Scientists Find Evidence of “Defunct Nile Tributary” That Was Close to Pyramid Site, Allowing Transport of Two-Ton Blocks

(p. D5) For 4,500 years, the pyramids of Giza have loomed over the western bank of the Nile River as a geometric mountain chain. The Great Pyramid, built to commemorate the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, the second king of Egypt’s fourth dynasty, covers 13 acres and stood more than 480 feet upon its completion around 2560 B.C. Remarkably, ancient architects somehow transported 2.3 million limestone and granite blocks, each weighing an average of more than two tons, across miles of desert from the banks of the Nile to the pyramid site on the Giza Plateau.

Hauling these stones over land would have been grueling. Scientists have long believed that utilizing a river or channel made the process possible, but today the Nile is miles away from the pyramids. On Monday, however, a team of researchers reported evidence that a lost arm of the Nile once cut through this stretch of desert, and would have greatly simplified transporting the giant slabs to the pyramid complex.

Using clues preserved in the desert soil, the scientists reconstructed the rise and fall of the Khufu Branch, a now defunct Nile tributary, over the past 8,000 years. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, propose that the Khufu Branch, which dried up completely around 600 B.C., played a critical role in the construction of the ancient wonders. “It was impossible to build the pyramids here without this branch of the Nile,” said Hader Sheisha, an environmental geographer at the European Center for Research and Teaching in Environmental Geoscience, and an author of the new study.

For the full story, see:

Jack Tamisiea. “A Branch of the Nile Set Up the Pyramids.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 13, 2022): D5.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 30, 2022, and has the title “A Long-Lost Branch of the Nile Helped in Building Egypt’s Pyramids.”)

Kamoya Saw What Others Missed, Not by Magic, but by “An Invaluable Accumulation of Skill and Knowledge”

(p. A24) Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goat herder whose preternatural gift for spotting and identifying petrified tibias, skull fragments and other ancient human remains among the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa won him acclaim as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died on July 20 [2022] in Nairobi, Kenya.

. . .

“Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

The Leakeys, and especially Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, soon recognized Mr. Kamoya’s aptitude, not just at finding fossils but identifying them; they began to offer him lessons in paleontology, evolutionary theory and excavating techniques.

“At the end of each day looking for fossil bones, I sat down with Louis Leakey, and he taught me to tell which bones belonged to which animal and how to tell if they were hominid, and people that led to us,” Mr. Kamoya told New African Magazine in 2000. “I asked: ‘How do you find them?’ He said, ‘It’s just luck. We can find them.’ Then I tried very hard. I was very keen. Then I started to find them.”

. . .

Mr. Kamoya’s most significant find came in 1984, on an expedition around Kenya’s Lake Turkana with Richard Leakey and Alan Walker, an anthropologist from Penn State.

One day Mr. Kamoya went out for a walk along the waterless Nariokotome River. Among the small stones and clumps of dirt he spotted what looked like a matchbook-size skull fragment — Homo erectus, he surmised, an extinct hominid species.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to look. Soon the whole team was involved in a monthslong excavation that ultimately revealed a near-complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

. . .

“To some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil-hunting, there is something almost magical in the way Kamoya or one of his team can walk up a slope that is apparently littered with nothing more than pebbles and pick up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper forelimb of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skill and knowledge.”

. . .

“Many people do not like this work because it is hard to understand,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “It is very hard work. It is very hot, walking and sitting with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like looking.”

For the full obituary see:

Clay Risen. “Kamoya Kimeu Dies; Uncovered Treasures That Framed Evolution.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, Aug. 24, 2022): A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 1, 2022, and has the title “Kamoya Kimeu, Fossil-Hunting ‘Legend’ in East Africa, Is Dead.”)

Proof Vikings Were in North America 1,000 Years Ago

(p. A8) A new look at wooden artifacts found amid the ruins of an ancient homestead shows that Vikings had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and settled in North America as far back as 1021—exactly 1,000 years ago and almost five centuries before Columbus’s famous voyage.

. . .

To pinpoint the year that Vikings occupied the site, the scientists scoured the ancient settlement for wooden artifacts, hoping to find any made from trees that had grown during an unusually intense burst of cosmic radiation known to have occurred in the year 993.

. . .

Using the carbon spike as a reference point, they counted the tree rings in each specimen until they reached the bark, indicating the year the tree was cut down—in this case 1021.

For the full story, see:

Robert Lee Hotz. “Viking Artifacts Pinpoint Europeans.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, October 21, 2021): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 20, 2021, and has the title “Viking Artifacts Give Precise Date for Europeans’ Earliest Presence in North America.”)

Human Footprints from 23,000 Years Ago Found in New Mexico

(p. A3) At the height of the last Ice Age, generations of children and teenagers ambled barefoot along a muddy lakefront in what is now New Mexico, crossing paths with mammoths, giant ground sloths and an extinct canine species known as dire wolves.

Now, some 23,000 years later, the young people’s fossilized footprints are yielding new insights into when humans first populated the Americas. Unearthed in White Sands National Park by a research team that began its work in 2016, the tracks are about 10,000 years older and about 1,600 miles farther south than any other human footprints known in America, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science.

“It is, in my view, the first unequivocal evidence of human presence in the Americas” during the last Ice Age, Daniel Odess, chief of science and research at the U.S. National Park Service and a senior author of the report, said of the discovery. “The footprints are inarguably human.”

. . .

In earlier work published in 2018, the scientists described an undated set of fossilized human tracks at the White Sands site that they believe were made by people stalking a giant sloth. The tracks overlapped those of the sloth, suggesting a pursuit.

“We will never see humans interacting with giant sloths, but the footprints are telling us the sloths were scared of humans and the humans were confident,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at Bournemouth and a member of the research team.

The scientists also uncovered what they believe to be the footprints of a prehistoric woman who traveled for almost a mile with a toddler, sometimes carrying the child and sometimes making the young one walk by her side. It is the longest fossilized human trackway ever discovered, according to their research, which was published in 2018 in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

For the full story, see:

Robert Lee Hotz. “Footprints Offer Clues About Earliest Americans.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 24, 2021): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 23, 2021, and has the title “Footprints Yield New Clues About the First Americans.” The last paragraph quoted above appears in the online, but not the print, version.)

If Jony Ive Had Designed a Hand Axe for Steve Jobs 200,000 Years Ago

Photo source: WSJ commentary cited below. (Original source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

(p. C14) From the beginning, the purpose of the Masterpiece column has been to highlight artworks of surpassing cultural significance and discuss the particular qualities that make them so. How, then, to explain the intrusion into this august company of a utilitarian object, in this case a biface, or hand axe, dated 700,000-200,000 B.C.?

Behind the creative impulse is the aesthetic sense, the desire to make something beautiful, or at least pleasing to the eye. For almost all of human history, utilitarian objects, by contrast, were all about practicality, crafting something that can get the job done. Never the twain shall meet.

Two factors, though, suggest that here the dividing line might not be crystal clear. The first is the biface’s location, not in a natural history museum where they are usually to be found, but the Metropolitan Museum, a repository of art.

The second is its label. “This is one of the largest and most finely crafted bifaces found in France,” we are told. “Its size and the care with which it was made raise the question of whether it was meant to be a tool, or if it was chiefly valued for its appearance and reserved for a different use.”

. . .

From a broadly rounded bottom the two sides flare out then turn inward, ever so gradually tapering to a rounded point that mirrors the bottom edge in miniature. Its changes in depth are equally subtle and well-calibrated, maintaining a uniform thickness along its length and slowly thinning to a shallow wedge starting about three quarters of the way up.

Then there is the material. Flint comes in many colors. The rich caramel hue of this one, lighter in spots than others, may be what caught the eye of our anonymous artisan in the first place. It has veining, too, which likewise seems to have been an attraction, since its curves are echoed by the adjacent edge of the stone.

For the full commentary, see:

Eric Gibson. “The Dawn of Aesthetics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 10, 2021): C14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 9, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Cahokian Indians “Re-Engineered” Their Environment to Make It “More Stable”

(p. D3) A thousand years ago, a city rose on the banks of the Mississippi River, near what eventually became the city of St. Louis. Sprawling over miles of rich farms, public plazas and earthen mounds, the city — known today as Cahokia — was a thriving hub of immigrants, lavish feasting and religious ceremony. At its peak in the 1100s, Cahokia housed 20,000 people, greater than contemporaneous Paris.

By 1350, Cahokia had largely been abandoned, and why people left the city is one of the greatest mysteries of North American archaeology.

Now, some scientists are arguing that one popular explanation — Cahokia had committed ecocide by destroying its environment, and thus destroyed itself — can be rejected out of hand. Recent excavations at Cahokia led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, show that there is no evidence at the site of human-caused erosion or flooding in the city.

Her team’s research, published in the May/June issue of Geoarchaeology suggests that stories of great civilizations seemingly laid low by ecological hubris may say more about our current anxieties and assumptions than the archaeological record.

. . .

“We do see some negative consequences of land clearance early on,” Dr. Rankin said, “but people deal with it somehow and keep investing their time and energy into the space.”

Rather than absolutely ruining the landscape, she added, Cahokians seem to have re-engineered it into something more stable.

That finding is in keeping with our knowledge of Cahokian agriculture, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, professor emeritus of agricultural science at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. While Cahokians cleared some land in the uplands, Dr. Mt. Pleasant said, the amount of land used remained stable. While heavy plow techniques quickly exhausted soil and led to the clearing of forests for new farmland, hand tool-wielding Cahokians managed their rich landscape carefully.

Dr. Mt. Pleasant, who is of Tuscarora ancestry, said that for most academics, there is an assumption “that Indigenous peoples did everything wrong.” But she said, “There’s just no indication that Cahokian farmers caused any sort of environmental trauma.”

For the full story, see:

Asher Elbein. “Ruling Out Ecocide for a Thriving City’s Downfall.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 3, 2020, and has the title “What Doomed a Sprawling City Near St. Louis 1,000 Years Ago?”)

Ancient “Cousin” to Homo Erectus Adapted to “a Chaotic Climate Shift”

(p. D4) Around two million years ago, this area in South Africa is believed to have undergone a chaotic climate shift. The regional environment transformed from wetter and more lush conditions to drier and more arid ones. In order for a species like P. robustus to survive in such terrain, it probably would have needed to be able to chew on tough plants. But the specimen found in the cave at Drimolen didn’t seem to fit with what some scientists had previously stated about the human cousin.

They labeled the skull DNH 155 and determined that it belonged to a male.

. . .

In addition to being smaller than male P. robustus who lived at Swartkrans, DNH 155’s cranium indicated its chewing muscles were not as strong as theirs. Mr. Martin said the differences suggest DNH 155 and the other P. robustus found at Drimolen were smaller not because they were all female, but rather because they were earlier forms of the species belonging to a different population that hadn’t yet been subjected to the environmental pressures that would favor larger sizes and stronger jaw muscles.

“It basically hasn’t become this massive chewing and grinding machine that it becomes later,” Mr. Martin said.

The change would have been the result of microevolution, or an evolutionary change occurring within a species. Such a morphological change, the scientists said, was likely the result of P. robustus adapting to that changing climate, with members of the species who were able to get enough nutrition from a change in their food supply surviving, and passing their traits to offspring.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “How to Adapt: A Skull’s Story.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 17, 2020): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 9, 2020, and has the title “How a Human Cousin Adapted to a Changing Climate.”)

2,000-Year-Old Seeds Sprout “Long-Lost Judean Dates”

(p. A8) KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness.

. . .

These were the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates, and the harvest this month was hailed as a modern miracle of science.

. . .

. . ., to bring something back to life from dormancy is so symbolic,” Dr. Sallon said. “To pollinate and produce these incredible dates is like a beam of light in a dark time.”

. . .

The research was peer reviewed and detailed in a paper published in February this year in Science Advances, a leading scientific journal.

For the full story, see:

Isabel Kershner. “Israel Dispatch: After 2,000 Years in the Wilderness, It’s a Date. And It’s Delicious.” The New York Times (Monday, September 7, 2020): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Israel Dispatch: Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates.”)

The paper in Science Advances mentioned above is:

Sallon, Sarah, Emira Cherif, Nathalie Chabrillange, Elaine Solowey, Muriel Gros-Balthazard, Sarah Ivorra, Jean-Frédéric Terral, Markus Egli, and Frédérique Aberlenc. “Origins and Insights into the Historic Judean Date Palm Based on Genetic Analysis of Germinated Ancient Seeds and Morphometric Studies.” Science Advances 6, no. 6 (Feb. 5, 2020), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0384.

Covid-19 More Severe If You Inherited a Neanderthal Gene on Chromosome 3

(p. A6) A stretch of DNA linked to Covid-19 was passed down from Neanderthals 60,000 years ago, according to a new study.

Scientists don’t yet know why this particular segment increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. But the new findings, which were posted online on Friday [July 3, 2020] and have not yet been published in a scientific journal, show how some clues to modern health stem from ancient history.

. . .

Last month, researchers compared people in Italy and Spain who became very sick with Covid-19 to those who had only mild infections. They found two places in the genome associated with a greater risk. One is on Chromosome 9 and includes ABO, a gene that determines blood type. The other is the Neanderthal segment on Chromosome 3.

But these genetic findings are being rapidly updated as more people infected with the coronavirus are studied. Just last week, an international group of scientists called the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative released a new set of data downplaying the risk of blood type. “The jury is still out on ABO,” said Mark Daly, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who is a member of the initiative.

The new data showed an even stronger link between the disease and the Chromosome 3 segment. People who carry two copies of the variant are three times more likely to suffer from severe illness than people who do not.

. . .

(p. A7) Tony Capra, a geneticist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study, thought it was plausible that the Neanderthal chunk of DNA originally provided a benefit — perhaps even against other viruses. “But that was 40,000 years ago, and here we are now,” he said.

It’s possible that an immune response that worked against ancient viruses has ended up overreacting against the new coronavirus. People who develop severe cases of Covid-19 typically do so because their immune systems launch uncontrolled attacks that end up scarring their lungs and causing inflammation.

Dr. Paabo said the DNA segment may account in part for why people of Bangladeshi descent are dying at a high rate of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “String of Neanderthal Genes May Increase Risk of Severe Illness.” The New York Times (Monday, July 6, 2020): A6-A7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 8, 2020, and has the title “DNA Inherited From Neanderthals May Increase Risk of Covid-19.”)

The unpublished paper, mentioned above, is:

Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe Covid-19 Is Inherited from Neandertals.” bioRxiv (posted July 3, 2020).

Global Warming Allows Study of Transhumance to Flourish

(p. D3) OSLO — Ice patches that melted from the slopes of a remote mountain pass in Norway have revealed artifacts that provide new insight into the livelihood of hunters, traders and travelers along a route thousands of years old, archaeologists said this month.

. . .

The discoveries, outlined in the scientific journal Antiquity, were made on the central mountain range in Norway’s Innlandet County by the Glacier Archaeology Program, one of many programs worldwide studying what glaciers and ice patches are laying bare as they shift and melt because of climate change.

. . .

These discoveries have illuminated scientists’ understanding of transhumance, which describes how, where and why people moved from one place to another for trade, food, marriage or customs — sometimes over icy mountain passes rather than through the easier terrain, but longer distances, of valleys.

In 1991, hikers accidentally discovered the remains of a man, later nicknamed Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman, preserved in 5,300 years’ worth of ice and snow in the Italian Alps. This marked the start of a promising period of archaeology that has gained pace as climate warming has revealed more artifacts, said Dr. Stephanie Rogers, a research assistant professor at Auburn University’s department of geosciences.

. . .

Dr. Rogers, who has done research on glacier archaeology in the Alps, said the discovery of the Iceman “really flipped a switch.”

“What was that person doing up there?” she asked, adding that researchers realized that “if we found something in this place, we are going to find something in other places.”

The field of transhumance has gained momentum in the past 10 to 20 years as artifacts have been laid bare because of the warming climate melting ice patches and moving glaciers, Dr. Rogers said.

For the full story, see:

Henrik Pryser Libell and Christine Hauser. “Warming Climate Reveals an Ancient Trade Route.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 28, 2020): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 16 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Warming Climate in Norway Reveals Relics of Ancient Viking Trade Route.”)

Early Tool by Extinct Human Ancestors

(p. D2) What’s so special about a 300,000-year-old stick stuck in the muck?

“It’s a stick, sure,” said Jordi Serangeli, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany.

. . .

. . . the short, pointed piece of wood his team found in Schöningen, Germany, in 2016 may be the newest addition to the hunting arsenal used by extinct human ancestors during the Middle Pleistocene.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “Haywire Immune Reaction Linked to Most Severe Cases.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 28, 2020): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 22, 2020, and has the title “A Short, Pointy, 300,000-Year-Old Clue to Our Ancestors’ Hunting Prowess.”)