Saturday, February 15, 2014

Weekly Science Roundup #26

Some big stories this week, and all are human-related. Let's work our way backwards through time to see how they all connect.

1. International Pledge to Make Poaching a Serious Crime

White Rhino. Photo Credit: Rob Hooft

With poaching of endangered species on a terrifying rise, nations met in London this past week to discuss what they could do to combat what's happening. In the past year, over 1,000 rhinos were killed in Africa. That's out of approximately 25,000 total. 20,000 African elephants were killed last year, out of around 450,000

To put this in perspective, this means that 1 out of 25 rhinos and elephants in Africa were poached in 2013. Just let that horrifying fact sink in.

But in some cautiously good news, this meeting resulted in international agreement to change poaching to be categorized as a "serious crime", which is apparently a big deal. As a serious crime, nations can enact much tougher penalties for anyone convicted of poaching, dealing, or trading in endangered animals.

They're calling this the "London Declaration", and it's a step in the right direction at the very least. Fingers crossed this really does make a difference. But for now, let's leave the present behind and go back a few thousand years...

2. Ancient Baby Provides Clue to Native American Ancestry

Clovis point tool technology.
The Clovis culture is the first well-documented North American culture. It dates back to around 13,000 years ago, and has often been argued to be the stem population from which all Native American populations arose from. The Clovis people have in turn been argued to have come from Asia/Siberia, though a few holdouts say they may have come from Europe around the Atlantic.

Now, thanks to the genetic sequencing of a 12,000 year-old baby boy (found in Montana), another piece of evidence lines up to support the idea that Native Americans came from a population that migrated into North America from Asia at least 13,000 years ago. This strengthens the idea that Native Americans truly are the descendents of the first people to ever come to the Americas.

The baby boy himself was found buried with over a hundred artifacts, placed with great care. With the almost surprising level of extreme genetic similarity to modern Native American peoples, scientists who worked on the project are planning on reburying the boy in an undisclosed location near the original site, out of respect. A memorial at the site is also planned.

Going back even further now...

3. Really, Really Old Footprints in Great Britain

Source: Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK

From the shores of Great Britain, something really cool was finally announced last week. Out of the water, the tides revealed fossilized footprints of up at as many as five individual hominins in May, 2013. Those footprints date back to somewhere between 780,000 years to 1,000,000 years of age, making them the third oldest human ancestor trackways in the world, and the oldest outside of Africa.

By measuring the footprints, it looks like the people walking were between 3 feet and 5 and a half feet tall, which likely means a mix of adults and children. They'd been walking along mudflats at the time, possibly near an estuary.

It's thought that these prints belong to Homo antecessor, which predated Homo heidelbergensis as a European hominin possibly on the line to Neanderthals. Of course, linking a species to fossil footprints is never 100% accurate, but at the moment this is the leading hypothesis.

The footprints themselves are gone already now, washed away by the same tides that originally exposed them. We were lucky to ever get to see them at all, and unfortunately were unable to save them.

Which, in a sad poetic sense, brings up full circle back to the first story of this blog post.

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