November 15, 2013 12:31 pm
Nearly half of all American households own a dog, but we still don’t really know where these lovable-if-slobbery creatures came from. That is, we’ve got a general idea that they were domesticated from wolves, but we’re missing many of the details.
Researchers are starting to pin down how dogs and humans first bonded: dogs evolved from the wolves that were less shy—the ones who happily gorged on our scraps and refuse. Over time, the wolves crept closer and closer into camp, until one day they decided to stick around.
What we’re less sure about is where this took place. There’s a fight going on between scientists right now, says Carl Zimmer for the New York Times, about the geographic origin of the dog. Using complex genetic comparisons, or DNA extracted from ancient fossil pups, says Zimmer, different teams of scientists are coming to different conclusions:
In May, for example, Dr. Salovainen and Chinese colleagues reported that Chinese native dogs had the most wolflike genomes. By tallying up the mutations in the different dog and wolf genomes, they estimated that the ancestors of Chinese village dogs and wolves split about 32,000 years ago.
If this were true, then the first dogs would have become domesticated not by farmers, but by Chinese hunter-gatherers more than 20,000 years before the dawn of agriculture.
A separate team of researchers, lead by Robert Wayne, have a different idea. Wayne and his team, says Zimmer, “did not find that living dogs were closely related to wolves from the Middle East or China. Instead, their closest relatives were ancient dogs and wolves from Europe.
“It’s a simple story, and the story is they were domesticated in Europe,” Dr. Shapiro said.
Salovainen thinks Wayne’s research is wrong, and Wayne thinks Salovainen is. It’s perhaps not too surprising that different tribes of humans, from different part of the globe, would want to take credit for finding man’s best friend. But we still don’t know where dogs came from, not really.
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November 5, 2013 10:49 am
Back in 1997, John Lambert, a resident of Suffolk, England, was installing a new garden fence when he struck a hard object. He dug the rock-like structure up, and it appeared to be some type of bone. Rather than call an expert or turn it in, Lambert stuck the 15-pound, 16-inch long mystery object in his shed, the Daily Mails reports. There it sat for 14 years.
Recently, the now-retired Lambert finally remembered the bone and decided it was time to act on it. He dug through the shed, found the bone and called the nearby Ipswich Museum. The specialists asked him to bring the bone in, and were shocked to find that it belongs to a 250 million year-old pliosaur, a sea-faring predatory reptile that could grow up to 65 feet long.
“‘Life get’s on top of you doesn’t it,” Lambert said, explaining his long delay on turning in the fossil.
The mystery, however, deepens. As far as experts know, pliosaurs only lived in waters around Africa, Australia and China—not Great Britain. How did the fossil come to be buried in Lambert’s garden? Perhaps it came down from northern seas with glacial clays, one curator suggested to the BBC. Or someone else could have brought it to Lambert’s property years before, and lost it, or buried it, until Lambert had the luck to dig it back up.
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November 4, 2013 1:31 pm
Vikings are usually viewed as sea-faring wild men, raiders who weren’t above pillaging a monastery or two. But they didn’t always behave so recklessly. They had extensive trade routes throughout Europe and beyond and collecting both luxuries and necessities from around the world in their Northern European strongholds.
In her upcoming book, Silk for the Vikings, author Marianne Vedeler lays out the case for a Viking trade route with Persia. Vedeler, an associate professor at the University of Oslo, spent four years digging into the subject, starting with the silk found in the remains of the Oseberg ship burial. The Oseberg ship was essentially a tomb, buried deep under the ground with a large number of grave goods, including several varieties of silk, some of which had patterns unique to Persia. Other bits of silk, including one featuring a cross, were more likely looted from an Irish monastery.
“We may safely assume that the Vikings engaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equal measure.” Vedeler says.
Silk wasn’t the only thing that Vikings got from Eastern lands. Also found in the Oseburg burial was a bucket with a strange design on the handle—it featured a man seated in a lotus position, eyes closed. The similarity to traditional images of the Buddha, earned it the nickname of the ‘Buddha bucket,’ but no conclusive link between the Vikings and ancient Buddhist civilizations has been proven to date.
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October 29, 2013 3:12 pm
Archeologists in London just turned up an 1,800-year old Roman statue of an eagle devouring a serpent. Researchers at the Museum of London call the statue “pristine,” “startling” and “exceptional,” the Guardian reports, and hail the artwork as one of the best preserved examples of Romano-British works ever found.
The sculpture turned up in a tomb excavation site in London, the Guardian says, and when the team first saw it, it was in such great shape that they suspected it was a much more recent Victorian garden decoration that somehow got buried and preserved. Upon careful examination, however, it turned out to be an original Roman relic, carved in Britain out of local limestone in the first century AD.
During Roman times, eagles signified both the empire’s strength and served as a typical funeral decoration, the Guardian says, while the snake, in this case, probably represents evil being triumphed over. This particular statue was installed in an aristocratic tomb during the Romans’ height of power in Britain.
It is believed to have stood on an imposing mausoleum, on the roadside edge of the eastern cemetery just outside the city walls. The road was once lined with the monuments of the wealthiest citizens, like the Via Appia outside Rome.
Scattered animal bones and pottery nearby suggest funeral feasts or that family members revisited the tomb to dine with the spirits of their dead.
Eventually, the original tomb was destroyed, but the eagle statue was set aside in a nearby ditch where, purely out of luck, it was covered by mud and preserved for centuries awaiting discovery. The statue was unearthed just a month ago, but it will be on display at the Museum of London for the next six months.
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October 29, 2013 1:42 pm
We’re in the era of Big Data, where some scientists are digging through absolutely staggering amounts of information to unlock the world’s secrets. Take, for example, computational biologist Yaniv Erlich. Using data from a geneaology website, says Nature, Erlich and his colleagues have been building huge family trees. One tree they say, connects the dots between 13 million different people, a legacy that stretches back more than 500 years.
In total, says Erlich on his website, the genetic tree project, called FamiLinx, has compiled the information of 43 million people. Following the connections between people, Erlich and Geni.com were able to follow a slice of the history of the age of exploration.
The starting point of FamiLinx was the public information on Geni.com, a genealogy-driven social network that is operated by MyHeritage. Geni.com allows genealogists to enter their family trees into the website and to create profiles of family members with basic demographic information such as sex, birth date, marital status, and location. The genealogists decide whether they want the profiles in their trees to be public or private. New or modified family tree profiles are constantly compared to all existing profiles, and if there is high similarity to existing ones, the website offers the users the option to merge the profiles and connect the trees.
By scraping the data, says Nature, Erlich is opening the door to, potentially, the future of human genetics research.
The structures of the trees themselves could provide interesting information about human demographics and population expansions, says Nancy Cox, a human geneticist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, who was not involved in the study. But more interesting, she says, is the possibility that such data may one day be linked to medical information or to DNA sequence data as more people have their genomes sequenced and deposit that information in public databases.
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