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Woolly Mammoth Skeleton May Revise Experts' Timeline of Early America

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At the peak of the last Ice Age (around 25,000 years ago), woolly mammoths lumbered across Michigan’s grassy fields and forested valleys. In October 2015, a local man stumbled upon one of the massive creatures’ skeletons while digging a gas line on a farm in Washtenaw County. Similar bones had been found in the region before, but this was one of the more complete sets, with 30 to 40 percent of the skeleton uncovered. Now, Nova Next reports, experts think the serendipitous find may yield new, early evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Daniel Fisher—a University of Michigan paleontologist who studies the extinction of mastodons and mammoths—led the excavation. He also spent the past year studying the skeleton, named the “Bristle mammoth” after its finder, James Bristle. The oldest documented evidence of humans arriving in Michigan is around 13,000 years ago, but Fisher believes he’s found evidence that the Bristle mammoth was butchered around 15,000 years ago.

Fisher estimated the skeleton’s age using preliminary radiocarbon dating, and he also noted that many of the bones illustrate “intentional breakage, targeted toward removal of nutritious tissues that humans might wish to harvest” (as quoted by PBS).

Plus, at the archaeological site, the mammoth bones were found embedded in pond sediments. Near the skeleton, excavators found three boulders that likely wouldn’t have been deposited there naturally. Fisher thinks that early hunters used the boulders as weights, and tied mammoth meat to them with ropes to store them in a cool body of water (an early refrigeration technique). Portions of the skeleton also appear to have been set in piles, suggesting that hunters arranged them that way for storage purposes.

If hunters did indeed kill it, the find could prove that Michigan was home to humans long before the Clovis—a Paleo-Indian culture that hunted large mammals with spears—arrived on the scene. According to Phys.org, only a few pre-Clovis archaeological sites have been documented in the Americas, including in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and South America.

Fisher and his team plan to return to James Bristle’s farm to excavate the site more extensively (they only had a day to remove the bones before construction on the gas line resumed), find more evidence, and conduct more tests on both the skeleton and its environment. Soon, they hope to submit their fleshed-out findings to a scientific journal.

As for now, the Bristle mammoth is on temporary display at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History until January 2018, when it will move to a more permanent location in the university’s new Biological Science building.

[h/t Nova Next]

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Drought Reveals Ancient Sites in Scotland That Can Only Be Spotted From the Air
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Typically rainy Scotland is in the middle of an unusually dry summer—and local archaeologists are taking advantage of it. As the BBC reports, the drought has revealed ancient sites, including Roman camps and Iron Age graves, that have been hidden by farm soil for years.

Historic Environment Scotland has been conducting aerial surveys of the country's landscape since the 1930s, but it's in seasons like this, when the crops recede during dry weather, that the buried remains of ancient structures are easiest to spot. Conditions this summer have been the best since 1976 for documenting archaeological sites from the sky.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

The crescent-shaped crop mark in the photo above indicates a souterrain, or underground passageway, that was built in the Scottish Borders during the Iron Age. The surveyors also found remains of a Roman temporary camp, marked by straight lines in the landscape, built in modern-day Lyne—an area south of Edinburgh already known to have housed a complex of Roman camps and forts.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

In the image below you'll see four small ditches—three circles and one square—that were likely used as burial sites during the Iron Age. When crops are planted over an ancient ditch, they have more water and nutrients to feed on, which helps them grow taller and greener. Such crops are especially visible during a drought when the surrounding vegetation is sparse and brown.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland has a team of aerial surveyors trained to spot the clues: To date, they've discovered more than 9000 archaeological sites from the air. HSE plans to continue scoping out new areas of interest as long as the dry spell lasts.

It's not just in Scotland that long-hidden settlements are coming to light: similar aerial surveys in Wales are finding them too.

[h/t BBC]

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Billion-Year-Old Rocks Reveal the First Color Ever Produced by a Living Thing
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Billions of years ago, before there were plants and animals on Earth, there were rocks, tiny organisms, water, and not much else. It’s hard to envision what our barren planet looked like back then, but scientists now have some idea of what colors dominated the landscape.

As Vice reports, a team of researchers from Australian National University (ANU) were able to pinpoint the oldest colors ever produced by a living creature: purple-red hues dating back more than 1.1 billion years. The pigments, which appear pink when diluted, were found in molecular fossils of chlorophyll that had been preserved in rocks beneath the Sahara desert. A billion years ago, though, this area was “an ancient ocean that has long since vanished,” Nur Gueneli of ANU said in a statement.

Chlorophyll may very well be green, but these pinkish pigments are a result of "fossilized porphyrins, a type of organic compound that forms an atomic ring around a magnesium ion to form a chlorophyll molecule," Vice explains.

While this provides an interesting visual, the color itself is less important than what it reveals about some of the earliest life forms on Earth. Scientists determined that the chlorophyll was produced by ancient organisms called cyanobacteria, which derived energy via photosynthesis and ruled the oceans at that time, researchers wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Larger planktonic algae—a potential food source for bigger life forms— were scarce, which may explain why large organisms didn’t roam the Earth a billion years ago. That kind of algae was about a thousand times larger than the cyanobacteria.

“The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago, when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth," ANU associate professor Jochen Brocks said.

So the next time you encounter algae, you can thank it for helping you secure a spot on this planet.

[h/t Vice]

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