Category Archives: General

Oldest ever human genetic evidence clarifies dispute over our ancestors

Genetic material from an 800.000-year-old human fossil has been retrieved for the first time. The results from the University of Copenhagen shed light on one of the branching points in the human family tree, reaching much further back in time than previously possible.

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An important advancement in human evolution studies has been achieved after scientists retrieved one of the oldest human genetic data set from an 800.000-year-old tooth belonging to the hominin species Homo antecessor.

The findings by scientists from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), in collaboration with colleagues from the CENIEH (National Research Center on Human Evolution) in Burgos Spain, the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), and the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV)and other institutions, are published today April 1, 2020 in Nature.

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Digital reconstruction of specimen ATD6-69 from the Homo antecessor collection. Computerized microtomography (mico-CT) techniques were used to perform this reconstruction. Credit: Prof. Laura Martín-Francés

“Ancient protein analysis provides evidence for a close relationship between Homo antecessor, us (Homo sapiens), Neanderthals, and Denisovans. Our results support the idea that Homo antecessor was a sister group to the group containing Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, although we have to assume that the phylogenetic trees we have obtained are a good descriptor of the overall population relationships among these hominin groups.” says Frido Welker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and first author on the paper.

Reconstructing the human family tree
By using a technique called mass spectrometry, researchers sequenced ancient proteins from dental enamel, and confidently determined the position of Homo antecessor in the human family tree.

The new molecular method developed by researchers at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, enables scientists to retrieve molecular evidence to accurately reconstruct human evolution from further back in time than ever before.

The human and the chimpanzee lineages split from each other about 9-7 million years ago. Scientists have relentlessly aimed to better understand the evolutionary relations between our species and the others, all now extinct, in the human lineage.

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A tooth of Homo antecessor was studied using ancient protein analysis. Credit: Prof. José María Bermúdez de Castro.

“Much of what we know so far is based either on the results of ancient DNA analysis, or on observations of the shape and the physical structure of fossils. Because of the chemical degradation of DNA over time, the oldest human DNA retrieved so far is dated at no more than approximately 400.000 years”, says Enrico Cappellini, Associate Professor at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and leading author on the paper.

“Now, the analysis of ancient proteins with mass spectrometry, an approach commonly known as palaeoproteomics, allow us to overcome these limits”, he adds.

Theories on human evolution

The fossils analyzed by the researchers were found by palaeoanthropologist José María Bermúdez de Castro and his team in 1994 in stratigraphic level TD6 from the Gran Dolina cave site, one of the archaeological and paleontological sites of the Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain.

Initial observations led to conclude that Homo antecessor was the last common ancestor to modern humans and Neanderthals, a conclusion based on the physical shape and appearance of the fossils. In the following years, the exact relation between Homo antecessor and other human groups, like ourselves and Neanderthals, has been discussed intensely among anthropologists.

Although the hypothesis that Homo antecessor could be the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans is very difficult to fit into the evolutionary scenario of the genus Homo, new findings in TD6 and subsequent studies revealed several characters shared among the human species found in Atapuerca and the Neanderthals. In addition, new studies confirmed that the facial features of Homo antecessor are very similar to those of Homo sapiens and very different from those of the Neanderthals and their more recent ancestors.

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Gran Dolina preserves a long-term record of Pleistocene hominin populations. Credit: Prof. José María Bermúdez de Castro.

“I am happy that the protein study provides evidence that the Homo antecessor species may be closely related to the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. The features shared by Homo antecessor with these hominins clearly appeared much earlier than previously thought. Homo antecessor would therefore be a basal species of the emerging humanity formed by Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans”, adds José María Bermúdez de Castro, Scientific Co-director of the excavations in Atapuerca and co-corresponding author on the paper.

World class-expertise

Findings like these are made possible through an extensive collaboration between different research fields: from paleoanthropology to biochemistry, proteomics and population genomics.

Retrieval of ancient genetic material from the rarest fossil specimens requires top quality expertise and equipment. This is the reason behind the now ten-years-long strategic collaboration between Enrico Cappellini and Jesper Velgaard Olsen, Professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, University of Copenhagen and co-author on the paper.

“This study is an exciting milestone in palaeoproteomics. Using state of the art mass spectrometry, we determine the sequence of amino acids within protein remains from Homo antecessor dental enamel. We can then compare the ancient protein sequences we ‘read’ to those of other hominins, for example Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, to determine how they are genetically related”, says Jesper Velgaard Olsen.

“I really look forward to seeing what palaeoproteomics will reveal in the future”, concludes Enrico Cappellini.

The study of human evolution by palaeoproteomics will continue in the next years through the recently established EU-funded “Palaeoproteomics to Unleash Studies on Human History (PUSHH)” Marie S. Curie European Training Network (ETN), led by Enrico Cappellini, and involving many of the co-authors on the paper.
The research is mainly funded by VILLUM FONDEN, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and the Marie Sklowowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship and International Training Network programmes.

Excavations and research of the Sierra de Atapuerca sites, in Spain, are funded by the Spanish “Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades”, “Consejería de Cultura” of the the “Junta de Castilla y León”, and the “Fundación Atapuerca”.

 

Eudald Carbonell: “Coronavirus Covid-19 is the last warning: if we don’t make decisions, it will be the collapse of our species”

“This is not just a health crisis. It is a social and universal crisis. It is the collapse of a system that has not risen to the challenge of structural change when we had the first warnings a few years ago”.

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In 2008 my book La consciencia que crema (The Burning Conscience) finished with the following words: “I seriously think that the next big revolution will not be scientific or technical. The next revolution will be the triumph of the species thanks to the deployment of an operational critical consciousness of the species. Otherwise, all we can expect is the collapse of the species and extinction.”  I finished in this way because we have already lived through events such as the missile crisis and the Iraq War which had us with our backs to the wall and were a wake-up call to the need to preserve what I refer to as the critical consciousness of the species. At these moments, humanity was aware of global risks and expressed a universal consciousness that forced people into the street. They were reacting not to the cause of a particular country or social class but to the consciousness of the species.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves immersed in a crisis that will determine how we face the future. In this process, the critical consciousness of the species must be above any other interest. This means that we have to behave consciously in the knowledge that all the humans on planet Earth are Homo sapiens and, therefore, we all belong to the same species, to one culture and to a historic moment. We are the only animals who can do this and we have to do it critically (that’s to say, not dogmatically). We also have to integrate diversity and cooperate, not compete.

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Eudald Carbonell working at home these days – IPHES

I also mentioned that for several decades now we have been faced with many challenges that we need to rise to if we are to prevent our system from collapsing: demographic growth, problems of energy distribution, the need to organise and socialise the scientific-technical revolution, and now the coronavirus.

In my opinion, if we are to get through this difficult time and prevent similar situations in the future, we need to set up mechanisms of collaboration and interdependence the world over. For example, Europe has shown that the nation states that make it up are weak. We have seen Germany refusing to send medical material to Italy when the first thing that must be done is to transfer information. The European Union (EU) has been an economic unification but not a social one. Now, within Spain, the same thing is happening between Catalonia and the government of Pedro Sánchez, which is holding back medical material and not sending it on to where it was requested.

So this is not just a health crisis; it is also a social and universal crisis that is forcing us to take a long, hard look at ourselves. It is the collapse of a system brought about by not having made structural changes a few years ago when we had our first warnings. But the way we acted was disloyal to the species and to ourselves.

This time the disaster is a medical one which, thanks to technical and scientific advances, we will manage to get over. However, the ensuing economic havoc, the result of a lack of social cohesion, will be so great that we will be obliged to take many decisions. If we don’t, the next time will not be a warning: it will be the collapse of the species.

Eudald Carbonell, archaeologist, researcher of the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), professor of Prehistory of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and vice-president of the Atapuerca Foundation.

Robert Sala: “Thanks for all Ofer. We will miss you”

We at IPHES have received his influence and enjoyed with his participation in meetings at Tarragona

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Ofer Bar-Yosef – Jordi Mestre/IPHES

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Sad news are coming from Israel. Our friend and colleague Ofer Bar-Yosef, Professor emeritus of Prehistoric Archaeology at Harvard University passed away yesterday.
My thoughts go to his family and his colleagues in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel-Aviv. Our warm regards to all of them.
We all have lost a good friend who encouraged all us.
His research was unusually wide in scope and interests going from early human evolution to the rise of farmers. Always interested in the turning points on human history.

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Ofer Bar-Yosef with Eudald Carbonell (IPHES-URV), Robert Sala (IPHES-URV) and Deborah Barsky (IPHES-URV), at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2012 – Jordi Mestre/IPHES

Many people and research groups all around the world are in debt to his work in producing, organising and promoting research.
We at IPHES have received his influence and enjoyed with his participation in meetings at Tarragona and at the workshop The last neandertals the first anatomically modern humans (Abric Romaní, Capellades, Barcelona, 1995).
Thanks for all Ofer. We will miss you.
Sit tibi terra levis

Robert Sala Ramos, Director, Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES)

 

 

IPHES will be officially closing the institute from next Monday March 16 and for a period of two weeks, until March 29

The objective is to avoid the Coronavirus to spread to people in risk and to reduce the infected zones and the health system collapse

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To be in agreement with the decree from the Catalan government affecting our university framework we strongly recommend to work at home, when possible. The Research Secretary of the Catalan Government has sent a document prohibiting the close work meetings, all the formative activities that requires physical presence of the people and to reduce all the mobility. Now we know that all Catalan schools and universities will close the lecture activity from March 13, including Rovira i Virgili. In such a situation, we at IPHES will be officially closing the institute from next Monday March 16 and for a period of two weeks, until March 29.

The situation is very serious and the objective of all these measures is to avoid the infection to spread to people in risk and to reduce the infected zones and the health system collapse.

Thank you all for your comprehension and cooperation

Robert Sala Ramos, Director, Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social

 

An Israeli and Catalan team is trying to solve the mysteries surrounding the presence of 1.5 million-year-old stone balls at some sites

This collaboration is led by the IPHES and is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation

It is presently unknown how these tools were developed or what they were used for and high-tech 3D artifact analysis will be used for this research

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Stone balls are present in some Oldowan and Acheulian stone-tool assemblages, the oldest human cultural complexes known to humankind, dating to around 1.5 million years old. Their presence has puzzled researchers for more than half a century and still, little is known about how and why they acquired this shape, or what their uses might have been. Although some in the scientific community believe that these tools, known as spheroids, were intentionally manufactured, others claim that their form was obtained accidentally through percussion activities. In addition, some researchers have proposed that their morphology must reflect a specific function, or perhaps even some kind of social or symbolic norm.

Scanned 3D image of a limestone spheroid from the ‘Ubeidiya archeo-paleontological site (Israel) with associated dimensional data.

Now, a team of Catalan and Israeli specialists will try to find answers to the questions surrounding spheroids, by analyzing more than 200 spheroidal morphotypes found in the ‘Ubeidiya site (Israel). They want to find out if these objects were intentionally manufactured using a specific operating sequence, whether they are the result of heavy use for pounding, or if they were used as hammerstones. Different experiments are planned to obtain results helping to determine whether or not spheroids are the result of a complex cultural scheme involving mental planning.

Doctoral students Antoine Muller (HUJI) and Stefania Titton (URV) at Computational Archeology Laboratory of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzing digital images obtained from ‘Ubeidiya spheroids (Photos D. Barsky).

This is the aim of the Lower Paleolithic Spheroids Project (LPSP), directed by IPHES researcher Deborah Barsky (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and associate professor at the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona), in collaboration with the Computational Archeology Laboratory of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CAL-HUJI, Israel) and Tel Hai College (Upper Galilee); funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation (Germany).

Robert Sala, Josep Maria Vergès and Stefania Titton are among participating members from the IPHES and the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona), with Leore Grosman and Antoine Muller from CAL-HUJI, and Gonen Sharon from THC.

This international team aims to apply the new analytical methodologies offered by the Computational Archeology Laboratory (CAL) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) to study a set of over 200 spheroidal limestone tools from the Early Acheulian site of ‘Ubeidiya (Israel), dating to around 1.5 million years ago, with the purpose of developing a methodological holotype for future interpretations.

Conference by Stefania Titton: “The Barranco León site (Orce, Spain) and the European Oldowan” was attended by students and professors of the Department of archeology of the HUJI.

In the first phase of this project, Deborah Barsky, lead project researcher, and Stefania Titton (a URV doctoral student), recently traveled to Jerusalem to work with experts from the CAL (HUJI) to create high precision 3D digitized artifact models for the geometric morphometry study using the associated computer software, developed and provided by this institute. Also during this visit, Stefania Titton delivered a conference about European Oldowan technology, attended by members of the Department of Archeology of the HUJI.

The next phase of the project will be to experimentally reproduce spheroid morphologies using the same limestone as that of the ‘Ubeidiya site. This investigation will allow the researchers to compile computer data obtained from digital reproduction of both the archeological and experimental spheroids. This data will be stored and shared among researchers working on similar topics.

Contributions from this project are expected to provide an operative multidisciplinary methodology to define and analyze spheroids more objectively, broadening our understanding of their presence during the Oldowan to Acheulian transition in the global archeological record.

IPHES and URV participate in the study of two new skulls of Homo erectus up to 1.5 million-years-old

The skulls were presented today in the Science Advances journal

These new skulls were found at Gona, in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, close to the area where “Lucy” was discovered

The researcher Isabel Cáceres analyzed the fossil remains found next to these skulls and confirmed mammal exploitation by these hominins

The association of Oldowan and Acheulian tools with these crania endorses a cultural and behavioral complexity of this species that has yet to be fully understood

DAN5 cranium, the smallest skull of Homo erectus recovered in Africa. Photo: Michael J. Rogers/SCSU.

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Two new skulls of Homo erectus found at Gona (Ethiopia) were published today in the Science Advances journal by an international team led by Sileshi Semaw, researcher at CENIEH (Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana) (Burgos, Spain) and Michael Rogers at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) (USA), where Dr. Isabel Caceres, researcher from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) (Tarragona, Catalonia), participates since 2013. Gona is located in the Afar Triangle that is beside to the well-known study areas of Middle Awash and Hadar, where the famous skeletons “Ardi” and “Lucy” were found, respectively.

One of these skulls is a nearly-complete hominin cranium estimated to ~1.5 million years (Ma) ago and was discovered at the site of Dana Aoule North (DAN5). The other one is a partial cranium dated to ~1.26 Ma ago and was recovered from the Busidima North site (BSN12).

Cutmark on a medium-sized long bone from DAN5 related to defleshing activities.

DAN5 cranium has the smallest endocranial volume documented for H. erectus in Africa, about 590 cubic centimeters. This skull is gracile and bears some similarities with the small individuals discovered at Dmanisi (Georgia). The BSN12 partial cranium is robust and large (800-900 cc.) similar to OH9 individual from Olduvai Gorge. The small size of the DAN5 cranium suggests that it could belong to a female individual and, therefore, that H. erectus was probably a sexually dimorphic species.

Map of the Gona study area showing locations of BSN12 and DAN5.

Both crania were associated with simple Oldowan-type (Mode 1) and more complex Acheulian (Mode 2) stone tool assemblages. Thus, instead of finding only the expected large handaxes or picks (tools typically associated with H. erectus), the Gona team found both well-made handaxes and plenty of less-complex Oldowan tools and cores. This suggests that Homo erectus had a degree of cultural/behavioral plasticity that has yet to be fully understood.

Oldowan (a) and Acheulian (b) stone tools recovered in DAN5. Photo: Michael J. Rogers/SCSU.

The hominins at both sites lived close to ancient rivers, in an environment with riverine woodlands adjacent to open habitats. The low δ13C isotope value from the DAN5 cranium (from the right molar) is consistent with a diet dominated by C3 plants (trees and shrubs, and/or animals that ate these plants) or, alternatively, by broad spectrum omnivore.

Isabel Cáceres studied the taphonomy of the faunal remains from the deposits where the two skulls were found, that is, the study of bone surface modifications the fossils present. While in BSN12 no anthropic evidences were identified, in DAN5 the use of stone tools was evident in defleshing and marrow consumption activities in animals of different size. This implies that H. erectus butchered large, medium and small mammals, although it has not been established whether these were obtained by hunting.

Isabel Cáceres during fieldwork at Gona sites.

In conclusion, DAN5 and BSN12 sites at Gona are among the earliest examples of H. erectus associated with Oldowan and Acheulian stone tool assemblages. The investigations carried out at Gona have clearly shown that Oldowan technology persisted much longer after the invention of the Acheulian. This is an indicative of a particular behavioral flexibility and cultural complexity of H. erectus.

The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the Western Mediterranean

IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology department, have collaborated in this research

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The Mediterranean Sea has been a major route for maritime migrations as well as frequent trade during prehistory, yet the genetic history of the Mediterranean islands is not well documented despite recent developments in the study of ancient DNA.

An international team led by Researchers from the University of Vienna, Harvard University and University of Florence, Italy, is filling in the gaps with the largest study to date of the genetic history of ancient populations of Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, increasing the number of individuals with reported data from 5 to 66.

The results reveal a complex pattern of immigration from Africa, Asia and Europe which varied in direction and timing for each of these islands. IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology unit, have collaborated in this research. Beatriz Gamarra, now postdoctoral fellow Beatriu de Pinós at IPHES, during her previous period at University College of Dublin (UCD, Ireland), prepared some of the bone samples that were later analyzed by the leading authors of this research in the ancient DNA laboratories of UCD, University of Vienna and Harvard University. Marina Lozano, IPHES researcher and Associate Professor at URV, analyzed the human remains of Cave 127 (Formentera) providing the samples of these individuals and the anthropological context of this site.

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Beatriz Gamarra (left) with Marina Lozano, IPHES researchers

Some of the paper’s most striking findings concern the island of Sardinia. Despite contacts and trade with other Mediterranean populations, ancient Sardinians retained a mostly local Neolithic ancestry profile until the end of the Bronze Age.

However, during the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, one of the studied individuals was of entirely of North African ancestry. Together with two Iberians reported in 2019, this new more than 1% of studied individuals from southern Europe from the Copper and Bronze Ages were part of immigrant families from North Africa.

“Our results show that maritime migrations from North Africa were widespread and important long before the era of the eastern Mediterranean seafaring civilizations and moreover were occurring in multiple parts of the Mediterranean”, says Ron Pinhasi, a co-senior author of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

During the Iron Age expansion and establishment of Greek and Phoenician colonies, the Sardinian individuals analyzed from that period had little, if any, ancestry from the previous long-established populations.

“Despite these population fluxes, modern Sardinians retained 56-62% of ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers that arrived in Europe around 8000 years ago”, says David Caramelli a co-senior author, and Director of Department of Biology at the University of Florence.

The team’s results on Sardinia are fully consistent with the findings of another paper on ancient Sardinian genetics published on the same day in the journal Nature Communication and led by John Novembre, Johannes Krause and colleagues.

The paper also goes beyond Sardinia to understand population changes in other central and western Mediterranean islands.

“One of the most striking findings concerns the arrival of ancestry that ultimately came from the Russian Steppe. While the ultimate origin of this ancestry was Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean islands much of it arrived from the west, and in fact we can pinpoint Iberia as its specific source”, says David Reich, a co-senior author at Harvard University, who is also an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “This was likely also the case for the Balearic Islands, in which some early residents probably derived at least part of their ancestry from Iberia”, says first author Daniel Fernandes, of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

Sicily was also impacted from the east by a different movement. People with ancestry related to ancient Greek “Mycenaeans” reached Sicily at a time overlapping the period of Mycenaean trade connections to the island. An important direction for future ancient DNA work will be to determine whether it was Greek migrants, or people from further east in the Mediterranean, who carried this ancestry to Sicily.

Reference

Fernandes, D.M., and alter 2020. “The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the western Mediterranean”. Nature Ecology and Evolution.