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Among the 370 projectile points found at the site are examples of A) Midland, B) Milesand, C) Plainview, D) Lerma, E) Abasolo, F) Ventana, G) San Pedro, and H) Dátil. (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al.)

Among the 370 projectile points found at the site are examples of A) Midland, B) Milesand, C) Plainview, D) Lerma, E) Abasolo, F) Ventana, G) San Pedro, and H) Dátil. (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al.)

 

he cranium of a 12 to 15 year old girl was found just below the surface of the site. Radiocarbon analysis of three teeth dated the burial to 1360 BCE . (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al. May not be reproduced.)

he cranium of a 12 to 15 year old girl was found just below the surface of the site. Radiocarbon analysis of three teeth dated the burial to 1360 BCE . (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al. May not be reproduced.)

 

Original article:

Western digs

BY BLAKE DE PASTINO ON FEBRUARY 26, 2016

 

Archaeologists working in the borderlands of northern Mexico have uncovered a camp used by ancient hunters as much as 10,500 years ago, revealing insights into some of the earliest human history in the Greater Southwest.

On a ranch near the Santa Maria River in northern Chihuahua, researchers have unearthed more than 18,000 artifacts, including thousands of stone flakes, cores, and hammers, along with 370 projectile points, and a dozen stone ovens.

But the most surprising find has been the grave of a teenage girl, who was interred among the rocks, alone and unadorned, some 3,200 years ago.

Her remains, researchers say, may help unlock the history of the people who brought agriculture to this arid region, and who were the first known farmers of corn in the Chihuahuan Desert.

“The importance of this find is in knowing more of the early steps of humans on this land, to remind us that whatever the geographical characteristic of this region, humans were able to make a living here, to make this region their home,” said Dr. Emiliano Gallaga, who led the research.

Gallaga and his colleagues discovered the site while investigating a patch of desert about 70 kilometers [45 miles] south of the New Mexico border that was being developed for a solar energy plant.

“At this point the [energy] company had two options: leave the areas of the site untouched, or pay for a salvage project,” said Gallaga, a research fellow with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which conducted the research.

“The company choose the latter. So in the summer of 2014, we performed a one-season project where we registered the site, mapped it, collected all archaeological material, and performed several excavation units.”

fter investigating nearly 7.5 acres, the researchers found no evidence of any structures and also no ceramics.

But they did uncover 12 stone ovens, along with an incredibly dense concentration of tools and stone fragments, suggesting that the site had been used as a kind of tool-making camp intermittently over thousands of years.

The camp consisted of several separate working areas, each scattered with a variety of stone chips, cores, and tools.

In all, 18,488 artifacts were recovered, including hundreds of stone points that were fashioned in recognizable styles that date back more than 10,000 years.

“We have evidence of Late Paleoindian occupation around 8,000 BCE, based on the material we found,” Gallaga said, “particularly projectile points such as 8 Plainview points [made from around 8150-8000 BCE], 15 Midland points [8700-8500 BCE], and 3 Milnesand points [8200-7200 BCE].”

In all, he said, the 370 points represent 30 different styles, spanning the Paleoindian and Archaic periods.

But the most striking find came when the team turned its attention to a heavily eroded slope.

“When we were doing the surface collection, we noticed an interesting feature on the surface: a circle of bones coming out,” Gallaga said.

“We thought it could be a turtle shell, but we decided to make an [excavation] unit there, just in case.

“And there it was.

“We just cleaned a little bit, and a human cranium appeared.”

About 20 centimeters [about 8 inches] below the surface, the researchers uncovered the remains of a girl between 12 and 15 years old.

The circumstances of her death are unclear, her bones showing no obvious signs of trauma nor immediate evidence of disease.

She was buried in a flexed position, with no grave goods or other offerings.

Radiocarbon analysis of three of her teeth revealed that the burial dated to around 1360 BCE — a significant date range for Gallaga and his colleagues.

That’s because, about a day’s walk from the Santa Maria ranch sits an even more impressive site from the same period.

A hilltop settlement known as Cerro Juanaqueña, it’s the most important site of its kind in northern Chihuahua, Gallaga said.

In the late 1990’s, archaeologists investigated Cerro Juanaqueña and found more than 400 basalt terraces built onto its hillsides, some of them likely used for farming, and about 100 stone circles thought to be the foundations of houses.

But, most importantly, archaeologists also found the remnants of corn dated to 1150 BCE — the earliest evidence of maize ever found in Chihuahua.

No human remains were found at Cerro Juanaqueña, but if the girl discovered at Gallaga’s campsite was a member of its culture, she could hold a wealth of data about the high desert’s first known corn farmers.

“It’s possible that this burial could have some relation with Cerro Juanaqueña … that was occupied at the same time of the burial,” Gallaga said.

“Currently we are performing DNA analysis on the bones … to see if we can have a better idea where this burial fits in the region.”

Still other studies will focus on the ratios of strontium isotopes found in the girl’s teeth, which can shed light on where she was born and raised, as well as her diet.

“[Other archaeologists] would like to see if the young girl ate corn, which could be a good indicator that this site is related to Chihuahua’s Archaic Cerro [Juanaqueña] tradition,” Gallaga said.

As research continues into the life and death of the girl buried in the remote desert grave, her resting place will remain largely as it is, Gallaga reported.

“Due to the relevance of the findings, we recommended to INAH Chihuahua that they could give the permission for building the solar plant in the area, with the exception of the [camp] site,” he said.

“So it has been protected.”

“This finding is only a little piece of the puzzle of the human evolution and adaptation,” he added, “and it is important to be preserved for future generation and to be studied properly by researchers.”

 

 

Roman wine being brought back to life in Pompeii. Photo: Piero Mastrobeardino

Roman wine being brought back to life in Pompeii. Photo: Piero Mastrobeardino

 

Roman remains litter the closely-grown vines. Photo: Mastrobeardino

Roman remains litter the closely-grown vines. Photo: Mastrobeardino

Original Article:

the local.it

Feb 2016

Made from ancient grape varieties grown in Pompeii, ‘Villa dei Misteri’ has to be one of the world’s most exclusive wines.

The grapes are planted in exactly the same position, grown using identical techniques and grow from the same soil the city’s wine-makers exploited until Vesuvius buried the city and its inhabitants in AD 79.

In the late 1800s, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first excavated some of the city’s vineyards from beneath three metres of solid ash.

The digs turned up an almost perfect snapshot of ancient wine-growing – and thirteen petrified corpses, huddled against a wall.

Casts were made of the bodies, as well as the vines and the surviving segments of trellises on which they were growing.

But archaeologists didn’t think to restore the vineyards of ancient Pompeii until the late 1980s.

When they did, they realized they didn’t have a clue about wine-making, so they called in local winemaker Piero Mastrobeardino.

Together they set out to discover how the ancient Romans made wine, and which grapes and farming methods they used.

“The team looked at casts of vine roots made two centuries ago and consulted the surviving fragments of ancient farming texts,” Mastrobeardino told The Local. “We even looked at ancient frescoes to try to identify which grapes grew from Pompeii’s soil.”

The team discovered that the type of grapes their ancestors were growing, called Piederosso Sciacinoso and Aglianico, were the same varieties still being grown on the slopes of Vesuvius by local farmers.

Aglianico is a variety which Piero’s father is credited for saving from extinction after the Second World War.

Although the grape varieties were still the same, farming techniques had changed significantly since the time of the Romans.

“We use a number of methods to grow the fruit and carry out all of the work manually. One thing all our farming techniques have in common is that the grapes are grown at an extremely high density,” Mastrobeardino explained.

At first, experts doubted whether the grapes would grow at all at yields almost twice as high as those used today. However, once placed back in Pompeii’s fertile soil, they flourished.

Enologists discovered that the Romans’ high-density growth technique is actually beneficial – the technique, now rediscovered, is spreading to the modern wine-making.

But not everything about ancient wine-making was better.

Mastrobeardino ferments the wine according to modern techniques and says Roman wine tasted foul.
“Pompeii wines were fermented in open-topped terracotta pots, called dolia. These were lined with pine resin filled with wine and buried deep into the earth. Asking a modern wine-lover to drink ancient wine would be foolish. The Romans knew their system was far from perfect but didn’t have the technology to change it.”

Pompeii wines were considered among the best in the Empire, but were fiercely alcoholic and often diluted with honey, spices and even seawater to mask their rancid flavour.

Hygiene was also an issue.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, wrote that it was common to find drowned mice which had fallen into wine-filled dolia. Should this happen, he suggested the best course of action was to extract the marinated mouse and roast it straight away.

Some 1,500 bottles of Villa dei Misteri are made each year and can be found on the tables of exclusive restaurants in Tokyo, London and New York, Mastrobeardino said.

“It’s more of a research project than a commercial enterprise, but it has come a long way. We have now replanted 15 of the city’s ancient vineyards and are experimenting with diverse ancient farming techniques and grape blends.”

It might not be a profitable enterprise, but it doesn’t come cheap either – a bottle will set you back around €77.

 

Tiffiny Tung excavates at Beringa, Peru (Courtesy Tiffiny Tung)

Tiffiny Tung excavates at Beringa, Peru (Courtesy Tiffiny Tung)

Wari Ale gets its bright pink color from Peruvian molle berries and purple corn. (Courtesy of The Field Museum)

Wari Ale gets its bright pink color from Peruvian molle berries and purple corn. (Courtesy of The Field Museum)

 

Original Article:

news.vanderbilt.edu

by Liz Entman | Feb. 24,2016

After a long, dusty day excavating an archaeological site, nothing quite hits the spot like a frosty beverage. For Tiffiny Tung, associate professor of anthropology, all that hard work is about to pay off twice with the debut of a custom beer inspired by the fruits of her labor.

Wari Ale, a light, delicate beer whose rosy tint derives from bright pink molle berries and purple corn, will soon be available to connoisseurs over 21 at Chicago’s Field Museum and select Chicago retailers. The beer, crafted by Off Color Brewing, is based on a recipe treasured by an ancient Peruvian empire called the Wari and links to the museum’s permanent Ancient Americas exhibit.

“Archaeologists have known for a really long time that corn beer, or chicha, was socially important in the Andes,” said Tung. The Incas used it as a kind of political or social currency to build and solidify relationships with nearby lords.

But, while excavating a site called Beringa associated with the pre-Inca Wari culture, Tung found evidence that the Wari brewed their own version of chicha using the molle berry, the fruit of a local pepper plant.

Tung’s discovery was important, because 117 miles away at a site called Cerro Baúl, Ryan Williams, associate curator of anthropology at The Field Museum and a lead researcher of that excavation, had come upon the remains of a chicha de molle brewery, which he believes would have been able to produce 1,500–2,000 liters of beer in a single batch. Like Tung, Williams found evidence that, as corn beer did for the Incas, chicha de molle played a significant relationship-building role to the Wari.

“Tiffiny’s excavation at Beringa was key to understanding that Wari chicha de molle was a brewing phenomenon that went beyond our work at Cerro Baúl and was part of the larger Wari imperial project,” said Williams.

“It’s also really delicious,” said Tung.

The Field Museum first partnered with Off Color Brewing to produce a lager called Tooth and Claw brewed in honor of Sue, the museum’s Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Williams hopes the museum will continue to be able to offer more beers inspired by the museum’s exhibits, collections and research in the future.

Media Inquiries:
Liz Entman, (615) 322-NEWS
Liz.entman@vanderbilt.edu

 

 

Arachis ipaensis, left, and Arachis duranensis, right, are the two species of wild peanut that crossed to provide the genetic blueprint for today's modern peanut varieties. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, left, and Arachis duranensis, right, are the two species of wild peanut that crossed to provide the genetic blueprint for today’s modern peanut varieties. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, one of the wild peanut varieties that helped to create the modern peanut, was found in the foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina in the 1970s. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, one of the wild peanut varieties that helped to create the modern peanut, was found in the foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina in the 1970s. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

 

Original Article:

News.uga.edu

Writer: J. Merritt Melanin, Feb 2016

 

Athens, Ga. – Researchers at the University of Georgia, working with the International Peanut Genome Initiative, have discovered that a wild plant from Bolivia is a “living relic” of the prehistoric origins of the cultivated peanut species.

The peanut that is grown by farmers today is the result of hybridization between two wild species. The hybrid was cultivated by ancient inhabitants of South America and, by selection, was transformed into today’s crop plant.

Comparisons of the DNA sequences of one of the wild species and the cultivated peanut showed that they are almost exactly same; in fact, they are 99.96 percent identical. It’s an unprecedented similarity.

“It’s almost as if we had traveled back in time and sampled the same plant that gave rise to cultivated peanuts from the gardens of these ancient people,” said David Bertioli, an International Peanut Genome Initiative, or IPGI, plant geneticist of the Universidade de Brasília, who is working at UGA.

This discovery forms part of a study that appears in this month’s Nature Genetics journal, published by the UGA-led IPGI. Scott Jackson, director of the UGA Center for Applied Genetic Technologies in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, serves as chair of the IPGI. Bertioli is lead author on the paper.

Because its ancestors were two different species, today’s peanut carries two separate genomes, designated “A” and “B” subgenomes. Their high similarity means they are very difficult to map out separately when sequencing the cultivated peanut genome. So, as a first step, researchers built their models using the two wild, ancestral peanut species collected by botanists in the wooded foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina decades ago.

The genome of one of them, Arachis duranensis, is about as similar to the A subgenome as could be expected. However, what really caught their attention was that the genome of the other species, A. ipaensis, was found to be virtually identical to the B subgenome.

Soon after its collection in 1971, the botanists who collected A. ipaensis realized that it was peculiar. The population of A. ipaensis was very small and isolated, and its closest relatives grew hundreds of miles to the north. They questioned how it arrived in the location where they found it growing.

Prompted by the extraordinary DNA identity, the scientists used information from decades-old botanical collections, knowledge of the seasonal movements of ancient hunter-gatherer-farmers and molecular DNA clock calculations to work out that the plants’ seeds had almost certainly been transported by humans about 10,000 years ago.

“Everything fit,” Bertioli said. “It’s the only place where A and B genome species have ever been found growing close together. The region is right next to the region where, even today, the most primitive types of cultivated peanut are grown, and the date is right in the time frame that plant domestication was happening in South America.”

The movement of the B genome species into the range of the A genome species meant that the hybridization could happen, probably courtesy of a native bee, and the cultivated peanut species was formed. The rest is history, Bertioli said.

The new peanut genome sequences were released in 2014 to researchers and plant breeders around the globe. Their use is advancing the breeding of more productive and more resilient peanut varieties. The paper in Nature Genetics represents the first official publication of the IPGI.

The effort to sequence the peanut genome took several years. While peanuts have been successfully bred for intensive cultivation, relatively little was known about the legume’s genetic structure because of its complexity, according to Peggy Ozias-Akins, a senior author on the paper and director of the UGA Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics. The sequences provide researchers access to 96 percent of all peanut genes and provide the DNA map needed to more quickly identify and genetically tag genes that confer desirable traits, such as drought- and disease-resistance.

A consortium of peanut growers, peanut shellers, brokers and food manufacturing groups provided $6 million in funding for the genome sequencing effort through The Peanut Foundation.

Victor Nwosu, program manager for Mars Chocolate and chairman of the board of directors of The Peanut Foundation, is enthusiastic about the advances these discoveries will facilitate.

“The peanut genome project will lead to reduction in production costs through development of disease-resistant varieties and improved yield for farmers, speed of selection and release of new varieties for breeders and potential for improvement of nutritional value of peanuts for consumers,” Nwosu said. “We are beginning to see these benefits already.”

The genome sequence assemblies and additional information are available at http://peanutbase.org/.

The International Peanut Genome Initiative brings together scientists from the U.S., China, Brazil, India, Australia, Japan and Israel to delineate peanut genome sequences, characterize the genetic and phenotypic variation in cultivated and wild peanuts and develop genomic tools for peanut breeding. The initial sequencing was carried out in Shenzhen, China, by the BGI, known previously as the Beijing Genomics Institute.

Assembly was done at the BGI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa, and the University of California, Davis. The project was funded by the peanut industry through The Peanut Foundation and by Mars Inc. and three Chinese academies: the Henan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

A complete list of the institutions involved with the project and the other funding sources is available at http://peanutbioscience.com/.

The study, “The genome sequences of Arachis duranensis and Arachis ipaensis, the diploid ancestors of cultivated peanut,” will be available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.3517.

 

A team of archaeologists at the University of York have revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls – a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the builders of nearby Stonehenge during the 25th century BC.

A team of archaeologists at the University of York have revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls – a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the builders of nearby Stonehenge during the 25th century BC.

Original Article:

heritagedaily.com

 

A team of archaeologists at the University of York have revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls – a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the builders of nearby Stonehenge during the 25th century BC.

Together with researchers at the University of Sheffield, detailed analysis of pottery and animal bones has uncovered evidence of organised feasts featuring barbeque-style roasting, and an unexpected pattern in how foods were distributed and shared across the site.

Chemically analysing food residues remaining on several hundred fragments of pottery, the York team found differences in the way pots were used. Pots deposited in residential areas were found to be used for cooking animal products including pork, beef and dairy, whereas pottery from the ceremonial spaces was used predominantly for dairy.

Such spatial patterning could mean that milk, yoghurts and cheeses were perceived as fairly exclusive foods only consumed by a select few, or that milk products – today often regarded as a symbol of purity – were used in public ceremonies.

Unusually, there was very little evidence of plant food preparation at any part of the site. The main evidence points to mass animal consumption, particularly of pigs. Further analysis of animal bones, conducted at the University of Sheffield, found that many pigs were killed before reaching their maximum weight. This is strong evidence of planned autumn and winter slaughtering and feasting-like consumption.

The main methods of cooking meat are thought to be boiling and roasting in pots probably around indoor hearths, and larger barbeque-style roasting outdoors – the latter evidenced by distinctive burn patterns on animal bones.

Bones from all parts of the animal skeleton were found, indicating that livestock was walked to the site rather than introduced as joints of meat. Isotopic analysis indicates that cattle originated from many different locations, some far away from the site. This is significant as it would require orchestration of a large number of volunteers likely drawn from far and wide. The observed patterns of feasting do not fit with a slave-based society where labour was forced and coerced, as some have suggested.

Dr Oliver Craig, Reader in Archaeological Science at the University of York and lead author on the paper, said: “Evidence of food-sharing and activity-zoning at Durrington Walls shows a greater degree of culinary organisation than was expected for this period of British prehistory. The inhabitants and many visitors to this site possessed a shared understanding of how foods should be prepared, consumed and disposed. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organised working community.”

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, Professor at University College London and Director of the Feeding Stonehenge project who also led the excavations at Durrington Walls, said: “This new research has given us a fantastic insight into the organisation of large-scale feasting among the people who built Stonehenge. Animals were brought from all over Britain to be barbecued and cooked in open-air mass gatherings and also to be eaten in more privately organized meals within the many houses at Durrington Walls.

“The special placing of milk pots at the larger ceremonial buildings reveals that certain products had a ritual significance beyond that of nutrition alone. The sharing of food had religious as well as social connotations for promoting unity among Britain’s scattered farming communities in prehistory. ”

Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito, who analysed the pottery samples and recently joined Newcastle University, added: “The combination of pottery analysis with the study of animal bones is really effective, and shows how these different types of evidence can be brought together to provide a detailed picture of food and cuisine in the past”.

UNIVERSITY OF YORK

Overhead view of a possible ancient tavern, with three reddish circles marking the bread ovens and pebbles marking built-in benches in the dining room at the right. (Photo: Lattes excavations)

Overhead view of a possible ancient tavern, with three reddish circles marking the bread ovens and pebbles marking built-in benches in the dining room at the right.
(Photo: Lattes excavations)

The kitchen of what looks like an ancient tavern, with three reddish circles where the three ovens -- for baking flatbread and other dishes -- once stood. (Photo: Lattes excavations)

The kitchen of what looks like an ancient tavern, with three reddish circles where the three ovens — for baking flatbread and other dishes — once stood. (Photo: Lattes excavations)

 

Original Article:

Traci Watson, Special to USA TODAY, Feb 2016

usatoday.com

 

Finally a decent place to eat! Archaeologists digging in southern France have found a restaurant-like structure roughly 2,100 years old, making it one of the earliest such taverns in the western Mediterranean.

The dining complex in the ancient town of Lattara was open for business as the Romans conquered the area, bringing with them ideas that would shake up the local economy and way of life. According to the tavern’s discoverers, Lattara’s people were farmers before the Romans marched in; after the Roman takeover, new kinds of jobs likely arose – and so did dining out.

“If you’re not growing your own food, where are you going to eat?” says archaeologist Benjamin Luley of Gettysburg College, co-author of a new study in Antiquity describing the site. “The Romans, in a very practical Roman way, had a very practical solution … a tavern.”

At first the researchers thought they’d uncovered a bakery. In a room near a key intersection in Lattara, excavations over the last five years revealed the remains of three indoor gristmills and a trio of ovens, each three to four feet across, commonly used to bake flatbread. A home cook had no need for equipment on such an industrial scale.

In another room just across a courtyard, earthen benches lined the walls and a charcoal-burning hearth occupied the middle of the floor. Those features suggested a sit-down joint rather than a takeout counter.

The menu must’ve been extensive. Fish bones littered the kitchen, and bones from sheep and cattle were found in the courtyard. The floors were scattered with shards of fancy drinking bowls imported from Italy, as well as debris from large platters and bowls, report Luley and his colleague Gaël Piquès of France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

The interpretation of the site as a tavern is “plausible,” says one scholar who was not associated with the research. The Celtic people of western Europe “were famous (or infamous) in antiquity for their love of wine,” the University of Buffalo’s Stephen Dyson, an expert in Roman archaeology, says via email. The ceramic remains show “they imported the drinking vessels as well as the wine. No guzzling, sotted Celts these.”

But the site did not yield any coins, suggesting the complex could’ve been a private dining room, says Roman historian Penny Goodman of Britain’s University of Leeds. She also says there was ample trade and jobs for artisans in the region even before the Roman conquest, so it wasn’t necessarily the Romans’ arrival that spurred demand for a tavern.

Luley responds that before the Romans, Lattara show no evidence of large workshops that needed lots of labor. He also argues that people tend not to lose coins, so the absence of money in the tavern doesn’t mean diners weren’t paying for their meals.

Broken pottery, however, was regarded as trash, and at Lattara that trash is now providing a window into the carousing that took place. “They’re eating a fair amount,” Luley says, but “the most common ceramic object we found are drinking cups,” making a first-century-B.C. diner sound like the bars of today.

The dining room of what might have been an ancient tavern, showing banks of pebbles where built-in benches once stood against the walls. (Photo: Lattes excavations)

The dining room of what might have been an ancient tavern, showing banks of pebbles where built-in benches once stood against the walls. (Photo: Lattes excavations)

 

 

ig

The fossilized skull of Australopithecus sediba specimen MH1 and a finite element model of its cranium depicting strains experienced during a simulated bite on its premolars. “Warm” colors indicate regions of high strain, “cool” colors indicate regions of low strain. Credit: WUSTL GRAPHIC: Image of MH1 by Brett Eloff provided courtesy of Lee Berger and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Original Article:

popular-archaeology.com

Feb 8, 2016

Research published in 2012 garnered international attention by suggesting that Australopithecus sediba (A. sediba), a possible early human ancestor species discovered in South Africa by anthropologist Lee Berger, had lived on a diverse woodland diet including hard foods mixed in with tree bark, fruit, leaves and other plant products.

But new research by an international team of researchers now shows that A. sediba didn’t have the jaw and tooth structure necessary to exist on a steady diet of hard foods.

“Most australopiths had amazing adaptations in their jaws, teeth and faces that allowed them to process foods that were difficult to chew or crack open. Among other things, they were able to efficiently bite down on foods with very high forces,” said team leader David Strait, PhD, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Australopithecus sediba is thought by some researchers to lie near the ancestry of Homo, the group to which our species belongs,” said Justin Ledogar, PhD, Strait’s former graduate student and now a researcher at the University of New England in Australia. “Now we find that A. sediba had an important limitation on its ability to bite powerfully; if it had bitten as hard as possible on its molar teeth using the full force of its chewing muscles, it would have dislocated its jaw.”

The study, published Feb. 8 in the journal Nature Communications, describes biomechanical testing of a computer-based model of an A. sediba skull. The model is based on the fossil skull recovered in 2008 from the Malapa fossil site by Berger and his team. Malapa is a cave near Johannesburg, South Africa. The biomechanical methods used in the study are similar to those used by engineers to test whether or not planes, cars, machine parts or other mechanical devices are strong enough to avoid breaking during use.

A. sediba, a diminutive pre-human species that lived about two million years ago in southern Africa, has been heralded as a possible ancestor or close relative of Homo. Australopiths appear in the fossil record about four million years ago, and although they have some human traits like the ability to walk upright on two legs, most of them lack other characteristically human features like a large brain, flat faces with small jaws and teeth, and advanced tool-use.

Humans in the genus Homo are almost certainly descended from an australopith ancestor, and A. sediba is a candidate to be either that ancestor or something similar to it.

Some of the researchers who described A. sediba are also authors on the biomechanical study, including Lee Berger, PhD, and Kristian Carlson, PhD, of the University of the Witwatersrand, and Darryl de Ruiter, PhD, of Texas A&M University. Amanda Smith, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in physical anthropology at Washington University, also participated in the research.

The new study does not directly address whether Australopithecus sediba is indeed a close evolutionary relative of early Homo, but it does provide further evidence that dietary changes were shaping the evolutionary paths of early humans.

“Humans also have this limitation on biting forcefully and we suspect that early Homo had it as well, yet the other australopiths that we have examined are not nearly as limited in this regard,” Ledogar said. “This means that whereas some australopith populations were evolving adaptations to maximize their ability to bite powerfully, others (including A. sediba) were evolving in the opposite direction.”

“Some of these ultimately gave rise to Homo,” Strait said. “Thus, a key to understanding the origin of our genus is to realize that ecological factors must have disrupted the feeding behaviors and diets of australopiths. Diet is likely to have played a key role in the origin of Homo.”

Strait, a paleoanthropologist who has written about the ecological adaptations and evolutionary relationships of early humans, as well as the origin and evolution of bipedalism, said this study offers a good example of how the tools of engineering can be used to answer evolutionary questions. In this case, they help us to better understand what the facial skeleton can tell us about the diet and lifestyles of humans and other primates.

“Our study provides a really nice demonstration of the difference between reconstructing the behaviors of extinct animals and understanding their adaptations.” Strait said. “Examination of the microscopic damage on the surfaces of the teeth of A. sediba has led to the conclusion that the two individuals known from this species must have eaten hard foods shortly before they died. This gives us information about their feeding behavior. Yet, an ability to bite powerfully is needed in order to eat hard foods like nuts or seeds. This tells us that even though A. sediba may have been able to eat some hard foods, it is very unlikely to have been adapted to eat hard foods.”

The bottom line, Strait said, is that the consumption of hard foods is very unlikely to have led natural selection to favor the evolution of a feeding system that was limited in its ability to bite powerfully. This means that the foods that were important to the survival of A. sediba probably could have been eaten relatively easily without high forces.

Source: Subject press release of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

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