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First love child of human, Neanderthal found?

Neanderthal
© Corbis
The skeletal remains of an individual living in northern Italy 40,000-30,000 years ago are believed to be that of a human/Neanderthal hybrid, according to a paper in PLoS ONE.

If further analysis proves the theory correct, the remains belonged to the first known such hybrid, providing direct evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Prior genetic research determined the DNA of people with European and Asian ancestry is 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.

The present study focuses on the individual's jaw, which was unearthed at a rock-shelter called Riparo di Mezzena in the Monti Lessini region of Italy. Both Neanderthals and modern humans inhabited Europe at the time.

"From the morphology of the lower jaw, the face of the Mezzena individual would have looked somehow intermediate between classic Neanderthals, who had a rather receding lower jaw (no chin), and the modern humans, who present a projecting lower jaw with a strongly developed chin," co-author Silvana Condemi, an anthropologist, told Discovery News.

Condemi is the CNRS research director at the University of Ai-Marseille. She and her colleagues studied the remains via DNA analysis and 3D imaging. They then compared those results with the same features from Homo sapiens.

The genetic analysis shows that the individual's mitochondrial DNA is Neanderthal. Since this DNA is transmitted from a mother to her child, the researchers conclude that it was a "female Neanderthal who mated with male Homo sapiens."
Eye 1

Undark and the Radium Girls

undark clock
© n/a
In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her troubles were compounded when her jaw became swollen and inflamed, so she sought the assistance of a doctor in diagnosing the inexplicable symptoms. Using a primitive X-ray machine, the physician discovered serious bone decay, the likes of which he had never seen. Her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.

As a series of doctors attempted to solve Grace's mysterious ailment, similar cases began to appear throughout her hometown of New Jersey. One dentist in particular took notice of the unusually high number of deteriorated jawbones among local women, and it took very little investigation to discover a common thread; all of the women had been employed by the same watch-painting factory at one time or another.

In 1902, twenty years prior to Grace's mysterious ailment, inventor William J. Hammer left Paris with a curious souvenir. The famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie had provided him with some samples of their radium salt crystals. Radioactivity was somewhat new to science, so its properties and dangers were not well understood; but the radium's slight blue-green glow and natural warmth indicated that it was clearly a fascinating material. Hammer went on to combine his radium salt with glue and a compound called zinc sulfide which glowed in the presence of radiation. The result was glow-in-the-dark paint.
Pharoah

Myths of mummy-making busted

CT Scan of Mummy
© Andrew Wade
CT slices and 3D reconstruction showing the empty body cavity of the Royal Ontario Museum's ROM910.5.3 mummy.
Contrary to reports by famous Greek historian Herodotus, the ancient Egyptians probably didn't remove mummy guts using cedar oil enemas, new research on the reality of mummification suggests.

The ancient embalmers also didn't always leave the mummy's heart in place, the researchers added.

The findings, published in the February issue of HOMO - Journal of Comparative Human Biology, come from analyzing 150 mummies from the ancient world.

Mummy history

In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus, the "father of history," got an inside peek at the Egyptian mummification process. Embalming was a competitive business, and the tricks of the trade were closely guarded secrets, said study co-author Andrew Wade, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario.

Herodotus described multiple levels of embalming: The elites, he said, got a slit through the belly, through which organs were removed. For the lower class, mummies had organs eaten away with an enema of cedar oil, which was thought to be similar to turpentine, Herodotus reported. [See Images of Egyptian Mummification Process]

In addition, Herodotus claimed the brain was removed during embalming and other accounts suggested the heart was always left in place.

"A lot of his accounts sound more like tourist stories, so we're reticent to take everything he said at face value," Wade told LiveScience.
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Ancient stone ships reveal life and death in the Bronze Age

Stone Ship
© Joakim Wehlin
This image shows the largest stone ship setting on Gotland.
People living in the Baltic Sea region during the Bronze Age built monuments to their sea-loving lifestyle, arranging large stones in the shape of life-size ships.

Archaeologists think these 3,000-year-old stone ships were used as symbolic vessels to carry the dead into the afterlife, since bones and urns are often unearthed from the sites. But one researcher believes Scandinavia's stone ships were also useful to the living, as ritual gathering spaces and possibly even teaching tools.

"These could have been used for other rituals and activities related to maritime life, such as teaching of navigation and embark/disembark ceremonies," Joakim Wehlin, from the University of Gothenburg and Gotland University, told LiveScience in an email.
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'Out of Africa' story being rewritten again

Ancient Skull
© F. Demeter
A new genetic analysis suggests that humans left Africa no earlier than 95,000 years ago, pushing the date of that migration back more than 100,000 years.
Our early human ancestors may have left Africa more recently than thought, between 62,000 and 95,000 years ago, suggests a new analysis of genetic material from fossil skeletons.

The new findings are in line with earlier estimates, but contradict a more recent study that put humans' first exodus from Africa least 200,000 years ago.

The new results "agree with what we know from archaeology," said study co-author Alissa Mittnik, a biologist at University of Tübingen, in Germany.

Hot debate

Exactly when the first humans emerged from Africa to colonize the world has been a topic of heated debate.

All of the estimates hinge on one number: the gene mutation rates. By knowing how often genes change, and then counting up the number of genetic differences between different species or groups of people, scientists can create a "molecular clock" to decipher how long ago they shared a common ancestor.

Early studies used genetic differences in mitochondrial DNA - genetic material inside the cells' energy-making structures that gets passed on from mother to child - between chimpanzees and humans.

But since that technique is based on the number of mutations divided by the time since the two shared a common ancestor, it requires an estimate of when the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Newer research estimated the mutation rate in modern human families based on DNA from the nucleus, which involved another way of getting at the common ancestor timing. That method suggested humans were racking up genetic mutations at half the rate - meaning to reach the genetic differences we see today humans would've had to leave Africa more than 200,000 years ago.
Alarm Clock

Ancient Egyptian sundial discovered at valley of the kings

Sundial
© University of Basel
A sundial dating to the 13th century B.C. and considered one of the oldest Egyptian sundials, was discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, the burial place of rulers from Egypt's New Kingdom period (around 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.).
A sundial discovered outside a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings may be the world's oldest ancient Egyptian sundials, say scientists.

Dating to the 19th dynasty, or the 13th century B.C., the sundial was found on the floor of a workman's hut, in the Valley of the Kings, the burial place of rulers from Egypt's New Kingdom period (around 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.).

"The significance of this piece is that it is roughly one thousand years older than what was generally accepted as time when this type of time measuring device was used," said researcher Susanne Bickel, of the University of Basel in Switzerland. Past sundial discoveries date to the Greco-Roman period, which lasted from about 332 B.C. to A.D. 395.

The sundial is made of a flattened piece of limestone, called an ostracon, with a black semicircle divided into 12 sections drawn on top. Small dots in the middle of each of the 12 sections, which are about 15 degrees apart, likely served to give more precise times.

A dent in the center of the ostracon likely marks where a metal or wooden bolt was inserted to cast a shadow and reveal the time of day. [See Images of the Sundial and Egyptian Burials]

"The piece was found with other ostraca (limestone chips) on which small inscriptions, workmen's sketches, and the illustration of a deity were written or painted in black ink," Bickel told LiveScience in an email.

Bickel and her colleagues aren't sure for what purpose the workmen would've used the sundial, though they suggest it may have represented the sun god's journey through the underworld.
Boat

Return to Antikythera: What divers discovered in the deep

Antikythera
© Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities/WHOI
Divers recover an amphora from the site of the Roman Antikythera shipwreck in Greece.
Divers revisiting the wreck in Greece where an ancient computer was found have discovered an array of artefacts.

Divers returning to the site of an ancient wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera have found artefacts scattered over a wide area of the steep, rocky sea floor. These include intact pottery, the ship's anchor and some puzzling bronze objects. The team believes that hundreds more items could be buried in the sediment nearby.

The Antikythera wreck, which dates from the first century BC, yielded a glittering haul when sponge divers discovered it at the beginning of the 20th century. Among jewellery, weapons and statues were the remains of a mysterious clockwork device, dubbed the Antikythera mechanism.
Smoking

UC Davis researchers uncover earliest tobacco use in the Pacific Northwest

ancient pipe tobacco
© Shannon Tushingham/courtesy UC Davis
The earliest known usage of tobacco in the Pacific Northwest was smoked using a pipe similar to this one, according to Shannon Tushingham, a UC Davis archaeology research associate.
Native American hunter-gatherers living more than a thousand years ago in what is now northwestern California ate salmon, acorns and other foods, and now we know they also smoked tobacco - the earliest known usage in the Pacific Northwest, according to a new UC Davis study.

"The study demonstrates that tobacco smoking was part of the northwestern California culture very early ... shortly after the earliest documented Pacific Northwest Coast plank house villages," said the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Testing organic residues extracted from pipes, researchers from the UCD Department of Anthropology and the Fiehn Metabolomics Laboratory of the UCD Genome Center confirmed tobacco was smoked, and likely grown in the region, by at least A.D. 860.
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Ancient human skulls show evidence of prevalent inbreeding

Inbreeding
© Erik Trinkaus/WUSTL
This is a view of the Xujiayao site (below) and internal and external view of the Xujiayao 11 skull piece with its position indicated on the drawing of a complete skull (above).
Although it is considered completely taboo in most modern societies, an ancient human skull found in northern China suggests inbreeding could have been prevalent among ancient peoples around 100,000 years ago, according to a report in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

The skull - which was found at Xujiayao, a mountainous excavation site several hundred miles from the Mongolian border - contained an enlarged parietal foramen (EPF), or "hole in the skull," typically diagnosed as a rare genetic mutation in modern humans.

Using CT scans and 3-D imaging technology, the team was able to successfully produce a model of the highly fractured and fragmented skull. After the model was created, the team was clearly able to see the results of the congenital condition.

EPF, which appears in one out of every 25,000 modern human births, prevents the closure of the skull bones that typically occur within the first five months of fetal development. Based on the exceptionality of the genetic condition and other fossil evidence found in skulls from the same time period, the researchers theorized the genetic pools were very small in many Pleistocene communities.
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Best-preserved human ancestor didn't have bone disorder

Turkana Boy
© Claire Houck | Wikimedia Commons
Turkana Boy, an ancient human ancestor who died about 1.5 million years ago, probably wasn't suffering from a congenital spine disease, new research suggests
"Turkana Boy," an exquisitely preserved 1.5-million-year-old human ancestor found in Kenya, may not have had dwarfism or scoliosis, new research suggests.

Past studies had suggested that the ancient human ancestor, a Homo erectus, had suffered from a congenital bone disorder that made him unrepresentative of his species.

"Until now, the Turkana Boy was always thought to be pathological," said study co-author Martin Häusler, a physician and physical anthropologist at the University of Zurich. "The spine was somewhat weird, and so he couldn't be used as a comparative model for Homo erectus biology because he was so pathological."

But the new analysis, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, suggests that apart from a herniated disc in his back, Turkana Boy was a fairly healthy person with no genetic bone problems.
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