Saturday, April 30, 2011

Monkeys, Brains, and Human Evolution: New Findings

Two recently conducted studies may add some possible new revelations related to our understanding of human or primate evolution. In one, researchers have concluded that certain monkeys, like humans, have the ability to recall or remember things and then even apply those memories to novel situations, suggesting the possibility that recollection did not necessarily depend upon language and that this ability may have been present in a common primate ancestor 30 million years ago. In another, researchers are suggesting that a single gene mutation may have controlled or directed the evolution of the cerebral cortex of the human brain over the last 5 million years.

Study No. 1

Having a memory like a monkey may not be quite as bad as it sounds. A recent study conducted by Benjamin Basile and Robert Hampton of Emory University shows that rhesus monkeys are capable of not only recognizing things they have seen before, but can also recollect or recall images and impressions from the past by recreating them in a new situation.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bear DNA is clue to age of Chauvet cave art

EXPLORING a gorge in south-east France in 1994 for prehistoric artefacts, Jean-Marie Chauvet hit the jackpot. After squeezing through a narrow passage, he found himself in a hidden cavern, the walls of which were covered with paintings of animals.

But dating the beautiful images - which featured in Werner Herzog's recent documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams - has led to an ugly spat between archaeologists. Could the bones of cave bears settle the debate?

Within a year of Chauvet's discovery, radiocarbon dating suggested the images were between 30,000 and 32,000 years old, making them almost twice the age of the famous Lascaux cave art in south-west France (see map). The result "polarised the archaeological world", says Andrew Lawson, a freelance archaeologist based in Salisbury, UK.

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Archaeologists Explore Site for Answers About First European Farmers

It is a small, quiet village in Bulgaria. Before now, few people knew of its existence. It sits adjacent to mountains in a river valley and any photographer might say that, from a distance and at the proper elevation, viewing it from afar would be a scenic experience. What may place this little village on the map, however, has nothing to do with scenery. In the coming months, it will be the focus of a group of archaeologists who hope to find some answers to questions about the first farmers of Europe.

Nestled in the small Middle Struma River Valley in southwestern Bulgaria, a site near the town of Ilindentsi is one of six early Neolithic settlements that have been mapped by scientists as archaeological sites that contain evidence left behind by some of Europe's earliest agriculturalists. Initial excavation probes were conducted at the site from 2004 to 2009 by archaeologists from the Blagoevgrad Regional Museum of History.

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Four Individuals Caught in 'Death Trap' May Shed Light on Human Ancestors

Finding one partial skeleton of an ancient member of the human family is the rarest of rare discoveries in human evolution. So, paleoanthropologists murmured in surprise at a meeting here Saturday when South African researchers announced that they had found at least four individuals of a new species of early human, Australopithecus sediba. The discoverers say that this hominin shows some surprisingly modern traits and its species may even be an ancestor of our own genus. “We really have found something very, very odd and very unexpected,” says discovery team leader Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. But other paleoanthropologists are waiting for more detailed analysis of the still-unpublished fossils before they agree on its identity or place in the human family tree.

The four hominin individuals died when they fell into a “death trap” in a cave about 2 million years ago at Malapa, South Africa, according to new dates reported by Berger in his talk at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA). In addition to the articulated partial skeletons of a youth and an older female unveiled last year in Science, the team members reported the discovery of bones of an 18-month-old infant and at least one other adult. This means they are getting a good look at Au. sediba’s development from infancy to old age. “It is going to be a remarkable record,” Berger said. “And we still haven’t found everything!”

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Cavemen, Cave Bears Battled Over Turf

After prehistoric humans and cave bears competed for the same real estate, the bears were wiped out. But are our ancestors to blame?

Cavemen may have had to jostle with bears to settle into caves up to 32,000 years ago, as research shows cave bears lived in the same spaces coveted by prehistoric humans.

The new study on cave bears, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, may also shed light on the age of cave art depicting these enormous animals and why the bears eventually went extinct.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Did Lucy's species butcher animals?

In August 2010 archaeologists announced that they had discovered evidence that pushed back the origin of butchery nearly 800,000 years. Studying bones of cow- and goat-size animals dated to around 3.4 million years ago from a site in Ethiopia called Dikika, Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues observed several distinctive marks. After conducting an extensive analysis of the marks, the team determined that they resulted from butchery with stone tools, although no implements were recovered at the site. Because the only human remains known from Dikika belong to Australopithecus afarensis—the species to which the famous Lucy fossil belongs—the researchers concluded A. afarensis was the butcher.

The discovery made a big splash, because scientists thought stone tool use and butchery originated with human ancestors more advanced than Lucy's kind. Furthermore, according to conventional wisdom, A. afarensis relied primarily on plant foods.

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Mass burial suggests massacre at Iron Age hill fort

Archaeologists have found evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare at a hill fort in Derbyshire.

A burial site contained only women and children - the first segregated burial of this kind from Iron Age Britain.

Nine skeletons were discovered in a section of ditch around the fort at Fin Cop in the Peak District.

Scientists believe "perhaps hundreds more skeletons" could be buried in the ditch, only a small part of which has been excavated so far.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Was Eurasia a stone's throw for early humans?

Picture this scene: it’s 1.8 million years ago in the southern reaches of the Caucasus Mountains and a powerful feline, an ancestor of the modern jaguar, has just made a kill. The predator retreats to a secluded gully where it can feed on the bloodied carcass at its leisure. Suddenly a volley of rocks rains down, delivering painful blows and forcing the big cat to abandon its dinner and withdraw. Moments later, a band of prehistoric humans scrambles down the gully to claim the prize. Chalk up another victory for the diminutive scavengers whose relatives will one day take over the planet.

The scenario is speculative, but based on evidence unearthed at the Dmanisi excavation site in the Republic of Georgia and presented earlier this month at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Sacramento, California.

Reid Ferring, a geoarchaeologist at the University of North Texas, has championed the idea, which arose from his ongoing interest in the numbers and arrangements of stones found at the dig. The stones or 'cobbles' are intriguing, he says, because they are otherwise nonexistent in the layers of volcanic sediment that encase the ancient site. “There’s no possible way they got there naturally,” he says of the nearly 200 stones he’s studied.

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Roman kilns and Bronze Age remains at Plumley Wood

rchaeological fieldwork carried out in advance of mineral extraction unearthed a group of pottery kilns dating from the late Roman period. This is one of several discoveries revealed by Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) during the course of quarrying in the area and includes an important Late Palaeolithic site just to the south at Somerley.

The New Forest has long been recognized as an important centre of pottery production in Roman Britain, its products being widely traded throughout the province. It is, however, a somewhat surprising location for site director Andy Taylor and his team to find such an industry. The main drawback being the lack of locally available clay suitable for potting. It appears that the supply of timber for fuel was more important than the lack of clay.

The pottery produced here is distinctive for its shiny appearance, which seems to have been intended to imitate metallic vessels (silver or pewter); and even the shapes also seem to copy metal vessel shapes, such as the very typical indented beaker (see photograph).

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Scientists speak out to discredit 'gay caveman' media reports

Reports that surfaced last week about the remains of a "gay caveman" found in the Czech Republic have prompted scientists to take on an unlikely foe -- an overhyped news media that may be overblowing the archaeological find.

"Dudes! I could be wrong, but I think that to have a 'gay caveman,' you need a skeleton that is both gay and a caveman. And this ain't either!" John Hawks, an associate professor of anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote on his blog in bold type.

Hawks joined a chorus of fellow paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and other bone experts who carefully dissected media reports about the dig, which began to increase after first appearing in British and Czech newspapers.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

'Gay Caveman' Story Overblown, Archaeologists Say

Archaeologists in Prague say they've uncovered a Stone-Age man buried in a position usually reserved for women — but media claims of a "gay caveman" may be exaggerated, according to some researchers.

The skeleton, which dates back to about 2,500 to 2,800 B.C., was found in the outskirts of Prague. The culture the man belonged to (known as the Corded Ware culture for their pottery decorated with the impressions of twisted cord) was very finicky about grave rituals, reported Iranian news network Press TV, which visited the excavation site. According to the Czech news website, Corded Ware males were usually buried on their right sides with their heads facing east. This man, however, was buried on his left with his head facing west — a traditionally female position.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Neanderthals: Bad luck and its part in their downfall

AS OUR ancestors moved north out of Africa and onto the doorstep to the rest of the world, they came across their long-lost cousins: the Neanderthals. As the popular story goes, the brutish hominins were simply no match for cultured, intelligent Homo sapiens and quickly went extinct.

Maybe, but it's also possible that Neanderthals were simply unlucky and disappeared by chance, mathematicians propose.

We know that humans and Neanderthals got pretty cosy during their time together in the Middle East, 45,000 years ago. Between 1 and 4 per cent of the DNA of modern non-Africans is of Neanderthal origin, implying their ancestors must have interbred before humans moved into Europe (New Scientist, 15 May 2010, p 8).

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What caused Britain's Bronze Age 'recession'?

A large gap in pre-history could signal that Britain underwent an economic downturn over 2,500 years ago.

In history lessons, the three ages of pre-history - Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age - seem to flow together without a gap.

But there is a 300-year period in British history between around 800 BC and 500 BC where experts still struggle to explain what happened, where bronze is in decline and iron was not widely used.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

1,700-year-old African skeleton could be an ancestor

It is hoped a 1,700-year-old African skeleton unearthed in Warwickshire could provide data about the DNA history of later populations and the ethnic origin of modern Britons.

The male skeleton, thought to be of a Roman soldier, was found earlier this year in a Roman cemetery in Stratford.

Discovered by Archaeology Warwickshire, the skeleton is thought to belong to the county's earliest known African.

Further tests aim to determine the man's place of birth.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

New funding unveiled for Stonehenge

Plans to transform the surroundings of Stonehenge came another "crucial" step closer today, English Heritage said as new funding was unveiled.

The £27 million project to build a new centre for visitors and close a road adjacent to the World Heritage Site was hit last year when the new Government announced it was cutting £10 million earmarked for the project.

But it received a boost in October when the Heritage Lottery Fund announced it was more than doubling its contribution to the project to £10 million.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Longer Pregnancy + Breast-Feeding = Bigger Brains, Longer Life Rea

Advice around breast-feeding can drive new mothers mad, but a new study suggests that the long pregnancies and lactation periods of our prehistoric mamas are responsible for the relatively big brains that differentiate humans from other animals.

By comparing 128 species of mammals, researchers at the University of Durham in England sought to answer this question: do large brains make species live longer by making them smarter in cheating death, or is the longer lifespan of big-brained animals simply the result of the fact that big brains require more care and time to grow?

"We already know that large-brained species develop slowly, mature later and have longer lifespans but what has not always been clear is why brains and life histories are related," said Robert Barton, lead author of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a press release.

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