April 15, 2013 10:15 am
Around 2 million years ago, the first humans evolved from australopiths, our smaller-brained ape-like ancestors. Back in 2008, researchers found two skeletons in South Africa from the ape-like Australopithecus sediba. A male and female skeleton, called MH1 and MH2, were buried together, and further excavations revealed an infant and another partial adult skeleton nearby. All of the remains dated back to around 1.8 to 1.9 million years old. These skeletons began to raise questions about what we really know about human evolution and Homo origins.
The researchers published their results in the journal Science in 2010, writing:
Despite a rich African Plio-Pleistocene hominin fossil record, the ancestry of Homo and its relation to earlier australopithecines remain unresolved. Here we report on two partial skeletons with an age of 1.95 to 1.78 million years. The fossils were encased in cave deposits at the Malapa site in South Africa. The skeletons were found close together and are directly associated with craniodental remains. Together they represent a new species of Australopithecus that is probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. Combined craniodental and postcranial evidence demonstrates that this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other australopith species and thus might help reveal the ancestor of that genus.
Until this discovery, researchers had assumed that Lucy, the remains, more than 3 million years old, of an Australopithecus afarensis female found in 1974, represented either our direct evolutionary ancestor or else a very close ancestor. But Lucy’s skeleton was found in Ethiopia, about 4,000 miles away from the A. sediba remains uncovered in South Africa.
Immediately, i09 explains, researchers began to second guess whether Homo emerged from East Africa after all. Our origins instead may be more southerly. Now, a new slew of studies published by the same research team in Science answers some questions about what our ancestor was like while also opening up some new mysteries. The New Scientist gives a run down of the “bizarre mosaic” of qualities resembling both Homo and Australopithecus africanus (another South African species that lived around 2 to 3 million years ago) that a closer examination of the A. sediba specimens revealed.
The Homo-like traits included:
- Same number of vertebrae
- Human-like waist
- Bottom of the ribcage narrows
- Walked upright
- Small canine teeth.
And the ape-like traits were:
- Top of the ribcage tapered towards the shoulders, preventing the arms from swinging when walking
- Arms and legs appear well equipped to swing and balance on branches
- When walking, rather than planting its heel first like Homo, A. sediba’s gait was more twisty and hoppy thanks to a flexible midfoot.
Where A. sediba fits into the evolutionary tree is still under debate. Based upon studied of the specimens’ teeth, it does not appear that A. sediba evolved from A. afarensis (Lucy) in East Africa. Instead, the New Scientist writes, A. africanus seems to be the most likely ancestral candidate.
That suggests the roots of both lineages of australopiths – from East and South Africa – are even older. “It appears that there may be a ‘ghost lineage’ of unrecognised hominins that goes back deeper in time than afarensis,” says Lee Berger at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who discovered A. sediba.
National Geographic points out that the questions surrounding A. sediba, such as why it seemed to return to the trees after it first evolved to walk on the ground and where it fits in on the human evolution puzzle, are far from resolved.
Are the ways that Australopithecus sediba resembles early Homo species true indicators of a close evolutionary relationship—or are they traits that evolved independently in both lineages?
Few scientists believe this question has even begun to be settled.
But A. sediba will likely leave a significant mark on science, in any case:
Regardless of what Australopithecus sediba turns out to be, however, the fossils offer an important caution about interpreting more fragmentary human remains found elsewhere.
The hominin “is so curious in its totality,” [paleoanthropologist Rick] Potts says, “it might lead to some rethinking of how we classify fossil humans and place them in our evolutionary tree.”
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April 8, 2013 11:30 am
In South Africa, one recent robbery broke the blast-open-the-safe, steal-the-gold mold of bank heists. The thieves did break into a safe and steal millions of dollars worth of loot. But they didn’t make off with gold or Picassos. They stole rhino horns—nearly $3 million worth.
The safe contained 66 southern white rhino horns, removed from the animals on the Leshoka Thabang Game Reserve to protect them from poachers who often kill the giant beasts just for their horns. The thieves apparently broke into the reserve’s office and used a blowtorch to open this safe and snag the horns.
Demand for rhino horns, which go into traditional medicine cures for everything from cancer to hangovers, is growing, and right now the going rate (just about $30,000 a pound) is higher than gold’s.
Reuters called Johan van Zyl, the farmer whose safe contained the 66 rhino horns, which weighed almost 100 pounds in total. “In my hands it is worth nothing, but in the hands of the guys who have it now, the horns are worth a lot of money,” he told them.
Part of what’s driving the price up is that rhinos are getting rarer, because they’re being poached so much. The Western Black rhino was poached to extinction just this year. Reuters estimates that last year poachers killed 660 rhinos in South Africa. This year that number could jump to 800. And 75 percent of the rhinos in the world live in South Africa.
To save the dwindling rhino population, some rangers are taking the drastic measure of poisoning rhinos’ horns to deter people from eating them.
And it isn’t only rhinos in the wild which are being attacked for their horns. In July of last year, two men cokes into the Ipswitch Musuem and ripped the horn off a museum specimen. This museum heist wasn’t an isolated event either. Here’s the Guardian:
According to the Metropolitan police, 20 thefts have taken place across Europe in the past six months – in Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Sweden as well as the UK. Scotland Yard and Europol are now advising galleries and collectors to consider locking up their rhino horn collections or keeping them away from public view. Several institutions, including the Natural History Museum and theHorniman Museum in south London, have removed their displays or replaced horns with replicas.
Law enforcement officials think that these museum heists were all carried out by the same team of criminals, hungry for horns—although most likely the South African safe heist wasn’t related. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) called the rhino hunting situation “bleak” in 2009, and it’s only gotten worse. Until rhino horns stop being worth more than gold, it’s unlikely that the giant beasts, or their horns, will be safe anywhere.
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April 5, 2013 1:09 pm
In South Africa, the Guardian reports, some wildlife managers are attempting a radical new method of combating the illegal wildlife trade. They are injecting live rhino’s horn with poison that would make people who consume it “seriously ill.”
Rhino horns currently fetch the equivalent price or more of their weight in gold in markets in China and Vietnam, where they are largely used in traditional Chinese medicine concoctions or as a condiment to sprinkle atop dishes. Poaching and selling rhino horns is illegal, however, and taking the horns means killing the animals. So far this year, more than 200 rhinos have been poached in South Africa alone, meaning the country is well on its way to beating last year’s 668 total animals killed for their horns. Conservationists estimate that, at this rate, around 1,000 rhinos will die this year.
The poison, a mix of parasiticides and pink dye, now fills more than 100 rhinos’ horns, which were not harmed in the process. Anyone who eats horns laced with the poison will become ill, with symptoms including nausea, stomach ache and diarrhea though they will not die, managers say. Conservationists hope the poison—which is easily seen thanks to the pink dye—make consumers think twice before eating the purported “medicinal product.” Airport scanners can also detect the dye, whether it’s contained within a whole horn or ground into a powder.
The chemicals are available over the counter, mostly used for controlling ticks on livestock, and injecting the horns with the poison is legal. Additionally, wildlife managers are warning would-be poachers and consumers with a media campaign and also by posting noticed on fences surrounding protected areas.
Some conservationists worry, however, that the poison will just encourage the poachers to seek rhinos in other parts of South Africa or Africa, or that poachers will even use their own dye to return the pink horns to their original color so they can still sell them to naive consumers.
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April 2, 2013 9:04 am
Thieves are plundering Europe’s museums of their rhino horns and elephant tusks. First it was Haslemere Educational Museum and Norwich Castle Museum in England, then the Florence Museum of Natural History. Overall, the Guardian reports, more than twenty museums and auction houses in Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Belgium have lost tusks and horns to poachers looking to turn a quick profit. Last weekend, Paris’ Museum of Natural History came close to becoming the latest member to join this growing list. The Guardian reports:
Police were called to the museum in the early hours of Saturday morning where they found a chainsaw still whirring after a man in his 20s escaped over a wall with a tusk over his shoulder.
The thief, startled by the museum’s alarm system, tried to make a quick break for it but wound up fracturing his ankle.
The elephant in question once belonged to King Louis XIV. The animal was a gift from the Portuguese king in 1668 and was much beloved by Louis XIV and his visitors.
It lived for 13 years in the royal menagerie in the grounds of the opulent palace of Versailles where it became the star attraction. When it died, its skeleton was transferred to the natural history collection in Paris, one of the biggest in the world alongside London’s Natural History Museum.
The tusks, in fact, were added to the skeleton in the 19th century. The wildlife black market isn’t paying for historical value, though; buyers are purportedly interested in the value of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicinal. Elephant tusks currently fetch hundreds of dollars per pound while rhino horns go for much higher prices.
The Parisien museum curators say they’ll restore the sawed off horn to its rightful place. Curators at other institutions, such as London’s Natural History Museum, are not taking any chances, however. They replaced their horns two years ago with fakes.
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March 29, 2013 1:38 pm
The famous story of Cleopatra’s suicide gets points for drama and crowd appeal: Her lover, Mark Antony, had been defeated in battle by Octavian and, hearing that Cleopatra had been killed, had stabbed himself in the stomach. Very much alive, after witnessing his death, the beautiful last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt pressed a deadly asp to her breast, taking her own life as well.
But what if Cleopatra didn’t commit suicide at all?
Pat Brown, author of the new book, The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case, argues that the “Queen of Kings” did not take her own life. Rather, she was murdered, and her perpetrators managed to spin a story that has endured for more than 2,000 years.
Brown, writing for The Scientist, says she decided to treat Cleopatra’s story as any typical crime scene.
I was shocked at the number of red flags that popped up from the pages of the historical accounts of the Egyptian queen’s final day. How was it that Cleopatra managed to smuggle a cobra into the tomb in a basket of figs? Why would the guards allow this food in and why would they be so careless in examining them? Why would Octavian, supposedly so adamant about taking Cleopatra to Rome for his triumph, be so lax about her imprisonment? Why would Cleopatra think it easier to hide a writhing snake in a basket of figs rather than slip poison inside one of the many figs? How did all three women end up dead from the venom? Wasn’t it unlikely that the snake cooperated in striking all three, releasing sufficient venom to kill each of them? Why was the snake no longer present at the crime scene? Was a brand-new tomb so poorly built that holes remained in the walls of the building? Why did the guards not look for the snake once they thought it had killed the women? Why were the wounds from the fangs of the snake not obvious? Why did the women not exhibit the symptoms of death by snake venom or even by poison? Why did the guards not see any of the women convulsing, vomiting, or holding their abdomens in agony? Why didn’t they see any swelling or paralysis of face or limbs or any foaming at the mouth?
Brown began pursuing these answers through historical texts and more recent scholarly works. She spoke with Egyptologists, poison experts, archeologists and historians of the ancient world, slowly forming her own version of what really took place August 12, 30 BC.
With each step back in time from the end of Cleopatra’s life to the beginning, I discovered more and more evidence pointing to a radically different explanation of history than the ancients and Octavian wanted us to believe.
In this story, Cleopatra never loved Antony or Julius Caesar. Antony was murdered, and Cleopatra was tortured and strangled to death.
I believed Cleopatra may have been one of the most brilliant, cold-blooded, iron-willed rulers in history and the truth about what really happened was hidden behind a veil of propaganda and lies set in motion by her murderer, Octavian, and the agenda of the Roman Empire.
This book, Brown hopes, will set the record straight.
*This post has been updated.
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