Neandertals Babies Didn't Do the Twist

By Ann Gibbons

ScienceNOW Daily News

20 April 2009


Giving birth is more difficult--and dangerous--for modern humans than for any other primate. Not only do human mothers have to push out babies with unusually big heads, but infants also have to rotate to fit their heads through the narrow birth canal. Now, a new virtual reconstruction of the pelvis of a Neandertal woman suggests that Neandertal mothers also had a tough time giving birth to their big-headed infants--but the babies, at least, didn't have to rotate to get out.


Once upon a time, a major shift took place in the evolution of childbirth. Fossil female pelvises of a 1.2-million-year-old Homo erectus, a 3.1-million-year-old australopithecine, and a 500,000-year-old archaic modern human all contain oval birth canals that are widest transversely--from side to side--when viewed from the top. But modern women's birth canals, though also oval, change shape halfway down the birth canal so that they are widest from front to back at the bottom, near the pelvic outlet. This means that the baby has to rotate its head to fit as it moves through the birth canal. If a baby fails to rotate, another part of its body, such as its shoulders, hands, or feet, may obstruct the birth canal, which is painful and dangerous for the mother and infant.


Like many other researchers, paleoanthropologist Timothy Weaver of the University of California, Davis, thought the shift to this more complicated rotational birth predated the split between modern humans and Neandertals. That's because Neandertals, which lived until 30,000 years ago in Europe, also had big heads and, presumably, used the same evolutionary strategy to deliver their big-brained babies. But it has been difficult to test this idea. The only known female pelvis of a Neandertal, discovered in 1929 near Tabun, Israel, is fragmentary. Two earlier reconstructions of this partial pelvis suggested that Neandertals also had rotational birth, but the fossil is missing its sacrum and, hence, the birth canal.


Now, new tools have given Weaver a way to work around that problem. Collaborating with Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Weaver got permission to make computed tomography-scans of the pelvis, which is kept at the British Museum in London. The two researchers were able to refit the pieces of the pubis, ischium, and ilium together in a three-dimensional, virtual reconstruction. They also used landmarks on the pelvic fragments to compare the pelvis to those of modern humans--and to predict the size and shape of the missing pieces, such as the sacrum and dimensions of the pelvic outlet.


The reconstruction suggests that the pelvis of the Tabun Neandertal was widest from side to side all the way down the birth canal, more like that of Homo erectus or australopithecines than modern humans. And that means that although Neandertal mothers still had difficult births because of their babies' large heads, their babies did not rotate in the womb, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


So why would our ancestors evolve such a complicated birth in the first place? Other research shows that they had to balance pressures to adapt to the hot climate in equatorial Africa--and tall, slender-hipped humans thermoregulate in the heat better than short, stocky humans (whose physiology retains heat better in the frigid latitudes). By evolving a birth canal that is wide front to back, our ancestors were able to accommodate both narrower pelvises and the delivery of big-brained babies, suggests Weaver.


But it will take more than a virtual pelvis to convince other researchers. "I don't know if I believe the reconstruction," says paleoanthropologist Karen Rosenberg of the University of Delaware, Newark. She and others have questions about the accuracy of the reconstruction of the missing parts of the pelvis, which are critical for proving there was no rotation. "Given the poor preservation of the Tabun pelvis, ... this is a bold claim," says anthropologist Marcia Ponce de León of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. She does agree, however, with one conclusion: "Birth was equally difficult in Neandertals as in modern humans," with or without a twist.



Ancestors may have used bone tools to make smoothies

18:07 22 April 2009 by Ewen Callaway


Ancient humans might have used animal bones to grind fruit smoothies as well as dig up termites, a new analysis of mysterious 1 to 2 million-year-old tools suggests.


Researchers discovered the bones belonging to large mammals at several sites in South Africa, and their intended use has been the subject of equal parts contention and speculation.


Early 20th-century anthropologists who first uncovered the bones contended they were genuine tools and evidence for a bone-based tool culture in hominin species that predated early humans such as Paranthropus.


Those interpretations fell out of fashion after researchers discovered that scavenging animals and natural wear can create marks resembling those on purported tools.


However, in the last 20 years, researchers have employed electron and light microscopy as well as computer image analysis to compare marks on the bones to tools created experimentally. Unrooting vegetables called tubers looked like a good match, and a recent paper proposed termite digging.


"Certainly they were used in a stabbing motion while excavating the soil," says Francesco d'Errico, an anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who along with palaeontologist Lucinda Backwell of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, used an optical scanner to quantify dozens of characteristics of marks left on the bones.


Anything more is difficult to determine with much certainty, d'Errico says. A quantitative analysis of the optical scans found that some bones resemble tools used for stabbing the ground to dig out tubers, yet some did not.


The striations on tools from one site, called Drimolen, also look like marks on bone tools used by South African villagers to scrape the vitamin C-rich pulp out of a fruit called marula.


The marks on some of the bones also proved a good match to newer tools used to burrow termites.


"You can say this is the closet match, but you cannot eliminate the possibility that there is another task that you haven't experimented," d'Errico says.


Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University who proposed tuber digging as a potential use for the bones in the early 1990s, says the new approach brings statistical gravitas to the problem.


Chemical analysis of Paranthropus fossils points to a high protein diet, and Shipman now contends that the hominins probably used the bones to dig up termites. "Per hundred grams, you get more protein out of termites than you do out of rump steak," she says.


The bone tools could also have been something of a Swiss army knife, she says. "Once you get the concept of bone tools you might use them for several things. How many of us have taken a shoe and used it for a hammer?"


Journal reference: Journal of Archaeological Science (DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.04.005)



Indus script encodes language, reveals new study of ancient symbols

Public release date: 23-Apr-2009

Contact: Hannah Hickey hickeyh@u.washington.edu


University of Washington


The Rosetta Stone allowed 19th century scholars to translate symbols left by an ancient civilization and thus decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.


But the symbols found on many other ancient artifacts remain a mystery, including those of a people that inhabited the Indus valley on the present-day border between Pakistan and India. Some experts question whether the symbols represent a language at all, or are merely pictograms that bear no relation to the language spoken by their creators.


A University of Washington computer scientist has led a statistical study of the Indus script, comparing the pattern of symbols to various linguistic scripts and nonlinguistic systems, including DNA and a computer programming language. The results, published online Thursday by the journal Science, found the Indus script's pattern is closer to that of spoken words, supporting the hypothesis that it codes for an as-yet-unknown language.


"We applied techniques of computer science, specifically machine learning, to an ancient problem," said Rajesh Rao, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and lead author of the study. "At this point we can say that the Indus script seems to have statistical regularities that are in line with natural languages."


Co-authors are Nisha Yadav and Mayank Vahia at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India; Hrishikesh Joglekar, a software engineer from Mumbai; R. Adhikari at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, India; and Iravatham Mahadevan at the Indus Research Center in Chennai. The research was supported by the Packard Foundation and the Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust.


The Indus people were contemporaries of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, inhabiting the Indus river valley in present-day eastern Pakistan and northwestern India from about 2600 to 1900 B.C. This was an advanced, urbanized civilization that left written symbols on tiny stamp seals, amulets, ceramic objects and small tablets.


"The Indus script has been known for almost 130 years," said Rao, an Indian native with a longtime personal interest in the subject. "Despite more than 100 attempts, it has not yet been deciphered. The underlying assumption has always been that the script encodes language."


In 2004 a provocative paper titled The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis claimed that the short inscriptions have no linguistic content and are merely brief pictograms depicting religious or political symbols. That paper's lead author offered a $10,000 reward to anybody who could produce an Indus artifact with more than 50 symbols.


Taking a scientific approach, the U.S.-Indian team of computer scientists and mathematicians looked at the statistical patterns in sequences of Indus symbols. They calculated the amount of randomness allowed in choosing the next symbol in a sequence. Some nonlinguistic systems display a random pattern, while others, such as pictures that represent deities, follow a strict order that reflects some underlying hierarchy. Spoken languages tend to fall between the two extremes, incorporating some order as well as some flexibility.


The new study compared a well-known compilation of Indus texts with linguistic and nonlinguistic samples. The researchers performed calculations on present-day texts of English; texts of the Sumerian language spoken in Mesopotamia during the time of the Indus civilization; texts in Old Tamil, a Dravidian language originating in southern India that some scholars have hypothesized is related to the Indus script; and ancient Sanskrit, one of the earliest members of the Indo-European language family. In each case the authors calculated the conditional entropy, or randomness, of the symbols' order.


They then repeated the calculations for samples of symbols that are not spoken languages: one in which the placement of symbols was completely random; another in which the placement of symbols followed a strict hierarchy; DNA sequences from the human genome; bacterial protein sequences; and an artificially created linguistic system, the computer programming language Fortran.


Results showed that the Indus inscriptions fell in the middle of the spoken languages and differed from any of the nonlinguistic systems. If the Indus symbols are a spoken language, then deciphering them would open a window onto a civilization that lived more than 4,000 years ago. The researchers hope to continue their international collaboration, using a mathematical approach to delve further into the Indus script.


"We would like to make as much headway as possible and ideally, yes, we'd like to crack the code," Rao said. "For now we want to analyze the structure and syntax of the script and infer its grammatical rules. Someday we could leverage this information to get to a decipherment, if, for example, an Indus equivalent of the Rosetta Stone is unearthed in the future."


For more information, contact Rao at 206-685-9141 or rao@cs.washington.edu.

More information about the Indus civilization and language is at http://www.harappa.com



3,000-year-old arms storehouse uncovered in Sinai

Last update - 16:20 23/04/2009                            

By Ran Shapira and the Associated Press


Archaeologists exploring an old military road in the Sinai have unearthed four new temples amidst the 3,000-year-old remains of an ancient fortified city that could have been used as a stronghold during the Egyptian occupation of Mesopotamia and Canaan, and to impress foreign delegations visiting Egypt, antiquities authorities announced Tuesday.


Archaeological findings have determined that a series of fortresses were built in the area and were used as weapons storehouses for soldiers traveling northwards. One source, a wall painting found in the Karnak temple in Luxor, depicts 11 strongholds built in northern Sinai


Among the discoveries was the largest mud brick temple found in the Sinai with an area of 70 by 80 meters (77 by 87 yards) and fortified with mud walls 3 meters (10 feet) thick, said Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.


The find was made in Qantara, 2 1/2 miles (4 kilometers) east of the Suez Canal. These temples mark the latest discovery by archaeologists digging up the remains of the city on the military road known as "Way of Horus." Horus is a falcon-headed god, who represented the greatest cosmic powers for ancient Egyptians.


The path once connected Egypt to Palestine and is close to present-day Rafah, which borders the Palestinian territory of Gaza.


Archaeologist Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, chief of the excavation team, said the large brick temple could potentially rewrite the historical and military significance of the Sinai for the ancient Egyptians.


The temple contains four hallways, three stone purification bowls and colorful inscriptions commemorating Ramses I and II. The grandeur and sheer size of the temple could have been used to impress armies and visiting foreign delegations as they arrived in Egypt, authorities said.


The dig has been part of a joint project with the Culture Ministry that started in 1986 to find fortresses along the military road. Hawass said early studies suggested the fortified city had been Egypt's military headquarters from the New Kingdom (1569-1081 B.C.) until the Ptolemaic era, a period lasting about 1500 years.


In a previous find, archaeologists there reported finding the first ever New Kingdom temple to be found in northern Sinai. Studies indicated the temple was built on top of an 18th Dynasty fort (1569-1315 B.C.).


Last year, a collection of reliefs belonging to King Ramses II and King Seti I (1314-1304 B.C.) were also unearthed along with rows of warehouses used by the ancient Egyptian army during the New Kingdom era to store wheat and weapons.



Cache of mummies unearthed at Egypt's Lahun pyramid


By Cynthia Johnston Cynthia Johnston – Sun Apr 26, 11:19 am ET

LAHUN, Egypt (Reuters)


Archaeologists have unearthed a cache of pharaonic-era mummies in brightly painted wooden coffins near Egypt's little-known Lahun pyramid, the site head said on Sunday.


The mummies were the first to be found in the sand-covered desert rock surrounding the mud-brick Lahun pyramid, believed to be built by the 12th dynasty pharaoh Senusret II, who ruled 4,000 years ago. The team expects to announce more finds soon.


The site was first excavated more than a century ago.


"The tombs were cut on the rock itself, and they vary in architectural designs," said archaeologist Abdul Rahman Al-Ayedi, head of excavations at the site. "Most of the mummies we discovered were with these bright and beautiful colors."


At the site, bare skulls from some of the mummies sit on a hillside while workers gently brush away sand from coffins below the earth that bear images of their occupants, some painted in striking hues of green, red and white.


Ayedi said the dozens of tombs dotting the site near Fayoum, 60 km (35 miles) south of Cairo, could give insight into the development of Egyptian funerary architecture and traditions from the Middle Pharaonic Kingdom all the way to the Roman era.


Some of the tombs were built on top of graves from earlier eras, and Ayedi said archaeologists had found dozens of mummies, including around 30 that were well-preserved. Some were inscribed with prayers intended to help the deceased.


Ayedi said Egypt would soon announce an additional significant find near the Lahun pyramid, once covered by slabs of white limestone, showing the site could date back to an earlier era thousands of years before previously thought.


"The prevailing idea was that this site has been established by Senusret II, the fourth king of the 12th dynasty. But in light of our discovery, I think we are going to change this theory, and soon we will announce another discovery," he told reporters.


He said teams had made a discovery dating to before the 12th dynasty, but gave no details on what it was and said an official announcement could be made within days.


Ayedi said he had wanted to excavate at Lahun, Egypt's southernmost pyramid, because he was not satisfied with the result of the first excavation there in the 19th century, saying it did not match the significance of the site.


"The size of the site is huge. So I thought that we could unearth a lot of elements in this site. At the beginning of the excavation, I thought that we may rewrite the history of the area, and I was right," he said.


Archaeologists found the main entrance to the pyramid last year in a 16-meter well, and later found storage jars and other objects inside before finding the mummies in the surrounding desert stone in recent months, Ayedi said.


Egypt, whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has made several significant discoveries this year including a rare intact mummy found in February in a sealed sarcophagus near the world's oldest standing step pyramid at Saqqara, near Cairo.


Archaeologists hope to start digging soon in search of the tomb of Cleopatra and possibly her lover Mark Antony on Egypt's north coast. Cleopatra, facing possible captivity in Rome, is alleged to have killed herself by the sting of an asp in 30 BC.


(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Angus MacSwan)



Great Wall of China longer than believed as 180 missing miles found

Using infrared range finders and GPS devices, official mapping project discovers sections concealed by hills, trenches and rivers

Associated Press in Beijing

guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 April 2009 15.29 BST


The Great Wall of China is even greater than once thought, after a two-year government mapping study uncovered new sections totalling about 180 miles, according to a report posted on the website of the country's national mapping agency.


Using infrared range finders and GPS devices, experts discovered portions of the wall concealed by hills, trenches and rivers that stretch from Hu Shan mountain in northern Liaoning province to Jiayu Pass in western Gansu province, the official China Daily reported on Monday.


The newly mapped parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to protect China against northern invaders and were submerged over time by sandstorms that moved across the arid region, the study said.


The additional parts mean the Great Wall – construction of which began more than 2,000 years ago to prevent incursions into China by the Mongols and others – spans about 3,900 miles through the northern part of the country.


The latest mapping project, a joint venture by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, will continue for another year in order to map sections of the wall built during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-9 AD), the China Daily reported.


Recent studies by Chinese archaeologists have shown that sandstorms are reducing sections of the wall in Gansu to "mounds of dirt" and that they may disappear entirely in 20 years. These studies mainly blame the erosion on destructive farming methods used in the 1950s that turned large areas of northern China into desert. In addition, portions of the wall in Gansu were made of packed earth, which is less resilient than the brick and stone used elsewhere in much of the wall's construction.


China in recent years has begun restoring parts of the wall as well as trying to curb commercial development on or next to the ancient structure.


The wall's modern sections around the Chinese capital date from the Ming dynasty, including those restored since the Chinese Communist party took power in 1949, and several areas – including the most popular, Badaling, just north of Beijing – draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.


Tourist encroachment also has been a problem in recent years, with state media saying that near Badaling almost every brick on a popular section of the wall has been carved with people's names or other graffiti.



DNA test to prove Bronze Age link


Men are needed for DNA tests to prove their distant ancestors moved from the Mediterranean to north west Wales as migrant workers 4,000 years ago.


Participants will be asked for a cheek swab sample for genetic analysis.


Researchers at the University of Sheffield hope to link the migration of men in the Bronze Age to the discovery of copper.


The metal was found at both Parys Mountain on Anglesey, and on the Great Orme at Llandudno, Conwy.


The researchers are building on previous work carried out in the area which found a much higher-than-average presence of a DNA marker that is commonly found in people from the Balkans and Spain.


Men for the current project need to be born in the area, and come from the same area as their paternal grandfather (their father's father).


"The more men we get the better as the previous work involved only a handful of people. Really we need figures into the hundreds," said Dr Bob Johnston, from the research team.


The DNA sample will involve wiping the inside of the mouth with a sterile cotton bud and sending this back to the laboratory.


All the samples will be anonymous.


"If it does turn out that there is a distinctive genetic signature we can find where they came from, and if it is genuinely from the Mediterranean we can find when they got here," said Dr Johnston.


"After finding when the workers came here the researchers will then be able to discover what skills they bought with them," he added.


Despite the evidence still being traceable it is unlikely that the population in north west Wales will look Mediterranean however.


"It was probably only a small number, and it was 4,000 years ago, so the actual physical looks is not there any more," said Dr Johnson.


Parys Mountain is one of only three sites in Wales which have evidence of copper mining during the Bronze and Roman Ages.



Viking Legacy On English: What Language Tells Us About Immigration And Integration

They’re a firm part of our language and even speak to us of our national culture — but some words aren’t quite as English as we think.

ScienceDaily (Apr. 22, 2009)


Terms such as ‘law’, ‘ugly’, ‘want’ and ‘take’ are all loanwords from Old Norse, brought to these shores by the Vikings, whose attacks on England started in AD 793. In the centuries following it wasn’t just warfare and trade that the invaders gave England. Their settlement and subsequent assimilation into the country’s culture brought along the introduction of something much more permanent than the silk, spices and furs that weighed down their longboats — words.


Dr Sara Pons-Sanz in the School of English is examining these Scandinavian loanwords as part of a British Academy-funded research project — from terms that moved from Old Norse to Old English and disappeared without trace, to the words that still trip off our tongues on a daily basis.


By examining these words in context, tracking when and where they appear in surviving texts from the Old English period, Dr Pons-Sanz can research the socio-linguistic relationship between the invading and invaded cultures.


The loanwords which appear in English — such as ‘husband’ — suggest that the invaders quickly integrated with their new culture. The English language soon adopted day-to-day terms, suggesting that the cultures lived side-by-side and were soon on intimate terms. This is in marked contrast to French loanwords. Though there are many more of these terms present in the standard English language — around 1,000 Scandinavian to more than 10,000 French — they tend to refer to high culture, law, government and hunting. French continued to be the language of the Royal Court for centuries after the invasion in 1066. In contrast, Old Norse had probably completely died out in England by the 12th century, indicating total cultural assimilation by the Scandinavian invaders.


Another clear indicator of this is the type of loanwords seen in English. The majority of loanwords tend to nouns, words and adjectives, open-ended categories which are easily adapted into a language. But one of the most commonly-seen loanwords in English today is ‘they’ — a pronoun with its origins in Old Norse. Pronouns are a closed category, far more difficult to adapt into a new language, which again indicates a closeness between the two languages and cultures not present in previous or subsequent invading forces.


Dr Pons-Sanz has ‘cleaned up’ the list of loanwords thought to have come to English from Old Norse by painstakingly tracking the origins of each word. Her original texts include legal codes, homilies, charters, literary texts and inscriptions. By comparing the texts chronologically and dialectally, the introduction and integration of words can be tracked. For example, the word ‘fellow’ — which came from an Old Norse word originally meaning ‘business partner’— is first attested in East Anglia.


Dr Pons-Sanz said: “Language is constantly evolving; loanwords are being assimilated into English — and other languages — all the time. By examining the types of words that are adopted, we can gain insight into the relationships between different cultures.”

Adapted from materials provided by University of Nottingham.