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)
TAU researchers unearth missing link in human evolution.
A new discovery by Tel Aviv University researchers may change the story of human evolution. The bones of an early human, unknown to science, were found at an excavation site near the city of Ramla. Researchers believe the remains represent one of the “last survivors” of an ancient human group that lived here at the Levant alongside Homo sapiens (modern humans) between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Until today, most researchers believed the small groups of Neanderthals arrived in the Levant from Europe about 70,000 years ago. The discovery of a new human group in this region, which resembles Pre-Neanderthal populations in Europe, challenges the prevailing hypothesis that Neanderthals originated from Europe, suggesting that at least some of the Neanderthals’ ancestors actually came from the Levant. In other words, TAU researchers are now suggesting instead that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant – and not the other way around.
Timeline: The Nesher Ramla Homo type was an ancestor of both the Neanderthals in Europe and the archaic Homo populations of Asia.
Another Piece to the Puzzle of Human Evolution
Prof. Israel Hershkovitz explains that the discovery of this new type of prehistoric human is of great scientific importance: “It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. Even though they lived so long ago, in the late middle Pleistocene (474,000-130,000 years ago), the Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale, revealing a great deal about their descendants’ evolution and way of life.”
The important human fossil was found by Dr. Zaidner of the Hebrew University during salvage excavations at the Nesher Ramla prehistoric site, in the mining area of the Nesher cement plant (owned by Len Blavatnik) near the city of Ramla. Digging down about 8 meters, the excavators found large quantities of animal bones, including horses, fallow deer and aurochs, as well as stone tools and human bones. An international team led by the researchers from TAU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified the morphology of the bones as belonging to a new type of earlier species, previously unknown to science. This is the first type of prehistoric human species to be defined in Israel, and according to common practice, it was named after the site where it was discovered – the Nesher Ramla Homo type.
WATCH: Researchers from TAU have identified a new type of early human at the Nesher Ramla site, dated to 140,000 to 120,000 years ago:
Neanderthals Made in the Middle East
“This is an extraordinary discovery,” notes Dr. Yossi Zaidner. “We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history. The archaeological finds associated with human fossils show that Nesher Ramla Homo possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies and most likely interacted with the local Homo sapiens“. The culture, way of life, and behavior of the Nesher Ramla Homo are discussed in a companion paper also published in Science journal.
Furthermore, Prof. Hershkovitz explains that “Before these new findings, most researchers believed the Neanderthals to be a ‘European story’, in which small groups of Neanderthals were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers, with some arriving in the Land of Israel about 70,000 years ago. The Nesher Ramla fossils make us question this theory, suggesting that the ancestors of European Neanderthals lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia. In fact, our findings imply that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant – and not the other way around.”
Neanderthals and Sapiens Sharing Bed
Despite the absence of DNA in these fossils, the findings from Nesher Ramla offer a solution to a great mystery in the evolution of Homo: How did genes of Homo sapiens penetrate the Neanderthal population that presumably lived in Europe long before the arrival of Homo sapiens? Geneticists who studied the DNA of European Neanderthals have previously suggested the existence of a Neanderthal-like population which they called the ‘missing population’ or the ‘X population’ that had mated with Homo sapiens more than 200,000 years ago. In the anthropological paper now published in Science, the researchers suggest that the Nesher Ramla Homo type might represent this population, heretofore missing from the record of human fossils. Moreover, the researchers propose that the humans from Nesher Ramla are not the only ones of their kind discovered in the region, and that some human fossils found previously in Israel, which have baffled anthropologists for years – like the fossils from the Tabun cave (160,000 years ago), Zuttiyeh cave (250,000), and Qesem cave (400,000) – belong to the same new human group now called the Nesher Ramla Homo type.
“People think in paradigms,” says Dr. Rachel Sarig. “That’s why efforts have been made to ascribe these fossils to known human groups like Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis or the Neanderthals. But now we say: No. This is a group in itself, with distinct features and characteristics. At a later stage small groups of the Nesher Ramla Homo type migrated to Europe – where they evolved into the ‘classic’ Neanderthals that we are familiar with, and also to Asia, where they became archaic populations with Neanderthal-like features. As a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, the Land of Israel served as a melting pot where different human populations mixed with one another, to later spread throughout the Old World. The discovery from the Nesher Ramla site writes a new and fascinating chapter in the story of humankind.”
The Nesher Ramla research team (left to right): Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Marion Prevost, Dr. Hila May, Dr. Rachel Sarig and Dr. Yossi Zaidner.
Featured image: TAU’s Dr. Rachel Sarig, Dr. Hila May, and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz holding the Nesher Ramla fossils (photo: Tel Aviv University)
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.”
The rare disease LCH has been discovered in the remains of a dinosaur that lived in Canada 60 million years ago, TAU researchers say
The fossilized tail of a young dinosaur that lived on a prairie in southern Alberta, Canada, is home to the remains of a 60-million-year-old tumor.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University, led by Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, have identified this benign tumor as part of the pathology of LCH (Langerhans cell histiocytosis), a rare and sometimes painful disease that still afflicts humans, particularly children under the age of 10.
A study on the TAU discovery was published on February 10 in Scientific Reports. Prof. Bruce Rothschild of Indiana University, Prof. Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich and Mr. Darren Tanke of the Royal Museum of Paleontology also contributed to the research.
“Prof. Rothschild and Tanke spotted an unusual finding in the vertebrae of a tail of a young dinosaur of the grass-eating herbivore species, common in the world 66-80 million years ago,” Dr. May explains. “There were large cavities in two of the vertebrae segments, which were unearthed at the Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada.”
It was the specific shape of the cavities that attracted the attention of researchers. “They were extremely similar to the cavities produced by tumors associated with the rare disease LCH that still exists today in humans,” adds Dr. May. “Most of the LCH-related tumors, which can be very painful, suddenly appear in the bones of children aged 2-10 years. Thankfully, these tumors disappear without intervention in many cases.”
The dinosaur tail vertebrae were sent for on-site advanced micro-CT scanning to the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute at TAU’s Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research.
A 60 million year old disease
“The micro-CT produces very high-resolution imaging, up to a few microns,” Dr. May says. “We scanned the dinosaur vertebrae and created a computerized 3D reconstruction of the tumor and the blood vessels that fed it. The micro and macro analyses confirmed that it was, in fact, LCH. This is the first time this disease has been identified in a dinosaur.”
According to Dr. May, the surprising findings indicate that the disease is not unique to humans, and that it has survived for more than 60 million years.
“These kinds of studies, which are now possible thanks to innovative technology, make an important and interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine, a relatively new field of research that investigates the development and behavior of diseases over time,” notes Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of TAU’s Department of Anatomy and Anthropology and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research. “We are trying to understand why certain diseases survive evolution with an eye to deciphering what causes them in order to develop new and effective ways of treating them.”
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