Still More Neandertal Stuff

Just a quick post here on another news item which addresses the likelihood of mating between Neandertals and early modern humans.

According to research co-authored by Neandertal expert Erik Trinkaus, remains discovered in South China indicate the spread of modern humans across Eurasia as early as 100,000 years ago — much earlier than previously thought.  These remains also share some physical traits with Neandertals, suggesting interbreeding.

Trinkaus, by the way, is co-author of an excellent survey of Neandertal research titled The Neandertals:  Changing the Image of Mankind, and Greensboro Public Library just happens to own a copy. 

Check out our previous posts on Neandertals here, here, and here.

More Recent Research on Neandertals

We have previously posted here and here on Homo neanderthalensis, with of course the really big news this year being the Max Planck Institute’s discovery that Neandertals likely interbred with early Homo sapiens, and that present-day non-Africans have inherited a genetic contribution from Neandertal forebears of anywhere from 1 to 4%.

João Zilhão’s team working in Southeastern Spain also recently reports dating evidence for “evolutionarily significant admixture” between neanderthalenesis and modern humans, as well as evidence for the decorative and symbolic use of painted seashells prior to contact with Cro-Magnons (For Zilhão’s work, please refer to the second of the posts noted above.).

Now we have word that Neaderthals who lived in southern Italy could also innovate new technologies on their own.  Anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore of the University of Colorado at Denver has identified a Neandertal tool culture there that he refers to as the Uluzzian — in contrast to the Mousterian (an earlier tool culture also associated with Neandertals) and the Aurignacian of the early Homo sapiens or Cro-Magnons.  Evidence suggests that Neandertals of the Uluzzian adapted their tool technology to changes in climate which necessitated a shift to the hunting of smaller game using darts and arrows.  This innovation flies in the face of the long-held view that neanderthalensis was backward relative to early modern humans.

Still another widely accepted idea is that Neandertals were gradually wiped out by Cro-Magnons as they came into contact with one another in Europe between 30 and 40 thousand years ago — or at least that early moderns out-competed them for scarce resources, thus indirectly causing their extinction.

But there is a now a new theory that Neandertals may have been killed off by a series of volcanoes which erupted in Italy and the Caucasus approximately 40,000 years ago.  The new study which appears in this month’s issue of Current Anthropology suggests that the “eruptions reduced or wiped out local bands of Neanderthals and indirectly affected farther-flung populations” in Europe where most of the Neandertals were concentrated at this time.

At any rate, there has been lots of Neandertal news this year, and I don’t think it would be too big a leap to say we have the makings of a paradigm shift in our understanding of our most famous archaic hominid.  Stay tuned for further updates.

You can find a list of some of Greensboro Public Library’s books on human origins at this previous post.

Update:  Here’s another article on the volcanoe theory from Science Daily.

L.A. Judge to Decide Dispute Over Giant Bahia Emerald

As we recently posted on a valuable emerald found at the little hamlet of Hiddenite right here in North Carolina, I thought this story about an ownership controversy over a huge Brazilian emerald was apropos

Known as the Bahia Emerald, after the Brazilian state where it was found, the specimen weighs in at an extraordinary 840 pounds.  It’s really a cluster of emeralds embedded in a matrix, and its value is believed to be as much as $400 million. 

Why the controversy?  Well, a man named Anthony Thomas claims he paid $60,000 for the emerald soon after it was mined in 2001 and is therefore the rightful owner.  But there are a number of other claimants in addition to Mr. Thomas, and a judge in Los Angeles began hearing from them Friday.  For now, this remarkable gem is in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. 

If you’re interested in reading more about rare gems and jewels, as well as the legends and lore often associated with them, try some of these titles from Greensboro Public Library:  Gems of the World by Cally Oldershaw; Jewels:  A Secret History by Victoria Finlay; Jewelry & Gems, the Buying Guide:  How to Buy Diamonds, Pearls, Colored Gemstones, Gold & Jewelry with Confidence and Knowledge by Antoinette L. Matlins & Antonio C. Bonanno; Gemstones:  Symbols of Beauty and Power by Eduard Gubelin, Franz-Xaver Erni; Field Collecting Gemstones and Minerals, Gemstones of North America, and Prospecting for Gemstones and Minerals by John Sinkankas; Hitler’s Holy Relics:  A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick; The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303: The Extraordinary Story of the First Big Bank Raid in History by Paul Doherty; and Treasures in the Smithsonian:  The Gem Collection by Paul E. Desautels.

Large Emerald Found at Hiddenite Cut into Beautiful 65 Carat Gem

Here’s a neat story about the recent discovery of a very valuable emerald right here in North Carolina.

Named the “Carolina Emperor,” the stone has been cut into a 65 carat jewel and may be worth $1 million dollars or more.

The find was made last year on a farm near the small town of Hiddenite, located in Alexander County.

The locality has been well known since 1879 when a geologist named William Earl Hidden visited the area to search for what the native farmers called “green bolts.”  While Hidden was there, he also discovered a green variety of the mineral spodumene which was later named “hiddenite” after him.  Subsequently, the community also came to be called by the same name; it is today probably North America’s best known source for emeralds.

I myself visited the location several times in my youth.  However, I was never lucky enough to find an emerald.

If you’re interested in reading further on this topic, Greensboro Public Library has a couple of useful titles.  Try In Search of the Scarce Gem Hiddenite and the Emeralds of North Carolina by M. Richard Harshaw, Jr., as well as History of the Gems Found in North Carolina by George Frederick Kunz.

Keeping an Eye on Earl

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and elsewhere in the U.S. are closely monitoring Hurricane Earl, which today was upgraded to a Category 3 storm with winds of  111 mph or more.

The predicted track at this point suggests the storm will likely remain offshore as it skirts up the east coast, probably approaching the Carolinas by Friday.  But there’s still room for error in the forecast. 

According to the National Hurricane Center:

This is a good time to remind everyone that NHC average track forecast errors are 200 to 300 miles at days 4 and 5.  Given this uncertainty . . . it is too soon to determine what portion of the U.S. East Coast might see direct impacts from Earl. 

In any event, even if we dodge this bullet, we’re at the height of the hurricane season and the tropics are getting pretty active with Danielle, Earl and a thus far unnamed low pressure system all concurrently swirling around out there in the Atlantic.   

Also in the news this week, by the way, was the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which of course struck the Mississippi/Louisiana coast in 2005.

If you’re interested in hurricanes, Greensboro Public Library might have something for you.  Try some of these books and DVDs:  Hurricanes! by Gail Gibbons (juvenile); Storm World:  Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming by Chris Mooney; Storm that Drowned a City (NOVA DVD);  Hurricane Katrina Strikes the Gulf Coast:  Disaster & Survival by Mara Miller; Hurricane Watch:  Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth by Jack Williams and Bob Sheets; and Inside the Hurricane: Face to Face with Nature’s Deadliest Storms by Pete Davies.

Successful Telescope Viewing at Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch!

This is just a brief follow-up to our post on the meteorology/ astronomy program Monday evening at Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch, with special reference to the telescope viewing. 

Three telescopes were set up, two of which belonged to Greensboro Astronomy Club President Stan Rosenberg, who also did an excellent presentation during the meteorology segment of the program, and the Club’s Treasurer, John P. Cory, who brought along a fine long-focus 8 inch reflector which he built himself.  In addition, we set up Kathleen Clay’s 8 inch Dobsonian reflector; the mount was a little shaky and needs some work, but we were able to get some good views of the Moon.

One of the highlights of the evening was a weather balloon, which we just happened to spy over head while viewing the Moon.  Mr. Rosenberg commented that it was only the second one he’d seen in 30 years.  Basically, it looked like a silver orb with a tail flapping around behind it.  Seeing a weather balloon was quite a coincidence, coming just after the branch’s meteorology program! 

As Monday was more or less the longest day of the year, darkness came very late — after nine.  About 9:10 or so we picked up some stars and detected Saturn.  Mr. Cory directed his big reflector at the planet and pushed the magnification up to about 300x with a 6mm eyepiece.  Saturn’s rings are close to edge-on now and quite spectacular!

At any rate, it was a great program and we look forward to doing more.

New Human Species Discovered in Siberia: X-Woman

In a followup to an earlier post, researchers with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have made more than one extraordinary discovery this year.

Just before their recent triumph in sequencing a good bit of the Neandertal genome and producing the startling result that non-Africans have a little Neandertal DNA in them, word came that a Siberian hominid they’ve sequenced is a new species that lived about 30,000 to 48,000 years ago and was thus a contemporary of both modern humans and Neandertals.  And here’s another excellent article on the same topic.

A few years ago, the Neandertals were the only hominids known to be contemporary with Homo sapiens.  Coming on top of the surprising discovery in 2003 of Homo floresiensis, an extinct dwarf hominid or “hobbit” who once flourished upon the Indonesian island of Flores, the discovery of this new Siberian hominid means the list has grown to three in just a few years.  Undoubtedly paleoanthropologists are beginning to wonder what other surprises are in store.

The discovery was made by sequencing the mitochondrial DNA from a small finger bone found during excavations at Denisova Cave, located in the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia.  The sex of the individual is still unclear, but in some quarters it is being called the “X-Woman.”

Since the Institute’s analysis shows that X-Woman shared a common ancestor with Homo sapiens and Neandertals about 1 million years ago, and this doesn’t coincide with known emigrations from Africa at about 1.9 million (Homo erectus), 500,000 (Homo heidelbergensis > Homo neanderthalensis) and 50,000 (Homo sapiens) years ago, it is therefore believed that the discovery of the X-Woman is evidence of yet another emigration ca. 1,000,000 years ago.

If you’d like to read books about human evolution owned by Greensboro Public Library, check out this previous post.

“Stormy Night,” an Evening of Meteorology at Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch

Please note that we’ll be having a meteorology program at the Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch on Monday night, June 21st, at 7:30 PM.  Sounds like they’ll be doing lots of fun and educational weather-related stuff which the whole family can enjoy.

Also, if weather permits we’ll be pulling out Kathleen Clay’s big reflecting telescope.  I tested it out on the Moon last night, and the view was pretty impressive!  In fact, I think it’s quite likely we’ll have two telescopes set-up for all you star-gazers.    

Hope to see you there!

2010, a Good Year for Neandertals

A few posts back, we wrote on the publication in Science of DNA evidence that Neandertals (or Neanderthals) interbred with modern humans and that non-Africans have a bit of Neandertal DNA in them.

This raised my curiosity about our cave-dwelling ancestors and led me to read a very interesting survey of the history of paleoanthropology (i.e., the study of ancient humans) called The Neandertals:  Changing the Image of Mankind by Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman.  These authors make it quite clear that there has been plenty of back-and-forth among scholars over the relationship between modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Homo neanderthalensis, dating back to the first discovery of a Neandertal skull cap and other bones in a cave in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856.

For example, during the last couple of decades, and bolstered by DNA evidence, the so-called “out of Africa hypothesis” advocating total replacement of Neandertals by modern humans has gained sway.  But this theory is opposed by another theory called multiregionalism, which emphasizes continuity through gene flow, i.e., interbreeding.

The recent finding of DNA evidence that Neandertals interbred with sapiens indicates at minimum that total replacement is unfounded and that the “out of Africa” hypothesis will need some modification, since Neandertals are unknown outside Europe and Western and Central Asia.

But as I learned from Trinkhaus and Shipman, the originator of the “out of Africa” theory, a German named Günter Bräuer, argued as early as the 1970s, based upon his study of late archaic hominids in Africa,

that modern Homo sapiens had arisen initially in Africa and migrated outward to populate the rest of the world.  Humans . . . moved northward into Europe and westward across the continent, until they encountered and hybridized with Neandertals. . . .  Consequently, he [Bräuer] believed that Neandertals were not replaced entirely by modern humans, for they had left some genetic contribution to future generations.  [emphasis added]

Nearly four decades ago Bräuer thus seems to have anticipated a theoretical position that fits quite well with the recent finding of interbreeding made by the Max Planck Institute, as they map the Neandertal genome.

But this isn’t the only recent finding of great import about Neandertals.  Earlier this year, archaeologists working in Southeastern Spain led by João Zilhão published evidence that Neandertals used painted seashells decoratively and symbolically.  It had previously been believed that Neandertals adopted body ornamentation from Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans), who are believed to have begun having contact with Neandertals about 40,000 years ago, but Zilhão’s team found a paint-decorated shell dated to 50,000 years ago, as many as 10,000 years before Cro-Magnons would have arrived in Europe.  This suggests that Neandertals had a capability for symbolic thought that was not previously understood.

Zilhão also believes he now has dating evidence for “evolutionarily significant admixture” between Neandertals and modern humans, what is known as the “Ebro Frontier” model which suggests widespread interbreeding of the two in Iberia before Neandertals died out there about 37,000 years ago, based largely upon the anatomical features of a four year-old child (known as the Lapedo Child) unearthed at the Lagar Velho, Portugal, and estimated to be about 24,000 years old, which exhibits “a mosaic” of Neandertal and modern features.  Remains found at the Isreali sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in the 1930s are also believed to be anatomically modern humans with some Neandertal features.

So, one might say it has been a rather good year for Neandertals, as it seems they’re looking more human with just about each new discovery these days.

Nonetheless, as Trinkaus and Shipman describe in their book, we’ve been through this before.  In the early twentieth century, for example, most paleoanthropologists thought of Neandertals as another species entirely different from Homo sapiens.  By the 1960s, however, they had been rehabilitated and humanized as “the first flower children” by an archaeologist who studied Neandertal remains at an Iraqi site called Shanidar, only to once again be cast into otherness by the “out of Africa” hypothesis and its advocates, such as Chris Stringer, ca. 1990, supported by strong mitochondrial DNA evidence indicating a fairly recent African origin for modern humans — until of course the discovery of interbreeding with Neandertals published in May.

But no doubt the pendulum will swing back again.

At any rate, if you’d like to read more about human evolution, try some of the books from this previous post.

Famous Astronomer Nicholas Copernicus Reburied After Scientists Use DNA to ID Remains

In yet another neat DNA story, scientists have recently used the building blocks of life to help identify the remains of the famous Renaissance Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who, with his theory of the heliocentric or sun-centered universe, is often credited with starting the scientific revolution.

Alas, poor Copernicus died shortly after De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), his seminal work, was published.  During Galileo’s day, when findings with the telescope began to add weight to Copernicus’ ideas, On the Revolutions was deemed heretical by a then very conservative Roman Catholic Church.  

But with no little irony (at least in view of the Church’s later action against the work), Copernicus was buried on sacred ground beneath the floor of the cathedral of Frombork, located in Northern Poland.  Long since rehabilitated by the Church and honored for his landmark contributions to modern science, there had periodically been efforts to locate his remains there, but these had failed.  Furthermore, previous efforts to locate his tomb had made it clear that it would be difficult to distinguish Copernicus’ remains from many other anonymous burials. 

Nonetheless, in 2005 some bones were located which looked especially promising, since a facial reconstruction as well as the presence of some scars on the skull seemed to match up nicely with surviving contemporary portraits.  But the excavators still weren’t absolutely sure they had found the famous astronomer.

That’s where the DNA came in.  As it turned out, some volumes from Copernicus’ personal library, including the Magnum Romanum Calendarium (A Proposal for a Calendar Revision), had made their way to Uppsala University in Sweden — and this particular volume contained some human hairs from which DNA could be recovered.  (And as a librarian and long-time book collector, I can tell you from personal experience that lots of stuff can end up in books!)

Anyway, analysis established that some of the hair DNA matched the DNA from the remains recovered at Frombork and voilà:  proof that Copernicus’ remains had definitely been found.

And so it was that just a few days ago a man once branded as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church was honorably reinterred               

If you’re interested, Greensboro Public Library has a number of books on Copernicus, including:  Copernicus by Jack Repcheck; The First Copernican:  Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution by Dennis Danielson; Uncentering the Earth:  Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William T. Vollmann; and On the Shoulders of Giants:  The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, edited, with commentary, by Stephen Hawking. 

We’ve also got some juveniles such as Copernicus:  Founder of Modern Astronomy by Catherine M. Andronik and Nicolaus Copernicus:  The Earth is a Planet by Dennis Brindell Fradin.