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Cosmic Science

Check out the oldest known painting of an animal

Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.

Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.

The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.

In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.

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VIPs and kids open New Burke Museum with a snip

Jay Inslee at Burke Museum
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee checks out a mammoth skeleton at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. (Jay Inslee via Twitter)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and other dignitaries got a helping hand from a troop of third-graders today when they cut a hand-woven cedar ribbon to mark this weekend’s opening of a spacious new home for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

The students from University Temple Children’s School, just across the street from the museum site on a corner of the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, represented the next generation at the ribbon-cutting ceremony — just as they did at the New Burke’s groundbreaking ceremony three years ago.

“One, two, three,” Inslee counted, and then he cut the ribbon with a giant scissors that was also held by UW President Ana Marie Cauce. The kids snipped their classroom scissors at the same time.

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There’s a new twist in the tale of tribal tobacco

Tobacco researchers
Washington State University researchers David Gang and Shannon Tushingham have found that tobacco use among the Nez Perce goes back centuries. They’re holding two of the pipes that were analyzed for nicotine residue. (WSU Photo)

Tobacco plays a big role in Native American history and culture, predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival by well more than a millennium. But what did ancient tribes smoke? And can history help modern-day tribes put tobacco in its proper place?

A newly published study by Washington State University researchers traces the smoking habits of indigenous peoples in southeastern Washington state over the course of centuries, based on a molecular analysis of residue extracted from smoking pipes found at archaeological sites.

“This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world — initially during an era of pithouse development, through the late pre-contact equestrian era, and into the historic period,” the research team, led by WSU anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Crowdsourcing saves digital artifacts in Brazil

Funerary mask
A funerary mask from ancient Egypt is among the artifacts from the now-destroyed Museu documented in digital 3-D models. (UFRJ National Museum via Sketchfab)

One of the greatest tragedies in the museum world transpired over the weekend when fire broke out at Brazil’s Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, touching off a mad scramble to save physical and virtual treasures.

Many of the 200-year-old natural history museum’s 20 million artifacts have been destroyed, including irreplaceable fossils and specimens. One heartbreaking videosweeps around a ruined gallery where only a monumental meteorite survived unscathed.

Museum workers managed to save some artifacts from the blaze, and other items survived because they were on loan to institutions elsewhere. But for many of the pieces, the only hope is to build a digital archive containing videos and photos of the museum’s collection.

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Did Homo naledi co-exist with our species?

Homo naledi
This Homo naledi skull is part of a skeleton dubbed “Neo.” (Wits University Photo / John Hawks)

The paleontologists who discovered a previously unknown line of human ancestors in South Africa say that they’ve found more fossils — and that the species, known as Homo naledi, could have lived alongside our own species 250,000 years ago.

The newly disclosed finds from the Rising Star Cave system could reignite the debate over the tangled roots of humanity’s family tree.

Fifty-two scientists from 35 organizations around the world, including University of Washington anthropologist Elen Feuerriegel, were part of the team behind the Rising Star research

In one of the papers published today by the journal eLife, the scientists set the age of the first Homo nadeli fossils they found at between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, based on radioisotope dating, electron spin resonance dating and an analysis of the flowstone overlying the fossils.

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9,000-year-old Ancient One laid to rest

Image: Kennewick Man
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian)

After more than 20 years, one of anthropology’s most contentious cases was closed over the weekend with the reburial of the 9,000-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, now better known as the Ancient One.

More than 200 people, including members of five Native American tribes, gathered at an undisclosed site on the Columbia River Plateau early Feb. 18 to bury the remains in accordance with centuries-old funerary rituals, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said in a news release.

“This is a big day, and our people have come to witness and honor our ancestor,” said Armand Minthorn, a member of the Umatilla tribes’ board of trustees and Longhouse leader. “We continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial.”

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How evolution played a role in autism genes

Image: Human and Neanderthal skulls
These skulls of a modern human and a Neanderthal are from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (Credit: DrMikeBaxter / HairyMuseumMatt via Wikimedia)

One of the biggest genetic differences between humans and other members of the primate family tree, including Neanderthals, predisposes people to a type of autism. The stretch of DNA appears to be an important piece of the human genome, but why?

University of Washington genome scientist Evan Eichler and his colleagues on an international research team focus on that question in a study published today by the journal Nature.

The key genetic structure consists of 95,000 molecular base pairs in a region on chromosome 16 that’s known as 16p11.2. The structure includes 28 genes, flanked by blocks of DNA with duplicated sequences of genetic code known as copy-number variants.

Eichler’s team compared the genomes of modern humans with the genetic code for chimps, gorillas and orangutans, as well as the code for Neanderthals and another strain of extinct pre-humans known as Denisovans. Humans were the only ones to have the structure in the 16p11.2 region.

The researchers’ analysis indicates that the structure appeared in our ancestors’ genome relatively suddenly, about 280,000 years ago. That time frame is about 80,000 years before anatomically modern humans – that is, Homo sapiens – show up in the fossil record.

“Most duplications in our genome are millions of years old, and the speed at which this structure transformed our genome is unprecedented,” Eichler said in a news release.

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It’s official: ‘Ancient One’ was Native American

Image: Kennewick Man
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just ruled that an 8,500-year-old set of skeletal remains known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One belonged to a Native American tribe, based on DNA tests that came out nearly a year ago.

It took that long for experts to weigh the genetic evidence, plus other anatomical evidence that has been the focus of a 20-year-long legal tug of war. Earlier this month, a trio of scientists from the University of Chicago issued a technical report declaring that the DNA findings published last June in Nature were sound.

The remains were found on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over in accordance with a federal law on the repatriation of remains. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Federal judges sided with the scientists, and as a result, the corps retained custody of the skeleton and made it available for study. Now that the studies are finished, the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

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Iceman mummy suffered tummy troubles

Researchers Eduard Egarter-Vigl and Albert Zink sample the 5,300-year-old Iceman mummy in 2010. (Credit: Samadelli Marco / EURAC)
Eduard Egarter-Vigl and Albert Zink sample the Iceman mummy. (Credit: S. Marco / EURAC)

An analysis of the stomach contents from a 5,300-year-old European mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman has turned up a double surprise, scientists say.

First, the researchers found DNA traces of a nasty strain of bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, which is linked to ulcers. That discovery, paired with the presence of other immune-system proteins, suggests that the Iceman could have been suffering from stomach problems in addition to his other maladies – ranging from hardening of the arteries and lactose intolerance to Lyme disease and bad teeth.

The second surprise came when the research team looked more closely at the bacteria’s genome. The DNA sequence showed that the bacterial strain wasn’t the one that’s most common in Europeans today, but is linked instead to modern-day populations in South Asia.

That finding appears to answer questions relating to the peopling of Europe thousands of years ago, the researchers report in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

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