Saturday, 29 December 2007

Half a million year old tibia!

The site where Britain's oldest man was discovered will be preserved so archaeologists can see if it holds any more secrets.
There was interest from around the world nine years ago when the shin bone of a man, dating back 500,000 years, was unearthed at Boxgrove near Chichester.
The land has been safeguarded thanks to a £100,000 grant to English Heritage, which now has site ownership.
It is planning to restore the 20-acre site and excavate the section it is believed was a water hole used by early man and animals, including rhinocerous and bison.
Archaeologists hope to uncover more clues about how the man, dubbed Boxgrove Man, lived.
Mark Roberts, principal research fellow at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, led the team which made the first discovery.
Speaking at the quarry yesterday, he said: "With the approval of West Sussex County Council we hope to start a restoration programme this summer.
"This will entail securing the site and clearing it of scrub, reducing some of the sheer slopes of the quarry and partially back-filling the central area, using only existing material.
"Further research excavations, which are likely to reveal more astonishing finds, can then take place."
Andy Brown, assistant regional director of English Heritage, said: "There are decades of excavation at this site.
"It may take 100 or even 200 years to exhaust all the information.
"This is a very important day for us. For a decade this site has been revealed to be of superb archaeological importance, not just in the UK but also in north-west Europe.
"By buying this site it means we can protect it in a way that would not have been possible under normal circumstances due to a quirk in the legislation under which we operate."
Carbon dating showed the human shin bone, unearthed in 1993, belonged to a 6ft active man. He survived on a diet of raw meat in an area of cliff face between Arundel and Portsdown Hill in Hampshire, with the land below stretching to Northern France.
Archaeologists also uncovered two teeth around a metre deeper than the shin bone. and primitive tools made from flint and antler horns.
But despite further searches they failed to uncover the most treasured prize - Boxgrove Man's skull.
Now they hope to find what they describe as the "Holy Grail" of the site.
Archive Home
From the archive© Newsquest Media Group 2003

Image: Natural History Museum, London.

Why Pregnant Women Don't Tip Over

According to anthropologists, the human adaptation is unique among primates and may have arisen shortly after early humans started walking upright.

"Bipedalism challenges stable postures, because the abdomen expands in front of the body as the baby grows," said Katherine Whitcome, an anthropologist at Harvard University.

"This changes the mother's center of mass, which is a critical point in any three-dimensional body on which gravity acts."

As this center of mass shifts forward, pregnant women have to lean back and change their gait to stay steady.

Wedge-shaped vertebrae in the lower back might be the key evolutionary adaptation that helps human females maintain a stable posture over the course of pregnancy. This realigns the center of mass over the hips, knees, and ankles to correct the imbalance—but it creates another problem.

"It generates loading on parts of the vertebral column that are not normally under such stress," Whitcome said.

Joint Support

To find out how pregnant women keep their balance without damaging their spines, Whitcome and her colleagues studied 19 pregnant females between the ages of 20 and 40.

The team found that the key appears to be joints in the bony vertebrae that wrap protectively around the spinal cord.
These joints become heavily loaded whenever people lean back.

But the size of the joints relative to the vertebrae in the lower back is much larger in women than in men. This suggests that the joints' larger surface area is an adaptation to bear more load.
And the shape of the vertebrae in women tapers off toward the back, creating a wedge shape that further facilitates arching, Whitcome said.

Women also have three such vertebrae, while men have just two.

"These wedge-shaped vertebrae, when stacked together, form a natural curve and help reduce the shearing stress generated during pregnancy," said Whitcome, whose findings appear today in the journal Nature.

Evolutionary Adaptation

Whitcome and her colleagues suggest that the special vertebrae are unique evolutionary adaptations that helped the first ancestors of human women as they started walking upright.

For example, the researchers have found the unusual spinal characteristics in lumbar vertebral columns from Australopithecus africanus fossils dating back nearly two million years (related feature: atlas of human evolution).

"The female characteristics, which are explained by the biomechanics of fetal load, are present in the fossil record, suggesting that these adaptations evolved very early in humans," Whitcome noted.

Karen Rosenberg is an anthropologist at the University of Delaware who was not involved in the new study.

She said that the feature would have been naturally selected in humans at about the same time that bipedalism evolved, nearly five million years ago.

And John Fleagle, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University, commented that "there are lots of neat things about this paper."

"It documents some striking features of the lumbar spine of female humans that seem rather clearly related to the demands of pregnancy."

Scientists had previously known about male-female differences in the shape of the pelvis related to birthing, Fleagle added. But spinal differences between males and females had not been appreciated until now.

"Like so many discoveries," he added, "this is one that causes you to slap your forehead and exclaim, Of course! Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?"
Source:Amitabh Avasthi
for National Geographic News
December 12, 2007

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Evolution tied to Earth movement

Scientists long have focused on how climate and vegetation allowed human ancestors to evolve in Africa. Now, University of Utah geologists are calling renewed attention to the idea that ground movements formed mountains and valleys, creating environments that favored the emergence of humanity.

“Tectonics [movement of Earth’s crust] was ultimately responsible for the evolution of humankind,” Royhan and Nahid Gani of the university’s Energy and Geoscience Institute write in the January, 2008, issue of Geotimes, published by the American Geological Institute.

They argue that the accelerated uplift of mountains and highlands stretching from Ethiopia to South Africa blocked much ocean moisture, converting lush tropical forests into an arid patchwork of woodlands and savannah grasslands that gradually favored human ancestors who came down from the trees and started walking on two feet – an energy-efficient way to search larger areas for food in an arid environment.

In their Geotimes article, the Ganis – a husband-and-wife research team who met in college in their native Bangladesh – describe this 3,700-mile-long stretch of highlands and mountains as “the Wall of Africa.” It parallels the famed East African Rift valley, where many fossils of human ancestors were found.

“Because of the crustal movement or tectonism in East Africa, the landscape drastically changed over the last 7 million years,” says Royhan Gani (pronounced rye-hawn Go-knee), a research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That landscape controlled climate on a local to regional scale. That climate change spurred human ancestors to evolve from apes.”

Hominins – the new scientific word for humans (Homo) and their ancestors (including Ardipithecus, Paranthropus and Australopithecus) – split from apes on the evolutionary tree roughly 7 million to 4 million years ago. Royhan Gani says the earliest undisputed hominin was Ardipithecus ramidus 4.4 million years ago. The earliest Homo arose 2.5 million years ago, and our species, Homo sapiens, almost 200,000 years ago.

Tectonics – movements of Earth’s crust, including its ever-shifting tectonic plates and the creation of mountains, valleys and ocean basins – has been discussed since at least 1983 as an influence on human evolution.

But Royhan Gani says much previous discussion of how climate affected human evolution involves global climate changes, such as those caused by cyclic changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and not local and regional climate changes caused by East Africa’s rising landscape.

A Force from within the Earth

The geological or tectonic forces shaping Africa begin deep in the Earth, where a “superplume” of hot and molten rock has swelled upward for at least the past 45 million years. This superplume and its branching smaller plumes help push apart the African and Arabian tectonic plates of Earth’s crust, forming the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Great Rift Valley that stretches from Syria to southern Africa.

As part of this process, Africa is being split apart along the East African Rift, a valley bounded by elevated “shoulders” a few tens of miles wide and sitting atop “domes” a few hundreds of miles wide and caused by upward bulging of the plume.

The East African Rift runs about 3,700 miles from the Ethiopian Plateau south-southwest to South Africa’s Karoo Plateau. It is up to 370 miles wide and includes mountains reaching a maximum elevation of about 19,340 feet at Mount Kilimanjaro.

The rift “is characterized by volcanic peaks, plateaus, valleys and large basins and freshwater lakes,” including sites where many fossils of early humans and their ancestors have been found, says Nahid Gani (pronounced nah-heed go-knee), a research scientist. There was some uplift in East Africa as early as 40 million years ago, but “most of these topographic features developed between 7 million and 2 million years ago.”

A Wall Rises and New Species Evolve.

“Although the Wall of Africa started to form around 30 million years ago, recent studies show most of the uplift occurred between 7 million and 2 million years ago, just about when hominins split off from African apes, developed bipedalism and evolved bigger brains,” the Ganis write.

“Nature built this wall, and then humans could evolve, walk tall and think big,” says Royhan Gani. “Is there any characteristic feature of the wall that drove human evolution?”

The answer, he believes, is the variable landscape and vegetation resulting from uplift of the Wall of Africa, which created “a topographic barrier to moisture, mostly from the Indian Ocean” and dried the climate. He says that contrary to those who cite global climate cycles, the climate changes in East Africa were local and resulted from the uplift of different parts of the wall at different times.

Royhan Gani says the change from forests to a patchwork of woodland and open savannah did not happen everywhere in East Africa at the same time, and the changes also happened in East Africa later than elsewhere in the world.

The Ganis studied the roughly 300-mile-by-300-mile Ethiopian Plateau – the most prominent part of the Wall of Africa. Previous research indicated the plateau reached its present average elevation of 8,200 feet 25 million years ago. The Ganis analyzed rates at which the Blue Nile River cut down into the Ethiopian Plateau, creating a canyon that rivals North America’s Grand Canyon. They released those findings in the September 2007 issue of GSA Today, published by the Geological Society of America.

The conclusion: There were periods of low-to-moderate incision and uplift between 29 million and 10 million years ago, and again between 10 million and 6 million years ago, but the most rapid uplift of the Ethiopian Plateau (by some 3,200 vertical feet) happened 6 million to 3 million years ago.

The Geotimes paper says other research has shown the Kenyan part of the wall rose mostly between 7 million and 2 million years ago, mountains in Tanganyika and Malawi were uplifted mainly between 5 million and 2 million years ago, and the wall’s southernmost end gained most of its elevation during the past 5 million years.

“Clearly, the Wall of Africa grew to be a prominent elevated feature over the last 7 million years, thereby playing a prominent role in East African aridification by wringing moisture out of monsoonal air moving across the region,” the Ganis write. That period coincides with evolution of human ancestors in the area.

Royhan Gani says the earliest undisputed evidence of true bipedalism (as opposed to knuckle-dragging by apes) is 4.1 million years ago in Australopithecus anamensis, but some believe the trait existed as early as 6 million to 7 million years ago.

The Ganis speculate that the shaping of varied landscapes by tectonic forces – lake basins, valleys, mountains, grasslands, woodlands – “could also be responsible, at a later stage, for hominins developing a bigger brain as a way to cope with these extremely variable and changing landscapes” in which they had to find food and survive predators.

For now, Royhan Gani acknowledges the lack of more precise timeframes makes it difficult to link specific tectonic events to the development of upright walking, bigger brains and other key steps in human evolution.

“But it all happened within the right time period,” he says. “Now we need to nail it down.”

Are humans evolving faster?

Findings suggest we are becoming more different, not alike.
Researchers discovered genetic evidence that human evolution is speeding up – and has not halted or proceeded at a constant rate, as had been thought – indicating that humans on different continents are becoming increasingly different.

“We used a new genomic technology to show that humans are evolving rapidly, and that the pace of change has accelerated a lot in the last 40,000 years, especially since the end of the Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago,” says research team leader Henry Harpending, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah.

Harpending says there are provocative implications from the study, published online Monday, Dec. 10 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

-- “We aren’t the same as people even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago,” he says, which may explain, for example, part of the difference between Viking invaders and their peaceful Swedish descendants. “The dogma has been these are cultural fluctuations, but almost any temperament trait you look at is under strong genetic influence.”

-- “Human races are evolving away from each other,” Harpending says. “Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin. We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity.” He says that is happening because humans dispersed from Africa to other regions 40,000 years ago, “and there has not been much flow of genes between the regions since then.”

“Our study denies the widely held assumption or belief that modern humans [those who widely adopted advanced tools and art] appeared 40,000 years ago, have not changed since and that we are all pretty much the same. We show that humans are changing relatively rapidly on a scale of centuries to millennia, and that these changes are different in different continental groups.”

The increase in human population from millions to billions in the last 10,000 years accelerated the rate of evolution because “we were in new environments to which we needed to adapt,” Harpending adds. “And with a larger population, more mutations occurred.”

Study co-author Gregory M. Cochran says: “History looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arose and displaced normal humans – sometimes quietly, by surviving starvation and disease better, sometimes as a conquering horde. And we are those mutants.”

Harpending conducted the study with Cochran, a New Mexico physicist, self-taught evolutionary biologist and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah; anthropologist John Hawks, a former Utah postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; geneticist Eric Wang of Affymetrix, Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.; and biochemist Robert Moyzis of the University of California, Irvine.

No Justification for Discrimination

The new study comes from two of the same University of Utah scientists – Harpending and Cochran – who created a stir in 2005 when they published a study arguing that above-average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews – those of northern European heritage – resulted from natural selection in medieval Europe, where they were pressured into jobs as financiers, traders, managers and tax collectors. Those who were smarter succeeded, grew wealthy and had bigger families to pass on their genes. Yet that intelligence also is linked to genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher in Jews.

That study and others dealing with genetic differences among humans – whose DNA is more than 99 percent identical – generated fears such research will undermine the principle of human equality and justify racism and discrimination. Other critics question the quality of the science and argue culture plays a bigger role than genetics.

Harpending says genetic differences among different human populations “cannot be used to justify discrimination. Rights in the Constitution aren’t predicated on utter equality. People have rights and should have opportunities whatever their group.”

Analyzing SNPs of Evolutionary Acceleration

The study looked for genetic evidence of natural selection – the evolution of favorable gene mutations – during the past 80,000 years by analyzing DNA from 270 individuals in the International HapMap Project, an effort to identify variations in human genes that cause disease and can serve as targets for new medicines.

The new study looked specifically at genetic variations called “single nucleotide polymorphisms,” or SNPs (pronounced “snips”) which are single-point mutations in chromosomes that are spreading through a significant proportion of the population.

Imagine walking along two chromosomes – the same chromosome from two different people. Chromosomes are made of DNA, a twisting, ladder-like structure in which each rung is made of a “base pair” of amino acids, either G-C or A-T. Harpending says that about every 1,000 base pairs, there will be a difference between the two chromosomes. That is known as a SNP.

Data examined in the study included 3.9 million SNPs from the 270 people in four populations: Han Chinese, Japanese, Africa’s Yoruba tribe and northern Europeans, represented largely by data from Utah Mormons, says Harpending.

Over time, chromosomes randomly break and recombine to create new versions or variants of the chromosome. “If a favorable mutation appears, then the number of copies of that chromosome will increase rapidly” in the population because people with the mutation are more likely to survive and reproduce, Harpending says.

“And if it increases rapidly, it becomes common in the population in a short time,” he adds.

The researchers took advantage of that to determine if genes on chromosomes had evolved recently. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with each parent providing one copy of each of the 23. If the same chromosome from numerous people has a segment with an identical pattern of SNPs, that indicates that segment of the chromosome has not broken up and recombined recently.

That means a gene on that segment of chromosome must have evolved recently and fast; if it had evolved long ago, the chromosome would have broken and recombined.

Harpending and colleagues used a computer to scan the data for chromosome segments that had identical SNP patterns and thus had not broken and recombined, meaning they evolved recently. They also calculated how recently the genes evolved.

A key finding: 7 percent of human genes are undergoing rapid, recent evolution.

The researchers built a case that human evolution has accelerated by comparing genetic data with what the data should look like if human evolution had been constant:

The study found much more genetic diversity in the SNPs than would be expected if human evolution had remained constant.

If the rate at which new genes evolve in Africans was extrapolated back to 6 million years ago when humans and chimpanzees diverged, the genetic difference between modern chimps and humans would be 160 times greater than it really is. So the evolution rate of Africans represents a recent speedup in evolution.

If evolution had been fast and constant for a long time, there should be many recently evolved genes that have spread to everyone. Yet, the study revealed many genes still becoming more frequent in the population, indicating a recent evolutionary speedup.

Next, the researchers examined the history of human population size on each continent. They found that mutation patterns seen in the genome data were consistent with the hypothesis that evolution is faster in larger populations.

Evolutionary Change and Human History: Got Milk?

“Rapid population growth has been coupled with vast changes in cultures and ecology, creating new opportunities for adaptation,” the study says. “The past 10,000 years have seen rapid skeletal and dental evolution in human populations, as well as the appearance of many new genetic responses to diet and disease.”

The researchers note that human migrations into new Eurasian environments created selective pressures favoring less skin pigmentation (so more sunlight could be absorbed by skin to make vitamin D), adaptation to cold weather and dietary changes.

Because human population grew from several million at the end of the Ice Age to 6 billion now, more favored new genes have emerged and evolution has speeded up, both globally and among continental groups of people, Harpending says.

"We have to understand genetic change in order to understand history,” he adds.

For example, in China and most of Africa, few people can digest fresh milk into adulthood. Yet in Sweden and Denmark, the gene that makes the milk-digesting enzyme lactase remains active, so “almost everyone can drink fresh milk,” explaining why dairying is more common in Europe than in the Mediterranean and Africa, Harpending says.

He now is studying if the mutation that allowed lactose tolerance spurred some of history’s great population expansions, including when speakers of Indo-European languages settled all the way from northwest India and central Asia through Persia and across Europe 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. He suspects milk drinking gave lactose-tolerant Indo-European speakers more energy, allowing them to conquer a large area.

But Harpending believes the speedup in human evolution “is a temporary state of affairs because of our new environments since the dispersal of modern humans 40,000 years ago and especially since the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago. That changed our diet and changed our social systems. If you suddenly take hunter-gatherers and give them a diet of corn, they frequently get diabetes. We’re still adapting to that. Several new genes we see spreading through the population are involved with helping us prosper with high-carbohydrate diet.”

University of Utah Public Relations
Eurekalert December 2007.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Ancient "Salt Cured" Man Found in Iranian Mine

Scientists believe the man was a Roman Empire-era salt mine worker killed by falling rocks during an earthquake.

Scientific Treasure Trove

Five other "salt men" have been found in the mine in recent years. They range in date from the Achaemenid period (539 to 333 B.C.) to the Sasanian era (A.D. 240 to 640The salt men have proven to be scientific treasure troves, due to their advanced state of preservation. For instance, their beards, hair and garments have remained largely intact over time. Some still had food in their stomach.

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News

July 3, 2007

Morphological changes in the shape of the non-pathological bony knee joint with age:

a morphometric analysis of the distal femur and proximal tibia in three populations of known age at death

This study examines possible morphological variation in the knee joint of Homo sapiens with increasing age in ostensively healthy and non-pathological distal femora and proximal tibiae. Throughout the lifetime of each individual, the hard tissue of the knee undergoes considerable remodelling as a response to biomechanical stresses, changes in bone microarchitecture and reduction of bone mineral content as a concomitant of ageing. The knee is also subject to greater levels of degenerative joint disease than any other joint. If death occurs whilst such diseases are in the earliest stages, initial bone changes may not be visually obvious in museum specimens. If such specimens are used for comparative analyses, it is hypothesised that changes might render it problematic if all ages are conglomerated into discrete samples. This study therefore investigates the degree to which the distal femur and proximal tibia change shape during ageing and, if changes are present, whether they are expressed similarly in males and females. It also examines whether changes are of greater magnitude than those morphological differences which might exist between populations. In an example population of African-Americans, results indicate that there is a statistically significant difference in shape between age groups and those differences become progressively greater between the youngest and oldest adults. Results also show that although morphological variation caused by ageing is apparent, those shape differences attributable to sexual dimorphism are more powerful. When two additional populations are analysed jointly with the African-Americans (Caucasian Americans and the European Spitalfields sample), results indicate that inter-population shape differences are considerably greater than differences caused by increasing age. Results imply that it is justifiable to combine specimens of all ages into discrete samples for comparative purposes. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

21 December 2007, 07:07:00 S. D. Stevens, U. Strand Vi[dstrok]arsdóttir