Tag Archives: ancient history

Origins of human alcohol consumption revealed

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File photo (GERMANY-BEER/ REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

Human ancestors may have begun evolving the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began brewing booze, researchers say.

The ability to break down alcohol likely helped human ancestors make the most out of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor, the researchers said. Therefore, knowing when this ability developed could help researchers figure out when these human ancestors began moving to life on the ground, as opposed to mostly in trees, as earlier human ancestors had lived.

“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar and fat goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan, a paleogeneticist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol,” he said, referring to the kind of alcohol found in rotting fruit and that’s also used in liquor and fuel.

To learn more about how human ancestors evolved the ability to break down alcohol, scientists focused on the genes that code for a group of digestive enzymes called the ADH4 family. ADH4 enzymes are found in the stomach, throat and tongue of primates, and are the first alcohol-metabolizing enzymes to encounter ethanol after it is imbibed.

The researchers investigated the ADH4 genes from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates. They collected the sequences of these genes from either genetic databanks or well-preserved tissue samples. [Holiday Drinking: How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol]

The scientists looked at the family trees of these 28 species, to investigate how closely related they were and find out when their ancestors diverged. In total, they explored nearly 70 million years of primate evolution. The scientists then used this knowledge to investigate how the ADH4 genes evolved over time and what the ADH4 genes of their ancestors might have been like.

Then, Carrigan and his colleagues took the genes for ADH4 from these 28 species, as well as the ancestral genes they modeled, and plugged them into bacteria, which read the genes and manufactured the ADH4 enzymes. Next, they tested how well those enzymes broke down ethanol and other alcohols.

This method of using bacteria to read ancestral genes is “a new way to observe changes that happened a long time ago that didn’t fossilize into bones,” Carrigan said.

The results suggested there was a single genetic mutation 10 million years ago that endowed human ancestors with an enhanced ability to break down ethanol. “I remember seeing this huge difference in effects with this mutation and being really surprised,” Carrigan said.

The scientists noted that the timing of this mutation coincided with a shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. The ability to consume ethanol may have helped human ancestors dine on rotting, fermenting fruit that fell on the forest floor when other food was scarce.

“I suspect ethanol was a second-choice item,” Carrigan said. “If the ancestors of humans, chimps and gorillas had a choice between rotten and normal fruit, they would go for the normal fruit. Just because they were adapted to be able to ingest it doesn’t mean ethanol was their first choice, nor that they were perfectly adapted to metabolize it. They might have benefited from small quantities, but not to excessive consumption.”

In people today, drinking in moderation can have benefits, but drinking in excess can definitely cause health problems, experts agree. Scientists have suggested that problems people have with drinking, such as heart disease, liver disease, and mental health problems, result because humans have not evolved genes to sufficiently process ethanol. Similarly, humans have not evolved genes to handle large amounts of sugar, fat and salt, which, in turn, have given way to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and many other health problems.

One model for the evolution of alcohol consumption suggests that ethanol only entered the human diet after people began to store extra food, potentially after the advent of agriculture, and that humans subsequently developed ways to intentionally direct the fermentation of food about 9,000 years ago. Therefore, the theory goes, alcoholism as a disease resulted because the human genome has not had enough time to fully adapt to alcohol.

Another model suggests that human ancestors began consuming alcohol as early as 80 million years ago, when early primates occasionally ate rotting fermented fruit rich in ethanol. This model suggests that the attraction to alcohol started becoming a problem once modern humans began intentionally fermenting food because it generated far more ethanol than was normally found in nature. The new findings support this model.

In the future, Carrigan and his colleagues want to investigate what the ethanol content of fallen fruit might be, and find out whether apes, such as chimpanzees or gorillas, are willing to consume fermented fruit with varying levels of ethanol.

“We also want to look at other enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism, to see if they’re co-evolving with ADH4 at the same time,” Carrigan said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 1 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Europeans’ white skin developed later than thought

Europeans' white skin developed later than thought

Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel in 2011. Traits of white skin emerged more recently than thought in Europe. (AP Photo/Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen)

Science notes that Europe is often thought of as the “ancestral home of white people.” But a new DNA study suggests that pale skin and other traits we associate with the continent may have emerged only within the last 8,000 years—a “relatively recent” occurrence.

The study—published last month on the bioRxiv.com server and presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ annual meeting—compared genome DNA across three populations of farmers and hunter-gatherers who crossed over into Europe in discrete migrations within the past eight millennia, Science notes.

What scientists found: a handful of genes tied to diet and skin pigmentation that withstood natural selection and thrived in the northern regions. The data indicates hunter-gatherers who settled in Spain, Hungary, and Luxembourg about 8,500 years ago lacked two specific genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—and had darker skin, Science notes.

But hunter-gatherers hunkered down further north in Sweden had both those light-skin genes and also a third gene that leads to blue eyes (and possibly fair skin and blond hair).

When the third demographic, the Near East farmers, arrived, they also carried the SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 genes, so paler skin started emerging throughout the continent as the populations interbred.

Although researchers don’t offer a definitive answer as to why natural selection picked those genes to thrive in the north, one paleoanthropologist speculated at the meeting that the lack of sun in the northern parts of Europe required people to adapt by developing lighter skin to better absorb more vitamin D, as well as the LCT gene that allowed them to digest the sugars their ancestors couldn’t in milk, also filled with vitamin D.

(This one infant could tell us where the first Americans came from.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Europeans’ White Skin Came Later Than Thought

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Scientists make new discovery about Stone-Age sex

Scientists make new discovery about Stone-Age sex

This undated image made available by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute shows the 46 human chromosomes. (AP Photo/NIH, National Cancer Institute, Hesed Padilla-Nash, Thomas Ried)

Scientists are puzzling over a new discovery regarding Stone Age sex: It seems that for every 17 women who reproduced at the time, just one man did the same.

The findings are based on an analysis of the DNA of 450 people from geographically diverse locations. Researchers compared Y-chromosome DNA, which is inherited only from our male forbears, with mitochondrial DNA, which comes from women, Pacific Standard reports.

Such analysis can show experts our numbers of male and female ancestors, and the mystery here is why these ancient numbers are so out of whack.

“It wasn’t like there was a mass death of males,” says Melissa Wilson Sayres of Arizona State University. “They were there, so what were they doing?” Her team has suggested that perhaps a few males accumulated a great deal of wealth, pushing out others when it came to reproduction.

As Danielle Paquette puts it at the Washington Post, “Survival of the fittest might have actually been survival of the richest.” This would have occurred after the dawn of agriculture, suggesting that the top male reproducers were essentially the best farmers.

Amanda Marcotte writes at Slate that the findings would seem to run counter to the thinking of evolutionary biologists who believe our nature was defined during the earlier hunter-gatherer period of cavemen.

She’s also glad that an age in which a few men got all the women is long gone. “That sounds terrible for both men and women.” (Other recent evolutionary research examines why men like curvy women.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 8K Years Ago, Women Reproduced Way More Often Than Men

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2M-year-old find may be ancient ‘playground’

2M-year-old find may be ancient 'playground'

Have archaeologists found an ancient playground? (stock photo) (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Edmund D. Fountain, Pool)

An investigation into what appears to be a nearly 2 million-year-old site in China’s Hebei province suggests the spot served an important purpose: fun. The South China Morning Post compares the dig site to a “playground” for ancient hominids, noting that it was home to some 700 stone objects and 20,000 fragments; some may well have been kids’ toys, believes lead researcher Wei Qi.

He speculates that the objects, most less than two inches long, were made by children and their mothers. “You can almost feel the maker’s love and passion,” says Wei of one piece he describes as “beautifully shaped.” The other bits of evidence supporting his playground theory: The remains of animals or large tools in the area are scarce, suggesting it’s not where hominids lived and a limited number of adults toiled there.

The site is part of the Nihewan basin, which has been the source of a vast trove of ancient discoveries since 1921, Ancient Origins reports.

What’s also relatively new is the dating of the site, carried out by studying its magnetic properties. Results suggesting it dates to between 1.77 million and 1.95 million years ago could make it older than the Dmanisi site in Georgia, which UNESCO calls the “most ancient” in Eurasia.

But outside researchers have their doubts about the playground theory: “It is difficult to rule out the possibility that (the objects) were just stone fragments created by natural forces,” says one.

If the discoveries really were made by hominids more than 1.8 million years ago—when the first hominid is though to have left Africa—it could change the story of human origins, the Week notes.

(A recently discovered jawbone is also challenging such conceptions.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 2M-Year-Old Stones May Have Belonged to Children

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Unexpected find: Seating plan for Rome’s Colosseum

Unexpected find: Seating plan for Rome's Colosseum

A man dressed as a gladiator enjoys his lunch in front of Rome’s Colosseum, Friday Nov. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Spectators who once flocked to Rome’s Colosseum could find their seats with the help of red numbers painted over entrance archways. What’s amazing is that hints of that paint still remain, Discovery reports.

A team restoring the Colosseum has spotted remnants of it in Latin numerals carved high up on an entrance gate. “This is an exceptional discovery because we did not expect that some trace of the red paint was still preserved,” Colosseum Director Rossella Rea tells the International Business Times.

The red color, derived from clay minerals and iron oxide, had to be repainted every two or three years—which makes the find that much more unexpected.

It also casts a light on how Romans found their seats when going to watch gladiators, wild beasts, and public executions. “The 50,000 spectators had a ticket that said which numbered gate arch they were supposed to enter,” says Rea.

“Inside the arena, there were other numbers to help people access their seats, which were assigned according to social class.” Admittance was free, but of course the emperor had the best seat in his private box, New Historian reports.

Rome’s social and political elite also sat high up, followed by upper-class businessmen and government officials, ordinary Roman men, and finally women and the poor, who had to sit or stand on wood benches.

Built in 70AD, the Colosseum is undergoing a $33 million restoration to clean off dirt that’s accumulated since the Middle Ages. (After its glory days, researchers say, the Colosseum became a “condo.”)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Surprise Find: Seating Plan for Rome’s Colosseum

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Mummy mask papyrus may reveal oldest-known gospel

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File photo. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

A team of researchers made a surprising find when examining a papyrus-wrapped mummy mask — they found what they believe to be the oldest-known copy of a gospel in existence. The researchers found a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that dates back to about 90 A.D., Live Science reports. Previously, the oldest surviving copies of Biblical gospel texts date back to 101 to 200 A.D.

The text was written on a papyrus sheet that was later reused for the mummy mask. While the stereotypical image of ancient mummies involves bejeweled golden masks, that level of finery was only reserved for the wealthy. The mummy mask for the average person would have been made out of recycled material like papyrus, according to SmithsonianMag.com.

In order to retrieve the text without damaging it, the research team applied a method of ungluing the papyrus without obscuring the paper’s ink. About three-dozen researchers are using this technique to analyze hundreds of texts from mummy masks.

“We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries,” Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, told Live Science.

Evans is part of a large team of researchers working on the project, which is based in Oklahoma City. “The scholars involved are from all over the world,” he told FoxNews.com.

The academic said that the team has uncovered documents from a range of eras. These include not just Christian texts, but classical Greek texts like copies of stories by Homer and even personal letters.

Some of the personal documents and business papers found within the masks have dates on them, Evans said. This particular gospel was dated partly by looking at the other documents found within the same mask.

This technique is not without controversy. The ancient masks are destroyed in order to retrieve the documents. However, Evans asserted that “we’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.”

Roberta Mazza, lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Manchester, wrote a blog post critical of the work of Evans and his research team. In reference to a speech Evans made about the gospel text discovery, Mazza wrote that “the audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date … apologists’ speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap.”

Last year Mazza found a 1,500-year old piece of papyrus in the university’s John Rylands library that contains some of the earliest documented references to the Last Supper and ‘manna from heaven.’

For the researchers examining the mummy mask, the text’s discovery marks a significant achievement. Evans said that the text could offer clues about how the Gospel of Mark might have changed over time.

A first volume of the various texts found on the mummies will be published by the researchers later this year.

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Bronze Age Palace & Royal Burial Unearthed in Spain

Bronze Age Palace & Royal Burial Unearthed in Spain

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

 

(Courtesy the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

BARCELONA, SPAIN—Science Daily reports that an audience hall has been found in the Bronze Age palace at La Almoloya, located in southeastern Spain. Archaeologists Vicente Lull, Cristina Huete, Rafael Micó, and Roberto Risch of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona suggest that the hall is the oldest-known building constructed specifically for political use in continental Europe. It features a ceremonial fireplace and a podium, and benches lining its walls would have seated 64 people. Other buildings at the site are well-constructed with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. Some of the stucco-covered walls were decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs in what has been dubbed the Argaric style. A tomb discovered near the political hall contained the remains of a man and a woman, whose skull was encircled with a silver diadem. She had also been buried with four ear dilators, two of silver and two of gold. Rings, earrings, and bracelets made of silver were among the grave goods. Other items include a bronze dagger held together with silver nails, and a small ceramic cup decorated with silver rims.  To read about Bronze Age shipwrecks, see ARCHAEOLOGY’s “Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun.”

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