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There was no way of deciding between these two hypotheses until a team from the ‘Archéozoologie, Archéobotanique: Sociétés, Pratiques et Environnements’ laboratory (CNRS/MNHN), in collaboration with colleagues from the UK and China1, succeeded in determining the species corresponding to cat remains found in agricultural settlements in China, dating from around 3500 BC.
All the bones belong to the leopard cat, a distant relation of the western wildcat, from which all modern domestic cats are descended. The scientists have thus provided evidence that cats began to be domesticated in China earlier than 3 000 BC. This scenario is comparable to that which took place in the Near East and Egypt, where a relationship between humans and cats developed following the birth of agriculture. Their findings2 are published on 22 January 2016 in the journal PLOS ONE.
The cat is the most common domestic animal in the world today, with over 500 million individuals. All of today’s domestic cats descend from the African and Near Eastern form of the wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). According to work published in 2004, humans and cats first started to form a close relationship in the Near East from 9000 to 7000 BC, following the birth of agriculture.
In 2001, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing discovered cat bones in agricultural settlements in northern China (Shaanxi province) dating from around 3500 BC. Was this evidence of a relationship between small Chinese cats and humans in the fourth millennium BC in China? Or was it the result of the arrival in China of the first domestic cats from the Near East?
There was no way of deciding between these two hypotheses without identifying the species to which the bones belonged. Although there are no less than four different forms of small cat in China, the subspecies from which modern cats are descended (Felis silvestris lybica) has never been recorded there.
To try to settle the question, a collaboration of scientists principally from CNRS, the French Natural History Museum (MNHN), the University of Aberdeen, the Chinese Academy of Social Science and the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology undertook a geometric morphometric analysis3, which, in the absence of ancient DNA, is the only way of differentiating the bones of such small cats, which have very similar morphologies whose differences are often imperceptible using conventional techniques.
The scientists analyzed the mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan dating from 3500 to 2900 BC. Their work clearly determined that the bones all belonged to the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Still very widespread in Eastern Asia today, this wildcat, which is a distant relation of the western wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence. Just as in the Near East and Egypt, leopard cats were probably attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents who took advantage of grain stores.
These conclusions show that a process comparable to the one that took place in the Near East and in Egypt developed independently in China following the birth of agriculture in the eighth millennium BC. In China it was the leopard cat (P. bengalensis) and not the western wildcat (F. silvestris) that started to form a relationship with humans. Cat domestication was, at least in three regions of the world, therefore closely connected to the beginnings of agriculture.
Nevertheless, domestic cats in China today are not descended from the leopard cat4 but rather from its relation F. silvestris lybica. The latter therefore replaced the leopard cat in Chinese settlements after the end of the Neolithic. Did it arrive in China with the opening of the Silk Road, when the Roman and Han empires began to establish tenuous links between East and West? This is the next question that needs to be answered.
This new discovery also shows that duck-billed dinosaurs originated in the eastern United States, what was then broadly referred to as Appalachia, before dispersing to other parts of the world. The research team outlined its findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“This is a really important animal in telling us how they came to be and how they spread all over the world,” said Florida State University Professor of Biological Science Gregory Erickson, one of the researchers on the team.
They named the new dinosaur Eotrachodon orientalis, which means “dawn rough tooth from the east.” The name pays homage to “Trachodon,” which was the first duck-billed dinosaur named in 1856.
This duck-billed dinosaur — also known as a Hadrosaurid — was probably 20 to 30 feet long as an adult, mostly walked on its hind legs though it could come down on all four to graze on plants with its grinding teeth, and had a scaly exterior. But what set it apart is that it had a large crest on its nose.
“This thing had a big ugly nose,” Erickson said.
That large crest on the nose, plus indentations found in the skull and its unique teeth alerted Erickson and his colleagues from McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Ala., and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom that the skeleton they had was something special.
The skeletal remains of this 83-million-year-old dinosaur were originally found by a team of amateur fossil enthusiasts alongside a creek in Montgomery County, Alabama in marine sediment. Dinosaurs from the South are extremely rare. A set with a complete skull is an even more extraordinary find. The dinosaur likely was washed out to sea by river or stream sediments after it died. When the group realized they had potentially discovered something of scientific importance, they contacted McWane Science Center in Birmingham, which dispatched a team to the site to carefully remove the remains from the surrounding rock.
After the bones were prepared and cleaned at McWane Science Center and the University of West Alabama, they were studied by a team of paleontologists including Erickson, former FSU doctoral student Albert Prieto-Marquez who is now at the University of Bristol, and Jun Ebersole, director of collections at McWane Science Center. Among the recovered remains of this new dinosaur are a complete skull, dozens of backbones, a partial hip bone and a few bones from the limbs.
It is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever to be found in the eastern United States. Its teeth, which show this dinosaur’s remarkable ability to grind up plants in a manner like cows or horses, were present in early hadrosaurids, allowing them to consume a wide variety of plants as the group radiated around the world.
During the late Cretaceous Period, roughly 85 million years ago, North America was divided in half by a 1,000 mile ocean that connected the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. This body of water created two North American landmasses, Laramidia to the west and Appalachia to the east.
The area of what was considered Appalachia is a bit wider than what we call Appalachia today. It began roughly in Georgia and Alabama and stretched all the way north into Canada.
“For roughly 100 million years, the dinosaurs were not able to cross this barrier,” Ebersole said. “The discovery of Eotrachodon suggests that duck-billed dinosaurs originated in Appalachia and dispersed to other parts of the world at some point after the seaway lowered, opening a land corridor to western North America.”
Added Erickson: “They just needed to get off the island. From there, they became the cows of the Cretaceous.”
Erickson brought some bone samples and teeth back to his lab at Florida State for further analysis. He found it difficult to pinpoint the exact age of the dinosaur because no growth lines appeared in the bone samples. However, the highly vascularized bones show that it was growing very rapidly at the time of death, akin to a teenager, and stood to get much larger — perhaps 20-30 feet in length, which is typical of duck-billed dinosaurs found elsewhere.
Many scholars claim that disease struck the native population shortly after their first contact with Europeans, and spread with such ferocity that it left tell-tale fingerprints on the global climate. Others, however, argue that — though still devastating — the process was far more gradual, and took place over many years.
A new Harvard study, however, suggests both theories are wrong.
Led by Matt Liebmann, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology, a team of researchers was able to show that, in what is now northern New Mexico, disease didn’t break out until nearly a century after the first European contact with Native Americans, coinciding with the establishment of mission churches.
But when it did finally strike, the study shows, the effects of disease were devastating. In just 60 years, native populations dropped from approximately 6,500 to fewer than 900 among the 18 villages they investigated. The study is described in a Jan. 25, 2016 paper published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to Liebmann, the study was co-authored by Joshua Farella and Thomas Swetnam from the University of Arizona and Christopher Roos from Southern Methodist University.
“In the Southwest, first contact between native people and Europeans occurred in 1539,” Liebmann said. “We found that disease didn’t really start to take effect until after 1620, but we then see a very rapid depopulation from 1620 to 1680. (The death rate) was staggeringly high — about 87 percent of the Native population died in that short period.
“Think about what that would mean if you have a room full of people and nine out of 10 die,” he continued. “Think of what that means for their social structure, if they’re losing the people who know the traditional medicine, their social and religious leaders, think of the huge impact it would have on their culture and history.”
The fallout from that depopulation, however, wasn’t merely cultural.
“Forest fires also take off during this period,” Liebmann said. “When people are living in these villages, they need timber for their roofs, and for heating and cooking. In addition, they’re clearing the land for farming, so trees weren’t growing there when these archaeological sites were inhabited. But as people died off, the forests started re-growing and we start to see more forest fires.”
That finding, he said, also links the study with ongoing debates about whether the world has entered a new geological era — dubbed the Anthropocene — marked by the fact that humans have affected the climate on a global scale.
Though there is still wide debate about when this new epoch started, a number of researchers have pointed to 1610, when — ice core records show — global CO2 levels dropped dramatically.
“one of the ‘Early Anthropocene’ theories suggests that because Native Americans were being removed from the landscape on a massive scale, especially in the Amazon, they were no longer burning the forest for agriculture, and as the forest re-grew it sequestered carbon,” Liebmann said. “The argument hinges on the notion that the depopulation of the Americas was so extreme that it left its mark on the atmosphere and climate at global scales.
“Our data speaks to a period a little bit later than the dates of low CO2 from the ice cores, but depopulation in the Southwest could have intensified that dip,” he added. “The important thing, from my perspective, is that the Southwest was one of the earliest points of contact between Europeans and Native Americans in what later became the U.S., and it hadn’t yet experienced a catastrophic depopulation by 1610, so it’s hard to argue for it happening anywhere in the rest of North America at that early date.”
Mapping nearly 20 Native American villages, however, is no easy feat — many researchers might spend years examining a single site. To pull it off, Liebmann and colleagues turned to a technology known as LiDAR, which uses lasers to penetrate the dense forest cover and create a map of the region that, in some cases, is accurate down to the centimeter.
“I thought my career would be standing on these sites with a (surveying tool called a) total station,” Liebmann said. “I’ve mapped a couple of archaeological sites like this before, and it can take years, but with LiDAR I have the ability to calculate the architecture of 18 villages in an instant. This new technology is what made this study possible.”
Armed with that data, Harvard Anthropology graduate student Adam Stack and undergraduate student Sarah Martini were able to calculate the volume of each building and develop an equation to estimate how many people lived in the area.
Dating the sites — and in particular when villages may have been abandoned as the population dwindled — is far trickier.
“Usually, we use tree rings to date architecture in the Southwest,” Liebmann said. “If someone cuts down a tree to use as a roof beam, archaeologists can look at the tree rings to date it. But for this project we didn’t excavate the sites, so we couldn’t recover the roof beams. Instead, the dendrochronologists on our team looked at the inner rings of trees that are still growing on these sites to establish when they germinated. They found that tree growth took off between 1630 and 1650. When we get a cluster of dates in the same 20-year period, that tells us that something happened at these villages to start these trees growing there.”
What that something was, Liebmann said, was the removal of the native population from the landscape. Without humans in the region to clear trees for building materials, heating, cooking, and agriculture, the forest began to reclaim that territory, providing, literally, more fuel for fires.
“When we looked at the patterns of fires in the tree rings, we could see that up until about 1620, fires were small and sporadic,” Liebmann said. “Native American fields were acting as literal fire breaks. But as the forest started re-growing, much more widespread fires occurred. That continued until almost exactly 1900, when a combination of increased livestock grazing and a change in federal forest management policies began to suppress all fires.”
Ultimately, Liebmann said, the study shows that understanding how and when depopulation happened, and the ecological fallout from it, is far more complex than researchers have previously thought.
“Our findings support the notion that there was a massive depopulation, but it’s not quite as simple as many people have thought before,” Liebmann said. “This research also speaks to…current debates in the American West about how we should manage fire risk. What our study shows is that forest fires were being managed by Native people living in dense concentrations on the landscape — not unlike the situation today in many parts of the Southwest. So there may be some lessons here for contemporary fire management.”
The findings address the longstanding debate among scientists about whether or not the bacterium Yersinia pestis — responsible for the Black Death — remained within Europe for hundreds of years and was the principal cause of some of the worst re-emergences and subsequent plague epidemics in human history.
Until now, some researchers believed repeated outbreaks were the result of the bacterium being re-introduced through major trade with China, a widely-known reservoir of the plague. Instead, it turns out the plague may never have left.
“The more plague genomes we have from these disparate time periods, the better we are able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of this pathogen” says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre and a principal investigator at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.
Poinar collaborated with Edward Holmes at the University of Sydney, Olivier Dutour of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in France, and Kirsti Bos and Johannes Krause at the University of Tubingen, and others, to map the complete genomes of Y.pestis which was harvested from five adult male victims of the 1722 Plague of Provence.
To do so, they analyzed the dental pulp taken from the five bodies, originally buried in Marseille, France. Researchers were able to extract, purify and enrich specifically for the pathogen’s DNA, and then compare the samples with over 150 plague genomes representing a world wide distribution as well as from other points in time, both modern and ancient.
By comparing and contrasting the samples, researchers determined the Marseille strain is a direct descendant of the Black Death that devastated Europe nearly 400 years earlier and not a divergent strain that came, like the previous pandemic strains Justinian and Black Death, from separate emergences originating in Asia.
More extensive sampling of modern rodent populations, in addition to ancient human and rodent remains from various regions in Asia, the Caucasus and Europe, may yield additional clues about past ecological niches for plague.
“There are many unresolved questions that need to be answered: why did the plague erupt in these devastating waves and then lay dormant? Did it linger in the soil or did it re-emerge in rats? And ultimately why did it suddenly disappear and never come back? Sadly, we don’t have the answer to this yet,” says Poinar.
“Understanding the evolution of the plague will be critically important as antibiotic resistance becomes a greater threat, particularly since we treat modern-day plague with standard antibiotics. Without methods of treatment, easily treatable infections can become devastating again,” he says.
The research was published online in the journal eLife.
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