Divided by DNA: The uneasy relationship between archaeology and ancient genomics

Genetics are having a disruptive influence on humans complex past. For example:

Thirty kilometres north of Stonehenge, stands a less-famous group of Neolithic stones. Established around 3600 BC by early farming communities, the West Kennet long barrow is an earthen mound with five chambers, adorned with giant stone slabs. At first, it served as a tomb for some three dozen men, women and children. But people continued to visit for more than 1,000 years, filling the chambers with relics such as pottery and beads that have been interpreted as tributes to ancestors or gods.

The artefacts offer a view of those visitors and their relationship with the wider world. Changes in pottery styles there sometimes echoed distant trends in continental Europe, such as the appearance of bell-shaped beakers — a connection that signals the arrival of new ideas and people in Britain. But many archaeologists think these material shifts meshed into a generally stable culture that continued to follow its traditions for centuries.

But last year, reports started circulating that seemed to challenge this picture of stability. A study1 analysing genome-wide data from 170 ancient Europeans, including 100 associated with Bell Beaker-style artefacts, suggested that the people who had built the barrow and buried their dead there had all but vanished by 2000 BC. The genetic ancestry of Neolithic Britons, according to the study, was almost entirely displaced. Yet somehow the new arrivals carried on with many of the Britons’ traditions. “That didn’t fit for me,” says Carlin, who has been struggling to reconcile his research with the DNA findings.

 

So can genetic studies overturn work done by dozens of researchers over decades? Is the promise of ancient DNA too good to be true, or a whole new window into our ancestors?

Read about the ongoing struggle here.

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A bear and its forebears

The spectacled (or Andean) bear – which turns out to be more common around Machu Picchu than previously believed – is the only South American bear, found in the ranges of the Andes from Venezuela in the north to Peru and Bolivia in the south.

But the species isn’t unique just for being the only bruin on a huge continent: it’s also the sole remaining representative of a bear family that once encompassed some of the all-out most formidable mammals ever to exist.

Want to read more? Check it out here.

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There is no such thing as a “pure” European-or anyone else

After the migrant crisis from Syria hit Germany, it challenged the Willkommenskultur (Welcome culture). While most Germans swung into action to help settle the millions of refugees coming to Germany, some (self-proclaimed) neo-nazis were quoted as saying the German people faced “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risked becoming “a gray mishmash”.

Well I have good/bad news for everyone. There is no unique German genetic heritage. There also isn’t a unique French genetic heritage, or Norwegian or Polish or Italian genetic heritage. All Europeans are already a mishmash of repeated ancient migrations. New studies show that almost all Europeans descend from three major migrations in the past 15,000 years including two from the Middle East.

Want to know more? Check it out over at Science. 

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How to have a scientific debate

Science denialists often claim that “the scientists haven’t decided” “it’s still being debated”. With respect to climate change, evolution and GMOs, that’s largely not true.

But the world of anthropology is heating up these days with some hot topics like when were humans in North America, and what did our ancestors look like/do?

Want to know more about what’s lighting the anthropological scene up? Read about it here.

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Fossilized Leaves Solve Decades Old Death

The 58-year-young King Albert I of Belgium died while rock climbing in 1934. His body was found lifelessly hanging from a rope from the crags at Marche-les-Dames and it was a scandal to the tune of JFK like conspiracy.

82 years later we have a new clue into the cause of the Belguim royals death! And it comes from… plants.

Read about it over at Smithsonian. 

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Two years!

Two years ago today, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! launched with a welcome from me and a post about coevolutionary medicine from CJ. Since then, we’ve written about everything from mammoth extinction events to diet fads, from the rationality of science denialism to the selective effects of agriculture—and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

So what’s ahead for this fine blog? Well, the National Network for Child Care “Ages and Stages” resource has this to say about two-year-old science blogs children:

Two-year-olds like to be independent! Favorite words are “Mine” and “No” and “I do it!” Emotions take on a roller coaster-like quality as 2-year-olds can go from excitement to anger to laughter within a few moments. A great deal of time is spent exploring, pushing, pulling, filling, dumping, and touching.

Here’s hoping our “terrible twos” are full of lots more exploring, and possibly also dumping. Also, we would like to apologize in advance if the Twitter feed gets a bit cranky when we run out of juice.

Is corn the new milk? Evolutionarily speaking, that is.

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is a widespread misconception that, as we developed the technology to reshape our environment to our preferences, human beings neutralized the power of natural selection. Quite the opposite is true: some of the best-known examples of recent evolutionary change in humans are attributable to technology. People who colonized high-altitude environments were selected for tolerance of low-oxygen conditions in the high Himalayas and Andes; populations that have historically raised cattle for milk evolved the ability to digest milk sugars as adults.

A recent study of population genetics in Native American groups suggests that another example is ripening in the experimental fields just a few blocks away from my office at the University of Minnesota: Corn, or maize, may have exerted natural selection on the human populations that first cultivated it.

The target of this new study is an allele called 230Cys, a variant of a gene involved in transporting cholesterol. 230Cys is known only in Native American populations, and it’s associated with abnormally low production of HDL cholesterol (that’s the “good” kind of cholesterol) and thereby increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In Native American populations, the genetic code near 230Cys shows the reduced diversity associated with a selective sweep, which suggests that, although it’s not particuarly helpful now, this variant may have been favored by selection in the past.

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The evolution of music

This post is a guest contribution from James Gaines, who lives in Seattle, Washington and holds a Bachelors in Biology from the University of Puget Sound. James writes about natural history at The Glyptodon and is part of a fiction group at now we have to go to the hospital. He’s currently looking into science journalism graduate programs.

If you’d like to write a guest post for Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, email Jeremy.

“Since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.” –Claude Levi-Strauss (1970)

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The Divje Babe bone is old, tens of thousands of years old, a shade less than a foot long and somewhat ugly. Its surface is mottled and rough. It is obviously the fragment of a larger piece – cracks run down its length and the ends have been snapped off. The incompleteness of the thing seems enhanced by two holes in the middle of the bone’s length. But these holes are different. They stare out like eyes, identical in size, perfectly centered, and perfectly artificial. It takes you a moment, but then you see.

It’s a flute – 42,000 years old.

Music is one of the few social constructs that truly permeates human culture, and reasons for this have fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Even Darwin himself wrote on the subject, speculating about whether and how natural selection could explain it. Today, there seem to be three major ideas behind why music evolved. These are not the only ones, but are the most prevalent.

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