Tarim Basin mummies genomic study genetics

The surprising origins of the Tarim Basin mummies

The surprising origins of the Tarim Basin mummies

Genomic study of the Tarim Basin mummies in western China reveals an indigenous Bronze Age population that was genetically isolated but culturally cosmopolitan

In a new study, an international team of researchers has determined the genetic origins of Asia’s most enigmatic mummies - the Tarim Basin mummies in western China. Once thought to be Indo-European speaking migrants from the West, the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies are revealed to be a local indigenous population with deep Asian roots and taste for far-flung cuisine.

Tarim Basin mummies genomic study genetics
Aerial view of the Xiaohe cemetery. Credits: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

As part of the Silk Road and located at the geographical intersection of Eastern and Western cultures, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has long served as a major crossroads for trans-Eurasian exchanges of people, cultures, agriculture, and languages. Since the late 1990s, the discovery of hundreds of naturally mummified human remains dating to circa 2,000 BCE to 200 CE in the region’s Tarim Basin has attracted international attention due to their so-called ‘Western’ physical appearance, their felted and woven woolen clothing, and their agropastoral economy that included cattle, sheep and goat, wheat, barley, millet, and even kefir cheese. Buried in boat coffins in an otherwise barren desert, the Tarim Basin mummies have long puzzled scientists and inspired numerous theories as to their enigmatic origins.

Excavation of burial M75 at the Xiaohe cemetery. Credits: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

The Tarim Basin mummies’ cattle-focused economy and unusual physical appearance had led some scholars to speculate that they were the descendants of migrating Yamnaya herders, a highly mobile Bronze Age society from the steppes of the Black Sea region of southern Russia. Others have placed their origins among the Central Asian desert oasis cultures of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), a group with strong genetic ties to early farmers on the Iranian Plateau.

To better understand the origin of the Tarim Basin mummies’ founding population, who first settled the region at sites such as Xiaohe and Gumugou circa 2,000 BCE, a team of international researchers from Jilin University, the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Seoul National University of Korea, and Harvard University generated and analyzed genome-wide data from thirteen of the earliest known Tarim Basin mummies, dating to circa 2,100 to 1,700 BCE, together with five individuals dating to circa 3,000 to 2,800 BCE in the neighboring Dzungarian Basin. This is the first genomic-scale study of prehistoric populations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and it includes the earliest yet discovered human remains from the region.

The Tarim Basin mummies were not newcomers to the region

Typical Xiaohe boat coffin with oar. The coffin is covered with a cattle hide. Credits: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

To their great surprise, the researchers found that the Tarim Basin mummies were not newcomers to the region at all, but rather appear to be direct descendants of a once widespread Pleistocene population that had largely disappeared by the end of the last Ice Age. This population, known as the Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), survives only fractionally in the genomes of present-day populations, with Indigenous populations in Siberia and the Americas having the highest known proportions, at about 40 percent. In contrast to populations today, the Tarim Basin mummies show no evidence of admixture with any other Holocene groups, forming instead a previously unknown genetic isolate that likely underwent an extreme and prolonged genetic bottleneck prior to settling the Tarim Basin.

“Archaeogeneticists have long searched for Holocene ANE populations in order to better understand the genetic history of Inner Eurasia. We have found one in the most unexpected place,” says Choongwon Jeong, a senior author of the study and a professor of Biological Sciences at Seoul National University.

In contrast to the Tarim Basin, the earliest inhabitants of the neighboring Dzungarian Basin descended not only from local populations but also from Western steppe herders, namely the Afanasievo, a pastoralist group with strong genetic links to the Early Bronze Age Yamanya. The genetic characterization of the Early Bronze Age Dzungarians also helped to clarify the ancestry of other pastoralist groups known as the Chemurchek, who later spread northwards to the Altai mountains and into Mongolia. Chemurchek groups appear to be the descendants of Early Bronze Age Dzungarians and Central Asian groups the from Inner Asian Mountain Corridor (IAMC), who derive their ancestry from both local populations and BMAC agropastoralists.

“These findings add to our understanding of the eastward dispersal of Yamnaya ancestry and the scenarios under which admixture occurred when they first met the populations of Inner Asia,” says Chao Ning, co-lead author the study and a professor of School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University.

The Tarim Basin groups were genetically but not culturally isolated

Tarim Basin mummies genomic study genetics
A naturally mummified woman from burial M11 of the Xiaohe cemetery. Credits: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

These findings of extensive genetic mixing all around the Tarim Basin throughout the Bronze Age make it all the more remarkable that the Tarim Basin mummies exhibited no evidence of genetic admixture at all. Nevertheless, while the Tarim Basin groups were genetically isolated, they were not culturally isolated. Proteomic analysis of their dental calculus confirmed that cattle, sheep, and goat dairying was already practiced by the founding population, and that they were well aware of the different cultures, cuisines, and technologies all around them.

“Despite being genetically isolated, the Bronze Age peoples of the Tarim Basin were remarkably culturally cosmopolitan – they built their cuisine around wheat and dairy from the West Asia, millet from East Asia, and medicinal plants like Ephedra from Central Asia,” says Christina Warinner, a senior author of the study, a professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, and a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

“Reconstructing the origins of the Tarim Basin mummies has had a transformative effect on our understanding of the region, and we will continue the study of ancient human genomes in other eras to gain a deeper understanding of the human migration history in the Eurasian steppes,” adds Yinquiu Cui, a senior author of the study and professor in the School of Life Sciences at Jilin University.

Tarim Basin mummies genomic study genetics
A profile view of the burial M13 from the Xiaohe cemetery. Credits: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

References:

The genomic origins of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies, Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04052-7

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.


Native American Japan debunked Jomon

Popular theory of Native American origins coming from Japan debunked

Popular theory of Native American origins debunked by genetics and skeletal biology

Latest scientific findings suggest the ancestral Native American population does not originate in Japan, as believed by many archeologists

Native American Japan debunked Jomon
Popular theory of Native American origins coming from Japan, debunked by genetics and skeletal biology. Jomon teeth vs Native American teeth. Photo credits: G. Richard Scott, University of Nevada Reno

A widely accepted theory of Native American origins coming from Japan has been attacked in a new scientific study, which shows that the genetics and skeletal biology “simply does not match-up”.

The findings, published today in the peer-reviewed journal PaleoAmerica, are likely to have a major impact on how we understand Indigenous Americans’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere.

Based on similarities in stone artifacts, many archaeologists currently believe that Indigenous Americans, or ‘First Peoples’, migrated to the Americas from Japan about 15,000 years ago.

It is thought they moved along the northern rim of the Pacific Ocean, which included the Bering Land Bridge, until they reached the northwest coast of North America.

From there the First Peoples fanned out across the interior parts of the continent and farther south, reaching the southern tip of South America within less than two thousand years.

The theory is based, in part, on similarities in stone tools made by the ‘Jomon’ people (an early inhabitant of Japan, 15,000 years ago), and those found in some of the earliest known archaeological sites inhabited by ancient First Peoples.

But this new study, out today in PaleoAmerica – the flagship journal of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University – suggests otherwise.

Carried out by one of the world’s foremost experts in the study of human teeth and a team of Ice-Age human genetics experts, the paper analysed the biology and genetic coding of teeth samples from multiple continents and looked directly at the Jomon people.

“We found that the human biology simply doesn’t match up with the archaeological theory,” states lead author Professor Richard Scott, a recognized expert in the study of human teeth, who led a team of multidisciplinary researchers.

“We do not dispute the idea that ancient Native Americans arrived via the Northwest Pacific coast—only the theory that they originated with the Jomon people in Japan.

“These people (the Jomon) who lived in Japan 15,000 years ago are an unlikely source for Indigenous Americans. Neither the skeletal biology or the genetics indicate a connection between Japan and the America. The most likely source of the Native American population appears to be Siberia.”

In a career spanning almost half a century, Scott – a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada-Reno – has traveled across the globe, collecting an enormous body of information on human teeth worldwide, both ancient and modern.  He is the author of numerous scientific papers and several books on the subject.

This latest paper applied multivariate statistical techniques to a large sample of teeth from the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, showing that quantitative comparison of the teeth reveals little relationship between the Jomon people and Native Americans. In fact, only 7% of the teeth samples were linked to the non-Arctic Native Americans (recognized as the First Peoples).

And, the genetics show the same pattern as the teeth—little relationship between the Jomon people and Native Americans.

“This is particularly clear in the distribution of maternal and paternal lineages, which do not overlap between the early Jomon and American populations,” states co-author Professor Dennis O’Rourke, who was joined by fellow human geneticists – and expert of the genetics of Indigenous Americans – at the University of Kansas, Jennifer Raff.

“Plus, recent studies of ancient DNA from Asia reveal that the two peoples split from a common ancestor at a much earlier time,” adds Professor O’Rourke.

Together with their colleague and co-author Justin Tackney, O’Rourke and Raff reported the first analysis of ancient DNA from Ice-Age human remains in Alaska in 2016.

Other co-authors include specialists in Ice-Age archaeology and ecology.

Shortly before publication of the paper, two other new studies on related topics were released.

A new genetics paper on the modern Japanese population concluded that it represents three separate migrations into Japan, rather than two, as previously believed. It offered more support to the authors’ conclusions, however, about the lack of a biological relationship between the Jomon people and Indigenous Americans.

And, in late September, archaeologists reported in another paper the startling discovery of ancient footprints in New Mexico dating to 23,000 years ago, described as “definitive evidence” of people in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum—before expanding glaciers probably cut off access from the Bering Land Bridge to the Western Hemisphere. It remains unclear who made the footprints and how they are related to living Native Americans, but the new paper provides no evidence that the latter are derived from Japan.

Professor Scott concludes that “the Incipient Jomon population represents one of the least likely sources for Native American peoples of any of the non-African populations.”

Limitations of the study include that available samples of both teeth and ancient DNA for the Jomon population are less than 10,000 years old, i.e., do not antedate the early Holocene (when the First Peoples are understood to arrive in America).

“We assume,” the authors explain however, “that they are valid proxies for the Incipient Jomon population or the people who made stemmed points in Japan 16,000–15,000 years ago.”

 

Peopling the Americas: Not “Out of Japan”, PaleoAmerica
(13-Oct-2021), DOI: 10.1080/20555563.2021.1940440

 

Press release from Taylor & Francis Group on the popular theory of Native American origins coming from Japan, debunked by genetics and skeletal biology.


Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Prehistoric societies in the British Isles were creating artistic designs on rock as long ago as the late Ice Age, archaeologists have confirmed.

Rare evidence

The plaquettes provide the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British IslesFor the first time, archaeologists have analysed the ancient markings made on a group of flat stones, known as plaquettes, uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, and believe they date from the late ice age – some 15,000 years ago.

Ten fragments of stone plaquettes extensively engraved with abstract designs were uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2014 and 2018. Since then, a team of archaeologists led by Newcastle University, working with the Natural History Museum, have been analysing the prehistoric markings and believe they represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British Isles.

The plaquettes are believed to have been made by the Magdalenians, an early hunter gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Examples of etched Magdalenian plaquettes have previously been discovered at sites in France, Spain and Portugal. Although Magdalenian settlements are known to have existed as far north-west as Britain, no similar examples of artistic expression have previously been discovered in the British Isles of such an early date. The engraved fragments represent the first evidence of engraved stone plaquettes found in the British Isles and Ireland, seemingly predating cave art and engraved bone found previously at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire.

The research and excavation team, which also included experts from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the universities of St. Andrews, Strathclyde, Liverpool, Wales Trinity St David, and York, as well as the British Museum, analysed the stones for traces of how the markings were made.

The analysis revealed that the plaquettes are engraved with groups of fine lines, thought to have been purposefully made using stone tools. The geometric designs are made up of a combination of straight lines more or less parallel to each other and longer, curved incisions. The research team say that the two types of marks are likely to have been produced using the same tools, possibly by the same engraver and in short succession, giving new insight into the processes used to create the ancient designs.

Dr Chantal Conneller, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University, said: “These engraved stone fragments provide exciting and rare evidence of artistic expression at what was the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world.”

The designs were only briefly viewed by their makers. Engraving soft stone creates a powder within the incisions that makes them visible. This swiftly disperses, meaning that the engravings are only clear at the moment of their making. “In this context, the act or moment of engraving, was more meaningful than the object itself,” explained Dr Conneller.

art British Isles prehistoric

Purposeful artistic direction

Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, added: “Microscopic analysis indicates that many of the lines, including the curved, concentric designs, appear to have been made through layered or repeated incisions, suggesting that it is unlikely that they resulted from the stones being used for a functional purpose. The majority of the designs are purely abstract, but others could depict basic forms such as animals, landscapes or people. This strongly suggests that the plaquettes at Les Varines were engraved for purposeful artistic decoration.”

The stones discovered at Les Varines, in the south east of Jersey, were found in an area thought to have been used as a hearth. Three of the fragments had been recovered from an area of granite slabs which may have served as paving, highlighting that the plaquettes were engraved in a domestic context.

Dr Ed Blinkhorn, Senior Geoarchaeologist at University College London and director of excavations at the site, said: "The plaquettes were tricky to pick apart from the natural geology at the site - every stone needed turning. Their discovery amongst hearths, pits, paving, specialist tools, and thousands of flints shows that creating art was an important part of the Magdalenian pioneer toolkit, as much at camp as within caves."

 “The engraved stones are firmly domestic art - this may have been important as people moved back into northern Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age,” added Dr Conneller. “The people at Les Varines are likely to have been pioneer colonisers of the region and creating engraved objects at new settlements may have been a way of creating symbolic relationships with new places.”

The research took place as part of the Ice Age Island project, funded by Jersey Heritage, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries and the British Museum and the ‘Human behaviour in 3D’ project funded by the Calleva Fundation and is published in PLOS ONE.

 

Reference: “Artists on the edge of the world: An integrated approach to the study of Magdalenian engraved stone plaquettes from Jersey (Channel Islands)” by Silvia M. Bello, Edward Blinkhorn, Andrew Needham, Martin Bates, Sarah Duffy, Aimée Little, Matt Pope, Beccy Scott, Andrew Shaw, Mark D. Welch, Tim Kinnaird, Lisa Millar, Ruth Robinson, Chantal Conneller. PLOS ONE https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0236875

 

 

 

Press release from the Newcastle University on the prehistoric markings that represent the earliest evidence of art discovered in the British Isles


seafood Arabia out of Africa

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Prehistoric pioneers could have relied on shellfish to sustain them as they followed migratory routes out of Africa during times of drought, a new study suggests.

seafood out of Africa Arabia Farasan Islands
Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

The study examined fossil reefs near to the now-submerged Red Sea shorelines that marked prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. The findings suggest this coast offered the resources necessary to act as a gateway out of Africa during periods of little rainfall when other food sources were scarce.

The research team, led by the University of York, focused on the remains of 15,000 shells dating back 5,000 years to an arid period in the region. With the coastline of original migratory routes submerged by sea-level rise after the last Ice Age, the shells came from the nearby Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia.

Plentiful

The researchers found that populations of marine mollusks were plentiful enough to allow continuous harvests without any major ecological impacts and their availability would have enabled people to live through times of drought.

Lead author, Dr Niklas Hausmann, Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could therefore have restricted these movements.

“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people.”

Healthy population

The study also confirms that communities settled on the shorelines of the Red Sea could have relied on shellfish as a sustainable food resource all year round.

Dr Hausmann added: “Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish. Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population.”

Fossil reefs

The shellfish species found in the archaeological sites on the Farasan Islands were also found in abundance in fossil reefs dating to over 100 thousand years ago, indicating that these shellfish have been an available resource over longer periods than archaeological sites previously suggested.

Co-author of the study, Matthew Meredith-Williams, from La Trobe University, said: "We know that modelling past climates to learn about food resources is extremely helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is happening on land and what is happening in the water. In our study we show that marine foods were abundant and resilient and being gathered by people when they couldn't rely on terrestrial food."

 

Shellfish resilience to prehistoric human consumption in the southern Red Sea: Variability in Conomurex fasciatus across time and space is published in Quaternary International. The research was funded by the European Research Council.

 

Press release on seafood helping prehistoric people migrate out of Africa from the University of York

 


Bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior Credits: Alex Pryor

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.

 

Press release "Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age" from the University of Exeter.


giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

Read more


DNA from 31,000-year-old milk teeth leads to discovery of new group of ancient Siberians

DNA from 31,000-year-old milk teeth leads to discovery of new group of ancient Siberians

The two 31,000-year-old milk teeth found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia which led to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians. Credit: Russian Academy of Sciences

Two children's milk teeth buried deep in a remote archaeological site in north eastern Siberia have revealed a previously unknown group of people lived there during the last Ice Age.

The finding was part of a wider study which also discovered 10,000 year-old human remains in another site in Siberia are genetically related to Native Americans - the first time such close genetic links have been discovered outside of the US.

The international team of scientists, led by Professor Eske Willerslev who holds positions at St John's College, University of Cambridge, and is director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, have named the new people group the 'Ancient North Siberians' and described their existence as 'a significant part of human history'.

The DNA was recovered from the only human remains discovered from the era - two tiny milk teeth - that were found in a large archaeological site found in Russia near the Yana River. The site, known as Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site (RHS), was found in 2001 and features more than 2,500 artefacts of animal bones and ivory along with stone tools and evidence of human habitation.

The discovery is published today (June 5 2019) as part of a wider study in Nature and shows the Ancient North Siberians endured extreme conditions in the region 31,000 years ago and survived by hunting woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and bison.

Professor Willerslev said: "These people were a significant part of human history, they diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern day Asians and Europeans and it's likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere."

Dr Martin Sikora, of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics and first author of the study, added: "They adapted to extreme environments very quickly, and were highly mobile. These findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of north eastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole."

Researchers estimate that the population numbers at the site would have been around 40 people with a wider population of around 500. Genetic analysis of the milk teeth revealed the two individuals sequenced showed no evidence of inbreeding which was occurring in the declining Neanderthal populations at the time.

Siberia milk teeth America
Alla Mashezerskaya maps the artefacts in the area where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. Credit: Elena Pavlova

The complex population dynamics during this period and genetic comparisons to other people groups, both ancient and recent, are documented as part of the wider study which analysed 34 samples of human genomes found in ancient archaeological sites across northern Siberia and central Russia.

Professor Laurent Excoffier from the University of Bern, Switzerland, said: "Remarkably, the Ancient North Siberians people are more closely related to Europeans than Asians and seem to have migrated all the way from Western Eurasia soon after the divergence between Europeans and Asians."

Scientists found the Ancient North Siberians generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary people who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas - providing the 'missing link' of understanding the genetics of Native American ancestry.

It is widely accepted that humans first made their way to the Americas from Siberia into Alaska via a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait which was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The researchers were able to pinpoint some of these ancestors as Asian people groups who mixed with the Ancient North Siberians.

Professor David Meltzer, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, one of the paper's authors, explained: "We gained important insight into population isolation and admixture that took place during the depths of the Last Glacial Maximum - the coldest and harshest time of the Ice Age - and ultimately the ancestry of the peoples who would emerge from that time as the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas."

This discovery was based on the DNA analysis of a 10,000 year-old male remains found at a site near the Kolyma River in Siberia. The individual derives his ancestry from a mixture of Ancient North Siberian DNA and East Asian DNA, which is very similar to that found in Native Americans. It is the first time human remains this closely related to the Native American populations have been discovered outside of the US.

Professor Willerslev added: "The remains are genetically very close to the ancestors of Paleo-Siberian speakers and close to the ancestors of Native Americans. It is an important piece in the puzzle of understanding the ancestry of Native Americans as you can see the Kolyma signature in the Native Americans and Paleo-Siberians. This individual is the missing link of Native American ancestry."

 

Press release from the St John's College, University of Cambridge

 


apple

Exploring the origins of the apple

Exploring the origins of the apple

Apples originally evolved in the wild to entice ancient megafauna to disperse their seeds; more recently, humans began spreading the trees along the Silk Road with other familiar crops; dispersing the apple trees led to their domestication

wild horses apple
Horses eating wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains. These domesticated horses demonstrate the process of seed dispersal that wild apple trees evolved to support millions of years ago, when large monogastric mammals such as these were prominent across Eurasia. Credit: Artur Stroscherer

Recent archaeological finds of ancient preserved apple seeds across Europe and West Asia combined with historical, paleontological, and recently published genetic data are presenting a fascinating new narrative for one of our most familiar fruits. In this study, Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History traces the history of the apple from its wild origins, noting that it was originally spread by ancient megafauna and later as a process of trade along the Silk Road. These processes allowed for the development of the varieties that we know today.

The apple is, arguably, the most familiar fruit in the world. It is grown in temperate environments around the globe and its history is deeply intertwined with humanity. Depictions of large red fruits in Classical art demonstrate that domesticated apples were present in southern Europe over two millennia ago, and ancient seeds from archaeological sites attest to the fact that people have been collecting wild apples across Europe and West Asia for more than ten thousand years. While it is clear that people have closely maintained wild apple populations for millennia, the process of domestication, or evolutionary change under human cultivation, in these trees is not clear.

Several recent genetic studies have demonstrated that the modern apple is a hybrid of at least four wild apple populations, and researchers have hypothesized that the Silk Road trade routes were responsible for bringing these fruits together and causing their hybridization. Archaeological remains of apples in the form of preserved seeds have been recovered from sites across Eurasia, and these discoveries support the idea that fruit and nut trees were among the commodities that moved on these early trade routes. Spengler recently summarized the archaeobotanical and historical evidence for cultivated crops on the Silk Road in a book titled Fruit from the Sands, published with the University of California Press. The apple holds a deep connection with the Silk Road - much of the genetic material for the modern apple originated at the heart of the ancient trade routes in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the process of exchange caused the hybridization events that gave rise to the large red sweet fruits in our produce markets.

Understanding how and when apple trees evolved to produce larger fruits is an important question for researchers, because fruit trees do not appear to have followed the same path towards domestication as other, better-understood crops, such as cereals or legumes. Many different wild and anthropogenic forces apply selective pressure on the crops in our fields, it is not always easy to reconstruct what pressures caused which evolutionary changes. Therefore, looking at evolutionary processing in modern and fossil plants can help scholars interpret the process of domestication. Fleshy sweet fruits evolve to attract animals to eat then and spread their seeds; large fruits specifically evolve to attract large animals to disperse them.

apple
The wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains represent the main ancestral population for our modern apple. These trees produce large fruits, which are often red when ripe and have a varying array of flavors. These were the ancestors of the trees that people first started to cultivate and spread along the Silk Road. Credit: Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey

Large fruits evolved to attract ancient megafauna

While most scholars studying domestication focus on the period when humans first start cultivating a plant, in this study Spengler explores the processes in the wild that set the stage for domestication. Spengler suggests that understanding the process of evolution of large fruits in the wild will help us understand the process of their domestication. "Seeing that fruits are evolutionary adaptations for seed dispersal, the key to understanding fruit evolution rests in understanding what animals were eating the fruits in the past," he explains.

Many fruiting plants in the apple family (Rosaceae) have small fruits, such as cherries, raspberries, and roses. These small fruits are easily swallowed by birds, which then disperse their seeds. However, certain trees in the family, such as apples, pears, quince, and peaches, evolved in the wild to be too large for a bird to disperse their seeds. Fossil and genetic evidence demonstrate that these large fruits evolved several million years before humans started cultivating them. So who did these large fruits evolve to attract?

The evidence suggests that large fruits are an evolutionary adaptation to attract large animals that can eat the fruits and spread the seeds. Certain large mammals, such as bears and domesticated horses, eat apples and spread the seeds today. However, prior to the end of the last Ice Age, there were many more large mammals on the European landscape, such as wild horses and large deer. Evidence suggests that seed dispersal in the large-fruiting wild relatives of the apple has been weak during the past ten thousand years, since many of these animals went extinct. The fact that wild apple populations appear to map over glacial refugial zones of the Ice Age further suggests that these plants have not been moving over long distances or colonizing new areas in the absence of their original seed-spreaders.

Trade along the Silk Road likely enabled the development of the apple we know today

Silk Road apple
Venders in every Central Asian bazaar sell a diverse array of apples. This women in the Bukhara bazaar is selling a variety of small sweet yellow apples, which she locally cultivated in Uzbekistan. Some of the fruits sold in these markets today travel great distances, similar to how they would have during the peak of the Silk Road. Credit: Robert Spengler

Wild apple tree populations were isolated after the end of the last Ice Age, until humans started moving the fruits across Eurasia, in particular along the Silk Road. Once humans brought these tree lineages back into contact with each other again, bees and other pollinators did the rest of the work. The resulting hybrid offspring had larger fruits, a common result of hybridization. Humans noticed the larger fruiting trees and fixed this trait in place through grafting and by planting cuttings of the most favored trees. Thus, the apples we know today were primarily not developed through a long process of the selection and propagation of seeds from the most favored trees, but rather through hybridization and grafting. This process may have been relatively rapid and parts of it were likely unintentional. The fact that apple trees are hybrids and not "properly" domesticated is why we often end up with a crabapple tree when we plant an apple seed.

This study challenges the definition of "domestication"' and demonstrates that there is no one-shoe-fits-all model to explain plant evolution under human cultivation. For some plants, domestication took millennia of cultivation and human-induced selective pressure - for other plants, hybridization caused rapid morphological change. "The domestication process is not the same for all plants, and we still do not know much about the process in long-generation trees," notes Spengler. "It is important that we look past annual grasses, such as wheat and rice, when we study plant domestication. There are hundreds of other domesticated plants on the planet, many of which took different pathways toward domestication." Ultimately, the apple in your kitchen appears to owe its existence to extinct megafaunal browsers and Silk Road merchants.

 

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte


Woolly mammoth Neanderthal genetic traits cold adaptation

Woolly mammoths and Neanderthals may have shared genetic traits

Woolly mammoths and Neanderthals may have shared genetic traits

Findings point to molecular resemblance in climate adaptation traits of the two species, Tel Aviv University researchers say

Woolly mammoth Neanderthal genetic traits cold adaptationA new Tel Aviv University study suggests that the genetic profiles of two extinct mammals with African ancestry -- woolly mammoths, elephant-like animals that evolved in the arctic peninsula of Eurasia around 600,000 years ago, and Neanderthals, highly skilled early humans who evolved in Europe around 400,000 years ago -- shared molecular characteristics of adaptation to cold environments.

The research attributes the human-elephant relationship during the Pleistocene epoch to their mutual ecology and shared living environments, in addition to other possible interactions between the two species. The study was led by Prof. Ran Barkai and Meidad Kislev of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and published on April 8 in Human Biology.

"Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age. The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation," says Prof. Barkai. "Neanderthals depended on mammoths for their very existence.

"They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths."

To assess the degree of resemblance between mammoth and Neanderthal genetic components, the archaeologists reviewed three case studies of relevant gene variants and alleles -- alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome -- associated with cold-climate adaptation found in the genomes of both woolly mammoths and Neanderthals.

The first case study outlined the mutual appearance of the LEPR gene, related to thermogenesis and the regulation of adipose tissue and fat storage throughout the body. The second case study engaged genes related to keratin protein activity in both species. The third case study focused on skin and hair pigmentation variants in the genes MC1R and SLC7A11.

"Our observations present the likelihood of resemblance between numerous molecular variants that resulted in similar cold-adapted epigenetic traits of two species, both of which evolved in Eurasia from an African ancestor," Kislev explains. "These remarkable findings offer supporting evidence for the contention regarding the nature of convergent evolution through molecular resemblance, in which similarities in genetic variants between adapted species are present.

"We believe these types of connections can be valuable for future evolutionary research. They're especially interesting when they involve other large-brained mammals, with long life spans, complex social behavior and their interactions in shared habitats with early humans."

According to the study, both species likely hailed from ancestors that came to Europe from Africa and adapted to living conditions in Ice Age Europe. The species also both became extinct more or less at the same time.

"It is now possible to try to answer a question no one has asked before: Are there genetic similarities between evolutionary adaptation paths in Neanderthals and mammoths?" Prof. Barkai says. "The answer seems to be yes. This idea alone opens endless avenues for new research in evolution, archaeology and other disciplines.

"At a time when proboscideans are under threat of disappearance from the world due to the ugly human greed for ivory, highlighting our shared history and similarities with elephants and mammoths might be a point worth taking into consideration."

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genetics history prehistory Spain Iberia Iberian populations genetic history

Unique diversity of the genetic history of the Iberian Peninsula revealed by dual studies

Unique diversity of the genetic history of the Iberian Peninsula revealed by dual studies

Two studies, one looking at Iberian hunter-gatherers between 13,000 and 6,000 years ago and another looking at Iberian populations over the last 8000 years, add new resolution to our understanding of the history and prehistory of the region

Vanessa Villalba-Mouco performing aDNA labwork. Credit: Marieke S. van der Loosdrecht

An international team of researchers have analyzed ancient DNA from almost 300 individuals from the Iberian Peninsula, spanning more than 12,000 years, in two studies published today (14/03/2019) in Current Biology and Science. The first study looked at hunter-gatherers and early farmers living in Iberia between 13,000 and 6000 years ago. The second looked at individuals from the region during all time periods over the last 8000 years. Together, the two papers greatly increase our knowledge about the population history of this unique region.

The Iberian Peninsula has long been thought of as an outlier in the population history of Europe, due to its unique climate and position on the far western edge of the continent. During the last Ice Age, Iberia remained relatively warm, allowing plants and animals - and possibly people - who were forced to retreat from much of the rest of Europe to continue living there. Similarly, over the last 8000 years, Iberia's geographic location, rugged terrain, position on the Mediterranean coast and proximity to North Africa made it unique in comparison to other parts of Europe in its interactions with other regions. Two new studies, published concurrently in Current Biology and Science, analyze a total of almost 300 individuals who lived from about 13,000 to 400 years ago to give unprecedented clarity on the unique population history of the Iberian Peninsula.

Iberian hunter-gatherers show two ancient Paleolithic lineages

For the paper in Current Biology, led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, researchers analyzed 11 hunter-gatherers and Neolithic individuals from Iberia. The oldest newly analyzed individuals are approximately 12,000 years old and were recovered from Balma Guilanyà in Spain.

Excavation work in progress at the site of Balma Guilanyà. Credit: CEPAB-UAB

Earlier evidence had shown that, after the end of the last Ice Age, western and central Europe were dominated by hunter-gatherers with ancestry associated with an approximately 14,000-year-old individual from Villabruna, Italy. Italy is thought to have been a potential refuge for humans during the last Ice Age, like Iberia. The Villabruna-related ancestry largely replaced earlier ancestry in western and central Europe related to 19,000-15,000-year-old individuals associated with what is known as the Magdalenian cultural complex.

Interestingly, the findings of the current study show that both lineages were present in Iberian individuals dating back as far as 19,000 years ago. "We can confirm the survival of an additional Paleolithic lineage that dates back to the Late Ice Age in Iberia," says Wolfgang Haak of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author of the study. "This confirms the role of the Iberian Peninsula as a refuge during the Last Glacial Maximum, not only for fauna and flora but also for human populations."

This suggests that, far from being replaced by Villabruna-related individuals after the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers in Iberia in fact already had ancestry from Magdalenian- and Villabruna-related sources. The discovery suggests an early connection between two potential refugia, resulting in a genetic ancestry that survived in later Iberian hunter-gatherers.

"The hunter-gatherers from the Iberian Peninsula carry a mix of two older types of genetic ancestry: one that dates back to the Last Glacial Maximum and was once maximized in individuals attributed to Magdalenian culture and another one that is found everywhere in western and central Europe and had replaced the Magdalenian lineage during the Early Holocene everywhere except the Iberian Peninsula," explains Vanessa Villalba-Mouco of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, first author of the study.

The researchers hope that ongoing efforts to decipher the genetic structure of late hunter-gatherer groups across Europe will help to even better understand Europe's past and, in particular, the assimilation of a Neolithic way of life brought about by expanding farmers from the Near East during the Holocene.

Ancient DNA from individuals spanning the last 8000 years helps clarify the history and prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula

The paper published in Science focuses on slightly later time periods, and traces the population history of Iberia over the last 8000 years by analyzing ancient DNA from a huge number of individuals. The study, led by Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute and including Haak and Villalba-Mouco, analyzed 271 ancient Iberians from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and historical periods. The large number of individuals allowed the team to make more detailed inferences about each time period than previously possible.

The researchers found that during the transition to a sedentary farming life-style, hunter-gatherers in Iberia contributed subtly to the genetic make-up of newly arriving farmers from the Near East. "We can see that there must have been local mixture as the Iberian farmers also carry this dual signature of hunter-gatherer ancestry unique to Iberia," explains Villalba-Mouco.

Between about 2500-2000 BC, the researchers observed the replacement of 40% of Iberia's ancestry and nearly 100% of its Y-chromosomes by people with ancestry from the Pontic Steppe, a region in what is today Ukraine and Russia. Interestingly, the findings show that in the Iron Age, "Steppe ancestry" had spread not only into Indo-European-speaking regions of Iberia but also into non-Indo-European-speaking ones, such as the region inhabited by the Basque. The researchers' analysis suggests that present-day Basques most closely resemble a typical Iberian Iron Age population, including the influx of "Steppe ancestry," but that they were not affected by subsequent genetic contributions that affected the rest of Iberia. This suggests that Basque speakers were equally affected genetically as other groups by the arrival of Steppe populations, but retained their language in any case. It was only after that time that they became relatively isolated genetically from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Additionally, the researchers looked at historical periods, including times when Greek and later Roman settlements existed in Iberia. The researchers found that beginning at least in the Roman period, the ancestry of the peninsula was transformed by gene flow from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. They found that Greek and Roman settlements tended to be quite multiethnic, with individuals from the central and eastern Mediterranean and North Africa as well as locals, and that these interactions had lasting demographic as well as cultural impacts.

"Beyond the specific insights about Iberia, this study serves as a model for how a high-resolution ancient DNA transect continuing into historical periods can be used to provide a detailed description of the formation of present-day populations," explains Haak. "We hope that future use of similar strategies will provide equally valuable insights in other regions of the world."

genetics history prehistory Spain Iberia Iberian populations genetic history Iberian Peninsula
Cueva de Chaves site. Credit: Museo de Huesca

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History/Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte (MPI-SHH)