Tag: Anthropology

New Ethical Code for World Research of Ancient DNA

TAU researcher was part of international team of experts who composed ethical standard.

For the first time, an international team of experts, among them TAU anthropologist and paleo-geneticist Dr. Viviane Slon from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, has formulated a globally-applicable ethical code for research of ancient human DNA. The significant increase throughout the last decade in research of ancient DNA extracted from human remains, and its effects on archeology and other fields, created a need to formulate a dedicated ethical standard that will guide researchers in their work.

Sixty-four international researchers from different fields – archeology, anthropology, curatorship, archeo-genetics and paleo-genetics – from 31 different countries, among them TAU anthropologist and paleo-geneticist Dr. Viviane Slon, took part in the formulation of the ethical code. The ethical code was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature.

Interdisciplinary and International Cooperation

Dr. Slon, who is also a member of Tel Aviv University’s Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute, explains that ancient DNA research has unique aspects, which raise the need for ethical regulations. The examination of past ancestry can have social and political implications today, and because ancient DNA research deals with people who once lived, they must be treated respectfully.

The newly-written ethical codes encourage minimal damage to the human remains during research processes, and call for cooperation with stakeholders, including any descendants or local communities as well as fellow researchers in other fields – and to respect their point of view.

Dr. Slon says: “The guidelines proposed here encompass all the different stages of research, from planning, through sampling and sharing of data and results, to communicating with our fellow researchers and with the general public. It is an international project born out of a virtual meeting that took place about a year ago, in which there was a wide consensus regarding the need for ethical regulations in this growing field, and here we have the final product.”

“We hope to increase its impact, and we are working to translate the paper into dozens of languages, including Hebrew. Recently, researchers from the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research led the breakthrough research discovering ancient human remains in the vicinity of the Nesher Ramla factory. Due to the foundational principals  laid  for the expansion of the interdisciplinary cooperation in the world of ancient DNA research, we will now be able to maximize the scientific accomplishments in this field, in Israel and throughout the world.”

Featured image: Dr. Viviane Slon (Photo: Fabrizio Mafessoni)

Did climate change cause infections 6,000 years ago?

New study of human skulls finds infections peaked due to high population density, poor hygiene and climate conditions

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered evidence of ear infections in the skull remains of humans living in the Levant some 15,000 years ago. “Our research seeks to determine the impact of our environment on illnesses in different periods,” says lead author Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research at the Faculty of Medicine, located at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. “Using advanced technologies and unique methods developed in our lab, we have been able to detect signs of prolonged inflammation in the middle ear.” The researchers found a decline in morbidity as a result of ear infections following the transition from hunting and gathering to farming on account of changes in living conditions. A peak in morbidity, however, was observed in a sedentary population living about 6,000 years ago (Chalcolithic period). Dr. May says the reason for this is twofold: social and environmental: “We know from archaeological excavations of this period, similar to preceding periods, people lived in a communal area where all activities, from cooking to raising livestock, took place. As a result, the population density in the ‘home’ was high, hygiene was poor and they suffered from indoor air pollution. Two other factors known about this period – dietary change, the advent of dairy consumption, and climate change, a dip in temperature and a rise in rainfall, also contributed to the prevalence  of ear infections.”

A story in the skulls

Until the advent of antibiotics in the 20th century, ear infections developed into chronic conditions, or, due to complications, caused permanent loss of hearing or even death. “Ear infections are still a very common childhood ailment, with over 50 percent of young children today still suffering from an ear infection at one point or another,” explains Dr. May. “The reason for this is that the tubes that channel fluid from the middle ear to the mouth are underdeveloped in young children, so fluids that accumulate in the ear ultimately cause inflammation.” “A prolonged ear infection would cause permanent damage to the bony wall of the middle ear, which is remarkably preserved into adulthood, so when we sought to investigate changes in communal health over time in our region, we chose to focus on ear infections, developing a special method for doing so,” she adds. The scientists used a videoscope, a tiny camera mounted at the end of a flexible tube, which they inserted through the ear canal to the middle ear to observe its bony walls. In addition, they scanned skull remains with a high-resolution micro-CT, and also examined the middle ear’s bony wall using a light microscope.

More room, fewer infections

As living conditions improved, morbidity as a result of ear infections dropped, according to the study. “Houses were larger and featured several rooms, including separate areas for specific activities, i.e. the kitchen was set up in a separate room or outside, and livestock were kept in a separate area,” she says. “The change in lifestyle and climate is reflected in a decline in morbidity.” “Our study deals with the impact of the environment and social behavior on morbidity rates, and to do so, we examined a common disease that has accompanied humanity since inception – the ear infection,” concludes Dr. May. “Understanding how diseases appear, spread and disappear throughout human history can help prevent and find solutions to contemporary illnesses. The study clearly points out risk factors and shows how lifestyle changes can affect the incidence of the disease. In both ear infections and COVID-19, social distancing and adherence to hygiene reduced the spread of infection, while close quarters and unhygienic living conditions saw infections spike.”

TAU study among top 12 most important in the world

Prof. Yoel Rak’s anthropology study was selected by Science Magazine as one of the scientific breakthroughs of the 2019

Each year, Science Magazine, arguably the world’s most prestigious scientific publication, selects 12 groundbreaking studies from around the world, inviting the public to vote for whichever study they consider the most important. This year, the list includes an Israeli study, done in collaboration with Prof. Yoel Rak, a physical anthropologist from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, led by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in which scientists were able to reconstruct a human profile of a mysterious group known as the Danisovans, using DNA remnants only.

Who are the Denisovans?

The Denisovans are a group of humans who lived in the east and northeast of Asia until a few tens of thousands of year ago, and differed in their characteristics from the Homo sapiens and Neanderthals who were alive at the time. While the Homo sapiens lived mainly in Africa at that time, the Neanderthals settled in Europe and North Asia, where they met with the Danisovans and mixed with them. Until recently, all of our knowledge about this group was based on a few small pieces of bone, and it is believed that the group’s existence would not have been uncovered except for the development of new methods for the extraction, sequencing and analysis of ancient DNA.

The study by Prof. Rak and his colleagues presented an exciting breakthrough: the restoration of a Denisovan’s face using an epigenetic reconstruction method of ancient DNA, taken from the tip of a young woman’s finger, which was found in Siberia in 2008. This is a study of genetic changes that do not occur in the sequence of DNA letters itself, but affect how genes are expressed in each and every cell.

The study will make it possible to understand the various adaptations made by the Danisovans group to its surroundings, and shed light on features that distinguish us, modern humans, from the other human groups that did not survive to modern times.

Alongside Prof. Rak’s study, the competition at Science also included the first photograph of a black hole, a photo of the space rock Ultima Thula, the skeleton of “Lucy’s” ancestor from 3.8 million years ago, long-term treatment for the HIV virus and other studies from the world of medicine.

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