door threshold were uncovered.


Tantalisingly, they had to be covered up again by sand and flagstones, as there is no allocated funding to display them.


Archaeologist Peter Ryder who has made a detailed survey of the Moot Hall said: "This impressive door threshold and paved floor strongly suggest that the Archbishop's Hall of Pleas recorded in 1246 stood on the same site as the present Moot Hall, which was built around 1400.


“The discovery is an important contribution to our knowledge of mediaeval Hexham."


The Moot Hall which we see today is the place from which the Archbishop of York's bailiff held sway over Hexhamshire in the Middle Ages, strongly fortified against Scottish Attack.


It was later a meeting place for borough courts and county magistrates.


Richard Boaden, chairman of the Historic Hexham Trust on whose behalf the work is being carried out, said: "We would like to encase the remains of this very early building, the Hall of Pleas, behind glass panels so that they can be on permanent display to the public.


“However, we require additional funding of £4,000 in order to make this possible.


“All the £1.4million funding raised for the restoration of the Old Gaol and Moot Hall is already allocated to the main project."


"We are hopeful that a local sponsor will come forward, and that these special features will be revealed to the world permanently.”


Contractors Historic Property Restoration Ltd have covered them up in such a way that they can be exposed again at a later date if funds become available.


Funding was raised by the Historic Hexham Trust to redevelop the Old Gaol and Moot Hall, which is being project managed by Tynedale Council.The money includes a £968,000 Heritage Lottery Fund Grant, together with further funding from a wide range of other sources


The restoration of the Old Gaol and Moot Hall started in May, and will continue over the coming months, before completion in the spring.


Any individuals or companies interested in sponsoring the display and lighting of the Moot Hall door threshold should contact either Richard Boaden on (01434) 321048, or project manager John Garrad on (01434) 652363.




Hi-tech bid to find ancient treasures

28 September 2004 07:06


There is something missing from the ornate church in one of Norfolk's most picture-perfect villages.


Twelve stone apostles and one stone Jesus Christ were stripped from it during Henry VIII's Reformation, so folklore goes, before being thrown into the nearby harbour in a bout of religious fervour.


Now the residents of Cley, in North Norfolk, want them back. But instead of relying on divine inspiration, the very traditional village is turning towards rather hi-tech methods to sniff them out.


Yesterday, as Channel 4 filmed scenes for a film on one side of St Margaret's Church, renowned sculptor Colin Miller outlined how villagers plan to rescue the statues from the deep.


It will be a two-pronged attack, with a Norfolk-wide appeal for any archivists who have information on their whereabouts to come forward, and a top-rated geophysicist making use of his hi-tech equipment.


"There have been rumours all over the village since I moved here 17 years ago that the statues were hurled into the harbour, either during the Reformation, or during Oliver Cromwell's regime; rumours that are passed on generation to generation," he said.


"It is thought that the statues ended up in Cley Harbour, which has long since silted over and is now a field next to the church.


"This is something I have wanted to investigate for more than six months, and now time has come to do so. It would be lovely to see these statues back on their plinths, where they belong."


Mr Miller, who lives and works in Cley Road in the village is most famous in Norfolk for a 3m bronze mother and child, which stands outside Norwich Union's headquarters on Surrey Street, Norwich.


He sits on the parochial church council, which has enlisted the services of St Andrews University geophysicist Dr Richard Bates, an expert in marine archaeology and a friend of one of the committee.


He has promised to bring down his equipment and join in the search.


"He is very happy to come down to help with a geophysical search," said Mr Miller.


"And if something shows up on his survey we will be delighted.


"But before he comes down we'll explore all the possibilities through historical documents, and we


appeal for anyone who may know something of relevance to please come forward.


"After that the next thing is to ask the University of East Anglia to dig a trench where something has shown up, if anything does, in order for us to rescue it.


But that's a little way off yet."


Looking for lost ancestors

By Tim Ecott

BBC, Turks and Caicos Islands 


In 1841, the slave ship Trouvadore was lost on a coral reef in the Turks and Caicos Islands, 500 miles south-east of Miami. The slaves, who were bound for Cuba, survived and settled in the British colony, founding a village with an African name. Tim Ecott joined in an expedition which may allow modern-day islanders to trace their heritage back to West Africa.


Face down in the clear waters off East Caicos Island, I am being towed behind a speedboat holding on to a plastic board tied to the boat with a long rope.

Wearing a face-mask, snorkel and flippers, my task is to spot anything unusual on the seabed below me.


If I do notice something that doesn't look natural, I am to let go of the rope and wait for the boat to circle and return to mark the spot.


Modern-day marine archaeologists use the latest GPS satellite technology to map and survey the seabed.


They have motorised underwater scooters and metal detectors and sonar to scour the sand. But when the time comes to actually look for a sunken ship underwater, the process becomes rather more low-tech.


When searching for a wooden ship more than 150 years old on a notoriously hazardous reef, there is a very real chance that you will find absolutely nothing at all.


After just three days of searching, we found the remains of a wooden vessel sandwiched between two large coral heads.


The wood poked up like bones in the sand, and no-one could quite believe what we had found. But it lay in shallow water close to the treacherous reef and near to a spot marked ominously on the charts as "Breezy Point".


Like most old shipwrecks, the remains bear little resemblance to the sunken galleons of Hollywood films or in children's comic books. Anything made of wood generally disintegrates, and all that is left are fragments of the original timbers.


Remarkably, there were several large pieces of wood, some piles of ship's ballast and a mound of objects that were clearly made of metal.

It is tempting to think that the metal could be piles of leg irons or shackles that had been used to restrain the African slaves on board the Trouvadore.


According to Dr Donald Keith, one of the American marine archaeologists on the expedition, the timbers are of exactly the right age to have come from the Trouvadore.


"This is not just a shipwreck," he explained. "It represents a crucial defining moment in the history of these islands." But further archaeological excavations will be needed to verify if what we found was the actual ship.


While the academics remained cautiously optimistic, news of the findings was greeted with great enthusiasm in the islands.


In schools and offices, on the streets and in the local media, everyone was talking about the Trouvadore.


According to Nigel Sadler, the director of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, the Trouvadore is as significant for the islanders as the landings of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock are for people in the United States. It provides them with a tangible link to their origins.


In 1841, the population of Turks and Caicos was little more than 2000 people.


When the Trouvadore ran aground on uninhabited East Caicos, she was carrying 193 African men, women and children who had been loaded aboard in Sao Tome in West Africa many weeks earlier.


Slavery was already illegal in British territory, and the Spanish crew knew they would be jailed if they were caught in possession of their human cargo.

And, before they could escape, a patrol of British soldiers from the capital on Grand Turk arrested them.


Eventually, the authorities deported the Spaniards to Cuba, but the destitute African slaves had little choice but to stay.


The arrival of almost 200 Africans represented a significant influx of new blood to the islands.


In return for food, clothing and learning English, they were allowed to work on the salt ponds of Grand Turk.


Here, in open reservoirs, sea water was evaporated to produce high-quality salt for the European market.


Although more labourers were welcome, the owners of the salt ponds may not have been pleased at the new arrivals, since local law said that all British subjects - which the Africans had become - on Grand Turk had an equal share in the salt sales.


It seems more than a coincidence that just a year after the shipwreck, a group of Africans were moved to neighbouring Middle Caicos.


Here they founded Bambarra, the only village in the islands with any kind of African name.


 It's a strange thing not knowing where your ancestors came from

Bambarra resident 


Bambarra is the name of a large ethnic group in modern-day Mali, and also a widely spoken language there.


Today's Turks and Caicos islanders call themselves simply "Belongers".


The islands are geographically part of the Bahamian archipelago, but with only 20,000 inhabitants they remain a self-governing British territory.


Like most people descended from slaves, the "Belongers" know little of their true history. "It's a strange thing not knowing where your ancestors came from," one old lady explained to me in Bambarra.


"If this ship is found, we will know that some of our people were first-generation Africans, and they were free when they landed here. That will make us all proud."


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 October, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/10/02 11:00:23 GMT




NSF PR 04-131 - September 29, 2004

Media contact: Elizabeth Malone, NSF  (703) 292-7732 emalone@nsf.gov

Program contact: Mark Weiss, NSF  (703) 292-7321 mweiss@nsf.gov

Out of Africa: Scientists Find Earliest Evidence Yet of Human Presence in Northeast Asia


Arlington, Va.—Early humans lived in northern China about 1.66 million years ago, according to research reported in the journal Nature this week. The finding suggests humans—characterized by their making and use of stone tools—inhabited upper Asia almost 340,000 years before previous estimates placed them there, surviving in a pretty hostile environment.


The research team, including Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, reports the results of excavating four layers of sediments at Majuangou in north China. All the layers contained indisputable stone tools apparently made by early humans, known to researchers as “hominins.”


The top layer, located about 145-148 feet deep in the Earth’s soil, contains the oldest known record of hominin stone tools, dating back to 1.32 million years ago. But the fourth and deepest layer, in which Potts and his team also found stone tools, is about 340,000 years older than that.


According to Potts, “Because the oldest layers show humans made tools and extracted bone marrow like early people in Africa, the Majuangou evidence suggests strong connections with African hominins and their rapid spread across Asia.”


All four sediment layers the researchers examined contained evidence that early humans used stone tools to strike other stones, most likely to fashion chopping and scraping tools. In the three deepest layers, the stone tools are made of rocks unlike those in the surrounding sediment, indicating the Asia humans transported the rocks from another place. It also appears these humans used their tools on bones of deer- and horse-sized mammals, perhaps to butcher them for food.


According to Mark Weiss, physical anthropology program director at the National Science Foundation, which funded the discovery, “This research is helping us gain a picture of the adaptability of humans as they evolved and moved out of the tropics and into other environments.”


The research team used rock-magnetic dating methods to establish the age of the artifacts collected at the Majuangou site and compared them to the soil history of a nearby site that contained a more-complete record of sediment deposits through time. Factoring in other known geological events, such as the natural movement of the Earth’s magnetic poles over time, the scientists pieced together a detailed age sequence for the archeological levels.


These findings suggest that humans reached northeast Asia earlier than scientists had previously thought. Furthermore, the Majuangou site evidence is only slightly older than evidence found at the same latitude in western Eurasia and about the same age as the earliest known human fossils found in southeast Asia. This implies that African human populations came to Asia and spread rapidly to many areas.




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