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Tag: fossils

250,000-Year-Old Child Adds to the Mystery of Our Human Origins

Based on the small size of Leti’s skull and on the combination of baby teeth and unerupted adult teeth, researchers estimate that the Homo naledi child would have been 4-6 years old.

Look at the palm of your hand and spread your fingers wide. Now imagine squeezing your body through a gap narrower than the distance between the tip of your thumb and the tip your pinkie finger. Let’s make this a bit worse: the gap is in complete darkness, its walls are rough stone, and all you have is a tiny headlamp. Ok, now that you are there, all you have to do is carefully find and recover dime-sized fragments of an invaluable treasure.

That’s how researchers recovered the first Homo naledi child’s skull ever to be found.

The finding was revealed this week in two papers published in the journal PaleoAnthropology by an international team of 21 researchers.

Homo naledi are possibly our most mysterious long-lost cousins. They are an ancient human relative that lived in what is now South Africa, approximately 350 to 250 thousand years ago. They were first discovered in the Rising Star Cave system in 2013, in a research expedition led by Lee Berger, Professor and chair of Palaeo-Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at the University of Witwatersand.

The research team, which includes Steven Churchill, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, named the child Leti (pronounced Let-e), after the Setswana word “letimela” meaning “the lost one”.

Leti was found in one of the previously unexplored narrow fissures that radiate from Rising Star’s known chambers. His resting site was a 15 cm wide and 80 cm long gap where only the smallest (and bravest) of explorers could fit.

Explorer Becca Peixoto wedges herself between cave rock walls to get to Leti’s skull.

Marina Elliot, lead author of the first paper and one of the explorers to first discover Homo naledi, said in a press conference that excavating Leti’s remains required explorers to wedge themselves practically upside down between two rock walls.

Finding yet another fossil in a prolific site may not seem groundbreaking, but finding a child’s skull is a major achievement. First of all, children’s bones are thin and fragile, and rarely withstand the test of time.

Second, finding a child’s skull gives researchers a precious glimpse into the development of Homo naledi.

“A child’s skull allows us to study how Homo naledi grew and developed, and how their growth rate and schedule compares to other hominid species, and to our own,” Churchill said.

In addition to skull fragments, researchers also recovered two worn baby teeth and four unworn adult teeth that were yet to erupt. These findings show that Leti would have been between four and six years old at the time of her or his death.

Based on similarities between the soil of the fissure where Leti was found and the better-known areas of the cave, Tebogo Makhubela, senior lecturer of Geology at the University of Johannesburg and author of the papers, estimated that Leti has been hidden in Rising Star for over 250,000years.

The discovery of Leti’s skull also deepens the mystery of how Homo naledi’s remains ended up in such a deep, dark, and treacherous cave.

Berger’s team had previously hypothesized that the first 15 Homo naledi individuals found in Rising Star had been disposed there by their own species, as a burial. This hypothesis created an uproar: could a small-brained hominin from over 300,000years ago bury their dead, just like we do?

Leti’s skull was found on a small shelf at the back of the cave’s fissure. No other bones were found, suggesting that Leti’s head may have been deliberately placed there. Leti, as well as all other Homo naledi fossils ever found, showed no evidence of being dragged by predators, carried by water, or tumbled around in any other way.

“Those were social individuals. Seeing one of their own being picked apart by animals could have been very distressing,” Churchill said. “Purposeful disposal of their bodies still seems like the most likely explanation.”

Berger is undeterred by nay-sayers. “This is science,” Berger said at a press conference. “We will continue testing and challenging our hypotheses with every piece of data that we get.”

The researchers hope that other teams around the world will study Leti and other Homo naledi fossils. To that end, Leti’s skull was CT-scanned, and its scans can be downloaded from Morphosource, an open access repository of museum specimens’ 3D scans hosted at Duke University.

Leti will probably not be the last treasure to come out of Rising Star’s spider web of narrow passages.

“I can’t wait to go back to South Africa and see what else is waiting for us in that cave,” said Juliet Brophy, Professor of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University and lead author of the paper describing Leti’s skull.

“This finding makes us remember that exploration is always worth doing,” said Elliot, who is a researcher at Simon Fraser University and Witwatersand University. “There is a lot still out there to be found”.

The Rising Star cave system is known for being extremely dangerous to explore.

Elliot et al. was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Lyda Hill Foundation, the South African National Research Foundation, and the Gauteng Provincial Government, for funding the discovery, recovery and ongoing analyses of the material. Additional support was provided by ARC (DP140104282).

Brophy et al. was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Lyda Hill Foundation, the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Centre for Excellence in Palaeosciences, The University of the Witwatersrand, the Vilas Trust, the Fulbright Scholar Program, Louisiana State University, North Carolina State University, the Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts Seed Grant program and the Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts Cornerstone Faculty Fellowship.

Citations:

“Expanded Explorations of the Dinaledi Subsystem, Rising Star Cave System, South Africa.” Marina C. Elliot,Tebogo V. Makhubela, Juliet K. Brophy, Steven E. Churchill, Becca Peixoto, Elen M. Feuerriegel, Hannah Morris, Rick Hunter, Steven Tucker, Dirk Van Rooyen, Maropeng Ramalepa, Mathabela Tsikoane,Ashley Kruger, Carl Spander, Jan Kramers, Eric Roberts, Paul H.G.M. Dirks,John Hawks,Lee R. Berger. PaleoAnthropology, November 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.48738/2021.iss1.68.

“Immature Hominin Craniodental Remains From a New Localityin the Rising Star Cave System, South Africa.” Juliet K. Brophy, Marina C. Elliot, Darryl J. De Ruiter, Debra R. Bolter, Steven E. Churchill, Christopher S. Walker, John Hawks, Lee Berger. PaleoAnthropology, November 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.48738/2021.iss1.64.

By Marie-Claire Chelini
By Marie-Claire Chelini

In Drawers of Old Bones, New Clues to the Genomes of Lost Giants

DNA extracted from a 1,475-year-old jawbone reveals genetic blueprint for one of the largest lemurs ever.

By teasing trace amounts of DNA from this partially fossilized jawbone, nearly 1,500 years after the creature’s death, scientists have managed to reconstruct the first giant lemur genome. Credit: University of Antananarivo and George Perry, Penn State

If you’ve been to the Duke Lemur Center, perhaps you’ve seen these cute mouse- to cat-sized primates leaping through the trees. Now imagine a lemur as big as a gorilla, lumbering its way through the forest as it munches on leaves.

It may sound like a scene from a science fiction thriller, but from skeletal remains we know that at least 17 supersized lemurs once roamed the African island of Madagascar. All of them were two to 20 times heftier than the average lemur living today, some weighing up to 350 pounds.

Then, sometime after humans arrived on the island, these creatures started disappearing.

The reasons for their extinction remain a mystery, but by 500 years ago all of them had vanished.

Coaxing molecular clues to their lives from the bones and teeth they left behind has proved a struggle, because after all this time their DNA is so degraded.

But now, thanks to advances in our ability to read ancient DNA, a giant lemur that may have fallen into a cave or sinkhole near the island’s southern coast nearly 1,500 years ago has had much of its DNA pieced together again. Researchers believe it was a slow-moving 200-pound vegetarian with a pig-like snout, long arms, and powerful grasping feet for hanging upside down from branches.

A single jawbone, stored at Madagascar’s University of Antananarivo, was all the researchers had. But that contained enough traces of DNA for a team led by George Perry and Stephanie Marciniak at Penn State to reconstruct the nuclear genome for one of the largest giant lemurs, Megaladapis edwardsi, a koala lemur from Madagascar.

Ancient DNA can tell stories about species that have long since vanished, such as how they lived and what they were related to. But sequencing DNA from partially fossilized remains is no small feat, because DNA breaks down over time. And because the DNA is no longer intact, researchers have to take these fragments and figure out their correct order, like the pieces of a mystery jigsaw puzzle with no image on the box.

Bones like these are all that’s left of Madagascar’s giant lemurs, the largest of which weighed in at 350 pounds — 20 times heftier than lemurs living today. Credit: Matt Borths, Curator of the Division of Fossil Primates at the Duke Lemur Center

Hard-won history lessons

The first genetic study of M. edwardsi, published in 2005 by Duke’s Anne Yoder, was based on DNA stored not in the nucleus — which houses most of our genes — but in another cellular compartment called the mitochondria that has its own genetic material. Mitochondria are plentiful in animal cells, which makes it easier to find their DNA.

At the time, ancient DNA researchers considered themselves lucky to get just a few hundred letters of an extinct animal’s genetic code. In the latest study they managed to tease out and reconstruct some one million of them.

“I never even dreamed that the day would come that we could produce whole genomes,” said Yoder, who has been studying ancient DNA in extinct lemurs for over 20 years and is a co-author of the current paper.

For the latest study, the researchers tried to extract DNA from hundreds of giant lemur specimens, but only one yielded enough useful material to reconstitute the whole genome.

Once the creature’s genome was sequenced, the team was able to compare it to the genomes of 47 other living vertebrate species, including five modern lemurs, to identify its closest living relatives. Its genetic similarities with other herbivores suggest it was well adapted for grazing on leaves.

Despite their nickname, koala lemurs weren’t even remotely related to koalas. Their DNA confirms that they belonged to the same evolutionary lineage as lemurs living today.

To Yoder it’s another piece of evidence that the ancestors of today’s lemurs colonized Madagascar in a single wave.

Since the first ancient DNA studies were published, in the 1980s, scientists have unveiled complete nuclear genomes for other long-lost species, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and even extinct human relatives such as Neanderthals.

Most of these species lived in cooler, drier climates where ancient DNA is better preserved. But this study extends the possibilities of ancient DNA research for our distant primate relatives that lived in the tropics, where exposure to heat, sunlight and humidity can cause DNA to break down faster.

“Tropical conditions are death to DNA,” Yoder said. “It’s so exciting to get a deeper glimpse into what these animals were doing and have that validated and verified.”

See them for yourself

Assembled in drawers and cabinets cases in the Duke Lemur Center’s Division of Fossil Primates on Broad St. are the remains of at least eight species of giant lemurs that you can no longer find in the wild. If you live in Durham, you may drive by them every day and have no idea. It’s the world’s largest collection.

In one case are partially fossilized bits of jaws, skulls and leg bones from Madagascar’s extinct koala lemurs. Nearby are the remains of the monkey-like Archaeolemur edwardsi, which was once widespread across the island. There’s even a complete skeleton of a sloth lemur that would have weighed in at nearly 80 pounds, Palaeopropithecus kelyus, hanging upside down from a branch.

Most of these specimens were collected over 25 years between 1983 and 2008, when Duke Lemur Center teams went to Madagascar to collect fossils from caves and ancient swamps across the island.

“What is really exciting about getting better and better genetic data from the subfossils, is we may discover more genetically distinct species than only the fossil record can reveal,” said Duke paleontologist Matt Borths, who curates the collection. “That in turn may help us better understand how many species were lost in the recent past.”

They plan to return in 2022. “Hopefully there is more Megaladapis to discover,” Borths said.

A fossil site in Madagascar. Courtesy of Matt Borths, Duke Lemur Center Division of Fossil Primates

CITATION: “Evolutionary and Phylogenetic Insights From a Nuclear Genome Sequence of the Extinct, Giant, ‘Subfossil’ Koala Lemur Megaladapis Edwardsi,” Stephanie Marciniak, Mehreen R. Mughal, Laurie R. Godfrey, Richard J. Bankoff, Heritiana Randrianatoandro, Brooke E. Crowley, Christina M. Bergey, Kathleen M. Muldoon, Jeannot Randrianasy, Brigitte M. Raharivololona, Stephan C. Schuster, Ripan S. Malhi, Anne D. Yoder, Edward E. Louis Jr, Logan Kistler, and George H. Perry. PNAS, June 29, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022117118.

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