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A statue representing "iceman" mummy Oetzi, discovered on 1991 in the Italian Schnal Valley glacier, displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano, Italy on February 28, 2011

A statue representing “iceman” mummy Oetzi, discovered on 1991 in the Italian Schnal Valley glacier, displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano, Italy on February 28, 2011

Original Article:

phys.org

 

Oetzi the famous “iceman” mummy of the Alps appears to have enjoyed a fine slice or two of Stone Age bacon before he was killed by an arrow some 5,300 years ago.

His last meal was most likely dried goat meat, according to scientists who recently managed to dissect the contents of Oetzi’s stomach.

“We’ve analysed the meat’s nanostructure and it looks like he ate very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon,” German mummy expert Albert Zink said at a talk in Vienna late Wednesday.

More specifically, the tasty snack is thought to have come from a wild goat in South Tyrol, the northern Italian region where Oetzi roamed around and where his remains were found in September 1991.

Mummified in ice, he was discovered by two German hikers in the Oetztal Alps, 3,210 metres (10,500 feet) above sea level.

Scientists have used hi-tech, non-invasive diagnostics and genomic sequencing to penetrate his mysterious past.

These efforts have determined Oetzi died around the age of 45, was about 1.60 metres (five foot, three inches) tall and weighed 50 kilos (110 pounds).

He suffered a violent death, with an arrow severing a major blood vessel between the rib cage and the left shoulder blade, as well as a laceration on the hand.

As part of their latest discoveries, Zink’s team also found that Oetzi had an ulcer-inducing bacteria and may have suffered from stomach aches.

But for all his parasites, worn ligaments and bad teeth, he was in “pretty good shape”, Zink wrote in the renowned US magazine Science earlier this month.

 

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 Humans living in Argentina 14,000 years ago were hunting giant armadillos. This one looks especially grumpy.

Humans living in Argentina 14,000 years ago were hunting giant armadillos. This one looks especially grumpy.

 

Original Article:

By ANNALEE NEWITZ

arstechnica.com

 

A glimpse of the last people on Earth to colonize a continent without humans.

 

For more than a decade, evidence has been piling up that humans colonized the Americas thousands of years before the Clovis people. The Clovis, who are the early ancestors of today’s Native Americans, left abundant evidence of their lives behind in the form of tools and graves. But the mysterious pre-Clovis humans, who likely arrived 17,000 to 15,000 years ago, have left only a few dozen sources of evidence for their existence across the Americas, mostly at campsites where they processed animals during hunting trips. Now a fresh examination of one such campsite, a 14,000-year-old hunter’s rest stop outside the city of Tres Arroyos in Argentina, has given us a new understanding of how the pre-Clovis people might have lived.

Archaeologists are still uncertain how the pre-Clovis people arrived in the Americas. They came after the end of the ice age but at a time when glaciers and an icy, barren environment would still have blocked easy entrance into the Americas via Northern Canada. So it’s extremely unlikely that they marched over a land bridge from Siberia and into the Americas through the middle of the continent—instead, they would have come from Asia via a coastal route, frequently using boats for transport. That would explain why many pre-Clovis sites are on the coast, on islands, or on rivers that meet the ocean.
These early settlers were hunter-gatherers who used stone tools for a wide range of activities, including hunting, butchery, scraping hides, preparing food, and making other tools out of bone and wood. Many of the pre-Clovis stone tools look fairly simple and were made by using one stone to flake pieces off the other, thus creating sharp edges. At the campsite in Argentina, known as the Arroyo Seco 2 site, archaeologists have found more than 50 such tools made from materials like chert and quartzite. They’re scattered across an area that was once a grassy knoll above a deep lake, which is rich with thousands of animal bone fragments that have been carbon dated to as early as 14,000 years ago. There are even a couple-dozen human burials at the site, dated to a later period starting roughly 9,000 years ago. The spot has the characteristic look of a hunter’s camp, used for processing animals, that was revisited seasonally for thousands of years.

Writing in PLoS One, the researchers describe a number of reasons why a bunch of sharp-edged rocks and broken animal bones point to a 14,000-year-old human occupation of Argentina. First of all, there are far too many animal bones from a diversity of species grouped in one place for it to be accidental. Yes, there are some natural traps where we find massive numbers of prehistoric bones, but those are almost always in holes or depressions in the ground—and this area was on a rather high hill during the Pleistocene. Second, the stones aren’t just sharp-edged in a way that suggests flaking; many also show signs of wear and tear from scraping hide. “A large majority of the flaked edges were used transversely on dry skin,” the researchers write. “Consequently, it is likely that the skins were brought to the site in a state of intermediate processing.” Also, most of the stone used for the tools, including quartzite and chert, can only be found over 110km from Arroyo Seco. So that piece of evidence also points to human hunter-gatherers carrying tools with them over great distances.
The Pleistocene diet

One question remains. How can we be sure the tools at the site really are 14,000 years old? Archaeologists infer some of this from carbon dates on the animal bones, which have been tested by several labs around the world. The problem is that the site’s stratigraphy, or historical layers, are difficult to read due to erosion at the site. So even if a tool appears right next to a bone in a given layer, it may have come from later and been moved around by wind and water. That said, there is evidence that some of the early bones were broken by stone tools. A 14,000-year-old bone from Equus neogeus, an extinct American horse, bears distinct marks from a hammerstone. “This bone was intentionally broken while still fresh,” note the researchers.

With a firm connection between the human tools and the animal bones found at Arroyo Seco, we can begin to piece together what everyday life was like for these people—at least at mealtime. Analysis of more than 600 bone fragments out of thousands found at the site revealed that a large amount of these people’s meat came from animals that no longer exist. Various extinct horse species were a major part of the pre-Clovis diet, as were other extinct mammals like giant ground sloths, camels, mammoths, and giant armadillos. When these people arrived in South America, they found a land that no human had ever colonized. Many of these species would have been easy pickings for well-organized bands of hunters with sophisticated languages, tools, and tactics. Some paleoecologists hypothesize that these animals went extinct partly due to human hunting, and this campsite definitely provides evidence that extinct animals were part of the pre-Clovis diet for millennia. That said, Arroyo Seco contains far more bones from guanaco (a local relative of the camel) and rodents than it does from extinct mammals.

The absence of certain bones can tell us about how these people lived, too. Though there are bones from megafauna like the giant sloth Megatherium, we see no skulls, chest, or pelvic bones from the animal. The researchers speculate that’s because hunters would have done an initial butchery at the site where they killed or scavenged the animal and then transported parts of it to be processed at camp:

Given the body mass of this species (between 4 and 5 tons), it would have been extremely difficult to transport the entire carcass and even challenging to transport complete hindquarters weighing between 600 and 750 kg, and forequarters weighing between 250 and 300 kg. Taking into consideration these values, the best hypothesis is that the Megatherium was hunted or scavenged near the site, the skeleton was butchered into smaller parts, and these units were then transported to their current location at the site. The larger bones were transported with portions of meat already removed, and the bone may have been used for other purposes such as bone quarrying.

Of the extinct mammals that humans processed at Arroyo Seco, the most common seems to be horse. When people arrived in the Americas, it was full of at least two species of extinct horses. But by the time of the Inca and other great civilizations of South America, those animals were long gone. It wasn’t until Europeans arrived with their steeds that the continent was once again populated with horses.

Still, we can look back and imagine what it must have been like for those pre-Clovis people, entering a world where no human had ever gone before, full of animals that are legendary to us today. In many ways, they lived on a different planet than the one we inhabit now. At the edge of a now mostly vanished lake, on a knoll, those people fed their families, made tools, and strategized about how to hunt for game bigger than anything on land in the modern world. They returned year after year for centuries. Eventually, they buried their dead there among the animal bones left by their ancestors.

 

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Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich

Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich

 

Original Article:

popular-archaeology.com

 

BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY—An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley.

Members of the research team are from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany; and the University of Haifa, Israel; The James Hutton Institute, UK; University of California, Santa Cruz, USA; University of Minnesota St. Paul, USA; University of Tübingen, Germany.

The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge.

Oldest plant genome reconstructed to date

Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.

“These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region,” explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. “For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.

Domestication of barley completed very early

Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. “It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa,” explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa.

“Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region,” explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. “This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early.”

The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called ‘landraces’ (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, “the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley – a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

Immigrants “trust” in extant landraces

Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. “This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces.

New insights into the origins of our crop plants

Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. “This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants.”

Source: Bar-Ilan University news release.

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The mammoth was found on the left bank of Yenisey river, not far from Sopochnaya Karga meterological station. Pictures: Vladimir Pitulko, Alexei Tikhonov

The mammoth was found on the left bank of Yenisey river, not far from Sopochnaya Karga meterological station. Pictures: Vladimir Pitulko, Alexei Tikhonov

inside_excavations_1

 

Original article:

siberiantimes.com

By Anna Liesowska

30 May 2016

 

When Science journal earlier this year highlighted an ancient woolly mammoth with suspected spear wounds it provoked media interest around the world. Until now, the pictures of the remarkable prehistoric ‘injuries’ were not widely seen outside academic circles.

Today The Siberian Times is publishing the images which respected Russian scientists believe is clear proof of ancient man’s attacks on a creature preserved in the permafrost.

If true, the implications are enormous. It would mean, firstly, that man was present in the frozen Arctic wastes a full 10,000 years earlier than previously understood.

Yet it would also establish that early Siberians were just 2,895 miles (4,660 kilometres) from what was then a land bridge between modern Russia and Alaska. A long distance, for sure, but far from insurmountable, opening the possibility that Stone Age Siberians colonised the Americas at this early point.

The 15-year-old male mammoth died on the eastern bank of the giant Yenisei River in northern Siberia, and its remains were found by a 11 year old schoolboy in 2012. It is known variously as the Zhenya mammoth, after the boy who found it, and the Sopkarginsky mammoth, deriving from the location where it was found.

Forensic analysis of the remains – which included still-preserved soft tissue – found evidence that the animal, now long extinct, was hunted and killed by early man using primitive weapons and tools made of bone and stone.

Dr Vladimir Pitulko, lead author of the study published in Science, told The Siberian Times: ‘Most likely the hunters threw relatively light spears. It is a usual hunting tactic, in particular in elephant hunts, which is still practiced in Africa.

‘An elephant is bombarded with a large number of light spears. Then, pierced with such ‘needles’ like a hedgehog, the animal starts losing blood. Even a light spear can penetrate quite deep and injure the vital organs.

‘The mobility of the animal is seriously limited, and then it is soon possible to finish it with a strait blow. I think that the same happened to the Sopkarginsky mammoth.’

He said: ‘The most remarkable injury is to the fifth left rib, caused by a slicing blow, inflicted from the front and somewhat from above in a downward direction. Although it was a glancing blow, it was strong enough to go through skin and muscles and damage the bone.

‘A similar but less powerful blow also damaged the second right front rib. Such blows were aimed at internal organs and/or blood vessels.

‘The mammoth was also hit in the left scapula at least three times. Two of these injuries were imparted by a weapon, which went downwards through the skin and muscles, moving from the top and side. These markings indicate injuries evidently left by relatively light throwing spears.

‘A much more powerful blow damaged the spine of the left scapula. It may have been imparted by a thrusting spear, practically straight from the front at the level of the coracoid process. The weapon went through the shoulder skin and muscle, almost completely perforating the spine of the scapula.

‘Taking into account the scapula’s location in the skeleton and the estimated height of this mammoth, the point of impact would be approximately 1500 mm high, in other words, the height of an adult human’s shoulder.’

Another injury – possibly evidence of a mis-directed blow – was spotted on the left jugal bone. The blow was evidently very strong and was suffered by the animal from the left back and from top down, which is only possible if the animal was lying down on the ground.

Dr Pitulko, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St Petersburg, believes that it was ‘the final blow’, which was aimed to the base of the trunk.

Modern elephant hunters still use this method ‘to cut major arteries and cause mortal bleeding’. Yet in this case the prehistoric hunters obviously missed and struck the jugal bone instead.

Luckily the spear left the clear trace on the bone, making possible to learn what kind of weapon it was.

The bone was studied with X-ray computed tomography – a CT scan – by Dr Konstantin Kuper, from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk. He also created a 3D model of the injury in the bone. This led to the conclusion that the tip of the weapon was made of stone and had a thinned symmetric outline – and was relatively sharp.

Paleontologist Dr Alexei Tikhonov, from the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who lead the excavations, said: ‘It’s hard to say which blow was the mortal one, at least judging by the traces on the bones.

‘There was quite a strong blow to the scapula, yet I think it was rather the totality of wounds that caused the death. It is interesting that the most of the injuries are on the left side of the animal.

‘I would suppose that the hunters could attack the mammoth which was already lying on the ground. When we examined the skull, we noticed the abnormal development of the upper jaw.

‘We believe that this mammoth got a kind of injury at a very young age, which impacted on its left side. There was no left tusk and I presume that the left side was weak, so it could help the hunters kill the animal.’

The injuries found on the bones also gave clues what did the hunters with the mammoth after they killed it. The right tusk had the traces of human interference on the tip of the tusk.

They did not try and pull the entire tusk off the killed mammal but instead tried to remove ‘long slivers of ivory with sharp edges, which were usable as butchering tools’, said Dr Pitulko.

A butchery mark was also found on the fifth left rib, seen as evidence that the hunters cut meat from the carcass to take it with them. Ancient man also extracted the mammoth tongue, seen as a probable delicacy to these hunters.

Yet the theory that the animal was butchered does not convince all experts.

Dr Robert Park, a professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, wrote in an email to Discover, that the skeleton is not consistent with other evidence from early human hunters.

He wrote: ‘The most convincing evidence that it wasn’t butchered is the fact that the archaeologists recovered the mammoth’s fat hump. Hunter-gatherers in high latitudes need fat both for its food value and as fuel. So the one part of the animal that we would not expect hunters to leave behind is fat.’

But Dr Pitulko countered: ‘Yes, ancient man – and not so ancient, in fact – has used and uses animal fat as fuel and food, nothing to argue about here. Why in this very case they did not use their prey in full is impossible to say.

‘There may be dozens of reasons, for example – they could not – the carcass was lying at the water’s edge, and it was late autumn. Or they did not have time: the carcass fell into the water on thin coastal ice. Or it did not correspond to their plans – they killed the poor animal just to have a meal and replenish the supply of food for a small group.’

They might have killed another animal nearer to their camp, and so abandoned this one. He said ‘a thousand and one reasons’ might explain not purloining the fat.

The expert added: ‘I believe that the main reason for hunting mammoths were their tusks. Mammoth as a source of food wasn’t very necessary although I believe they were useful.

‘People needed tusks because they were living in landscapes free of forests, so called mammoth steppe. In the course of time, a technology to produce spears out of tusks was developed.’

On the significance for the New World, he told Discovery the human role in killing the mammoth ‘is especially important’ because ‘now we know that eastern Siberia up to its Arctic limits was populated starting at roughly 50,000 years ago’.

 

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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.

 

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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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CAPTION An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago. CREDIT Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University

CAPTION
An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago.
CREDIT
Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University

 

Original Article:

eurekalert.org

January, 2016

Ancient extinction of giant Australian bird points to humans

The first direct evidence that humans played a substantial role in the extinction of the huge, wondrous beasts inhabiting Australia some 50,000 years ago — in this case a 500-pound bird — has been discovered by a University of Colorado Boulder-led team.

The flightless bird, known as Genyornis newtoni, was nearly 7 feet tall and appears to have lived in much of Australia prior to the establishment of humans on the continent 50,000 years ago, said CU-Boulder Professor Gifford Miller. The evidence consists of diagnostic burn patterns on Genyornis eggshell fragments that indicate humans were collecting and cooking its eggs, thereby reducing the birds’ reproductive success.

“We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna,” said Miller, associate director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent.”

A paper on the subject appears online Jan. 29, in Nature Communications.

In analyzing unburned Genyornis eggshells from more than 2,000 localities across Australia, primarily from sand dunes where the ancient birds nested, several dating methods helped researchers determine that none were younger than about 45,000 years old. Burned eggshell fragments from more than 200 of those sites, some only partially blackened, suggest pieces were exposed to a wide range of temperatures, said Miller, a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Geological Sciences.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating, a method used to determine when quartz grains enclosing the eggshells were last exposed to sunlight, limits the time range of burned Genyornis eggshell to between 54,000 and 44,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating indicated the burnt eggshell was no younger than about 47,000 years old.

The blackened fragments were likely burned in transient, human fires — presumably to cook the eggs — rather than in wildfires, he said.

Amino acids — the building blocks of proteins -decompose in a predictable fashion inside eggshells over time. In eggshell fragments burned at one end but not the other, there is a tell-tale “gradient” from total amino acid decomposition to minimal amino acid decomposition, he said. Such a gradient could only be produced by a localized heat source, likely an ember, and not from the sustained high heat produced regularly by wildfires on the continent both in the distant past and today.

Miller also said the researchers found many of the burnt Genyornis eggshell fragments in tight clusters less than 10 feet in diameter, with no other eggshell fragments nearby. Some individual fragments from the same clusters had heat gradient differences of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions virtually impossible to reproduce with natural wildfires there, he said.

“We can’t come up with a scenario that a wildfire could produce those tremendous gradients in heat,” Miller said. “We instead argue that the conditions are consistent with early humans harvesting Genyornis eggs, cooking them over fires, and then randomly discarding the eggshell fragments in and around their cooking fires.”

Another line of evidence for early human predation on Genyornis eggs is the presence of ancient, burned eggshells of emus — flightless birds weighing only about 100 pounds and which still exist in Australia today — in the sand dunes. Emu eggshells exhibiting burn patterns similar to Genyornis eggshells first appear on the landscape about 50,000 years ago, signaling they most likely were scorched after humans arrived in Australia, and are found fairly consistently to modern times, Miller said.

The Genyornis eggs are thought to have been roughly the size of a cantaloupe and weighed about 3.5 pounds, Miller said.

Genyornis roamed the Australian outback with an astonishing menagerie of other now-extinct megafauna that included a 1,000-pound kangaroo, a 2-ton wombat, a 25-foot-long-lizard, a 300-pound marsupial lion and a Volkswagen-sized tortoise. More than 85 percent of Australia’s mammals, birds and reptiles weighing over 100 pounds went extinct shortly after the arrival of the first humans.

The demise of the ancient megafauna in Australia (and on other continents, including North America) has been hotly debated for more than a century, swaying between human predation, climate change and a combination of both, said Miller. While some still hold fast to the climate change scenario — specifically the continental drying in Australia from about 60,000 to 40,000 years ago — neither the rate nor magnitude of that change was as severe as earlier climate shifts in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, which lacked the punch required to knock off the megafauna, said Miller.

Miller and others suspect Australia’s first inhabitants traveled to the northern coast of the continent on rafts launched from Indonesian islands several hundred miles away. “We will never know the exact time window humans arrived on the continent,” he said. “But there is reliable evidence they were widely dispersed across the continent before 47,000 years ago.”

Evidence of Australia megafauna hunting is very difficult to find, in part because the megafauna there are so much older than New World megafauna and in part because fossil bones are easily destroyed by the chemistry of Australian soils. said Miller.

“In the Americas, early human predation on the giant animals in clear — stone spear heads are found embedded in mammoth bones, for example,” said Miller. “The lack of clear evidence regarding human predation on the Australia megafauna had, until now, been used to suggest no human-megafauna interactions occurred, despite evidence that most of the giant animals still roamed Australia when humans colonized the continent.”

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Co-authors on the new study include Research Professor Scott Lehman, doctoral student Christopher Florian and researcher Stephen DeVogel of CU-Boulder; Research Fellow John Magee of the Australian National University; and researchers from seven other Australian institutions. The study was funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council.

 

 

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