Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ancient DNA study finds Phoenician from Carthage had European ancestry

A research team co-led by a scientist at New Zealand's University of Otago has sequenced the first complete mitochondrial genome of a 2500-year-old Phoenician dubbed the "Young Man of Byrsa" or "Ariche".

This is the first ancient DNA to be obtained from Phoenician remains and the team's analysis shows that the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup -- a genetic group with a common ancestor -- that likely links his maternal ancestry to locations somewhere on the North Mediterranean coast, most probably on the Iberian Peninsula.

The findings are newly published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study co-leader Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith of the Department of Anatomy says the findings provide the earliest evidence of the European mitochondrial haplogroup U5b2c1 in North Africa and date its arrival to at least the late sixth century BC.

"U5b2c1 is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there. It is remarkably rare in modern populations today, found in Europe at levels of less than one per cent. Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche's mitochondrial genetic make-up most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern day individual from Portugal," Professor Matisoo-Smith says.

While the Phoenicians are thought to have originated from the area that is now Lebanon, their influence expanded across the Mediterranean and west to the Iberian Peninsula where they established settlements and trading posts. The city of Carthage in Tunisia, North Africa, was established as a Phoenician port by colonists from Lebanon and became the centre for later Phoenician (Punic) trade.

The researchers analysed the mitochondrial DNA of 47 modern Lebanese people and found none were of the U5b2c1 lineage.

Previous research has found that U5b2c1 was present in two ancient hunter-gatherers recovered from an archaeological site in north-western Spain, she says.

"While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa via Phoenician and Punic trade networks."

Professor Matisoo-Smith says Phoenician culture and trade had a significant impact on Western civilisation. For example, they introduced the first alphabetic writing system.

"However, we still know little about the Phoenicians themselves, except for the likely biased accounts by their Roman and Greek rivals -- hopefully our findings and other continuing research will cast further light on the origins and impact of Phoenician peoples and their culture," she says.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Humans settled the southeastern United States as much as 1,500 years earlier than scientists previously believed

The discovery of stone tools alongside mastodon bones in a Florida river shows that humans settled the southeastern United States as much as 1,500 years earlier than scientists previously believed, according to a research team led by a Florida State University professor.

This site on the Aucilla River -- about 45 minutes from Tallahassee -- is now the oldest known site of human life in the southeastern United States. It dates back 14,550 years.

"This is a big deal," said Florida State University Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jessi Halligan. "There were people here. So how did they live? This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas."

There is a cluster of sites all over North America that date to around 13,200 years old, but there are only about five in all of North and South America that are older.

Halligan's research was published in the academic journal Science Advances.

Halligan and her colleagues, including Michael Waters from Texas A&M University and Daniel Fisher from University of Michigan, excavated what's called the Page-Ladson site, which is located about 30 feet underwater in a sinkhole in the Aucilla River. The site was named after Buddy Page, a diver who first brought the site to the attention of archaeologists in the 1980s, and the Ladson family, which owns the property.

In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers James Dunbar and David Webb investigated the site and retrieved several stone tools and a mastodon tusk with cut marks from a tool in a layer more than 14,000 years old. However, the findings received little attention because they were considered too old to be real and questionable because they were found underwater.

Waters and Halligan, who is a diver, had maintained an interest in the site and believed that it was worth another look. Between 2012 and 2014, divers, including Dunbar, excavated stone tools and bones of extinct animals.

They found a biface -- a knife with sharp edges on both sides that is used for cutting and butchering animals -- as well as other tools. Fisher, a vertebrate paleontologist, also took another look at the mastodon tusk that Dunbar had retrieved during the earlier excavations and found it displayed obvious signs of cutting created to remove the tusk from the skull.

The tusk may have been removed to gain access to edible tissue at its base, Fisher said.

"Each tusk this size would have had more than 15 pounds of tender, nutritious tissue in its pulp cavity, and that would certainly have been of value," he said.

Another possible reason to extract a tusk is that ancient humans who lived in this same area are known to have used ivory to make weapons, he added.

Using the latest radiocarbon dating techniques, researchers found all artifacts dated about 14,550 years ago. Prior to this discovery, scientists believed a group of people called Clovis -- considered among the first inhabitants of the Americas -- settled the area about 13,200 years ago.

"The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed," said Waters, director of Texas A&M's Center for the Study of the First Americans.

Added Halligan: "It's pretty exciting. We thought we knew the answers to how and when we got here, but now the story is changing."

Ancient Irish musical history found in modern India

An archaeologist studying musical horns from iron-age Ireland has found musical traditions, thought to be long dead, are alive and well in south India.

The realisation that modern Indian horns are almost identical to many iron-age European artefacts reveals a rich cultural link between the two regions 2,000 years ago, said PhD student Billy Ó Foghlú, from The Australian National University (ANU).

"Archaeology is usually silent. I was astonished to find what I thought to be dead soundscapes alive and living in Kerala today," said the ANU College of Asia-Pacific student.

"The musical traditions of south India, with horns such as the kompu, are a great insight into musical cultures in Europe's prehistory.

"And, because Indian instruments are usually recycled and not laid down as offerings, the artefacts in Europe are also an important insight into the soundscapes of India's past."

The findings help show that Europe and India had a lively cultural exchange with musicians from the different cultures sharing independently developed technology and musical styles.

One example of this musical mixing is depicted in a carving of a celebration in Sanchi dating from c300 BC that shows a group of musicians taking part, playing two European carnyces, a horn with an animal's head.

The musical style of Kerala explains some of the mysteries surrounding the horns that have been unearthed in European iron-age excavations and suggest a very different musical soundscape to current western music said Mr Ó Foghlú.

"Some almost identical instruments have been unearthed together, but they are slightly out of tune with each other to western ears," Mr Ó Foghlú said.

"This was previously assumed to be evidence of shoddy workmanship. But in Indian music this kind of dissonance is deliberate and beautiful.

"Horns are used more as a rhythm instrument, not for melody or harmony in a western sense."
The research is published in the Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology.

Israel: Divers Discovered a Spectacular, Ancient and Important Cargo of a Shipwreck

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists diving in the ancient harbor in the Caesarea National Park recovered beautiful statues, thousands of coins 1,600 years old and other finds from the seabed.

A fortuitous discovery by two divers in the ancient port of Caesarea in the Caesarea National Park before the Passover holiday led to the exposure of a large, spectacular and beautiful ancient marine cargo of a merchant ship that sank during the Late Roman period 1,600 years ago.
As soon as they emerged from the water divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan of Ra‘anana contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority and reported the discovery and removal of several ancient items from the sea.

A joint dive at the site together with IAA archaeologists revealed that an extensive portion of the seabed had been cleared of sand and the remains of a ship were left uncovered on the sea bottom: iron anchors, remains of wooden anchors and items that were used in the construction and running of the sailing vessel. An underwater salvage survey conducted in recent weeks with the assistance of many divers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and volunteers using advanced equipment discovered numerous items that were part of the ship’s cargo. 

Many of the artifacts are bronze and in an extraordinary state of preservation: a bronze lamp depicting the image of the sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp in the image of the head of an African slave, fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues, objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale, a bronze faucet in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head, etc. In addition, fragments of large jars were found that were used for carrying drinking water for the crew in the ship and for transportation at sea. One of the biggest surprises in particular was the discovery of two metallic lumps composed of thousands of coins weighing c. 20 kilograms which was in the form of the pottery vessel in which they were transported.

This discovery comes a year after the exposure of a treasure of gold Fatimid coins by divers and the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is currently on display for the public in the “Time Travel” presentations in the Caesarea harbor.

According to Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dror Planer, deputy director of the unit, “These are extremely exciting finds, which apart from their extraordinary beauty, are of historical significance. The location and distribution of the ancient finds on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated recycling, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”.

A preliminary study of the iron anchors suggests there was an attempt to stop the drifting vessel before it reached shore by casting anchors into the sea; however, these broke – evidence of the power of the waves and the wind which the ship was caught up in”.

Sharvit and Planer stress, “A marine assemblage such as this has not been found in Israel in the past thirty years. Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity. When we find bronze artifacts it usually occurs at sea. Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process”. Sharvit and Planer added, “In the many marine excavations that have been carried out in Caesarea only very small number of bronze statues have been found, whereas in the current cargo a wealth of spectacular statues were found that were in the city and were removed from it by way of sea. The sand protected the statues; consequently they are in an amazing state of preservation – as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago”.

The coins that were discovered bear the image of the emperor Constantine who ruled the Western Roman Empire (312–324 CE) and was later known as Constantine the Great, ruler of the Roman Empire (324–337 CE), and of Licinius, an emperor who ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire and was a rival of Constantine, until his downfall in a battle that was waged between the two rulers.

According Sharvit and Planer, "The range of finds recovered from the sea reflects the large volume of trade and the status of Caesarea’s harbor during this time, which was known as period of economic and commercial stability in the wake of the stability of the Roman Empire. The crew of the shipwreck lived in a fascinating time in history that greatly influenced humanity – the period when Christianity was on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was at this time that Emperor Constantine put a halt to the policy of persecuting Christians, and the faithful in Caesarea, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, were given the legitimacy to practice their belief through the famous Edict of Milan that proclaimed Christianity was no longer a banned religion. Later, Constantine recognized Christianity as the official state religion, and it was during his reign that the fundamenta”.

It is thanks to a huge investment of tens of millions shekels by the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation for the conservation and development of the secrets of ancient Caesarea throughout the ages, that at the same time as the discovery of the marine treasure, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Caesarea Development Corporation continue working intensively on major projects around the harbor. While the new finds are still undergoing conservation treatment and are being studied by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the cache of gold coins that was discovered in the water off of Caesarea in the winter of 2015 is already being displayed to the visiting public in the Caesarea harbor as part of the experiential presentation entitled “Time Travel”. The director-general of the Caesarea Development Corporation, Mr. Michael Kersenti, notes that the recent discoveries reiterate the uniqueness of Caesarea as an ancient port city with a history and cultural heritage that continues to surprise us, when other parts of the mysteries of its past are revealed in the sea and on land. The goal is to present as many of these cultural treasures as possible, which will be discovered in the future, to the numerous visitors who come to Caesarea each year

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Genetic testing proves Bene Israel community in India has Jewish roots

A new study from Tel Aviv University, Cornell University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reveals genetic proof of the Jewish roots of the Bene Israel community in the western part of India. They have always considered themselves Jewish.

"Almost nothing is known about the Bene Israel community before the 18th century, when Cochin Jews and later Christian missionaries first came into contact with it," says first author Yedael Waldman of both TAU's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Cornell's Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology. "Beyond vague oral history and speculations, there has been no independent support for Bene Israel claims of Jewish ancestry, claims that have remained shrouded in legend."

"Human genetics now has the potential to not only improve human health but also help us understand human history," says Prof. Eran Halperin of TAU's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology and TAU's Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences, who together with Prof. Alon Keinan of Cornell University's Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology advised Waldman. The research was published in PLOS ONE on March 24, 2016.

From folklore to science

According to their oral history, the Bene Israel people descended from 14 Jewish survivors of a shipwreck on India's Konkan shore. The exact timing of this event and the origin and identity of the Jewish visitors are unknown. Some date the event to around 2,000 years ago. Others estimate that it took place in 175 BCE. Still others believe their Jewish ancestors arrived as early as the 8th century BCE.

"In the last few decades, genetic information has become an important source for the study of human history," says Prof. Keinan, the study's senior author. "It has been applied several times to the study of Jewish populations across diasporas, providing evidence of a shared ancestry."

The research team, including members of Prof. Keinan's lab, Prof. Eitan Friedman of TAU's Sackler School of Medicine, and Prof. Gil Azmon and colleagues at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the University of Haifa, based their study on data from the Jewish HapMap project, an international effort led by Prof. Harry Ostrer of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, to determine the genetic history of worldwide Jewish diasporas. They used sophisticated genetic tools to conduct comprehensive genome-wide analyses on the genetic markers of 18 Bene Israel individuals.

"We found that while Bene Israel individuals genetically resemble local Indian populations, they constitute a clearly separated and unique population in India," Waldman says.

How the community grew

"The results point to Bene Israel being an 'admixed' population, with both Jewish and Indian ancestry. The genetic contribution of each of these ancestral populations is substantial," adds study co-lead author Arjun Biddanda of Cornell.

The results even indicate when the Jewish and Indian ancestors of Bene Israel "admixed": some 19-33 generations (approximately 650-1,050 years) ago.

"We believe that the first encounter involved Middle-Eastern Jews and was followed by a high rate of tribal intermarriage," says Waldman. "This study provides a new example of how genetic analysis can be a valuable and powerful tool to advance our knowledge of human history."

Climate change may have contributed to extinction of Neanderthals

A researcher at the University of Colorado Denver has found that Neanderthals in Europe showed signs of nutritional stress during periods of extreme cold, suggesting climate change may have contributed to their demise around 40,000 years ago.

Jamie Hodgkins, a zooarchaeologist and assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at CU Denver, analyzed the remains of prey animals and found that Neanderthals worked especially hard to extract every calorie from the meat and bones during colder time periods. Her results were published in the Journal of Human Evolution last week.

Hodgkins examined bones discovered in caves once inhabited by Neanderthals in southwestern France for marks demonstrating how the carcasses of deer and other animals were butchered and used for food. During colder, glacial periods, the bones were more heavily processed. In particular, they showed higher frequencies of percussion marks, indicating a nutritional need to consume all of the marrow, probably signaling reduced food availability.

"Our research uncovers a pattern showing that cold, harsh environments were stressful for Neanderthals," said Hodgkins. "As the climate got colder, Neanderthals had to put more into extracting nutrients from bones. This is especially apparent in evidence that reveals Neanderthals attempted to break open even low marrow yield bones, like the small bones of the feet."

These findings further support the hypothesis that changing climate was a factor in Neanderthal extinction.

"Our results illustrate that climate change has real effects," said Hodgkins. "Studying Neanderthal behavior is an opportunity to understand how a rapidly changing climate affected our closest human relatives in the past. If Neanderthal populations were already on the edge of survival at the end of the Ice Age, the increased competition that occurred when modern humans appeared on the scene may have pushed them over the edge."

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Drawing the genetic history of Ice Age Eurasian populations

Not much is known about the genetics of Eurasian history before the introduction of farming. One of the major questions is how climatic fluctuations influenced the population history of Eurasia and to what extent changes in material cultures correspond to movements of people.

A research team led by Prof. FU Qiaomei from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other international scientists (Profs. David Reich, Svante Pääbo and Johannes Krause) have analyzed genome-wide data from 51 Eurasians from ~45,000-7,000 years ago and provided the first vivid look at the genetic history of modern humans in Eurasia before the start of agriculture ~8,500 years ago. Their findings were published in Nature on May 2.

The findings indicate that the proportion of Neandertal ancestry in Eurasians decreased from 3-6% to around 2% over this period of time, and the decrease is more marked near genes than in less conserved regions of the genome, suggesting natural selection against Neandertal variants in modern humans.

Whereas some of the earliest modern humans in Europe, such as the 40,000- to 45,000-year-old Ust'-Ishim and Oase 1, did not contribute substantially to present-day Europeans, all individuals between ~37,000 and ~14,000 years ago descended from a single founder population which forms part of the ancestry of present-day Europeans. An ~35,000-year-old individual from northwest Europe represents an early branch of this founder population which was then displaced across a broad region, before reappearing in southwest Europe at the height of the last ice age ~19,000 years ago. This means that the Neanderthals might have had more inferior genes that their part did not manage to survive in the evolution.

"A new genetic component related to present-day Near Easterners appears in Europe during the first major warming period around 14,000 years ago, which may reflect migrations or population shifts within Europe at the end of the last ice age, an observation that is consistent with the evidence of turnover of mitochondrial genomes at this time", said FU, "it could be the warming weather rather than development of agriculture - as it was previously believed - that drove early Near East residents to Europe and led to the gene fusion."

Overall, these results document how population turnover and migration have been recurring themes in European pre-history. An important direction of future work will be to generate genetic data from ancient individuals from East Asia, southeastern Europe and the Near East, which will provide further insights into the Upper Paleolithic population history of Eurasia.

"Previous researches usually include genome-wide data on only one or two Upper Paleolithic individuals. But this research managed to collect valid genome-wide data from 51 individuals from a more than 100 sample bases," said study co-supervisor Svante Pääbo, a professor of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, "Prior to this work, we had a static view of the first 30,000 years of modern human history in Europe. Now we can begin to see how people moved around and mixed with one another during this period."

The ancient DNA laboratory led by FU Qiaomei at the IVPP will focus on addressing the role of East Asia during the Upper Paleolithic. Currently, the main purpose of this laboratory is to research topics in evolutionary and population genetics, using molecular genetic approaches to clarify ancient human relationships, archaic hominid introgression into modern humans, migratory routes of early modern humans into Asia and interactions between early modern humans and contemporary local modern humans.