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How About Some Tasty Woolly Rhinoceros for Dinner?

The plaque DNA showed he had consumed poplar bark, containing the pain-killing active ingredient of aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mold

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FILE - A museum recreation shows Neanderthals in this undated photo.

Australia, 11 March, 2017: Ancient DNA from dental plaque is revealing intriguing new information about Neanderthals, including specific menu items in their diet such as woolly rhinoceros and wild mushrooms, as well as their use of plant-based medicine to cope with pain and illness.

Scientists said on Wednesday they genetically analyzed plaque from 48,000-year-old Neanderthal remains from Spain and 36,000-year-old remains from Belgium. The plaque, material that forms on and between teeth, contained food particles as well as microbes from the mouth and the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.

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At Belgium’s Spy Cave site, which at the time was a hilly grassy environment home to big game, the Neanderthal diet was meat-based with woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, along with wild mushrooms. Some 12,000 years earlier, at Spain’s El Sidron Cave site, which was a densely forested environment likely lacking large animals, the diet was wild mushrooms, pine nuts, moss and tree bark, with no sign of meat.

The two populations apparently lived different lifestyles shaped by their environments, the researchers said.

The researchers found that an adolescent male from the Spanish site had a painful dental abscess and an intestinal parasite that causes severe diarrhea. The plaque DNA showed he had consumed poplar bark, containing the pain-killing active ingredient of aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mold.

“This study really gives us a glimpse of what was in a Neanderthal’s medicine cabinet,” said paleomicrobiologist Laura Weyrich of Australia’s University of Adelaide, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

The findings added to the growing body of knowledge about Neanderthals, the closest extinct relative of our species, Homo Sapiens, and further debunked the outdated notion of them as humankind’s dimwitted cousins.

“I definitely believe our research suggests Neanderthals were highly capable, intelligent, likely friendly beings. We really need to rewrite the history books about their ‘caveman-like’ behaviors. They were very human-like behaviors,” Weyrich said.

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The robust, large-browed Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 years ago until going extinct roughly 35,000 years ago after our species, which first appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago, established itself in regions where Neanderthals lived.

Scientists say Neanderthals were intelligent, with complex hunting methods, probable use of spoken language and symbolic objects, and sophisticated fire usage.

The researchers also reconstructed the genome of a 48,000-year-old oral bacterium from one of the Neanderthals.

“This is the oldest microbial genome to date, by about 43,000 years,” Weyrich said. (VOA)

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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)