The old story was that modern humans, when they came out of Africa wiped out the inferior Neanderthals in Europe. But the old story has been changing. First, it turns out that humans made love, not war. I'm carrying 2.6% Neanderthal DNA.
But above is a picture of very old modern human teeth... in China. How old? Read the article, but apparently modern humans were in China something like over a hundred thousand years ago, and a lot longer than when they finally colonized Europe.
China is a lot farther from Africa than Europe. The new theory is that when modern humans came out of Africa and into the Middle East they found it easier to head east across the Himalayas than mess with the Neanderthals in Europe. It wasn't until around 45,000 years ago that modern humans started appearing in Europe.
Were Neanderthals so tough or clever as to keep moderns out of their territory? Perhaps they were just entrenched enough in their niche to make it just a lot more difficult for moderns to move in. What we do know is that there was a lot of ice and snow. Glaciers were sliding back and forth across Europe and there was a bad stretch of volcanic activity not long before the moderns showed up in Europe. So maybe the changing climates and volcanic activity wiped out a lot of the Neanderthals, allowing moderns to move in and absorb the remainder of the Neanderthals.
All this will be clarified or disproven with the discoveries to come.
Scientists at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt have described the world's oldest fossil sea turtle known to date. The fossilized reptile is at least 120 million years old -- which makes it about 25 million years older than the previously known oldest specimen. The almost completely preserved skeleton from the Cretaceous, with a length of nearly 2 meters, shows all of the characteristic traits of modern marine turtles. The study was published in the scientific journal PaleoBios.
"Santanachelys gaffneyi is the oldest known sea turtle" -- this sentence from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is no longer up-to-date. "We described a fossil sea turtle from Colombia that is about 25 million years older," said Dr. Edwin Cadena, a scholar of the Alexander von Humboldt foundation at the Senckenberg Research Institute. Cadena made the unusual discovery together with his colleague from the US, J. Parham of California State University, Fullerton.
"The turtle described by us as Desmatochelys padillai sp. originates from Cretaceous sediments and is at least 120 million years old," says Cadena. Sea turtles descended from terrestrial and freshwater turtles that arose approximately 230 million years ago. During the Cretaceous period, they split into land and sea dwellers. Fossil evidence from this time period is very sparse, however, and the exact time of the split is difficult to verify. "This lends a special importance to every fossil discovery that can contribute to clarifying the phylogeny of the sea turtles," explains the turtle expert from Columbia.
The fossilized turtle shells and bones come from two sites near the community of Villa de Leyva in Colombia. The fossilized remains of the ancient reptiles were discovered and collected by hobby paleontologist Mary Luz Parra and her brothers Juan and Freddy Parra in the year 2007. Since then, they have been stored in the collections of the "Centro de Investigaciones Paleontológicas" in Villa Leyva and the "University of California Museum of Paleontology."
Cadena and his colleague examined the almost complete skeleton, four additional skulls and two partially preserved shells, and they placed the fossils in the turtle group Chelonioidea, based on various morphological characteristics. Turtles in this group dwell in tropical and subtropical oceans; among their representatives are the modern Hawksbill Turtle and the Green Sea Turtle of turtle soup fame.
"Based on the animals' morphology and the sediments they were found in, we are certain that we are indeed dealing with the oldest known fossil sea turtle," adds Cadena in summary.
You don't name a sea creature after an ancient Greek warship unless it's built like a predator.
That's certainly true of the recently discovered Pentecopterus, a giant sea scorpion with the sleek features of a penteconter, one of the first Greek galley ships. A Yale University research team says Pentecopterus lived 467 million years ago and could grow to nearly six feet, with a long head shield, a narrow body, and large, grasping limbs for trapping prey. It is the oldest described eurypterid -- a group of aquatic arthropods that are ancestors of modern spiders, lobsters, and ticks.
A detailed description of the animal appears in the Sept. 1 online edition of the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.
"This shows that eurypterids evolved some 10 million years earlier than we thought, and the relationship of the new animal to other eurypterids shows that they must have been very diverse during this early time of their evolution, even though they are very rare in the fossil record," said James Lamsdell, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University and lead author of the study.
"Pentecopterus is large and predatory, and eurypterids must have been important predators in these early Palaeozoic ecosystems," Lamsdell said.
Geologists with the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa discovered the fossil bed in a meteorite crater by the Upper Iowa River in northeastern Iowa. Fossils were then unearthed and collected by temporarily damming the river in 2010. Researchers from Yale and the University of Iowa have led the analysis.
The fossil-rich site yielded both adult and juvenile Pentecopterusspecimens, giving the researchers a wealth of data about the animal's development. In addition, the researchers said, the specimens were exceptionally well preserved.
"The Winneshiek site is an extraordinary discovery," said Yale paleontologist Derek Briggs, co-author of the study. "The fossils are preserved in fine deposits of sediments where the sea flooded a meteorite impact crater just over 5 km in diameter." Briggs is the G. Evelyn Hutchinson Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Yale and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
"What's amazing is the Winneshiek fauna comprise many new taxa, including Pentecopterus, which lived in a shallow marine environment, likely in brakish water with low salinity that was inhospitable to typical marine taxa," said Huaibao Liu of the Iowa Geological Survey and the University of Iowa, who led the fossil dig and is a co-author of the paper. "The undisturbed, oxygen-poor bottom waters within the meteorite crater led to the fossils' remarkable preservation. So this discovery opens a new picture of the Ordovician community that is significantly different from normal marine faunas."
An "absolutely exquisite" fossil of a snake that had four legs has been discovered by a team of scientists and may help show how snakes made the transition from lizards to serpents.
It is the first known fossil of a four-legged snake, and the team -- led by Dr Dave Martill from the University of Portsmouth -- say that this discovery could help scientists to understand how snakes lost their legs.
The findings were published in the journal Science.
Dr Martill said: "It is generally accepted that snakes evolved from lizards at some point in the distant past. What scientists don't know yet is when they evolved, why they evolved, and what type of lizard they evolved from. This fossil answers some very important questions, for example it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards."
The fossil, from Brazil, dates from the Cretaceous period and is 110 million years old, making it the oldest definitive snake.
Dr Martill discovered the fossil as part of a routine field trip with students to Museum Solnhofen, Germany, a museum that is well-known for its prestige with regard to fossils.
Dr Martill said: "The fossil was part of a larger exhibition of fossils from the Cretaceous period. It was clear that no-one had appreciated its importance, but when I saw it I knew it was an incredibly significant specimen."
Dr Martill worked with expert German palaeontologist Helmut Tischlinger, who prepared and photographed the specimen, and Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution, who studied the evolutionary relationships of the snake.
Dr Longrich, who had previously worked on snake origins, became intrigued when Martill told him the story over a pint at the local pub in Bath.
He said: "A four-legged snake seemed fantastic and as an evolutionary biologist, just too good to be true, it was especially interesting that it was put on display in a museum where anyone could see it."
He said he was initially sceptical, but when Dr Martill showed him Tischlinger's photographs, he knew immediately that it was a fossil snake.
The snake, named Tetrapodophis amplectus by the team, is a juvenile and very small, measuring just 20cm from head to toe, although it may have grown much larger. The head is the size of an adult fingernail, and the smallest tail bone is only a quarter of a millimetre long. But the most remarkable thing about it is the presence of two sets of legs, or a pair of hands and a pair of feet.
The front legs are very small, about 1cm long, but have little elbows and wrists and hands that are just 5mm in length. The back legs are slightly longer and the feet are larger than the hands and could have been used to grasp its prey.
Dr Longrich said: "It is a perfect little snake, except it has these little arms and legs, and they have these strange long fingers and toes.
"The hands and feet are very specialised for grasping. So when snakes stopped walking and started slithering, the legs didn't just become useless little vestiges -- they started using them for something else. We're not entirely sure what that would be, but they may have been used for grasping prey, or perhaps mates."
Interestingly, the fossilised snake also has the remains of its last meal in its guts, including some fragments of bone. The prey was probably a salamander, showing that snakes were carnivorous much earlier in evolutionary history than previously believed.
Helmut Tischlinger said: "The preservation of the little snake is absolutely exquisite. The skeleton is fully articulated. Details of the bones are clearly visible and impressions of soft tissues such as scales and the trachea are preserved."
Tetraphodophis has been categorised as a snake, rather than a lizard, by the team due to a number of features:
· The skeleton has a lengthened body, not a long tail.
· The tooth implantation, the direction of the teeth, and the pattern of the teeth and the bones of the lower jaw are all snake-like.
· The fossil displays hints of a single row of belly scales, a sure fire way to differentiate a snake from a lizard.
Tetrapodophis would have lived on the bank of a salt lake, in an arid scrub environment, surrounded by succulent plants. It would probably have lived on a diet of small amphibians and lizards, trying to avoid the dinosaurs and pterosaurs that lived there.
At the time, South America was united with Africa as part of a supercontinent known as Gondwana. The presence of the oldest definitive snake fossil in Gondwana suggests that snakes may originally have evolved on the ancient supercontinent, and only became widespread much more recently.
It may not have been available on tap, but it appears our primate ancestors enjoyed alcohol millions of years ago.
Researchers believe early man developed a gene mutation that meant they could metabolise fermenting fruit lying on the ground.
It was previously thought alcohol was a relatively recent addition to our diet and the direct fermentation of food happened around 9,000 years ago.
The latest study, led by Professor Matthew Carrigan from Santa Fe College in Florida, looked at the alcohol gene ADH4 from various times in almost 70 million years of primate evolution.
From this, his team were able to identify a single variant that emerged about 10 million years ago.
It helps breaks down ethanol - the only type of alcohol that can be consumed - in the digestive system.
The findings shows that early humans - or hominins - adapted to metabolise ethanol long before human-directed fermentation.
The mutation spotted by the researchers coincided with the change to a terrestrial lifestyle, and may have given human ancestors a selective advantage as it meant they could eat highly fermented fruit when food was scarce.
And it could explain why tree-dwelling orangutans still can't metabolise alcohol while humans, chimps and gorillas can.
'Here we resurrect digestive alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH4) from our primate ancestors to explore the history of primate-ethanol interactions,' said Professor Carrigan.
'The evolving catalytic properties of these resurrected enzymes show that our ape ancestors gained a digestive dehydrogenase enzyme capable of metabolising ethanol near the time they began using the forest floor about 10 million years ago.
'The ADH4 enzyme in our more ancient and arboreal ancestors did not efficiently oxidise ethanol.
'This change suggests exposure to dietary sources of ethanol increased in hominids during the early stages of our adaptation to a terrestrial lifestyle.
'Because fruit collected from the forest floor is expected to contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on trees this transition may also be the first time our ancestors were exposed to - and adapted to - substantial amounts of dietary ethanol.'
In the study, the evolutionary history of the ADH4 family was reconstructed using genes from 28 different mammals - including 17 primates - collected from public databases or generated from DNA extracted from tissue samples.
'Ancestral reconstructions of ADH4 demonstrate the ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas possessed a novel enzyme with dramatically increased activity toward ethanol and we suspect this novel metabolic capacity was adaptive to this hominin ancestor,' said Professor Carrigan.
'This transition implies the genomes of modern human, chimpanzee and gorilla began adapting at least 10 million years ago to dietary ethanol present in fermenting fruit.
'This conclusion contrasts with the relatively short amount of time - about 9,000 years - since fermentative technology enabled humans to consume beverages devoid of food bulk with higher ethanol content than fruit fermenting in the wild.'
He said the history has implications not only for understanding the forces that shaped early human terrestrial adaptations but also for many modern human diseases caused by alcohol today.
The brain hidden inside the oldest known Old World monkey skull has been visualized for the first time. The creature's tiny but remarkably wrinkled brain supports the idea that brain complexity can evolve before brain size in the primate family tree.
The ancient monkey, known scientifically as Victoriapithecus, first made headlines in 1997 when its fossilized skull was discovered on an island in Kenya's Lake Victoria, where it lived 15 million years ago.
Now, thanks to high-resolution X-ray imaging, researchers have peered inside its cranial cavity and created a three-dimensional computer model of what the animal's brain likely looked like.
Micro-CT scans of the creature's skull show that Victoriapithecus had a tiny brain relative to its body.
Co-authors Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Lauren Gonzales of Duke University calculated its brain volume to be about 36 cubic centimeters, which is less than half the volume of monkeys of the same body size living today.
If similar-sized monkeys have brains the size of oranges, the brain of this particular male was more akin to a plum.
"When Lauren finished analyzing the scans she called me and said, 'You won't believe what the brain looks like,'" said co-author Brenda Benefit of New Mexico State University, who first discovered the skull with NMSU co-author Monte McCrossin.
Despite its puny proportions, the animal's brain was surprisingly complex.
The CT scans revealed numerous distinctive wrinkles and folds, and the olfactory bulb -- the part of the brain used to perceive and analyze smells -- was three times larger than expected.
"It probably had a better sense of smell than many monkeys and apes living today," Gonzales said. "In living higher primates you find the opposite: the brain is very big, and the olfactory bulb is very small, presumably because as their vision got better their sense of smell got worse."
"But instead of a tradeoff between smell and sight, Victoriapithecus might have retained both capabilities," Gonzales said.
The findings, published in the July 3 issue of Nature Communications, are important because they offer new clues to how primate brains changed over time, and during a period from which there are very few fossils.
"This is the oldest skull researchers have found for Old World monkeys, so it's one of the only clues we have to their early brain evolution," Benefit said.
In the absence of fossil evidence, previous researchers have disagreed over whether primate brains got bigger first, and then more folded and complex, or vice versa.
"In the part of the primate family tree that includes apes and humans, the thinking is that brains got bigger and then they get more folded and complex," Gonzales said. "But this study is some of the hardest proof that in monkeys, the order of events was reversed -- complexity came first and bigger brains came later."
The findings also lend support to claims that the small brain of the human ancestor Homo floresiensis, whose 18,000-year-old skull was discovered on a remote Indonesian island in 2003, isn't as remarkable as it might seem. In spite of their pint-sized brains, Homo floresiensis was able to make fire and use stone tools to kill and butcher large animals.
"Brain size and brain complexity can evolve independently; they don't have to evolve together at the same time," Benefit said.
Research into lethal wounds found on a human skull may indicate one of the first cases of murder in human history -- some 430,000 years ago -- and offers evidence of the earliest funerary practices in the archaeological record.
The study, conducted by an international team of collaborators including Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam and published this week in the noted research journal PLoS ONE, was carried out at the archeological site of the Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain. The site is located deep within an underground cave system and contains the skeletal remains of at least 28 individuals that date to around 430,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene time period. The only access to the site is through a 13-meter deep vertical shaft, and how the human bodies arrived there remains a mystery.
A nearly complete skull, Cranium 17, from the Sima de los Huesos is composed of 52 cranial fragments recovered during excavations at the site over the last 20 years. This skull shows two penetrating lesions on the frontal bone, above the left eye. "Evidence for interpersonal violence in the human fossil record is relatively scarce, and this would appear to represent the coldest cold case on record," said Quam.
Relying on modern forensic techniques, such as contour and trajectory analysis of the traumas, the authors of the study showed that both fractures were likely produced by two separate impacts by the same object, with slightly different trajectories around the time of the individual's death. According to the authors, the injuries are unlikely to be the result of an accidental fall down the vertical shaft. Rather, the type of fracture, their location and that they appear to have been produced by two blows with the same object lead the authors to interpret them as the result of an act of lethal interpersonal aggression -- or what may constitute the earliest case of murder in human history.
Furthermore, if this individual was already dead, other humans likely carried them to the top of the vertical shaft. The authors suggest that humans were likely responsible for the accumulation of bodies in the Sima de los Huesos, which supports the idea that this site represents early evidence of funerary behavior.
"This is really good evidence for an intentional role for humans in the accumulation of bodies at the bottom of this pit and suggests the hominins from this time period were already engaging in complex cognitive behaviors," said Quam.