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6 Recently Discovered Facts About Neanderthals

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We first discovered the remains of a Neanderthal in 1829. Almost two centuries later, we’re still uncovering the secrets of our distant relatives. For example, did you know Neanderthals—or rather, Homo neanderthalensis—didn’t have a chin? They were also much stronger than humans, with large arms great for hunting or combat. New findings are turning the traditional perception of Neanderthals as dumb, barbaric beasts upside down, suggesting they weren’t so different from us after all. Here, a few recent discoveries.

1. Neanderthals mated with early humans

Researchers long suspected this to be true, considering the genetic similarities between Neanderthals and modern Europeans and Asians, but they lacked the evidence to prove it. In a new study published in Genetics, they now say the evidence is undeniable thanks to statistical modeling.

Researchers think there are two possible scenarios for these genetic similarities. Scenario #1: Modern humans and Neanderthals both have roots in a shared common African ancestor, and some humans—the ones that eventually became today’s Eurasians—evolved in relative isolation, therefore maintaining a lot of the genetic makeup shared by their Neanderthal cousins. Scenario #2: Humans and Neanderthals mated and produced offspring in Europe and Asia.

In their own words, they “did a bunch of math” to compare the statistical likelihood of each scenario and found that "a model that involves interbreeding is much more likely than a model where there was sustained substructure in Africa," according to evolutionary biologist Laurent Frantz, the study’s co-author.

And if statistical evidence isn’t enough to convince you, the remains of a human/Neanderthal hybrid were discovered in northern Italy.

2. The genes we inherited from Neanderthals are linked to modern ailments

One’s likelihood for having Crohn’s disease, lupus, and type 2 diabetes can all be traced back to genetic variants inherited from Neanderthals, as can your potential for becoming a smoker, according to a January 2014 study from the Harvard Medical School. Also, the offspring of humans and Neanderthals came with genetic mutations in the X chromosome. Some East Asians may have reduced fertility as a result.

3. They weren’t intellectually inferior to humans

Conventional wisdom holds that Neanderthals died out after we Homo sapiens came along because our superior intellect, technology, and mad hunting skills gave us the advantage. Survival of the fittest (or, smartest), right? Not so much. Thanks to a recent study in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, we now know that “the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true,” says Paola Villa, one of the study’s authors (she also curates the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History).

On the contrary, evidence suggests they were excellent planners and hunters, and worked expertly in groups. And remember, we aren’t comparing Neanderthals to modern humans, but to the very earliest Homo sapiens. Researchers think this is where the misconception stemmed from. “It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and [concluding] that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari,” Villa explains.
So, what did kill the Neanderthals? Well, researchers haven’t quite nailed that one down yet, but they suspect it could be connected to genetic problems linked to inbreeding.

4. Neanderthal children may have gone to school

Accompanying the theory that these guys weren’t so dumb after all, researchers think Neanderthal parents educated their young. OK, maybe they couldn’t do arithmetic, but they could make tools. At several sites, researchers have discovered perfectly assembled tools alongside less advanced versions of the same objects, suggesting children were honing their tool-making skills thanks to some lessons from more experienced crafters.

5. They buried their dead

Like us, our not-so-dim-witted evolutionary relatives seemed to honor their lost loved ones with burial ceremonies. Researchers landed on this conclusion after studying the remains of several Neanderthals found in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France. The remains showed no sign of disturbance from animals or external elements, suggesting they were covered quickly and intentionally. “While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic,” said Dr. William Rendu, a researcher at New York’s Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, “the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us.”

6. They could speak


It all comes down to a little bone called the hyoid. Located in the neck near the thyroid, the hyoid supports your tongue and helps you talk. Apes, our closest living relatives, don’t have this bone. But Neanderthals did. Archaeologists discovered it in 1989, and last year, thanks to a 3-D computer model, demonstrated how the bone might have served the Neanderthals. While it doesn’t look exactly like the hyoid in your own jaw, it could have served a similar function, allowing Neanderthals to form a language. "Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human,” Stephen Wroe, a faculty member at the University of New England in Australia, told the BBC. “If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”