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 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.

 

TIME Paleontology

What Killed The Dinosaurs? Bad Luck, Study Suggests

The asteroid was simply the straw that broke the camptosaurus's back

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While it’s widely accepted that dinosaurs were made extinct by a six-mile long asteroid that hit Earth, a new study posits that the asteroid was simply the last piece of bad fortune in a run of poor luck that killed the species.

According to the newly released paleontology report titled ‘The Extinction of the Dinosaurs’ – published by the journal Biological Reviews - the dinosaurs could have likely survived the asteroid, had it not been for the unfortunate environmental conditions they were already facing as a species.

Hebrivores were already decreasing in population at the time, says the report, and the loss in biodiversity created a great deal of problems for dinosaurs, most specifically less food available at the bottom of the food chain.

“If the asteroid hit a few million years earlier, when dinosaurs were more diverse, or a few million years later, when they had a chance to recover as they often had done before after diversity losses, then dinosaurs probably wouldn’t have gone extinct,” said University of Edinburgh paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Brusatte, who led the study.

TIME Paleontology

17 430,000-Year-Old Skulls Discovered in ‘Pit of Bones’

These skulls, which precede the Neanderthals, enrich our understanding of early humans

Researchers believe 17 skulls discovered in northern Spain’s “Pit of Bones” cave belonged to early human ancestors that preceded the Neanderthals, according to a study published in the journal Science. The skulls, estimated to be about 430,000 years old, may shed new insights on how early humans evolved.

The skulls have thick brows and heavy jaws, but not the larger brain cavities seen in early Neanderthals, suggesting that evolution may have occured in distinct phases, with bigger brows and jaws arriving before bigger brains. These characteristics may have evolved separately, and very slowly, over hundreds of thousands of years, as the study’s lead researcher, Juan Luis Arsuaga, explained to National Geographic.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, who studies at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, told NPR of the discovery that “if we understand how Neanderthals evolved and what has been going on, exactly, in the course of Neanderthal evolution, then we could say what is special with us, what is different.”

 

TIME Paleontology

Scientists Have Discovered a New Dinosaur That Had Weird Frilly Protrusions on Its Head

Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta is one of the most important fossil beds in the world Eye Ubiquitous—UIG via Getty Images

A team of paleontologists has discovered a new kind of horned dinosaur

Paleontologists have discovered a new genus of ceratopsian — that’s a horned dinosaur — named Mercuriceratops gemini in Montana’s Judith River Formation and Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The 77-million-year-old species has been named Mercuriceratops — Latin for horned-face Mercury — because of frilled, winglike bones on the side of its head that resemble the winged helmet of Mercury, the Roman messenger god. The second part of its name, gemini, or Latin for twin, refers to the fact that the skulls found in Montana and Alberta were identical.

Mercuriceratops gemini, a relative of the well-known triceratops, was a 2-ton, 6-ft.-tall (1.82 m) plant eater from the late Cretaceous Period. The discovery of the two species with identical features proves that these dinosaurs were a distinct genus and not a mutation of a previously discovered species.

The journal Naturwissenschaften described the creatures’ uniquely shaped horns as an atypical feature that differentiated it from all other known species. “Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned-dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected,” co-author David Evans said in a statement. The protrusions are thought to have served as protection and could have been a sexually advantageous adaption that attracted mates.

The discovery of the new species is the latest find in the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, which aims to study the evolution and movement of dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous Period.

“This discovery of a previously unknown species in relatively well-studied rocks underscores that we still have many more new species of dinosaurs to left to find,” co-author Mark Loewen said.

TIME Paleontology

Chilean Students Discover 7,000-Year-Old Mummy

A group of Chinchorro mummies -dated bet
A group of Chinchorro mummies — dated between 5000 B.C. and 3000 B.C. — are on display during the exhibition "Arica, a Thousand-Year-Old Culture," on Aug. 27, 2008, in the cultural center of the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile Claudio Santana —AFP/Getty Images

A group of youths participating in an archaeology workshop dug up an ancient mummy in northern Chile over the weekend

Chilean students participating in an archaeological dig on Saturday near the Peruvian border hit paleontological gold after discovering the remains of a 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummy.

Officials from the Chilean National Heritage Office were sent to the dig site in Chile’s Morro de Arica to commence a complete investigation into the recovered remains.

A large number of historical artifacts have reportedly been forced to the surface in swaths of the northern parts of the country following a massive 8.2 earthquake that rocked the area in April, according to AFP.

Mummies from the Chinchorro culture are among some of the oldest preserved cadavers to have ever been discovered.

[AFP]

TIME Paleontology

‘Biggest Dinosaur Ever’ Unearthed in Argentina

ARGENTINA-PALEONTOLOGY-DINOSAUR
A technician lays next to the femur of a dinosaur -- likely to be the largest ever to roam the earth, in Rawson, Chubut, some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) south of Buenos Aires, May 16, 2014. Museo Egidio Feruglio—AFP/Getty Images

Godzilla has company with this newly discovered, seven-stories-tall marvel of nature. Fortunately for other dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous era, this titanosaur was an herbivore. The remains were discovered in Argentina, and about 150 bones have been unearthed

Move over, Godzilla.

The largest dinosaur ever known to walk the earth has been unearthed in Argentina, and it really is a monster.

Based on its thigh bones, the dinosaur was 130 feet long and 65 feet tall, and at 85 tons, it was the weight of 14 African elephants. Basically, picture a seven-story building as long as a large yacht, and then add a set of teeth.

Scientists believe it is a previously undiscovered species of titanosaur — a herbivore, luckily for other dinosaurs who lived during the Late Cretaceous period.

The remains were discovered in the desert La Flecha about 135 miles west of Patagonia by a local farm worker, and excavated by paleontologists from Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio. About 150 bones have been found “in remarkable condition,” researchers said.

The huge herbivore lived in the forests of Patagonia between 95 and 100 million years ago, the team said.

[BBC]

TIME Paleontology

World’s Oldest Sperm Found in Australia

The 17-million-year old sperm is many times the size of human sperm and comes from an unexpected source

Ancient, giant sperm have been found in a remote corner of Australia. The source? Tiny 17-million-year-old fossilized shrimp.

The fossilized sperm are the oldest ever discovered, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales Australia. Scientists also believe that the giant sperm are longer than the entire body of the freshwater crustaceans from which they originate — and at 1.3 millimeters long, the shrimp sperm are many times the length of human sperm, which are less than 0.1 millimeters long.

The fossils were discovered in what was once a cave where the tiny shrimp thrived in pools. Researchers said the shrimp were continually bombarded by bat droppings, which added phosphorous to the cave’s water, helping to preserve the soft sperm tissue.

The sperm were found in a remote region of northwestern Australia known for yielding other extraordinary remains, including fossilized giant toothed platypuses and flesh-eating kangaroos. Yep, flesh-eating kangaroos. You crazy, Australia.

 

 

TIME Paleontology

Researchers 3D Print a Whale Graveyard So They Can Study It Later

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After road construction on the Pan-American Highway revealed a mysterious whale graveyard in Chile, researchers scrambled to figure out why so many of the mammals died in the same spot. After ongoing construction threatened to disrupt scientific studies at the site, Smithsonian paleontologists along with its 3D Digitization Program Office used 3D scanners to take a virtual “snapshot” of the site.

That snapshot — which is also being 3D-printed — is allowing researchers to continue their investigation of the site long after the fossils were moved to a local museum.

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