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DNA of world’s oldest natural mummy unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas

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DNA of world’s oldest natural mummy unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas
November 8, 2018, University of Cambridge

Skulls and other human remains from P.W. Lund’s Collection from Lagoa Santa, Brazil kept in the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark

A legal battle over a 10,600 year old ancient skeleton—called the ‘Spirit Cave Mummy’ – has ended after advanced DNA sequencing found it was related to a Native American tribe.

The revelation has been published in Science today as part of a wide ranging international study that genetically analysed the DNA of a series of famous and controversial ancient remains across North and South America including Spirit Cave, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia. The study also looked at the second from Trail Creek Cave in Alaska—a 9,000 year old milk tooth from a young girl.

Scientists sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at “astonishing” speed during the Ice Age, and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

The team of academics not only discovered that the Spirit Cave remains—the world’s oldest natural mummy—was a Native American but they were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans.

The ground-breaking research also discovered clues of a puzzling Australasian genetic signal in the 10,400 year old Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil revealing a previously unknown group of early South Americans—but the Australasian link left no genetic trace in North America. It was described by one of the scientists as ‘extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history’.

Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, and led the study, said: “Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called ‘Paleoamericans’ based on craniometry—it was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans. Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date.”

The Lagoa Santa remains were retrieved by Danish explorer Peter W. Lund in the 19th century and his work led to this ‘Paleoamerican hypothesis’ based on cranial morphology that theorised the famous group of skeletons could not be Native Americans. But this new study disproves that theory and the findings were launched under embargo by Professor Willerslev with representatives from the Brazilian National Museum in Rio on Tuesday, November 6 2018.

He added: “Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population—we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related.”

The scientific and cultural significance of the Spirit Cave remains, which were found in 1940 in a small rocky alcove in the Great Basin Desert, was not properly understood for 50 years. The preserved remains of the man in his forties were initially believed to be between 1,500 and 2000 years old, but during the 1990s new textile and hair testing dated the skeleton at 10,600 years old.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave, claimed cultural affiliation with the skeleton and requested immediate repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The request was refused because the ancestry was disputed, the tribe sued the federal government and the lawsuit pitted tribal leaders against anthropologists, who argued the remains provided invaluable insights into North America’s earliest inhabitants and should continue to be displayed in a museum.

The deadlock continued for 20 years until the tribe agreed that Professor Willerslev could carry out genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the Spirit Cave for the first time.

Professor Willerslev said: “I assured the tribe that my group would not do the DNA testing unless they gave permission and it was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe.”

The team painstakingly extracted DNA from the petrus bone from the inside of the skull proving that the skeleton was an ancestor of present day Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to the tribe in 2016 and there was a private reburial ceremony earlier this year that Professor Willerslev attended and details have just been released.

The geneticist explained: “What became very clear to me was that this was a deeply emotional and deeply cultural event. The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother.

“We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave. It has been a privilege to work with them.”

Professor Eske Willerslev with Donna and Joey, two members of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe. Credit: Linus Mørk, Magus Film

The tribe were kept informed throughout the two year project and two members visited the lab in Copenhagen to meet the scientists and they were present when all of the DNA sampling was taken.

A statement from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, said: “The Tribe has had a lot of experience with members of the scientific community, mostly negative. However, there are a handful of scientists that seemed to understand the Tribe’s perspective and Eske Willerslev was one of them.

“He took the time to acquaint himself with the Tribe, kept us well-informed of the process, and was available to answer our questions. His new study confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence—that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor.”

The genome of the Spirit Cave skeleton has wider significance because it not only settled the legal and cultural dispute between the tribe and the Government, it also helped reveal how ancient humans moved and settled across the Americas. The scientists were able to track the movement of populations from Alaska to as far south as Patagonia. They often separated from each other and took their chances travelling in small pockets of isolated groups.

Dr. David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said: “A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed. That’s something we’ve suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it’s fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at breath-taking speed.”

The study also revealed surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient South American Native Americans but no Australasian genetic link was found in North American Native Americans.

Dr. Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen and first author of the study, said: “We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later. That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace.”

Dr. Peter de Barros Damgaard, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, explained why scientists remain puzzled but optimistic about the Australasian ancestry signal in South America. He explained: “If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later. At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct, leaving us facing extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history! But we will solve this puzzle.”

The population history during the millennia that followed initial settlement was far more complex than previously thought. The peopling of the Americas had been simplified as a series of north to south population splits with little to no interaction between groups after their establishment.

The new genomic analysis presented in the study has shown that around 8,000 years ago, Native Americans were on the move again, but this time from Mesoamerica into both North and South America.

Researchers found traces of this movement in the genomes of all present-day indigenous populations in South America for which genomic data is available to date.

Dr. Moreno-Mayar added: “The older genomes in our study not only taught us about the first inhabitants in South America, but also served as a baseline for identifying a second stream of genetic ancestry, which arrived from Mesoamerica in recent millennia and that is not evident from the archaeological record. These Mesoamerican peoples mixed with the descendants of the earliest South Americans and gave rise to most contemporary groups in the region.”


Explore further:
Direct genetic evidence of founding population reveals story of first Native Americans

More information:
J.V. Moreno-Mayar el al., “Early human dispersals within the Americas,” Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aav2621


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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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