TIME anthropology

The Lost Hobbits of the Eastern Arctic

Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos
Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos University of Aberdeen/Qantiruuq, Inc

Scientists never understood what became of the Paleo-Eskimos who once peopled the north. Now they know—and there's new reason to miss them

Every indigenous group European explorers found when they first reached the Americas, from the Aztecs to the Inca to the Maya to the obscure Taino people were descended from a hardy bunch of immigrants who trekked over from Siberia more than 12,000 years ago, then spread east and south from there.

But when the Vikings began visiting Greenland and Baffin Island they bumped up against an indigenous group with a very different heritage—the Arctic dwelling people formerly known as Eskimos and now mostly called the Inuit. Based on archaeological evidence, scientists had established that they first came over from Siberia about 6,000 years ago and spread eastward across the very northernmost reaches of Canada, on the margins of the Arctic Ocean.

Then about 700 years ago, these so-called Paleo-Eskimos, gave way to a newer group known as the Thule culture. They displaced the earlier arrivals, just as our own invading ancestors had displaced the Neanderthals in Europe some 40,000 years earlier. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether the Paleo-Eskimos (or the Dorset, the name given to the last stage of Paleo-Eskimo cultural evolution) were simply absorbed into this new, more modern culture or whether, they vanished from the Earth, as the Neanderthals did.

But now it is, thanks to new paper in Science. Based on genetic analysis of 169 ancient human remains from Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, along with genome analyses of modern indigenous people, the authors can say definitively that the Paleo-Eskimos did indeed vanish; that the Inuit people who live in the North American Arctic today are the direct descendants of the Thule invaders; and that neither group is related to the Native American tribes that came to inhabit the rest of the Americas.

Exactly how the Dorset people were overwhelmed is unclear. Unlike the Neanderthals, they evidently didn’t mate with the invaders. “In other places,” said co-author Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen’s National Museum of Natural History, at a press briefing, “we see people meeting, maybe fighting, but also having sex with each other.”

But the Paleo-Eskimos were genetically distinct. “There is some genetic admixture with the Thule,” said lead author Maanasa Raghavan, also at the Center for GeoGenetics “but it happened thousands of years earlier, most likely in the Old World.”

Instead, argued co-author William Fitzhugh, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, “they were probably just overwhelmed.” The Thule, he explained, had bows and arrows, dogsleds and large whaling crews he calls “almost military” in their organization. The Dorset, by contrast, had much simpler tools, and lived in small, isolated villages.

“Socially and technologically,” he said, “they were no match for this Thule machine that spread across their territory in less than 100 years.” They were either pushed out into fringes where couldn’t survive, or they were annihilated, he said.

Until that happened, however, the Paleo-Eskimos were an astonishing success story, given that they endured in the harshest of climates, without major disruption for a staggering 5,000 years. It’s extraordinary, said Fitzhugh, that they maintained genomic and cultural continuity over such a long period, while other world cultures were going through radical changes.

“One might almost say,” said Fitzhugh,”that they were the Hobbits of the eastern Arctic—a strange, isolated, conservative people whose history we’re just starting to get to know.”

TIME Archaeology

What Bronze Age Wine Snobs Drank

Remains of a Bonze Age happy hour
Remains of a Bonze Age happy hour Andrew Koh

There were some fine vintages 3,000 years ago, and a new study reveals how ancient mixologists made them finer still

It’s hardly news that the ancients drank wine — the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all imbibed, as did pretty much any other civilization in which alcohol wasn’t prohibited for religious reasons. “We have written records,” says Brandeis University archaeologist Andrew Koh. “We’ve found jars marked ‘wine.’ We’ve found wine residues. It’s pictured everywhere.”

That being the case, you might think a cache of 40 wine jars unearthed from a room in the Bronze Age Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, which stood more than 3,600 years ago in what’s now modern Israel, would be no big deal.

But you’d be wrong. “In the past,” says Koh, lead author of a paper describing the discovery in the latest issue of the journal PLOS One, “we wouldn’t have been able to say much more than ‘this is a bunch of containers that held wine.’”

Thanks to an unprecedentedly sophisticated analysis of the deposits inside those containers, however, Koh, who has a joint appointment in Brandeis’ Classical Studies and Chemistry Departments, along with two colleagues, can conclude much more, specifically that the wine was flavored with — deep breath, now — honey, storax resin, terebinth resin, cedar oil, cyperus, juniper and possibly mint, myrtle and cinnamon as well.

Not only that: on one side of the room, the wine was mostly unflavored; in the middle, it contained about half that long list of ingredients; and in a small adjoining room it contained them all. In fact, Koh and his colleagues think this wasn’t really a storage facility at all. It was a sort of kitchen, where wine was brought in from the surrounding area — the jars were made from local clay — and a brewmaster of some sort subtly flavored them before they were served in the banquet hall next door.

“We’ve known about the existence of these complex wines for a long time,” says Koh, “and we’ve even got recipes. But to find examples of the actual wines, that’s what makes the science so compelling.”

The additives aside, the wine itself was the same from jar to jar. That, plus the fact that wine was generally not saved from one season to the next, led Koh and his co-authors to conclude that it was all from a single year’s vintage. And that particular vintage clearly never made it into the banquet hall — almost certainly because an earthquake collapsed the walls, breaking the jars and spilling what was inside.

Although this palace stood — and perhaps fell — on what is now Israeli soil, it wasn’t an Israelite palace. Biblical chronology suggests that the Jews were slaves in Egypt at the time. During the Exodus, when Moses led his people to the Promised Land of milk and honey, it was people like these winemakers they ended up conquering.

The excavations at Tel Kabri aren’t over. Koh and his team will return next year, and, he says, “We’re confident we’ll find other rooms, maybe with jars of olive oil. We might also find statues, jewelry, the kind of stuff the public likes.”

That’s not what the archaeologists care about, however. “We’re more interested,” Koh says, “in knowing how people lived.”

TIME space

Evidence of Absolutely Enormous Dead Stars Discovered

Astronomers have a pretty good idea about what the first stars in the universe must have looked like. Theorists say they should have been gigantic, weighing in at anywhere from 20 times the mass of the Sun all the way up to 100 Suns’ worth of material or more. These giants would have burned far hotter than our own star, and far faster as well. The Sun, for example will live for about 10 billion years (it’s about half that old now), but the first stars should have torn through their fuel supply in just a few million years before blowing themselves apart in gigantic explosions.

Unfortunately, it all happened more than 13 billion years ago, and while powerful new instruments like NASA’s partially built James Webb Space Telescope might one day be able to to pick out the light of these mammoth stars, still streaming faintly across the universe after all that time, there’s no way at present to image them directly.

But a team of observers is now reporting in Science that they’ve picked up the telltale signature of the most massive of those first stars. “They’ve been predicted for years, but never seen before,” says Timothy Beers, of Notre Dame, one of the report’s co-authors. To be precise, they still haven’t seen the stars themselves; instead, the astronomers detected their chemical signatures, imprinted on a second generation of stars born just a bit later. Because they’re trying to understand a long-lost era of cosmic history indirectly, Beers and his colleagues call their field “stellar archaeology,”

Those second-generation stars were for more modest in terms of size and temperature and much slower-burning, which has allowed some of them to survive right up to the present. That includes SDSS J0018-0939, the star described in the new Science paper. It’s somewhat less massive than the Sun, and it’s relatively deficient in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

That’s a clue that it was formed early in the life of the universe.

Right after the Big Bang, those heavier elements, including everything from oxygen to carbon to silicon to iron, didn’t even exist; they were created in the nuclear furnaces at the cores of stars (which means that the calcium in your bones and the carbohydrates in your breakfast cereal were manufactured inside a star, long ago). For historical reasons, astronomers call any elements heavier than helium “metals” (carbon and nitrogen count as metals in astronomical jargon.)

Those “metals” were spread far and wide when the original stars exploded and incorporated into new stars, and since stars have been forming and exploding for billions of years now, those that formed relatively recently, such as the Sun, are relatively metal-rich. “Our Sun,” says Beers, “is a is a bucket into which the entire history of chemical evolution was poured.”

Stars that formed early on, by contrast, when there was still mostly just hydrogen and helium to be had, are metal-poor. SDSS J0018-0939 is one of them—but given its metal-poor status, it has a surprisingly large amount of iron. And given what theorists know about star formation and evolution, the only place it could have come from so early in the lifetime of the universe was the core of a gigantic star.

The evidence that such stars really did exist is still circumstantial, but that’s a lot better than being purely theoretical. It also adds to a growing understanding of what the universe must have looked like when the stars first turned on. Earlier efforts at stellar archaeology had yielded circumstantial evidence of much smaller (but still huge) first-generation stars, which were unusually rich in carbon rather than iron.

But to understand how the modern universe began to take shape, and how the galaxies came form out of the diffuse gases that dominated the earliest years of the cosmos, astronomers need to know the range of sizes those first stars came in—because how they lived and how they died set the stage for what would come afterward.

“It’s a complicated story,” says Beers, “but it’s incredibly interesting. You’re talking objects that exploded 13 billion years ago. I find it remarkable,” he admits, “that the question can be addressed at all.”



TIME Research

Humans and Neanderthals Were Actually Neighbors

Paleontologists know plenty about our nearest human cousins, the Neanderthals. They know that this highly successful species walked the Earth for some 300,000 years (we’ve been around for less than 200,000). They know the Neanderthals kept their caves surprisingly tidy; that they ate things other than raw meat; that they practiced recycling, wore jewelry and were generally much more sophisticated than their popular reputation would suggest.

Yet it didn’t take long after our own species invaded their last known outpost in Europe that the Neanderthals went utterly extinct. Now a new paper in Nature suggests it happened over a period of between 2,600 and 5,400 years or so—which is twice as fast as anyone had thought. The two groups did, evidently, coexist: “They lived in Europe at the same time,” says lead author Tom Higham, of Oxford, “although they were spatially separated. It was like a mosaic.” Agrees William Davies, of the University of Southampton, who wrote a commentary on the new research, also in Nature, “It’s not a neat story. It’s quite complex.”

The key to the new analysis was an unusually large sample of human and Neanderthal remains from 40 different sites across Europe, along with improved methods for filtering out contaminants from the samples before attempting to date them. In many cases, the remains weren’t bones but rather stone tools thought to characteristic of one species or the other—so-called Mousterian and Châtelperronian tools for the Neanderthals and Uluzzian tools for our own ancestors.

That raises, if not a red flag, then at least a sort of pinkish one, according to Davies. “In the old days, we had very few assemblages of tools, so it was quite easy to say that Mousterian tools represented Neanderthals, while tools with longer blades reflect anatomically modern humans.” But with more and more tools in their collections, paleontologists have become less sure. “The whole thing has become more blurred and less certain.”

The new analysis doesn’t depend entirely on who made what tools, however, and, says Davies, “the areas they’ve chosen to analyze are places where we can be more confident than most.” What makes the work so potentially important, he says, is that it gives a much finer-grained picture than ever before of where Neanderthals and modern humans lived and when, and how those patterns changed as Neanderthal numbers dwindled, then vanished.

That in turn will help anthropologists figure out how the Neanderthals vanished—what force or forces drove them extinct by about 40,000 years ago. “We think the Neanderthals had very low population numbers when modern humans arrived,” says Higham, perhaps in part because Europe was in the throes of an Ice Age at the time, so they were struggling against harsh conditions that couldn’t support large numbers of individuals. Modern humans, Higham observes, had been living in Africa, which was much more benign. “Modern humans also seemed to have more modern technology,” he says, “which wouldn’t have been a huge advantage, but over the long duration might have given them an edge.”

Scientists also know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred at some level, which is why about 2% of our genes, on average, are Neanderthal in origin. The details of those interactions are still completely unknown—for now, anyway. “For me,” says Davies, “the big achievement here is that we now have a way of getting much more information out of both skeletal and archaeological remains. We can look at the molecular level on genetic inheritance, movement patterns, even what they were eating.”

The mystery of when and where the Neanderthals made their last stand may be just about wrapped up. And the answer to why they disappeared might not be a mystery for much longer.


TIME astronomy

Black Holes? I’ll Take a Medium, Please

A mosaic image of the starburst galaxy Messier 82. NASA-ESA/AP

Scientists may have identified an intermediate-sized black hole for the very first time

In one sense, black holes are just ridiculously exotic. Their surface gravity is so powerful that even something as fast as light can’t escape (that’s why they’re black). And what’s actually inside a black hole isn’t just strange: it’s literally indescribable by any known law of physics.

But while they’re among the strangest things in the universe, they aren’t especially uncommon. Astronomers now know that black holes with the mass of millions or even billions of stars lurk at the cores of most galaxies, including the Milky Way, while much smaller black holes, containing just a few tens of stars’ worth of matter, are scattered all over the known universe.

In theory, there’s no reason intermediate-size black holes shouldn’t exist as well, with masses of a few hundred or a few thousand stars. But so far, despite some tantalizing hints, nobody has definitively found one. That may just have changed, however: a new report in Nature has flagged just such an object in the nearby galaxy Messier 82, which lies about 12 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Big Dipper.

The black hole in question weighs about 400 times as much as the Sun, and is “just amazing” in the words of co-discoverer Richard Mushotzky, of the University of Maryland. That’s true for several reasons; the first is that this object, known as M82 X-1, has been known about for years because it shines brightly in the X-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum. That marked it from the start as a candidate black hole, since these voracious cosmic vacuum cleaners suck in gas at such a prodigious rate that the infalling matter heats to the kinds of temperatures that generate X-rays.

Astronomers also knew from the brightness of those rays that M82 X-1 was most plausibly a black hole of intermediate mass–somewhere above 100 but less than a thousand solar masses. The problem: while astronomers know how a small black hole forms (it’s created when a massive star dies in a supernova explosion), it’s not clear how a black hole of more than 50 or so solar masses comes to be.

That put a premium on making sure they truly had the mass right, and lead author Dheeraj Pasham, a Maryland grad student, used a novel technique to figure out what that mass must be. Astronomers have noted that the X-rays from small black holes in the Milky Way pulsate with a characteristic rhythm that is a consequence of general relativity. “It’s kind of complicated,” Mushotzky says. “You don’t really want to know.”

The rate of the pulsations depends on the mass of the black hole, and by carefully analyzing observations from NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer satellite, Pasham was able to do that calculation with unprecedented precision. “It took a lot of work,” says Mushotzky. “It was not easy to do.”

But they did it, and Mushotzky says the resulting mass—428 times the mass of the sun, if you’re counting—is a reasonably precise figure. “I wouldn’t bet my house on it,” he says. “But I might bet my car.”

If that answer holds up, it could help solve a longstanding mystery of astrophysics. There’s no way a multi-million- or billion-solar-mass black hole could form directly. The giants that lie at the cores of galaxies must have built up over time, from small seeds. But if the seeds were only a few tens of Suns in mass, it’s hard to see how they could have grown quickly enough to reach full size by just a billion years after the Big Bang–which they nevertheless did.

A black hole like M82 X-1 would have given those giants a head start, however. So it’s tantalizing to wonder if this and other objects like it may be leftovers from the earliest days of the cosmos—the potential seeds of giant black holes that somehow failed to sprout, and which are still hanging around in their original form.

If so, they’re like living fossils from the earliest period of cosmic history. It’s an idea Mushotzky calls “highly speculative at this point.” But it’s also highly intriguing.

TIME space

Cosmic First: Spacecraft Orbits Comet—With Plans to Land

Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail
Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail European Space Agency

Watching comets from a distance is one thing. Riding along with one for more than a year—not to mention landing on it—is something else entirely

Space scientists have scrutinized comets with Earthly telescopes. They’ve watched from afar as one comet self-destructed and slammed into Jupiter, and as another committed hara kiri by venturing too close to the Sun. They’ve even sent space probes to whiz by comets at high speed, trying to unravel their still mysterious nature. Until now, however, nobody has attempted the daredevil stunt of inserting a space probe into orbit around a comet and following with the even riskier maneuver of sending a lander down to scratch and sniff at its ancient, murky surface.

But that’s exactly what the scientists and engineers behind the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission have just accomplished—or the first part, anyway. On August 6 at about 7:00 A.M. ET, after more than ten years in pursuit, Rosetta caught up with and began circling a bulbous comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimernko (mercifully called 67P for short). And in early November, if all goes according to plan, the mother ship will deploy a lander named Philae to analyze the comet’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail.

It may seem like an awful lot of effort to expend just to study a member of a class of cosmic objects Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple once described as “dirty snowballs.” But these particular snowballs could be the key to all sorts scientific mysteries. They’ve been largely deep-frozen since the Solar System formed some 4.6 billion years ago, for example, so they preserve some of the original material from that seminal time. A rain of comets shortly after Earth came into existence might have been the source of our planet’s life-giving oceans. And some of that “dirt” comes in the form of tarry organic compounds, which means comet impacts could even have played a crucial role in the origin of life.

All of these questions, plus more nobody’s even thought to ask, could be answered, at least in part, by Rosetta and Philae as they ride along with 67P for the next 15 months, using a total of 21 separate instruments, including cameras to study the comet as it stirs to life in the heat of the Sun.

“We’ll be there through its closest approach with the Sun in summer 2015, when the activity is at a maximum and the nucleus is expelling thousands of pounds of material per minute,” says Mark Taylor, Rosetta’s chief scientist. That material will give 67P a temporary atmosphere for the orbiter to sample and analyze (among other things, it should be able to tell if the comet’s ice is a chemical match for Earth’s oceans), but since its closest approach to the Sun is still about 27 million miles (43 million km) outside Earth’s orbit, there’s not enough heat to make the thin atmosphere (called the coma) flare into a full-fledged tail.

The main spacecraft is currently circling at a distance of 60 miles (96 km) but it will gradually diminish to less than 10—stationkeeping while the lander does its work on the surface. That work will involve taking close-up photos and analyzing 67P’s surface chemistry—as well as the chemistry of the subsurface. Philae carries a handy drill which can penetrate a few inches into the ground beneath it. “It digs up a sample and puts it into a small oven,” explains Rosetta team member Fred Goesmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, which allows volatile chemicals to be released for chemical identification.

Another, ingenious experiment will be able to look far deeper into the comet’s interior. When the orbiter is on the opposite side of 67P from Philae’s landing site, it will send radio waves right through entire 3 mi. (4,8 km) mass of rock and ice. Philae will reflect the waves back—and just like a CT scan does with the human body—the reflected waves will reveal the interior structure of the comet. That will help scientists figure out whether it formed as a single piece, or as small chunks that slowly aggregated into 67P’s current size.

And that’s just a hint of what the mission is likely to uncover. Racing by comets at high speed or peering at them through telescopes has proven useful enough. Hanging out with one for more than a year of intensive study, however, will give scientists an unprecedented amount of information about these icy messengers from out beyond Neptune.

TIME space

This Moon’s Volcanoes Spew ‘Lava Fountains’

Jupiter’S Moon, Io, Erupting Volcano.
Jupiter’S Moon, Io, Erupting Volcano. Education Images/UIG/Getty Images

Jupiter's moon Io is more volcanically active than once thought

It’s got to be the biggest coincidence in the history of science: just a few days before the Voyager 1 space probe began taking the first closeup images of Jupiter’s moon Io in 1979, three astronomers predicted that this distant orb, about the size of Earth’s moon, wouldn’t be dead and cold, as most believed. Instead, they said it would be hot and volcanically active – and sure enough, when Voyager began snapping pictures, Io proved to be loaded with active volcanoes.

More than three decades later, scientists are still trying to figure out just how active Io really is—and they just got an important new clue. In two papers just accepted for publication in the journal Icarus, planetary scientists and volcano experts are describing three massive eruptions that took place within a period of just two weeks last summer on the distant moon.

“I’m really excited by this,” says Ashley Davies, a volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of one of the papers. “It could be a game-changer.”

The reason: Io isn’t continuously monitored, so scientists had to deduce the rate of major eruptions from a limited set of observations from the Voyager and Galileo probes, along with occasional telescopic surveys from Earth. Based on this spotty record, said lead observer Imke de Pater, Davies’ co-author, in a statement, “We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they’re usually not this bright.” It may be, she said, that the conventional wisdom badly underestimates just how active Io really is.

Based on the eruptions’ brightness levels and the speed at which their light faded, Davies was able to model what they would have looked like close up. “We think they were ‘lava fountain’ events,” he says, in which cracks opened up on Io’s surface, spewing sheets of lava from their entire lengths at once. “We’re talking about an opening many miles long,” he says, and in Io’s low gravity, the curtain of lava could shoot up to a half-mile in the air. “These eruptions dwarf their terrestrial counterparts,” he added.

The lava was evidently extremely hot as well—3000°F or more—suggesting that more of Io’s interior is melted than planetary scientists have previously thought. It’s also a sign that Io’s rock may be high in magnesium. “This really has profound implications for Io’s interior structure,” he says, “which the next mission will have to answer.” So far, that next mission is purely hypothetical.

Io’s volcanoes also have implications for understanding volcanism on Earth, where massive outflows of lava have burst from underground in the distant past. “Large lava flows have shaped the surfaces of Venus, Mars and the Moon,” he says, “but no one has ever seen them erupt, so there’s a lot of uncertainty about the mechanism. Now we’re getting some vivid insight into a process that once shaped the surface of the Earth.”

The one mystery Io’s volcanoes can’t solve is why the moon is volcanic in the first place rather than frozen solid. That’s because the solution came more than 30 years ago in that original paper, just days before Io’s volcanic nature was discovered. The heat comes from what Davies calls a “cosmic ballet,”—the tidal flexing of the moon’s interior caused by Io’s complicated gravitational interactions with its sister moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, as well as with Jupiter itself.

The same kind of squeezing has created an ocean of liquid water beneath Europa’s thick, icy crust, a place where life may plausibly have gotten a foothold—and in fact, NASA is contemplating a return mission to study Europa in more detail. With this latest volcanic revelation, however, it might be worth taking a closer look at Io as well.

TIME Environment

California Catastrophes: Why is the Golden State Always a Mess?

First it's droughts, then wildfires, then mudslides. But despite how it seems, the coast isn't really cursed


California is burning. In several places. Of course, this is news, especially since lives and property are at risk—but in a sense, it isn’t news at all. California burns every year at around this time. California is also sliding downhill. That isn’t really a headline either, since mudslides are annual events too, as a result of torrential rains in the non-burning part of the state. So far this year the slides have caused one death.

California’s Central Valley, meanwhile, is dangerously parched, as a drought that’s already lasted three years shows no signs of letting up. The only hope for desperate farmers is that a long-awaited El Niño weather pattern kicks in later in the year, bringing heavy rains (at which point, see above under “mudslides”). And then there’s the next major earthquake, which is sure to come sooner or later—probably sooner given California’s luck.

In fact, it almost seems as though the state is a disaster magnet. That, however, is something of an illusion. Much of the American West is more or less starved for rainfall, with the exception of the immediate Pacific Coast. It’s hardly a surprise that the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts; all it takes is a ridge of heat and high pressure to park itself off the Pacific coast and most rainfall will veer northward into Canada before dipping bock down into the inland U.S. The dried-out forests and grasslands that result are then ready fuel for fires caused by lightning or human carelessness. When rains do start, steep hillsides that have been logged or burned or overdeveloped are prone to mudslides.

These are by no means problems unique to California. But the state is so huge, and the population so large, that natural disasters there simply affect more people than they do elsewhere in the U.S. Still, for those of us watching from the other side of the continent, it sometimes seems like you’d have to be a little bit crazy to live in California. But then you consider Mt. Whitney or Yosemite Valley or the Coast Range or the redwood forests—never mind the southern California warmth and the Pacific Ocean as your swimming pool.

So maybe it’s not entirely crazy to live in California. What is entirely crazy is the need to push the envelope—to build houses on hillsides and in forests which may be the most gorgeous locations in the nation’s most gorgeous state, but which are often the most dangerous in terms of natural hazards. If you lived on an airport runway and got hit by a plane, it would be a tragedy—but an entirely predictable and preventable one.

We’re not immune to this sort of craziness out East: we keep putting houses on beaches, for example, when we know perfectly well that they could wash away with the next storm. Once you get away from the shore, though, you’re relatively safe. On this last point, the East may have the edge: Move inland in California, and you could end up next to an active volcano.

TIME Paleontology

Want to See a Live Dinosaur? Set Up a Bird Feeder

An exciting new study lays out in detail how our fine feathered friends evolved from the same ancestors as the T. Rex and velociraptors over the course of millions of years, and how they managed to avoid the same doomed fate as their dinosaur cousins

When the theory first arose that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs, it was enormously controversial. It was even more contentious when some paleontologists argued that birds are dinosaurs—the only branch of the family that survived a cataclysmic asteroid strike 65 million years ago.

That initial controversy has largely vanished, thanks to a series of astonishing discoveries over the past 20 years or so—for example, that many dinosaur species sported feathers, and that the bone structures of birds and dinos are similar in all sorts of ways. “We now know birds are a subgroup of dinosaurs, like humans are a subgroup of apes,” says paleontologist Michael Lee, of the South Australian Museum, in Adelaide.

Now a new report in Science by Lee and several colleagues has laid out in unprecedented detail the exact bird branch of the dinosaur tree that sprouted and evolved over some 50 million years—and how that evolution may have saved birds from extinction when the asteroid struck.

The study is based on a cross-species analysis of more than 1,500 anatomical features across 120 species of early birds and therapod dinosaurs—the branch that includes velociraptors and T. Rex, and which is most closely related to birds. Of all the evolutionary changes that reshaped the bird lineage, says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, writing in a commentary on the new paper that also appears in Science, “The key seems to be miniaturization.”

Starting about 200 million years ago, the paper shows, one group of therapods began to shrink rapidly, from an average weight of more than 350 lb. to less than two. Not only that, says Lee, but, “It turns out that birds and their direct ancestors evolved about four times faster than other dinosaurs over that time.”

It’s not unusual to see different rates of evolution in related species, he says. “Rodents are the most successful mammals by far, for example,” Lee says, “and one reason is that they have the most rapidly evolving DNA.” Rapid evolution could be one reason there are now 10,000 species of birds, but only a few dozen species of crocodiles, even though both are equally ancient.

Shrinkage isn’t the only change that transformed therapods into birds, says Benton. “There was miniaturization, but also modifications to the eyes, the elaboration of feathers, the development of wings out of the small, silly-looking forelimbs therapods have.”

These changes might have been driven by their helpfulness in letting birds adapt to living in trees—previously uninhabited ecological niche. It’s still just a hypothesis, says Benton, but “there might have been an opportunity to conquer a new habitat by getting smaller, developing the ability to climb and to glide, developing better vision so you don’t go banging into branches.”

The changes could also have given birds a huge advantage over other dinosaurs when the asteroid finally struck. “Birds obviously didn’t evolve knowing in advance that it would hit,” says Lee, “but the adaptations might have incidentally helped them survive—they could warm themselves with feathers [when dust from the asteroid cooled the Earth], fly long distances for food.”

What most people don’t realize, says Lee, is that birds didn’t show up just as the other dinosaurs were dying out. “They shared the world for 100 million years.” The quintessential proto-bird, Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago, he points out. But the terrifying T. Rex wouldn’t show up until many tens of millions of years later.


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