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Monday, April 26, 2010

Lotsa Paleolithic Builders!

Bigger Brained Ancestors?

Discover Article

Evidence for 5% admixture with archaic hominids in modern populations

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to speak Pictish

Published Date: 31 March 2010

Archaeologists and historians have long been baffled by the mysterious
symbols left behind by the Picts, an ancient Scottish race believed to
have left no written records of themselves. While the Picts are
mentioned by their contemporary Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Irish, all
they left to posterity were mysterious elaborate figures carved into
stones. Nobody has yet been able to decipher these symbols, with some
arguing that they are nothing more than decorative or heraldic

However, now a team based in the UK have used an advanced mathematical
technique to show that the Pictish symbols are almost certainly
writing, leading linguists and archaeologists one step closer to
unlocking the mysteries of the Picts. The research, published in
Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, uses Shannon entropy – a measure
of randomness or uncertainty – to analyse the ancient symbols.

The symbols used in written language exhibit certain distinctive
patterns of Shannon entropy which distinguish them from decorative or
heraldic usage. While this type of approach has been used to analyse
writing before, previous investigators have struggled to analyse
symbols where examples are relatively few and far between. Given that
there are only around 250 Pictish symbol stones in existence, nobody
has been able to use this method to decipher the mysterious symbols
until now. In this case the investigators used a novel technique to
estimate the completeness of the existing set of characters, which
allowed them to spot the distinctive patterns characteristic of
written language in the symbol stones.

This new method opens up the possibility that other ancient
inscriptions could be similarly analysed, paving the way to vastly
improved interpretation of many ancient languages that were previously
thought undecipherable. Furthermore, the authors point out that
similar techniques could be used to analyse animal noises, leading to
the possibility of an enhanced understanding of animal communication.

New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered

Once thought to be rock art, carved depictions of soldiers, horses
and other figures are in fact part of a written language dating back
to the Iron Age.

By Jennifer Viegas | Wed Mar 31, 2010 07:00 AM ET

Pictish Carving

Riders and horn blowers appear next to hunting dogs on what is called
the Hilton of Cadboll stone, pictured here.
Rob Knell and Rob Lee


* A new written language, belonging to the early Pict society of
Scotland, has just been identified.
* Stylized rock engravings have been found on hundreds of Pictish
* If the writing can be deciphered, it would provide a unique
insight into early Scottish history.

The ancestors of modern Scottish people left behind mysterious, carved
stones that new research has just determined contain the written
language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland
from 300 to 843.

The highly stylized rock engravings, found on what are known as the
Pictish Stones, had once been thought to be rock art or tied to
heraldry. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal
Society A, instead concludes that the engravings represent the long
lost language of the Picts, a confederation of Celtic tribes that
lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland.

"We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the
writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735)
writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British,
Pictish, Scottish and English," lead author Rob Lee told Discovery
rome wall
WATCH VIDEO: Hadrian's wall protected the Roman provinces of Southern
England from Scottish invasions.

Related Links:

* Scotland's First People Left Behind Toolkit
* HowStuffWorks: Scotland
* Druid Grave Unearthed in UK

"We know that the three other languages were -- and are -- complex
spoken languages, so there is every indication that Pictish was also a
complex spoken language," added Lee, a professor in the School of
Biosciences at the University of Exeter.

He and colleagues Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman analyzed the
engravings, found on the few hundred known Pictish Stones. The
researchers used a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy to
study the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of
each engraving.

The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written
languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written
Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh.
While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they
displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.

Lee explained that writing comes in two basic forms: lexigraphic
writing that is based on speech and semasiography, which is not based
on speech.

"Lexigraphic writing contains symbols that represent parts of speech,
such as words, or sounds like syllables or letters, and tends to be
written in a linear or directional manner mimicking the flow of
speech," he said. "In semasiography, the symbols do not represent
speech -- such as the cartoon symbols used to show you how to build a
flat pack piece of furniture -- and generally do not come in a linear

Although Lee and his team have not yet deciphered the Pictish
language, some of the symbols provide intriguing clues. One symbol
looks like a dog's head, for example, while others look like horses,
trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons and crosses.

The later Pictish Stones also contain images, like Celtic knots,
similar to those found in the Book of Kells and other early works from
nearby regions. These more decorative looking images frame what Lee
and his team believe is the written Pictish language.

"It is unclear at the moment whether the imagery, such as the knots,
form any part of the communication," Lee said. He believes the stones
also contain semasiographic symbols, such as a picture of riders and
horn blowers next to hunting dogs on what is called the Hilton of
Cadboll stone. Yet another stone shows what appears to be a battle

Paul Bouissac, a University of Toronto professor who is one of the
world's leading experts on signs and symbols, told Discovery News that
he agrees "it is more than plausible that the Pictish symbols are
examples of a script, in the sense that they encoded some information,
which also had a spoken form."

What is known about a writing system, however, "does not amount to
deciphering this putative script," Bouissac added.

"We will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish
equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which made possible the cracking of
the Egyptian hieroglyphic code," he said. "This may or may not ever

Pictures and a video at

Dark Night of the Comet

" Intersection with the debris of a large (50-100 km)
short-period comet during the Upper Palaeolithic provides a
satisfactory explanation for the catastrophe of celestial origin
which has been postulated to have occurred around 12900 BP,
and which presaged a return to ice age conditions of duration
~1300 years. The Taurid Complex appears to be the debris of
this erstwhile comet; it includes at least 19 of the brightest
near-Earth objects. Sub-kilometre bodies in meteor streams
may present the greatest regional impact hazard on timescales
of human concern.

Late Surviving Mammoths Not Dwarfs!

Page 15 The most recent dated mammoths "were as large as any
as any mammoths known anywhere." says Sergy Vartanyan
who did the dating and was there also.


homo incognitus

By Cinthia Briseño

Have scientists identified a "homo incognitus" -- a previously unknown
human species? Finger bones dating from 30,000 years ago were
unearthed in southern Siberia. Its genes differ from those of modern
humans as well as Neanderthals, and German scientists think they are
onto a sensation.

John Krause checked his findings again and again. Somehow he couldn't
believe what the analysis was showing. The scientist wanted to make
sure he was right before phoning his boss, the renowned evolutionary
genetics specialist Svante Pääbo. Did the DNA really stem from a
previously unknown human form?

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig had
just 30 milligrams of bone powder available to carry out its genetic
analysis. From that sample, Krause and his colleagues isolated the DNA
of a primitive human who had lived anywhere between 30,000 and 48,000
years ago in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern
Siberia. The scientist began with low expectations, seeing the job as
a "routine investigation of an ancient fossil," Krause told SPIEGEL
ONLINE. "That piece of bone was sold to us as a specimen from early
modern humans." Russian scientists had unearthed the fossil fragment
in 2008.

Isolating DNA from fossil bones is no easy task, not least because the
ancient pieces of bone also contain DNA from other organisms such as
bacteria or fungi, possibly even from other early humans. If
laboratory conditions fail to meet the strictest standards, there is
the risk of contaminating the sample with the genetic material of a
present-day scientist.

So Krause had to rule out these factors. But eventually he believed
the genetic material was several thousand years old, harbored intact
within the cells of a small chunk of bone, no bigger than a cherry
pip. Whichever way he examined the find, the DNA sequence did not
resemble anything any anthropologist had ever seen before. Had the Max
Planck researchers discovered a new species of early man? Did it
belong to an unknown hominin, whose DNA differed so much from
Neanderthal and early modern humans that it could revolutionize our
understanding of the evolution of man?

Bred in the Bone

The genetic material found in the Denisova Cave is a complete sequence
of so-called mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material found in a cell's
mitochondria. Within these organelles, the cell's power plants,
biochemical processes take place which enable the survival of a whole
organism. Each mitochondrion has its own genome, which is passed from
mothers to offspring.

And each cell has approximately 8,000 copies of mitochondrial DNA. But
the mitochondrial genome is far smaller than the nuclear genome. Only
around 16,500 building blocks (or base pairs) sit side-by-side in the
mitochondrial DNA, compared to approximately three billion in the DNA
of the nucleus.

Every base pair of the mitochondrial DNA was sequenced by Krause over
and over again, up to an average of 156 times each. Afterwards
researchers compared the mitochondrial DNA sequence with others --
including 54 sequences belonging to modern man, one belonging to a
recently discovered early human from Kotenski in Russia, six from
Neanderthals, and one each from a bonobo and a chimpanzee.

The mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals differs on average in 202 ways
from the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans. There were twice as many
differences separating the Denisova Cave individual from modern man.

Amazing Results

"The results practically blew me away when I heard," says Svante
Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck
Institute, who received the phone call while he was in the US. Once
Pääbo had convinced himself of the findings, he too was certain that
the science of human evolution was about to change.

So how should we understand this stranger from southern Siberia, if
not as an early modern man or as a Neanderthal? Researchers still
don't know the hominin's gender. To find out, Pääbos' research team
needs to examine the nuclear genome, one base pair at a time. Only
then can they make more precise statements about the skin and eye
color, blood type, or the health of the specimen. These investigations
are painstaking but not impossible: A Danish research team recently
gleaned similar information from a 4,000-year-old hair belonging to a
Paleolithic eskimo.

For years, anthropologists believed only two species of the genus Homo
lived on earth around 40,000 years ago. The first group, Neanderthals,
lived in large areas of Europe and northern Asia, but disappeared some
25,000 years ago for reasons which are not completely clear. The other
group, anatomically modern humans -- our direct ancestors -- scattered
across Eurasia after leaving the African continent.

Until now researchers have also assumed at least three waves of
emigration from Africa, one of which took place about 1.9 million
years ago, when an earlier group of hominins, Homo erectus, left the
continent. While there are fossils to prove that Homo erectus may have
survived in Indonesia until up to 100,000 years ago, there is no
evidence that the species might have existed on the Asian mainland as
recently as 30,000 or 40,000 years ago -- the era of the Denisova

A New Human Family Tree

The genetic analysis that Krause and his colleagues recently published
in the journal Nature adds a new piece to the puzzle of huan
evolution. Once the scientists combined the new data with the
previously known facts they were able to sketch out a new human family
tree. It shows the evolutionary relationship between early modern
humans, Neanderthals and the previously unknown Denisova hominids.

There seems to be only one way to explain the discovery of this
previously unknown strand of DNA: Denisova hominins and the ancestors
of the modern human as well as the Neanderthals must have shared a
common ancestor about one million years ago. That ancestor is about
twice as old as the known common ancestor of anatomically modern
humans and Neanderthals (Homo heidelbergensis).

Moreover, the researchers conclude from the age of the mitochondrial
genome that this previously unknown form of human must have lived
alongside Neanderthals and modern humans.

The researchers are absolutely certain that they are dealing with a
hitherto unknown mitochondrial genome which strongly suggests a new
form of hominin. This would also suggest a fourth wave of emigration
from Africa.

After the release of these sensational results, the Max Planck
researchers will be forced to respond to the same questions they
encountered when they discovered the first version of the Neanderthal
genome: How did this unknown hominin live? Why did they disappear?
And: Did Neanderthals and modern humans fornicate with this Siberian


To get answers to these questions one will have to wait until the
scientists from Leipzig have analyzed the stranger's entire genome. It
would help the researchers if further fossilized bones of this kind
were found, which would enable study of the hominin's physique.

Krause and Pääbo, speaking at a press conference Tuesday, said that
any further statements at this point would amount to pure speculation.
The researchers won't even announce their intention to present a new
name for this hominin as they can't yet be 100% sure it represents a
whole new species. "The terminology of human species is rather
tricky," Pääbo says.

Internally, the researchers refer to the new hominin form as "X-
Woman." The "X" stands for the unknown factor, and "woman" merely
represents the fact that mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the
mother. Pääbo restrains himself: "Whether or not we academics speak of
a new species and give it a new name is just a matter of pride,
nothing else."


Oldest Man Made Structure Found In Greece

Oldest Man Made Structure Found In Greece

A 23,000 year old stone wall in front of Theopetra cave in Kalambaka, Greece (in the middle of the Greek mainland), probably built to protect its residents from cold winds at the height of the last ice age, is the oldest known example of a man made structure.

Some of the what was found, like remnants of fire, flint and quartz tools, early jewelry from deer teeth, animal bones and stone implements, are typical of the Mesolithic human archaeological sites. Other elements of the find were more notable:

Of interest are finds from the Mesolithic age related to ceramic production and cultivation. There is barley, wheat, and lentil in wild (Paleolithic age) form, but also as cultivars, which suggests that these people had discovered cultivation as the result of millennia-long efforts and not as the result of population movements from the Near East.

Implications For The History Of Food

There is considerable evidence that agriculture came to be, first, through collection of seeds from wild plants and probably cultivation of the wild plants, and then through the domestication of the wild species through selective planting with traits that made the plants more useful as food sources.

But, 23,000 years ago is very old for this kind of evidence. Wheat is native to Southwestern Anatolia, and lentils and barley are also part of the ancient Near Eastern agricultural package.

But, cultivation of domesticated versions of these crops is generally dated to around 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, give or take a millennium. Physical evidence can be used to track the arrival of this package of domesticated crops as it radiates from the Balkans to the West and North (and as it expands to the Indus River Valley in the East) over a period of many thousands of years.

Mega Flood 13000 ybp

New research from the University of Sheffield, which is published in the journal Nature, has identified a mega-flood path across North America which channelled melt-water from a giant ice sheet into the oceans. This triggered a rapid cooling period nearly 13,000 years ago, otherwise known as the Big Freeze or Younger Dryas.


Hobbit debate goes out on some limbs

Hobbit debate goes out on some limbs
Arm and leg fossils may, or may not, come from nonhuman hominid
By Bruce Bower
Web edition : Monday, April 19th, 2010

ALBUQUERQUE — Two fossil hobbits have given what’s left of their arms
and legs to science. That wasn’t enough, though, to quell debate over
hobbits’ evolutionary status at the annual meeting of the American
Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 17.

Since 2004, the discoverers of unusual “hobbit” fossils on the
Indonesian island of Flores have attributed their find to a pint-sized
species, Homo floresiensis, that lived there from 95,000 to 17,000
years ago. These researchers also suspect, on the basis of hobbit
anatomy and recent stone tool discoveries on Flores, that H.
floresiensis evolved from a currently unknown hominid species that
migrated from Africa to Indonesia more than 1 million years ago.

Critics say the finds represent nothing more than human pygmies like
those still living on Flores. In their opinion, the centerpiece hobbit
find — a partial skeleton of an adult female known as LB1 — is what’s
left of a woman who suffered from a developmental disorder that
resulted in an unusually small brain and a misshapen skull and lower

But arm and leg fossils from LB1 and a second hobbit appear robust,
not unhealthy, according to a new study directed by William Jungers of
Stony Brook University in New York. The bones display humanlike
thickness in the tough tissue that forms the outer shell of most
bones, and opposite sides of the limb bones exhibit comparable
thickness, a sign of healthy growth, said Stony Brook anthropologist
and study coauthor Frederick Grine, who presented Jungers’ paper at
the meeting.

Hobbits also possessed much stronger limbs relative to body weight
than either Homo sapiens or its presumed predecessor, Homo erectus,
Jungers’ team concluded.

Limb strength for H. floresiensis approaches that previously estimated
for more ancient hominid species such as the 3.2-million-year-old
Australopithecus afarensis — a.k.a. Lucy — and 2.3-million-year-old
Homo habilis, according to Junger’s analysis.

These results imply that hobbits were able to engage in vigorous
physical activities that neither modern humans nor H. erectus could
manage. Hobbits may have spent much of their time climbing trees, as
Lucy’s kind did, the Stony Brook researchers propose.

Hobbits’ mix of humanlike and Lucy-like limb traits fits with Jungers’
recent proposal that a primitive, currently unknown hominid species
trekked from Africa to Flores at least 1.8 million years ago and
evolved into H. floresiensis. Earlier suggestions that hobbits
descended from H. erectus (SN: 10/30/04, p. 275) have been dropped.

Junger’s group used computerized tomography images to calculate bone
thickness at points along the length of six hobbit bones from the
upper arm and the upper and lower leg. Five fossils came from LB1 and
one came from another hobbit adult. The researchers then compared
these data to corresponding measures for Lucy, H. habilis and several
hundred people from different parts of the world, including Indonesian
pygmies now living on the Andaman Islands.

Estimates of arm and leg strength for LB1 were generated by comparing
her bone thickness to her height and weight — roughly 3 feet, 5 inches
and 66 pounds, according to Jungers. But hobbit skeptics put LB1’s
height at 4 feet or more, a stature that would imply weaker limbs than
the Stony Brook researchers contend.

In another meeting presentation, Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State
University in University Park argued that a developmental disorder
produced a suite of skeletal abnormalities in LB1 (SN: 11/18/06, p.
330), including irregularly shaped hip joints and tube-shaped upper
leg bones. Junger’s new limb-bone analysis doesn’t address those
points, Eckhardt said.

A variety of developmental disorders produce skeletal traits in people
today that Jungers has labeled as exclusive to H. floresiensis,
Eckhardt added.

At the meeting, he described the case of a woman with a developmental
disorder that resulted in an S-shaped collar bone. Jungers’ team
includes this characteristic in a list of hobbit-specific skeletal

This new twist in the hobbit controversy follows the March 17 online
publication of a paper in Nature concluding that hominids reached
Flores by 1 million years ago. Excavations on Flores yielded stone
tools from sediment dating to that time, reported Adam Brumm of the
University of Wollongong in Australia.

Brumm previously uncovered 800,000-year-old stone artifacts on Flores
(SN: 6/3/06, p. 341). He now suspects hominids reached the island as
early as 2 million years ago.

Brumm’s contention has been challenged by colleagues who believe
natural processes may have moved the artifacts from younger to older
sediment layers.

Earthquakes and flooding are two of many possible ways in which stone
artifacts could have been moved on Flores, noted James Phillips of the
University of Illinois at Chicago.

If Brumm is right, only further fossil finds can determine what type
of hominids reached Flores by 1 million years ago, remarked Robin
Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. “Until we get that
evidence, we’re stumbling in the dark,” he says.


Lice hang ancient date on first clothes Genetic analysis puts origin at 190,000 years ago

Lice hang ancient date on first clothes
Genetic analysis puts origin at 190,000 years ago
By Bruce Bower
Web edition : Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Buggy dudsA genetic analysis of head and body lice suggests that
people may have begun making and wearing clothing as early as 190,000
years ago.Janice Harney Carr, Center for Disease Control

ALBUQUERQUE — For once lice are nice, at least for scientists
investigating the origins of garments.

Using DNA to trace the evolutionary split between head and body lice,
researchers conclude that body lice first came on the scene
approximately 190,000 years ago. And that shift, the scientists
propose, followed soon after people first began wearing clothing.

The new estimate, presented April 16 at the American Association of
Physical Anthropologists annual meeting, sheds light on a poorly
understood cultural development that allowed people to settle in
northern, cold regions, said Andrew Kitchen of Pennsylvania State
University in University Park. Armed with little direct evidence,
scientists had previously estimated that clothing originated anywhere
from around 1 million to 40,000 years ago.

An earlier analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the two modern types of
lice indicated that body lice evolved from head lice only about 70,000
years ago. Because body lice thrive in the folds of clothing, they
likely appeared not long after clothes were invented, many scientists

Though well suited to gauging the timing of evolutionary events,
mitochondrial DNA is a relatively small part of the genome. Kitchen’s
team examined both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA samples from head and
body lice, yielding the much older, and presumably more accurate,
estimate of when body lice first evolved.

It makes sense that people, or perhaps Neandertals inhabiting cold
parts of Europe, started making clothes around 190,000 years ago,
Kitchen explained, since both species had already lost most body hair
and knew how to make stone tools for scraping animal hides. Homo
sapiens originated approximately 200,000 years ago.

The researchers calculated relatively fast mutation rates for both
forms of lice, so the new age estimate for the divergence of body lice
from head lice is a conservative one. It’s possible for body lice to
have evolved from head lice in only a few generations, according to
laboratory studies, Kitchen said. No evidence indicates that head lice
can evolve from body lice.