Back to the Cave

Kevin Lewis

August 01, 2020

Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum
Ciprian Ardelean et al.
Nature, forthcoming


The initial colonization of the Americas remains a highly debated topic, and the exact timing of the first arrivals is unknown. The earliest archaeological record of Mexico — which holds a key geographical position in the Americas — is poorly known and understudied. Historically, the region has remained on the periphery of research focused on the first American populations. However, recent investigations provide reliable evidence of a human presence in the northwest region of Mexico, the Chiapas Highlands, Central Mexico and the Caribbean coast during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene epochs. Here we present results of recent excavations at Chiquihuite Cave — a high-altitude site in central-northern Mexico — that corroborate previous findings in the Americas of cultural evidence that dates to the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500–19,000 years ago), and which push back dates for human dispersal to the region possibly as early as 33,000–31,000 years ago. The site yielded about 1,900 stone artefacts within a 3-m-deep stratified sequence, revealing a previously unknown lithic industry that underwent only minor changes over millennia. More than 50 radiocarbon and luminescence dates provide chronological control, and genetic, palaeoenvironmental and chemical data document the changing environments in which the occupants lived. Our results provide new evidence for the antiquity of humans in the Americas, illustrate the cultural diversity of the earliest dispersal groups (which predate those of the Clovis culture) and open new directions of research.

The timing and effect of the earliest human arrivals in North America
Lorena Becerra-Valdivia & Thomas Higham
Nature, forthcoming


The peopling of the Americas marks a major expansion of humans across the planet. However, questions regarding the timing and mechanisms of this dispersal remain, and the previously accepted model (termed ‘Clovis-first’) — suggesting that the first inhabitants of the Americas were linked with the Clovis tradition, a complex marked by distinctive fluted lithic points — has been effectively refuted. Here we analyse chronometric data from 42 North American and Beringian archaeological sites using a Bayesian age modelling approach, and use the resulting chronological framework to elucidate spatiotemporal patterns of human dispersal. We then integrate these patterns with the available genetic and climatic evidence. The data obtained show that humans were probably present before, during and immediately after the Last Glacial Maximum (about 26.5–19 thousand years ago) but that more widespread occupation began during a period of abrupt warming, Greenland Interstadial 1 (about 14.7–12.9 thousand years before AD 2000). We also identify the near-synchronous commencement of Beringian, Clovis and Western Stemmed cultural traditions, and an overlap of each with the last dates for the appearance of 18 now-extinct faunal genera. Our analysis suggests that the widespread expansion of humans through North America was a key factor in the extinction of large terrestrial mammals.

Diverse variola virus (smallpox) strains were widespread in northern Europe in the Viking Age
Barbara Mühlemann et al.
Science, 24 July 2020


Smallpox, one of the most devastating human diseases, killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century alone. We recovered viral sequences from 13 northern European individuals, including 11 dated to ~600–1050 CE, overlapping the Viking Age, and reconstructed near-complete variola virus genomes for four of them. The samples predate the earliest confirmed smallpox cases by ~1000 years, and the sequences reveal a now-extinct sister clade of the modern variola viruses that were in circulation before the eradication of smallpox. We date the most recent common ancestor of variola virus to ~1700 years ago. Distinct patterns of gene inactivation in the four near-complete sequences show that different evolutionary paths of genotypic host adaptation resulted in variola viruses that circulated widely among humans.

A Neanderthal Sodium Channel Increases Pain Sensitivity in Present-Day Humans
Hugo Zeberg et al.
Current Biology, forthcoming


The sodium channel Nav1.7 is crucial for impulse generation and conduction in peripheral pain pathways [1]. In Neanderthals, the Nav1.7 protein carried three amino acid substitutions (M932L, V991L, and D1908G) relative to modern humans. We expressed Nav1.7 proteins carrying all combinations of these substitutions and studied their electrophysiological effects. Whereas the single amino acid substitutions do not affect the function of the ion channel, the full Neanderthal variant carrying all three substitutions, as well as the combination of V991L with D1908G, shows reduced inactivation, suggesting that peripheral nerves were more sensitive to painful stimuli in Neanderthals than in modern humans. We show that, due to gene flow from Neanderthals, the three Neanderthal substitutions are found in ∼0.4% of present-day Britons, where they are associated with heightened pain sensitivity.

The human cerebellum has almost 80% of the surface area of the neocortex
Martin Sereno et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


The surface of the human cerebellar cortex is much more tightly folded than the cerebral cortex. It was computationally reconstructed for the first time to the level of all individual folia from multicontrast high-resolution postmortem MRI scans. Its total shrinkage-corrected surface area (1,590 cm2) was larger than expected or previously reported, equal to 78% of the total surface area of the human neocortex. The unfolded and flattened surface comprised a narrow strip 10 cm wide but almost 1 m long. By applying the same methods to the neocortex and cerebellum of the macaque monkey, we found that its cerebellum was relatively much smaller, approximately 33% of the total surface area of its neocortex. This suggests a prominent role for the cerebellum in the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition.

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