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Portugal’s Oldest Skull Adds to Puzzle of Human Evolution

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Virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium as seen from the front (A), back (B), top (C), and side (D). Image Credit: Zilhão et al. in PNAS, 2017

 
When archaeologists were digging up the dirt floor at the Aroeira cave in central Portugal in 2014, they were already well on their way to understanding the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers who took shelter there during the Middle Pleistocene.

The researchers had found Acheulean handaxes—the most advanced technology of the day—that were used for cutting, scraping, and butchering. They also found burnt deer bones, suggesting that whoever camped out at this cave 400,000 years ago had the know-how to make fires—then a relatively new human achievement.

Then, at the end of the field season, the excavators unexpectedly struck paleoanthropological gold. They were using demolition hammers to break through the cave’s hard fragmented rock when they chipped a piece of bone.

“Immediately we knew we were dealing with a human fossil,” said University of Barcelona archaeologist João Zilhão, the director of the excavation. His team removed a block of the sediment surrounding the fossil, and preparators in Madrid spent two years carefully revealing a human cranium encased inside. Their findings are reported in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s exceptionally rare to find human remains from this period. It’s even more rare to find them in a good archaeological context, among artifacts like tools and animal bones. So the discovery of this skull—the oldest ever found in Portugal—is exciting for some paleoanthropologists.

Below, you can see the researchers' discovery, removal, cleaning, and finally restoration of the ancient cranium.

Zilhão et al. in PNAS

 
The prehistoric skull from Aroeira shares some similarities with human fossils of the same era found in Spain, France, and Italy—including some fossils thought to be early Neanderthals, which were just starting to emerge in Europe, and some fossils that had been attributed to another species, Homo heidelbergensis. But the new specimen doesn’t fit neatly into a species category, and could help researchers argue for a diversity of human populations in Europe before the rise of modern humans.

Mental_floss spoke to a trio of experts in human evolution for their take on the current study, which they were not involved in. “This find adds more complexity to the European picture, as we are also seeing in Africa and Asia,” Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum, says.

University College London paleoanthropologist Maria Martinón-Torres sees the skull as a potential ancestor to the Neanderthal. “I think this finding obliges us to abandon the idea that Neanderthal evolution is a single and lineal process,” she says.

She noted that there are several fossils from similar mid-Pleistocene sites, such as Sima de los Huesos in Atapuerca, Spain and Arago in France, that share some Neanderthal traits but have very different combinations of those traits.

“We see now that there is no linearity in the combination of these traits,” Martinón-Torres says. “This is probably due to the fragmentation and isolation of these populations due to the hard climatic conditions in Europe at that time.” She said that when climatic conditions are harsh, populations can get isolated and evolve their own particular distinctive features. Then, when conditions get better, these groups meet and recombine again. “So for a long period we will find a Neanderthal-like but highly variable population,” she says.

Bence Viola, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto, notes that with the addition of the Aroeira skull we now have a few different humans fossils that look quite different from one another despite being from the same period. He says the new skull seems more primitive than the fossils found nearby at Sima de los Huesos, which, ancient DNA results have shown, represent early Neanderthals. “This cranium makes this scenario of having several different populations in Europe in the middle Pleistocene seem likely,” says Viola, who adds that he would be very interested to see what this specimen’s DNA looks like.

Stringer points out that the skull would be even more illuminating if it weren't missing some key parts, including the back of the cranium: “Unfortunately, this new fossil, interesting as it is, doesn’t have the most useful bits to put it into this puzzle."

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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