Thursday, May 14, 2009

Neandertals Sophisticated And Fearless Hunters, New Analysis Shows

ScienceDaily (May 14, 2009) — Neandertals, the 'stupid' cousins of modern humans were capable of capturing the most impressive animals. This indicates that Neandertals were anything but dim. Dutch researcher Gerrit Dusseldorp analysed their daily forays for food to gain insights into the complex behaviour of the Neandertal. His analysis revealed that the hunting was very knowledge intensive.
Although it is now clear that Neandertals were hunters and not scavengers, their exact hunting methods are still something of a mystery. Dusseldorp investigated just how sophisticated the Neandertals' hunting methods really were. His analysis of two archaeological sites revealed that Neandertals in warm forested areas preferred to hunt solitary game but that in colder, less forested areas they preferred to hunt the more difficult to capture herding animals.
The Neandertals were not easily intimated by their game. Rhinoceroses, bisons and even predators such as the brown bear were all on their menu. Dusseldorp established that just as for modern humans, the environment and the availability of food determined the choice of prey and the hunting method adopted. If the circumstances allowed it, Neandertals lived in large groups and even the most attractive and difficult to catch prey were within their reach.
Coordination and communication
Although herding animals are difficult to surprise and isolate, many such game lived on the open steppes. This large supply attracted large groups of Neandertals. That the Neandertals were capable of hunting down such elusive game demonstrates that they had good coordination skills and could communicate well with each other.
Each prey has a specific cost-benefit scenario. For example, game that are more difficult to catch yield more calories and have a more usable, thick fleece. Dusseldorp used these data to examine the Neandertal's preferences. He also analysed the prey of hyenas in the same manner. Hyenas were important competitors of Neandertals as they had a similar dietary pattern.
Dusseldorp demonstrated that Neandertals, thanks to their intelligence, even surpassed hyenas at capturing the strongest game. All things being considered, the Neandertals were skilled and highly intelligent hunters. So the idea that Neandertals were brute musclemen can be dismissed.
This study was part of NWO project "Thoughtful Hunters? The Archaeology of Neandertal Communication and Cognition." Dusseldorp is continuing his research with a postdoc position in Johannesburg. There he shall focus on the modern humans that evolved in Africa.
Adapted from materials provided by Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, via AlphaGalileo.

Ivory sculpture in Germany could be world's oldest


The Venus of Hohle Fels. Foto: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen
( -- The 2008 excavations at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany recovered a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory from the basal Aurignacian deposit. This figurine, which is the earliest depiction of a human, and one of the oldest known examples of figurative art worldwide, was made at least 35,000 years ago. This discovery radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art.
Between September 5 and 15, 2008 excavators at Hohle Fels near the town of Schelklingen recovered the six fragments of carved ivory that form the Venus. The importance of the discovery became apparent on September 9 when an excavator recovered the main piece of the sculpture that represents the majority of the torso. The figurine lay about 3 meters below the current surface of the cave in an area about 20 meters from the cave’s entrance. The finds come from a single quarter meter and were recovered from within 8 cm in the vertical dimension. The Venus from Hohle Fels is nearly complete with only the left arm and shoulder missing. The excellent preservation and the close stratigraphic association of the pieces of the figurine indicate that the Venus experienced little disturbance after deposition.
The figurine originates from a red-brown, clayey silt at the base of about one meter of Aurignacian deposits.The Venus lay in pieces next to a number of limestone blocks with dimension of several decimeters. The find density in the area of the Venus is moderately high with much flint knapping debris, worked bone and ivory, bones of horse, reindeer, cave bear, mammoth, ibex, as well as burnt bone.
Radiocarbon dates from this horizon span the entire range from 31,000 - 40,000 years ago. The fact that the venus is overlain by five Aurignacian horizons that contain a dozen stratigraphically intact anthropogenic features with a total thickness of 70 - 120 cm, suggests that figurine is indeed of an age corresponding to the start of the Aurignacian around 40,000 years ago.
Although much ivory working debris has been recovered from the basal Aurignacian deposits at Hohle Fels and the nearby site of Geißenklösterle, this sculpture is the first example of figurative art recovered from the basal Aurignacian in Swabia. The discovery of the Venus of Hohle Fels refutes claims that figurative representations and other symbolic artifacts first appear the later phases of the Swabian Aurignacian.
The Venus shows a range of entirely unique features as well as a number of characteristics present in later female figurines. The Venus of Hohle Fels lacks a head. Instead an off-centered, but carefully carved ring is located above the broad shoulders of the figurine. This ring, despite being weathered, preserves polish suggesting that the figurine was worn as a pendant. Beneath the shoulders, which are roughly as thick as they are wide, large breasts project forward. The figurine has two short arms with two carefully carved hands with visible fingers resting on the upper part of the stomach below the breasts.
The Venus has a short and squat form with a waist that is slightly narrower than the broad shoulders and wide hips. Multiple deeply incised horizontal lines cover the abdomen from the area below the breast to the pubic triangle. Several of these horizontal lines extend to the back of the figurine and are suggestive of clothing or a wrap of some sort. Microscopic images show that these incisions were created by repeatedly cutting along the same lines with sharp stone tools.
The legs of the Venus are short and pointy. The buttocks and genitals are depicted in more details. The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine where the vulva is visible between the open legs. There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breast, exentuated buttocks and genetalia result from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine. In addition to the many carefully depicted anatomical features, the surface of the Venus preserves numerous lines and deliberate markings.
Many of the features, including the emphasis on sexual attributes and lack of emphasis on the head, face and arms and legs, call to mind aspects of the numerous Venus figurines well known from the European Gravettien, which typically date between 22 and 27 ka BP. The careful depiction of the hands is reminiscent of those of Venuses including that of archetypal Venus of Willendorf, which was discovered 100 years earlier in summer of 1908. Despite the far greater age of the Venus of Hohle Fels, many of its attributes occur in various forms throughout the rich tradition of Paleolithic female representations.
The new figurine from Hohle Fels radically changes our view of origins of Paleolithic art. Prior to this discovery, animals and therianthropic imagry dominated the over two dozen figurines from the Swabian Aurignacian. Female imagry was entirely unknown. With this discovery, the notion that three dimensional female imagry developed in the Gravettian can be rejected. Also the interpretations suggesting that strong, aggressive animals or shamanic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even Europe as a whole, need to be reconsidered. Although there is a long history of debate over the meaning of Paleolithic Venuses, their clear sexual attributes suggest that they are a direct or indirect expression of fertility. The Venus of Hohle Fels provides an entirely new view of the art from the early Upper Paleolithic and reinforces the arguments that have been made for innovative cultural manifestations accompanying the rise of the Swabian Aurignacian.
While many researchers, including Nicholas Conard, assume that the Aurignacian artworks were made by early modern humans shortly after their migration into Europe, this assumption can neither be confirmed or refuted based on the available skeletal data from the Swabian caves.
The Venus of Hohle Fels forms a center piece for a major exhibit in Stuttgart, Germany, entitled Ice Age Art and Culture, which will run from September 18, 2009 - January 10, 2010.
More information: The author of the paper: A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian deposits of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany is Nicholas J. Conard.
Provided by Universitaet Tuebingen

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New dinsour species possible in Northwestern Alberta

The discovery of a gruesome feeding frenzy that played out 73 million years ago in northwestern Alberta may also lead to the discovery of new dinosaur species in northwestern Alberta. University of Alberta student Tetsuto Miyashita and Frederico Fanti, a paleontology graduate student from Italy, made the discovery near Grande Prairie, 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
Miyashita and Fanti came across a nesting site and found the remains of baby, plant-eating and the teeth of a predator. The researchers matched the teeth to a Troodon, a raptor-like dinosaur about two metres in length. This finding has opened new doors in dinosaur research on this part of the continent: "It established that dinosaurs were nesting at this high latitude," said Miyashita. "It also shows for the first time a significant number of Troodons in the area [who] hunted hatchling dinosaurs."
Over the course of two summers of field work Miyashita and Fanti began building a theory that Grande Prairie is a "missing link" between known dinosaur species that existed much further to the north and south. "Prior to this there were no localities with a variety of dinosaurs and other animals between Alaska and southern Alberta," said Myiashita. The list of new finds for the area includes armoured and thick-headed plant eaters and fossilized freshwater fish and reptiles.
Miyashita says this small pocket of previously undiscovered life could have had interactions that lead to the evolution of new species.
"New dinosaurs weren't created by interbreeding," said Miyashita. "Having a variety of dinosaurs in one area creates new ecological interactions such as competition for food and predation.
"That can lead to the evolution of a new species."
One Grande Prairie dinosaur the researchers suspect is a new species is the Duck bill. Miyashita says unlike the Duck bill found further north in Alaska, the Grande Prairie has a visible bump or crest on its forehead. The pair will go back to Grande Prairie area in 2010 to focus on finding other dinosaur species in the area.
More information: Miyashit and Fanti's work was published this month in Palaeogeoraphy, Palaeocilmatology, Palaeoecology.
Source: University of Alberta (news : web)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Method Of Repairing Cadiz’s Walls Has Hardly Changed Since The 17th Century


ScienceDaily (May 11, 2009) — In the year 1596, a sacking at the hands of the Count of Essex almost destroyed the city of Cadiz. Since then, authorities have focused their efforts on establishing a barrier between the city and the sea, a reconstruction task which has accompanied the inhabitants of Cadiz throughout the last 400 years. The problems that Philip II encountered in halting marine erosion are similar to those that exist today, as well as the solutions.
This research project, carried out by researchers from the University of Cadiz and the Andalusian-Atlantic Coasts Department, traces a historic continuity in the tasks of maintaining and reforming Cadiz's walls. Juan José Muñoz, from the department of Applied Physics at the UOC, explains to SINC that the first mention of the city's walls, which Lord Byron baptized as the ¨Siren of the Ocean¨, was in the 13th century, along with the city's repopulation carried out by Alfonso X the Wise. In his Papal Bull of 1263, Pope Urban IV spoke to the King, referring to ¨the reparation that you are carrying out on the Hercules buildings and the restoration of the old walls in a place called Cadiz¨.
Through an exhaustive documentation labour, the authors of the project, ¨The walls of Cadiz and its struggle against the sea¨, published in the latest Revista de Obras Públicas, compared different sources from the 16th century which made reference to the construction or reinforcement processes of these defensive structures. In one of them, one of Philip II's collections officers, named Horozco, recounts the construction of ¨a new and high wall, all made of mason stone, with battlements and towers and parapets in each stretch, with a castle and a fortress of ashlar stone, situated on some very old and very strong foundations¨.
After the city resisted numerous attacks, among which figure those carried out by adversaries as feared as Redbeard or Admiral Drake, in 1596, the Count of Essex managed to overcome the scarce resistance offered by Cadiz, and disembarked through the isthmus which joined the city with the island of San Fernando. According to Muñoz, ¨As a result of the city's destruction, Philip II decided to reconstruct it, after ruling out its abandon and reconversion into a prison¨. That process brought to light, through the writings of the period, the use of oyster stone in its construction, a shell-fish sandstone from the region extracted from the quarry waters of Puerto Real which has been used throughout the centuries.
Even though the progressive construction and reinforcement of the walls and bastions made attacks on the city less frequent, the sea and its sudden attacks have traditionally been the greatest and most constant enemy of this defensive line. Restoration labours have been carried out in an almost permanent fashion. According to Muñoz, ¨this is so much the case, that the authors on many occasions have a feeling of déjà vu when observing old photographs¨.
Of course, progress has given erosion and undermining solutions a greater capacity in site positioning and material resistance in respect of previous centuries, but these are almost the only differences.
The walls of San Rafael and San Miguel, known as the ¨gale walls¨, suffered much more from the elements than from any army. Its remodelling was constant between the 17th and 19th centuries, a time in which many of the grand ideas which are applied up to today were developed, such as a breakwater step at the foot of the wall, forming a dike with a 45º angle so that the waves would bounce off of it and hit the wall with much less force. This solution, proposed by the engineer Ignacio Sala in 1728, was improved on by Juan Cavallero (circa 1772), who proposed setting back the upper part to achieve a ¨wave-bouncing effect¨. According to the researcher, ¨the period's techniques knew the advantages of inclined planes based on granular material to dissipate energy in breaking swells¨.
Then in the 20th century, although a reinforced concrete footing attachment to the wall had been included, the restoration of the southern area of the wall was still being considered-as in previous centuries-with a defence based on blocks, whose size (which before had been calculated by a method of trial and error) began to be defined based on existing scientific-technical knowledge, according to the project.
The study indicates that ¨in 1981, engineers López, Peláez and Fages, from what was then the Headquarters of Ports and Coasts, warned that the blocks from 1949 in the Baluarte de San Roque area had rounded edges and that the swells used them as projectiles against the wall's surface¨. On this occasion, as in the 17th century, the breakwater was again used.
¨Let's take note that the breakwaters placed in previous centuries were cubic in form, very similar in size and weight to the first concrete blocks. As can be seen, the transition from one to the other is not coincidental¨, comments Juan José Muñoz. With the latest labours carried out in 1993, during which the section of the wall in front of the Cárcel Vieja was restored and where the greatest difference in respect of previous designs lay in the wall's inclination angle, a task that has occupied Cadiz during the last 400 years was completed.
Adapted from materials provided by Plataforma SINC.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Unique Roman Glass Dish Discovered At London Grave


ScienceDaily (May 7, 2009) — Archeologists have discovered an exquisite Roman polychrome millefiori dish in East London, U.K. The dish is made up of hundreds of indented glass petals (the term millefiori means simply “a thousand flowers”) in an intricate repeated pattern and was found during excavations in Prescot Street, Aldgate, by L – P : Archaeology. It was highly fragmented but miraculously held together by nothing more than the earth around it.
It has been painstakingly reassembled by Museum of London Archaeology conservator Liz Goodman.
The dish is extremely rare and an unprecedented find, not only from London but from across the Western Roman empire. Originally the blue translucent petals, bordered with white, would have been embedded in a bright red opaque glass matrix. The hue was still present when the dish was uncovered, with the vermillion appearance diminishing as the water-saturated glass dried out. The red colouring can be seen around the rim. The complexity of its manufacture indicates that the dish was a highly-prized and valuable item. Beautifully crafted vessels like this were particularly in vogue in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. Dating is underway to establish the precise period of the find.
The dish formed part of the grave goods of a Roman Londoner whose cremated remains were uncovered, probably buried in a wooden container, in a cemetery in Londinium’s Eastern quarter. A number of other ceramic and glass vessels were also ranged along the sides of the casket, suggesting a rich and unusual burial.
The excavations at Prescot Street have continued the process of the recording of the extensive eastern cemetery of Roman London which, by law, lay outside the city wall. This and previous excavations have found both cremations and inhumations (burial of the body) that spanned over 400 years of Roman occupation from the late 1st to early 5th century. This burial came from an area of intense burials at the eastern end of the site where there was also a stone mausoleum, a possible funerary structure and a series of burial groups which perhaps indicate the on-going use of cemetery plots. Indeed, this particular burial had, at a later date, had another cremation burial interred on the same spot which may point to a family connection.
Liz Goodman, Museum of London Archaeology conservator said ““Piecing together and conserving such a complete artefact offered a rare and thrilling challenge. We occasionally get tiny fragments of millefiori, but the opportunity to work on a whole artefact of this nature is extraordinary. The dish is extremely fragile but the glasswork is intact and illuminates beautifully nearly two millennia after being crafted.”
Guy Hunt, Director, L – P : Archaeology said “The dig at Prescot Street produced an amazing range of Roman cemetery archaeology; it is fantastic for us that one of the many finds is such an exciting and beautiful object. It is great to be able to put an object such as this into context and to get a first hand impression of a rather wealthy east Londoner.”
About Milleflore Glass
Millefiore is a glass-working technique created from glass rods with multi coloured patterns that are only visible at the cut ends – like a stick of rock with the writing only visible once cut. These rods are created by heating and melding lengths of different coloured glass to create an individual pattern. Here, a solid red cane is set at the core with blue and white canes set around it to produce the petal effect. The small cross sections of glass rod are then used to create bigger pieces. It is a very labour intensive – and hence very exclusive – craft.
Adapted from materials provided by Museum Of London.

Small Brain Of Dwarf 'Hobbit' Explained By Hippo's Island Life


ScienceDaily (May 8, 2009) — Ancient Madagascan hippos have shed light on the origins of the small brain of the 1-metre-tall human, known as the hobbit, scientists at the Natural History Museum report in the journal Nature May 7.
By examining the skulls of extinct Madagascan hippos, Museum scientists discovered that dwarfed mammals on islands evolved much smaller brains in relation to their body size.
So Homo floresiensis may have had a tiny brain because it lived on an island. This is something which has been at the heart of the debate of the Hobbit’s origins, whose remains were uncovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.
The team suggests that the hobbit became a dwarf after its Homo erectus ancestor became isolated on the large island of Madagascar many years ago.
‘The discovery of a small fossil human from the island of Flores with normal facial proportions but a brain the size of chimpanzee has baffled scientists,’ explained Natural History Museum palaeontologist, Dr Eleanor Weston, who led the research.
‘It could be that its skull is that of a dwarfed mammal living on an island. Looking at pygmy hippos in Madagascar, which possess exceptionally small brains for their size, suggests that the ‘hobbit’ was a dwarf resulting from its H. erectus ancestors being isolated on the island in the past.’
Analysing hippos
Madagascar has many diverse habitats and in the past, has been the home to at least 3 species of hippo.
The team studied species of extinct Madagascan hippos and their mainland ancestor, the large common hippopotamus.
One of the specimens used, from the Museum’s mammal collection, was a nearly 3000-year-old dwarf hippo skull belonging to the extinct Hippopotamus madagascariensis.
Brain calculations
Hippo brain-body scaling trends were calculated from the relationship of brain to skull size.
‘We found that the brain sizes of extinct dwarf hippos were still up to 30% smaller than you would expect by scaling down their mainland African ancestor to the dwarf’s body size’ explains Dr Weston.
‘If the hippo model is applied to a typical H. erectus ancestor the resulting brain capacity is comparable to that of H. floresiensis.’
The brain of Homo floresiensis is the smallest yet known for any hominid, at around 400 mL.
A first for brain size
Although the phenomenon of dwarfism on islands is well recognised in large mammals, an accompanying reduction in brain size, as Dr Weston and Museum palaeontologist Professor Adrian Lister found, has never been clearly demonstrated before.
Energy use of brain
It may be advantageous to the survival of animals that become isolated on islands with unique environments, not only to become dwarfs, but also to reduce the size of their brain.
‘The brain is a costly organ that uses a lot of energy,’ says Dr Weston. ‘Whatever the explanation for the tiny brain of floresiensis relative to its body size, it’s likely that the fact that it lived on an island played a significant part in its evolution,’ concludes Dr Weston.
Journal reference:
Weston et al. Insular dwarfism in hippos and a model for brain size reduction in Homo floresiensis. Nature, 2009; 459 (7243): 85 DOI: 10.1038/nature07922
Adapted from materials provided by The Natural History Museum, London.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

'Hobbits' Couldn't Hustle: Feet Of Homo Floresiensis Were Primitive But Not Pathological

ScienceDaily (May 6, 2009) — A detailed analysis of the feet of Homo floresiensis—the miniature hominins who lived on a remote island in eastern Indonesia until 18,000 years ago—may help settle a question hotly debated among paleontologists: how similar was this population to modern humans?
A new research paper, featured on the cover of the May 7 issue of Nature, may answer this question. While the so-called "hobbits" walked on two legs, several features of their feet were so primitive that their gait was not efficient.
"The hobbits were bipedal, but they walked in a different way from modern humans," explains William Harcourt-Smith, a Research Scientist in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and an author on the paper. "Their feet have a combination of human-like and more primitive early hominin traits, some of which are more akin to those in Lucy." Lucy is an early bipedal but small-brained hominin, or australopithecine, that lived in Africa 3.2 million years ago.
The "hobbits," excavated from Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores, were first described in 2004. Known specimens range in age from 90,000 to 18,000 years old, making them contemporaneous with modern humans. This, in combination with the unusually small stature and brain size of H. floresiensis, led to considerable debate among researchers and in the press. Some consider the population a separate species, while others have assessed the fossils as pathological modern humans. But a number of recent analyses of the skull, face, and wrist have found many unusually primitive features among the "hobbits" that are more similar to chimpanzees and Australopithecus, suggesting that the Flores inhabitants represent a remnant population of early hominins.
The anatomy of the foot described in the new paper might finally answer the pathological modern vs. primitive population question. Although the foot is characteristic of a biped—being stiff and having no opposable big toe—many other traits fall outside of the range for modern humans. The H. floresiensis foot is very long in proportion to the lower limb and considerably more than half the length of the thighbone; modern human feet are relatively shorter at about half of the femur's length. The stubby big toe of the hobbits is another primitive, chimp-like trait. But the pivotal clue comes from the navicular bone, an important tarsal bone that helps form the arch in a modern human foot. The "hobbit" navicular bone is more akin to that found in great apes, which means that these hominins lacked an arch and were not efficient long-term runners.
"Arches are the hallmark of a modern human foot," explains Harcourt-Smith. "This is another strong piece of the evidence that the "hobbit" was not like us."
Researchers also assessed the pathology hypothesis by comparing "hobbit" feet to those of typical modern humans and pathological modern specimens such as pituitary dwarfs. While the pathological specimens fell well within the range of modern humans, the "hobbits" did not. This suggests that H. floresiensis was an unusual, isolated population of early hominins.
"The fossil record continues to surprise us," says William Jungers, Chairman of the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University Medical Center, and an author on the study. "H. floresiensis is either an island-dwarfed descendant of H. erectus that not only underwent body-size reduction but also extensive evolutionary reversals, or, as our analysis suggests, it represents a new species full of primitive retentions from an ancestor that dispersed out of Africa much earlier than anyone would have predicted. Either way, the implications for human evolution are profound."
In addition to Jungers and Harcourt-Smith, authors of the research paper include Roshna Wunderlich, James Madison University; Matthew Tocheri, National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution); Susan Larson, Stony Brook Medical Center; Thomas Sutikna and Rhokus Awe Due, National Research and Development Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, Indonesia; and Mike Morwood, University of Wollongong in Australia. Research was funded by grants form the Australian Research Council, the National Geographic Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Wellcome Trust, and the Leakey Foundation.
Adapted from materials provided by American Museum of Natural History, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

World’s Oldest Manufactured Beads Are Older Than Previously Thought

ScienceDaily (May 5, 2009) — A team of archaeologists has uncovered some of the world’s earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt.
The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers. While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they believe this discovery makes them arguably the earliest shell ornaments in prehistory.
The shells are currently at the centre of a debate concerning the origins of modern behaviour in early humans. Many archaeologists regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture. Up until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the ‘bead race’ with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to 72,000 years ago.
Aside from this latest discovery unearthing an even greater number of beads, the research team says the most striking aspect of the Taforalt discoveries is that identical shell types should appear in two such geographically distant regions. As well as Blombos, there are now at least four other Aterian sites in Morocco with Nassarius shell beads. The newest evidence, in a paper by the authors to be published in the next few weeks in the Journal of Quaternary Science Reviews, shows that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago.
Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behaviour were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’
Also leading the research team Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, said: ‘The archaeological and chronological contexts of the Taforalt discoveries suggest a much longer tradition of bead-making than previously suspected, making them perhaps the earliest such ornaments in the world.’
Archaeologists widely believe that humans in Europe first started fashioning purely symbolic objects about 40,000 years ago, but in Africa this latest evidence shows that humans were engaged in this activity at least 40,000 years before this.
Excavations in April 2009 also continued in the upper levels of Taforalt to investigate a large well-preserved cemetery dating to around 12,500 years ago. The project, co-ordinated by Dr Louise Humphrey, from the Natural History Museum in London, has found adult as well as infant burials at the site. The infant burials throw an interesting light on early burial traditions as many of the infants seem to be buried singly beneath distinctive blue stones with the undersides smeared with red ochre. By contrast, studies by Dr Elaine Turner of the Römisch Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, show that the adults’ grave pits were generally marked by the horn cores of wild barbary sheep. Taforalt remains the largest necropolis of the Late Stone Age period in North Africa presently under excavation.
Professor Barton said: ‘Taking our new discovery of the shell beads at Taforalt, together with the discoveries of the decorated burials excavated by Dr Louise Humphrey, it shows that the cave must have retained its special interest for different groups of people over many thousands of years. One of its unique attractions and a focal point of interest seems to have been a freshwater spring that rises next to the cave.’
Adapted from materials provided by University of Oxford.

Dinosaur-Bird Link: Ancient Proteins Preserved In Soft Tissue From 80 Million-Year-Old Hadrosaur


ScienceDaily (May 1, 2009) — Ancient protein dating back 80 million years to the Cretaceous geologic period has been preserved in bone fragments and soft tissues of a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, according to a study in the May 1 issue of Science.
Led by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and North Carolina State University (NCSU), the research support earlier results from analyses suggesting that collagen protein survived in the bones of a well preserved Tyrannosaurus rex, and offer robust new evidence supporting previous conclusions that birds and dinosaurs are evolutionarily related.
In April 2007 John Asara, PhD, Director of the Mass Spectrometry Core at BIDMC, together with NCSU paleontologist Mary Schweitzer, PhD, published two papers in Science describing their discovery that collagen extracted from bone fragments of a 68-million-year-old T. rex closely matched the amino acid sequences of modern day chickens. Not surprisingly, the widely publicized findings created a great deal of controversy.
"With this new paper, we hoped to show that our T. rex discovery was not a unique occurrence," notes Asara, who is also an Instructor in Pathology at Harvard Medical School. "This is the second dinosaur species we've examined and helps verify that our first discovery was not just a one-hit wonder. Our current study was the collaborative effort of a number of independent laboratories, whose findings collectively add up to a robust conclusion."
At the heart of the controversy is the idea that ancient protein can exist at all. When an animal dies, protein immediately begins to degrade and, in the case of fossils, is slowly replaced by mineral, a substitution process assumed to be complete by 1 million years. But with this latest evidence, it appears that some proteins do indeed have real staying power.
"We wound up identifying nearly double the number of amino acids we recovered in the T. rex study," says Asara. "The sequences displayed high spectral quality and the interpretations were of high confidence."
The two scientists had decided to collaborate again after Schweitzer and paleontologist Jack Horner of Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies recovered the 80-million-year-old Brachylophosaurus canadensis femur bone in the summer of 2007 and observed that it appeared to be even better preserved than the original T. rex fossil.
Schweitzer's initial laboratory analyses confirmed this observation: After being subjected to demineralization, the B. canadensis bone fragments showed marked preservation of original tissues and molecules, with microstructures resembling soft, transparent vessels, cells and fibrous matrix – even though the fossil was much older than the T. rex sample.
"Deep burial in sandstone seems to favor exceptional preservation," notes Schweitzer, explaining that this fossil was found under approximately seven meters of sandstone in the Judith River Formation, in parts of what is now Eastern Montana.
Chemical extractions of bone and vessel were subsequently sent to the laboratories of BIDMC scientists Lewis Cantley, PhD, and Raghu Kalluri, PhD, where immunoblots and immunochemistry analyses were conducted to determine the presence of collagen protein in the samples.
"Having been a part of the T. rex study, I was curious to be part of this investigation as well," explains Cantley, Chief of the Division of Signal Transduction at BIDMC. "In view of the skepticism about the original findings, it was important to demonstrate that our findings in T. rex could be verified in another dinosaur and in other laboratories."
The results confirmed the existence of protein. "Because I am a collagen biochemist, our lab was contacted to perform an independent analysis of this new bone find," explains Kalluri, who is Chief of the Division of Matrix Biology at BIDMC. "We isolated the proteins – collagen, laminin and elastin – from the bone, and also extracted bone cells and blood vessels from this sample. Our findings demonstrated that it did contain basement membrane matrix."
In addition, In situ mass spectrometry studies conducted at Montana State University by Recep Avci and Zhiyong Suo independently verified amino acids in dinosaur tissues, including the collagen signature amino acid, hydroxylated proline.
From there, using a combination of two mass spectrometry technologies – linear ion trap and hybrid linear ion trap/orbitrap – Asara was able to improve upon the techniques he had used in analyzing both the T. rex specimen and specimens from bones of other prehistoric animals including a 300,000-year-old mammoth and mastodon.
At the beginning of the study, Asara explains, his lab used an ion trap mass spectrometer, which captures and holds peptides through time so that after the collected peptides are measured for mass they are isolated and fragmented to reveal their amino acid sequence. Then, while the study was in progress, his lab acquired a high-resolution and highly mass-accurate Orbitrap XL mass spectrometer, which was used during the second half of the analysis.
"Because it is capable of sub 2 ppm mass accuracy, the Orbitrap allowed us to make more confident sequence calls than we did in the T. rex study," Asara explains. "For example, the mass difference between a hydroxyproline amino acid residue [which is plentiful in collagen] and a leucine or isoleucine residue is only 0.0364 Da. Although this very small measurement proved to be an obstacle for the ion trap, it was not a problem for the Orbitrap." Material for mass spectrometry sequence analysis was also sent to the lab of William Lane at Harvard University and mass spectrometry sequence data were independently verified by John Cottrell, PhD, at Matrix Science in London, UK.
The end result was a total of eight collagen peptides and 149 amino acids from four different samples, sequences that held up when multiple validation steps were performed, including comparisons with synthetic peptides using a spectral comparison algorithm and statistical evaluation.
In the final portion of the study, coauthor Chris Organ, PhD, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, conducted a rigorous phylogenetic analysis of the identified sequences to determine B. canadensis' place within the evolutionary tree of animals. The B. canadensis collagen sequence data were compared to a database of collagen sequence data from 21 species of living animals and sequences from two other fossils, mastodon and T. rex. The results placed B. canadensis on the same family-tree branch with T. rex, in the same group as chicken and ostrich, and more distantly, to alligator and lizard.
"The phylogenetic analysis yielded clear results, but the placement of the extinct dinosaurs still rests on a limited amount of sequence data," notes Organ. "There is not enough sequence data to correctly parse out the relationships within Dinosauria [the group containing B. canadensis, T. rex and the two birds] but the group as a whole is well supported by the analysis, which is consistent with studies based on morphology."
Ultimately, notes Asara, "We were able to achieve these results, in part, because the mass spectrometry systems that our lab has set up for cancer research are capable of a similar concentration range – low to sub femtomole -- needed for ancient fossil protein sequencing. We hope to meet with similar success when it comes to identifying novel signaling proteins from cancerous tissues."
This study was funded, in part, through grants from the National Science Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Merck Postdoctoral Science Research Fellowship, the National Institutes of Health and the Taplin Funds for Discovery, Harvard Medical School.
In addition to Asara and Schweitzer, coauthors include BIDMC investigators Lewis Cantley, Raghu Kalluri, Lisa Freimark, Valerie Lebleu, and Michael Duncan II; Wenxia Zheng of North Carolina State University; Chris Organ, John Neveu and William Lane of Harvard University; Recep Avci, and Zhiyong Suo of Montana State University; John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies (MT); Matthew Vander Heiden of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; and John Cottrell of Matrix Science, London, UK.
Journal reference:
Mary H. Schweitzer, Wenxia Zheng, Chris L. Organ, Recep Avci, Zhiyong Suo, Lisa M. Freimark, Valerie S. Lebleu, Michael B. Duncan, Matthew G. Vander Heiden, John M. Neveu, William S. Lane, John S. Cottrell, John R. Horner, Lewis C. Cantley, Raghu Kalluri, and John M. Asara. Biomolecular Characterization and Protein Sequences of the Campanian Hadrosaur B. canadensis. Science, 2009; 324 (5927): 626 DOI: 10.1126/science.1165069
Adapted from materials provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.