Prehistoric birds from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea: extinctions on a large Melanesian island.
At least 50 species of birds are represented in 241 bird bones from five late Pleistocene and Holocene archaeological sites on New Ireland (Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea). The bones include only two of seabirds and none of migrant shorebirds or introduced species. Of the 50 species, at least 12 (petrel, hawk, megapode, quail, four rails, cockatoo, two owls, and crow) are not part of the current avifauna and have not been recorded previously from New Ireland. Larger samples of bones undoubtedly would indicate more extirpated species and refine the chronology of extinction. Humans have lived on New Ireland for ca. 35,000 years, whereas most of the identified bones are 15,000 to 6,000 years old. It is suspected that most or all of New Ireland's avian extinction was anthropogenic, but this suspicion remains undetermined. Our data show that significant prehistoric losses of birds, which are well documented on Pacific islands more remote than New Ireland, occurred also on large, high, mostly forested islands close to New Guinea. (+info)
Predicting protein decomposition: the case of aspartic-acid racemization kinetics.
The increase in proportion of the non-biological (D-) isomer of aspartic acid (Asp) relative to the L-isomer has been widely used in archaeology and geochemistry as a tool for dating. the method has proved controversial, particularly when used for bones. The non-linear kinetics of Asp racemization have prompted a number of suggestions as to the underlying mechanism(s) and have led to the use of mathematical transformations which linearize the increase in D-Asp with respect to time. Using one example, a suggestion that the initial rapid phase of Asp racemization is due to a contribution from asparagine (Asn), we demonstrate how a simple model of the degradation and racemization of Asn can be used to predict the observed kinetics. A more complex model of peptide bound Asx (Asn + Asp) racemization, which occurs via the formation of a cyclic succinimide (Asu), can be used to correctly predict Asx racemization kinetics in proteins at high temperatures (95-140 degrees C). The model fails to predict racemization kinetics in dentine collagen at 37 degrees C. The reason for this is that Asu formation is highly conformation dependent and is predicted to occur extremely slowly in triple helical collagen. As conformation strongly influences the rate of Asu formation and hence Asx racemization, the use of extrapolation from high temperatures to estimate racemization kinetics of Asx in proteins below their denaturation temperature is called into question. In the case of archaeological bone, we argue that the D:L ratio of Asx reflects the proportion of non-helical to helical collagen, overlain by the effects of leaching of more soluble (and conformationally unconstrained) peptides. Thus, racemization kinetics in bone are potentially unpredictable, and the proposed use of Asx racemization to estimate the extent of DNA depurination in archaeological bones is challenged. (+info)
Documenting the diet in ancient human populations through stable isotope analysis of hair.
Fundamental to the understanding of human history is the ability to make interpretations based on artefacts and other remains which are used to gather information about an ancient population. Sequestered in the organic matrices of these remains can be information, for example, concerning incidence of disease, genetic defects and diet. Stable isotopic compositions, especially those made on isolates of collagen from bones, have been used to help suggest principal dietary components. A significant problem in the use of collagen is its long-term stability, and the possibility of isotopic alteration during early diagenesis, or through contaminating condensation reactions. In this study, we suggest that a commonly overlooked material, human hair, may represent an ideal material to be used in addressing human diets of ancient civilizations. Through the analysis of the amino-acid composition of modern hair, as well as samples that were subjected to radiation (thus simulating ageing of the hair) and hair from humans that is up to 5200 years old, we have observed little in the way of chemical change. The principal amino acids observed in all of these samples are essentially identical in relative abundances and content. Dominating the compositions are serine, glutamic acid, threonine, glycine and leucine, respectively accounting for approximately 15%, 17%, 10%, 8% and 8% of the total hydrolysable amino acids. Even minor components (for example, alanine, valine, isoleucine) show similar constancy between the samples of different ages. This constancy clearly indicates minimal alteration of the amino-acid composition of the hair. Further, it would indicate that hair is well preserved and is amenable to isotopic analysis as a tool for distinguishing sources of nutrition. Based on this observation, we have isotopically characterized modern individuals for whom the diet has been documented. Both stable nitrogen and carbon isotope compositions were assessed, and together provide an indication of trophic status, and principal type (C3 or C4) of vegetation consumed. True vegans have nitrogen isotope compositions of about 7/1000 whereas humans consuming larger amounts of meat, eggs, or milk are more enriched in the heavy nitrogen isotope. We have also analysed large cross-sections of modern humans from North America and Europe to provide an indication of the variability seen in a population (the supermarket diet). There is a wide diversity in both carbon and nitrogen isotope values based at least partially on the levels of seafood, corn-fed beef and grains in the diets. Following analysis of the ancient hair, we have observed similar trends in certain ancient populations. For example, the Coptics of Egypt (1000 BP) and Chinchorro of Chile (5000-800 BP) have diets of similar diversity to those observed in the modern group but were isotopically influenced by local nutritional sources. In other ancient hair (Egyptian Late Middle Kingdom mummies, ca. 4000 BP), we have observed a much more uniform isotopic signature, indicating a more constant diet. We have also recognized a primary vegetarian component in the diet of the Neolithic Ice Man of the Oetztaler Alps (5200 BP). In certain cases, it appears that sulphur isotopes may help to further constrain dietary interpretations, owing to the good preservation and sulphur content of hair. It appears that analysis of the often-overlooked hair in archaeological sites may represent a significant new approach for understanding ancient human communities. (+info)
Preservation of key biomolecules in the fossil record: current knowledge and future challenges.
We have developed a model based on the analyses of modern and Pleistocene eggshells and mammalian bones which can be used to understand the preservation of amino acids and other important biomolecules such as DNA in fossil specimens. The model is based on the following series of diagenetic reactions and processes involving amino acids: the hydrolysis of proteins and the subsequent loss of hydrolysis products from the fossil matrix with increasing geologic age; the racemization of amino acids which produces totally racemized amino acids in 10(5)-10(6) years in most environments on the Earth; the introduction of contaminants into the fossil that lowers the enantiomeric (D:L) ratios produced via racemization; and the condensation reactions between amino acids, as well as other compounds with primary amino groups, and sugars which yield humic acid-like polymers. This model was used to evaluate whether useful amino acid and DNA sequence information is preserved in a variety of human, amber-entombed insect and dinosaur specimens. Most skeletal remains of evolutionary interest with respect to the origin of modern humans are unlikely to preserve useful biomolecular information although those from high latitude sites may be an exception. Amber-entombed insects contain well-preserved unracemized amino acids, apparently because of the anhydrous nature of the amber matrix, and thus may contain DNA fragments which have retained meaningful genetic information. Dinosaur specimens contain mainly exogenous amino acids, although traces of endogenous amino acids may be present in some cases. Future ancient biomolecule research which takes advantage of new methologies involving, for example, humic acid cleaving reagents and microchip-based DNA-protein detection and sequencing, along with investigations of very slow biomolecule diagenetic reactions such as the racemization of isoleucine at the beta-carbon, will lead to further enhancements of our understanding of biomolecule preservation in the fossil record. (+info)
Early medieval cattle remains from a Scandinavian settlement in Dublin: genetic analysis and comparison with extant breeds.
A panel of cattle bones excavated from the 1000-year-old Viking Fishamble Street site in Dublin was assessed for the presence of surviving mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Eleven of these bones gave amplifiable mtDNA and a portion of the hypervariable control region was determined for each specimen. A comparative analysis was performed with control region sequences from five extant Nordic and Irish cattle breeds. The medieval population displayed similar levels of mtDNA diversity to modern European breeds. However, a number of novel mtDNA haplotypes were also detected in these bone samples. In addition, the presence of a putative ancestral sequence at high frequency in the medieval population supports an early post-domestication expansion of cattle in Europe. (+info)
How microbial ancient DNA, found in association with human remains, can be interpreted.
The analysis of the DNA of ancient micro-organisms in archaeological and palaeontological human remains can contribute to the understanding of issues as different as the spreading of a new disease, a mummification process or the effect of diets on historical human populations. The quest for this type of DNA, however, can represent a particularly demanding task. This is mainly due to the abundance and diffusion of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae and protozoans in the most diverse environments of the present-day biosphere and the resulting difficulty in distinguishing between ancient and modern DNA. Nevertheless, at least under some special circumstances, by using rigorous protocols, which include an archaeometric survey of the specimens and evaluation of the palaeoecological consistency of the results of DNA sequence analysis, glimpses of the composition of the original microbial flora (e.g. colonic flora) can be caught in ancient human remains. Potentials and pitfalls of this research field are illustrated by the results of research works performed on prehistoric, pre-Columbian and Renaissance human mummies. (+info)
Analysis of ancient DNA from a prehistoric Amerindian cemetery.
The Norris Farms No. 36 cemetery in central Illinois has been the subject of considerable archaeological and genetic research. Both mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA have been examined in this 700-year-old population. DNA preservation at the site was good, with about 70% of the samples producing mtDNA results and approximately 15% yielding nuclear DNA data. All four of the major Amerindian mtDNA haplogroups were found, in addition to a fifth haplogroup. Sequences of the first hypervariable region of the mtDNA control region revealed a high level of diversity in the Norris Farms population and confirmed that the fifth haplogroup associates with Mongolian sequences and hence is probably authentic. Other than a possible reduction in the number of rare mtDNA lineages in many populations, it does not appear as if European contact significantly altered patterns of Amerindian mtDNA variation, despite the large decrease in population size that occurred. For nuclear DNA analysis, a novel method for DNA-based sex identification that uses nucleotide differences between the X and Y copies of the amelogenin gene was developed and applied successfully in approximately 20 individuals. Despite the well-known problems of poor DNA preservation and the ever-present possibility of contamination with modern DNA, genetic analysis of the Norris Farms No. 36 population demonstrates that ancient DNA can be a fruitful source of new insights into prehistoric populations. (+info)
On the homology of the alisphenoid.
The relationships of the elements of the cavum epiptericum in a hypothetical primitive mammalian precursor are reconstructed, and these are analysed in relation to the development of recent mammals, especially the fruit bat Nyctinomus johorensis. The alisphenoid in mammals is part cartilage bone, part membrane bone. The mammalian homologue of the primitive reptilian processus ascendens appears to be internal to the maxillary nerve. If so, then the 'lamina ascendens', that portion of the alisphenoid of mammals which lies between maxillary and mandibular nerves, cannot be a true processus ascendens but must be neomorphic. It is suggested that the mammalian lamina ascendens arose from an upgrowth of the root of the quadrate ramus of the epipterygoid in cynodonts, separating foramen rotundum from foramen ovale. In Ditremata the alisphenoid is completed by an element of membrane bone; this, it is suggested here, originated as the anterior lamina of the periotic in cynodonts, which is retained in monotremes. It is suggested that the alicochlear commissure of mammals originated as the later flange of the periotic in cynodonts. (+info)