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80,000-yr-old child grave in Africa is oldest evidence of human burial

ScientiFix, our weekly feature, offers you a summary of the top global science stories of the week, with links to their sources.

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80,000-yr-old grave could provide peek at ancient burials 

Scientists have discovered the oldest evidence of human burials — a child laid to rest in a grave 80,000 years ago in modern-day Kenya.

Africa is home to the earliest signs of modern human behaviour, but evidence of early burials in the continent is scarce and often ambiguous. Therefore, little is known about the origin and development of mortuary practices of our species.

Archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and the National Museums of Kenya found a child buried at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site which reveals how Middle Stone Age populations interacted with the dead.

Panga ya Saidi has been an important site for human origins research since excavations began in 2010.

Portions of the child’s bones were first found during excavations at Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the small pit feature containing the bones was fully exposed.

About three meters below the current cave floor, the shallow, circular pit contained tightly clustered and highly decomposed bones.

These remains were stabilised and plastered, and the cast remains were taken first to the National Museum in Nairobi and later to the laboratories of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, for further excavation, specialised treatment and analysis.

Two teeth, exposed during initial laboratory excavation of the sediment block, led the researchers to suspect that the remains could be human. Later work at CENIEH confirmed that the teeth belonged to a two-and-a-half to three-year-old human child, who was later nicknamed ‘Mtoto,’ meaning ‘child’ in Swahili.

Microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirmed that the body was rapidly covered after burial and that decomposition took place in the pit. In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.

Researchers further suggested that Mtoto’s flexed body, found lying on the right side with knees drawn toward the chest, represents a tightly shrouded burial with deliberate preparation. The position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that a perishable support may have been present, such as a pillow, indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite. Read more here.

Also read: Why a giant piece of Chinese rocket is set to hit Earth & what could happen when it does

Proof of volcanic activity found on Mars

Evidence of recent volcanic activity on Mars shows that eruptions could have taken place in the past 50,000 years.

Most volcanism on the Red Planet occurred between 3-4 billion years ago, with smaller eruptions in isolated locales continuing perhaps as recently as 3 million years ago. However, until now, there was no evidence to indicate whether Mars could still be volcanically active.

Using data from satellites orbiting Mars, researchers at Planetary Science Institute have found evidence of an eruption in a region called Elysium Planitia that would be the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars.

The majority of volcanism in the Elysium Planitia region and elsewhere on Mars consists of lava flowing at the surface, though there are numerous examples of explosive volcanism on Mars.

However, the feature overlies the surrounding lava flows and appears to be a relatively fresh deposit of ash and rock, representing a different style and time period of eruption than previously identified pyroclastic features.

The eruption could have spewed ash as high as 10 km into the Martian atmosphere but likely represents a last gasp of erupted material. Elysium Planitia hosts some of the youngest volcanism on Mars, dating around 3 million years ago, so it is not entirely unexpected. Read more here.

Sharks can navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field

Scientists have found evidence that sharks, just like sea turtles, also rely on magnetic fields for their long-distance journeys across the sea.

Until now, it was not well understood how sharks managed to successfully navigate during migration to targeted locations.

Researchers had known that some species of sharks travel over long distances to reach very specific locations year after year. They also knew that sharks are sensitive to electromagnetic fields.

Scientists had long speculated that sharks were using magnetic fields to navigate.

To study this, researchers from the Florida State University decided to work with smaller sharks that are known for returning each year to specific locations. They decided to work with bonnetheads (Sphyrna tiburo) which return to the same estuaries each year.

The sharks were exposed to magnetic conditions representing locations hundreds of kilometers away from where the sharks were actually caught. If sharks derive positional information from the geomagnetic field, the researchers predicted that they would orient themselves northward in the southern magnetic field and vice versa, in an attempt to compensate for their displacement.

They predicted no orientation preference when sharks were exposed to the magnetic field that matched their capture site.

The researchers suggest that this ability to navigate based on magnetic fields may also contribute to the population structure of sharks. Read more here.

Chicken-sized dinosaur could hunt in the dark

Scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand have discovered that a chicken-sized dinosaur that lived more than 65 million years ago was able to hunt in complete darkness.

The team investigated how vision and hearing abilities of dinosaurs and birds compared. It used CT scan and detailed measurements to collect information on the relative size of the eyes and inner ears of nearly 100 living birds and extinct dinosaur species.

The team found that while many carnivorous theropods such as Tyrannosaurus and Dromaeosaurus had vision optimised for the daytime, Shuvuuia — a small dinosaur — had both extraordinary hearing and night vision.

The species has extremely large lagena — the organ that processes incoming sound information — almost identical in relative size to today’s barn owl. This suggests that Shuvuuia could have hunted in complete darkness.

The eyes of Shuvuuia had some of the proportionally largest pupils yet measured in birds or dinosaurs, suggesting that they could likely see very well at night. Read more here.

Also read: Ultra-white paint can soon replace air-conditioning, according to scientists


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