Male faces 'buttressed against punches' by evolution

9 June 2014 Last updated at 05:12

By Jonathan Webb

Science reporter, BBC News


Fighting 'shaped human hand'

A new theory suggests that our male ancestors evolved beefy facial features as a defence against fist fights.


The bones most commonly broken in human punch-ups also gained the most strength in early "hominin" evolution.


They are also the bones that show most divergence between males and females.


The paper, in the journal Biological Reviews, argues that the reinforcements evolved amid fighting over females and resources, suggesting that violence drove key evolutionary changes.


Fossil records show that the australopiths, immediate predecessors of the human genus Homo, had strikingly robust facial structures.


For many years, this extra strength was seen as an adaptation to a tough diet including nuts, seeds and grasses. But more recent findings, examining the wear pattern and carbon isotopes in australopith teeth, have cast some doubt on this "feeding hypothesis".


"In fact, [the australopith] boisei, the 'nutcracker man', was probably eating fruit," said Prof David Carrier, the new theory's lead author and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah.


Masculine armour

Instead of diet, Prof Carrier and his co-author, physician Dr Michael Morgan, propose that violent competition demanded the development of these facial fortifications: what they call the "protective buttressing hypothesis".


In support of their proposal, Carrier and Morgan offer data from modern humans fighting. Several studies from hospital emergency wards, including one from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, show that faces are particularly vulnerable to violent injuries.


The strong brow ridges, cheek bones and jaw of early hominins like "nutcracker man" (Paranthropus boisei) may have evolved as a defence against the fists of other males, instead of for other reasons such as diet

"Jaws are one of the most frequent bones to break - and it's not the end of the world now, because we have surgeons, we have modern medicine," Prof Carrier explained. "But four million years ago, if you broke your jaw, it was probably a fatal injury. You wouldn't be able to chew food... You'd just starve to death."


The jaw, cheek, eye and nose structures that most commonly come to grief in modern fist fights were also the most protected by evolutionary changes seen in the australopiths.


Furthermore, these are the bones that show the most differences between men and women, as well as between our male and female forebears. That is how you would expect defensive armour to evolve, Prof Carrier points out.


"In humans and in great apes in general... it's males that are most likely to get into fights, and it's also males that are most likely to get injured," he told BBC News.


Long-running debate

Interestingly, the evolutionary descendents of the australopiths - including humans - have displayed less and less facial buttressing.


This is consistent, according to Prof Carrier, with a decreasing need for protection: "Our arms and upper body are not nearly as strong as they were in the australopiths," he explained. "There's a temporal correlation."


The facial buttressing idea builds on a previous observation by Prof Carrier and Dr Morgan that the early hominins were the first primates to evolve a hand shape compatible with making a fist - and thus, throwing a punch.


Human and ancestral skull reconstructions

Stronger facial bones appear in the australopiths (second and third rows) at about the same time as shifting hand proportions enabled our ancestors to clench their fists, then decline in parallel with upper body strength

That earlier paper attracted criticism from some other researchers, and Prof Carrier expects this new contribution may also prove controversial. He says that debate about the role of violence in human evolution is not new.


"[Our paper] does address this debate of whether our past was violent or peaceful," he told the BBC. "That's an argument that's been going on for a very long time."


"The historical record goes back a short time, the archaeological record goes back a few tens of thousand years more... But the anatomy holds clues to what selection was important, what behaviours were important, and so it gives us information about the very distant past."



Mitochondrial DNA of first Near Eastern farmers is sequenced for the first time

06 June 2014 Universidad de Barcelona


The mitochondrial DNA of the first Near Eastern farmers has been sequenced for the first time. In the research, published in the journal PLOS Genetics, experts analysed samples from three sites located in the birthplace of Neolithic agricultural practices: the Middle Euphrates basin and the oasis of Damascus, located in today’s Syria and date at about 8,000 BC.


The paper is signed by Daniel Turbón and Alejandro Pérez Pérez, from the Department of Animal Biology of the University of Barcelona (UB); Eva Fernández, from Liverpool John Moores University; Cristina Gamba, Eduardo Arroyo Pardo and Pedro Cuesta, from Complutense University of Madrid; Eva Prats, from the Spanish National Research Council, and Josep Anfruns and Miquel Molist, from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). The study is focused on the analysis of mitochondrial DNA —a type of non-Mendelian maternally inherited DNA— from the first Neolithic farmers, by means of samples obtained by the UAB research group which were first processed by the UB research group.


The Neolithic: a deep revolution in human societies


Agricultural and husbandry practices originated around 12,000 years ago in a region of the Near East known as the Fertile Crescent. This phenomenon, known as “Neolithic”, meant a profound social, cultural and economic transformation of human populations (agricultural production, sedentary farming lifestyle, origin of the first cities and modern societies, etc.).


Eva Fernández, first author of the article who got her PhD from UB, explains that “the Neolithic Revolution rapidly expanded from these territories into Europe, where the hunter-gatherer subsistence economy —prevailing till then— was replaced by an agropastoral producing system”. To know the nature of the diffusion of the Neolithic —in other words, to know if it was a population migration process or a cultural adoption— has been widely debated for the last fifty years. Different research fields, for instance archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics and, more recently, human paleogenetics, have made contributions to the discussion.


The unknown genetics of first Near Eastern farmers


The genetic composition of first Neolithic populations was one of the mysteries of science till today, although some advances in European Neolithic populations’ genetics were made during the last decade. Professor Daniel Turbón points out that the results revealed by the study published in PLOS Genetics “are the first ones regarding first Near Eastern farmers; in other words, the genetic stock of original Neolithic”. However, it is important to remember that other data have been published about European first farmers, to be exact in Catalonia (by Cristina Gamba et al., 2012), the Basque Country (by Hervella et al.) and Germany (by Wolfgang Haak et al., 2010, and Brandt et al., 2013).


“Conclusions of previous studies —explains Turbón— are based on the comparison with current Near East populations, as first agricultural societies’ genetics have remained unknown until now”.


From the Near East to Europe


The study published in PLOS Genetics provides a new framework to interpret the results of other studies about European Neolithic populations, stress the authors. According to conclusions, genetic affinities have been observed between the mitochondrial DNA of first Neolithic populations and the DNA of first Catalan and German farmers. This suggests that probably Neolithic expansion took place through pioneer migrations of small groups of population. Moreover, the two main migration routes ―Mediterranean and European― might have been genetically linked.


“The most significant conclusion —highlights Eva Fernández— is that the degree of genetic similarity between the populations of the Fertile Crescent and the ones of Cyprus an Crete supports the hypothesis that Neolithic spread in Europe took place through pioneer seafaring colonization, not through a land-mediated expansion through Anatolia, as it was thought until now”.


 How did the Neolithic Revolution spread?


Other scientific studies had already provided signs of an alternative scenario of Neolithic spread in Europe different from the one through Anatolia. According to Turbón, “recent archaeological finds have proved that the Neolithic arrived to Cyprus around 10,600 years ago, some years after the first documentation of agricultural practices in the Near East”. Architecture and burial models found in Cyprus’ sites are similar to the ones found in the Middle Euphrates basin, “that indicates a direct colonisation of these territories”, highlights the author. “Besides, spatial interpolation of radiocarbon dates from different Neolithic sites in the Near East and Europe also suggests a first seafaring expansion through Cyprus”, he concludes.


In order to support these conclusions, the scientific team aims at analysing a greater number of human Neolithic samples from other regions of the Fertile Crescent, and at increasing the number of genetic markers analysed in the samples. 



Full bibliographic information

Ancient DNA Analysis of 8000 B.C. Near Eastern Farmers Supports an Early Neolithic Pioneer Maritime Colonization of Mainland Europe through Cyprus and the Aegean Islands.


Eva Fernández, Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, Cristina Gamba, Eva Prats, Pedro Cuesta, Josep Anfruns, Miquel Molist, Eduardo Arroyo-Pardo, and Daniel Turbón.


PLOS GENETICS, Published: June 05, 2014

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004401



Archaeologists discover 4,000-year-old tomb from 11th dynasty in Luxor

Spanish team find large pharaonic tomb that was probably built for a member of the royal family or a high-ranking statesman

Agence France-Presse in Cairo

theguardian.com, Monday 9 June 2014 17.20 BST


Spanish archaeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old pharaonic tomb belonging to a leader from the 11th dynasty of Egypt in Luxor, the antiquities ministry said on Monday.


The wide surface of the tomb showed it was that of "someone from the royal family or a high-ranking statesman," the antiquities minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, said.


The Spanish team was led by José Galán, who said the tomb would provide new insights into the dynasty that ruled in Luxor, the modern site of the city of Thebes, which was then the capital of ancient Egypt.


"This discovery confirms the presence of many tombs from the 11th dynasty in the Deraa Abu Naga region," said Galán.


One tomb dating back to the same period was discovered in the area five years ago. It contained a red sarcophagus, a well-preserved mummy, as well as arrows and arches that are now on display in Luxor's museum.


"The tomb may have been used as a mass grave, given the high number of human remains [discovered in it]," Ali al-Asfar, an antiquities ministry official, said on Monday, referring to the newly discovered site.


But it was also used during the 17th dynasty as pottery tools and utensils from this period were discovered in the tomb, Asfar added.


Luxor, a city of some 500,000 people on the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt, is an open-air museum of intricate temples and pharaonic tombs.




Archaeologists Excavate Lower City of Mycenae

Mon, Jun 02, 2014


Mycenae -- the ancient city of the legendary King Agamemnon, best known from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and its iconic Lion Gate and cyclopean defensive walls, has long fascinated scholars and site visitors alike with the epic proportions of its imposing citadel remains. Located about 56 miles southwest of Athens in Greece, it is a World Heritage site.

But there is another Mycenae -- one known for centuries from ancient historical documents -- which has nevertheless eluded the eyes of archaeologists, historians, and tourists. One might call it "Greater Mycenae", the Lower Town. It is invisible because most of it still lies undetected, unexcavated, below the surface. In its heyday it was a second millenium BC version of urban sprawl that served as a vital element of the ancient city's florescence.

Few know it better than Christofilis Maggidis, Associate Professor of Archaeology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He has been leading excavations there since 2007. Geophysical surveys utilizing remote sensing technology in the area surrounding the citadel revealed substantial evidence of hidden walls, structures, gates, roads and other features of a possible urban center surrounding it on its south, west and north sides.

"This town may have extended over an area of ca. 30-50 hectares, with a normal population density of 200 people per hectare, consisting mainly of domestic units and commercial buildings, but also including larger palatial structures and annexes (workshops, offices, storerooms) located closer to the main access roads and highways," writes Maggidis in a report published in the Volume 15 issue of Popular Archaeology . "The discovery of two gates, associated perhaps with an outer circuit wall, further reinforces the possibility of an organized town plan."*

Ground proof excavations confirmed the geophysical findings. Uncovered thus far were Mycenean-period features that included a long retaining wall possibly connected to a gate, a wall possibly connected with an outer fortification wall of the Lower Town, two buildings, and an apsidal structure. Overlaying the Mycenean features were post-Mycenean findings that included Geometric Period structures such as a pottery/ivory workshop with a cistern, a multi-room house with a courtyard and containing three infant burials under the floor of a room, two circular structures, and a 9th century B.C. cist grave. The cist grave, which contained the skeletal remains of a young woman, consisted of funerary meal remains, an iron pin found on the right shoulder-blade, an iron ring found around a phalanx of the right hand, and five clay vases and a cup placed around the body.


Numerous artifacts were unearthed. Writes Maggidis: "A great number and wide variety of finds have been retrieved so far, including fragments of Mycenaean and Archaic figurines, flint and obsidian blades, flakes and cores, stone tools, fragments of stone vases, stone cloth weights, seal-stones, beads and pendants, rings, glass shards, metallic objects, coins, lead sheets, iron nails and hooks, lead clamps for pottery mending, ivory objects, clay loom weights and spools, fresco and plaster fragments, color pigments, carbonized wood, animal bones, shell, roof tiles and abundant pottery."*


But the greatest takeaway thus far has been the confirming evidence that Mycenae, more than its popular image as the fortified palatial abode of Agamemnon, was a large, complex urban center where a population made their living in trade, commercial production, agriculture, and all the other typical functions of an ancient culture, in space and time well beyond the politics and military campaigns of a prominent kingly reign.

"The geophysical survey and systematic excavation of the Lower Town at Mycenae revealed an extensive Mycenaean settlement outside the citadel," reports Maggidis, "which was protected by an outer fortification wall with gates, as well as overlying structures and buildings dating to the Early Iron Age and the Archaic Period, thus establishing for the first time a continuous, well-stratified occupation of Mycenae in all the successive periods from the 13th century BC to the 6th century BC."*

Maggidis and his archaeological team, which will include students and volunteers, will be returning to resume excavations during the summer of 2014.

The latest detailed report of the investigations of the Lower Town at Mycenae are published in the Vol. 15 issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine, available in early June, 2014.


* Maggidis, Christofilis, Unearthing the City of Agamemnon: The Survey and Excavation of the Lower Town of Mycenae, Popular Archaeology, Vol. 15.



North Berstead warrior burial, Bognor Regis

Thames Valley Archaeological Services News


Archaeologists from TVAS have unearthed the grave of a warrior who died at around the time of Caesar's Gallic Wars, in the 50s BC.


The team, led by Andy Taylor, has been excavating in advance of a new housing development on behalf of Berkeley Homes (Southern) Limited and Persimmon Homes (South Coast) Limited.


These excavations have revealed Bronze age boundary ditches and occupation, a small hoard of four Middle Bronze Age bronze axes (palstaves), an Iron Age roundhouse and a Roman building, set amongst fields. But the chief interest lies in the finding of a rich, isolated burial, which is not part of a larger cemetery and is not otherwise distinguished from the rest of the site. The deceased, a mature male more than 30 years old, was laid out in a grave and was accompanied by grave goods. These included three large, complete, pottery jars placed at the end of the grave, presumably containing offerings to the gods or food for the journey into the afterlife, an iron knife and several items made of bronze. One appears to be a cavalry helmet and the other a shield boss. Also present are two bronze latticework sheets highly decorated, perhaps used to cover the shield; they seem to big to be elaborate cheek-pieces for the helmet, but that is another possibility. The burial and its grave goods seem to have been placed in a large coffin or casket bound by iron hoops with a further iron framed structure placed on top. The bronze objects are not well preserved and have been lifted in blocks of soil by a specialist for careful excavation and conservation in the laboratory prior to their study in detail. The provisional date of the burial from the associated pottery, which seems to have been made specially for the funeral, and may have its origins in Normandy, indicates that it took place at the very beginning of what archaeologists term the Late Iron Age, perhaps around 50BC.


The burial does not appear to be so rich as some from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD in south-east England, but shares similarities with famous graves of Late Iron Age date from Welwyn and St Albans (Herts); Colchester (Essex); and Aylesford (Kent), and less close similarities with others from the continent. All of these are likely to have been graves of princes or chiefs (or, possibly, priests) but all are dated later than this site appears to be. It is also unclear if our warrior was himself from Gaul, or simply had acquired pottery from Normandy on his campaigns.


The Iron Age people of this area were in essence pro-Roman, and the Emperor Claudius, a century later, launched an invasion, initially, to restore the local king Verica to his throne. Our deceased does not seem rich enough to have been a king, but his weaponry, and likely date of death, suggest he may have been one of the mercenaries Caesar claims were accustomed to fight for the Gauls against him, which he used as one of his pretexts for his abortive invasions of England. Cross-channel links of this rather shadowy kind have long been known, but this grave is one of the most exciting pieces of evidence yet found confirming the personal nature of these connections.


The archaeological work is taking place as a requirement of the planning process on the advice of the archaeological officer of West Sussex County Council.



Wearable submarine to hunt for 2000-year-old computer

04 June 2014 by Mark Harris


THE world's most advanced robotic diving suit is getting ready to help search for one of the world's oldest computers.


Called Exosuit, the suit has a rigid metal humanoid form with Iron Man-like thrusters that enable divers to operate safely down to depths of 300 metres (see photo).


Though designed for diving in the bowels of New York City's water treatment plants, earlier this month it underwent its first trials in seawater at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. The tests are readying the suit for a daring attempt to excavate an ancient Roman shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. A century ago, divers pulled the world's oldest computer – the Antikythera mechanism – from the wreck. They are hoping that they will find a second device when they go down in September.


Marine archaeologists normally wear scuba gear to explore underwater sites in person, but the time that divers can spend at depth is limited by the dangers of decompression sickness, or the bends. For deep wrecks, researchers rely on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) carrying cameras and sonar to scan an area, or large and expensive craft like the Alvin submarine that explored the wreck of the Titanic in 1986.


The $1.5 million Exosuit falls somewhere in between. "It's basically a wearable submarine," says Phil Short, a diving specialist on the planned mission to Antikythera. "The pressure inside is no different from being in a submarine or in fresh air. We can go straight to the bottom, spend 5 hours there and come straight back to the surface with no decompression."


The suit is made from an aluminium alloy, with articulated joints that permit divers to move their arms and legs freely. An umbilical cable from a ship supplies it with power for horizontal and vertical thrusters, and a rebreather that scrubs toxic carbon dioxide from exhaled air, giving 50 hours of life support. The cable also carries voice, video and data links. In the event of an emergency, a battery can power everything but the thrusters, including a back-up communication system.


Foot pedals inside the Exosuit control the four thrusters to manoeuvre it through the water. And if a diver is busy with a complex task underwater, an operator topside can monitor the Exosuit's video feed and fire the thrusters to keep it in position – or even take over completely and bring the suit back to the ship.


The Exosuit is needed both because of the depth of the Antikythera wreck – it reaches 120 metres – and the delicacy of any artefacts that might lie within. When Greek sponge fishermen found the shipwreck in October 1900, the pressure was such that they had only 5 minutes on the seabed before having to ascend. It was risky: several divers were paralysed and one died from decompression sickness.


By the time underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau led an expedition to the ship in 1976, the amount of time that could be spent at the bottom had been extended to just 10 minutes. To maximise their efficiency, Cousteau's divers used a vacuum system to suck up a small area of the wreck, but this risked damaging or destroying priceless fragile objects.


The new expedition won't face such time constraints. "With the Exosuit, our bottom time becomes virtually unlimited," says Brendan Foley, co-director of field operations at WHOI's Deep Submergence Laboratory. "Now we can have an archaeologist in the suit for hours, and we'll only have to come up to answer the call of nature."


Despite the limitations of earlier expeditions, the treasures that were recovered at Antikythera represent some of the finest ancient Greek and Roman artefacts in existence. They tell the story of a Roman ship that foundered on the rocky shores of the island around 60 BC. The ship was laden with luxury goods, including bronze and marble statues, precious jewellery, a hoard of coins, glassware, ceramic jars – and fragments of a peculiar geared device whose importance was at first overlooked. Only in the 1950s did scholars figure out that the rusty metal pieces could be assembled into a sophisticated analogue computer for predicting astronomical events. They called it the Antikythera mechanism.


Ironically, 2000 years spent in corrosive saltwater may have been the best way to preserve these riches. Most precious objects from antiquity have been broken up or melted down over the millennia. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens has only 10 major bronze statues from Ancient Greece – and nine of them came from shipwrecks.


Foley believes that the Antikythera shipwreck still holds many secrets. A preliminary survey last year showed artefacts scattered over an area 50 metres by 10 metres, and even revealed a previously unknown shipwreck alongside the first one.


"We have feet, arms and the crest of a warrior's helmet from statues recovered in 1900 – maybe we'll get lucky and find the rest of them," says Foley. "But for me, the mechanism is what sets this wreck apart. It's the questions it opens up about the history of science and technology that fire my imagination."


Archaeologists will use the Exosuit's manipulators – a claw-like pincer where each of the suit's hands would be – to sift through silt, marine life and centuries of debris. "It's like chopsticks," Short said during trials at WHOI this month. "The first time you use them, you get covered in food. Then you start to get proficient. One drill we've been doing is to use one set of manipulators to open a folding knife attached to the other, then lock it and close it. I managed it twice yesterday."


However, the Exosuit remains an unknown quantity for marine archaeology. It was built by marine robotic firm Nuytco Research in North Vancouver, Canada, and sold to civil engineering company J. F. White, which used it in New York City.


Its first scientific mission will take place in July, when a team from the American Museum of Natural History will head to an area about 160 kilometres off the north-east coast of the US and dive down in an area known as the Canyons to look for bioluminescent organisms.


But the Exosuit's first saltwater outings haven't been entirely smooth sailing. On its first day, electrical problems caused the thrusters to overload and shut off, while customising it for divers of different sizes and shapes has been time-consuming: time the scientists can ill afford. Although exploration of the Antikythera wreck will continue for almost a decade, this year's expedition will only last a month – and will only have the Exosuit on loan from J. F. White for a week or two.


Foley admits that using the Exosuit does come with risks. "It's an experimental suit. We need to figure out what it can do for us and how to make it as effective as possible," he says. "All we can do is get down there, get close to the sediment and map out the debris field with our metal detectors. Over a period of meticulous seasons, we'll slowly close in on what we hope is another mechanism."


This article appeared in print under the headline "Into the deep"


Hunting for the oldest computer

The Antikythera mechanism pre-dates all other computing devices by over 1000 years. Its 30 bronze gears encoded ancient Greece's astronomical expertise, including the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. Operated by a hand crank, the mechanism would automatically calculate phases of the moon, eclipses and even the dates of upcoming Olympic Games.


While a curator at the Science Museum in London, Michael Wright used X-ray tomography to reveal new details in the mechanism, which he later incorporated into an exact replica.


Wright now believes that not all the fragments recovered from the wreck came from the same device. "It's not easy to find a place for one piece, Fragment D, in anyone's reconstruction of the instrument, including my own," he told New Scientist. "It's also slightly different in workmanship and has a slightly different colour." That could mean a second mechanism is still waiting to be discovered.



'Incredibly important' medieval find at Llanllyr, Ceredigion

7 June 2014 Last updated at 09:25


Archaeologists says they have discovered an "incredibly important" medieval convent, cemetery and Tudor mansion in Ceredigion.


The location of Llanllyr nunnery in the Aeron Valley had been a mystery until now.


Dr Jemma Bezant from University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) said it offered an unparalleled opportunity to find out more about monastic life.


The public were able to view the site on Saturday.


Dr Bezant said: "Medieval nunneries like this are incredibly rare with only one other known in Wales."


The convent, founded by Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd in 1180, was a daughter house of the Strata Florida abbey, a former Cistercian monastery which was of immense importance to Wales during the Middle Ages.


Also the subject of a major University of Wales Trinity Saint David research project, the Strata Florida ruins lie just to the east of the village of Pontrhydfendigaid, near Tregaron in Ceredigion.


The archaeologist said they were still aiming to locate a medieval chapel at the excavation site and learn more about the extent of the cemetery using 18th Century estate maps and a 17th Century depiction of the mansion as a guide.


She said: "The discovery of the grave features is very exciting but it is unlikely that skeletal material remains in the acidic west Wales soil.


"If we are able to recover such fragments, they could tell us about who was buried here, how many lived on the estate and what kind of lives they led."


Members of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust are also involved in the excavation. They are being assisted in the work by university students, countryside management students at Coleg Ceredigion in Aberystwyth, and community volunteers.


Their discoveries so far have led to important clues about how the nuns lived, said Dr Bezant.


The convent was on the edge of a wetland valley floor that was drained and improved although watery places were likely to have held continuing spiritual significance to both the nuns and pilgrims, she said.


"We know the nuns farmed sheep and cattle successfully and they would have tended mills, orchards and fishponds.


"There are medieval fairs nearby at Talsarn and Llanerchaereon and they could have been trading far and wide, with coastal access only a couple of miles away at Aberaeron.


"We have already recovered fragments of sumptuous glazed floor tiles indicating that the nunnery was lavishly built and decorated."