Category Archives: AUSTRALIA

World’s oldest heart preserved in 380 million-year-old armored fish

World’s oldest heart preserved in 380 million-year-old armored fish

Researchers have discovered a 380 million-year-old heart—the oldest ever found—alongside a separate fossilized stomach, intestine, and liver in an ancient jawed fish, shedding new light on the evolution of our own bodies.

A team of Australian scientists has discovered the world’s oldest heart, part of the fossilized remains of an armored fish that died some 380 million years ago. The fish also had a fossilized stomach, liver, and intestine.

All the organs were arranged much like similar organs in modern shark anatomy, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science.

As we’ve reported previously, most fossils are bone, shells, teeth, and other forms of “hard” tissue, but occasionally fossils are discovered that preserve soft tissues like skin, muscles, organs—or even the occasional eyeball. This can tell scientists much about aspects of the biology, ecology, and evolution of such ancient organisms that skeletons alone can’t convey.

For instance, earlier this year, researchers created a highly detailed 3D model of a 365 million-year-old ammonite fossil from the Jurassic period by combining advanced imaging techniques, revealing internal muscles that had never been previously observed. Among other findings, the researchers observed paired muscles extending from the ammonite’s body, which they surmise the animal used to retract itself further into its shell to avoid predators. 

And last month, British researchers described their experiments monitoring dead sea bass carcasses as they rotted over the course of 70 days to gain insights into how (and why) the soft tissues of internal organs can be selectively preserved in the fossil record.

World’s oldest heart preserved in 380 million-year-old armored fish
The arthrodire placoderm fossil from the Gogo Formation in Australia where the 380 million-year-old mineralized heart was discovered.

One of the best ways that soft tissue can turn into rock is when it is replaced by a mineral called calcium phosphate (sometimes called apatite). Specifically, muscles, stomachs, and intestines tend to “phosphatize” much more frequently than other organs like kidneys and gonads. The authors concluded that the phosphorus content of specific organ tissue contributes to this unusual selection bias for which soft tissues are preserved in the fossil record.

The fossilized specimens examined in this latest paper were collected from the Gogo Formation in Western Australia, which was once a reef and is rich in exceptionally well-preserved Devonian fossils, such as the class of armored prehistoric fish known as placoderms. That preservation includes soft tissues, including nerves.

In 2005, paleontologists even excavated a new species of placoderm, dubbed Materpiscis (“mother fish”), with an embryo still attached by an umbilical cord—evidence that at least some species of armored fish gave birth to well-developed live offspring.

According to the authors of this latest paper, placoderms were among the earliest jawed vertebrates, the evolution of which involved significant changes to skeletal structure and soft anatomy. Because the preservation of soft tissue is so rare in the fossil record, the samples collected at the Gogo Formation (and now housed in the public collections of the Western Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria) could hold clues about how this transition occurred—specifically, how the head and neck region changed to accommodate jaws.

Reconstruction of a Devonian arthrodire placoderm.

“What’s really exceptional about the Gogo fishes is that their soft tissues are preserved in three dimensions,” said co-author Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University.

“Most cases of soft-tissue preservation are found in flattened fossils, where the soft anatomy is little more than a stain on the rock. We are also very fortunate in that modern scanning techniques allow us to study these fragile soft tissues without destroying them. A couple of decades ago, the project would have been impossible.”

Paleontologists collected the samples by splitting limestone concretions in the field, then taping the broken pieces together for transport. The researchers were able to scan the intact samples using neutron beams and synchrotron radiation. Then, they constructed 3D images of the soft tissues preserved within based on the different densities of minerals deposited by bacteria and the surrounding matrix of rock.

Artist’s representation of the now-extinct armored fish to which the 380 million-year-old heart belonged.

The result: the first 3D model of a complex, flat s-shaped heart with two distinct chambers. The team also imaged a thick-walled stomach with intact intestines and a liver, separated from the heart; they also noted the absence of lungs. The fossilized liver was quite large and likely helped the fish stay buoyant, per the authors. It’s the first time scientists have been able to see the arrangement of organs inside a primitive jawed fish.

“As a paleontologist who has studied fossils for more than 20 years, I was truly amazed to find a 3D and beautifully preserved heart in a 380 million-year-old ancestor,” said co-author Kate Trinajstic, a vertebrate paleontologist at Curtin University.

“Evolution is often thought of as a series of small steps, but these ancient fossils suggest there was a larger leap between jawless and jawed vertebrates. These fish literally have their hearts in their mouths and under their gills—just like sharks today.”

Priceless archaeological artefacts found in Norfolk Island National Park by local citizen scientist

Priceless archaeological artefacts found in Norfolk Island National Park by local citizen scientist

An archaeological dig on Norfolk Island has uncovered two Polynesian adzes (stone axes) and hundreds of flakes dating back to the pre-European settlement. The adzes were used for woodworking and canoe building and form hard evidence of settlement on Norfolk Island by the Polynesians during the 13th and 15th CE. Part of the Australian Museum’s first, broad-scale, multi-pronged expedition of Norfolk Island, the first pieces of the treasure trove was uncovered by local Norfolk Islander, Snowy Tavener, who identified the site on the walking track in the Norfolk Island National Park more than four years ago.

Priceless archaeological artefacts found in Norfolk Island National Park by local citizen scientist
An archaeological dig on Norfolk Island has uncovered two Polynesian adzes (stone axes) and hundreds of flakes dating back to the pre-European settlement.

“For many years, I’ve been walking this track searching for evidence of a new Polynesian site on our island, so when I came across these flakes I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Snowy said.

“The track is an extremely popular bushwalking path and has been driven and walked over for hundreds of years, but before we told the wider community about our find, I wanted it confirmed by archaeologists,” Snowy explained.

“I showed the site to my friend, Deb Jorgensen, who has a daughter, Nicola Jorgensen, studying Archaeology at the University of Sydney under Dr Amy Mosig Way from the Australian Museum, and the University of Sydney,” Snowy said.

“Nicola was immediately interested and so she and her supervisor came over last year to confirm that it was indeed a potential new Polynesian site,” Snowy added.

Now completing her Master’s degree, Jorgensen said the flakes and adzes are made from basalt and are a tangible link back to the Polynesian heritage of Norfolk Island.

“The number of artefacts not only indicates the level of activity that occurred on the site but also confirms that this is another site made by the original Polynesian ancestors, with the other first settlement site being located at Emily Bay,” Jorgensen said.

Reflecting on the importance of the find, Jorgensen said it was exciting to her that this research commenced with local knowledge.

“I grew up here on beautiful Norfolk Island and like Snowy, feel proud to call it home. Local conservation efforts and preservation of our flora, fauna and historical sites can not only help advance scientific studies but are also more likely to deliver positive outcomes for our community,” Jorgensen added.

Dr Amy Mosig Way and local Norfolk Islander, Snowy Tavener uncover two Polynesian adzes (stone axes).

Australian Museum archaeologist, Dr Mosig Way, said the significance of the discovery is that it demonstrates the extent of the Polynesian settlement across the island.

“No longer can the idea of Polynesians inhabiting the island be thought of as fleeting,” Dr Mosig Way said

“The artefacts can provide us with an understanding of the behaviours, the possessions and the movement of the former Polynesian inhabitants of Norfolk Island. And what is particularly exciting is the preservation of the artefacts, despite the traffic that has occurred on this track during the last few hundred years,” Dr Mosig Way explained.

Norfolk Island National Park Manager Nigel Greenup said that the discovery of the adze was significant.

“This discovery of an adze in Norfolk Island National Park indicates historical links with Polynesian people who first called Norfolk Island home – well before the colonial settlement of the island,” Mr Greenup said.

“We will continue to work with the community and archaeologists to conserve this cultural heritage.”

Australian Museum Chief Scientist, Professor Kris Helgen, acknowledged that keen observations and persistence shown by Snowy have been the key to this extraordinary find.

“Incorporating local knowledge into our analysing and collecting methods is integral to the Australian Museum’s scientific research,” Helgen said.

“I am impressed not only by Snowy’s knowledge but also by the enthusiasm and pride of the whole local community. I know we are all thrilled by these discoveries,” Helgen added.

Dr Amy Mosig Way, part of the Australian Museum’s first broad-scale multi-pronged expedition of Norfolk Island.

Supported by Norfolk Island National Park Manager Nigel Greenup, Jorgensen, Snowy and Dr Mosig Way have carefully excavated, retrieved and recorded the items to ensure they are well-documented and conserved.

Once the dig is finished, the artefacts will be analysed and catalogued by the scientists with the findings and acknowledgement of the local community to be included in a scientific paper. The artefacts will initially be stored on Norfolk Island while a process of community consultation is undertaken to seek views on the long-term preservation and display of the items.

Funded through the Australian Museum Foundation, the Norfolk Island expedition is a collaboration with the Norfolk Island community, Parks Australia, the Australian Institute of Botanical Science and the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Nicola Jorgensen’s project is supervised by Dr Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum and the University of Sydney.

Mystery of Australia’s ‘Somerton Man’ solved after 70 years, researcher says

Mystery of Australia’s ‘Somerton Man’ solved after 70 years, researcher says

Mystery of Australia's 'Somerton Man' solved after 70 years, researcher says
A plaster bust of the so-called Somerton Man

In 1948, the body of a well-dressed man was found slumped on an Australian beach. A half-smoked cigarette was resting on his collar, and there was a line from a Persian poem in his pocket – but investigators had no idea who he was.

Theories abounded, including that the person – dubbed Somerton Man – was a spy. But after more than 70 years, a researcher says he’s solved the mystery – Somerton Man was Carl Webb.

And he was not a Russian agent, but rather a Melbourne-born electrical engineer. South Australia Police have not confirmed the discovery but say they will comment soon.

Baffling mystery

Beachgoers found the body lying against a seawall on Somerton Beach in Adelaide on 1 December 1948. The man was dressed in a suit and tie, and appeared to be aged in his 40s or 50s.

In his pocket were bus and train tickets, chewing gum, some matches, two combs and a pack of cigarettes. He had no wallet, no cash, and no ID.

The tags on his suit had been cut off, and forensic examiners suspected he had been poisoned.

Other curious finds baffled authorities. They included a suitcase, more items of clothing with their labels removed, and incoherent writings believed to be a code.

He also held a torn scrap of paper with the Farsi words Tamam Shud – meaning “it’s finished” – printed on it.

The Somerton Man’s fingerprints were sent around the world, but no one could identify him.

And so he was buried in Adelaide cemetery in 1949 with a tombstone reading: “Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach.”

Investigators have never been able to decipher the code found in the man’s book

The mystery man’s remains were exhumed by police last year in a bid to solve the case. But a professor at the University of Adelaide was on his own mission to crack it.

Derek Abbott was able to analyse the Somerton Man’s DNA using hairs preserved when authorities made a plaster model of his face.

He teamed up with renowned US forensic expert Colleen Fitzpatrick – who specialises in cold cases – to build an extended family tree using the DNA.

And from 4000 names, the pair narrowed it down to one – Carl Webb. They then tracked down the man’s living relatives, using their DNA to confirm his identity.

“It’s a triangulation from two different, totally distant parts of the [family] tree,” Prof Abbott told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Of the discovery, he said: “It kind of feels like climbing Mount Everest, and having that mixture of elation that you’re at the top, but also tiredness and exhaustion.”

So who is Carl Webb?

According to Prof Abbott, Webb was born in 1905 in a suburb of Melbourne.

He was the youngest of six siblings and married Dorothy Robertson, known as Doff Webb. That’s most likely what brought him to Adelaide, the professor said.

“We have evidence that he had separated from his wife, and that she had moved to South Australia. So possibly, he had come to track her down,” he told the ABC.

Dr Fitzpatrick now wants to help solve the mystery of his death.

“I would like to see the toxicology done. And I would like to find out what happened to Dorothy,” she told CNN.

Two-ton, 1,000-year-old ‘jars of the dead’ baffle archaeologists

Two-ton, 1,000-year-old ‘jars of the dead’ baffle archaeologists

The discovery of more than one hundred new stone “jars of the dead” dating more than a thousand years ago has deepened Laos’ enduring archaeological enigma. The cup-like carved stones vary in size, ranging from 10ft (3m) in height and two tons in weight. Exactly how the jars were used remains an enigma, however, it has been suggested that they served as burial urns for storing human bodies.

However local legend claims the urns were goblets once used by a drunk horde of giants.

Australian National University (ANU) researchers discovered the new jar sites in a remote forest during a survey beginning in 2015.

The jars were buried with decorated stone discs, strange small clay jars and more conventional stone age artefacts like beads and jewellery.

The latest landmark discoveries suggest the mysterious practices involving the jars were more widely performed than previously thought, and is hoped could help finally interpret their meaning.

Jars of the dead: Australian National University researchers have discovered new jar sites.
Jars of the dead: Exactly how the jars were used remains an enigma.

Laos’ jars of the dead remain one of archaeology’s most intriguing enigmas.

Archaeologists currently believe the giant stone urns were involved with disposing of the dead.

However, almost nothing is known for certain about the jars’ original function and where those who originally deposited them are now found.

Archaeologists led by Nicholas Skopal and Dr Dougald O’Reilly from ANU have now catalogued 137 new jars, found across 15 freshly-identified sites, in a remote and mountainous forest.

The discoveries show that the ancient burial practices associated with the jars “were more widespread than previously thought,” said Dr O’Reilly.

Mr Skopal added: “These new sites have really only been visited by the occasional tiger hunter.”

“Now we’ve rediscovered them, we’re hoping to build a clear picture about this culture and how it disposed of its dead.

There is no evidence that the region where the jars were found was occupied.

Jars of the dead: Were the giant jars used for burial urns?
Jars of the dead: The urns remain one of archaeology’s most intriguing enigmas

Dr O’Reilly said: “Why these sites were chosen as the final resting place for the jars is still a mystery.

“It’s apparent the jars, some weighing several tonnes, were carved in quarries, and somehow transported, often several kilometres, to their present locations.”

Another hypothesis suggests that the jars were made to capture monsoonal rainwater for later boiling and use by caravans passing through the region.

Possible Use for Australia’s Ancient Boomerangs Tested

Possible Use for Australia’s Ancient Boomerangs Tested

Possible Use for Australia’s Ancient Boomerangs Tested

A new study into the multipurpose uses of boomerangs has highlighted that hardwood objects were used to shape the edges of stone tools used by Australian Indigenous communities.  

The research, published in PLOS ONE, demonstrated how boomerangs could function as lithic (or stone) tool retouchers by investigating the use-wear generated on the boomerangs’ surfaces during retouching activities. 

It was found that these use-wear impacts on boomerangs were comparable to those observed on Paleolithic bone retouching tools, which date back to more than 200,000 years ago.  

The research adds to a previous study into boomerang uses led by the same team from Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, but also highlights the broader topic of the multipurpose application of many Indigenous tools throughout Australia.  

ARCHE PhD Candidate Eva Francesca Martellotta said the study revealed a deep functional connection between bone and wooden objects – a topic rarely investigated in archaeological contexts. 

“Studying the shaping techniques applied to stone tools is crucial to understanding our past,” Martellotta said.  

“Thinking in modern terms, it is like understanding the difference between a butcher knife and a bread knife: their blades have different shapes – one straight, the other serrated – because they are used to cut different materials. That is, to perform different functions. 

 “Australian boomerangs are mainly used as hunting and fighting weapons. However, they also have many other functions, linked to the daily activities of Aboriginal communities.”  

“In our article, we put together traditional knowledge and experimental archaeology to investigate a forgotten use of boomerangs: modifying the edges of stone tools. 

“This activity is fundamental to producing a variety of stone implements, each of them with one or more functions. 

PhD candidate Eva Francesca Martellotta.

“Traditionally handcrafted experimental replicas of boomerangs proved very functional to shape stone tools.  

“Our results are the first scientific proof of the multipurpose nature of these iconic objects.” 

 “While our results for the first time scientifically quantify the multipurpose nature of daily tools like boomerangs, this is something that Aboriginal people have known for a very long time.” 

Study co-author Paul Craft, a Birrunburra / Bundjalung / Yugambeh / Yuggera / Turrbal man, contributed two of the four hardwood boomerangs used in the lithic tool knapping (shaping) experiments, which were performed in the Griffith Experimental Archaeology Research Lab located outdoors at the Nathan campus.  

The EXARC Experimental Archaeology Association partially funded the project through a 2021 Experimental Archaeology Award

The findings ‘Beyond the main function: An experimental study of the use of hardwood boomerangs in retouching activities’ have been published in PLOS ONE

9,000-Year-Old Stone Houses Found On Australian Island

9,000-Year-Old Stone Houses Found On Australian Island

Archaeologists working on the Dampier Archipelago, just off the West Australian coast, have found evidence of stone houses dated to shortly after the last ice age, between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago – making them the oldest houses in Australia.

The Dampier Archipelago is a group of 42 islands, and on one of the islands, the team uncovered knee-high rock walls.

“Excavations on Rosemary Island, one of the outer islands, have uncovered evidence of one of the earliest known domestic structures in Australia, dated between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago,” said lead researcher Jo McDonald, from the University of Western Australia.

“This is an astounding find and has not only enormous scientific significance but will be of great benefit to Aboriginal communities in the area, enhancing their connections to their deep past and cultural heritage.”

The researchers suggest that the structures’ inhabitants used branches or other plant materials to make the roofs. The houses are also quite sophisticated, with multiple ‘rooms’.

“Inside the houses, you have separate areas – it could have been a sleeping area and a working area. There is evidence of people grinding seeds on the rock floors inside the houses as well as shell food remains,” McDonald told Paige Taylor from The Australian

“We don’t really know what they were used for as these types of structures were not used in the historic periods.”

This particular structure should help researchers to investigate how Aboriginal groups lived after the ice age – a time when sea levels rose 130 metres, at a rate of 1 metre every five to 10 years. This would have eventually cut the Archipelago islands off from the mainland.

“We assume they were a way of marking out social space for groups living close together as the sea level rose after the ice age, pushing groups inland into smaller territories,” says McDonald.

“While these people were hunter-gatherers, these structures suggest people were developing social strategies to be more sedentary, to cope with environmental change.”

The team discovered the houses back in 2014, but they have only recently been dated using shells of edible mangrove gastropods found inside.

Although the researchers haven’t yet published a paper, so we can’t get too excited until then, there should be more information released as the team find it, and they will hopefully publish a paper in the next few months.

Murujuga, which includes the islands and the nearby Burrup peninsula, are also hugely culturally important to the Aboriginal people in the area, and important for researchers trying to understand the past. A number of interest groups are pushing for Murujuga to become World Heritage listed.

“As well as containing more than one million rock engravings of great scientific and cultural significance, the Archipelago is home to one of the country’s largest industrial ports,” McDonald said in a statement today.

She says that research from the last 12 months indicates that there was a human occupation in the area dating back 21,000 years, even before the last ice age.

Just 100 km west, on Barrow Island, researchers have also found evidence of human occupation dating back 50,000 years. 

According to McDonald, although there are similar structures around Australia, the houses on Rosemary Island are the oldest found.

We hope this valuable area will be protected for many years to come. 

Rare coffee beans dating back 167 years ago were found by archaeologists working on the Metro Tunnel project

Rare coffee beans dating back 167 years ago were found by archaeologists working on the Metro Tunnel project

Perfectly preserved coffee beans dating back more than 167 years have been found by archaeologists working on the Metro Tunnel project, confirming that Melbourne has always been Australia’s coffee capital.

The archaeologists were digging up the historic remains of a grocery store near the site of the Young and Jacksons pub on Swanston Street, in Melbourne’s CBD, in 2018 when they discovered the artefacts.

The John Connell general store burnt down in the Gold Rush era, which preserved more than 500 coffee beans along with English biscuits, fruit remains and other perishables that would not ordinarily have lasted the test of time.

Excavation director Meg Goulding said the items had been carbonised and preserved in a similar way to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii when it was buried under volcanic ash.

“This was just a general store that was servicing the gold fields at the time,” she said.

“He was there from the early 1850s, we know that the gold rush started in 1851.”

Artefact manager Jennifer Porter said the beans were a “rare find”.
“It’s such a rare sight to find such a rich assemblage of different types of artefacts,” she said.

Perfectly preserved coffee beans dating back more than 167 years have been found by archaeologists working on the Metro Tunnel project.

Acting Premier Jacinta Allan said the discovery of coffee beans demonstrates Melbourne’s iconic coffee culture goes way back to the 1850s.

“The discovery proving coffee has long been important to Melburnians,” she said.

“Remarkably, the coffee beans have been preserved and they are now part of the rare finds that we are uncovering as we get on and deliver the Metro Tunnel project.”

It’s now hoped all of these items, including the coffee beans, will be put on display for the public to see.

World’s oldest sperm found in Queensland cave

World’s oldest sperm found in Queensland cave

Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest and best-preserved sperm from tiny shrimps, measuring a massive 1.3 millimetres and dating back to 17 million years in Australia.

World's oldest sperm found in Queensland cave
Clockwise from the top left, a microscopic image of the Riversleigh fossil ostracod, details of the fossil Zenker organ and a virtual reconstruction of the fossil.

Preserved giant sperm from shrimps were found at the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in Queensland and are the oldest fossilised sperm ever found in the geological record, researchers said.

The shrimps lived in a pool in an ancient cave inhabited by thousands of bats, and the presence of bat droppings in the water could help explain the almost perfect preservation of the fossil crustaceans.

The giant sperm are thought to have been longer than the male’s entire body but are tightly coiled up inside the sexual organs of the fossilised freshwater crustaceans, which are known as ostracods.

“These are the oldest fossilised sperm ever found in the geological record,” said Professor Mike Archer, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who has been excavating at Riversleigh for more than 35 years.

“The discovery of fossil sperm, complete with sperm nuclei, was totally unexpected,” said Archer.

A UNSW research team led by Archer, Associate Professor Suzanne Hand and Henk Godthelp collected the fossil ostracods from the Bitesantennary Site at Riversleigh in 1988.

They were sent to John Neil, a specialist ostracod researcher at La Trobe University, who realised they contained fossilised soft tissues.

He drew this to the attention of European specialists, including the lead author of the research paper, Dr Renate Matzke-Karasz, from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, who examined the specimens with Dr Paul Tafforeau at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.

The microscopic study revealed the fossils contain the preserved internal organs of the ostracods, including their sexual organs.

Within these are the almost perfectly preserved giant sperm cells, and within them, are the nuclei that once contained the animals’ chromosomes and DNA.

Also preserved are the Zenker organs – chitinous-muscular pumps used to transfer the giant sperm to the female. The researchers estimate the fossil sperm is about 1.3 millimetres long, about the same length or slightly longer than the ostracod itself.

“About 17 million years ago, Bitesantennary Site was a cave in the middle of a vast biologically diverse rainforest. Tiny ostracods thrived in a pool of water in the cave that was continually enriched by the droppings of thousands of bats,” said Archer.

The bats could have played a role in the extraordinary preservation of the ostracod sperm cells, UNSW’s Associate Professor Suzanne Hand said.

The steady rain of poo from thousands of bats in the cave would have led to high levels of phosphorus in the water, which could have aided the mineralisation of the soft tissues.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B