The UE renews the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary and Prehistory that is taught in Universitat Rovira i Virgili at Tarragona

Carlos Lorenzo, professor at URV: “This is a very good news in order to maintain the international commitment in education that is being promoted jointly with the IPHES’s team”

Last September, 9 students defended their final thesis Works ate Ferrara (Italy) and 1 student defended last June in Paris

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Since the academic year 2004-2005, thanks to the collaboration with the IPHES (Institut Català en Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), the Universitat Rovira i Virgili at Tarragona (URV) offers the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution. Right now, the European Commission has just announced the agreement to renew it: “That will allow us to enjoy during four more years the guarantee and quality which means to be part of the Erasmus Mundus programme for student recruitment and internationalization of URV”, said Carlos Lorenzo, Coordinator of the master and Head of Education in the IPHES.

This academic offer is carried out jointly with other European institutions: Università degli Studi di Ferrara (Italy), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France), Instituto Politécnico de Tomar (Portugal) and Universitat Rovira i Virgili.

Since the time the master’s programme started, every year around fifteen new students join URV, coming from all the regions in the Spanish state and from countries of many areas of the world: Italy, Portugal, Algeria, India, Thai, Morocco, Georgia and Mexico. Teaching staff from other countries such as Argentina, Chile and Mexico has come in order to teach their knowledge.  In these years more than 150 master dissertations have been presented, which consist in original research works mandatory to obtain the Erasmus Mundus certificate together with a research mobility abroad in a second international center that possibility to obtain the title Erasmus Mundus.

The research projects currently developed in Eurasia, which the IPHES is actively taking part in, such as Atapuerca in the Spanish state and Dmanisi in Georgia “are some of the appeals for recruiting students, who see the opportunity to work in excavations key for solving very important topics in studying human evolution; like the fact of knowing how the first human dispersals happened, the routes which were used, the species involved an so on”, points out Carlos Lorenzo.

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The research projects currently developed in Eurasia, which the IPHES is actively taking part in, such as Atapuerca (photo) in the Spanish state and Dmanisi in Georgia “are some of the appeals for recruiting students, who see the opportunity to work in excavations key for solving very important topics in studying human evolution;

Precisely, the Coordinator of this master and Head of Education in the IPHES highlights: “One of the elements which the EU took into consideration for renewing our master’s programme as well as initially including us as an Erasmus Mundus is that we carry out research of high quality since more than 20 years ago and we develop join projects with our partners which are based on the most important records regarding human evolution”.

The same researcher has pointed out that “all this activity and the fact that the EU renews the academic programme shows our master degree belongs to the international elite, in the framework of the mobility which the Bologna process requires”.

In this way it is expected to consolidate Tarragona as a worldwide reference in studies on human evolution.  Indeed, last September nine students from the master’s degree defended their thesis in an academic session at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, and one student did the same last June in Paris. The topics of analysis have been the anatomy of Neanderthals; 3D study of brain asymmetries and sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens, Pan troglodytes, Gorilla gorilla and fossils of the genus Homo; the consolidation of fossil bony material, the ictofauna marina processing with flint tools, the tapirs of the Camp dels Ninots (Caldes de Malavella), the funerary practices in the Neolithic, the forestry resources for firefighting, the mechanical cleaning of fossils in the process of conservation and restoration to facilitate its study and new methods to investigate the tafonomy of the deposits of Olduvai (Africa).

Genetic data from 1.7 million years ago identified, the oldest recorded to date

The journal Nature has reported the finding of a rhinoceros tooth at the site in Dmanisi, Georgia, where members of IPHES and the URV are working

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article

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A recent finding has paved the way to a revolution in the study of evolution after an international team working in Dmanisi (Georgia) has acquired genetic data from a 1.7-million-year-old rhinoceros tooth, the oldest to have been identified to date. The data acquired is a full set of proteins – a proteome – identified in the animal’s dental enamel and is 1 million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a horse and which dates back 700,000 years.

The finding was announced in an article published in the journal Nature, which was authored by leading scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Saint John’s College (University of Cambridge). However, the project also counted on the participation of 48 other researchers, two of whom were ICREA (Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies) researchers from IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution) and the URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili): Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, who studies the large carnivores at Dmanisi (bears, hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers), and Jordi Agustí, who analyses the small mammals from the same site, which has become one of the main sources of information on the first humans.

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark

The finding reported in Nature is a major advance in the field of biomolecular studies into ancient fossil remains and may provide an answer to some of the mysteries of animal and human biology, enabling scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution over time, now from much further back in the past.

In the last 20 years, ancient DNA has been used to tackle a variety of questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation and human migration, but it has its limits. The new genetic information will make it possible to reconstruct molecular evolution beyond the habitual time limits of the preservation of DNA, so the analysis of ancient protein from dental enamel is the start of an exciting new chapter in the analysis of molecular evolution, as the scientists participating in the study have been quick to point out.

The DNA data that genetically track human evolution only cover the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and chimpanzees – the living species that is genetically closest to humans – separated some 6 or 7 million years ago, which means that the scientific community currently has no genetic information for 90% of the evolutionary path that has led to modern humans.

Neither does the scientific community know how we are genetically linked to extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest species known of the genus Homo with human body proportions similar to those of Homo sapiens. Everything known about Homo erectus at the moment is almost exclusively based on anatomic, not genetic, information.

Stephonorhinus rhinoceros skeleton. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The researchers used ancient sequencing technology (based on the innovative technology known as mass spectrometry) to retrieve genetic information from the tooth of a 1.7-million-year-old Stephanorhinus, an extinct species of rhinoceros that lived throughout Mediterranean Europe and in western Asia. They managed to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information that had been impossible to obtain with DNA sequencing.

Tooth enamel is extremely hard, abundant and long-lasting. It is found in mammals and provides more genetic information than collagen, the only other protein that has been retrieved from fossils more than a million years old. As a result, applying mass spectrometry to this material opens up a wide range of possibilities for a more advanced evolutionary study in both humans and mammals, and it will revolutionise research methods based on molecular markers.

Molecular phylogenetic analyses show that the Stephanorhinus rhinoceros comes from a group related to the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). This shows that Coelodonta evolved from a primitive representative of Stephanorhinus which, therefore, has at least two evolutionary lines.

This rearrangement of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a mere small adjustment, but the identification of changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans may lead to a new understanding of how the world has evolved. The discovery may enable scientists from all over the world to collect genetic data  from ancient fossils and construct a larger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species, including our own.

Bibliographic reference. Cappellini et al., “Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny”, Nature  (2019).

Brazilian capuchin monkeys stone use may show similarities with earlier hominin activities

An international team investigate primates looking for clues about hominin technological development and to learn more about the use of pounding stones by Homo antecessor (dated ca. 1 Ma). These primates have been observed using stones to crack open nuts or dig holes looking for spiders or roots.

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Fossils and stone tools are key findings unearthed at any archaeological site focused on human evolution studies, however, behavior does not fossilize, and it is not possible to observe hominins using their tools. Thus, primatology plays an important role, as the study of modern primates can help us to understand the behavior of the earliest human populations. In this context, an international research team is focused on the analysis of capuchin monkeys from Serra da Capivara, in Brazil. The main goal is to investigate the use-wear marks developed on the stone tools used by these monkeys and build a theoretical model that could help to understand the emergence of hominin behavior.

“There are around 30 individuals (capuchin monkeys) that live in the wild across the Oitenta area at Serra da Capivara”, explain Adrián Arroyo, a Juan de la Cierva fellow at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and specialised in functional studies of prehistoric tools through the analysis of the marks left on them. Dr Arroyo, who compared on his PhD pounding tools from African sites (Olduvai Gorge and West Turkana) and stones used by chimpanzees, is currently applying this methodological approach to the objects found at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Burgos), used by Homo antecessor, species that was discovered here for the first time and is dated to ca. 1 Ma.

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Brazilian capuchin monkeys at Serra da Capivara, in Brazil – Tomos Proffitt (UCL)

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“The study of capuchin monkeys can help us to understand those activities that our ancestors could do by comparing the stone tools used by these primates and the ones identified in archaeological places like Atapuerca, although this methodology can also be applied to the earliest stages of human evolution. In fact, this is one research field with a great potential, as it can be used to interpret the beginning of the technology, how did it emerge as well as investigate if before stone flaking, the use of stones was already assumed by hominins, and how they began knapping stone tools”, explain Adrián Arroyo.

Hominin activities are investigated through the use of microscopic and functional studies, a discipline that allows researchers to observe the traces developed on the stones tools after being used and compare them to the ones identified on other experimental reference collections. Thus, continuing the functional studies developed at IPHES, a group of stone used by capuchin monkeys from Serra da Capivara will be studied, allowing the researchers to understand their tools and will help to understand potential activities carried out within the earliest stages of Atapuerca.

This study is part of an international project funded by the Leakey Foundation and led by Dr Tomos Proffitt, British Academy Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology (University College London). Team members are Dr Adrián Arroyo (IPHES), Dr Lydia Luncz (Oxford University) and Dr Tiago Falótico (Sao Paulo University). As well as collaborators, Prof Ignacio de la Torre (UCL), Prof Sonia Harmand and Dr Nicholas Taylor (Stoney Book University).

“At Serra da Capivara we re-visit those places where the monkeys have done their activities. They use stones to crack nuts, dig holes to search for spiders or roots, they also hit others stones to pulverize the surface and lick the dust produced, in fact, this activity is still investigated to determine why they do it”.

During the field season, the team map the stones that have been used by the monkeys and document their position as it is done in an archaeological site. The main difference is that in this case, the tool users are present. “It is quite a new research line within human evolution studies, especially because till now there were no systematic studies of the stones used by primates from an archaeological perspective. There were quite a number of behavioral studies, but very few about their lithic technology”, detail Adrián Arroyo.

The systematic research of capuchin monkeys from an archaeological perspective began in 2012 in Oxford. Before then, archaeologist did not have access to the archaeological signature made by capuchin monkeys in order to identify similarities and differences with the hominin record. Thus, thanks to the collaboration with this international team, functional studies of hominin stones tools developed at IPHES are increased now with stones used by primates.