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Early modern humans cooked starchy food in South Africa, 170,000 years ago – Phys.org

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Border Cave excavation. Credit: Dr. Lucinda Backwell

“The inhabitants of the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains on the Kwazulu-Natal/eSwatini border were cooking starchy plants 170 thousand years ago,” says Professor Lyn Wadley, a scientist from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (Wits ESI). “This discovery is much older than earlier reports for cooking similar plants and it provides a fascinating insight into the behavioural practices of early modern humans in southern Africa. It also implies that they shared food and used wooden sticks to extract plants from the ground.”

“It is extraordinary that such fragile plant remains have survived for so long,” says Dr. Christine Sievers, a scientist from the University of the Witwatersrand, who completed the archaeobotanical work with Wadley. The underground food were uncovered during excavations at Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains (on the border of KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa, and eSwatini [formerly Swaziland]), where the team has been digging since 2015. During the excavation, Wadley and Sievers recognised the small, charred cylinders as rhizomes. All appear to belong to the same species, and 55 charred, whole rhizomes were identified as Hypoxis, commonly called the Yellow Star flower. “The most likely of the species growing in KwaZulu-Natal today is the slender-leafed Hypoxis angustifolia that is favoured as food,” adds Sievers. “It has small rhizomes with white flesh that is more palatable than the bitter, orange flesh of rhizomes from the better known medicinal Hypoxis species (incorrectly called African Potato).”

The Border Cave plant identifications were made on the size and shape of the rhizomes and on the vascular structure examined under a scanning electron microscope. Modern Hypoxis rhizomes and their ancient counterparts have similar cellular structures and the same inclusions of microscopic crystal bundles, called raphides. The features are still recognisable even in the charred specimens. Over a four-year period, Wadley and Sievers made a collection of modern rhizomes and geophytes from the Lebombo area. “We compared the botanical features of the modern geophytes and the ancient charred specimens, in order to identify them,” explains Sievers.

Hypoxis rhizomes are nutritious and carbohydrate-rich with an energy value of approximately 500 KJ/100g. While they are edible raw, the rhizomes are fibrous and have high fracture toughness until they are cooked. The rhizomes are rich in starch and would have been an ideal staple plant food. “Cooking the fibre-rich rhizomes would have made them easier to peel and to digest so more of them could be consumed and the nutritional benefits would be greater,” says Wadley.

<div data-thumb="https://scx1.b-cdn.net/csz/news/tmb/2020/1-earlymodernh.jpg" data-src="https://scx2.b-cdn.net/gfx/news/hires/2020/1-earlymodernh.jpg" data-sub-html="Hypoxis angustifolia growth habit. Credit: Prof. Lyn Wadley/Wits University”>

<img src="https://scx1.b-cdn.net/csz/news/800/2020/1-earlymodernh.jpg" alt="Early modern humans cooked starchy food in South Africa, 170,000 years ago" title="Hypoxis angustifolia growth habit. Credit: Prof. Lyn Wadley/Wits University”>
Hypoxis angustifolia growth habit. Credit: Prof. Lyn Wadley/Wits University

Wooden digging sticks used to extract the plants from the ground

“The discovery also implies the use of wooden digging sticks to extract the rhizomes from the ground. One of these tools was found at Border Cave and is directly dated at circa 40,000 years ago,” says co-author of the paper and co-director of the excavation, Professor Francesco d’Errico, (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Université de Bordeaux, France and University of Bergen, Norway). Dr. Lucinda Backwell (Instituto Superior de Estudios Sociales, ISES-CONICET, Tucumán, Argentina) also co-authored the paper and was a co-director of the excavation.

The plants were cooked and shared

The Hypoxis rhizomes were mostly recovered from fireplaces and ash dumps rather than from surrounding sediment. “The Border Cave inhabitants would have dug Hypoxis rhizomes from the hillside near the cave, and carried them back to the cave to cook them in the ashes of fireplaces,” says Wadley. “The fact that they were brought back to the cave rather than cooked in the field suggests that food was shared at the home base. This suggests that the rhizomes were roasted in ashes and that, in the process, some were lost. While the evidence for cooking is circumstantial, it is nonetheless compelling.”

Early modern humans cooked starchy food in South Africa, 170,000 years ago
Border Cave entrance in the Lebombo Mountains, South Africa. Credit: Ashley Kruger

Discoveries at Border Cave

This new discovery adds to the long list of important finds at Border Cave. The site has been repeatedly excavated since Raymond Dart first worked there in 1934. Amongst earlier discoveries were the burial of a baby with a Conus seashell at 74,000 years ago, a variety of bone tools, an ancient counting device, ostrich eggshell beads, resin, and poison that may once have been used on hunting weapons.

The Border Cave Heritage Site

Border Cave is a heritage site with a small site museum. The and museum are open to the public, though bookings are essential [Olga Vilane (+27) (0) 72 180 4332]. Wadley and her colleagues hope that the Border Cave discovery will emphasise the importance of the site as an irreplaceable cultural resource for South Africa and the rest of the world.

About Hypoxis angustifolia

Hypoxis angustifolia is evergreen, so it has visibility year-round, unlike the more common deciduous Hypoxis species. It thrives in a variety of modern habitats and is thus likely to have had wide distribution in the past as it does today. It occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, south Sudan, some Indian Ocean islands, and as far afield as Yemen. Its presence in Yemen may imply even wider distribution of this Hypoxis plant during previous humid conditions. Hypoxis angustifolia rhizomes grow in clumps so many can be harvested at once. “All of the rhizome’s attributes imply that it could have provided a reliable, familiar food source for early humans trekking within Africa, or even out of Africa,” said Lyn Wadley. Hunter-gatherers tend to be highly mobile so the wide distribution of a potential staple plant food would have ensured food security.


Explore further

Archaeologists and anthropologists peer into original homes of the past to see what made us who we are today


More information:
L. Wadley el al., “Cooked starchy rhizomes in Africa 170 thousand years ago,” Science (2019). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aaz5926

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Early modern humans cooked starchy food in South Africa, 170,000 years ago (2020, January 2)
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We Now Have a Beautiful Colour Image of Earth's Minimoon – ScienceAlert

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Dear Moon, we love you very much. For 4.51 billion years you’ve been a steady and true orbital companion.

So, with that in mind, please excuse us for a brief moment while we absolutely freak out over the tiny minimoon we’ve just discovered looping around our planet.

Designated 2020 CD3, so far we know that it’s likely a car-sized piece of carbonaceous rock, and has been in orbit for about three years already.

On February 24, the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii took a beautiful colour photo of our new friend, with the 8-meter Gemini North telescope.

(Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIARL/AURA/G. Fedorets)

Combining three images with different filters, the picture shows our little minimoon as the spot in the centre of the image, with the colourful stars blurry around it.

It looks this way because the minimoon was being tracked over the sky; as the camera moves, the stars (which don’t move as much) blur.

Alas, our new tiny friend will not be around forever.

“Obtaining the images was a scramble for the Gemini team because the object is quickly becoming fainter as it moves away from Earth,” explains Gemini Observatory astronomer John Blakeslee.

“It is expected to be ejected from Earth’s orbit altogether in April.”

Although it might be too late for us to become further acquainted with little 2020 CD3, researchers think there are many more of such minimoons out there – we just need to find them.

“We expect to find a population of these objects once the Rubin Observatory is operational,” said Grigori Fedorets, the lead astronomer for the Gemini observations. 

“Stay tuned!”

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Astronomers detect biggest explosion since Big Bang – DW (English)

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Researchers say the blast is the biggest since the universe began. It occurred at the center of a galaxy cluster some 390 million light years away from Earth.

Astronomers have discovered the biggest explosion seen in the universe, originating from a super-massive black hole.

The blast, they said, is the biggest explosion seen in the universe since the Big Bang. The explosion reportedly released five times more energy than the previous record holder.

Read moreWhat’s happening in the night sky in 2020?

The blast occurred at the center of the Ophiuchus cluster of galaxies, some 390 million light years away. The cluster is a conglomeration of thousands of galaxies, hot gas and dark matter bound together by gravity.

“We’ve seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before but this one is really, really massive, ” said Melanie Johnston-Holitt, a professor at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). “And we don’t know why it’s so big.”

Read moreMercury creates tiny solar eclipse in rare celestial act

Astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory to make the discovery, as well as a European space observatory and ground telescopes. Scientists picked up the first sign of the explosion in 2016.

Chandra images of the cluster revealed an unusual curved edge, but scientists ruled out a possible eruption given the amount of energy that would have been needed to create such a large cavity of gas. The curviture was later confirmed to be a cavity.

According to ICRAR, the lead author of the study, Dr Simona Giacintucci from the Naval Research Laboratory in the United States, compared the blast to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which tore the top off the mountain.

“The difference is that you can fit 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas,” she said.

The blast is believed to be over by now, and, according to the research team, more observations are needed in other wavelengths to better understand what occurred.

Read moreMilky Way gobbled up smaller galaxy in cosmic crash, astronomers find

We made this discovery with Phase 1 of the MWA, when the telescope had 2048 antennas pointed towards the sky,” said Johnston-Hollitt. “We’re soon going to be gathering observations with 4096 antennas, which should be 10 times more sensitive. I think that’s pretty exciting.”

DW sends out a selection of the day’s news and features. Sign up for it here.

lc/aw (AP, EFE)

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Bright-Red "Blood Snow" Is Falling From the Sky in Antarctica – Futurism

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Blood Snow

A Facebook post by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science shows a research station on an island just off the coast of Antarctica’s northernmost peninsula covered in “blood snow.”

The gory-looking scene is not the result of a seal hunt gone wrong — it’s an astonishingly red-pigmented, microscopic algae called Chlamydomonas nivalis, which thrives in freezing water as the ice melts during Antarctica’s record-breaking warm summer.

Algae Bloom

When summer hits the polar regions, the algae bloom, staining the snow and ice around it in blood-resembling red, as Live Science explains. The phenomenon was first noticed by Aristotle thousands of years ago and is often referred to as “watermelon snow” thanks to its subtly sweet scent and color.

What makes the blooming algae red is the same stuff that give carrots and watermelons their reddish tint — carotenoids.

Feedback Loop

It’s a stunning display of a natural phenomenon — but it also creates a nasty feedback loop that causes the ice to melt faster. The red color causes less sunlight to be reflected off the snow, causing it to melt faster, as the Ukrainian team explains in its post. The accelerated melting then causes more algae to grow, completing the cycle.

It’s not the only surreal display in the world caused by such a feedback loop, as Live Science points out. Blooming algae caused sea foam to swallow up the coast of a Spanish town in January. Similar algae blooms even caused shores around islands in the East China Sea to glow blue.

READ MORE: Spooky ‘blood snow’ invades Antarctic island [Live Science]

More on algae: A New Bioreactor Captures as Much Carbon as an Acre of Trees

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