SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
IS A FOSSIL creature that grabbed headlines three years ago really the earliest known ancestor of modern humans? Or does it belong elsewhere on the evolutionary tree?
The answer has been hotly debated, but now two studies argue that it does indeed belong on the human branch.
In 2002, scientists announced finding jaw fragments, some isolated teeth and a skull of a creature nicknamed "Toumai" in Chad. At some six million to seven million years old, the fossils came from about the time of a major split in the evolutionary tree, with one branch leading eventually to humans and the other branch leading to chimpanzees.
The researchers argued that the creature, which they dubbed Sahelanthropus tchadensis, belongs on the human branch and so is the oldest known hominid. Some others disagreed. In any case, the skull provided a puzzling combination of human and chimpanzee traits, and raised what one expert called "a wheelbarrow full of questions" about evolution at that time.
Many scientists now think S tchadensis probably was a hominid, and more evidence appears in the current issue of the journal Nature. It comes from Michel Brunet, of the University of Poitiers in France, who led the team that made the original discovery, and colleagues. Other experts said the new work strengthened the case for hominid status, but did not clinch it.
"This isn’t a smoking gun," said David Begun, of the University of Toronto.
A big question is whether S tchadensis walked upright, because that is a key characteristic of hominids. Mr Brunet, in an e-mail, said given the available evidence it would be a "great surprise" if it didn’t walk upright. However, he agreed with other scientists that to be sure, they would have to find and analyse bones that carry signatures of upright walking, such as a knee, hip or foot.
In Nature, Mr Brunet and his colleagues reported discovering two new jaw fragments and the crown of a tooth in the same geographical area as the earlier findings. Analysis showed similarities to hominid fossils and differences from ape traits, they said.
They also presented a computerised reconstruction of the skull, because the fossil had been distorted in the ground. The reconstruction confirms that S tchadensis shared several features with later hominids, the researchers wrote. In addition, the position of the hole where the spinal cord entered was like what is seen in humans but not apes, which suggested upright walking, they wrote.
Rick Potts, director of the human origins programme at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, said the position of that hole did not necessarily prove that S tchadensis walked upright. Still, Mr Potts said he thought the creature was probably a hominid.
Mr Begun agreed, saying the chances were "pretty good" that the creature walked upright, but adding: "I’ll be convinced when they find a knee joint."
Bernard Wood, of George Washington University, said he found too little evidence to declare S tchadensis a hominid with certainty, although it might well be true. If it was not, the creature might have belonged to a branch of the evolutionary tree that has no living representatives, he said.
The fresh findings were "very cool", said John Fleagle, a professor of anatomical science at Stony Brook University in New York. For scientists who have been questioning whether S tchadensis really was an early human or belonged on the branch of the family tree that led to modern apes instead, the new evidence "clearly follows the hominids and pulls away from the chimps and gorillas", Prof Fleagle said.
Mr Brunet, who reported his initial findings in July 2002, found the fossil remains in Chad’s Djurab Desert, about 1,500 miles west of Kenya’s Rift Valley, where so many fossils of early humans have been found.
Though dry today, the Djurab region was home to a large lake and rich biological diversity several million years ago, as evidenced by the plentiful fossil remains of ancient hippopotamuses, elephants, antelopes, crocodiles, and rodents. Dating methods place those fossils as being about a million years older than the six-million-year-old remains of an early human unearthed in 2001 in Ethiopia, which were then the oldest such bones ever found.
Mr Brunet’s aide in this study, Christoph Zollikofer, a paleontologist at the Universität Zürich-Irchel in Switzerland, said the original skull was remarkably well-preserved, although extensively fractured. He carried out the virtual reconstruction by analysing the bones and using them to build up an image of what they would have looked like.
"The relatively vertical face and other cranial and dental features support the conclusion that S tchadensis is a hominid," the team concluded.
Ancient hominids from the Caucasus may have fed and cared for their elderly, a new fossil find has indicated.
The 1.77 million-year-old specimen, which is described in Nature magazine, was completely toothless and well over 40; a grand old age at the time.
This may suggest that the creature lived in a complex society which was capable of showing compassion.
These hominids - like humans - may also have valued the old for their years of acquired knowledge, researchers think.
"It is pretty amazing that [hominid] society fostered this kind of thing nearly 1.8 million years ago," said co-author Reid Ferring, of the University of North Texas, US.
"Almost any way we cut it, this is very unusual and it is a totally new insight into the social relations of this early hominid."
The senior specimen is one of a collection of hominid finds from the famous site of Dmanisi, Georgia.
These people were remarkably human in a lot of ways
Co-author Reid Ferring
The little "people" - who stood at around four feet tall - have caused a lively debate amongst palaeoanthropologists.
So far it has been tricky to work out exactly what they are. Many experts believe it was Homo erectus who first ventured out of Africa and spread around Asia.
But Dmanisi hominids were not typical of the tall-standing, big brained Homo erectus - instead they were short, small-brained, thin browed and probably dragged their knuckles along the ground like apes.
This has led some to believe they may have been Homo habilis. But ape-like Homo habilis was not thought to have left Africa - so the confusion continues.
Although the Dmanisi hominids had no fire and only used very basic chopping and cutting tools, the new discovery does hint at a new level of sophistication.
"My personal opinion is that these people were remarkably human in a lot of ways," said Professor Ferring. "These were tiny people living in a very harsh environment.
"I think we can only compare them to modern humans in their social skills and behaviours, which allowed them to survive against all these odds."
The ageing individual - who lost his teeth some years before death, palaeoanthropologists estimate - would not have been able to chew the raw meat or fibrous plants which made up the creatures' normal diet.
For most animals - other than humans, and their now extinct cousin the Neanderthal - this would have been a death sentence.
But, Professor Ferring believes, this "old man" must have been kept alive by being fed the choice soft morsels like brain, marrow and succulent berries.
Elderly members of the group may have been valuable for cultural reasons
"Cooking was not in the equation and it is inconceivable that he would have been able to eat raw meat," he said. "So he must have consumed much more than his share of these very choice soft foods.
"He was either being cared for or being given very preferential treatment."
Whether his group was just being kind, or whether there was an ulterior motive, can only be guessed at. It is possible, according to Professor Ferring, that the toothless man was an extremely useful member of his society.
"It is unclear whether he could contribute to the livelihood of the whole group in terms of procuring food and defending the group and caring for young," Professor Ferring told the BBC News website.
Elderly members of the group may also have been valuable for cultural reasons, just like in modern societies.
Professor Ferring said: "This person might have had a function similar to old people in hunter gatherer societies - his experience and knowledge may have given him high status."
Krysia Diver in Stuttgart
Monday April 4, 2005
Stone-age figurines depicting what could be the oldest pornographic scene in the world have been unearthed in Germany.
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the 7,200-year-old remnants of a man having intercourse with a woman.
The extraordinary find, at an archaeological dig in Saxony, shatters the belief that sex was a taboo subject in that era.
Until now, the oldest representations of sexual scenes were frescos from about 2,000 years ago.
Harald Stäuble of the Archaeological Institute of Saxony, based in Dresden, discovered the 8cm lower half of a man, which has been named Adonis von Zschernitz.
"A unique find," reported Spiegel magazine. "This is the oldest male clay figurine ever discovered in the world."
But the most amazing find came at the dig in Leipzig one month later, when Dr Stäuble found what could be the matching female figurine.
Dr Stäuble, who is due to publish a paper on his findings this year, said: "After finding Adonis, we got the team to sieve every speck of soil for a whole month. We were well rewarded because we then found fragments of a female figurine of the same size."
He added: "Adonis is bent forward and the female figure is bent forward even more.
"There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that they were doing a ritual dance, but the other possibility is that the man and woman were copulating and that he was standing behind her. The copulation option is far more likely, and would make this the oldest representation ever of a pornographic scene."
Until now, there have been discoveries of clay models of women with large breasts and bottoms, which have always been interpreted as connected with fertility. But Adonis was the first figurine that clearly depicted male sexual organs.
"This is such an interesting discovery," said Dr Sträuble, "as these figurines are not stylistic, but realistic. They open up a gateway for historians and anthropologists to discuss whether sex really was a taboo subject in the stone age."
Tehran Times Culture Desk
TEHRAN -- Anthropological studies indicate that females constituted about sixty percent of the population of the 5000-year-old Burnt City, director of a team of anthropologists working on the ancient Iranian city said on Monday.
“We have excavated 208 graves in the cemetery of the Burnt City within seven phases carried out over the past years. 113 of the graves belonged to the female,” Farzad Foruzanfar added.
The Burnt City is located 57 kilometers from the city of Zabol in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan Province and covers an area of 150 hectares. It was one of the world’s largest cities at the dawn of the urban era. It was built circa 3200 B.C. and destroyed some time around 2100 B.C. The city had four stages of civilization and was burnt down three times. Since it was not rebuilt after the last fire, it has been named the Burnt City.
In the Burnt City, archaeologists had already discovered some seals indicating that women had a key role in the social affairs of their city. They say a kind of feminism was common in this city-state.
“Many different reasons have been given for this fact, but the main reason is that men had the duty to travel abroad for business. They had trade and cultural relations with civilizations of Jiroft in southern Iran, Mesopotamia in Iraq, and Namazgah in Turkmenistan. Many of the men were killed in accidents during their journeys and buried out of their homeland,” Foruzanfar argued.
“On the other hand, our studies determine that most of deaths in children and infants were male. This is an ambiguous question, which need more comprehensive studies,” he said.
Although many studies have been carried out on the Burnt City, so far experts have not been able to determine the ethnicity and language of the city’s inhabitants.
FAR from their marauding, pillaging stereotypes, Viking warriors were homemakers who couldn’t wait to ship their wives over to settle the lands they had conquered, new research reveals.
Scientists studying Scots of Viking ancestry in Shetland and Orkney have discovered that there must have been far more Viking women in the Dark Ages settlements than originally thought.
However, it appears that Viking wives refused to go deeper into Scotland, with little evidence they made it as far as the Western Isles.
Researchers from Oxford University took DNA samples from 500 residents of Shetland using a toothbrush to extract some of their saliva. The scientists were able to identify genetic traits in the Scots which they share with modern day Scandinavian populations.
By examining two elements of DNA, one that is passed from father to son and one passed down the female lineages, they could work out the gender balance of the original Viking populations. They could also compare it to results of other studies conducted in the Western Isles.
Dr Sara Goodacre, who conducted the research with colleagues from Oxford University, said: "We looked at the population of the Shetland and Orkney Islands and compared it to the source population of Scandinavia to show the migration patterns of men and women. Contrary perhaps to people’s image of Vikings, we did find evidence of a lot of females outside Scandinavia. Viking family groups were much more evident in such places as Orkney and Shetland.
"The genetic balance becomes much more male orientated the further away from Scandinavia you move to such places as the Western Isles. Colonial strongholds would have been more secure the closer to home they were."
The evidence has been disputed by archaeologists, but some experts say it could explain why the Norse language did not spread further west during the Viking occupation.
Dr Mary MacLeod, an archeologist who specialises on the Western Isles, said there was evidence from burial sites in the area of Viking female settlers.
She said: "There has been work on the Viking heritage of these islands which found a burial ground of people from Oslo fjords which included women as well as men. There has been more research conducted on the Viking legacy in Shetland and such places so more studies are required here."
Ian Tait, the assistant curator at Shetland Museum, added: "As 97 per cent of place names here are Scandinavian in origin they must have settled. Whether they killed or assimilated peacefully with the inhabitants remains a source of debate."
Alex Woolf, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, said: "The way that the Norse language did not spread south of Mull and Ardnamurchan also backs up this DNA theory of Viking migration. In northern Scotland, Norse took hold, suggesting that male Vikings moved over with their families."
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Friday April 8, 2005, The Guardian
Nobody passing a scruffy, half-derelict industrial estate on the outskirts of Shrewsbury would imagine that one of the battered, red-brick structures is the ancestor of today's skyscrapers - the first iron-framed building in the world.
Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage, which has just bought the complex after helplessly watching it rot for years, is passionate about Ditherington Flax Mill, and describes it as "one of the most important buildings in England - or anywhere".
It was built in 1796 by John Marshall, a linen magnate, and his partners, the Benyon Brothers, who had good reason to dread fire in mill buildings: they had just suffered £10,000 worth of damage at a Leeds mill, of which only half was covered by insurance.
Charles Bage came up with a solution: instead of timber posts, joists and floorboards, he used iron columns supporting iron beams, carrying shallow brick arches, then a thick layer of sand, then tiles forming the surface of the next floor. It cost at least 25% more to build than a conventional mill, but the design was swiftly copied by mill builders elsewhere.
Getting buildings into the sky needed the further inspiration of a self-supporting outer metal frame and the invention of lifts to take people up to the higher floors - but it all started at Ditherington.
"Funnily enough, the one place it wasn't copied was the United States," said Sir Neil. "They had access to fantastic trees, and believed that if you just used thick enough timbers they would just char and burn out before you got any serious damage. It worked, too. You can still see mills there [with] scorched patches under the beams."
He first went on a pilgrimage to Ditherington in 1962, when its importance had only just been realised and it was still in use as a malting, and in good condition. It then went through a succession of owners and projected new uses, sitting empty and increasingly forlorn, despite its Grade I listing. Two years ago, it was declared one of England's most important buildings at risk - a situation Sir Neil described as "little short of scandalous".
English Heritage has now bought the site with a grant from Advantage West Midlands, a local development agency, and will be seeking a developer to take on the whole site which includes several other listed structures, but may also have room for housing. Access to at least part of the mill, to allow the public to see what all the fuss was about, will be part of the development.
Posted on Sat, Apr. 09, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - There was a house in New Orleans where women wore rouge by the ton. When it burned to ruins in 1822, it was called the Rising Sun.
Until this year, most people speculating about the origins of the old song "House of the Rising Sun" didn't even mention the Rising Sun Hotel.
But archaeologists digging in the French Quarter say that whether or not the Rising Sun was the debauched establishment described in the song, it was definitely debauched.
The key clues were at least seven rouge pots - with openings wide enough to allow an easy two-fingered scoop - dating from the 1820s.
"Respectable women were using rouge very surreptitiously, if at all," said Jill-Karen Yakubiak, president of Earth Search Inc., contracted to help with the archaeology.
But that's not the most exciting find. Shannon Dawdy, an associate archaeology professor at the University of Chicago, said the same dig has uncovered evidence that prehistoric Indians lived, or at least camped, in what is now the French Quarter.
Those bits of fired clay are about the size of a dollar coin. To the untrained eye, some look less like pottery than like fine, thin gray asphalt shot through with tiny white flecks. Others are thinner, even elegant, with rows of fine incised lines and angles.
It's long been known that Indians lived along Bayou St. John, the waterway which then linked the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. "But there has never been physical evidence in the French Quarter before," said Priscilla Lawrence, executive director of the Historic New Orleans Collection, which commissioned the dig on property it bought to expand its archives.
At other French Quarter sites, Indian pottery was mixed with colonial ware. Here, it's all by itself, with about 4 inches of "sterile" dirt, without any artifacts at all, between it and the first colonial artifacts.
These shards were found more than a yard below ground, in soil so mucky that it could be removed only a bit at a time, said Ryan Gray of Earth Search.
Higher up, in sooty soil, the researchers found enough broken bottles to fill box after box, and those rouge pots which call mental echoes of minor-key warnings about the sins of New Orleans and the house "they call the Rising Sun."
The song made the U.S. top 20 when Eric Burdon and the Animals toured in 1964, but its tune may go back to 1600s England. Like any folk song, it has many forms. But most lament the singer's ruin and the debauchery of gambling, drink, or both.
Some accounts of the U.S. version say it's from the Civil War era; a handwritten version sent to the Library of Congress in 1925 says the writer learned it "from a Southerner ... of the type that generally call themselves `one o'th' boys.'"
The wood-frame building which ended as the Rising Sun Hotel stood well before the Civil War, and apparently was at least moderately decorous for much of its existence. Property records show that Mme. Margaret Clark Chabaud bought it in 1796.
"It appears that for about 10 years, she operated it as a pension or inn - probably of a fairly respectable type," Dawdy said. Then, she said, the widow Chabaud and her daughter began renting it out to a series of English and American men, who used it as a hotel and coffeehouse, then a hotel and tavern.
When it was renamed the Hotel Rising Sun in January 1821 - only 13 months before it burned - the new owners took out an ad saying it would continue its character of "giving the best entertainment" for gentlemen, with attentive servants, good liquors and excellent food.
The name was a common one, Dawdy notes. "There were many Rising Suns in all English-speaking cities," she said. A ship with that name docked in New Orleans in 1808, and the city had a coffee house by that name in 1838, she said.
There's also no clear evidence for the belief that "Rising Sun" was a euphemism for a bordello. "The song has come to mean whatever listeners want it to mean," she said.
Early 19th century police reports, which might have shown whether the Rising Sun needed more attention than neighboring establishments, haven't survived.
"Another question we're looking at," Gray said, "is what exactly did a brothel or disorderly house mean at that time? It could very well just be a bar. ... Because the history of prostitution in that time is so comparatively undocumented, we have a number of research issues to express and explore with this."
Almost everything archaeologists would now consider artifacts from the Rising Sun Hotel was probably carted off as trash immediately after the fire and when the site was cleared for a new hotel six years later.
Alecia P. Long, a history professor at Georgia State University and author of a book about New Orleans titled "The Great Southern Babylon," said this work is interesting. But she hasn't seen convincing evidence that that the Rising Sun in New Orleans is also the one in the song.
For that matter, the song never says that the House of the Rising Sun is a whorehouse, said Pamela Arceneaux, a Historic New Orleans Collection reference librarian who has amassed "Rising Sun" information for years.
Some researchers have suggested it might be a prison or gambling house, she said. "It could be any number of other places where a person might meet their downfall, might regret an ill-spent life."
ON THE NET
Historic New Orleans Collection: http://www.hnoc.org/