A Mysterious 25,000-Year-Old Structure Built of the Bones of 60 Mammoths
Mysterious bone circles consisting of hundreds of mammoths bones helped scientists understand how people survived the last ice age. According to a new analysis, the bones at one location in Russia were more than 20,000 years old.
The wall of the 30 ft building was constructed using a combination of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls. There were also a small number of reindeers, goats, rabbits, dogs, red foxes, and arctic fox bones.
Researchers said the bones were most likely sourced from animal graveyards.
In the site, which is situated near the current village of Kostenki, some 500 km south of Moscow, an archeologist from Exeter University discovered remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plants.
It indicates that people used to burn wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age.
Dr. Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: “Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment.
“What might have brought ancient hunter-gatherers to this site?
“One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area en masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter – rare in this period of extreme cold.
“These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites.
“Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last Ice Age.
“Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter, and water.”
The last Ice Age swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago and reached its coldest and most severe state around 23-18,000 years ago.
Most communities fled the region, likely due to a lack of prey to hunt and scarce plant resources they depended upon for survival, the scientists said.
The bone circles, of which more than 70 are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian planes, were eventually abandoned as the climate grew colder and more inhospitable.
Archaeologists previously assumed the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, but the new study, published in the journal Antiquity, suggests this may not always have been the case.
Scientists Extracted Liquid Blood From 42,000-Year-Old Foal Found in Siberian Permafrost
On an expedition to the Batagaika crater in Siberia a team of Mammoth tusk hunters uncovered the nearly preserved remains of a 42,000-year-old foal.
Instead, the young foal showed no signs of external damage, retaining its fur, tail and hooves and the hair on its leg and head, has preserved by the permafrost of the region or permanently frozen ground.
The Siberian Times reports that Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University and the Biotech sooam researcher in South Korea extracted blood and urine from the specimen, paving the way for further analysis aimed at cloning the long-dead horse and resurrecting the extinct Lenskaya lineage to which it belongs.
Scientists will take viable cells from the blood samples and grow them in the laboratory in order to clone the animal.
This task is harder said than done. More than 20 attempts to grow cells from foal’s tissue have been made by the team over the past month, but they were all unsuccessful, according to a recent report from the Siberian Times. Russian researcher Lena Grigoryeva said that the participants remain “positive about the outcome.”
The fact that the horse still has hair makes it one of the most well-preserved Ice Age animals ever found, Grigoryev tells CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore, adding, “Now we can say what color was the wool of the extinct horses of the Pleistocene era.”
In life, the foal boasted a bay-colored body and a black tail and mane. Aged just one to two weeks old at the time of his death, the young Lenskaya, or Lena horse, met the same untimely demise as many similarly intact animals trapped in permafrost for millennia.
The foal likely drowned in a “natural trap” of sorts—namely, mud that later froze into permafrost, Semyon Grigoryev of Yakutia’s Mammoth Museum told Russian news agency TASS, as reported by the Siberian Times.
“A lot of mud and silt which the foal gulped during the last seconds of the foal’s life were found inside its gastrointestinal tract,” Grigoryev says.
This is only the second time researchers have extracted liquid blood from the remains of prehistoric creatures. In 2013, a group of Russian scientists accomplished the same feat using the body of a 15,000-year-old female woolly mammoth discovered by Grigoryev and his colleagues in 2013, as George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.
(It’s worth noting that the team studying the foal has also expressed hopes of cloning a woolly mammoth.) Significantly, the foal’s blood is a staggering 27,000 years older than this previous sample.
The NEFU and South Korean scientists behind the new research are so confident of their success that they have already begun searching for a surrogate mare to carry the cloned Lena horse and, in the words of the Siberian Times, fulfill “the historic role of giving birth to the comeback species.”
It’s worth noting, however, that any acclaim is premature and, as Dvorsky writes, indicative of the “typical unbridled enthusiasm” seen in the Russian news outlet’s reports.
Speaking with CNN’s Mezzofiore, Grigoryev himself expressed doubts about the researcher’s chances, explaining, “I think that even the unique preservation of blood is absolutely hopeless for cloning purposes since the main blood cells … do not have nuclei with DNA.”
He continued, “We are trying to find intact cells in muscle tissue and internal organs that are also very well-preserved.”
What the Siberian Times fails to address are the manifold “ethical and technological” questions raised by reviving long-gone species. Among other concerns, according to Dvorsky, scientists have cited the clone’s diminished quality of life, issues of genetic diversity and inbreeding, and the absence of an adequate Ice Age habitat.
It remains to be seen whether the Russian-South Korean team can actually deliver on its ambitious goal. Still, if the purported July 2018 resurrection of two similarly aged 40,000-year-old roundworms “defrosted” after millennia in the Arctic permafrost is any indication, the revival of ancient animals is becoming an increasingly realistic possibility.
90,000-year-old human hybrid found in ancient cave
The idea of free love seems to have started even earlier than in the 1960s. A small bone fragment belonging to an ancient hominin called “Denny” by the team, who had a mother Neanderthal and a dad Denisovan-the two nearest extinct relatives of the living humans today, was discovered in an international team of researchers.
The two races have been known to live on the Eurasian Mixed Continent, Neanderthals in the west of the continent until some 40,000 years ago and Denisovans in the east.
Previous genetic studies of ancient hominin remains have shown that they sometimes interbred, but Denny is the only known example of a first-generation child with equal parts Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA.
The bone fragment was found in 2012 at Denisova Cave in Russia and taken to the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig for genetic analysis, after being identified as a hominin bone due to its protein composition. It is thought that the bone is a fragment of the arm or leg of a young female, who would have been aged around 13 when she died some 90,000 years ago.
“It is striking that we find this Neanderthal/Denisovan child among the handful of ancient individuals whose genomes have been sequenced,” said Prof Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute. “Neanderthals and Denisovans may not have had many opportunities to meet. But when they did, they must have mated frequently – much more so than we previously thought.”
Genetic analysis of the bone indicates that the mother was more closely related to the 55,000-year-old Neanderthal remains found in the Vindija Cave in western Europe than those of another, the so-called Altai Neanderthal, that lived in the Denisova Cave at an earlier date. This means that Neanderthals must have at some point traveled between western and eastern Europe.
The team also found evidence in the genome that the Denisovan father had at least one Neanderthal ancestor further back in his family tree – between 8,000 and 17,000 years before Denny lived.
“An interesting aspect of this genome is that it allows us to learn things about two populations – the Neanderthals from the mother’s side, and the Denisovans from the father’s side,” said Dr. Fabrizio Mafessoni, also from the Max Planck Institute.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes – Archaeologist based at the Université de Bordeaux
It’s hard to overstate the importance of finding Denny. A decade ago we had no clue that her father’s people even existed, much less that children like her existed.
In May 2010 the first Neanderthal genome was published, proving that rather than usurping them, early Homo sapiens made babies with them. But just the month before, samples from a tiny finger bone in Denisova Cave, Siberia revealed an entirely new hominin species.
Now known as D3, this bone was at least 10,000 years younger than Denny. Thanks to ancient DNA, today we’ve identified five Denisovans. But we know more about their history as a species than we do about their technology or even their appearance. Some of them had genes for dark hair, skin, and eyes, but how tall they were or what their faces were like are mysteries.
Despite all samples so far coming from one site, they were far from isolated. Both they and Neanderthals bred with H. sapiens, but in different times and places. Asians and Native Americans have more Neanderthal DNA than Europeans, which might reflect more interaction in that region, or elsewhere in a group which later moved eastwards.
Denisovan blood is even more unevenly distributed: living populations of Oceania and Australia have up to 25 times more than anywhere else. It’s clear we’re seeing only a fraction of the true picture.
Another extinction theory may soon bite the dust
Neanderthals and Denisovans weren’t shy of each other, either. D3’s genes showed interbreeding tens of thousands of years before she died. Denny’s father’s forebears were also making babies with Neanderthals up to 17,000 years earlier. Intriguingly, those far-off encounters were with a Neanderthal lineage different from that of Denny’s mother.
Finding the child of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan should make us sit up and think. Until now, most evidence has pointed to small, localized populations in both species. Added to this, studies mapping the distances that stone tools were moved from their source pointed to relatively limited territories.
On this basis, dominant theories emphasized Neanderthals as socially ‘exclusive’: avoiding outsiders, limited to topographic, cultural and genetic valleys. If that’s true, it’s unlikely we would ever find the result of such an encounter, so Denny is telling us something about these models is wrong.
Populations were likely small, so the startling fact of Denny’s parentage means the other part of the equation must be wrong: Denisovans and Neanderthals must have been quite keen on strangers. But how did populations who were happy to blend stay so distinct genetically? One theory is that mixed children had a tougher time reproducing, but we just don’t know yet.
Why does this matter? One of the most influential ideas about why the Neanderthals disappeared is that H. sapiens had more extensive territories – if we map the distances stone tools were carried, early H. sapiens come out ahead. But finding Denny strongly suggests stone tool mobility can’t be a real measure of sociability. Another extinction theory may soon bite the dust.
Worms Frozen for 42,000 Years in Siberian Permafrost Wriggle to Life
Sample of Permafrost sediment has been frozen for 42,000 years and has been recently thawed to expose live nematodes. the roundworms began to move and eat, setting a record for the time an animal can survive cryogenic preservation.
In addition to revealing new limits of endurance, it just might prove useful when it comes to preserving our own tissues. Russian biologists dug up more than 300 samples of frozen soil of different ages and locations throughout the Arctic and took them back to their lab in Moscow for a closer look.
The samples collected from remote parts of northeastern Russia contained nematodes from two different genera, which the researchers placed into Petri dishes with a nutrient medium.
The worms were left for several weeks at a relatively warm 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) as they gradually showed signs of life.
Some of the worms – belonging to the genus Panagrolaimus – were found 30 metres (100 feet) underground in what had once been a ground squirrel burrow which caved in and froze over around 32,000 years ago.
Others from the genus Plectus were found in a bore sample at a depth of around 3.5 metres (about 11.5 feet). Carbon dating was used to determine that sample to be about 42,000 years old.
Contamination can’t be ruled out, but the researchers maintain they adhered to strict sterility procedures.
They aren’t known for burrowing so deep into permafrost, seasonal thawing is limited to around 80 centimetres (under 3 feet), and there’s been no hint of thawing beyond 1.5 metres (5 feet) when the area was at its warmest around 9000 years ago.
So we can be fairly confident these worms really did awaken from one incredibly long nap.
Reviving ancient organisms is itself nothing new. In 2000, scientists pulled spores from Bacillus bacteria hidden inside 250 million-year-old salt crystals and managed to return them to life.
We might be impressed by their fortitude, but we can’t apply bacteria’s life-preserving tricks to our own complicated tissues. So finding animals that can remain dormant for tens of thousands of years is a discovery well worth paying attention to.
Roundworms are known to be hardy creatures. Nematodes have been revived in 39-year-old herbarium samples, but nothing has previously been seen on a scale quite like this.
Close relatives, the tardigrade, are also well known for having a talent for surviving extreme conditions, repairing broken DNA and producing a vitrifying material when they dry out.
Even those superpowered critters have never been seen to survive so long in states of preservation, with the current tardigrade record being only around 30 years. Learning more about the biochemical mechanisms nematodes use to limit the damage of ice and hold off the ravages of oxidation on DNA over the millennia might point the way to better cryopreservation technologies.
We’ve studied other organisms that can handle having their liquids turned to ice for inspiration, such as wood frogs, in the hope of finding better ways to store human tissues for transplants, or even – just maybe – whole bodies for revival.
“It is obvious that this ability suggests that the Pleistocene nematodes have some adaptive mechanisms that may be of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology,” the researchers write in their report.
But the find does have a slightly darker side. There are concerns that the melting of permafrost could release pathogens locked up in deep freeze for tens of thousands of years.
Nematodes are unlikely to pose much of a concern, but their survival is evidence that a diverse array of organisms – from bacteria to animals, plants to fungi – could potentially return after a long absence.
Exactly what this means for surrounding ecosystems is still anybody’s guess. We can only hope a few groggy worms are all we have to worry about in Siberia’s melting ice. This research was published in Doklady Biological Sciences.