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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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Scientists acknowledge key errors in study of how fast the oceans are warming

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A major study claimed the oceans were warming much faster than previously thought. But researchers now say they can’t necessarily make that claim.



The sun sets over sea ice floating on the Victoria Strait along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago during the summer of 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Chris Mooney

Reporter covering climate change, energy and the environment.

Brady Dennis

Reporter focusing on environmental policy and public health issues

Scientists behind a major study that claimed the Earth’s oceans are warming faster than previously thought now say their work contained inadvertent errors that made their conclusions seem more certain than they actually are.

Two weeks after the high-profile study was published in the journal Nature, its authors have submitted corrections to the publication. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, home to several of the researchers involved, also noted the problems in the scientists’ work and corrected a news release on its website, which previously had asserted that the study detailed how the Earth’s oceans “have absorbed 60 percent more heat than previously thought.”

“Unfortunately, we made mistakes here,” said Ralph Keeling, a climate scientist at Scripps, who was a co-author of the study. “I think the main lesson is that you work as fast as you can to fix mistakes when you find them.”

The central problem, according to Keeling, came in how the researchers dealt with the uncertainty in their measurements. As a result, the findings suffer from too much doubt to definitively support the paper’s conclusion about just how much heat the oceans have absorbed over time.

The central conclusion of the study — that oceans are retaining ever more energy as more heat is being trapped within Earth’s climate system each year — is in line with other studies that have drawn similar conclusions. And it hasn’t changed much despite the errors. But Keeling said the authors’ miscalculations mean there is actually a much larger margin of error in the findings, which means researchers can weigh in with less certainty than they thought.

“I accept responsibility for what happened because it’s my role to make sure that those kind of details got conveyed,” Keeling said.

The study’s lead author was Laure Resplandy of Princeton University. Other researchers were with institutions in China, Paris, Germany and the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“Maintaining the accuracy of the scientific record is of primary importance to us as publishers and we recognize our responsibility to correct errors in papers that we have published,” Nature said in a statement to The Post. “Issues relating to this paper have been brought to Nature’s attention and we are looking into them carefully. We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously and will issue an update once further information is available.”

The original study, which appeared on Oct. 31, derived a new method for measuring how much heat is being absorbed by the oceans. Essentially, the authors measured the volume of gases, specifically oxygen and carbon dioxide, that have escaped the ocean in recent decades and headed into the atmosphere as it heats up. They found that the warming “is at the high end of previous estimates” and suggested that as a result, the rate of global warming itself could be more accelerated.

The results, wrote the authors, may suggest there is less time than previously thought to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The study drew considerable media attention, including from The Post.

However, not long after publication, an independent Britain-based researcher named Nicholas Lewis published a lengthy blog post saying he had found a “major problem” with the research.

“So far as I can see, their method vastly underestimates the uncertainty,” Lewis said in an interview Tuesday, “as well as biasing up significantly, nearly 30 percent, the central estimate.”

Lewis added that he tends “to read a large number of papers, and, having a mathematics as well as a physics background, I tend to look at them quite carefully, and see if they make sense. And where they don’t make sense — with this one, it’s fairly obvious it didn’t make sense — I look into them more deeply.”

Lewis has argued in past studies and commentaries that climate scientists are predicting too much warming because of their reliance on computer simulations, and that current data from the planet itself suggests global warming will be less severe than feared.

It isn’t clear whether the authors agree with all of Lewis’s criticisms, but Keeling said “we agree there were problems along the lines he identified.”

Paul Durack, a research scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said promptly acknowledging the errors in the study “is the right approach in the interests of transparency.”

But he added in an email, “This study, although there are additional questions that are arising now, confirms the long known result that the oceans have been warming over the observed record, and the rate of warming has been increasing,” he said.

Gavin Schmidt, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, followed the growing debate over the study closely on Twitter and said that measurements about the uptake of heat in the oceans have been bedeviled with data problems for some time — and that debuting new research in this area is hard.

“Obviously you rely on your co-authors and the reviewers to catch most problems, but things still sometimes slip through,” Schmidt wrote in an email.

Schmidt and Keeling agreed that other studies also support a higher level of ocean heat content than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, saw in a landmark 2013 report.

Overall, Schmidt said, the episode can be seen as a positive one.

“The key is not whether mistakes are made, but how they are dealt with — and the response from Laure and Ralph here is exemplary. No panic, but a careful reexamination of their working — despite a somewhat hostile environment,” he wrote.

“So, plus one for some post-publication review, and plus one to the authors for reexamining the whole calculation in a constructive way. We will all end up wiser.”

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Russia unveils NUCLEAR spaceship poised for groundbreaking INTERSTELLAR missions

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Russia unveils NUCLEAR spaceship poised for groundbreaking INTERSTELLAR missions


RUSSIA’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has unveiled a nuclear powered spaceship designed for groundbreaking interplanetary and interstellar flights.

space news, space, NASA, mars mission, interstellar, roscosmos, russia space, space, spaceship, spacecraft

Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has unveiled a nuclear powered spaceship (Image: Roscosmos/Getty)

When discussing the possibility of interstellar travel, some scientists tend to scoff at the idea because of the enormous distances that separate the stars. However, Roscosmos claims the craft will be able to make flights into deep space, thanks to the use of nuclear power. Video released on the Roscomos page on Facebook shows the concept design of the craft.

From past descriptions, the concept design includes a gas-cooled fission reaction that powers a generator, which in turn feeds a plasma thruster.

Vladimir Koshlakov, who heads Moscow’s Keldysh Research Centre told local media a mission to Mars will be able “in the very near future but that is not the aim in itself”.

He noted: “Our engines can be the foundation for a whole range of space missions that currently seem like science fiction.”

The Keldysh Research Centre, responsible for developing the Katyusha rocket launched during World War 2, has been working on the “unique” propulsion system since 2009.

space news, space, NASA, mars mission, interstellar, roscosmos, russia space, space, spaceship, spacecraft

Video released on the Roscomos page on Facebook shows the concept design of the craft (Image: Roscosmos)

Mr Koshlakov did not name a date for when the system will be ready but he suggested it “will surpass existing level of technological and scientific development”.

He added: “Reusability is the priority.

“We must develop engines that do not need to be fine-tuned or repaired more than once every ten flights.

“Also, 48 hours after the rocket returns from space, it must be ready to go again.

space news, space, NASA, mars mission, interstellar, roscosmos, russia space, space, spaceship, spacecraft

Vladimir Koshlakov a mission to Mars will be able “in the very near future but that is not the aim (Image: Getty)

“This is what the market demands.”

Asked whether he might be surpassed by other companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is planning its own mission to Mars, Mr Koshlakov firmly denied.

He said: “Elon Musk is using the existing tech, developed a long time ago.

“He is a businessman: he took a solution that was already there, and applied it successfully.

“Notably, he is also doing his work with help from the government.”

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Menu for astronauts in space includes variety, comforts of home

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Menu for astronauts in space includes variety, comforts of home

In this Dec. 21, 2015 photo, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly participates in a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. NASA scientists are always working to come up with better meals for astronauts living in space, where the body starts to lose bone and muscle mass. (NASA via AP file)

8035293

Neil Armstrong may have taken that first small step for man onto the moon, but it was John Glenn who took the first slurp of applesauce for humankind.

Until he ate while orbiting Earth in 1962, scientists at NASA weren’t sure humans could swallow and digest food while in space. Luckily, he chowed down in zero gravity with no trouble. Today’s astronauts sometimes spend months at a time living in the International Space Station, so they’d get pretty hungry without a few snacks!

Of course, while the human body is happy to take in a meal while hovering 250 miles above Earth, the process of cooking and eating food isn’t exactly the same as it is back home. That’s why NASA scientists are working hard to perfect astronaut menus. A healthy diet is even more crucial for space travelers than it is here on the surface, because spending time in space makes your body start to lose bone and muscle mass. NASA has to figure out how to send food up in a rocket, store it for as long as possible and make sure it delivers a perfect balance of nutrients — and it has to keep astronauts from getting bored, too!

“Imagine trying to eat the same food for every meal for six months. You may get tired of the food and eat less than you need to maintain weight, health and performance. That’s why we have to make sure there’s a large variety of healthy food available for the astronauts to make choices,” says F. Ryan Dowdy, ISS food system manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Astronauts have about 200 food items to pick from. According to Dowdy, a lot of the options are surprisingly similar to meals we eat on Earth.

“Whether it’s macaroni and cheese or chocolate pudding cake, it’s important for the astronauts when eating to be reminded of home,” he says. “Food can be an important psychological comfort in the stressful environment of space.”

It’s the preparation that’s unique: Food often has to sit in storage for six months before it even goes into space — and last for weeks or months at a time once it’s up there — so NASA designs everything with a shelf life of at least two years. Macaroni and cheese is freeze-dried (meaning that most of the moisture is removed, which makes it safe to store at room temperature), and astronauts add hot water to it on the space station. Chocolate pudding cake is preserved similarly to canned food, but NASA puts it in a flexible pouch so it takes up less space.

Some Earth foods are perfectly fit for zero-gravity consumption. Tortillas, for example, are a great alternative to bread — they last a long time in storage, and they don’t form crumbs that float around and get caught in important parts of the ship. Astronauts can request small quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables whenever NASA sends supplies up, but for the most part, they’re eating various combinations of super-durable stored foods.

As NASA looks to the future of spaceflight — with missions to Mars, and perhaps even farther — the agency has to design even more durable food. It takes about eight months to get to Mars, and astronauts will have to bring food for the journey home, too. Dowdy says NASA is working to extend the shelf life of its foods to around five years, but experiments in space farming are also part of the plan.

Astronauts on the ISS are able to farm plants such as lettuce in small quantities, but Dowdy says it will take some time before this is a sustainable source of calories.

He thinks 3D printed treats may also be on the menu someday soon. One thing is for sure: It’s going to take a lot of scientific know-how to feed the space explorers of the future.

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