First love child of human, neanderthal found

Published March 28, 2013

Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas

  • An artist imagines the typical Neanderthal family.

    An artist imagines the typical Neanderthal family. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The skeletal remains of an individual living in northern Italy 40,000-30,000 years ago are believed to be that of a human/Neanderthal hybrid, according to a paper in PLoS ONE.

If further analysis proves the theory correct, the remains belonged to the first known such hybrid, providing direct evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Prior genetic research determined the DNA of people with European and Asian ancestry is 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.

The present study focuses on the individual’s jaw, which was unearthed at a rock-shelter called Riparo di Mezzena in the Monti Lessini region of Italy. Both Neanderthals and modern humans inhabited Europe at the time.


‘It was a “female Neanderthal who mated with male Homo sapiens.’

– Silvana Condemi, an anthropologist


PHOTOS: Faces of Our Ancestors

“From the morphology of the lower jaw, the face of the Mezzena individual would have looked somehow intermediate between classic Neanderthals, who had a rather receding lower jaw (no chin), and the modern humans, who present a projecting lower jaw with a strongly developed chin,” co-author Silvana Condemi, an anthropologist, told Discovery News.

Condemi is the CNRS research director at the University of Ai-Marseille. She and her colleagues studied the remains via DNA analysis and 3D imaging. They then compared those results with the same features from Homo sapiens.

The genetic analysis shows that the individual’s mitochondrial DNA is Neanderthal. Since this DNA is transmitted from a mother to her child, the researchers conclude that it was a “female Neanderthal who mated with male Homo sapiens.”

NEWS: Neanderthals Lacked Social Skills

By the time modern humans arrived in the area, the Neanderthals had already established their own culture, Mousterian, which lasted some 200,000 years. Numerous flint tools, such as axes and spear points, have been associated with the Mousterian. The artifacts are typically found in rock shelters, such as the Riparo di Mezzena, and caves throughout Europe.

The researchers found that, although the hybridization between the two hominid species likely took place, the Neanderthals continued to uphold their own cultural traditions.

That’s an intriguing clue, because it suggests that the two populations did not simply meet, mate and merge into a single group.

NEWS: Neanderthals Died Out Earlier Than Thought

As Condemi and her colleagues wrote, the mandible supports the theory of “a slow process of replacement of Neanderthals by the invading modern human populations, as well as additional evidence of the upholding of the Neanderthals’ cultural identity.”

Prior fossil finds indicate that modern humans were living in a southern Italy cave as early as 45,000 years ago. Modern humans and Neanderthals therefore lived in roughly the same regions for thousands of years, but the new human arrivals, from the Neanderthal perspective, might not have been welcome, and for good reason. The research team hints that the modern humans may have raped female Neanderthals, bringing to mind modern cases of “ethnic cleansing.”

Ian Tattersall is one of the world’s leading experts on Neanderthals and the human fossil record. He is a paleoanthropologist and a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History.

Tattersall told Discovery News that the hypothesis, presented in the new paper, “is very intriguing and one that invites more research.”

Neanderthal culture and purebred Neanderthals all died out 35,000-30,000 years ago.

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Amateur with metal detector finds 1,600-year-old royal ring

Published March 28, 2013

  • Escrick Ring 1.jpg

    The Escrick Ring, an intricately worked gold ring surrounding a brilliant blue sapphire discovered in 2009 by metal-detector enthusiast Michael Greenhorn, seen here with his discovery. (Kippa Matthews / York Museums Trust)

  • Escrick Ring.jpg

    A unique piece of jewelry called the Escrick Ring is only the second known use of a sapphire in jewellery found in the country, the first being a 5th century Roman example. It was found with a metal detector in 2009. (Kippa Matthews / York Museums Trust)

Did this intricate piece of sapphire, gold and glass belong to the King of France, some 1,600 years ago?

A group of archaeologist met at the Yorkshire Museum in England last week to discuss the Escrick Ring, an intricately worked gold ring surrounding a brilliant blue sapphire discovered in 2009 by an amateur metal-detector enthusiast.


‘Nothing like it has been found in this country.’

– Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum


The ring, among the oldest pieces of sapphire jewelry ever found in the country, was thought to date from the 10th or 11th centuries — until the group took a closer look.

“Nothing like it has been found in this country,” said Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum. “This sapphire ring is even more special than we had previously thought.”

The panel’s conclusion: The Escrick Ring was made in Europe, possibly France, and would have belonged to a king or leader — not just a Bishop, as had been previously thought. It’s likely to date far earlier than previously thought as well: the 5th or 6th century, as much as 600 years earlier than archaeologists had believed.

“Hopefully this will lead us to finding out more about the ring and possibly even who might have owned it,” she said.

The ring was found by Michael Greenhorn, from York and District Metal Detecting Club, in 2009. The Yorkshire Museum raised over $50,000 to purchase it.

Attendees of the workshop, which the Yorkshire Museum said included more than 30 experts from across the country, decided that the sapphire in the ring was probably cut earlier, possibly during the Roman period, but the ring itself was specially made around the sapphire. By looking at the wear on the ring it is thought that it was worn for at least 50 years before it was lost.

The gold hoop that forms the ring also looks slightly different to the main part of the ring, with suggestions being made that it was turned into a ring later, possibly from a brooch or mount.

Further research, including an X-ray analysis and samples from the gold hoop, may help to pinpoint its origin.

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3,300-year-old Egyptian cemetery revealed

By Tia Ghose

Published March 19, 2013


  • excavating-skeletons.jpg

    Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient cemetery at the Egyptian city of Amarna. The cemetery held the commoners, rather than the elites, of the city. (The Amarna Project)

  • excavating-amarna.jpg

    Archaeologists have unearthed graves with hundreds of skeletons at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna. (The Amarna Project)

While an Egyptian pharaoh built majestic temples filled with sparkling treasures, the lower classes performed backbreaking work on meager diets, new evidence suggests.

An analysis of more than 150 skeletons from a 3,300-year-old cemetery at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna reveals fractures, wear and tear from heavy lifting, and rampant malnutrition amongst the city’s commoners.

The discovery, detailed in the March issue of the journal Antiquity, could shed light on how the non-elites of ancient Egyptian society lived.

Overnight city
For a brief, 17-year period, the center of Egypt was Amarna, a small city on the banks of the Nile, about 218 miles south of Cairo.

The pharaoh Akhenaten relocated his capital city to Amarna to build a pure, uncontaminated cult of worship dedicated to the sun god Aten. [Gallery: Sun Gods and Goddesses]

In a few years, temples, court buildings and housing complexes sprung up. At one time, 20,000 to 30,000 court officials, soldiers, builders and servants lived in the city.

But after Akhenaten’s death, the next pharaoh, Tutankhamun, promptly rolled up the experiment. The city, which lacked good agricultural land, was soon abandoned.

Because the Egyptians occupied Amarna for such a short time, the city provides archaeologists with an unprecedented insight into what people’s lives looked like at a specific moment in history, said study co-author Anna Stevens, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge.

Hard life
About 10 years ago, a surveyor investigating a region in the desert near Amarna discovered an ancient cemetery. The site contained hundreds of skeletons and skeletal fragments from lower-class Egyptians. [See Photos of the Ancient Egyptian Cemetery ]

To see what these everyday Egyptians’ daily lives were like, Stevens and her colleagues analyzed 159 skeletons that were found mostly intact.

The researchers’ conclusions: Life was hard at Amarna. The children had stunted growth, and many of the bones were porous due to nutritional deficiency, probably because the commoners lived on a diet of mostly bread and beer, Stevens told LiveScience.

More than three-quarters of the adults had degenerative joint disease, likely from hauling heavy loads, and about two-thirds of these adults had at least one broken bone.

The findings suggest that the rapid construction of Amarna may have been especially hard on the commoners. Based on the size of the bricks found in nearby structures, each worker likely carried a limestone brick weighing 154 pounds in assembly-line fashion. Erecting the city’s structures so quickly would have required workers to repeatedly carry out such heavy lifting. That could have caused the joint disease the skeletons revealed.

The norm in Egypt?
“This is a fabulous study because it is a big population from a known site, and we have all these bodies from people who are relatively lower class,” said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the study.

But because, in total, archaeologists have unearthed so few ancient Egyptian cemeteries in which the non-elite were buried, it’s possible that these backbreaking conditions prevailed across Egypt at the time, Stevens said.

Other research has found that even Egypt’s wealthy suffered widespread malnutrition and disease, often living only to age 30.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Early birds sported 4 wings

By Tanya Lewis

Published March 15, 2013


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    Chinese fossils reveal that ancient birds had feathers on their legs. (Science/AAAS)

  • four-winged-bird-foot.jpg

    Chinese fossils reveal that ancient birds had feathers on their legs. (Science/AAAS)

  • four-winged-bird

    Chinese fossils reveal that ancient birds had feathers on their legs. (Science/AAAS)

More than 100 million years ago, birds living in what is now China sported wings on their legs, a new study of fossils suggests.

Researchers found evidence of large leg feathers in 11 bird specimens from China’s Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. The feathers suggest that early birds had four wings, which may have played a role in the evolution of flight, scientists report in a study published Thursday, March 14, in the journal Science.

Most scientists believe that birds evolved from other feathered dinosaurs; this belief is supported by discoveries of fossils of feathery birdlike creatures. In 2000, scientists discovered a nonavian dinosaur with feathers on its arms and legs, called Microraptor, which could probably fly. In addition, specimens of Archaeopteryx, a transitional fossil between modern birds and feathered dinosaurs, show faint featherlike structures on their legs, but the signs are poorly preserved.


‘These new fossils fill in many gaps in our view of the early evolution of birds.’

– David Alexander of the University of Kansas


Now, leg feathers have been spotted in the 11 museum fossils that had been collected from the Lower Cretaceous Jehol formation in Liaoning, China, from a period about 150 million to 100 million years ago. The feathers are stiff and stick straight out from the birds’ legs, and have a large enough surface area to be aerodynamic, the researchers say.

The fossils belong to at least four different groups, including the genera Sapeornis, Yanornis and Confuciusornis, as well as the Enantiornithes group. The findings suggest that leg feathers weren’t just an evolutionary rarity.

The researchers also analyzed feathers of other birds and nonbird dinosaurs. Feathers covering the entire leg and feet first developed in dinosaurs, continued in early birds and later disappeared, the results imply. Birds gradually lost feathers on their feet and then their legs, and today, modern birds have wings on their arms only.[Avian Ancestors: Dinosaurs That Learned to Fly]

Whether these early birds used their leg feathers to fly, and how they may have done so, is up for debate. According to the study researchers, the flat surface formed by the stiff perpendicular feathers could have provided lift and maneuverability.

“These new fossils fill in many gaps in our view of the early evolution of birds,” animal flight expert David Alexander of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who was not involved in the study, told Science magazine. Alexander agrees that the feathers probably had some aerodynamic function, “although whether as stabilizers, steering vanes, or full-blown wings remains to be seen.”

Other scientists aren’t convinced. Paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley, told Science magazine that the authors don’t provide evidence that the feathers contributed to any sort of flight. In fact, the feathers would create drag that would hinder flight, Padian said. The birds may have used their plumes for courtship instead, another scientist suggested.

More studies are needed to nail down the feathers’ function. Examining more fossils from the thousands in the museum collection will help, the study’s authors say.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Vatican archaeology: Digging history beneath St. Peter’s


Six decades ago, an extraordinary effort was undertaken far from the ornate public realms of the Vatican: Workers meticulously excavated the tombs and other long-sealed, centuries-old chambers beneath St. Peter’s. See all the photos at


The oldest burial chamber found during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The tomb of the Caetennii (17 x 18 feet) was one of the richest and most lavishly decorated of all those excavated beneath St. Peter’s.Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images


Tomb of the Egizio featuring elaborate sarcophagi sculpted with scenes of Bacchic rites. While most of the findings here were purely pagan, there were also Christian designs — for example, of a palm leaf and a dove.Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Pope Pius XI, whose desire to be buried below St. Peter’s nave led to the historic excavations, lies in his stone sarcophagus in renovated upper grottoes.Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Classic sculpture adorns the Marci sarcophagus of Q. Marcius Hermes and his wife. See tons of other pics from the excavation at

Source: Nat FarbmanTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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