Category Archives: BELGIUM

Scientists Extract DNA From Ancient Humans Out of Cave Dirt

Scientists Extract DNA From Ancient Humans Out of Cave Dirt

Around 45,000 years ago, in a Belgian cave, a Neanderthal died. As its body decayed, its cells split apart, spilling their contents onto the cave floor.

Becky Miller collects sediment from Trou al’Wesse (Monika V. Knul)

Those remnants included the Neanderthal’s DNA, some of which stuck to minerals in the sediment. There, leashed to the very rock, the DNA persisted, long after its owner’s body had disappeared and its bones had been carted off by scavengers. And in 2015, a group of scientists scooped it up.

Viviane Slon from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and her colleagues have now managed to extract and sequence the DNA of ancient animals from sediment that’s up to 240,000 years old. By doing so, they can infer the presence of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other extinct hominids without ever having to find their bones. “We were surprised by how well it works,” says Slon. “The success rates were amazing.”

“I absolutely loved this,” says Jennifer Raff, who studies ancient DNA at the University of Kansas, and who was not involved in the study. “Although people have been working on recovering ancient DNA from sediments for a few years now, this is unprecedented in scope and success. My notes on the paper are full of exclamation marks. Woolly rhinoceros! Woolly mammoth! Cave bear! Neanderthal and Denisovans!”

Animals have a vast genetic aura that extends beyond their physical bodies into the world around them. Their DNA falls to the ground in balls of dung, zips through the air in blood-sucking insects, and leaches into the soil during decomposition.

Scientists who study living animals have used this environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify everything from elephants and earthworms. They can conduct a census of the natural world without needing to spot any actual animals—a boon when working with rare or hard-to-spot species in inaccessible habitats.

For about 15 years, palaeontologists have tried to use the same technique to study the creatures of prehistory. Just last year, for example, Beth Shapiro from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her colleagues used sedimentary DNA to figure out when and why the second-to-last group of mammoths, which lived on St. Paul Island in Alaska, went extinct.

Studies like these break the traditional reliance on fossils, which can be hard to find, or may have never formed at all. “If one must rely on finding bones, one will always have incomplete data,” explains Shapiro. “But by isolating DNA directly from sediments, we can dramatically expand what we know about where people (or other species) were, when they got there, and how long they stayed.”

“It’s a solution to a number of ethical conundrums in our field.”

Slon’s team is now the first to successfully recover the DNA of ancient humans directly from sediments. They collected samples from seven sites in Europe and Asia, where Neanderthals or Denisovans are known to have lived, and chemically treated their samples to liberate the trapped DNA. In sediment, the vast majority of DNA will come from bacteria and other microbes in the soil.

Only a small fraction comes from animals. To get at that bit, the team created molecules that specifically recognize mammalian DNA, that they could use to fish those sequences out of the crowd.

They focused on mitochondrial DNA—a small cluster of genes that sits outside the main set, and is easier to find because it’s so abundant. And to check that these DNA strands were genuinely ancient, and not bits of genetic material dropped by the palaeontologists themselves, the team looked for the distinctive types of damage that accumulate as DNA sits around for thousands of years.

In addition to DNA from mammoths, woolly rhinos, and cave bears, Slon recovered the mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals from four caves— El Sidrón in Spain, the Chagyrskaya and Denisova Caves in Russia, and Trou Al’Wesse in Belgium. That third site is especially interesting. We know Neanderthals used Trou Al’Wesse because of the tools and butchered animal bones that they left behind, but none of their visible remains have ever been found. Their molecular remains, however, are still there.

At Denisova Cave, the team also found the DNA of the site’s namesake—the Denisovans. The only known fossils of these hominids are a finger bone and two teeth from the same cave.

In 2010, Slon’s colleagues, led by Svante Paabo, sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from these specimens and realized that they belonged to a previously unknown hominid. That was how the world discovered the existence of Denisovans, and we have learned more about them through their DNA than through their bones. Slon’s work continues that tradition—she found Denisovan DNA in sediment that’s far older than any of the unearthed fossils. “It’s evidence that Denisovans occupied the cave for tens of thousands of years earlier than we thought,” she says.

Now that they know their techniques work, the team can check for hominid DNA in parts of the world where no fossils have been found, or where the historical presence of humans is unclear. For example, Shapiro wants to look at sediments across the Alaska routes that humans likely took on their way to colonizing the Americas. “This is a fantastically useful tool that will empower future archaeological research,” she says.

Even when fossils are present, it’s hard to extract DNA from them without pulverizing them in the process. Slon’s work gets around that problem. “Some descendant communities are okay with us doing genetics research on their ancestors, but not okay with destroying any part of their remains in order to obtain DNA,” says Raff. “But this approach allows us to recover ancient DNA without having to destroy remains. It’s a solution to a number of ethical conundrums in our field.”

What Happened to the Waterloo Dead?

What Happened to the Waterloo Dead?

Were the bones of fallen Battle of Waterloo soldiers sold as fertilizer?

As very few human remains have been found from what was such a bloodied affair, killing thousands, it’s a conclusion that a new study suggests is most probable. However, publishing his findings today – exactly 207 years since the historic conflict – in the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Archaeology, lead expert Professor Tony Pollard states it isn’t quite a situation of ‘case closed’.

Batalla de Waterloo - Jan Willem Pieneman La bataille de Waterloo (1824, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) de Jan Willem Pieneman (1779-1853)
Batalla de Waterloo – Jan Willem Pieneman La bataille de Waterloo (1824, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) de Jan Willem Pieneman (1779-1853)

The Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow demonstrates original data comprising newly found battlefield descriptions and drawings, made by people who visited in the days and weeks following Napoleon’s defeat.

These included letters and personal memoirs from a Scottish merchant living in Brussels at the time of the battle, James Ker, who visited in the days following the battle and describes men dying in his arms. Together the visitor accounts describe the exact locations of three mass graves containing up to 13,000 bodies.

But will these new data lead to a mass grave discovery of the long-lost bones of those who gave their lives in this battle, which finally concluded a 23-year-long war?

It’s unlikely states, Professor Pollard.

“Artistic licence and hyperbole over the number of bodies in mass graves notwithstanding, the bodies of the dead were clearly disposed of at numerous locations across the battlefield, so it is somewhat surprising that there is no reliable record of a mass grave ever being encountered.

“At least three newspaper articles from the 1820s onwards reference the importing of human bones from European battlefields for the purpose of producing fertilizer.

“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertilizer. One of the main markets for this raw material was the British Isles,” Professor Pollard, from the University of Glasgow Centre for War Studies and Conflict Archaeology, says. 

“Waterloo attracted visitors almost as soon as the gun smoke cleared.

“Many came to steal the belongings of the dead, some even stole teeth to make into dentures, while others came to simply observe what had happened.

“It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize.

“Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.

“Local people would have been able to point these agents to the locations of the mass graves, as many of them would have vivid memories of the burials taking place, or may even have helped with the digging.

“It’s also possible that the various guidebooks and travelogues that described the nature and location of the graves could have served essentially as treasure maps complete with an X to mark the spot.

“On the basis of these accounts, backed up by the well-attested importance of bone meal in the practice of agriculture, the emptying of mass graves at Waterloo in order to obtain bones seems feasible, and the likely conclusion is that.”

But, to determine once and for all, as part of his role as the Lead Academic and an Archaeological Director at the charity Waterloo Uncovered, Professor Pollard will help to lead an “ambitious”, several years-long geophysical surveys, involving veterans who will join the dig to provide insight to world-class archaeologists. In turn, they receive care and recovery.

“The next stage is to head back out to Waterloo, to attempt to plot grave sites resulting from the analysis of early visitor accounts reported here,” states Pollard, a Professor of Conflict History and Archaeology.

“If human remains have been removed on the scale proposed then there should be, at least in some cases, archaeological evidence of the pits from which they were taken, however, truncated and poorly defined these might be.

“Covering large areas of the battlefield over the coming years, we will look to identify areas of previous ground disturbance to test the results of the source review and distribution map, and in conjunction with further documentary research and some excavation will provide a much more definitive picture of the fate of the dead of Waterloo.”

If the team was to find anything, it would be an extremely rare discovery.

In 2015 a human skeleton was uncovered during the building of a new museum and carpark at the site. Then in 2019, amputated human leg bones were unearthed by the Waterloo Uncovered team in an excavation of the main allied field hospital. There is also a skeleton of uncertain provenance in the museum in Waterloo.

No other significant remains have ever been found.

Painted Medieval Burial Vaults Uncovered in Bruges

Painted Medieval Burial Vaults Uncovered in Bruges

Excavations at a cemetery in the centre of Bruges have yielded an extraordinary find.  Archaeologists have discovered three painted burial vaults dating from the 14th century.

Painted Medieval Burial Vaults Uncovered in Bruges

The find was made last May during works in a street in the vicinity of the Church of Our Lady in Bruges (West Flanders).  The best-preserved burial vault is being paced in the church today.

The three medieval burial vaults were discovered during works on the construction of a filling station.

“The find is unique in Flanders” says culture alderman Nico Blontrock.

It’s taken a while for one of the burial vaults to be moved into the church as removing it from the soil required special equipment.

There’s little experience here with the removal of burial vaults and Alderman Blontrock says that in the past this has often failed: “These are fragile constructions, often consisting of brickwork.  

Taking them out of the ground often means the painting is damaged.  

We wanted to avoid this and established a special commission of experts.  I’m so happy the vault has now been saved for posterity.

The best-preserved burial vault is now receiving a temporary home in the Church of Our Lady before it is moved to the church museum.  

The paintings show classical medieval representations: “The paintings on a layer of plaster feature angels, crosses and other Christian themes.  The vault can be viewed in 3D on the Raakvlak website” says Blontrock.

Neanderthals disappeared from Europe thousands of years earlier than we thought

Neanderthals disappeared from Europe thousands of years earlier than we thought

CNN reports that Neanderthal remains previously dated to about 37,000 years ago are about 10,000 years older, based upon new dates obtained by an international team of researchers through a process called liquid chromatography separation.

It is exactly when Neanderthals, our nearest relatives, died in Europe, that he is fiercely debated. They are believed to have gone extinct around 40,000 years ago—not long after modern humans have migrated out of Africa.

However, previous analyses of remains discovered in Belgium’s Spy Cave had placed specimens as recent as around 37,000 years ago — which would have made the owners some of Europe’s latest surviving Neanderthals.

Experts reanalyzed the remains and found them to be older than previously understood.

But experts from Belgium, England and Germany suspected that the age of previously analyzed specimens could be unreliable due to contamination.

Using a process known as liquid chromatography separation, experts extracted a single amino acid from the Neanderthal remains. They used this to date and reanalyze the remains, which were now free from contaminants such as glue.

The experts said that contamination of the remains meant that they had been dated as “inaccurately young” by up to 10,000 years.

Experts then dated remains found at two other Belgian sites, Fonds-de-Forêt and Engis, and found the remains were a similar age to those found in Spy Cave.

“Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals,” Grégory Abrams, an archaeologist at Belgium’s Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre, said in a statement.

Based on these latest radiocarbon dates, experts estimate that Neanderthals disappeared from the region much earlier than previously estimated — 44,200 to 40,600 years ago.

“This new study gives us more clues about when Neanderthals got extinct in Europe,” lead author Thibaut Devièse, associate professor at Aix-Marseille Université, told CNN in an email.

“There was some controversy about the last appearance of Neanderthals in Western Europe and particularly for some individuals from Spy Cave,” he explained.

“Dating is crucial in archaeology, without a reliable framework of chronology we can’t really be confident in understanding the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens as we moved into Europe 45,000 years ago and they began to disappear,” Tom Higham, a professor at the University of Oxford, who directs the PalaeoChron research project, which ran the study, said in a statement.

“That’s why these methods are so exciting because they provide much more accurate and reliable dates,” Higham added.

Devièse said that more accurate dates for these Neanderthal specimens answered one important question — but also opened up new ones, such as how long did Neanderthals and early modern humans overlap?

“We now know more precisely when Neanderthals disappeared in Europe, but we now need to confirm with the same robust methods when anatomically modern humans arrived in order to elucidate for how long these two species cohabited,” he added.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

70 million – year – old Underground village And Magnificent Eben-ezer tower In Belgium

Mysterious 70-Million-Year-Old Underground Village And Magnificent Tower Of Eben-Ezer In Belgium

The Tower of Eben-Ezer is a 33-meter high tower built single-handedly out of flint by a man who worked on it for over ten years to display his artistic, paleontological, and theological discoveries.

The magnificent tower of Eben-Ezer in Belgium.

Who built it?

Some of these mysterious subterranean worlds are famous and examined by archaeologists. Others are virtually unheard of and can never be investigated because they were destroyed.

One intriguing place is the fascinating underground village of Thébah in Belgium. It is said to be 70- million-year-old!

The skull of a Mosasaurus discovered by Garcet

The discovery of the underground village took place when Robert Garcet (1912 –2001) decided to build a fantastic tower in the village of Eben-Emael, in the province of Henegouwen, Belgium.

Robert Garcet (1912-2001), who was born in Mons, Belgium. When he was 18 he moved to this area north of Liège, where he worked as a labourer in the local quarry. He was very interested in geology, nature, the history of mankind and the Bible, wrote a lot of books, and developed his own vision of the creation of man.

He was also a pacifist, and in 1947 began to draw up plans to construct a big tower as a symbol of peace. He started construction in 1953 and, with the occasional help of friends, completed it 15 years later.

What does it represent?

It’s difficult to say. Apparently, all aspects of the tower have a deep meaning. Its dimensions are in proportion to the Heavenly Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible in the Revelation of John. It gets its name from the Biblical account of the place Samuel erected a stone to symbolize peace. It has seven floors reflecting the sacred number of seven.

On the corners at the top of the tower, four sculptures are displayed representing characters of the book of Revelation: bull, lion, eagle and angel.

What’s it like inside?

The inside is as extraordinary as the outside. It’s full of artwork, sculptures and murals, as well as displays of geological discoveries, artefacts and fossils. Part of it is also devoted to a Museum of Flint, which gives you a tour of the history and use of flint over the ages.

You certainly won’t be bored at the Tower of Eben-Ezer. There’s an abundance of things to see, admire, wonder at, and ponder over. Sometimes you’ll be amazed; at other times you’ll just get totally mystified.

A wealth of information is available during your tour of the tower. This includes a bulky A4 binder with pages and pages of descriptions and details of everything you can see and the explanations behind all the displays and symbology. In addition, in many of the rooms computers are set up that you can click and navigate through multiple screens of information.

However, all the information is in Dutch or French. And there’s so much information that even with a good understanding of Dutch I simply couldn’t take it all in. Actually I would have needed hours to go through it all, said Robert Garcet.

The Tower of Eben-Ezer was featured in Channel 4’s 1998 series “Journeys into the Outside”, in which Jarvis Cocker (British musician and artist, famous for fronting the band Pulp) travels the globe in search of large-scale visionary environments.

The relevant clip starts at 11:07 and lasts for nearly 8 minutes.

What is interesting is that it includes an interview with Robert Garcet three years before his death, during which he calls Jarvis Cocker an imbecile! It’s also clear that Cocker himself struggles to understand what the tower is all about, and can’t quite get to grips with Garcet’s beliefs.

The following are pictures from a video documentary and book by Markus May, called Die Steine der Apokalypse, Robert Garcet und die Legende vom Feuerstein. What you can see in those pictures are small portions that remained after the flint company destroyed the village.