Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ancient Celtic Prince's Grave and Chariot Unearthed

The 2,500-year-old lavish tomb and chariot of an ancient Celtic prince have been unearthed in France.

The ancient princely tomb, which was discovered in a large burial mound, was filled with stunning grave goods, including gorgeous pottery and a gold-tipped drinking vessel. The giant jug was decorated with images of the Greek god of wine and revelry, and was probably made by Greek or Etruscan artists.

The stunning new finds "are evidence of the exchanges that happened between  the Mediterranean and the Celts," Dominique Garcia, president of France's National institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), told journalists at a field visit, according to France 24. 

Ancient trade routes

Though the heartland of the Greek  city-states was clustered in Greecein the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the economic powerhouses later expanded their reach throughout the Mediterranean. At their peak, the Greek and Western Etruscan city-states had settlements dotting coastlines all the way to modern-day southern Spain to the south and to the Black Sea, near modern-day Russia, to the north. One of the key trading centers for this region was Massilia, in what is now modern-day Marseille, France. Merchants from the East came to the region seeking slaves, metals and amber, according to an INRAP statement about the find.

Many of the Mediterranean merchants bestowed impressive goods from Greek and Etruscan cultures as diplomatic gifts, in hopes of opening new trade channels. As a result, the Celts who ruled centrally located inland regions in the central river valleys amassed great wealth. The most elite of these ancient rulers were buried in impressive burial mounds, some of which can be found in Hochdorf, Germany, and Bourges, France.

Long burial tradition

The current site — located in the little village of Lavau, France, just a few hours' drive south of Paris — served as an ancient burial place for centuries. In 1300 B.C., the ancient inhabitants left burial mounds with bodies and the cremated remains of people, archaeologists have found. Another burial at the site, dating to about 800 B.C., holds the body of an ancient warrior bearing a sword, along with a woman bedecked in solid-bronze bracelets.

The current tomb was part of a set of four burial mounds that were grouped together, dating to about 500 B.C., though the tomb itself is likely younger than the rest of the burials. People continued to use the ancient cemetery during the Roman period, when some of the graves were emptied and replaced by newer graves.

The newly discovered funeral chamber was found in a giant mound about 130 feet (40 meters) wide — one of the largest found from that time period. Inside lies the body of an ancient prince in his chariot. In a corner of the tomb, someone had placed several basins; a bronze bucket; a fluted piece of pottery; and a large, sheathed knife.

The most striking find was a stunning bronze cauldron, about 3.3 feet (1 m) in diameter, that may have been made by the Greeks or the Etruscans.

The giant jug has four handles, with images of the Greek god Achelous, a Greek river deity. In this depiction, Achelous is shown with horns and bulls' ears, as well as a beard and three moustaches. The stunningly worked cauldron also depicts eight lion heads, and the interior contains an image of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of winemaking, lying under a vine and looking at a woman.

"This appears to be a banquet scene, a recurrent theme in Greek iconography," researchers from INRAP, which is overseeing the excavations at the site, said in a statement.

The cauldron, which was likely used by the ancient Celtic aristocrats in feasts, is also covered in gold at the top and the base.
_________________
Reference:

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Ancient Celtic Prince's Grave and Chariot Unearthed”. Live Science. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/50069-celtic-prince-tomb-uncovered.html

Friday, April 17, 2015

Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America

A team of anthropology researchers has found significant differences in facial features between all seven pre-Columbian peoples they evaluated from what is now Peru - disproving a longstanding perception that these groups were physically homogenous. The finding may lead scholars to revisit any hypotheses about human migration patterns that rested on the idea that there was little skeletal variation in pre-Columbian South America.

Skeletal variation is a prominent area of research in New World bioarchaeology, because it can help us understand the origins and migration patterns of various pre-Columbian groups through the Americas.

"However, for a long time, the conventional wisdom was that there was very little variation prior to European contact," says Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at NC State University and co-author of a paper describing the new work. "Our work shows that there was actually significant variation." The research team also included anthropologists from the University of Oregon and Tulane University.

The recently-published findings may affect a lot of hypotheses regarding New World anthropology. For decades, research on pre-Columbian peoples used one sample of 110 individuals to represent the skull variation - including the facial features - of all South American peoples. But that representative sample consisted solely of individuals from the Yauyos people - a civilization that existed in the central Peruvian highlands.

"And our work shows that the Yauyos had facial features that were very different even from other peoples in the same region," Ross says. "This raises questions about any hypothesis that rests in part on the use of the Yauyos sample as being representative of all South America."

The researchers evaluated facial measurements of 507 skulls from seven different groups that have been clearly defined by archaeological evidence: the Yauyos, Ancon, Cajamarca, Jahuay, Makatampu, Malabrigo, and Pacatnamu peoples. These societies existed at various points between A.D. 1 and A.D. 1470.

Ross collected facial measurements of the Ancon, Cajamarca, and Makatampu remains. John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane, collected measurements of the Jahuay, Malabrigo, and Pacatnamu remains. For the Yauyos, the researchers used measurements made by W.W. Howells in 1973.

The researchers found that each of these groups displayed distinct facial characteristics.

The researchers also plotted the sites where each group's remains were found. Using this information, they determined that geographical distance was a factor in facial differences between groups.

In other words, the farther apart two groups were, the less they looked alike.

"We've now collected samples from across Latin America - and those we've already published on can be viewed in a publicly available database," Ross says. "Our publications so far have focused on variation in specific regions. Next we want to compare variation across Latin America, to see if we can identify patterns that suggest biological relationships, which could be indicative of migration patterns."
_________________
Reference:

EurekAlert. 2015. “Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-03/ncsu-sfs030515.php

Thursday, April 16, 2015

St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity

Beyond the glitz of tourism, St. Barts natives speak in unique varieties of French

The island of Saint Barthélemy isn’t just a popular vacation playground for the rich and famous — it’s also a destination for scholars of languages. Though it is tiny, St. Barts in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands is home to four different languages, all connected to the island’s history. In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker, describing the findings of a 2013 book by linguist Julianne Maher, writes:

Today St. Barths is a French territory of eight square miles and about 8,000 people. Professor Maher’s map shows the island’s four sections with their languages: St. Barth Patois in Sous le Vent (the leeward, or western, end); St. Barth Creole in Au Vent (the windward, or eastern, end); “Saline French,” named for local salt ponds, in the center; and English in Gustavia, the capital, built by internationally minded Swedes.

Maher’s book is called The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies; it alludes to three traditional communities on the island—the seafarers, the herdsman and the farmers. The island may be small, but has such strict boundaries that these communtiies all have different blood types, Walker reports. And different languages.

After French settlers arrived in the 17th century, three dialects arose and diversified. Now, the Patois is different from that found in Cajun French or Canadian French; the creole is similar to that of Martinique; the Saline French was mostly spoken by older people, at the time Maher visited, and "very fast." English in the capital cropped up when France’s King Louis XVI gave the island to the Swedes in 1784. Sweden returned St Barts to France in 1978.

Gathering recordings of the different dialects for required hard work, Maher writes in the introduction to her book:

The St. Barths were suspicious of outsiders and their language varieties were used only with family or close friends, not with strangers. And to record their speech? Absolutely not! Initial contacts were very discouraging.

The reluctance, she suggests, lingers from the disparaging attitude that surrounding islands and France took toward people from St. Barts. But dozens of visits over the years built up enough trust for Maher to document the languages. 

The island is more than just a good place to study how distinct languages can emerge even in a small population. It’s also a place to study how languages die. Maher, Walker writes, tells the story of the island’s languages with "an awareness of reporting on phenomena that are vanishing almost as she writes. Many of those she interviewed have since died."

Saline French is "probably already gone," and St. Barts Creole is in decline. Standard French is gaining ground (even pushing English out). But St. Barts Patois is hanging on as a mark of St. Barts identity. But as the isolation of the past fades in the face of tourist traffic and increasing prosperity, that too may change. Maher notes:

My hope is that the reader will come to appreciate not only this distinctive society but also its courage and fortitude in its centuries-old struggle with adversity." 
_________________
Reference:

Fessenden, Marissa. 2015. “St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/smart-news/caribbean-island-galapagos-linguistic-diversity-180954481/

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the fascinating story of a lone non-white soldier among Yorkshire volunteers fighting on the Western Front.

Jogendra Sen, a highly-educated Bengali who completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Leeds in 1913, was among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds "Pals" Battalion when it was raised in September 1914.

He remained the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War. Despite his education, he was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer and unable to progress beyond the rank of private. Killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28, the bachelor is thought to have been the first Bengali to have died in the war. Private Sen's name is on the University's war memorial.

His story caught the attention of Dr Santanu Das, Reader in English at King's College London and an expert on India's involvement in the First World War. On a visit in 2005 to Sen's home town of Chandernagore -- a former French colony -- Dr Das came across Sen's bloodstained glasses in a display case in the town's museum, the Institut de Chandernagore.

He said: "I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses. It's one of the most poignant artefacts I've seen -- a mute witness to the final moments of Sen's life. It was astonishing that something so fragile has survived when almost everything else has perished." A contemporary photograph shows Private Sen relaxing with his fellow Pals -- who knew him as Jon -- wearing what is thought to be the same spectacles Dr Das found almost a century later.

While giving a talk in Leeds as part of the University's Legacies of War centenary project, Dr Das mentioned his discovery in India. Keen-eyed members of the audience pointed out that Sen's name was among those on the University war memorial nearby.

Further information began to pour forth from community researchers Dave Stowe and Andrea Hetherington, who have worked with academics on Legacies of War. Mr Stowe had already been researching Jogendra Sen as part of work to find out more about those on the University roll of honour.

Professor Alison Fell, who leads the project at the University of Leeds, said: "I found the piecing together of Sen's story from the historical traces of his life and death that had survived in India and in Yorkshire very moving.

"His story also illustrates the extent to which the First World War was a global war that involved colonial soldiers and workers as well as those who volunteered or who were conscripted in their home nations."

Dr Das added: "The glasses led me to find other remarkable objects, some from my own extended family, and onto a tantalising trail of other educated middle class Bengalis, who often served as doctors -- and partly inspired my book 1914-1918: Indians on the Western Front, which tells their story through photographs and objects.

"More than a million Indian soldiers and non-combatants served in different theatres of the First World War, but what is so unusual about Jogendra Sen is that he was not part of the Indian army but of the Leeds Pals Battalion.

"I sometimes wonder what his experiences would have been as the only non-white person in the battalion at that time -- and of his family when the glasses arrived, all the way from France to Chandernagore."

Bengalis, deemed by the British to be a "non-martial" race as part of their divide-and-rule colonial policies in India, were initially excluded from the Indian Army and were rarely found in British regiments.

Less than 100 Bengalis are thought to have fought in the conflict, although they supported the war effort in other ways, such as through fundraising or medical work. Instead, the British recruited Punjabis and Ghurkhas to fight in the West.

In total, India contributed some 1.5 million men as soldiers and non-combatants (including labourers and porters) to the war effort.
_________________
Reference:

Science Daily. 2015. “The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150305205835.htm

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter

The ancient Mongols have a reputation for having been fierce warriors. A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh shows them to have been unmatched polluters.

Graduate student Aubrey Hillman recently published a paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that shows copper and silver production in southwest China produced tremendous quantities of harmful heavy metals, such as lead, silver, zinc, and cadmium, starting in 1500 BC and continuing through the era of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD). Hillman is near to earning her PhD from Pitt's Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences under her adviser and department chair Mark Abbott.

In 2009, Hillman and colleagues took core samples from Lake Erhai in the Yunnan province in southwestern China. The site was chosen because of its proximity to Kublai Khan's famed silver mines--Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty--and the area where ancient bronze artifacts had been found. The data from the samples surprised Hillman.

The researchers found that lead pollution in Lake Erhai peaked at 119 micrograms per gram of sediment in 1300 AD before then declining to around 30 micrograms per gram in 1420 AD. Peak pollution levels are three to four times higher than those generated by modern metallurgical methods, Hillman says.

"Notably, the concentrations of lead approach levels at which harmful effects may be observed in aquatic organisms," Hillman writes in the paper. "The persistence of this lead pollution over time created an environmental legacy that likely contributes to known issues in modern-day sediment quality."

"We went back in 2012 to confirm how widespread the pollution was," she continues. "Many studies have documented lead and metal pollution from early metalworking, but this study is the first to show that pollution was greater in the past than today. It shows that people may have been seriously impacting the environment for much longer than we thought." And her findings, she says, may have practical use today.

"The (metallurgic) processes would have volatilized heavy metals and spread throughout the landscape [not just Lake Erhai]," she says, which could have implications for agriculture since, as recent reports suggest, as much as one-sixth of China's arable land is affected by excessive accumulation of heavy metals.
_________________
Reference:

Science Daily. 2015. “Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter”. Science Daily. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150306102720.htm

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mapping 'switches' that shaped the evolution of the human brain

Thousands of genetic "dimmer" switches, regions of DNA known as regulatory elements, were turned up high during human evolution in the developing cerebral cortex, according to new research from the Yale School of Medicine.

Unlike in rhesus monkeys and mice, these switches show increased activity in humans, where they may drive the expression of genes in the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain that is involved in conscious thought and language. This difference may explain why the structure and function of that part of the brain is so unique in humans compared to other mammals. The research, led by James P. Noonan, Steven K. Reilly, and Jun Yin, is published March 6 in the journal Science.

In addition to creating a rich and detailed catalogue of human-specific changes in gene regulation, Noonan and his colleagues pinpointed several biological processes potentially guided by these regulatory elements that are crucial to human brain development.

"Building a more complex cortex likely involves several things: making more cells, modifying the functions of cortical areas, and changing the connections neurons make with each other. And the regulatory changes we found in humans are associated with those processes," said Noonan, associate professor of genetics, an investigator with the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, and senior author of the study. "This likely involves evolutionary modifications to cellular proliferation, cortical patterning, and other developmental processes that are generally well conserved across many species."

Scientists have become adept at comparing the genomes of different species to identify the DNA sequence changes that underlie those differences. But many human genes are very similar to those of other primates, which suggests that changes in the way genes are regulated -- in addition to changes in the genes themselves -- is what sets human biology apart.

Up to this point, however, it has been very challenging to measure those changes and figure out their impact, especially in the developing brain. The Yale researchers took advantage of new experimental and computational tools to identify active regulatory elements -- those DNA sequences that switch genes on or off at specific times and in specific cell types -- directly in the human cortex and to study their biological effects.

First, Noonan and his colleagues mapped active regulatory elements in the human genome during the first 12 weeks of cortical development by searching for specific biochemical, or "epigenetic" modifications. They did the same in the developing brains of rhesus monkeys and mice, then compared the three maps to identify those elements that showed greater activity in the developing human brain. They found several thousand regulatory elements that showed increased activity in human.

Next, they wanted to know the biological impact of those regulatory changes. The team turned to BrainSpan, a freely available digital atlas of gene expression in the brain throughout the human lifespan. (BrainSpan was led by Kavli Institute member Nenad Sestan at Yale, with contributions from Noonan and Pasko Rakic, a co-author on this study.) They used those data to identify groups of genes that showed coordinated expression in the cerebral cortex. They then overlaid the regulatory changes they had found with these groups of genes and identified several biological processes associated with a surprisingly high number of regulatory changes in humans.

"While we often think of the human brain as a highly innovative structure, it's been surprising that so many of these regulatory elements seem to play a role in ancient processes important for building the cortex in all mammals, said first author Steven Reilly. "However, this is often a hallmark of evolution, tinkering with the tools available to produce new features and functions." Next, Noonan and colleagues plan to investigate the function of some of the regulatory changes they identified by introducing them into the mouse genome and studying their effects on mouse brain development.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (GM094780, DA023999, NS014841, GM106628) and a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. It was conducted in collaboration with Pasko Rakic, director of the Kavli Institute at Yale and one of the world's leading experts on the development of the human cortex. Other authors were Deena Emera, Jing Leng, Justin Cotney and Richard Sarro in the Noonan lab and Albert E. Ayoub in the Rakic lab.
_________________
Reference:

Science Daily. 2015. “Mapping 'switches' that shaped the evolution of the human brain”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150305152105.htm

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Discovery of jaw by ASU team sheds light on early Homo

A fossil lower jaw found in the Ledi-Geraru research area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia, pushes back evidence for the human genus -- Homo -- to 2.8 million years ago, according to a pair of reports published March 4 in the online version of the journal Science. The jaw predates the previously known fossils of theHomo lineage by approximately 400,000 years. It was discovered in 2013 by an international team led by Arizona State University scientists Kaye E. Reed, Christopher J. Campisano and J Ramón Arrowsmith, and Brian A. Villmoare of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For decades, scientists have been searching for African fossils documenting the earliest phases of the Homo lineage, but specimens recovered from the critical time interval between 3 and 2.5 million years ago have been frustratingly few and often poorly preserved. As a result, there has been little agreement on the time of origin of the lineage that ultimately gave rise to modern humans. At 2.8 million years, the new Ledi-Geraru fossil provides clues to changes in the jaw and teeth inHomo only 200,000 years after the last known occurrence of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") from the nearby Ethiopian site of Hadar.

Found by team member and ASU graduate student Chalachew Seyoum, the Ledi-Geraru fossil preserves the left side of the lower jaw, or mandible, along with five teeth. The fossil analysis, led by Villmoare and William H. Kimbel, director of ASU's Institute of Human Origins, revealed advanced features, for example, slim molars, symmetrical premolars and an evenly proportioned jaw, that distinguish early species on the Homo lineage, such as Homo habilis at 2 million years ago, from the more apelike early Australopithecus. But the primitive, sloping chin links the Ledi-Geraru jaw to a Lucy-like ancestor.

"In spite of a lot of searching, fossils on the Homo lineage older than 2 million years ago are very rare," says Villmoare. "To have a glimpse of the very earliest phase of our lineage's evolution is particularly exciting."

In a report in the journal Nature, Fred Spoor and colleagues present a new reconstruction of the deformed mandible belonging to the 1.8 million-year-old iconic type-specimen of Homohabilis ("Handy Man") from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The reconstruction presents an unexpectedly primitive portrait of the H. habilis jaw and makes a good link back to the Ledi fossil.

"The Ledi jaw helps narrow the evolutionary gap between Australopithecus and early Homo," says Kimbel. "It's an excellent case of a transitional fossil in a critical time period in human evolution."

Global climate change that led to increased African aridity after about 2.8 million years ago is often hypothesized to have stimulated species appearances and extinctions, including the origin of Homo. In the companion paper on the geological and environmental contexts of the Ledi-Geraru jaw, Erin N. DiMaggio, of Pennsylvania State University, and colleagues found the fossil mammal assemblage contemporary with this jaw to be dominated by species that lived in more open habitats--grasslands and low shrubs--than those common at olderAustralopithecus-bearing sites, such as Hadar, where Lucy's species is found.

"We can see the 2.8 million year aridity signal in the Ledi-Geraru faunal community," says research team co-leader Kaye Reed, "but it's still too soon to say that this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo. We need a larger sample of hominin fossils, and that's why we continue to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search."

The research team, which began conducting field work at Ledi-Geraru in 2002, includes:

  • Erin N. DiMaggio (Pennsylvania State University), Christopher J. Campisano (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), J. Ramón Arrowsmith (ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration), Guillaume Dupont-Nivet (CNRS Géosciences Rennes), and Alan L. Deino (Berkeley Geochronology Center), who conducted the geological research
  • Faysal Bibi (Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science), Margaret E. Lewis (Stockton University), John Rowan (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), Antoine Souron (Human Evolution Research Center, University of California, Berkeley), and Lars Werdelin (Swedish Museum of Natural History), who identified the fossil mammals
  • Kaye E. Reed (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), who reconstructed the past habitats based on the faunal communities
  • David R. Braun (George Washington University), who conducted archaeological research
  • Brian A. Villmoare (University of Nevada Las Vegas), William H. Kimbel (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Chalachew Seyoum (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Addis Ababa), who analyzed the hominin fossil

The Ledi-Geraru Research Project is based in the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) at Arizona State University. IHO is one of the preeminent research organizations in the world devoted to the science of human origins. A research center of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, IHO pursues an integrative strategy for research and discovery central to its over 30-year-old founding mission, bridging social, earth, and life science approaches to the most important questions concerning the course, causes, and timing of events in the human career over deep time. IHO fosters public awareness of human origins and its relevance to contemporary society through innovative outreach programs that create timely, accurate information for both education and lay communities.
_________________
Reference:

EurekAlert. 2015. “Discovery of jaw by ASU team sheds light on early Homo”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 4, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-03/asu-doj022715.php