A cutting-edge scientific analysis shows that a Briton from 10,000 years ago had dark brown skin and blue eyes.
Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903.
University College London researchers then used the subsequent genome analysis for a facial reconstruction.
It underlines the fact that the lighter skin characteristic of modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon.
No prehistoric Briton of this age had previously had their genome analysed.
As such, the analysis provides valuable new insights into the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age.
The analysis of Cheddar Man’s genome – the “blueprint” for a human, contained in the nuclei of our cells – will be published in a journal, and will also feature in the upcoming Channel 4 documentary The First Brit, Secrets Of The 10,000-year-old Man.
Cheddar Man’s remains had been unearthed 115 years ago in Gough’s Cave, located in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge. Subsequent examination has shown that the man was short by today’s standards – about 5ft 5in – and probably died in his early 20s.
Prof Chris Stringer, the museum’s research leader in human origins, said: “I’ve been studying the skeleton of Cheddar Man for about 40 years
“So to come face-to-face with what this guy could have looked like – and that striking combination of the hair, the face, the eye colour and that dark skin: something a few years ago we couldn’t have imagined and yet that’s what the scientific data show.”
Fractures on the surface of the skull suggest he may even have met his demise in a violent manner. It’s not known how he came to lie in the cave, but it’s possible he was placed there by others in his tribe.
The Natural History Museum researchers extracted the DNA from part of the skull near the ear known as the petrous. At first, project scientists Prof Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace weren’t sure if they’d get any DNA at all from the remains.
But they were in luck: not only was DNA preserved, but Cheddar Man has since yielded the highest coverage (a measure of the sequencing accuracy) for a genome from this period of European prehistory – known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age.
They teamed up with researchers at University College London (UCL) to analyse the results, including gene variants associated with hair, eye and skin colour.
Extra mature Cheddar
They found the Stone Age Briton had dark hair – with a small probability that it was curlier than average – blue eyes and skin that was probably dark brown or black in tone.
This combination might appear striking to us today, but it was a common appearance in western Europe during this period.
Steven Clarke, director of the Channel Four documentary, said: “I think we all know we live in times where we are unusually preoccupied with skin pigmentation.”
Prof Mark Thomas, a geneticist from UCL, said: “It becomes a part of our understanding, I think that would be a much, much better thing. I think it would be good if people lodge it in their heads, and it becomes a little part of their knowledge.”
Unsurprisingly, the findings have generated lots of interest on social media.
Cheddar Man’s genome reveals he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals – so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers – who have been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary.
Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis, specialists in palaeontological model-making, took the genetic findings and combined them with physical measurements from scans of the skull. The result was a strikingly lifelike reconstruction of a face from our distant past.
Pale skin probably arrived in Britain with a migration of people from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. This population had pale skin and brown eyes and absorbed populations like the ones Cheddar Man belonged to.
No-one’s entirely sure why pale skin evolved in these farmers, but their cereal-based diet was probably deficient in Vitamin D. This would have required agriculturalists to absorb this essential nutrient from sunlight through their skin.
“There may be other factors that are causing lower skin pigmentation over time in the last 10,000 years. But that’s the big explanation that most scientists turn to,” said Prof Thomas.
Boom and bust
The genomic results also suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This ability only spread much later, after the onset of the Bronze Age.
Present-day Europeans owe on average 10% of their ancestry to Mesolithic hunters like Cheddar Man.
Britain has been something of a boom-and-bust story for humans over the last million-or-so years. Modern humans were here as early as 40,000 years ago, but a period of extreme cold known as the Last Glacial Maximum drove them out some 10,000 years later.
There’s evidence from Gough’s Cave that hunter-gatherers ventured back around 15,000 years ago, establishing a temporary presence when the climate briefly improved. However, they were soon sent packing by another cold snap. Cut marks on the bones suggest these people cannibalised their dead – perhaps as part of ritual practices.
Britain was once again settled 11,000 years ago; and has been inhabited ever since. Cheddar Man was part of this wave of migrants, who walked across a landmass called Doggerland that, in those days, connected Britain to mainland Europe. This makes him the oldest known Briton with a direct connection to people living here today.
This is not the first attempt to analyse DNA from the Cheddar Man. In the late 1990s, Oxford University geneticist Brian Sykes sequenced mitochondrial DNA from one of Cheddar Man’s molars.
Mitochondrial DNA comes from the biological “batteries” within our cells and is passed down exclusively from a mother to her children.
Prof Sykes compared the ancient genetic information with DNA from 20 living residents of Cheddar village and found two matches – including history teacher Adrian Targett, who became closely connected with the discovery. The result is consistent with the approximately 10% of Europeans who share the same mitochondrial DNA type.
The modern era of the so-called “three-parent baby” has officially kicked off, and it will begin in the UK.
According to the BBC, the country’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has granted permission for doctors at the Newcastle Fertility Center to artificially implant two women with an embryo containing the DNA of three people. The procedure is intended to prevent the women from passing a rare, debilitating genetic condition known as MERRF (myoclonic epilepsy with ragged red fibers) syndrome down to their children. People born with MERRF suffer a wide variety of chronic symptoms, including seizures, impaired muscles, and eventually dementia.
There are two current techniques that can be used to create a three-parent baby, but the net result is the same: A child born with the nuclear DNA of their intended parents, and the swapped-in mitochondrial DNA of a donor woman.
Mitochondria are an essential part of nearly every kind of cell found in the body, acting as the cell’s source of energy. But only a tiny slice of our DNA determines how our mitochondria functions—a whooping 37 genes out of more than 20,000. And none of these genes influence things like our appearance, risk of some cancers, or propensity for Cheetos. But because we obtain the genes for making mitochondria exclusively from our mother, women whose mitochondria have damaging mutations are at high risk at passing on those same flaws to their children, including those responsible for MERRF syndrome.
Three-parent babies actually aren’t new. Similar procedures were performed throughout the 90s in various countries, including the U.S. But concerns emerged that the techniques used then were too risky, and may have resulted in children who were either born with the same mutations their mothers had or who developed other complications. Within a few years, the FDA banned these procedures from being performed in the states, while other countries informally followed suit.
The new generation of three-parent techniques are thought to be much safer. But there are still worries that we might be moving too fast. Last year, the FDA warned John Zhang, a New York fertility doctor, to steer clear of the U.S. if he wanted to perform his version of the technique, since there is still a formal ban on implanting women with genetically modified human embryos.
Zhang is credited as the first doctor to successfully perform the modern-day procedure, but ethicists have balked at the shady workarounds he used to pull it off. According to the FDA, Zhang’s initial application to have the procedure put through clinical trials was denied, and he promised to avoid performing it stateside until he could gain approval. But he’s also continued to advertise it as a way to not only prevent mitochondrial birth defects, but age-related infertility. Meanwhile, other teams from China and the Ukraine have also reported using 3-person techniques in the wake of Zhang’s success.
Unlike the U.S., the UK has long been preparing for the arrival of three-parent babies. In 2015, its Parliament passed regulations that would eventually allow the use of these techniques, pending a lengthy review process by the HFEA. Last year, the agency finally granted its first license to perform the procedure to the Newcastle Fertility Center. For the time being, each potential case will be reviewed by the HFEA before its approval.
Scientists have unveiled an extraordinary new analysis of thousands of stone tools found at a site called Attirampakkam in India, northwest of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to new dating techniques, a team led by archaeologist Shanti Pappu determined that most of the tools are between 385,000 and 172,000 years old. What makes these dates noteworthy is that they upend the idea that tool-making was transformed in India after an influx of modern Homo sapiens came from Africa starting about 130,000 years ago.
According to these findings, hominins in India were making tools that looked an awful lot like what people were making in Africa almost 250,000 years before they encountered modern humans. This is yet another piece of evidence that the “out of Africa” process was a lot messier and more complex than previously thought.
Pappu worked out of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Chennai with a team of geoscientists and physicists to date the tools. They used a technique called “post-infrared infrared-stimulated luminescence,” which measures how long ago minerals were exposed to light or heat. In essence, it allows scientists to determine how long ago a tool was buried and hidden from the Sun’s heat, and it uses that information as a proxy for the tool’s age.
Writing in Nature, the group explains that the Attirampakkam site is ideal for this kind of dating, because it was regularly flooded by a nearby stream, meaning that discarded tools were quickly covered up by sediments in the water. Those regular floods left behind a relatively tidy stack of debris layers, each of which could be dated.
To their surprise, Pappu and her colleagues found that this region—once a tree-shaded shoreline, ideal for long-term camping—had been occupied by early humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Partly that’s because the river carried great heaps of quartzite rocks and pebbles to the area. Quartz was the preferred stone for tools, and it’s obvious that this place was a tool workshop. Alongside axes, knives, projectile points, and scrapers, the team found half-finished tools and discarded flakes created by chipping away at a rock to make a blade.
The Middle Paleolithic toolbox
But here’s where the story gets weird. The hominins who made tools at Attirampakkam made a wide variety of items, some of which closely resembled the Middle Paleolithic style that emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. The Middle Paleolithic marks a cultural shift when humans began to make smaller, more complicated tools, often requiring toolmakers to shape their stones in a multi-stage process. Before the Middle Paleolithic, hominins created biface tools, or simple, heavy hand axes shaped like teardrops.
A traditional “out of Africa” hypothesis holds that early humans in India were essentially stuck in the biface age, making their elementary axes until modern Homo sapiens swarmed the subcontinent about 130,000 years ago and brought the wonders of Middle Paleolithic tools to everyone. Except Pappu and her team found a mix of bifaces and Middle Paleolithic tools at Attirampakkam. Somehow, African and Indian hominins were developing the same toolmaking skills at roughly the same time.
This changes our understanding of human development and ancient migration patterns. There is no doubt that a massive number of modern humans poured out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. But they weren’t necessarily as important to global cultural development as we might think.
It’s possible that hominins from Africa started traveling to India almost 400,000 years ago, bringing new ideas about tool technologies along with them. Pappu and her colleagues point out in their paper that the Attirampakkam site was active during at least two periods when the climate would have allowed easy crossing from Africa to Eurasia, through a transcontinental jungle rich with food and other resources. Of course, it’s also possible that the Middle Paleolithic tools at Attirampakkam are an example of convergent evolution, where two separate cultures hit upon the same innovations at roughly the same time.
We don’t have enough evidence yet to say which hypothesis is more likely, but Pappu’s research is yet another hint that modern Homo sapiens culture was evolving outside Africa as well as within it. Also, we have to use the designation “Homo sapiens” carefully here. Pappu and her team note in their paper that only one archaic human fossil, the Narmada cranium, has ever been discovered in India. That leaves plenty of gaps in the record.
Attirampakkam is strewn with the results of human productivity, but there are no fossils to tell us who these humans were. An early ancestor, like Homo erectus or the Narmada human? Possibly Neanderthals or Denisovans, who were both roaming Eurasia at the time? Some hybrid we’ve yet to discover?
Regardless of who these early humans were, it’s certain that they were already engaged in modern human toolmaking before Homo sapiens arrived from Africa. What’s fascinating about the Attirampakkam site is that the evidence suggests that the people there may have started migrating en masse at the same time Africans did. In the most recent layers of the site, tools become sparse. Humans were coming to this place less and less often. The people of Attirampakkam may have fled climate fluctuations caused by the Toba eruption 70,000 years ago, or they may have been responding to other changes.
Pappu and her colleagues write that, ultimately, the remains at Attirampakkam aren’t just testimony to human innovation. They are also a sign of “placemaking,” a cognitive shift that made humans want to return to the same location, generation after generation. We’re seeing the emergence of collective memory and historical knowledge right alongside the development of sophisticated stone tools.
Tonight, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” will accompany Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s nominee for NASA Administrator, to the State of the Union address. Nye has said that he’s accompanying the Congressman to help promote space exploration, since, he asserts, “NASA is the best brand the United States has” and that his attendance “should not be … seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community.”
But by attending the SOTU as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest, Nye has tacitly endorsed those very policies, and put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large. Rep. Bridenstine is a controversial nominee who refuses to state that climate change is driven by human activity, and even introduced legislation to remove Earth sciences from NASA’s scientific mission. Further, he’s worked to undermine civil rights, including pushing for crackdowns on immigrants, a ban on gay marriage, and abolishing the Department of Education.
As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.
Scientists are people, and in today’s society, it is impossible to separate science at major agencies like NASA from other pressing issues like racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Addressing these issues should be a priority, not only to strengthen our own scientific community, but to better serve the public that often funds our work. Rather than wield his public persona to bring attention to the need for science-informed policy, Bill Nye has chosen to excuse Rep. Bridenstine’s anti-science record and his stance on civil rights, and to implicitly support a stance that would diminish the agency’s work studying our own planet and its changing climate. Exploring other worlds and studying other planets, while dismissing the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and its damage to our own planet isn’t just dangerous, it’s foolish and self-defeating.
Further, from his position of privilege and public popularity, Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval. No amount of funding for space exploration can undo the damage the Trump administration is causing to public health and welfare by censoring science. No number of shiny new satellites can undo the racist policies that make our Dreamer colleagues live in fear and prevent immigrants from pursuing scientific careers in the United States. And no new mission to the Moon can make our LGBTQ colleagues feel welcome at an agency run by someone who votes against their civil rights.
As women and scientists, we refuse to separate science from everyday life. We refuse to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. As someone with a show alleging to save the world, Bill Nye has a responsibility to acknowledge the importance of NASA’s vast mission, not just one aspect of it. He should use his celebrity to elevate the importance of science in NASA’s mission—not waste the opportunity to lobby for space exploration at a cost to everything else.
The true shame is that Bill Nye remains the popular face of science because he keeps himself in the public eye. To be sure, increasing the visibility of scientists in the popular media is important to strengthening public support for science, but Nye’s TV persona has perpetuated the harmful stereotype that scientists are nerdy, combative white men in lab coats—a stereotype that does not comport with our lived experience as women in STEM. And he continues to wield his power recklessly, even after his recent endeavors in debate and politics have backfired spectacularly.
In 2014, he attempted to debate creationist Ken Ham—against the judgment of evolution experts—which only served to allow Ham to raise the funds needed to build an evangelical theme park that spreads misinformation about human evolution. Similarly, Nye repeatedly agreed to televised debates with non-scientist climate deniers, contributing to the false perception that researchers still disagree about basic climate science. And when Bill Nye went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to “debate” climate change in 2017, his appearance was used to spread misinformation to Fox viewers and fundraise for anti-climate initiatives.
Bill Nye does not speak for us or for the members of the scientific community who have to protect not only the integrity of their research, but also their basic right to do science. We stand with others who have asked Bill Nye to not attend the State of the Union. Nye’s complicity does not align him with the researchers who have a bold and progressive vision for the future of science and its role in society.
At a time when our ability to do science and our ability to live freely are both under threat, our public champions and our institutions must do better.
Scientists on Thursday announced the discovery of a fossilized human jawbone in a collapsed cave in Israel that they said is between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.
If confirmed, the find may rewrite the early migration story of our species, pushing back by about 50,000 years the time that Homo sapiens first ventured out of Africa.
Previous discoveries in Israel had convinced some anthropologists that modern humans began leaving Africa between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago. But the recently dated jawbone is unraveling that narrative.
“This would be the earliest modern human anyone has found outside of Africa, ever,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Wisconsin, Madison who was not involved in the study.
The upper jawbone — which includes seven intact teeth and one broken incisor, and was described in a paper in the journal Science — provides fossil evidence that lends support to genetic studies that have suggested modern humans moved from Africa far earlier than had been suspected.
“What I was surprised by was how well this new discovery fits into the new picture that’s emerging of the evolution of Homo sapiens,” said Julia Galway-Witham, a research assistant at the Natural History Museum in London who wrote an accompanying perspective article.
Dr. Hawks and other researchers advised caution in interpreting the discovery. Although this ancient person may have shared some anatomical characteristics with present-day people, this “modern human” would have probably looked much different from anyone living in the world today.
“Early modern humans in many respects were not so modern,” said Jean–Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
Dr. Hublin said that by concluding the jawbone came from a “modern human,” the authors were simply saying that the ancient person was morphologically more closely related to us than to Neanderthals.
That does not mean that this person contributed to the DNA of anyone living today, he added. It is possible that the jawbone belonged to a previously unknown population of Homo sapiens that departed Africa and then died off.
That explanation would need to be tested with DNA samples, which are difficult to collect from fossils found in the arid Levant.
The upper jawbone, or maxilla, was found by a team led by Israel Hershkovitz, a paleoanthropologist at Tel Aviv University and lead author of the new paper, while excavating the Misliya Cave on the western slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel. The jawbone was discovered in 2002 by a freshman on his first archaeological dig with the group.
The team had long known that ancient people lived in the Misliya Cave, which is a rock shelter with an overhanging ceiling carved into a limestone cliff. By dating burned flint flakes found at the site, archaeologists had determined that it was occupied between 250,000 to 160,000 years ago, during an era known as the Early Middle Paleolithic.
Evidence, including bedding, showed that the people who lived there used it as a base camp. They hunted deer, gazelles and aurochs, and feasted on turtles, hares and ostrich eggs.
Dr. Hershkovitz and Mina Weinstein-Evron, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, felt that the jawbone looked modern, but they needed to confirm their hunch.
Dr. Hershkovitz has made similar findings in the past. In 2015, he announced finding a 55,000-year-old skull in the Levant. But a 2010 discovery of 400,000-year-old teeth in Israel in which he participated received criticism for how it was reported in the media.
To test their suspicions about the jawbone, the archaeologists sent the specimen on a world tour. “It looked so modern that it took us five years to convince people, because they couldn’t believe their eyes,” said Dr. Weinstein-Evron.
One of the first stops was Austria, home to a virtual paleontology lab run by Gerhard W. Weber, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Vienna. There scientists were able to assess whether the bone belonged to a modern human or a Neanderthal, which are thought also to have occupied the region during that time period.
Using high resolution micro-CT scanning, Dr. Weber created a 3D replica of the upper left maxilla that allowed him to investigate its surface features and, virtually, to remove enamel from the teeth.
He then performed a morphological and metric test that compared the Misliya fossil with about 30 other specimens, including fossils of Neanderthals, Homo erectus, more recent Homo sapiens, and other hominins that lived in the Middle Pleistocene in Asia, Africa Europe and North America.
“The shape of the second molar, the two premolars and the whole maxilla are very modern,” said Dr. Weber.
Our solar system may be an oddball in the universe. A new study using data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope shows that in most cases, exoplanets orbiting the same star have similar sizes and regular spacing between their orbits.
By contrast, our own solar system has a range of planetary sizes and distances between neighbors. The smallest planet, Mercury, is about one-third the size of Earth — and the biggest planet, Jupiter, is roughly 11 times the diameter of Earth. There also are very different spacings between individual planets, particularly the inner planets.
This means our solar system may have formed differently than other solar systems did, the research team suggested, although more observations are needed to learn what the different mechanisms were. [The Most Intriguing Alien Planet Discoveries of 2017]
“The planets in a system tend to be the same size and regularly spaced, like peas in a pod. These patterns would not occur if the planet sizes or spacings were drawn at random,” Lauren Weiss, the study’s lead author and an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal, said in a statement.
The research team examined 355 stars that had a total of 909 planets, which periodically transit across their faces (as seen from Earth). The planets are between 1,000 and 4,000 light-years away from Earth.
After running a statistical analysis, the team found that a system with a small planet would tend to have other small planets nearby — and vice-versa, with big planets tending to have big neighbors. These extrasolar systems also had regular orbital spacing between the planets.
“The similar sizes and orbital spacing of planets have implications for how most planetary systems form,” researchers said in the statement. “In classic planet-formation theory, planets form in the protoplanetary disk that surrounds a newly formed star. The planets might form in compact configurations with similar sizes and a regular orbital spacing, in a manner similar to the newly observed pattern in exoplanetary systems.”
In our own solar system, however, the story is very different. The four terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are very widely spaced apart. The team pointed to evidence from other research that Jupiter and Saturn may have disrupted the structure of the young solar system. While the statement did not specify how, several other research studies have examined the movements of these giant planets and their potential impact on the solar system.
Each of the exoplanets examined in the study was originally found by Kepler, which launched in 2009 and continues to send data today. But more-detailed information was obtained with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii; Weiss is a member of the California-Kepler Survey team there, which is examining the light signatures of thousands of planets discovered by Kepler.
Weiss said she plans a follow-up study at Keck to look for Jupiter-like planets in multiplanet systems. The aim is to better understand if the presence of a Jupiter-size planet would alter the position of other planets in the same system.
“Regardless of their outer populations, the similarity of planets in the inner regions of extrasolar systems requires an explanation,” researchers said in the statement. “If the deciding factor for planet sizes can be identified, it might help determine which stars are likely to have terrestrial planets that are suitable for life.”
The study was published Jan. 3 in The Astronomical Journal.