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Ancient DNA analysis yields unexpected insights about peoples of Central, South America

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Ancient DNA analysis yields unexpected insights about peoples of Central, South America
November 8, 2018, Harvard Medical School

The exterior of the rock shelter site of Lapa do Santo in Brazil. Credit: André Strauss

An international team of researchers has revealed unexpected details about the peopling of Central and South America by studying the first high-quality ancient DNA data from those regions.

The findings include two previously unknown genetic exchanges between North and South America, one of which represents a continent-wide population turnover.

The results suggest that the people who spread the Clovis culture, the first widespread archaeological culture of North America, had a major demographic impact further south than previously appreciated.

The authors analyzed genome-wide data from 49 individuals from Central and South America, some as old as 11,000 years. Previously, the only genomes that had been reported from this region and that provided sufficient quality data to analyze were less than 1,000 years old.

By comparing ancient and modern genomes from the Americas and other parts of the globe, the researchers were able to obtain qualitatively new insights into the early history of Central and South America.

Published in the journal Cell, the study was led by researchers at Harvard Medical School; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; the University of California, Santa Cruz; Pennsylvania State University; the University of New Mexico; the University of São Paulo and other institutions in Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brazil, Chile, the European Union, Peru and the United States.

The researchers obtained official permits to excavate and conduct analysis on ancient human remains and consulted with local governmental agencies and indigenous communities.

Clovis link in the oldest Central and South Americans

A distinctive DNA type associated with the Clovis culture was found in Chile, Brazil and Belize 11,000 to 9,000 years ago.

“A key discovery was that a Clovis culture-associated individual from North America dating to around 12,800 years ago shares distinctive ancestry with the oldest Chilean, Brazilian and Belizean individuals,” said co-lead author Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “This supports the hypothesis that the expansion of people who spread the Clovis culture in North America also reached Central and South America.”

However, the Clovis culture-associated lineage is missing in present-day South Americans and in ancient samples that are less than 9,000 years old.

“This is our second key discovery,” said co-senior author David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “We have shown that there was a continent-wide population replacement that began at least 9,000 years ago.”

After the population replacement, there was striking genetic continuity between ancient individuals dating to up to 9,000 years ago and modern people from multiple South American regions. This contrasts with West Eurasia and Africa, where there are few places with such long-standing continuity.

This visual abstract depicts the findings of Posth et al., who conducted a large-scale analysis of ancient genomes from Central and South America yields insights into the peopling of the Americas, including four southward migration events and notable population continuity in much of South America after arrival. Credit: Posth et al./Cell

California Channel Island-associated ancestry in the Andes

The second previously unknown spread of people revealed itself in an analysis showing that ancient Californians from the Channel Islands have a distinctive shared ancestry with groups that became widespread in the southern Peruvian Andes by at least 4,200 years ago.

The researchers say this is unlikely to reflect population spread specifically from the Channel Islands into South America. Instead, they hypothesize that the connection between these regions is the result of expansions of people that occurred thousands of years earlier, and that such ancestry became more widespread in the Andes after subsequent events within South America.

“It could be that this ancestry arrived in South America thousands of years before and we simply don’t have earlier individuals showing it,” said Nathan Nakatsuka, a research assistant in the Reich lab at Harvard Medical School and co-lead author of the study. “There is archaeological evidence that the population in the Central Andes area greatly expanded after around 5,000 years ago. Spreads of particular subgroups during these events may be why we detect this ancestry afterward.”

The promise of ancient DNA research in the Americas

The researchers emphasize that their study gives only a glimpse of the discoveries that may come through future work.

To learn about the initial movements of people into Central and South America, they say, it would be necessary to obtain ancient DNA from individuals dating to before 11,000 years ago.

Even for the period between 11,000 and 3,000 years ago that this study focused on, the picture is far from complete.

“We lacked ancient data from Amazonia, northern South America and the Caribbean, and thus cannot determine how individuals in these regions relate to the ones we analyzed,” said Reich. “Filling in these gaps should be a priority for future work.”

“We are excited about the potential of research in this area,” said co-senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “With future regionally-focused studies with large sample sizes, we could realize the potential of ancient DNA to reveal how the human diversity of this region came to be the way it is today.”


Explore further:
First peoples: Study finds two ancient ancestries ‘reconverged’ with settling of South America

More information:
Cell, Posth et al.: “Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America” DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.027 , https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(18)31380-1


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Mars orbiter sends striking photos from icy crater – The Times of Israel

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Mars orbiter sends striking photos from icy crater – The Times of Israel

The European Space Agency has released stunning new photos of Mars’ northern Korolev crater.

The images are composites, created from five separate photos taken by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which has been flying over Earth’s neighboring planet since 2003.

The crater is 82 kilometers (51 miles) wide, filled by a sheet of ice that is 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) deep at its thickest point.


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Unlike other icy craters on the red planet, Korolev keeps its ice all year round, thanks to a layer of cold air trapped inside the crater, cooling its contents.

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Korolev crater, an 82-kilometer-across feature found in the northern lowlands of Mars. This plan mosaic comprises five different observational strips that have been combined to form a single image. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Korolev crater is named after Sergei Korolev, Soviet Russia’s chief rocket engineer during the space race between the USSR and the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. He worked on the Sputnik program that sent the first man-made satellite into orbit, as well as the Vostok program in which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961.

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‘Real Alchemy’: Chinese Scientists Discover a Way to Turn Copper Into ‘Gold’ – Sputnik International

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‘Real Alchemy’: Chinese Scientists Discover a Way to Turn Copper Into ‘Gold’ – Sputnik International
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Alchemists have been struggling for ages to create the legendary philosopher’s stone capable of, among other things, turning base metals into precious ones, and specifically – into gold. Modern day Chinese scientists seem to have finally come close to performing such a transformation.

A group of Chinese scientists from the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics has published research in the journal Science Advances, which describes how they managed to turn regular copper into a material “almost identical” to gold and silver. The metal, which the scientists obtained as a result of result of their experiment was capable of serving as a catalyst for a reaction producing alcohol from coal — something only precious metals such as gold are capable of doing.

Researchers bombarded a piece of copper with a stream of hot and electrically charged argon gas. The procedure charges its atoms, making their electrons more dense and more stable, making the resultant material closer to gold in terms of resistance to erosion, oxidisation and high temperatures.

The research paper points out that the new material based on cheap copper can replace expensive gold and silver in the production of electronic devices, which require significant amounts of these materials.

READ MORE: Chinese Scientists Developing Bee-Inspired Spacecraft Capable of Changing Shape

At the same time, the material will be of little use for counterfeiters, since its density remains the same as copper, thus making the material lighter than gold and a bad choice to make fake gold bars or coins.

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The Secret Fishing Habits Of Northwoods’ Wolves – NPR

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The Secret Fishing Habits Of Northwoods’ Wolves – NPR

New research at Voyageurs National Park is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than previously thought.

Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project

New research at Voyageurs National Park is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than previously thought.

Courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project

Wolves, as it turns out, might not be the bloodthirsty, moose-slaughtering, northwoods-roaming carnivores you always thought they were.

New research on wolf packs at Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is challenging the conventional wisdom on wolves: Their diets are a lot more varied than scientists previously thought.

Researchers with the Voyageurs Wolf Project, a collaboration between the park and the University of Minnesota, have for the first time documented wolves hunting freshwater fish as a seasonal food source — and they have video to prove it.

A diet of meat and berries

Wolves still rely heavily on deer, but earlier studies on wolves in the park have shown that they also eat a large number of beaver — and even blueberries — to supplement their diet.

Wolf scat showing evidence of blueberries in the diet.

Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project

Wolf scat showing evidence of blueberries in the diet.

Courtesy of Tom Gable with the Voyageurs Wolf Project

These new discoveries, which were recently published in the journal Mammalian Biology, were possible thanks to new technology.

Since 2015, researchers have been placing GPS collars on wolves from seven different packs in and around the park. They collect location data from the animals every 20 minutes, which allows them to zoom in on the animals’ predation habits at a finer scale than earlier versions of the collars had permitted: When wolves spend more than 20 minutes at any one site, they know they’re probably eating something.

That’s how they first suspected members of the Bowman Bay pack were eating fish. In April 2017, University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable hiked to a creek where one of the collared wolves had spent a lot of time. He was searching for evidence of a kill.

He looked up, and saw a collared wolf about 50 feet away. But the wolf didn’t see him.

“It was really crazy,” he said. “He came within about 8 to 10 meters of me and he had no idea I was there. I was hiding in the shrubs on the edge of this creek.”

For the next 15 minutes or so, Gable watched the wolf meander back and forth around the creek. Periodically it would run into the creek and splash around. Then it stopped, and looked like it was eating something, before returning to the creek.

Eventually the wolf left, and Gable came out of hiding to explore the area. He realized right away the wolf was hunting fish — spawning suckers — in the creek.

University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable collects the skull/jaw of a beaver that was killed by a wolf.

Courtesy of Tom Gable


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Courtesy of Tom Gable

University of Minnesota researcher Tom Gable collects the skull/jaw of a beaver that was killed by a wolf.

Courtesy of Tom Gable

“And then as I explored the area even more, I found wolf tracks all over the mud on the creek, and I found fish scales and blood and guts all over the edges of the creek, and you could just see that wolves had been spending a lot of time there,” he said. “And there were wolf scats as well that were full of fish scales and fish remains.”

Gable and his colleagues quickly learned that little scene he witnessed wasn’t just a one-time meal. In the month after his hike to the creek, researchers found the two GPS-collared wolves in the Bowman Bay pack spent about half their time hunting fish there.

About a year later, Gable and his colleagues noticed the pack visiting the creek again, so they set up trail cameras, and caught footage of the wolves fishing at night.

“You can see the wolves abruptly head to the water several times after hearing a splash,” Gable said. “They learned what a fish splashing in the creek sounds like and they know that it means food.”

The video also captured wolves catching fish and not eating them right away. Instead, they stored them on the bank of the creek, and fished some more.

That behavior provides a glimpse into a wolf’s mental processing, Gable said. “It somehow knew that there were going to be more, so, it might as well go get fish while the fishing was good, and then come back later to the fish after he had gotten what he could.”

A first for freshwater fishing

Scientists have known for a long time that wolves in coastal habitats in British Columbia and Alaska eat spawning salmon. But this is the first time similar behavior with hunting freshwater fish has been detailed.

“Given the impressive adaptability of wolves to find food, it is not entirely surprising,” said project adviser Joseph Bump.

Wolves Are Back In Germany, But Not Always Welcome

But wolves are elusive, he said: “Especially in the densely forested areas of northern Minnesota, you have to either be in the right spot at the right time or have access to GPS-collar data.”

Those collars have helped shed new light into wolves’ secretive lives in the dense boreal forest of northern Minnesota. Researchers mapped 68,000 GPS locations the packs visited just this past summer.

A pack of wolves lounge on a frozen lake in Voyageurs National Park.

Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project


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Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project

A pack of wolves lounge on a frozen lake in Voyageurs National Park.

Courtesy Voyageurs Wolf Project

Among their major findings, so far:

  • Wolves are omnivores. They eat a lot of blueberries in July and August. By the time the fruit ripens in northern Minnesota, deer fawns — wolves’ primary prey in June — are old enough to escape them.
  • Wolves eat beavers — a lot of them. Beaver can constitute up to 42 percent of a pack’s diet from April until October, researchers have found. Preliminary data show that, on average, one wolf in Voyageurs kills about six to eight beavers per year. But that varies. Individual wolves might not eat any beavers at all. But they found one wolf that had eaten 28 beavers in one year.
  • Wolves hunt beaver differently than they do other prey. Instead of chasing them, they lie in ambush, and strike when the beaver venture onto land.
  • Wolves are good swimmers. One collared wolf swam 12 times across sections of Rainy Lake over a two-day period, covering 2.6 miles.
What Gave Some Primates Bigger Brains? A Fruit-Filled Diet

All these findings help confirm what scientists have understood for a long time: Wolves are highly adaptable creatures, which is why they’ve been able to thrive in so many different habitats, from North America to Europe to Asia.

“Wolves are opportunistic. They can adapt pretty readily to new food sources,” explained Steve Windels, a wildlife biologist at Voyageurs National Park.

Still, he admitted it’s exciting to confirm behaviors scientists have suspected, especially in wolves in Minnesota that haven’t been studied as intensively as their counterparts in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere.

One of the remaining details Windels hopes to tease out is the complex relationship between wolves’ predation on beavers, deer and moose and the impact it has on their populations.

Voyageurs is unique in that it has one of the densest populations of beaver in the region. It also is one of the only places in Minnesota where the moose population is holding steady. In other parts of northeastern Minnesota, moose have declined sharply in the past decade for a host of reasons, including disease and other health-related causes, but in part because of wolf predation.

It’s still too early to make a direct tie between Voyageurs’ steady moose population and its abundance of beavers for wolves to feed on, Windels said. But “this is a great opportunity for us to really get at that question just because of the of the density of beavers that we have here that creates a unique laboratory where we can actually start to see how that dynamic plays out.”

In the meantime, the wolf research at Voyageurs has been getting a lot of attention. A recent Facebook post mapping the different wolf pack territories in the park has drawn over 500,000 views, Gable said.

“That’s really a satisfying part about doing all this is to share what we’re actually finding with people, and to see how excited people are about the work that we’re doing.”

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