Saturday, February 22, 2014


Some 170 archaeologists and workers have spent the last year excavating a 3,000-year-old site in a rural area near the Colombian capital. Covering 7.8 hectares (19.25 acres), the dig is "unique in Colombia" in terms of offering the possibility of reconstructing ancient village life, archaeologist John Gonzalez said. "We have found an archaeological context that tells us about a probable form of village life, with some traces of family dwellings," Gonzalez added. "We also found structures of a ceremonial type of nature and funerary structures."

The site has yielded 30 intact ceramic objects as well as human bones and teeth. The materials reveal that the inhabitants were members of the so-called Herrera culture, who lived in the highlands of central Colombia from around 900 BCE to 900 CE.

Edited from Latin American Herald Tribune (10 December 2013)
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There are only two prints - one left and one right - but an ancient hunter-gatherer's path through mineral-rich sediment in the Chihuahuan Desert of northeastern Mexico has been dated to around 10,500 BP.

A team led by Doctor Nicholas Felstead, a geo-archaeologist at Durham University, was able to date the tracks because they were preserved in travertine, a sedimentary rock that contains minute traces of uranium from the waters in which it formed. The tracks were first discovered during highway construction in 1961. They were excavated and taken to Saltillo's Museo del Desierto, for study, but their precise location was lost to history.

A search for the site in 2006 came up empty, but it did turn up an additional 11 tracks in a Cuatro Ciénegas quarry - in the general area where the original prints were believed to have been found - and dated back about 7,250 years.

Although rare, fossil human footprints have been found elsewhere in North America, from Nicaragua to California. The oldest known human print in the Western Hemisphere is the tiny track of a child's foot in Chile dated to 13,000 years ago - adding to the debate about when humans first migrated to the New World.

Edited from Western Digs (9 December 2013)
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Stone Age Brits were masters at choosing the perfect 'desirable residence', according to new research carried out by archaeologists at the University of Southampton, and Queen's University, Belfast. Nutritional and security considerations appear to have been the main criteria.

A survey of 25 major British and north-west French sites dating from 500,000 to 200,000 years ago has revealed that members of the long-extinct species Homo heidelbergensis predominantly chose to live on islands in the flood plains of major rivers. They avoided forests and hills, the upper and middle reaches of river systems and their estuaries. It is the first ever detailed interdisciplinary investigation into early humanity's home location preferences.

"What has amazed us is the degree to which they appear to have deliberately and consistently sought out the same type of ideal location for establishing their major camps.", said the research project's co-director, archaeologist and geographer Professor Tony Brown of the University of Southampton.

The reasons for choosing flood plain areas and avoiding other locations were complex - but help to explain why Homo heidelbergensis was so successful for so long. Flood plains provided raw material for making tools and lighting fires, shallow running water, plentiful game, and vast quantities of water plants with nutritional edible roots. To avoid predators such as lion and hyaena, Homo heidelbergensis favored only the islands formed by a river's intersecting channels.

During the 300,000 year period of Homo heidelbergensis' dominance in Europe, they had to retreat south on many occasions when cold periods set in. In total, they therefore probably lived in Britain and north-west France for only 10 to 15% of that period, and there were probably only a few hundred or at most a few thousand individuals at any one time. Skeletal remains of fewer than ten have ever been found there, and only these 25 major occupation sites are known in the area. Yet, despite their tiny numbers they succeeded in surviving for at least 3000 centuries and probably contributed to our modern human gene pool.

Edited from The Independent (10 December 2013)
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Monday, February 17, 2014


By most estimates, humans discovered fire over a million years ago, but when they really began to control and use it for their daily needs is still debated. A team of Israeli scientists recently discovered the earliest evidence of repeated fire building over a continuous period, dating to around 300,000 years ago, in the Qesem Cave archaeological site near present-day Rosh Ha'ayin (Israel).

Excavations identified a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave. Infrared spectroscopy revealed that mixed in with the ash were bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures - proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth - and a great many micro-strata in the ash provided evidence that it was used repeatedly over time.

In and around the hearth area, archaeologists found large numbers of flint tools that were clearly used for cutting meat. In contrast, flint tools found just a few meters away had a different shape, designed for other activities. The arrangement of activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space typical of modern humans, and suggests the cave was a sort of base camp that prehistoric humans returned to again and again.

The researchers think that these findings, along with others, are signs of substantial changes in human behavior and biology that commenced with the appearance in the region of new forms of culture - and indeed a new human species - about 400,000 years ago.

Edited from Weizmann Wonder Wander (February 2014)
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The remains of a one-year-old Ice Age boy who died 12,600 years ago were discovered near a rock cliff in central Montana in 1968, along with a multitude of distinctive burial artifacts, such as spear points and antler tools. The skeleton and burial artifacts were covered with powdered red ochre, a type of mineral.

An international team of researchers have now sequenced the genome of the "Clovis boy" and compared it with genetic information of modern Native Americans across the Americas, as well as with that of ancient Europeans, Asians and Greenlanders. Their results show that approximately 80 percent of today's Native Americans are direct descendants of the boy's contemporaries - particularly the indigenous people who today live in Mexico and South America. The remaining 20 percent are found among some of Canada's First Nations, who - while not direct descendents - are still more closely related to Clovis than any genetic group from any other continent.

The Clovis boy also shares about a third of his genome with another ancient youth, a 24,000-year-old Siberian child known as the Mal'ta boy, whose remains were also recently analyzed. "The genetic findings mesh well with the archaeological evidence to confirm the Asian homeland of the First Americans... and is consistent with occupation of the Americas a few thousand years before Clovis," said Dr Michael Waters, Director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M University, and lead archaeologist on the team.

The similarities and differences among these native groups suggest a genetic "split" took place within the boy's lineage thousands of years before his time. From one branch came the ancestors of some Canadian First Nations, while the other branch led to the Clovis boy and his family, and their descendants who make up the majority of Native Americans today.

Source: Western Digs, Bio News Texas (12 February 2014)
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Sunday, February 16, 2014


Archaeologists have discovered a building dating back to 2,200 BC at an archaeological site in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. It is the oldest ancient building ever to be found in the region and researchers are unsure about what culture lived in the area during the Formative Period when the building was constructed.

The finding was made in the archaeological and ecological park, known as Rumbipapa, which lies at the foot of Pichincha Volcano (Guagua Pichincha). "It is the most ancient archaeological find in Rumbipapa Park and in the city of Quito," said Park Supervisor Bernarda Icaza. He added that the discovery has enormous historical importance because "it opens doors to further archaeological, historical and heritage research."

The excavation was started two years ago by archaeologist Angelo Constantine. After digging down three meters, the flooring of a small dwelling was found. Carbon dating on human waste found within the dwelling was used to date the building back 4,200 years. Traces of volcanic lava found next to the building suggest that the village that once stood on the site was destroyed by the eruption of the Pichincha Volcano. The last major eruptions of the volcano occurred in 1553 and 1660, when about 30 centimeters of ash fell over Quito, but it is not known how many more major eruptions occurred thousands of years ago.

"What destroyed this village was the eruption of Guagua Pichincha, and later the eruptions of Pululahua finished it off for good," said Park guide Danny Villacis. Villacis added that the discovery is singularly important because it shows "we are practically in our infancy" when it comes to studying historical subjects, and there is "still a lot of research to be done," since many people refer to the Incas as their ancestors despite the fact that thousands of years ago there were already other people living there.


The city of Çatalhöyük is the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date. At a time when most of the world's people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, Çatalhöyük was a bustling town of as many as 10,000 people. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is known as one of the best sites for understanding human Prehistory.

The linen, which dates back 9,000 years, was found as part of the latest dig, which involved 120 people from 22 different countries, and was one of the most striking findings of the season, particularly due to its high level of preservation."The fire warmed up the ground and platforms of the building and created a kiln drying effect. Therefore the pieces and this piece of cloth underground have been so far protected. Examinations in the laboratory show that this piece of cloth is linen weaved with hemp," said Professor Ian Hodder, head of the excavations. "This is a first in the world and one of the best preserved examples."

Hemp is a commonly used term for high growing varieties of the Cannabis plant and its products, which include fiber, oil, and seed. Hemp fiber was widely used throughout history for items ranging from rope to fabrics and even sail canvases. Hodder believes the piece of linen came from the eastern Mediterranean from the central Anatolia, and may be evidence of hemp used in trade.

Hemp has been cultivated by many civilizations for over 12,000 years. However, until the latest discovery, the oldest evidence of hemp fiber came from imprints found on Yangshao pottery in China dating to the 5th millennium BC. The Chinese later used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early form of paper.


Recently, we reported on the incredible finding of an ancient tomb containing a well-preserved Egyptian mummy in a limestone sarcophagus and a collection of 180 ushabti figurines in a newly-discovered tomb in Egypt's northern province of Dakahliya. As excavations have continued and archaeologists have revealed more amazing discoveries, which date back more than 2,500 years.

Excavations have now uncovered three sets of human remains in two tombs and hundreds of funerary objects, including a gold-plated mummy mask and rare amulets. Two limestone sarcophagi have been found with mummies inside. In one of the sarcophagi, the mummy is covered with gilded cartonnage, a type of material composing Egyptian funerary masks, and decorated withhieroglyphic text. It also contains the cartouche of King Psamtiak I from the 26th Dynasty. Inside was a wooden box filled with 14 amulets and 300 ushabti figurines, funerary figurines which were intended to act as
substitutes for the deceased, should he/she be called upon to do manual labour in the afterlife. The most important amulet is one that depicts a trinity of three Ancient Egyptian gods - Amun, Horus and Neftis.

In the second sarcophagus, archaeologists found another mummy, as well as a similar wooden box with 286 ushabti figurines and 29 amulets, among them a heart shaped scarab and garnet amulets. Beside the third skeleton,excavators uncovered 12 amulets featuring the Udjat eye of Horus.

The rare discovery was made inside a mastaba tomb at Tel El-Tabila, an ancient necropolis of the Late Ancient Egyptian period (712 - 323 BC). A mastaba tomb is a type of ancient Egyptian tomb in the form of an above ground, flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians. They were built with a north-south orientation which was essential for Egyptians so that they may be able to access the afterlife


A 17th dynasty painted sarcophagus belonging to a top governmental official was unearthed at Draa Abul-Naga necropolis on Luxor's west bank A Spanish-Egyptian archeological team working on Luxor's west bank has discovered a rare wooden human-shaped sarcophagus from the 17th dynasty.The find came during routine excavation work at the tomb of Djehuty, treasure holder for Queen Hatshepsut, at Dra Abul-Naga necropolis.

The sarcophagus is important for the detailed depictions of bird feather shapes and sizes painted on its lid, motifs that have earned it the title of Feathers Sarcophagi, according to Egypt's antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim. The 2 meter long, 42 cm tall sarcophagus is in very good condition, Ibrahim said. Studies reveal that the sarcophagus belongs to a top governmental official from the 17th dynasty, whose mummy was enclosed inside, said Ibrahim. The Spanish mission began excavation work at Djehuty's tomb 13 years ago, when many artifacts from New Kingdom dynasties were found. Excavation at the site remains in full swing, said Gose Galan, head of the Spanish team.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


A decade on from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and whipped up a tsunami of theft in Baghdad, Iraq's National Museum is preparing to display its treasures of Mesopotamian culture - even if thousands are missing.
"The museum is now displaying some of the stolen antiquities that were recovered and restored. From a historical perspective and in terms of restoration, it's a very good thing, and they're ready to be presented," Shaimaa Abdel Qader, a tour guide with the museum, told Reuters on a recent visit.

The museum is open to visitors who get special permits - mostly students, officials and foreign dignitaries - but could admit the general public as early as February or March, depending on construction and preparation efforts, she said. The plundering of the museum, whose collection comprises artifacts from over 5,000 years of Mesopotamian history, was one of the most sensational episodes in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Halls and display cases were stripped of priceless sculptures, amulets, coins and cylinder seals.

Today, only seven of the museum's 23 wings are open. Some sections smell of mildew and are only dimly lit by old fluorescent lights. Much of the signage is limited to printed paper replete with misspellings and mounted in plastic holders. Undeterred, employees said the museum was adding an entrance hall, installing electronic screens and refurbishing damaged relics.

The museum boasts an impressive array of statues, mosaics and bas reliefs of empires from the Sumerians to the Ottomans. Some of the world's first cities, irrigation systems, legal codes and forms of writing were developed in what is now Iraq, earning it the name "the cradle of civilization". The evidence of the past glory of empires such as the Babylonian and Assyrian contrasts with the reality of modern Baghdad, with its faded and crumbling concrete buildings and streets choked with traffic and checkpoints.

The museum is about as old as modern Iraq. It was founded in 1923 by King Faisal I, scion of a prominent family from what is now Saudi Arabia and chosen by British colonial rulers to fuse three disparate Ottoman provinces into a new country.

Overall, about 15,000 pieces were stolen from the museum during the invasion. Some 8,000 to 9,000 of those relics have been recovered, including the Sumerian-era Lady of Warka stone mask, Abdel Qader said. The Assyrian hall features statues of colossal winged bulls with human heads that once flanked the gates of the ancient capital Khorsobad and extensive bas reliefs of kings, demons and eunuch courtiers. Many of these were simply too big to steal.

The plundering of Iraq's antiquities predates the U.S. invasion by decades and has continued since U.S. troops left. Low salaries meant guards were susceptible to bribery while poverty and the state's weak presence in rural areas made looting easier and more attractive - problems which increased under international sanctions in the 1990s. Antiquities still come back to Iraq in a trickle from countries in Europe, Asia and North America - although it is unclear how many will eventually return.


She rested in peace for about 2,000 years until utility crews came shortly before Christmas to install a new waterline on Pine Island Road in Davie, Florida. That's when the fully intact skeleton of what is believed to be a Tequesta Indian woman was found -- perhaps the best-preserved remains of an ancient human uncovered in the past 40 years, authorities reported. "It's either Tequesta or the member of a people that predates the Tequesta," said Bob Carr of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in Davie. "It's unusually well preserved, considering it's been under a highway with thousands and thousands of cars going over it every day."

The woman, about 5 feet tall and about 20 to 30 years old, will now be analyzed by state and local archaeological authorities and then reburied in about a month in a secret location, with Seminole and Miccosukee Indians conducting the ceremony. No artifacts were found with the skeleton, and it had no distinguishing marks to indicate how she died. "There's nothing in the bones to indicate trauma," Carr said.

After the skeleton was unearthed, Seminole and Miccosukee Indian officials requested the discovery remain quiet for a few days and insisted no photos be taken of it. "This is fairly standard protocol," said Gary Bitner, whose public relations firm represents the Seminole Tribe of Florida. "It's done with an obvious respect for the remains." Because of a state requirement that all construction sites must be surveyed to ensure no historical objects are destroyed, Carr and other archaeologists have found numerous bones and artifacts. But finding full skeletons is relatively rare. Three other intact skeletons were found in the same vicinity in the 1980s and another skeleton was found in a new development in far western Miramar about 12 years ago.

The most recent one was the best preserved and among the oldest, Carr said. The age estimate was based on "context," as artifacts found earlier near the discovery site, including pottery shards, were determined to be at least 2,000 years old. "There was no carbon 14 dating or DNA testing, as the Florida tribes don't want any physical destruction of the bones," Carr said. In 2002, Carr discovered the foundation of a Tequesta Indian home estimated to be 1,000 years old in downtown Miami. Four more were found nearby last year.


A team of British scientists have found what they believe to be the oldest human footprints in Europe, dating back at least 800,000 years. Analysis of the prints revealed they were likely made by five early humans including men, women and children who were making their way south along the muddy banks of an ancient estuary. The researchers cannot say for certain what species of early people made these prints. However, in a paper describing the discovery in the journal PLOS One, they note that the foot sizes are similar to those of Homo antecessor, also known as "Pioneer man." Pioneer Man fossils dating to this era have been discovered in southern Europe. The species appears to have gone extinct 600,000 years ago.

The ancient footprints were revealed in May 2013 on the beach of Happisburgh along the eastern coast of England.They were discovered by accident after strong tides removed sand from the beach, revealing a mess of unusual markings in the dark silt below. "At first we weren't sure what we were seeing," said Nicholas Ashton, a curator at the British Museum and the lead author of the paper in a statement, "but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human prints."

The researchers knew the prints would not last long. They had been preserved for hundreds of millennia only because they had been buried deep beneath the cliffs that line the beach. But the cliffs are eroding rapidly, and as they wash into the sea, they are uncovering earlier sediments at their base. The footprints were in one of these sediments, but now that they were exposed to the ocean waves, they would swiftly erode.

Over the next two weeks the team used photogrammetry and laser scanning techniques to produce a 3D record of 152 of the mysterious hollows. From these methods they were able to see that the impressions were elongated like a foot.They were even able to spot what looked like toe marks. In the paper, the researchers say the footprints could not have been made by recent activity, because the sediment is now too compact and not squishy enough to make a footprint.

Just three weeks after they were discovered, the ancient footprints were gone, washed away by the sea. But the record of the prints remains, and, there is always hope that as the cliffs continue to deteriorate, new footprints from the distant past will emerge.,0,5229776.story#ixzz2sm1xjJbI


A rapid shift in climate that brought wetter and warmer conditions in southern Africa during the Middle Stone Age helped propel innovation and cultural advances in early man, a study has found. A European team suggests that one period of abrupt change, about 40,000-80,000 years ago in what now is South Africa, matches with a climate shift brought about by cyclical changes in the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Their findings were published in Nature Communications.

The climate changes and shifting locations of innovation could help explain the prevailing theory that anatomically modern man migrated from Africa, eventually replacing the Northern Hemisphere's Neanderthals.

A period when the Atlantic no longer drew warm water toward upper latitudes, in a similar fashion to today’s gulf stream, created a colder Northern Hemisphere, a weaker Asian monsoon cycle and a band of temperate climate in South Africa, the team found. Around this time, engraving and the manufacture of stone and bone tools and jewelry flourished in several areas of the south African cape, probably because of a climate shift that encouraged population expansion.

"The occurrence of several major Middle Stone Age industries fell tightly together with the onset of periods with increased rainfall," said Ian Hall, a paleoclimatologist at Cardiff University in Wales. "When the timing of these rapidly occurring wet pulses was compared with the archaeological data sets, we found remarkable coincidences.”

But as the local south African climate again shifted abruptly toward less rain during a warming in the Northern Hemisphere, innovation came to an apparent halt in one area about 59,000 years ago, and shifted east and north, the researchers found.

The team examined about 100,000 years of sediment cores from the mouth of the Great Kei River and matched periods of heavy sediment flow – indicating more rain – with temperature shifts gleaned from studies of Antarctic ice cores.,0,7395228.story#ixzz2sm2YlBa1

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Story from Smithsonian February 2014 issue tells of the caves of Matera, Italy. First occupied in the Paleolithic Age, the natural caves were gradually burrowed deeper and expanded into living spaces by peasants and artisans throughout the classical and medieval eras. Today, these underground residences are being rehabilitated by Italians and staying in one of the Sassi's cave hotels has become one of Europe's most exotic new experiences.

Matera, is one of the oldest living cities in the world in terms of continuity, urban planner Antonio Nicoletti told the author of the article. "You can find older cities in Mesopotamia, but they have not been occupied in modern times. Where else can you sleep in a room that was first occupied 9,000 years ago." Estimates of the earliest occupation of the site vary but archaeologists have found artifacts in local caves dating to the Neolithic period and even earlier. Not long ago the Sassi's were a pit of poverty but that is all changing. Now you can "imagine Paleolithic people coming here to find these caves near fresh water, flowers, wild game," says De Ruggieri who purchased a ruined mansion on the fringe of the Sassi "for the price of a cappuchio."

The abandoned architectural treasures within the caves included many rock-hewn churches, covered with priceless Byzantine frescoes. The group that is rehabilitating the caves has identified over 150 cave churches, some of which had been turned into stables by shepherds including one majestic Byzantine-era cavern now known as the Crypt of Original Sin which has been dubbed the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art.

You can google "The Cave Dwellers" in Smithsonian Magazine for the full article and the stunning photos.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Archaeologists believe they have found the birthplace of British civilization, and it is underneath a £15-a-night caravan park in Happisburgh, Norfolk, England. Discoveries at the site include one million-year-old artifacts and fossilized animal remains, which are the oldest ever found in the UK. Scientists now believe that it was the first, or one of the first settlement sites of early humans in Britain. Although researchers are yet to uncover any human remains, it is believed the site was a settlement created by early humans, such as Homo erectus.

"We don't know which species of early human first came to Britain so my dream is to find a fossil human at Happisburgh," said Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum. The complete findings are set to be revealed next month in Natural History Museum's exhibition: 'Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story', where more than 200 specimens and objects will be on display.

"Happisburgh could be the first place where humans settled in Britain," said Stringer. "We have some spectacular finds of tools and the fossils of butchered animals beneath cliffs in front of what is now partly a holiday caravan park. We think the site where they lived was on the river Thames, which flowed out into the North Sea at that point."

The landscape in Norfolk at the time would have been covered with thick forest and populated with dangerous predators such as sabre-toothed tigers and hyenas. However, it was also a rich hunting ground full of mammoths, bison, deer, and horses. The early humans living at the time would also have been able to walk to mainland Europe as one million years ago, Kent was connected to Germany.


Archaeologists and historians have just finished piecing together 2,200-year-old fragments of bamboo strips, which have turned out to be the world's oldest example of a multiplication table in base 10. The finding shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes in ancient China.

The bamboo strips, which date back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) before the unification of China, were donated to Tsinghua University in Beijing five years ago. However, it was not known at the time what was written on the strips because they arrived muddy and covered in mould. It is suspected that they originated from the illegal excavation of a tomb, and the donor had purchased them at a Hong Kong market.

Once the strips had been carefully cleaned, it was found that they contained vertical lines of ancient Chinese calligraphy painted in black ink. However, assembling the pieces was like piecing together a very difficult jigsaw puzzle.

"The strips were all mixed up because the strings that used to tie each manuscript together to form a scroll had long decayed," says Li Junming, a historian and paleographer at Tsinghua. But "21 bamboo strips stand out from the rest as they contain only numbers, written in the style of ancient Chinese", said Feng Lisheng, a historian of mathematics at Tsinghua.

The 21 strips turned out to be a multiplication table. The table can help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5, and can also be used to do divisions and square roots. "It's effectively an ancient calculator," says Li.

The oldest previously known Chinese times tables, dating to the Qin Dynasty between 221 and 206 BC, were in the form of a series of short sentences such as "six eights beget forty-eight" and capable of only much simpler multiplications.

Archaeologists have found multiplications tables used by the ancient Babylonians dating back some 4,000 years ago, but theirs were in a base-60, rather than base-10 (decimal), system. The earliest-known European multiplication table dates back to the Renaissance. The discovery is a unique finding considering that it occurred before Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, came to power and ordered the destruction of academic material in an attempt to reshape the country's intellectual tradition.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Dogs and wolves evolved from a common ancestor between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago, before humans transitioned to agricultural societies, according to an analysis of modern dog and wolf genomes from areas of the world thought to be centers of dog domestication.

The study, published in PLoS Genetics on January 16, 2014, also shows that dogs are more closely related to each other than wolves, regardless of geographic origin. This suggests that part of the genetic overlap observed between some modern dogs and wolves is the result of interbreeding after dog domestication, not a direct line of descent from one group of wolves.

This reflects a more complicated history than the popular story that early farmers adopted a few docile, friendly wolves that later became our beloved, modern-day companions. Instead, the earliest dogs may have first lived among hunter-gatherer societies and adapted to agricultural life later. "Dog domestication is more complex than we originally thought," said John Novembre, associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago and a senior author on the study.

The team generated the highest quality genome sequences to date from three gray wolves: one each from China, Croatia and Israel, representing three regions where dogs are believed to have originated. They also produced genomes for two dog breeds: a basenji, a breed which originates in central Africa, and a dingo from Australia, both areas that have been historically isolated from modern wolf populations. In addition to the wolves and dogs, they sequenced the genome of a golden jackal to serve as an "out group" representing earlier divergence.

Their analysis of the basenji and dingo genomes, plus a previously published boxer genome from Europe, showed that the dog breeds were most closely related to each other. Likewise, the three wolves from each geographic area were more closely related to each other than any of the dogs.
Novembre said this tells a different story than he and his colleagues anticipated. Instead of all three dogs being closely related to one of the wolf lineages, or each dog being related to its closest geographic counterpart (i.e. the basenji and Israeli wolf, or the dingo and Chinese wolf), they seem to have descended from an older, wolf-like ancestor common to both species.

"One possibility is there may have been other wolf lineages that these dogs diverged from that then went extinct," he said. "So now when you ask which wolves are dogs most closely related to, it's none of these three because these are wolves that diverged in the recent past. It's something more ancient that isn't well represented by today's wolves."

Domestication apparently occurred with significant bottlenecks in the historical population sizes of both early dogs and wolves. Freedman and his colleagues were able to infer historical sizes of dog and wolf populations by analyzing genome-wide patterns of variation, and show that dogs suffered a 16-fold reduction in population size as they diverged from wolves. Wolves also experienced a sharp drop in population size soon after their divergence from dogs, implying that diversity among both animals' common ancestors was larger than represented by modern wolves.

The researchers also found differences across dog breeds and wolves in the number of amylase (AMY2B) genes that help digest starch. Recent studies have suggested that this gene was critical to domestication, allowing early dogs living near humans to adapt to an agricultural diet. But the research team surveyed genetic data from 12 additional dog breeds and saw that while most dog breeds had high numbers of amylase genes, those not associated with agrarian societies, like the Siberian husky and dingo, did not. They also saw evidence of this gene family in wolves, meaning that it didn't develop exclusively in dogs after the two species diverged, and may have expanded more recently after domestication.

Novembre said that overall, the study paints a complex picture of early domestication."We're trying to get every thread of evidence we can to reconstruct the past," he said. "We use genetics to reconstruct the history of population sizes, relationships among populations and the gene flow that occurred. So now we have a much more detailed picture than existed before, and it's a somewhat surprising picture."

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by University of Chicago
Medical Center.


A giant, long-vanished lake along the White Nile may have been a vital way station for early modern humans leaving Africa. Archaeologists say the 45,000-square-kilometer lake, which would be one of the ten largest lakes on Earth if it existed today, was in the right place at the right time for at least one of two key migrations. One exodus took people to what is now Israel before 100,000 years ago, and another peopled Eurasia 70,000 years

Geologists had seen traces of an ancient lake in the now-arid region south of Khartoum in Sudan, but it was too old for carbon dating so they didn't know when it dried up. So Martin Williams of the University of Adelaide in Australia teamed up with Tim Barrows of the University of Exeter, UK, to try other dating techniques. The two collected samples from former lake-shore deposits, and Barrows dated them to around 109,000 years ago.

Barrows and Williams traced the long-lost freshwater lake along some 650 kilometres of the White Nile, one of the two main tributaries to the Nile. At points, the lake seems to have stretched to almost 80 kilometres wide.

Its peak extent came in the last interglacial period, a warm interval before the last ice age. Barrows says it cannot have stayed at full size for long, because the lake-shore deposits he found took "thousands of years to form, but probably not tens of thousands". His dating techniques measure how long it has been since the deposits were exposed, so his date tells us when the lake first began to shrink.

The last interglacial period was a crucial time for early modern humans, who first appear in the fossil record nearly 200,000 years ago in Ethiopia. Bones from the Qafzeh and Es Skhul caves in Israel show that modern humans reached the eastern Mediterranean by about 110,000 to 100,000 years ago.

But mitochondrial DNA evidence shows that modern Eurasian populations left Africa much later, around 72,000 to 70,000 years ago, says Stephen Oppenheimer of the University of Oxford. He thinks the later migration crossed the mouth of the Red Sea, when the ice age had lowered sea levels by some 100 metres.

The lake was no more than about 12 metres deep, and like other shallow lakes in arid environments, its size would have varied seasonally. But that wouldn't have stopped people using it. "Even in arid times, these lake margins would have retained some stability," says Laura Basell of Queens University Belfast, UK.

Mitochondrial DNA studies suggest the human population in east Africa expanded about 100,000 years ago, when the lake should have been there. Other sites also show evidence of a wet spell around the date of the lake, says Basell, and a skull fragment indicates that modern humans were in Sudan 130,000 years ago.

So far there is no way to confirm that humans lived in the area, because there are very few archaeological sites known from the right period. Barrow did find some artifacts in the area, but none could be shown to be more than a few thousand years old. He says the current conflict in the region means it is too dangerous to return for further excavations. Nevertheless, anthropologists think it was probably inhabited. However, as climate changed and the monsoon rains that fed it dwindled, the lake shrank to nothing.

The lake's eventual disappearance was a disaster for people in the area, forcing them to move elsewhere, says archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University. The Nile valley was a good exit route, and migrants might have followed it north to the Mediterranean, and then round to its eastern end, the Levant. So the disappearance of the lake could explain the first migration out of Africa.

The lake may also have been important for the second migration, which populated Eurasia, but this is less clear. It depends on how long it took for the lake to disappear completely, which Barrow's findings do not tell us: his analysis only shows when the lake first began to shrink.If a shrunken version of the lake endured until 70,000 years ago or just before, it could have been a launch site for the second migration. These later migrants may have followed another route through the Ethiopian highlands to the shore of the Red Sea. By 75,000 to 65,000 years ago, the ice age was at its peak so sea levels were lower, making the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea passable.

Journal reference: Geology, DOI: 10.1130/G35238.1|NSNS|2012-GLOBAL|human-evolution#.Utvge_u6JZJ