A Relative from the Tianyuan Cave: Humans Living 40,000 Years Ago Likely Related to Many Present-Day Asians and Native Americans

Ancient DNA has revealed that humans living some 40,000 years ago in the area near Beijing were likely related to many present-day Asians and Native Americans.

Jan. 21, 2013 —


An international team of researchers including Svante Pääbo and Qiaomei Fu of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced nuclear and mitochondrial DNA that had been extracted from the leg of an early modern human from Tianyuan Cave near Beijing, China. Analyses of this individual's DNA showed that the Tianyuan human shared a common origin with the ancestors of many present-day Asians and Native Americans. In addition, the researchers found that the proportion of Neanderthal and Denisovan-DNA in this early modern human is not higher than in people living in this region nowadays.

Humans with morphology similar to present-day humans appear in the fossil record across Eurasia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. The genetic relationships between these early modern humans and present-day human populations had not yet been established. Qiaomei Fu, Matthias Meyer and colleagues of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, extracted nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from a 40,000 year old leg bone found in 2003 at the Tianyuan Cave site located outside Beijing. For their study the researchers were using new techniques that can identify ancient genetic material from an archaeological find even when large quantities of DNA from soil bacteria are present.

The researchers then reconstructed a genetic profile of the leg's owner. "This individual lived during an important evolutionary transition when early modern humans, who shared certain features with earlier forms such as Neanderthals, were replacing Neanderthals and Denisovans, who later became extinct," says Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who led the study.

The genetic profile reveals that this early modern human was related to the ancestors of many present-day Asians and Native Americans but had already diverged genetically from the ancestors of present-day Europeans. In addition, the Tianyuan individual did not carry a larger proportion of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA than present-day people in the region. "More analyses of additional early modern humans across Eurasia will further refine our understanding of when and how modern humans spread across Europe and Asia," says Svante Pääbo.

Parts of the work were carried out in a new laboratory jointly run by the Max Planck Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.



How wolves became dogs explained in groundbreaking study



A study by a team of American and Swedish researchers published on Jan. 23 in the Journal of Nature, shows that dogs have more genes involved in starch metabolism than wolves.


The finding suggests that this was a major factor in the evolution process of the wolf. No one knows exactly when or how our ancestors began to be so closely linked to dogs, but archaeological evidence indicates that it was thousands of years ago.


One theory suggests that modern behavior of the dogs came from the hunters that used wolves as guards or fellow hunters.


But another theory - that underpins the study - suggests that domestication began when the wolves began to approach the villages in search of food, stealing the remains left by people.


This practice became increasingly common and as a result, wolves began to live around humans. According to this second hypothesis, when we became sedentary and dependent on agriculture, waste dumps created around our settlements soon became the power source of many wolves, explains Erik Axelsson, of the University of Uppsala.


"I think that modern dogs derived from multiple wolf populations," said Axelsson. "So, we think our findings fit well with this theory that the dog evolved on the waste dump," he told the BBC .


The experiment


Dr. Axelsson and colleagues examined the DNA of more than 50 modern breeds - from the Cocker Spaniel to the German Shepherd.


They then compared their genetic information with 12 wolves from around the world. They scanned DNA sequences of the two canids in areas with large differences. They assumed that these areas contained genes that could help explain the domestication of dogs. Axelsson's team identified 36 regions, with more than one hundred genes.


The analysis detected the presence of two major functional categories - genes involved in brain development and starch metabolism.


The latter suggests that dogs have many more genes encoding enzymes needed to break down starch, a feature that could have been advantageous to the ancestors who rummaged among the wheat and corn of the farmers.


"The wolves also have these genes, but not used as efficiently as dogs," said Dr. Axelsson.


"When we look at the wolf genome, we only see one copy of the gene [for the amylase enzyme] on each chromosome. When we look at the dog genome, we see a range from two to 15 copies; and on average a dog carries seven copies more than the wolf."


"That means the dog is a lot more efficient at making use of the nutrition in starch than the wolf."


As for the genes related to brain development, these probably reflect some of the behavioral differences we now see in the two canids.


The dog is an animal that is much more docile, which is probably due to the past humans preferring to work with animals that were easier to tame.


"Previous experiments have indicated that when you select for a reduction in aggressiveness, you obviously get a tamer animal but you also get an animal that retains juvenile characteristics much longer during development, sometimes into adulthood," said Dr. Axelsson.


This may help explain why it is said that dogs act like puppies throughout their lives.


The study of the origin of dogs is still, in many ways, a puzzle.


Fossil evidence suggests that some populations have been around for tens of thousands of years, long before the advent of agriculture. One reason why it is so difficult to determine the time of this change of behavior is that domestication may have occurred more than once.


Dr. Carles Vila, Conservation Group and Evolutionary Genetics at the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, said the debate was still open.


"I think that modern dogs derived from multiple wolf populations," he explains.


"It could be that dog domestication started once with some animals staying with humans which were then regularly back-crossed with wolves and that could have the same effect. But there could have been completely independent domestications. What is clear is that the number of bone remains is very rare more than 14,000 years ago."


After their adaptation to starch, wolf pups were adopted by early humans to watch the town at night and protect them from external threats, a relationship that was forged with the role of "man's best friend" 10,000 years ago.


Although the dog is presented as the faithful companion of man, the study suggests that this role might have been first used by cats. Their story is also related to agriculture, although they were not interested in the grain, but the animals that fed on it, like mice.


The similarities found in the digestive systems of humans and dogs, reinforced the possibility that this discovery could shed light on diseases such as diabetes, according to the Swedish expert.


Sources: BBC, Journal of Nature



Prehistoric headless skeleton unearthed in Cambridgeshire

25 January 2013


Archaeologists have unearthed decapitated human remains beneath former allotment land in Soham (Cambridgeshire, England). Experts from the Hertford-based firm Archaeological Solutions are currently excavating a Roman settlement on land off Fordham Road, before 96 homes are built on the site. Among the wealth of artefacts found are a number of human burials thought to predate the Roman settlement, including one where the person was decapitated before being put in the ground.

     Andrew Peachey, a specialist in prehistoric and Roman pottery at the company, said: "Prior to the Roman settlement, the margins of the Fen and island [of Ely] were heavily exploited by prehistoric settlers, including one who appears to have been decapitated before being placed in a crouched burial in a circular pit. The reasons for decapitation are purely theoretical at this stage. One is obviously execution and another is to prevent ghosts. Quite often the head is found somewhere on the site, but it's rare for it to be completely missing. This then throws up the question of where the head was taken."

     The dig is expected to continue until the end of this month.


Edited from Ely Weekly News (23 January 2013)



Second skeleton uncovered at Oxford college

11:05am Friday 25th January 2013 in News

By Katriona Ormiston, Reporter. Call me on (01865) 425426


BONES from a second skeleton were unearthed at an Oxford College yesterday.


The human remains were discovered the day after a first skeleton and skull were found by builders in the roughly the same place at Wadham College.


The first skeleton was dated by archaeologists to be more than 100 years old.


Police were called to the site and taped off the area for five hours on Wednesday after a bullet casing was also found.


However the two are being treated as unconnected because the bullet shell casing is modern.


Police are not investigating the discoveries as suspicious.


Archaeologists are excavating, recording and removing the human remains over the next few days.


Warden of Wadham College Lord Ken Macdonald QC said the remains are thought to be from two different burials from when the college site was part of the precinct of a medieval priory.



Ovarian tumor, with teeth and a bone fragment inside, found in a Roman-age skeleton

Public release date: 24-Jan-2013

Contact: Maria Jesus Delgado



Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona


A team of researchers led by the UAB has found the first ancient remains of a calcified ovarian teratoma, in the pelvis of the skeleton of a woman from the Roman era. The find confirms the presence in antiquity of this type of tumour - formed by the remains of tissues or organs, which are difficult to locate during the examination of ancient remains. Inside the small round mass, four teeth and a small piece of bone were found.


Teratomas are usually benign and contain remains of organic material, such as hair, teeth, bones and other tissues. There are no references in the literature to ovarian teratomas in ancient remains like those found in this study, led by the researcher Núria Armentano of the Biological Anthropology Unit of the UAB and published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.


The tumour in question is rounded in shape, with a wrinkled surface, of the same colour as the bones, about 43 mm long and 44 mm in diameter. It was found in the right-hand part of the pelvis of a woman of between 30 and 40 years of age and who lived around 1,600 years ago, and came from the Roman cemetery in the archaeological site of La Fogonussa (Lleida). A macroscopic examination and a scan revealed four teeth of anomalous morphology inside the tumour, two of which were adhering to the inside wall of the tumour, and a small bone fragment.


"The calcification and preservation of the external walls of this tumour are exceptional, since these types of remains usually only retain the internal structures and the extremely fragile external ones disappear", explains Assumpció Malgosa, co-author of the study.


In fact, there are very few differential diagnoses of pelvic and abdominal calcifications in archaeological contexts, among other reasons because it is so difficult to determine their nature - they could be kidney stones, fibromas, teratomas, arterial remains, etc. etc. Moreover, they are hard to spot during the excavation and can easily be mistaken for stones.


Teratomas are asymptomatic in 60% of cases, but on occasion they cause torsions and functional problems in nearby organs, by compression when they are large. Pregnancy seems to favour certain complications in teratomas, such as complications on giving birth. Nevertheless, nowadays they seldom grow large and calcify even less often, because they are detected and operated on very early.


In the case of the Roman woman the researchers do not discount the possibility that the tumour was the cause of death, though this cannot be certain. It is also possible that she lived all her life with the calcified tumour with no further complications.


The skeleton was recovered in 2010 during the excavation of 46 graves in La Fogonussa, and formed part of a total of 87 skeletons. It was complete and well-preserved, buried in a tile grave.


The study was carried out by researchers from the Biological Anthropology Unit of the UAB, ANTROPÒLEGS.LAB, the Institute of Legal Medicine of Catalonia, the Sacred Heart University Hospital of Barcelona and the Lleida-based company Iltirta Archaeology.


AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert! system.


Copyright ©2013 by AAAS, the science society.



Family footwear find shows new side to Roman military

By looking at someone's shoes, you can tell a lot about the person wearing them. That old adage certainly rings true when looking at children's shoes from ancient Rome. Just ask Elizabeth Greene, a Classics professor, who, at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America this month, presented research showing children of Roman military families wore footwear that reflected their social status.

January 21, 2013 by Adela Talbot


"For a really long time, until the 1990s, really, no one thought about or studied families in the Roman army because soldiers weren't legally allowed to marry," Greene said. "It was a bastion of masculinity – this masculine, male-dominated environment and no one placed women and children there. But when you look at the material and historical record, there's a lot of evidence of women and children there. One piece of evidence is these children's shoes, and we have shoes from the very beginning," she said. In her research, Greene has looked at shoes found at the Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall in Northern England, where more than 4,000 have been excavated. She noticed shoes from high-status, elite households were much nicer than the more basic, shoes found in the barracks. And that's to be expected, she said. So, why does the difference in style of children's shoes matter? By their sheer existence, kid's shoes trump the view children were not part of Roman military life. What's more, and what's more important, their stylistic differences indicate children of high officials were treated and dressed as such, and were not only present, but also in the public eye, in a venue technically forbidden to them. "Shoes are very important in the Roman world. One of the things about the Roman world is that sartorial symbols mean everything. They indicate to everyone who you are and what you are. So, what I find very interesting is that even a tiny infant shoe replicates an adult male's shoe to a T," Greene said. "Going back to the military, it is very hierarchical and it would most definitely be the kind of place where status mattered – and everything about status mattered. The fact we can see (evidence of) this, and you could visually show that status when even an infant boot of 10 cm mimics the adult shoe, shows that children were being held to sartorial expectations of class, and that doesn't mean anything unless they played a public role, unless these infants were out on parade," she explained. "In a lot of ancient societies, a human being isn't really part of society until he is over the age of 2, and a 10 cm boot suggests this individual is very much a part of society. So, the family is very important in the social structure of the fort. No one has talked about this. We need to figure out what they were doing there, and what role they played in social structure." Greene continues to work at the Vindolanda field site through the Vindolanda Field School, co-directed by her husband, Alexander Meyer, out of the Department of Classical Studies at Western. Eight students participated at the site in the summer of 2012 and more will return this year. Greene's paper, "If the shoe fits: Style and status in the assemblage of children's shoes from Vindolanda," part of a larger project still, is set for publication this year in an edited volume of papers on archaeology in Roman Britain.

Provided by University of Western Ontario


Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-01-family-footwear-side-roman-military.html#jCp



Clues to Prehistoric Human Exploration Found in Sweet Potato Genome

by Lizzie Wade on 21 January 2013, 3:00 PM


Europeans raced across oceans and continents during the Age of Exploration in search of territory and riches. But when they reached the South Pacific, they found they had been beaten there by a more humble traveler: the sweet potato. Now, a new study suggests that the plant's genetics may be the key to unraveling another great age of exploration, one that predated European expansion by several hundred years and remains an anthropological enigma.


Humans domesticated the sweet potato in the Peruvian highlands about 8000 years ago, and previous generations of scholars believed that Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced the crop to Southeast Asia and the Pacific beginning in the 16th century. But in recent years, archaeologists and linguists have accumulated evidence supporting another hypothesis: Premodern Polynesian sailors navigated their sophisticated ships all the way to the west coast of South America and brought the sweet potato back home with them. The oldest carbonized sample of the crop found by archaeologists in the Pacific dates to about 1000 C.E.—nearly 500 years before Columbus's first voyage. What's more, the word for "sweet potato" in many Polynesian languages closely resembles the Quechua word for the plant.


Studying the genetic lineage of the sweet potato directly has proved difficult, however. European traders exported varieties of sweet potato from Mexico and the Caribbean to the Pacific, and those breeds mixed with the older Polynesian varieties, obscuring their genetic history. Therefore, it's difficult to apply information culled from modern samples to older varieties without a prehistoric control.


Now a team of researchers working with France's Centre of Evolutionary and Functional Ecology and CIRAD, a French agricultural research and development center, has identified one such temporal control: sweet potato samples preserved in herbariums assembled by the first European explorers to visit many Polynesian islands. The study, which is published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides strong evidence for prehistoric contact between Polynesia and South America.


By analyzing genetic markers specific to sweet potatoes in both modern samples of the plant and older herbarium specimens, the researchers discovered significant differences between varieties found in the western Pacific versus the eastern Pacific. This finding supports the so-called tripartite hypothesis, which argues that the sweet potato was introduced to the region three times: first through premodern contact between Polynesia and South America, then by Spanish traders sailing west from Mexico, and Portuguese traders coming east from the Caribbean. The Spanish and Portuguese varieties ended up in the western Pacific, while the older South American variety dominated in the east, which would explain the genetic differences the French team saw.


The decision to analyze herbarium specimens is "innovative" and provides another piece of strong evidence for the tripartite hypothesis, says archaeologist Patrick Kirch, of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. Lead author Caroline Roullier emphasizes that although her genetic analysis alone doesn't prove that premodern Polynesians made contact with South America, it strongly supports the existing archaeological and linguistic evidence pointing to that conclusion. "It's the combination of all different kinds of proof" that's really convincing, she says. Anthropologist Richard Scaglion of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania agrees, "All the lines of evidence coming together … really strengthens the case" for Polynesian contact with South America.



Earliest Evidence of Chocolate in North America

by Traci Watson on 22 January 2013, 4:00 PM


They were humble farmers who grew corn and dwelt in subterranean pit houses. But the people who lived 1200 years ago in a Utah village known as Site 13, near Canyonlands National Park in Utah, seem to have had at least one indulgence: chocolate. Researchers report that half a dozen bowls excavated from the area contain traces of chocolate, the earliest known in North America. The finding implies that by the end of the 8th century C.E., cacao beans, which grow only in the tropics, were being imported to Utah from orchards thousands of kilometers away.


The discovery could force archaeologists to rethink the widely held view that the early people of the northern Southwest, who would go on to build enormous masonry "great houses" at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and create fine pottery, had little interaction with their neighbors in Mesoamerica. Other scientists are intrigued by the new claim, but also skeptical.


The new research is "exciting, no doubt. … Archaeologists have been looking for Mesoamerican connections to the Southwest for 100 years," says Robert Hard of the University of Texas, San Antonio, who specializes in the archaeology of the Southwest and was not involved in the new study. But, he says, "I'm not convinced this is chocolate."


The findings stem from collaboration between Dorothy Washburn, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania's University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and her husband William Washburn, a chemist at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, New Jersey. In an earlier study, they detected evidence of cacao in pottery from 11th century burial sites in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and in vessels from other Southwestern sites. As a follow-up, the scientists tested bowls excavated in the 1930s from Site 13, which dates to roughly 770 C.E.


The researchers swirled water in the bowls, then analyzed the compounds in the rinse water with a high-resolution liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer, an instrument that separates the components of a mixture and then determines the mass of each. They found traces of theobromine and caffeine, both found in cacao, in nearly every Site 13 bowl they tested. They also found the telltale molecules in vessels from other villages close to Site 13 and from two Colorado villages. Site 13's cacao is the oldest in North America, eclipsing the Chaco chocolate by some 300 years. Humanity's cacao habit dates back to at least 1900 B.C.E to 1500 B.C.E., when Mexico's Mokaya people were already enjoying a chocolate drink.


In Mesoamerica, cacao was mostly a food of the elite, who sipped a foamy chocolate drink, often spiked with spices, at banquets and other ceremonial occasions. But an 8th century village such as Site 13 probably would have been classless, so the chocolate would've been consumed by ordinary people.


Villagers might have drunk it primarily for its nutritional value, rather than for ritual reasons, the researchers say in a paper in press at the Journal of Archaeological Science. Or, as Aztec warriors did, villagers could have taken cakes of maize and cacao on trips, reconstituting the cakes with water to make an early version of instant hot chocolate.


The results, combined with the team's earlier findings, show that "either a lot of people moved north or there was intensive trade bringing this cacao up" from Mesoamerica to the American Southwest, Dorothy Washburn says. "There's this incredible and sustained contact between these two areas."


Until now, the only known imports from Mesoamerica into the northern Southwest were limited quantities of parrots, copper bells, and a few other items, says Washington State University, Pullman, archaeologist William Lipe, a specialist on the Southwest. Most researchers think the cultural development of the Southwest was largely independent of Mesoamerican influences, he says, but a chocolate-drenched Southwest implies that Mesoamerica's influence on Southwestern architecture and rituals might have been greater than expected.


Other researchers, though tantalized, are also cautious, precisely because the new study and the authors' previous research have found so much chocolate. If cacao were so common, there would be stories or visual references or historical references to it, writes Ben Nelson, of Arizona State University, Tempe, who studies the ancient cultures of northern Mexico and the American Southwest, in an e-mail.


Archaeologist Michael Blake, who studies agriculture in the Americas, casts doubt on the paper's suggestion that Site 13 residents may have consumed chocolate as a source of nutrition, either at home or on the road. By the time cacao got to the American Southwest, it would've been "scarce, prized, and extremely valuable," writes Blake, of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada, in an e-mail. "I may serve caviar and fine champagne at my daughter's wedding feast, but I'm not likely to pack it in my lunch bag when I go on a camping trip."


Dorothy Washburn responds that evidence of cacao's importance may well be found in other artifacts from the time, once such objects are reexamined in light of the new findings, and that practices relating to cacao may have died out if people stopped eating it. She also says that their findings don't rule out that the Site 13 villagers ate cacao mostly as a ritual food.


At the very least, William Washburn says, the results suggest that "these people had acquired a taste for chocolate and knew how to prepare it"—making them not so different from modern-day chocolate lovers 1200 years later.