Most ancient case of tuberculosis found in 500,000-year-old human; points to modern health issues

Evidence suggests vitamin D deficiency endangers migrating populations

Public release date: 7-Dec-2007

Contact: John Kappelman



University of Texas at Austin


Although most scientists believe tuberculosis emerged only several thousand years ago, new research from The University of Texas at Austin reveals the most ancient evidence of the disease has been found in a 500,000-year-old human fossil from Turkey.


The discovery of the new specimen of the human species, Homo erectus, suggests support for the theory that dark-skinned people who migrate northward from low, tropical latitudes produce less vitamin D, which can adversely affect the immune system as well as the skeleton.


John Kappelman, professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, is part of an international team of researchers from the United States, Turkey and Germany who have published their findings in the Dec. 7 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The Leakey Foundation and the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey funded the research.


Prior to this discovery in western Turkey, which helps scientists fill a temporal and geographical gap in human evolution, the oldest evidence of tuberculosis in humans was found in mummies from Egypt and Peru that date to several thousand years ago.


Paleontologists spent decades prospecting in Turkey for remains of Homo erectus, widely believed to be the first human species to migrate out of Africa. After moving north, the species had to adapt to increasingly seasonal climates.


The researchers identified this specimen of Homo erectus as a young male based on aspects of the cranial suture closure, sinus formation and the size of the ridges of the brow. They also found a series of small lesions etched into the bone of the cranium whose shape and location are characteristic of the Leptomeningitis tuberculosa, a form of tuberculosis that attacks the meninges of the brain.


After reviewing the medical literature on the disease that has reemerged as a global killer, the researchers found that some groups of people demonstrate a higher than average rate of infection, including Gujarati Indians who live in London, and Senegalese conscripts who served with the French army during World War I.


The research team identified two shared characteristics in the communities: a path of migration from low, tropical latitudes to northern temperate regions and darker skin color.


People with dark skin produce less vitamin D because the skin pigment melanin blocks ultraviolet light. And, when they live in areas with lower ultraviolet radiation such as Europe, their immune systems can be compromised.


It is likely that Homo erectus had dark skin because it evolved in the tropics, Kappelman explained. After the species moved north, it had to adapt to more seasonal climates. The researchers hypothesize the young male’s body produced less vitamin D and this deficiency weakened his immune system, opening the door to tuberculosis.


“Skin color represents one of biology’s most elegant adaptations,” Kappelman said. “The production of vitamin D in the skin serves as one of the body’s first lines of defenses against a whole host of infections and diseases. Vitamin D deficiencies are implicated in hypertension, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”


Before antibiotics were invented, doctors typically treated tuberculosis by sending patients to sanatoria where they were prescribed plenty of sunshine and fresh air.


“No one knew why sunshine was integral to the treatment, but it worked,” Kappelman said. “Recent research suggests the flush of ultraviolet radiation jump-started the patients’ immune systems by increasing the production of vitamin D, which helped to cure the disease.”


Contact: Christian Clarke Casarez, director of public affairs, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-4945, christianc@mail.utexas.edu .



Epic Flood Triggered Ancient "Big Chill," Study Says

John Roach

for National Geographic News

December 6, 2007


An epic gush of fresh water into the North Atlantic slowed a deep ocean current and triggered a century-long chill in Europe and North America some 8,200 years ago, according to a new study.


The finding confirms scenarios suggested by previous models of the ancient climate and should raise confidence in predictions made about how the oceans will respond to Greenland's rapidly melting glaciers, an outside expert said.


Some scientists are concerned that Greenland's fast-melting ice could again slow the deep current, sparking changes in weather around the world ranging from reduced rainfall to a new mini ice age.


The current, called the North Atlantic Deep Water, helps keep Europe's climate mild. It shuttles cold, dense waters from the northern seas to the tropics, allowing the warm surface waters of the Gulf Stream to flow north. (Learn more about weather patterns.)


Since fresh water is less dense than cold salt water, climate models suggest a flood of fresh water into the North Atlantic should force the current to slow or shut down.


Scientists suspect the sudden draining of North America's ancient glacial lake Agassiz—which was seven times larger than all of the Great Lakes combined—caused a well-studied cold snap about 8,200 years ago. But evidence that the deep-water current slowed was lacking.


Now, a team of European scientists has found the evidence in the contents of a 39-foot (12-meter) plug of seabed mud pulled from some 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) deep in the northwest Atlantic.


"We show that there's a sudden disruption in the deep circulation which takes place just at the time of the flood outburst," said Helga Kleiven, a paleoclimate expert at the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway.


She and her colleagues report the finding in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.


Kleiven and her colleagues drilled the core off the southern tip of Greenland, where sediment-rich deep waters slow down and deposit their loads.


"The sedimentation rate is 10 to 15 times higher at these drift sites than they are in the rest of the North Atlantic," Kleiven said.


The researchers identified a section of the core that corresponds to a hundred-year period around 8,200 years ago. The chemistry of the sediment there is unlike that from any other time over the past 10,000 years, Kleiven said.


The sediment grains in this section are also much smaller, suggesting the larger, heavier grains had already fallen out of slower-moving waters or were never picked up.


In addition, oxygen isotopes in the shells of microscopic bugs found in this section suggest the surface water temperature was markedly colder.


"Basically, we have this deepwater response which we see in both chemical and sedimentological properties fitting right in time with the [draining of] glacial lake Agassiz," Kleiven said.


"And also on top of that, by looking at … these little bugs, we strengthen the connection between deep ocean change and the climate anomaly."


Richard Alley is a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University who originally proposed in 1997 that changes in ocean circulation could have triggered the cooling that occurred 8,200 years ago.


He said the core preserves the short-term record beautifully and corresponds well with the climate record detected in ice cores pulled from Greenland.


"The data are just so clean," he said.


The new findings suggest that the changes in the ocean circulation pattern and cooling of the ocean surface happened over the course of a few decades at most, Kleiven noted.


"The response we see in these deep-ocean changes [is that] they occur on timescales which are rapid enough [that] they could impact human societies," she said.


While no immediate freshwater supply the size of lake Agassiz exists today, Greenland's rapidly melting ice sheets could potentially slow the deepwater current and affect global weather patterns.


A slowing could thrust large portions of Europe and North America into a mini ice age and weaken the monsoon rains in Africa and Asia.


"That's the rain that a couple billion people rely on for crops," Alley said.


This fear has even spilled over to Hollywood, where it inspired the 2004 eco-disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. (Read: "'Day After Tomorrow' Ice Age 'Impossible,' Researcher Says" [May 27, 2004].)


To study the possibility of future freshwater-induced disasters, scientists build computer models based on their understanding of past events like the cooling 8,200 years ago.


The new sediment core findings, Alley noted, suggest that these climate models are accurate.


And this, he added, is good news. When scientists plug the melting rates of Greenland's ice sheets into these models, they indicate catastrophe will most likely be avoided.


As an analogy, he equated potential disasters like a shutdown of the North Atlantic Deep Water to drunk drivers on a dark road.


"We now have confidence that there are fewer drunk drivers out there than we thought there were," he said. "But they're not gone."



Rare ancient wooden throne found in Herculaneum

Tue Dec 4, 10:13 AM ET


ROME (Reuters) - An ancient Roman wood and ivory throne has been unearthed at a dig in Herculaneum, Italian archaeologists said on Tuesday, hailing it as the most significant piece of wooden furniture ever discovered there.


The throne was found during an excavation in the Villa of the Papyri, the private house formerly belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, built on the slope of Mount Vesuvius.


The name of the villa derives from the impressive library containing thousands of scrolls of papyrus discovered buried under meters (yards) of volcanic ash after the Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79.


Restoration of the throne is still ongoing with restorers painstakingly trying to piece back together parts of the ceremonial chair.


While other wooden objects have been dug out in nearby Pompeii, experts have never before found such a significant ceremonial piece of furniture. Previously such pieces have only been observed in paintings or made of marble.


"The find of ancient wooden furniture is not an absolute novelty in Herculaneum or Pompeii. Organic materials in fact were preserved in these cities because of the peculiar way in which they were submerged by the Vesuvius volcanic mud," said the head of the dig, Maria Paola Guidobaldi.


"But we have never found furniture of such a significant structure and decoration," Guidobaldi said.


Little is known about how the throne would have been used but the elaborate decorations discovered on the chair celebrate the mysterious cult figure of Attis.


The most precious relief shows Attis, a life-death-rebirth deity, collecting a pine cone next to a sacred pine tree. Other ornaments show leaves and flowers suggesting the theme of the throne is that of spring and fertility.


The cult of Attis is documented to have been strong in Herculaneum the first century AD.


(Reporting by Antonio Denti, writing by Eleanor Biles, editing by Silvia Aloisi and Paul Casciato)



Roman ruins cast new light on a trip to doctor

By Anthea Gerrie in Rimini

Last Updated: 2:14am GMT 10/12/2007


An ancient doctor's surgery unearthed by Italian archaeologists has cast new light on what a trip to the doctor would have been like in Roman times. Far from crude, the medical implements discovered show that doctors, their surgeries and the ailments they treated have changed surprisingly little in 1,800 years.


Sore joints were common, patients were often told to change their diets, and the good doctor of the seaside town of Rimini even performed house calls.


Archaeologists have spent the past 17 years at the Domus del Chirurgo - House of the Surgeon - painstakingly excavating the site and compiling the world's most detailed portrait of medical treatment in Roman times. Their discoveries go on public display for the first time on Tuesday.


"This is the largest find of surgical instruments anywhere," said Dr Ralph Jackson, the curator of the Romano-British collection at the British Museum and an expert in ancient medicine.


Among the 150 different implements is a rare iron tool used to extract arrowheads from wounds, which suggests the doctor had experience as a military surgeon.


Among the other items uncovered are scalpels, scales, mortars and vases used for the preparation and conservation of medicines.


"It tells us a great deal of how he worked and the range of procedures he undertook because of its completeness. All previous finds have been only partial," Dr Jackson said. "The healer almost certainly concocted anaesthetic preparations of white mandrake, henbane and opium poppies."


Perhaps the most unexpected find was a piece of equipment that would delight a modern podiatrist: a ceramic hot water bottle in the shape of a foot, into which oil or water could be poured when the foot was inserted.


"Joint problems were the single most common complaint in Roman times, and they were probably treated with heat and cold," said Dr Jackson.


The discovery suggests that the doctor used diet as a first approach to treating a disease, then drugs prepared from plants in a pestle and mortar, and finally surgery. That could include anything from pulling teeth - dental forceps were part of his equipment - to opening a patient's fractured skull to remove bone fragments.


"One of the most exciting finds was a lenticular, a small chisel used for opening the skull safely after gouging a channel into it with another instrument," said Dr Jackson.


"Healers of 1,800 years ago knew in the case of a fracture it was important to get out the bits of bone. It's also obvious, from the bundles of instruments kept ready for rushing to the other side of Rimini at a moment's notice, that he also went out to perform emergency surgery. I am still analysing tiny blades kept to treat everything from an eye to a thigh wound."


The consulting rooms were similar to those in a modern surgery, complete with a table and a high-backed leather chair for the doctor, and an operating room with a bed along one wall. Scratched into the wall was "Eutyches", which is believed to have been the doctor's name.


The house, built in the second century BC and burnt down in about AD260, is one of several discovered beneath Rimini's Piazza Ferrari when a tree was uprooted in 1989. The excavation, funded by the Italian government, has so far cost more than £750,000.


Tools of the trade

The doctor at the Domus del Chirurgo used many implements that would be familiar to GPs today, and a few more unconventional ones. They included:

• Iron forceps used to extract arrowheads

• A ceramic bath in the shape of a foot, into which heated oil or water could be poured when the patient’s foot was inside

• Dental forceps for pulling teeth

• A small chisel, known as a lenticular, used for opening an injured skull to remove bone fragments



Dining, Roman-style, as London dig finds history by the bucketful

From The Times

December 7, 2007


Wine buckets, bowls and dishes with an elegant beaded design are among a spectacular Roman hoard of international importance that has been discovered in London.


Archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,100 objects dating from the first to third centuries AD that they described yesterday as unprecedented in size and scale.


The finds, which will give dramatic new insight into Londinium, the Roman city, include the most complete timber door to have survived anywhere in the Roman Empire, as well as shiny metal vessels in an exceptional state of preservation and the large-scale remains of an entire Roman streetscape.


There is a service complete with buckets, large dishes, handled shallow bowls, a set of three nested bowls, an iron ladle and a trivet. Most are made of copper alloy and would have graced the dining table of a wealthy household. Even organic materials such as wood and leather have survived, while most of the metal is barely corroded. Some of the objects have swing handles that remain articulated after nearly 1,700 years.


The hoard was unearthed at Drapers Gardens, in Throgmorton Avenue near Moorgate. In Londinium, it was near the city’s walls and the amphitheatre. It had lain undisturbed about four metres below a 1960s, 26-storey, concrete tower-block that was pulled down this summer – the tallest structure to have been demolished in London.


The discovery was revealed yesterday by the Museum of London. Jenny Hall, its curator of Roman London, said: “These finds are amazing. I just couldn’t stop grinning when I first saw them. In size and scale they are simply unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever been found in London before, or anywhere else in Britain.”


Until the 1960s the land had remained largely undeveloped. The site’s waterlogged conditions ensured that the organic content, such as wood and leather, survived.


Mrs Hall said: “Metalwork too survives well in these conditions rather than corroding away and the good survival of these base metal vessels makes them much rarer than silver or gold tableware of the period, thus making this find one of both national and international importance. You can imagine them in someone’s kitchen or dining-room, gracing the table with food and drink.”


Nineteen metal vessels emerged from the bottom of a wood-lined well. Although they look like fine household objects, it is possible that the hoard may have had religious uses.


It is also possible that the objects were hidden by Roman Londoners fleeing tribes from Scotland, Ireland and Germany who were converging on Londinium. They may have planned to return to retrieve them.


Mrs Hall said: “These astonishingly well-preserved artefacts offer a rare glimpse into the last days of Londinium.”


Other finds include: the floors and wall foundations of wooden buildings, with timber pipes linked to roadside drains; a remarkably well-preserved timber-planked floor that is thought to be unknown for Roman London; a bear skull – perhaps from an animal that performed in the nearby amphitheatre; and a wooden carpenter’s ruler marked in Roman inches.


There is particular excitement about the door, which has its original hinge pivots.


Several ovens and kilns were also unearthed. They reflect industrial activity. Large amounts of leather and an immense assemblage of animal bone suggest that tanning work took place there.


The discovery was made by Chris Jarrett, an archaeologist with Pre-Construct Archaeology. “It’s my best find in 20 years of digging,” he said.


Gary Brown, of Pre-Construct Archaeology, has co-written a report on the discovery in the January/February issue of British Archaeology. He said: “Excavations at Drapers Gardens have just finished, and the critical work of unravelling the story from the field records with conservation and study of the finds has only just begun. But already it is clear that the project has been one of the most important of its kind.”


Some of the finds go on temporary display at the Museum of London from today until January 27. After extensive analysis they will eventually go on permanent show.


Developers will now be able to build an office and retail block on the site.



Largest haul of London pots

December 06 2007 at 08:41PM

By Jeremy Lovell


London - A unique collection of pots and pans found down a well in central London has given a rare insight into the lives of the bourgeoisie in what was then a remote northern outpost of the Roman empire.


Dating from the late fourth century the 19 gold coloured copper-alloy cooking and tableware implements are almost perfectly preserved because of the 1 700 years they spent under water, protected from the ravages of oxidisation.


"This is the biggest haul ever found in London," said Roman era archaeologist Marit Gaimster at the Museum of London where the artefacts go on display from Friday.


'The rich in this era would have used gold and silver plate on their tables'

"They could have been thrown down the well to preserve them from looters as the Roman occupants retreated from London which was under attack from the tribes. Or they could have been ceremonial offerings to the water gods.


"But judging by the fact that some have been repeatedly patched with lead plugs it suggests that they were not specially made for ceremonial offerings but were in regular if not daily use," she added.


The 19 vessels include a bucket, dishes, cooking pots, plates and bowls that may have been used for serving wine or for personal ablutions.


"The rich in this era would have used gold and silver plate on their tables," said the museum's Roman specialist James Gerrard. "These pieces would have come from the next tier down, the Middle Class."


"We know they were deposited in the well after 375 AD because of coins we found directly under them," he added.


The well is believed to have been closed up around 380 AD when much of Londinium was abandoned.


They were all found together in the silted-up well near what is now known as Moorgate in central London but which in the late fourth century would have been just inside the northern end of the Roman defensive wall enclosing the city.


The site, which has been largely spared the ravages of development until now, has revealed a rich harvest of Roman era construction all buried well preserved in waterlogged ground.


The outlines of Roman houses, wooden floors, drains, plumbing and even a perfectly preserved wooden door have come to light due to painstaking archaeological excavations prior to the site being built over.



Glue used by the Romans has stuck around for 2,000 years

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

Published: 06 December 2007


German archaeologists claim to have found traces of a glue they say was made by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago and used to mount silver laurel leaves on legionnaires' battle helmets.


Researchers at the Rhineland historical museum in Bonn said they had found remnants of the glue on a legionnaire's iron helmet unearthed near the town of Xanten. It had lain on what was once the bed of the Rhine for at least 1,500 years.


Frank Willer, the museum's chief restorer, said researchers came across the glue by surprise while removing a tiny sample of metal from the helmet with a fine saw. The heat from the tool caused silver laurel leaves decorating the helmet to peel off leaving thread-like traces of the glue behind.


"It is a sensational find and a complete stroke of luck that we were still able to find traces of the substance on the helmet after 2,000 years," Mr Willer said.


The museum's team of archaeologists maintains that, as the helmet lay on the river-bed for so long, its glue was not exposed to the destructive effects of the atmosphere and therefore did not lose its adhesive power.


Mr Willer said that other Roman remains, including ancient battle masks, kept by the museum bore traces of silver decorations and had probably been glued in the same way. Their condition has deteriorated too far to find evidence of glue.


Analysis shows that the Roman glue was made of bitumen, beef tallow and pitch. But researchers said they had failed so far to recreate the adhesive and that sawdust, soot or sand might have to be added to complete the process.


"When we finally manage to remake the superglue, it will easily compete with its modern equivalents," Mr Willer said. "After all, which of today's glues stick for 2,000 years?"



Rewrites Viking history


The discovery of two massive Viking halls in Borre in Vestfold County gives archeologists reason to reassess the distribution of power in Viking Norway.


Vestfold County archeologists presented finds on Wednesday that show there are two great hall buildings underneath the ground about 100 meters from the major burial mounds at Borre.


The Borre mounds are the largest grouping of monumental burial mounds from the late Iron Age, between 560-1050 AD. There are seven large burial mounds at Borre, and over 30 smaller mounds, all have been opened or plundered.


One of the halls is believed to be up to 40 meters (131 feet) long and 12 to 13 meters (39-42 feet) high, the largest found in Vestfold.


"The finds show that Borre was more than a burial place, but a true royal power center in Viking times. There have been tribes here from all of northern Europe for sacrificial ceremonies," archeologist and information leader at the Midgard Historical Center, Lena Fahre, told Aftenposten.no.


The larger, "King's Hall", is dated to around 700-800 AD.


"The halls found are the forerunners of the stave churches for which Norway is so well known," said archeologist Terje Gansum at a press conference.


According to the archeologists historians must now reassess the role of Kaupang as the seat of power than, now that another such center has been found further north.


The halls were found using a magnetometer and ground penetrating radar that can visualize what is below the ground.


The first Viking ship found in Norway was discovered during the excavation of one of the major mounds at Borre in 1852, but very little of the vessel remained due to the sandy moraine (glacial debris) conditions that are not conducive to the preservation of wood.