Oldest modern human genome from Siberia ~45 thousand years ago

March 28, 2014

Just a teaser from Ann Gibbons in Science:


In 2008, Siberian ivory carver Nikolay Peristov was searching for ancient mammoth tusks eroding from the banks of the Irtysh River in western Siberia, when he found fossilized bones instead. Back in his workshop in Omsk, he showed the bones to local paleontologist Aleksey Bondarev, who recognized a human thighbone. Bondarev in turn showed it to an anthropologist friend, and it was passed on up the chain to some of the world's top experts in human evolution. They dated it to 45,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest known modern humans in northern Asia and Europe.


Now, the bone has opened a window on the genetics of our species at a crucial moment: soon after their arrival in northern Eurasia. At a meeting* here last week, paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, announced that his team has sequenced the thighbone's entire nuclear genome to high accuracy—an astonishing 42x coverage. "This is by far the oldest sequenced genome of a modern human," he said.


Because all living people in Europe and Asia carry roughly the same amount of Neandertal DNA, Pääbo's team thought that the interbreeding probably took place in the Middle East, as moderns first made their way out of Africa. Middle Eastern Neandertal sites are close to Skhul and Qafzeh, so some researchers suspected that those populations were the ones that mingled. But the team's analysis favors a more recent rendezvous. The femur belonged to an H. sapiens man who had slightly more Neandertal DNA, distributed in different parts of his genome, than do living Europeans and Asians. His Neandertal DNA is also concentrated into longer chunks than in living people, Pääbo reported. That indicates that the sequences were recently introduced: With each passing generation, any new segment of DNA gets broken up into shorter chunks as chromosomes from each parent cross over and exchange DNA. Both features of the Neandertal DNA in the femur suggest that the Ust-Ishim man lived soon after the interbreeding, which Pääbo estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.

The higher Neandertal DNA in the Ust-Ishim sample might be explainable by the negative selection against Neandertal material recently documented.  At 45kya, this sample is right around the time of the Early Upper Paleolithic at Kara-Bom in Siberia (and indeed anywhere), so this will be a hugely interesting sample when it is finally published.



‘Homo’ is the only primate whose tooth size decreases as its brain size increases

03 April 2014 University of Granada


Andalusian researchers, led by the University of Granada, have discovered a curious characteristic of the members of the human lineage, classed as the genus Homo: they are the only primates where, throughout their 2.5-million year history, the size of their teeth has decreased alongside the increase in their brain size.


The key to this phenomenon, which scientists call “evolutionary paradox”, could be in how Homo’s diet has evolved. Digestion starts first in the mouth and, so, teeth are essential in breaking food down into smaller pieces. Therefore, the normal scenario would be that, if the brain grows in size, and, hence, the body’s metabolic needs, so should teeth.


However, in the case of Homo, this has not been the case, according to scientists in an article recently published in the journal BioMed Research International. The main author of the study, researcher Juan Manuel Jimenez Arenas, from the University of Granada’s Department of Pre-History and Archaeology, points out that “This means that significant changes must have occurred in order to maintain this trend”.


A change in diet, incorporating a higher amount of animal food, must have been one of the keys to this phenomenon. The quality leap in Homo’s diet, through a greater intake in animal proteins, fats and certain olio-elements, is essential for a correct working and maintenance of the brain. On a similar note, a larger brain allows greater social and cultural development, which, at that time, led to the achievement of important technological innovations.


In order to validate this theory, the researchers evaluated the relationship between the size of post-canine teeth and the volume of the endocranium in a wide set of primates, among which were found the main representatives of Homo fossils. “Before we started the study, it was well known that, throughout the evolution of humans, tooth-size diminished and brain-size increased. We have established that they are two opposing evolutionary trends that have been linked for 2.5 million years, when our first ancestors within the Homo genus first appeared on the evolutionary stage”.


Genetic Study


The study’s authors also relate these changes to the inactivation of gene MYH16, linked to temporalis musculature, which fell in size approximately 2.4 million years ago. This would do away with an important barrier for encephalization (a hypertrophied temporalis musculature prevents the development of the cranial dome). Likewise, they analyzed their relationship with the inactivation of gene SRGAP2, which helps towards the evolution of the neo-cortex, playing a principal role in human brain development.


This study has been carried out thanks to the collaboration of Juan Manuel Jiménez Arenas, along with three renowned lecturers and researchers from the University of Malaga: Paul Palmqvist and Juan Antonio Pérez Claros, from the Dept. of Ecology and Geology, and Juan Carlos Aledo, from the Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.




Attached files

Left: Upper and lower views of cranium OH5 (Paranthropus boisei). Right: Same views of Homo Sapiens cranium.

Full bibliographic information

"On the Relationships of Postcanine Tooth Size with Dietary Quality and Brain Volume in Primates: Implications for Hominin Evolution" Juan Manuel Jiménez-Arenas,Juan Antonio Pérez-Claros,Juan Carlos Aledo, and Paul Palmqvist

BioMed Research International Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 406507, 11 pages




Ancient trackway found within ‘drowned forest’ in Connemara

Oak structure confirms human habitation before Galway Bay was formed

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00


Fragments of an oak trackway suggesting human habitation have been found within the 7,500-year-old “drowned forest” on the north Galway shoreline.

The track could be between 3,500 and 4,500 years old, and may have been built when the sea level was rising and was gradually enveloping the forest that pre-dated Galway Bay.

NUI Galway (NUIG) geologist Prof Mike Williams, who has researched the “drowned forest”, comprising a layer of peat and tree stumps uncovered by the winter storms, examined the trackway or “togher” this week.

He was alerted to it by a Spiddal resident, Alan Keogh, who discovered it when walking on the south-east Connemara shore.

Mr Keogh said that he had heard about the drowned forest, recently reported in this newspaper, and recognised the significance of what appeared to be a “symmetrical structure” below a line of peat, about 1.5m by 1m.

“Together with the Bearna canoe, this is the first evidence of human habitation within these forests and lagoons in this area,” said Prof Williams.

“It could have been built during the late Neolithic or early Bronze age era, and may have been ceremonial or may have been built across wetland which was decaying forest, forming into bog.”

This would make it older than the Corlea “togher”, the Iron Age track across the boglands of Longford, close to the River Shannon.

The Corlea oak road, which was excavated by Prof Barry Raftery of University College Dublin, is the largest of its kind to have been uncovered in Europe.

Prof Williams is awaiting further archaeological examination of the section, which has a north-west orientation and is on a storm beach near Furbo, looking south to the Burren and Black Head.

The Bearna canoe was found on the shore near Bearna by Brian and Rónán Ó Carra in December 2002, and is preserved in the Galway Atlantaquaria in Salthill.

The canoe was found to be 4,740 years old when radiocarbon-dated and Mr Ó Carra believes the trackway may be of a similar age.

“The canoe was freshwater, and these people used them for fishing and as a form of transport – like our stand-up paddle-boards,” he said.

Mr Ó Carra recently found the skull of a red deer in the same area and this is being examined by the National Museum of Ireland.

The New-Year hurricane-force winds and sea swell stripped away layers of sand and stone on the shoreline. This revealed the peat and stump remains of the lagoon and a woodland landscape that had been populated by bears, people and wolves.

The stumps visible around Spiddal are in their original growth position, which would suggest they died quite quickly, Prof Williams says.

Ireland experienced a series of sea-level rises up to 5,000 years ago.

Prof Williams says the fragile habitats may be covered again within months, as the Atlantic replenishes the shore with stone and sand.



Cremated bones of Bronze Age tumour sufferer found hanging from Scottish cliff

By Ben Miller | 04 April 2014


A cist burial spotted hanging from a cliff on the edge of Scotland came from the ceremony of a Bronze Age adult cremated swiftly after their death, say archaeologists investigating the bones of a body whose skull carried a tumour.


Cracks and warping of the remains, which belonged to someone of indeterminate gender, suggest the body was still fleshed when it was cremated in a service accompanied by a tonne of burning wood.


The bones were secured in a daring rescue mission on the eroding face of a sand cliff at Sannox, on the Isle of Arran, where experts used a mechanical cherry picker and balanced on harnesses to remove two cists.


“All the bone was uniformly white and in a similar condition, which is evidence for a hot cremation pyre reaching temperatures in the order of 650 to 950 degrees,” says Iraia Arabaolaza, who led the team responsible for the excavation.


“It is likely that the cremation occurred soon after death.


“The smaller average weight of the bones in this cist, as well as the absence of axial [head and trunk] bones, is a common trait in some Bronze Age cremations.


“The lack of remains such as substantial amounts of charcoal associated with a pyre also reinforces the idea of a selected burial.”


Some of the bones may have been kept back or lost to erosion on the cliff.


Arabaolaza says a mysterious green stain, examined once the team had moved the remains to Glasgow, could be copper – demonstrating poor preservation conditions.


A food vessel and a sharp knife, made with Yorkshire flint and found with the body, served both as tools and grave goods.


“Although the burial customs of the Scottish early Bronze Age varied greatly, across the period as well as from region to region, scale-flaked and plano-convex knives clearly represent an important tool,” says Torben Bjarke Ballin, a lithic expert from the University of Bradford.


“Flint knives frequently formed part of the period’s burial goods.


“The Scottish scale-flaked and plano-convex knives are most likely to also be sickles, and they probably carried out the same work as the crescent-shaped sickles of southern Britain.


“Although the piece from Sannox Quarry does not have any gloss, small flat chips were detached along its edge, indicating that it had been used prior to deposition in the cist.”


Beverley Ballin Smith, an archaeology researcher who works with National Museums Scotland, says the water-damaged vessel is unusual.


“In the suite of Bronze Age funeral ceramics, food vessels are not as common as beakers and urns and are less well known,” she explains.


“In mainland Scotland, they are frequently associated with cists with cremations.


“Although the Sannox pot follows some of the decorative motifs of Scottish food vessels, such as its bevelled rim and the slightly uncommon herring bone design, its decoration is in character comparable to those from the east coast.”


This symbolism from the other side of the land may prove that the objects were used in material exchanges.


“The paired and single incised half-circle motives can be mirrored in many places – not least York, Northumberland, Angus, Fife, and Kinross,” says Ballin Smith.


“In spite of its cracks, the pot is intact but there are significant areas of damage. These are mainly around the base, the body of the vessel just above it, and the bottom of the pot internally.


“The damage is partly due to a loss of surface caused by spalling and erosion of the fabric, partly because the vessel may have lain on the floor of the cist, and possibly because of how it was used and fired.


“The appearance of the vessel suggests that it may have stood in a hot fire. There is no sooting from flames, but the base of the pot indicates heat erosion.


“One interpretation could be that the vessel was positioned on the edge of the funeral pyre, perhaps in order to fire it during the cremation of the body.


“In doing so, it received damage as it was not protected from direct flames or very hot ashes.”


One of the bones from the burial – radiocarbon dated to between 2154 and 2026 B – was rounded into a button shape, suggesting an osteoma benign tumour which may not have caused its bearer “distress or symptoms” during their life.


At a time when wood was a scarce resource in Scotland, the size of the pyre shows the importance given to funerals by Bronze Age society. A “good ceremony” could have enhanced the status of the individual or their community.



Augustus rules again as Rome acts to restore lost mausoleum

On the 2,000th anniversary of the emperor's death work will finally start to reopen historic site to visitors

Tom Kington in Rome

The Observer, Saturday 29 March 2014 12.14 GMT


He was Rome's first emperor, the founder of a world-dominating imperial dynasty, and a builder of roads and stunning temples who brought peace to a far-flung empire; a man so powerful the Roman senate named a month after him. Now, on the 2,000th anniversary of the death of the emperor Augustus, the city of Rome is getting ready to honour its favourite son by saving his mausoleum from shocking neglect.


Built in 28BC and as broad as a city block, the cylindrical mausoleum has seen better days after being sacked, bombed and built upon down the centuries. It was used as a bullfighting ring and a concert hall before it was finally abandoned, recently becoming a hangout for prostitutes and a handy toilet for tramps.


That was a sad fate for one of Rome's most significant and sacred monuments, which once stood 120ft high – topped by a 15ft bronze statue of Augustus – and housed the emperor's ashes as well as those of his successors Tiberius and Claudius. Today, as tourists flock to the Forum and the Colosseum, diners at the pizzeria across the street from Augustus's mausoleum – which lurks behind a fence in a piazza yards from Via del Corso – barely notice it.


But with €2m (£1.6m) in fresh funding, archaeologists now plan to clean up, restore and reopen the site, while the city is to spend €12m on creating a pedestrianised piazza to handle visitors.


"Augustus made Rome the world's biggest and most beautiful city, the capital for business, culture and entertainment," said Rome's culture assessor, Flavia Barca. "Not every city can celebrate a 2,000-year anniversary."


Considered to be Rome's finest emperor, Augustus defeated his rivals Antony and Cleopatra before establishing Pax Romana throughout the empire, while rebuilding Rome and setting up the city's first police and fire fighting services, claiming on his death bed: "I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble".


The marble has long been stripped from his mausoleum, but three concentric outer walls, the widest 15ft thick and the highest 50ft tall, have stood the test of time, while an upper floor is now missing, leaving a surprisingly large open-air circular space inside where the horns and screeches of Rome's thundering traffic fade to an eerie silence.


"It's incredible the mausoleum is still standing despite what it has been through," said Elisabetta Carnabuci, one of the archaeologists charged with restoring the site.


Pillaged in 410 by Visigoths who scattered the emperors' ashes, the mausoleum was converted by the Colonna family in the 12th century into a castle, which was demolished by cannon fire during a clash with a rival family, the Orsinis. By the 16th century the site had been turned into a formal garden with a well-to-do palazzo built into the walls, before it was used for bullfights in the 18th century and then firework displays.


Large holes punched through the Roman masonry indicate the exits added when the mausoleum was converted into an elegant concert hall in 1908, becoming home to the city's main orchestra, with a domed roof added and space for 3,500 spectators drawn by conductors such as Arturo Toscanini.


But in 1936 Benito Mussolini ordered the musicians out and stripped the site down to its original Roman masonry in a bid to honour the emperor he emulated, in time for the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus's birth in 1937. Cypress trees were planted on top of the mausoleum's walls in the belief Augustus originally planted trees there, and a squat two-storey tower was erected in the open space at the heart of the mausoleum to mark the spot where the ashes were once kept.


"It was a real hack job by Mussolini's archaeologists," said Carnabuci, wrinkling her nose during a visit to the site last week. "When we get the money, that tower is going."


But Mussolini's tampering with history was nothing compared to the mausoleum's postwar fate. As stonework crumbled, the inner chamber was gated off in the 1960s before tramps congregating at a nearby soup kitchen discovered they could bed down undisturbed outside the walls.


In an attempt to restore the site in time for the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus's death in 2014, the cash-strapped city of Rome looked for a private sponsor, noting how shoemaker Tod's had stepped forward to pay for vital restoration at the Colosseum. "No one wanted to sponsor the mausoleum, and so we missed the anniversary," said Claudio Parisi Presicce, Rome's archaeology superintendent. "But with the €2m in public money now available, we can get started."


That has put off the reopening until 2016, but the city did arrange a sneak preview last weekend, and Carnabuci said the response showed Romans have not forgotten their first emperor. "There were 5,000 queuing round the block, under the rain," she said. "I was shocked, it was like a rock concert, and when the people got inside there was an awed silence."



Offa's Dyke evidence at Chirk suggests earlier build

7 April 2014 Last updated at 12:31


Archaeologists have uncovered evidence which suggests that Offa's Dyke may have been built up to 200 years earlier than thought.


Samples from Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust excavations on a stretch of the dyke have been radiocarbon dated to the second half of the 6th Century.


Historians have always associated the dyke with King Offa who ruled the kingdom of Mercia in the 8th Century.


But now archaeologists believe it might have been in use before he ruled.


The trust said it was a "tremendously exciting discovery".


The excavations were taken from a section of the protected ancient monument at Chirk near the Shropshire border.


It had been believed that the linear earthwork stretching 177 miles (285km) was built by King Offa of Mercia during his reign between 757 and 796.


However there has been no firm archaeological evidence to support this.


But now the trust claim accurate scientific dates have been obtained from Offa's Dyke for the first time.


The trust said the dated material came from an ancient layer of re-deposited turf underneath the bank suggesting that this material was laid down as part of the construction process.


"This is a tremendously exciting discovery which means we must re-think some of our assumptions about this important monument", said Paul Belford, the trust's director.


"Certainly the dyke was built to make a statement about the power of the kingdom of Mercia."


'Further work'

Carbon dating tests revealed a 95% probability that the Chirk section of the dyke had been built between 430 and 652.


"It is now likely that parts of the dyke system was in place before Offa's time but it is also likely that he would have consolidated the existing network into what we now call Offa's Dyke," said Mr Belford.


"It is now clear that it was not the work of a single ruler but a longer-term project that began at an earlier stage in the development of the kingdom."


Offa's Dyke is the longest linear earthwork in the UK, and one of the longest in Europe.


The modern border between England and Wales closely follows much of the route of the dyke.


"Of course these samples are from only one section of the Dyke," said Mr Belford.


"Further work is needed on other parts of this enigmatic monument before we can really say who built it and why."



An Offa that can be refused? Mercia’s past of might and memory

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Archaeologies of Death and Memory, Medieval Archaeology, Past in its Place,


Offa’s Dyke is sixth century, not eighth century?


Here at Archaeodeath I rarely post responses to breaking archaeological news, and at first glance this news does not relate to the archaeology of death and memory. However, this morning’s news comes from Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and relates to new discoveries regarding a national monument: new radiocarbon dates from Offa’s Dyke. The dates seemingly come from a reliable context: re-deposited turf from underneath the bank. You can read the first press release here.


I aim to show why this has implications not only for understanding the political and military development of Mercia and its Welsh rivals, but also the literary and memory culture of the Welsh border in the Early Middle Ages. Death and memory comes in because these results, if correct, have knock-on implications for understanding the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context.


These results come from emergency excavations following the shameful destruction of part of the dyke near Chirk last summer.


Of course, the usual provisos apply: this is only one section of the monument, the radiocarbon dates have yet to be published, and there are inevitable problems in dating any earthwork based on the material it covered over. Still, these results are extremely important: the first to be obtained from the monument despite decades of digging.


The key results published in the press release are that the part of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk might date to the late sixth century, not the late eighth century.


The Rise of Mercia and the Construction of Earthworks


CPAT’s press release challenges convention and that is always fun. This is true not only for our understanding linear earthwork building as a military and political practice in the Early Middle Ages but also our understanding of the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and its relationship with both British and Anglo-Saxon rivals. It also runs counter to a trend: the shorter and more modestly built Wat’s Dyke is now thought to date later than Offa’s Dyke to the early ninth century. If correct, the radiocarbon dates might suggest that the entire earthwork is a late sixth-century construction: a time when Mercia was only coming into the light of history as an aggressive, expansionist military force and political entity in the West Midlands. Or, perhaps more likely (and hinted at in the press release), the results open up the possibility that while ’Offa’s Dyke’ was indeed late eighth century, it had a more complex history of evolution over the two centuries prior to Offa’s reign.


Early Medieval Literary Culture and Memory


Furthermore, these results also have the ramifications for our understanding of the literary and memory culture of the Early Middle Ages , because until now the only real dating evidence for the earthwork has been the ninth-century Life of Alfred the Great by the Welsh monk Asser, ascribing the earthwork to King Offa  who reigned from Chester to London between AD 757-796:


There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea (translation by Keynes and Lapidge 1983: 71).


So was Asser wrong? Was he simplifying a complex situation? Or are we simply expecting too much from Asser? Was Offa really nothing to do with the dyke, or was he simply  the last king of Mercia to extend and effectively use a pre-existing earthwork, making it thus effectively ‘his’? Was Offa simply the best and meanest Mercia king in memory, and perhaps the one with the right ancestral name from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, worthy of association with this earthwork in the context of the later ninth century?


The Vale of Llangollen as a Landscape of Contestation


Regardless of whether Asser was wrong or has simply been misunderstood by generations of historians and archaeologists, and regardless of whether the radiocarbon dates apply to the construction of the whole dyke or just the segment near Chirk, there is no question that these results promise to have implications for understanding the Vale of Llangollen in the Early Middle Ages.


For me, this is important because of my on-going collaborative work, as part of Project Eliseg, investigating the early ninth-century monument known as the Pillar of Eliseg, supposedly set up to honour the king of Powys who was a contemporary of Offa: Eliseg.  I have recently discussed the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context as part of my other ongoing project: the Past in its Place. If these results are correct, they remind us that this territory was a landscape of contestation far earlier than was previously realised.


It will be interesting to learn how archaeologists and historians respond to this news…