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A Paleopuzzle: Chomping With No Chompers

Published: April 7, 2005

The toothless skull of an early human ancestor discovered in the Caucasus may attest to evolution’s oldest known example of compassion for the elderly and handicapped, scientists report today.

Other experts agreed that the discovery was significant, but cautioned that it might be a stretch to interpret the fossil as evidence of compassion.

The well-preserved skull, found in Georgia, belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. Regrowth of bone indicated that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age. (The discoverers call him the “old man.”)

In their report today, in the journal Nature, the discovery team said the 1.77-million-year-old skull “raises questions about alternative subsistence strategies in early Homo.” Specifically, how could the man have survived that long, unable to chew the food of a meat-eating society?

In interviews and in the current issue of National Geographic, the paleoanthropologists said caring companions might have helped the toothless man by finding soft plant food and hammering raw meat with stone tools so he could “gum” his dinner. If so, they said, this was evidence of a kind of compassion that had been absent in the ancestral fossil record before the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago.

Dr. David Lordkinidze, director of the Georgian State Museum in Tbilisi, led the team that made the discovery, at Dmanisi, a site that has already yielded several skulls and skeletons that are the oldest clear evidence of human ancestors living outside Africa.

Dr. G. Philip Rightmire of Binghamton University in upstate New York, a team member who specializes in Homo erectus, said in an interview that the old man might have been able to take care of himself by cracking bones for the marrow and even softening pieces of meat with stone hammers. But the loss of teeth, signifying either disease or advanced age or both, suggested that he might have needed help.

“The old man is indeed a very interesting specimen,” said Dr. Susan C. Anton of New York University, who has conducted research at the Dmanisi site but was not involved in the current report. “It makes the Georgian collection particularly important for looking at variability in populations, and especially for age variability.”

But Dr. Anton, an editor of The Journal of Human Evolution, said that “going from the clear biological signals of tooth loss before death to provisioning, compassion and care of the individual by others in the group is something of a leap.” She cited examples of toothless chimpanzees surviving without assistance.

“Did this hominid have to do things slightly differently than others in their group?” Dr. Anton said. “Yes. Did that mean that the others were providing care or food or compassion? There’s no way to know. But it wouldn’t be my first inference.”

Paleoanthropologists and archaeologists plan to return to Dmanisi in June to resume excavations, financed in part by the National Geographic Society. Dr. Rightmire said the team planned to widen research to detailed examinations of bones below the skulls, especially those of arms and legs

T. rex fossil has 'soft tissues'

From:The BBC
T. rex is perhaps the most famous dino and Montana has yielded excellent fossil specimens
Dinosaur experts have extracted samples of what appear to be soft tissues from a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil bone.

The US researchers tell Science magazine that the organic components resemble cells and fine blood vessels.

In the hotly contested field of dino research, the work will be greeted with acclaim and disbelief in equal measure.

What seems certain is that some fairly remarkable conditions must have existed at the Montana site where the T. rex died, 68 million years ago.

Normally when an animal dies, worms and bugs will quickly eat up anything that is soft.

Then, as the remaining bone material gets buried deeper and deeper in the mud, it gets heated, crushed and replaced by minerals – it is turned to stone.

Fine-scale process

The form, and nothing else, is all that is left of the original. On the outside, the hindlimb fossil designated MOR (Museum of the Rockies specimen) 1125 has this appearance.

But when Dr Mary Schweitzer, of North Carolina State University, dissolved away the minerals, she found something extraordinary inside.

Flexible tissues lining the marrow cavity of T. rex femur – scalebar 0.5mm (Science)
The soft structures move back into position after flexing
She discovered transparent, flexible filaments that resemble blood vessels. There were also traces of what look like red blood cells; and others that look like osteocytes, cells that build and maintain bone.

“This is fossilised bone in the sense that it’s from an extinct animal but it doesn’t have a lot of the characteristics of what people would call a fossil,” she told the BBC’s Science In Action programme.

“It still has places where there are no secondary minerals, and it’s not any more dense than modern bone; it’s bone more than anything.”

Dr Schweitzer is not making any grand claims that these soft traces are the degraded remnants of the original material – only that they give that appearance.

She and other scientists will want to establish if some hitherto unexplained fine-scale process has been at work in MOR 1125, which was pulled from the famous dinosaur rocks of eastern Montana known as the Hell Creek Formation.

Protein route

“This may not be fossilisation as we know it, of large macrostructures, but fossilisation at a molecular level,” commented Dr Matthew Collins, who studies ancient bio-molecules at York University, UK.

“My suspicion is this process has led to the reaction of more resistant molecules with the normal proteins and carbohydrates which make up these cellular structures, and replaced them, so that we have a very tough, resistant, very lipid-rich material – a polymer that would be very difficult to break down and characterise, but which has preserved the structure,” he told the BBC.

But if there are fragments, at least, of the original dinosaur molecules, their details could provide new clues to the relationship between T. rex and living species, such as birds.

Inevitably, people will wonder whether the creature’s DNA might also be found. But the “life molecule” degrades rapidly over thousand-year timescales, and the chances of a sample surviving from the Cretaceous are not considered seriously.

“I actually don’t work with DNA and my lab is not set up to do that,” said Dr Schweitzer. “Our goal is more to look to see what we can find with respect to the proteins that are coded by the DNA.

“To a large degree, most of the chemical studies that have been done suggest proteins are more durable than DNA and they have almost the same kind of information because they use DNA as their template.”

Dr Collins added: “I would agree that proteins are the molecules to go for – they are the major macromolecules in bone.

“We’ve got some very interesting research coming out from a number of labs looking at stable isotopes (different forms of the same atom) in bones and clearly information about diets which comes from such isotopes may now be amenable from these dinosaur materials.”

However, he cautioned that the great age of MOR 1125 may put such detail beyond the investigating scientists.

Even more rejection

See post below…

  What’s even worse… they reposted the job.  It wasn’t that someone else beat me out for the position.  I sucked.  Sucked so bad they’ve reopened their search.  Double OUCH.  That really hurts.

Dig at Donner camp yields fragments of life

Campfire cannibals? New bones bring scientists to the mountains of California to piece together a better picture of doomed pioneers
By Trine Tsouderos
Chicago Tribune

A newly discovered cache of bones may shed light on one of the most ghoulish and enduring mysteries of the West – whether members of the Donner party resorted to cannibalism during their snowbound months of starvation atop the Sierra Nevada, and if so, how they carried out the macabre deed.
Armed with the latest high-tech forensic tools, scientists are poring over fragments of buttons, mirrors and teacups, hoping to develop the most detailed accounting yet of those final days, the dark end to a grueling cross-country journey that began in Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1846.
The team of scientists and scholars says its analysis will offer the first concrete proof of what happened. If cannibalism took place, team members want to gain a clearer picture of who engaged in the taboo practice as well as better explain why so many died.
The team members also hope to humanize the men, women and children involved in one of the most gruesome episodes in the history of the 19th century American frontier.
”There is nothing more powerful than decorated teacup shards coming out of the earth,” said
University of Montana historical archaeologist Kelly Dixon, who is co-directing the dig in the Tahoe National Forest, about 80 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif. ”Instantly, these objects provide the vision of someone sitting around the campfire sipping on a teacup.”
”To establish cannibalism, you look for the ‘three Bs’ – burning, breakage and butchery,” said G. Richard Scott, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, at Reno, and a member of the dig team, which includes archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists from a half-dozen universities.
”The burning is when the bone has been charred to some extent. The butchery is cut-marks and marks, and the breakage is where . . . a heavy stone smashes open the bone to get the marrow.”
Archaeologists also will be checking for a fourth ”B,” boiling, which can be established by finding ”pot polish” – microscopic smoothness at the ends of bones caused by rolling around in boiling water.
”Cannibalism is the best-known feature of the Donner party, but it is the least understood,” said Kristin Johnson, the team’s historian.
The Donner party story, splashed across newspapers as soon as the survivors limped off the mountain, began in April 1846 when George Donner, a successful farmer in his 60s, his wife, Tamsen, and five daughters left Springfield. Along with 24 others, they joined thousands of pioneers in a historic 2,500-mile trek to California, passing through what is now called Emigration Canyon near Salt Lake City.
But they steered onto an unproven and disastrous ”shortcut” in what is now Wyoming. The exhausted Donner party wagon train, which now numbered about 80 pioneers, reached the Sierra Nevada in October.
Disaster struck in the form of snow that stranded the travelers in the mountains for a brutal winter with few supplies. The last of the 45 survivors were rescued in late April. All five Donner daughters endured the winter, but not their parents. In 2003, Dixon and University of Oregon archaeologist Julie Schablitsky, the dig co-director, began examining a site with their team in Tahoe National Forest identified in the 1990s by archaeologists as the area where Donner and his family made their last camp.
They eventually unearthed a earth with the shattered detritus of that desperate winter, the largest cache of bones and artifacts ever found by archaeologists immersed in the Donner party story.
”We have fragments of teacups. A writing slate. Bottle fragments from condiments, buttons from people’s clothing,” Dixon said. ”When you begin to look at these collectively, you are reminded they were normalizing their situation. . . . The mere existence of these artifacts alone has the power to revise the story.”
Among the most valuable finds are those bone chips, thousands of them, many charred, most smaller than a thumbnail.
Guy Tasa, a member of the dig and a human osteologist at the University of Oregon, will sort through the fragments and try to identify which are human. That’s easy when the pieces of bone are large, but with tiny bits, it’s very difficult, he said.
”I am hoping something out of these thousands and thousands of pieces of bone will be human,” Tasa said. The largest pieces are a couple of inches long. ”Still very small,” he said.
Some pieces thought to be human will be sent for mitochondrial DNA testing – analysis specially used to detect genetic material in degraded tissue – which may identify which person it belonged to by comparing it to the genetics of living Donner descendants.
After the bones are sorted and identified, archaeologists will attempt to tell what happened to them. Were they cooked? Boiled? Broken open to gain access to life-giving marrow?
Many of the fragments show evidence of being cooked in a fire for a long time, Tasa said.
”It does indicate they were cooking some of the bone, either with meat on it, or doing what we would call bone grease manufacture,” he said. That’s when people process bone to extract the last bit of nutrients from it, sometimes making a broth from it, he said.
The price of survival, however, could be devastating. Some Donner party survivors refused to speak about their ordeal, and others were branded as ”cannibals.”
”There was a social abuse,” Scott said. ”It gave them a bad name.”
The will to survive and the lengths people will go to do so fascinate Scott and remain an essential part of the Donner party story.
Exactly what those harrowing months in the snow looked, felt, smelled and ultimately tasted like is what archaeologists and scientists hope to discover as they comb through the remains of that final camp in the Sierra Nevada.
”We will never have all of our questions answered about the Donner party,” Dixon said. ”As much as we can, we will come up with a more complete picture. We would love to be uncovering the truth.”

Indian artifacts cloud project: Cave discovery sparks environmental concern


BOWLING GREEN — Environmentalists who’ve been fighting an industrial park going up near Mammoth Cave National Park have a new focus for their opposition — the discovery of prehistoric Indian remains and drawings nearby.

The artifacts were discovered in January and February, after construction crews for the Kentucky Trimodal Transpark, which broke ground last year, accidentally punched an opening in a previously unknown 2,000-foot-long cave nearby.

Experts from Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky then discovered the bones of two Indians and several ancient drawings on hardened mud and limestone rock, in an area since sealed for its protection.

Environmentalists and historic preservation advocates argue the discovery underscores the need for full-blown environmental and archaeological studies at the transpark, which they’ve previously argued would destroy prime farmland, displace communities and potentially pollute the national park, one of the state’s top tourist attractions, known for its labyrinth of caves, underground waterways and endangered species.

“The question that remains in my mind (is) will there be other caves and will there be other cultural resources impacted by this development?” said Kenneth Carstens, a Murray State University anthropology professor.

Carstens, whose doctoral dissertation was on the relationship between prehistoric Indians and the cave-riddled terrain of south-central Kentucky, is just one of several researchers or activists arguing that more study needs to be done.

Some are even calling for construction to stop.

“They ought to … do the work they are required to do to protect Mammoth Cave National Park,” said Roger Brucker, a board member of Karst Environmental Education and Protection, a Louisville-based group opposing the project.

While the newly discovered cave does not connect with Mammoth Cave, park officials continue to be “concerned about the indirect and cumulative effects of the transpark development and its operations” on the national park, spokeswoman Vickey Carson said.

But officials from the Intermodal Transportation Authority, which is developing the industrial park, argue they’ve done sufficient studies already, and that the environmentalists are attempting to exploit the archaeological discoveries because they’ve lost all other battles.

“I view this as a delaying tactic,” said Curtis Sullivan, chairman of the transpark authority board. “If they would give us legitimate concerns, we would look at them legitimately.”

“For an industrial park,” he said, “we’ve far exceeded what needs to be done.”

Top political leaders in both parties have backed the transpark project, which proponents say could generate up to 7,550 jobs, with its vision of integrating rail, air and highway transportation around a mix of commercial and industrial activities.
Do U.S. laws apply?

Being developed by a partnership of three cities, eight counties and the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce, the park eventually could encompass as much as 4,000 acres and include an airport.

Yet even as construction proceeds, critics — including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Sierra Club — argue that two federal laws, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, require the developers to conduct large-scale field studies.

What’s needed, Carstens said, is for experts to walk the land, inspecting for cave and sinkhole openings, searching for evidence of civilizations that could go back thousands of years.

Unless that kind of study is done, other treasures may be missed or destroyed, Carstens said, adding that the recent discoveries help illustrate how the cultural resources in and around Mammoth Cave are among the most significant in the world.

But two state officials who oversee Kentucky historical and archaeological preservation programs — David Morgan and George Crothers — said a large scale-archaeological field study has not been required for the transpark because no federal money has gone directly to it.

Environmentalists disagree, citing more than $14 million in grants and congressional earmarks that they say clearly identify the transpark as the beneficiary, including roads through the park and water and sewer line upgrades nearby, Louisville environmental attorney Leslie Barras said.

Sullivan acknowledged that federal money is supporting projects that will benefit the transpark, but he said they primarily would serve other businesses and residents.

Morgan, the executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council, the state historic preservation office, said a federal agency ultimately would have to decide if a study is warranted.

John Mettille, a state transportation official, pointed out that his agency is, pursuant to federal law, developing an environmental review of a U.S. 31W/Interstate 65 expansion project near the transpark, and will conduct archaeological field investigations. But the scope of those studies will only be for the road corridor, which might pass through the transpark.

The studies won’t address environmentalists’ larger question — whether the transpark should have been located somewhere else, because that’s not within the agency’s purview, he said.
Court battle possible

Before it’s over, the battle may end up in court, as environmentalists last week retained Midway attorney Hank Graddy to draw up a possible lawsuit aimed at halting construction and persuading a judge to order more studies.

Their concerns, Barras said, include air quality and whether the transpark might pollute the national park’s network of caves and subterranean waterways.

A 2003 report for the Intermodal Transportation Authority by Nick Crawford, director of the Western Kentucky Center for Cave and Karst Studies, concluded groundwater under the transpark flows away from the national park.

But another expert, Eastern Kentucky University geology professor Ralph Ewers, said the geology of the area is very complicated and there is a good chance Crawford is wrong.

Nearing the light at the end of the tunnel…

David Anderson points to colored soils in Mound WallSunday morning… but it’s not about lounging today… it’s about getting shit done.  Yep, no more putting it off.  MOST of Shiloh is complete, but there’s still the matter of some last minute video.  And today’s the day. 

The whole point of my documentary is that the archaeologists found that the mound at Shiloh was intended to be colorful, and possibly communicate a message.  The Mississippians sought out colorful dirt to create the mound.  So… I need to shoot some video of colorful man-made things, and I will use that video to tie our society to societies of the past.  It will work, trust me.  I just hope that I didn’t put this shoot off too long.  I’m a little worried about finding colorful buildings and monuments.  There don’t seem to be many here in Austin, other than private residences.  I hesitate to shoot video of someone’s house.  There are colorful decorations on some of the University buildings… we’ll probably go there.  I don’t think that my camera will arouse too much suspicion since RTF students are on campus all the time.  I guess I’m just being cautious, but you know how the government is nowadays.  They freak out if anyone shoots video of government buildings.  Fortunately I don’t need more than 30 seconds in the final edit.

I also need some video from Town Lake.  Turtles… snakes… water… SIGH.  It’s almost done!

Tutankhamun scans end myth boy king murdered

(New Zealand Herald)

The mystery of Tutankhamun – the boy king of ancient Egypt – has been partially solved. He was not murdered but did have a broken leg that could have killed him.

A CT scan of his mummy shows that the 19-year-old suffered a badly broken leg shortly before his death that could have become lethally infected, Egypt’s top archaeologist, Dr Zahi Hawass, announced yesterday. He said the remains of Tutankhamun, who ruled about 3300 years ago, showed no signs that he had been murdered – dispelling a mystery that has long surrounded the pharaoh’s death.

“The team found no evidence for a blow to the back of the head, and no other signs of foul play.”

Hawass said some members of the Egyptian-led research team, which included two Italian experts and one from Switzerland, interpreted a fracture to Tut’s left thigh as evidence that he may have broken his leg badly just before he died.

“The break itself would not have been life-threatening but infection might have set in,” the statement said.

Part of the team believes it also possible, though less likely, that the fracture was caused by the embalmers.

Others believe the bone chipping may have been caused by archaeologists.

Some 1700 images were taken during the 15-minute CT scan aimed at answering many of the mysteries that shrouded his life and death – including his royal lineage, his age at the time of his death and the reason he died.

Tutankhamun is believed to have been the 12th ruler of Egypt’s 18th dynasty. He ascended to the throne at about 8 years old and died around 1323 BC.