Archive for the ‘Ancient World’ Category

An Ancient Man-Eating Shrew?

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

deinogalerixOkay, so maybe the ancient shrew from the Late Miocene period wasn’t technically man-eating—and we’re not sure if it was even a carnivore at all—but it might as well have been! Its name, deinogalerix, comes from the ancient Greek words for “terrible” and “shrew,” and one look at its remains is enough to make any animal-lover take a step back!

The Deinogalerix lived on Gargano Island, part of Italy on what is now called the Gargano Peninsula. The island is known for having been home to several species of larger-than-usual creatures during prehistoric times, all of which evolved very differently here than their relatives elsewhere in the world.

Deinogalerix had a 20cm long skull, with the rest of the body covering another 40cm. It would have looked like a hairy, rat-like hedgehog without quills—with a long, conical face, a long tail, long hair, and tiny pointed ears.

They may have lived off bugs like crickets, beetles, and dragonflies, though the bigger the creature grew? The more likely it is to have eaten small mammals, or birds and reptiles. With a jaw of at least 20cm, that’s certainly believable!

deino2Fossils of these creatures have been found in caves on the Gargano Peninsula, dating back to 15 million years ago.

A new study on these fossils was released in the journal Geobios in January 2013—so it may only be a matter of time before we know plenty more about the giant, terrible shrew of prehistoric times!

Building a Whale-Sized Ancient Family Tree

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

baleen-whale…and we mean that literally!

Turns out that the family tree for the majestic creatures we know as blue whales and humpbacks just got a little bit bigger! The ancestors to modern baleen whales now have four new relatives in their history. In February 2013, scientists announced the discovery came thanks to, of all things, a California construction crew.

There were 11 species discovered at the construction site, including the four brand new ancient species who are now identified as ancient baleen whales. These particular species are part of a transitional step in whale history, and are related to the whales that became our modern whales—but are not direct ancestors to modern baleens.

Baleen whales are named for the frayed blades of material that hang from the roof of their mouth—kind of fingernail-like in terms of shape and flexibility—which are used by the creatures to strain seawater as they search for food.

These four new ancient species weren’t quite as passive in their food consumption, however—they had teeth! The fossils discovered by the construction crew were about 17-19 million years old, but the really fascinating part?

Toothed baleen whales were “supposed to have been extinct for about five million years or so” by that time, says palaeontologist Meredith Riven (California State University). So not only were these whales not extinct at the time they were thought to have been, but apparently there were still plenty of them thriving and living in this area.

Before finding these fossils, there’d been no other examples of baleen whales with teeth during the Miocene era—and after the initial discovery, palaeontologists were able to uncover hundreds of whale bones and more than 30 whale skulls from the construction site.

extinct whale toothOf the four new species, three are considerably smaller than the fourth. They’re about the size of a modern dolphin, while the fourth species was a nine-meter whale that bears similarities to another ancient whale species from about 35 million years ago.

Work is still ongoing on the fourth whale species at the site, so there may be more revelations to come!

Project Palaeolithic Runway

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

No self-respecting actress would be caught dead on the red carpet wearing the same dress two years in a row… how horrible would that be? *dramatic swoon*

Even your average high school prom queen wouldn’t wear the same dress twice, much to the dismay of Mom and Dad. But if history is any indication, this isn’t unusual behaviour—in fact, it’s been going on for tens of thousands of years!

Scientists have discovered that ancient humans were no different from the fashionista next door, with some ancient people in a South African cave avoiding fashions they considered “outdated”… 75,000 years ago!

Archaeologists consider things like necklaces and bracelets to be marks of symbolic behaviour, because they represent individual identity or indicate one’s membership in a group. In Upper Palaeolithic sites from 40,000 years ago in ancient Europe, archaeologists have found many, many necklaces and bracelets made of materials like bone, ivory, stone, mollusc shells, and even human teeth!

But 40,000 years is nothing compared to what’s come out in a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution—according to a team led by archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren (University of Bordeaux), a cache of beads found in Blombos Cave in South Africa has revealed a change in how beads were strung together between 75,000-72,000 years ago.

This period was part of something called the “Still Bay Tradition”, which included bone awls, spear points and knives, and sixty-eight types of the south African tick shell all clustered together—each shell with a single hole, indicating they likely used to be strung individually on bracelets and necklaces.

The team studied the wear on the beads, re-strung them, and subjected them to a battery of tests to mimic human wear and sweat! And within the analysis, the team discovered that the wear patterns showed the way the beads were strung didn’t last long—like all fashions, the way they were worn changed time and time again.

This was apparently the earliest “evidence of a shift in ‘social norms’ or ‘customized style’, a change that ‘parallels the many similar changes in symbolic norms observed among more recent and historically known societies’.” Did the residents of Blombos Cave change their fashion ideas on their own, or did some other group influence their concepts and preferences with their own fashions? Who knows!

Either way, the changing fashion preferences of these ancient peoples shows that this period was one of dynamically shifting cultural innovation—especially considering that soon after the Still Bay period, the fashions changed yet again to use styles of decoration made with stone and bone tools.

They were certainly a long way from Forever 21’s ever-changing stock catalogue, but you can now rest assured that your ancestors also could not wear last year’s styles… perish the thought!

Dogs: Our Best Friends for Over 30,000 Years

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Several recent discoveries of canine skulls have revealed to scientists that your darling little Buddy’s ancestors may have been man’s best friend 15,000 years earlier than they’d previously thought.

One of the skulls, found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, has shown through DNA tests to be more closely related to modern domestic pets than wolves, showing that dogs may have been domesticated over 33,000 years ago—moving the earliest thought domestication out of East Asia and the Middle East.

The theory is that wolves moved from being wild creatures to domesticated creatures through a slow process, though exactly how has been debated (and still is) in many scientific circles. It is well documented that dogs were fully established within human societies about 10,000 years ago, with burials of dogs and humans found together in graves from Germany dated to 14,000 years ago.

This new skull and another fossil found in Goyet Cave (Belgium) now represent the two oldest potentially domestic dogs ever discovered—and along with DNA research, the anatomical examinations of the skulls showed them to be more like Lassie than the Big Bad.

The genetic sequences studied by researchers were compared to gene sequences of 72 modern dog species from 70 different breeds, as well as 30 wolves, 4 coyotes, and 35 “prehistoric canid species from the Americas.” ()

The results? Pretty much what they’d already learned from looking at the skulls, though the study did confirm that the Altai canid skull was from an ancient dog and not an ancient wolf, though the split from wolf would have happened rather recently in the dog’s ancestry.

That said, the DNA study was limited to just a portion of the genome, since working with ancient DNA presents its own set of challenges! According to researchers on the project, “additional discoveries of doglike remains are essential for further narrowing the time and region of origin for the domestic dog.”

Either way, give your Old Yeller a hug today—sounds like dogs have been putting up with us for a lot longer than most people would!

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