Ancient DNA reveals differences between Neanderthal and modern human lineages

Study also confirms that Neanderthal populations were small and isolated

Researchers have analysed genetic sequences from Neanderthal remains found in Spain, Croatia and southern Siberia. The results indicated that the genetic diversity of Neanderthals is very low in comparison to that of modern humans, suggesting that they lived in small, scattered populations.

Genes associated with skeletal morphology were found to be more changed in the lineage leading to Neanderthals than they were in the lineage leading to modern humans, implying that Neanderthals underwent more skeletal changes than modern humans. Conversely, genes associated with pigmentation and behavioural characteristics were to be more changed in the modern lineage.

The team researchers also identified amino acid substitutions in Neanderthals and modern humans. These can change the structure and function of proteins, and may underlie phenotypic differences (differences in observable characteristics) between the two species.

Reference:

Castellano, S., et al Patterns of coding variation in the complete exomes of three Neandertals, PNAS (2014); published ahead of print April 21, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1405138111

Link:

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/16/1405138111.short?rss=1

Ancient Egyptians tamed cats 2,000 years before earliest generally accepted evidence

Sacrificial burial from Predynastic Hierakonpolis dates to 3800 – 3600 BC

The remains of six cats were found in a circular pit in an elite graveyard: an adult male, an adult female and two pairs of kittens. The cats were sacrificed as part of a funerary ritual. The ages of the kittens suggest that they belonged to two different litters; furthermore the adult female was too young to have been the mother. The relationship of the male cat to the kittens cannot be determined.

If all these animals were taken from the wild, then four different captures would have been required (the male, the female and each pair of kittens). It is unlikely that this could have been accomplished in short period prior to the sacrifice. Furthermore, the slightly different ages of the kittens suggest they were born outside the natural reproductive cycle of Egyptian wild cats, with a single birth season on spring. It therefore seems likely that the cats were bred in captivity or at least in close association with humans.

The traditional view is that domesticated cats first appeared in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom around 4000 BC or possibly 300 years earlier during the latter part of the Old Kingdom, but this finding pushes the date back to the Predynastic Naqada IC-IIB period (3800 – 3600 BC).

However, the earliest evidence for an association between humans and cats is a 9,500 year old burial from Cyprus containing the remains of a human and a cat.

Open Access http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2014.02.014

Reference:

  1. van Neer, W., Linseele, V., Friedman, R. & de Cupere, B., More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetery of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science 45, 103-111 (2014).

Fifty years of Homo habilis

The first human species – or was it?

Fifty years ago, the British anthropologist Louis Leakey and two colleagues reported the discovery of a new human species, Homo habilis (‘handy man’), in the journal Nature. Homo habilis lived at least 1.9 million years ago and remains the earliest-known widely-recognised human species to this day. The new species was described from fossils recovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania between 1960 and 1964, but the story of its discovery began more than three decades earlier in 1931, when Leakey first investigated this now world-famous site. Continue reading

Bronze Age pastoralists played key role in spread of crops in Central Asia

New archaeobotanical data highlights cereal cultivation by mobile groups during period 2800 to 1200 BC.

Mobile pastoralism first appeared on the steppes of Central Asia during the fourth millennium BC, and was established by the early part of the third millennium BC. Nomadic groups were also responsible for introducing copper, tin, ceramics and bronze metallurgy into the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor between the Altai and Pamir mountain ranges. Continue reading

Fishing was rapidly abandoned by first farmers in Britain and Ireland

Lipid residue study finds evidence for dramatic change in diet after Neolithic transition

Agriculture reached Britain and Ireland around 4000 BC, but the means by which the transition from hunting, fishing and gathering occurred has been debated for many years. One view is that indigenous Mesolithic people acquired domesticated crops and animals from continental Europe, but retained much of their existing lifestyle. Another is that Neolithic farmers arrived from the continent and spread rapidly. This latter scenario proposes that a rapid acculturation of indigenous Mesolithic people followed.
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Copper awl points to non-local origin for metallurgy in southern Levant

Artefact was imported centuries before Late Chalcolithic.

The southern Levant became a major centre for metallurgy in Southwest Asia during the Late Chalcolithic period from 4500 to 3800 BC. Artefacts from this period include eight massive gold rings weighing a total of almost 1 kg (2.2 lb.) from the Nahal Qanah Cave, Israel, and prestige copper items from a cave at Nahal Mishmar near the Dead Sea, which display lost wax casting technology.
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