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    Hunter-gatherer genes gave European farmers an immunity boost

    Stone Age hunter-gatherers had children with farmers in EuropeAlamy Stock Photo
    The offspring of Stone Age farmers that settled in Europe inherited an unusually high share of immunity genes from local hunter-gatherers, suggesting that the development of farming wasn’t the sole reason early humans became more resistant to pathogens.
    It has long been thought that ancient farmers would have had improved immune systems over hunter-gatherers, due to living in more densely populated conditions and having closer contact with animals, increasing exposure to pathogens. As these farming populations expanded, their immunity genes would be best adapted and passed to their offspring.
    But the story is more complex than that. “These early farming groups came into Europe, bringing their lifestyle and technology, but there [were] also hunter-gatherers in Europe,” says Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and the two populations mixed.Advertisement
    To learn more, Skoglund and his colleagues analysed the genomes of 677 ancient individuals from across western Eurasia, spanning from approximately 12,000 to 5000 years ago.
    The team divided the genomes into three groups: early farmers who had moved west from the region now occupied by Turkey and the Balkans, European hunter-gatherers and later individuals with mixed inheritance. “Fast forward a few millennia, and the remaining farming groups now have about 20 per cent of their ancestry that can be traced back to hunter-gatherers,” says Skoglund.
    But in a specific genome region, called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), this split was closer to 50:50, suggesting that hunter-gatherer genes here were more favoured by selection processes. The MHC contains many genes for adaptive immunity, which is how the body targets specific pathogens, but exactly why the hunter-gatherer genes were selected for is unclear, says Skoglund.
    The simplest explanation is that hunter-gatherers may have been better adapted to pathogens in western Europe, so their genes provided an advantage once the farmers had settled there.
    But there is an alternative, thanks to a quirk of evolution that means groups that generally pass on a minority of their genes, like the hunter-gatherers, can provide more genes for functions where diversity is important, such as immunity – where the most successful offspring will be those that can survive a range of diseases.

    The MHC plays a large role in determining whether we can survive a particular infection, says Mark Thomas at University College London, who wasn’t involved in the work. “So, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that we’re very diverse for MHC. It means we can fight off more pathogens,” he says.

    Topics:genetics/farming More

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    Cave paintings of mutilated hands could be a Stone Age sign language

    Hand stencils with missing digits at Cosquer cave in Marseille, FrancePatrick Aventurier/getty images
    DEEP inside Gargas cave in the Pyrenees mountains of southern France is something that has puzzled every visitor who has made the journey into its dark inner chambers. Among prehistoric paintings and engravings of horses, bison and mammoths are hundreds of stencils made tens of thousands of years ago by people spitting red and black paint over their outstretched hands. Such motifs are found at ancient sites around the world, from Australia to the Americas and from Indonesia to Europe. For years, archaeologists have wondered at their meaning. But those in Gargas are especially mysterious because around half of the hands appear to be injured.
    “It’s very obvious that some of the fingers are missing,” says Aritz Irurtzun at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bayonne, France. So-called mutilated hands can be seen at many other prehistoric rock art sites, but Gargas cave is the most striking example of this phenomenon.
    It has been suggested that these missing fingers are the result of accidents, frostbite or ritual mutilation. Another possibility is that their creators deliberately folded away their fingers to produce specific patterns. Irurtzun and Ricardo Etxepare, also at CNRS, have now found a way to test this idea. What they have discovered convinces them that Gargas’s hand stencils reflect a Stone Age sign language. If so, these patterns add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Palaeolithic cave paintings may contain a variety of hidden codes. The Gargas stencils could even represent the oldest … More

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    Anaximander review: Did Anaximander create science, asks Carlo Rovelli

    Most of the ideas of Anaximander (second from right) have come to us through the writing of AristotleElla_Ca/shutterstock
    Anaximander and the Nature of ScienceCarlo Rovelli (translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg)(Allen Lane)
    ASTRONOMY was conducted at Chinese government institutions for more than 20 centuries before Jesuit missionaries turned up and, somewhat bemused, pointed out that Earth is round. Why, after so much close observation and meticulous record-keeping, did 17th-century Chinese astronomers still think Earth was flat?
    Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli addresses this in Anaximander and the Nature of Science, … More

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    Relics illuminate the wreck of HMS Gloucester, a 17th-century warship

    A 3D representation of the wreck site is shown in this photogrammetry image from the Maritime Archaeology Trust.Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd
    THIS intriguing selection of images documents a catastrophic shipwreck that, after more than 300 years, has had some of its relics brought to the surface. They will be showcased in a new exhibition, The Last Voyage of the Gloucester, by the University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, both in the UK.
    1682 painting of the wreck by Johan Danckerts.Royal Museums Greenwich/Wikimedia Commons
    In 1682, the warship HMS Gloucester set sail for Edinburgh carrying the future King James II of England and Ireland, who was also King James VII of Scotland. Not long into its journey, the ship struck a sandbank off the Norfolk coast and sank. James survived, but some 250 people on board died.Advertisment

    It wasn’t until 2007 that the miraculously well-preserved shipwreck was discovered by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, who had spent years scuba diving in search of the vessel. However, the pair were unable to reveal their find until last year so it could be protected.
    The ship’s lifting tools on the seabed
    A 3D representation of the wreck site is shown in the main picture in a photogrammetry image from the Maritime Archaeology Trust.

    Pictured above: a pair of glasses in their case; and below two salt-glazed jugs, known as Bellarmine bottles; and a “Sun in Splendour” bottle. All were found at the site.
    Two salt-glazed jugs, known as Bellarmine bottles, left; and a “Sun in Splendour” rightNorfolk Historic Shipwrecks
    Pictured below the 65-kilogram bronze bell of HMS Gloucester.

    The exhibition is at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 10 September.

    Topics:archaeology/ships More

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    Don't Miss: 65, a sci-fi dinosaur thriller by writers of A Quiet Place

    Patti Perret/Sony pictures
    65 sees astronaut Mills (Adam Driver, pictured above) and a crew crash on an unknown planet – with dinosaurs. The sci-fi thriller, by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (writers of A Quiet Place), is showing in cinemas from 10 March.

    The Biomimicry Revolution points us towards sustainable ways of living on Earth. Henry Dicks, an environmental philosopher, surveys our use of nature’s strategies to improve our surroundings. On sale from 14 March.
    Aflo Co Ltd/Alamy
    The Use of Algorithms in Society is complex, says Cass Sunstein (pictured above), policy adviser and co-author of the bestseller … More

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    Creature review: Human nature is key to a sci-fi ballet

    Jeffrey Cirio as the Creature, in a still from Asif Kapadia’s film adaptation of the ballet Creature.Courtesy BFI Distribution and English National Ballet
    Asif Kapadia
    On limited release in the UK and Ireland

    In an isolated research station, lost amid snow and ice, a highly disciplined team of would-be astronauts is putting an experimental animal through its paces. Will the Creature (deliberately left ambiguous so as not to spoil things) survive the tests thrown at it: the cold, the isolation, the asphyxia?
    This is a science-fiction ballet (adapted for film) loosely based on 19th-century dramatist Georg … More

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    Earliest signs of horse riding found in 5000-year-old human remains

    A grave in Malomirovo, Bulgaria, containing a human skeleton bearing evidence of horse ridingMichał Podsiadło
    The earliest evidence of horse riding has been found in 5000-year-old human skeletons from south-east Europe.
    The bones of nine men from graves in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania show hallmarks of horse riding in the patterns of wear on their spines, legs and pelvises.
    The adoption of horse riding is seen as one of the key developments of history, as it helped people to herd livestock, promoted trade and migration, and eventually transformed warfare.Advertisment
    “Suddenly, people had the possibility to move five times as fast and carry 10 times more than they were able to transport before – that’s revolutionary,” says Martin Trautmann at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
    It has long been suspected that the first people to domesticate horses were the Yamnaya, livestock herders originating in the Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains. They went on to colonise most of Europe in what some archaeologists see as a murderous rampage.
    Traces of horse milk have been found in shards of their pots. Although this shows that people kept horses, they may have done so first for their milk and meat, so it is unclear when they might have begun riding the animals.
    Trautmann’s team analyzed the remains of 217 human skeletons that had previously been found in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Serbia for signs of wear on their bones that could indicate horse riding. They dated from between 3000 and 7000 years ago. “Bones are living tissue and if you are doing certain activities throughout your life, the attached muscles and ligaments exert pressure on the bones,” says team member Volker Heyd, also at the University of Helsinki.
    Several features have previously been proposed as hallmarks of horse riding, as they are sometimes present in modern people who spend a lot of time on horseback. They include wear of the top and bottom surfaces of the spinal vertebrae, caused by the up-and-down motion experienced on a horse.

    Another potential sign is a thicker and rougher area where thigh muscles join to thigh bones, showing heavy use of the thighs, which could be from needing to grip the horse with the legs. “There’s additional bone growth to make the area where ligament meets bone bigger, so it disperses the force better,” says Trautmann.
    The team assessed all the skeletons for six such hallmarks. Five individuals showed the strongest evidence for horse riding, having five or more of the signs. Another four skeletons showed four of the signs. All nine were male, dating from 4500 to 5000 years ago.
    But William Taylor at the University of Colorado Boulder says other kinds of evidence of riding, such as remains of bridles, don’t show up in the archaeological record from this region until about 1000 years later. “It does zoom in on this region of the steppes as a homeland, but we are off by almost a millennium.”
    The patterns of wear on the bones aren’t conclusive proof of horse riding, as they could have been caused by other activities, such as riding in a cart pulled by cattle, he says. “We don’t have the kind of data I would like to see to let human skeletons track horse riding versus other activities.”

    Topics:archaeology/ancient humans More

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    Moai statue discovered in a dried-up lake on Easter Island

    The newly discovered Moai statue found on Rapa Nui, also known as Easter IslandComunidad Ma'u Henua HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
    A moai statue has been discovered on Easter Island at the bottom of a recently dried crater lake. The statue is the first of the island’s famous giant-headed figures to be found in the lake.
    Easter Island, located more than 3500 kilometres from the South American continent, is dotted with more than 900 of the iconic statues, carved from volcanic rock more than 500 years ago by the Rapa Nui people.
    Most of the statues were carved from rock quarried at the Rano Raraku volcano. Some were left at the volcano, which is now a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hundreds of others, each of which weigh tens of thousands of pounds, were transported to other parts of the island.Advertisment
    “We think we know all the moai, but then a new one turns up,” Terry Hunt at the University of Arizona told the television program Good Morning America, which first reported the find on 25 February.
    The new statue is 1.6 metres tall and is “full-bodied with recognisable features but no clear definition,” according to a statement from Ma’u Henua, the Rapa Nui organisation that manages the park. It was found lying face down among tall reeds.
    “Under the dry conditions that we have now, we may find more,” said Hunt.
    Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images
    The monolithic statues have long inspired awe and speculation about their role in an apparent collapse of the island’s population in the 17th century; the first European on the island landed in 1722. For indigenous Rapa Nui, Hunt said the statues represent deified ancestors.
    “For the Rapa Nui people, it’s [a] very, very important discovery,” Salvador Atan Hito, the vice president of Ma’u Henua, told the tv program.
    Rano Raraku’s crater is normally filled with water, but the lake has been shrinking since 2018, Ninoska Avareipua Huki Cuadros, director of Ma’u Henua, told Agence France-Presse.
    Easter Island has seen a decade of drought, driven in part by climate change as well as the pattern of below-average temperature in the tropical Pacific known as La Nina. The current La Nina is the third in a rare “triple dip” event, which may itself be linked to human-caused climate change.

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