DNA identifies new ancient human dubbed 'X-woman'

By Paul Rincon

Science reporter, BBC News


Scientists have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human through analysis of DNA from a finger bone unearthed in a Siberian cave.

The extinct "hominin" (human-like creature) lived in Central Asia between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago.

An international team has sequenced genetic material from the fossil showing that it is distinct from that of Neanderthals and modern humans.

Details of the find, dubbed "X-woman", have been published in Nature journal.

Ornaments were found in the same ground layer as the finger bone, including a bracelet.

Professor Chris Stringer, human origins researcher at London's Natural History Museum, called the discovery "a very exciting development".


 Whoever carried this mitochondrial genome out of Africa about a million years ago is some new creature that has not been on our radar screens so far 

Svante Paabo

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


"This new DNA work provides an entirely new way of looking at the still poorly-understood evolution of humans in central and eastern Asia."

The discovery raises the intriguing possibility that three forms of human - Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and the species represented by X-woman - could have met each other and interacted in southern Siberia.

The tiny fragment of bone from a fifth finger was uncovered by archaeologists working at Denisova Cave in Siberia's Altai Mountains in 2008.

An international team of researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA from the bone and compared the genetic sequence with those from modern humans and Neanderthals.

Origin unknown

Mitochondrial DNA comes from the cell's powerhouses and is passed down the maternal line only.

The analysis carried out by Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues revealed the human from Denisova last shared a common ancestor with modern humans and Neanderthals about one million years ago.

This is known as the divergence date; essentially, when this human's ancestors split away from the line that eventually led to Neanderthals and ourselves.

The Neanderthal and modern human evolutionary lines diverged much later, around 500,000 years ago. This shows that the individual from Denisova is the representative of a previously unknown human lineage that derives from a hitherto unrecognised migration out of Africa.


"Whoever carried this mitochondrial genome out of Africa about a million years ago is some new creature that has not been on our radar screens so far," said co-author Professor Svante Paabo, also from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The divergence date of one million years is too young for the Denisova hominin to have been a descendent of Homo erectus, which moved out of Africa into Asia some two million years ago.

And it is too old to be a descendent of Homo heidelbergensis, another ancient human thought to have originated around 650,000 years ago. However, for now, the researchers have steered away from describing the specimen as a new species.

Dr Krause said the ground layer in which the Denisova hominin fragment was found contain tools which are similar to those made by modern humans in Europe.

Slice of time

"We have ornaments, there is a bracelet, so there are several elements in the layers that are usually associated with modern human archaeology," he told BBC News.

"That's quite interesting, but of course, it is hard to prove that the bone is strongly associated to this archaeology, because it is possible that bones could have moved within the site.

"We are also not sure how exactly the excavation was done. It could have come from a deeper layer, so that's hard to say."


The "Hobbit" persisted until 12,000 years ago on Flores

Professor Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, said the find presented a number of questions, such as to what extent culture could continue to be used as a proxy for different prehistoric human groups.

Referring to his research on Neanderthals and modern humans in southern Iberia, he told BBC News: "The assumption is that when one group - the moderns - arrives the other group disappears. Here you have a very clear example of co-existence for long periods.

"Where is the rule that says you can have only one species in an area? Especially if they're at low density... the implications are big."

The research contributes to a more complex picture that has been emerging of humankind during the Late Pleistocene, the period when modern humans left Africa and started to colonise the rest of the world.

Professor Finlayson has previously argued: "A time slice at a point in the late Pleistocene would reveal a range of human populations spread across parts of Africa, Eurasia and Oceania.

"Some would have been genetically linked to each other, behaving as sub-species, while the more extreme populations may well have behaved as good species with minimal or no interbreeding."

It was long known that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in Europe, apparently for more than 10,000 years.

But in 2004, researchers discovered that a dwarf species of human, dubbed "The Hobbit", was living on the Indonesian island of Flores until 12,000 years ago - long after modern humans had colonised the region.

Difficult classification

Neanderthals appear to have been living at Okladnikov Cave in the Altai Mountains some 40,000 years ago. And a team led by Professor Anatoli Derevianko, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, has also found evidence of a modern human presence in the region at around the same time.

Professor Stringer commented: "Another intriguing question is whether there might have been overlap and interaction between not only Neanderthals and early moderns in Asia, but also, now, between either of those lineages and this newly-recognised one.

"The distinctiveness of the mitochondrial DNA patterns so far suggests that there was little or no interbreeding, but more extensive data will be needed from other parts of the genome, or from the fossils, for definitive conclusions to be reached."


The archaeology of Denisova presents a puzzle of sorts

Experts have been wondering whether X-woman might have links with known fossil humans from Asia, which have controversial classifications.

"Certain enigmatic Asian fossils dated between 250,000-650,000 years ago such as Narmada (in India), and Yunxian, Dali and Jinniushan (in China) have been considered as possible Asian derivatives of Homo heidelbergensis, so they are also potential candidates for this mystery non-erectus lineage," said Prof Stringer.

"However, there are other and younger fragmentary fossils such as the Denisova ones themselves, and partial skulls from Salkhit in Mongolia and Maba in China, which have been difficult to classify, and perhaps they do signal a greater complexity than we have appreciated up to now."

Other experts agreed that while the Siberian specimen may be a new species, this has yet to be shown.

"We really don't know," Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told the Associated Press news agency.

Dr Tattersall, who wasn't involved in the new research, added: "The human family tree has got a lot of branchings. It's entirely plausible there are a lot of branches out there we don't know about."




23,000 year old stone wall found at entrance to cave in Greece

Mon Mar 22, 12:48 pm ET



The oldest stone wall in Greece, which has stood at the entrance of a cave in Thessaly for the last 23,000 years, has been discovered by palaeontologists, the ministry of culture said Monday.

The age of the find, determined by an optical dating test, singles it out as "probably one of the oldest in the world", according to a ministry press release.

"The dating matches the coldest period of the most recent ice age, indicating that the cavern's paleolithic inhabitants built it to protect themselves from the cold", said the ministry.

The wall blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the cave, located close to Kalambaka, itself near the popular tourist area and monastic centre of Meteora in central Greece. Greek palaeontologists have been excavating the site for the last 25 years.



Archaeologists: 188 houses from Neolithic era unearthed in Middle Euphrates Region                 

By Ruaa AL-Jazaeri   

Friday, 26 March 2010 18:00


Tal Bokrous is a sample of the first agricultural village built according to the architectural style of the Stone Age in Deir Ezzor, (432 kms northeast of Damascus, Syria).


The site is the only archaeological discovery at the Middle Euphrates Region which belongs to the booming phase of the Neolithic era.


The Neolithic era (New Stone Age), was a period in the development of human technology, begining about 9500 BC in the Middle East that is traditionally considered the last part of the Stone Age.


The adjacent houses built along the two sides of the village yard show the greatness of the architectural style at that period.


Archaeologist Yarub al-Abdullah said "The number of the unearthed houses has amounted to 188, each house includes three rooms built of dry brick while the floors and walls were painted with mud or plaster."


Some walls were decorated with colorful paintings representing ducks and goose, he added.


The remains of charred plants were found at plaster-made louvers as a farming community used to live there depending on agriculture and keeping livestock.


Studies showed that barley used to grow naturally at the site, after that the local inhabitants developed agriculture and started to sow grain and lentils.


Handicrafts mainly depended on the available raw materials such as alabaster and obsidian stones.


Many stone-made needles, drills, sculptures and utensils were unearthed at the site.


Tow sculptures of naked women and a man's head made of baked mud were the most important discoveries at the site.


The archeological findings fill an important gap in our understanding of the Middle Euphrates Region which mainly depended on agriculture.



4,200 year-old grave excavation reveals eternal embrace

13:54, March 26, 2010     


Loving couples always wish to die on the same day, and a couple who lived 4,200 years ago in the Sanxing Village of Mimou Township, Qingbaijiang District, fulfilled such a wish.


The Chengdu Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology recently discovered an ancient grave during an excavation on a large prehistoric cultural site, in which a couple was found laying and hugging each other. The bones of the "oldest" couple are clearly visible. Excavation work also discovered numerous exquisite stone vessels, porcelains, housing ruins as well as graves dating form China's ancient Shang Dynasty.


The Sanxingcun site, located in the sixth group of the Sanxing Village in Mimou Township, Qingbaijiang section of the Chengdu-Mianyang-Leshan inter-city railway line, covers an area of about 28,000 sqm, through which the Chengdu-Mianyang Highway runs.


In May 2004, the Chengdu Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology excavated part of the site's western side. Archaeologists believe that the Sanxingcun site was once a large ancient settlement in the Chengdu Plain in China's ancient Shang and Zhou dynasties. There have always been settlers on this land over the past 4,000-plus years.


Plenty of porcelains and stone vessels were excavated from the Sanxingcun site, such as flat-bottomed pots and jars with high handles that people in the period of the Sanxingdui culture used to hold items and food. An ivory pottery was found that exactly resembles a bird's head and is engraved with curved lines similar to the lines on the bronze vessels dug from the Sanxingdui Relics. Polished tools–stone axes, chisels, spears and knives still looked very fine and sharp.


By People's Daily Online



Ruins of 2,000-year-old city found in China

24 Mar 2010, 1307 hrs IST, IANS


BEIJING: Archaeologists in China have found the ruins of a 2,000-year-old city dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty, a report said Wednesday.


The site, located near Fujiacun village in Fengcheng city in Jiangxi province, covers about 18,000 square metres and is surrounded by a moat, Xinhua news agency reported.


About 30 metres of the wall surrounding the ancient city was still standing on its west and pieces of broken tiles were found scattered on the ground, it said.


Villagers said they had seen stone implements at the site in the past, but none was found during a field trip by archaeologists. The researchers said the implements might have been collected by some private collector.


The archaeologists believe the ruins would provide new clues for research on the city structure of the Eastern Han Dynasty, which ruled the eastern part of the country during 24-220 AD.



One up on Egyptian mummies

Last updated:            3/23/2010 16:07


Vietnamese mummies did not have their organs removed and their bodies were supple and fragrant when unearthed


Thanks to pine oil, King Le Du Tong’s body remained in rather good condition during the 46 years it was kept at the Hanoi-based National History Museum before being reburied earlier this year


She looked like a sick woman who was asleep.


The thing was – she had been sleeping for several centuries, underground.


The body of Pham Thi Dang, second wife of Dang Dinh Tuong – a high-ranking official under the Le Dynasty (1428-1788) was found 42 years ago in Van Cat Hamlet, in the northern province of Nam Ha (now Nam Dinh).


“We had excavated many mummies, but we couldn’t help being shocked when seeing her, because she looked as if she were just a sick woman who was sleeping,” says Do Dinh Truat.


Decades after studying mummies discovered across the country – from the bodies of royalty and senior officials to the common man, archeologists Do Van Ninh and Truat are still amazed by the ancient Vietnamese technique of preserving bodies.


Despite not having their internal organs and brains, as in Egyptian mummies, their bodies were usually found in good condition - soft with joints still supple after being buried for hundreds of years, they said.


Some still retained the facial features they had when they were alive, Truat said.


In the case of Dang, the veteran archeologist even asked a local woman who was at the same age as Dang, 60 years old, to stand next to the body “to see who was more beautiful.”


According to the archeologists, one of the secrets in the Vietnamese techniques of preserving bodies was pine oil, which they say has been found in most mummies


Archeologist Do Dinh Truat with a clod of solid essential pine oil found in an old coffin

The late Prof. Do Xuan Hop, known to many as the “King of Anatomy” was one of the scientists who studied the body of King Le Du Tong (1679-1731) which was found in 1958 in the central province of Thanh Hoa. Hop noted that the king was placed in a coffin that contained lots of pine oil.


The oil made quilted blankets, clothes and shrouds oily, while “the fragrance soaked into his skin and through skin into his internal organs, so [he was] soaked with aroma,” Hop wrote, noting that betel leaves and areca buried with him also remained fresh.


Thanks to the oil, the Le Dynasty king’s body remained in rather good condition during the 46 years it was kept at the Hanoi-based National History Museum before being reburied earlier this year despite the harsh weather in the north, scientists said.


The importance of pine oil was stressed in another article by Hop.


He wrote that the body of a royal wife from the Trinh Lords (1545- 1787), found in 1957, was only examined by scientists a month later. During that month the body was taken out of the coffin and buried in the field for three days before being put into another coffin flooded with water (though it is not clear why this was done). However, it still gave out the pine oil’s aroma.


The body was later washed five times, yet the aroma didn’t fade away, Hop wrote.


Truat also recalled his first impressions of the mummies he saw. “Many people think mummies must stink, but amazingly, they give out the aroma of some wood.” The archeologist said he even once tasted the water at the bottom of a mummy’s coffin and found that it wasn’t fetid, but tasted like turpentine.


Besides the pine oil, other things like blankets, pillows and clothes which were considered customary belongings for placement in the coffins, worked in fact to get rid of the humidity in coffins, Ninh said.


This was also true of the tam that tinh (Seven-star plank), which was usually placed under the body.


Under Taoism, the plank with seven holes placed in the shape of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear constellation, was believed to protect the deceased’s spirit from evil spirits and ghosts. But it also helped drain water to the 20- centimeter thick layer of roasted rice below, Ninh said


The roasted rice also acted to help remove humidity.


Ninh said dying people usually had some ruou que (cinnamon wine) to lengthen their life for some time to meet all of their children, and they would be washed with the wine again after their death. The wine would help clean the body, within and outside, decreasing the harmful effects of bacteria, he surmised.


It was also a custom that Vietnamese people lit candles in the coffin before putting the body in, and this also helped create a vacuum and kill bacteria, according to Ninh.


Truat said one of the most noticeable things about Vietnamese mummies was that they were mostly interred in coffins made of ngoc am (or pemou wood) which was highly resistant to termites and bacteria.


The coffins were made by highly skilled carpenters, airsealed and then plastered them with a mixture of raw paints, and sawdust with or without a sticky substance from pine trees mixed with rice paste. Some coffins were made with two layers, with the outer coffins as thick as 0.5 meters, made with lime, sand, molasses or honey, and sometimes strengthened with shell crumbles (not made of wood).


Some outer coffins were so strong that it took 15 young men 40 days to break it, like the one that Nguyen Thi Hieu, believed to be a family member of King Gia Long (1802-1820) under the Nguyen Dynasty, was buried in. Her body, found 16 years ago, is being kept at the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum.


“At the Thuy Xuan Beach in the northern province of Thai Binh, an outer coffin was smoothened by waves over the years, yet locals didn’t realize that (it was an outer coffin) until they accidentally excavated it and found the complete body of a young lady,” Truat said, demonstrating that the body was not damaged even though the coffin was buried on the coast and exposed to factors like salt.


Dr. Phan Bao Khanh, who has studied many mummies in the central region, said the Vietnamese technique of preserving bodies was “a very human way to preserve bodies, as no knives or scissors were used to take out the deceased’s brains and internal organs.”


But it was a pity that this knowledge has been lost with the passage of time, he said.



Underground Liverpool dock uncovered

by John Maher. Published Fri 26 Mar 2010 17:05, Last updated: 2010-03-26


A piece of Liverpool's buried past is to go on show to the public for the first time.


The historic Old Dock at Liverpool - now below the Liverpool One - will become the city's latest visitor attraction.


It has been hidden underground for nearly 200 years but property developer Grosvenor has partnered with the museum's service to put part of the remains on display.


Archaeologist Jamie Quartermaine, who masterminded the project, said the importance of the dock should not be forgotten.


He said: “The dock is a very important part of Liverpool's history.


“It can become a very successful tourist attraction and help the city in the future.”


Engineer Thomas Steers – who originally built the berth in 1715 - is widely recognised as helping to kick-start Liverpool's rapid rise to importance.


His dock building skills allowed ships to load and unloads goods even at low tide.


Regular tours of the new attraction, run by National Museums Liverpool, are due to begin in May and will start at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.