Roundup of Recent Science Discoveries, 1997

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Was Three Company?

Past evidence uncovered in Israel and France has shown that Neanderthals lived on Earth at the same time as modern Homo sapiens. Neanderthals were found to have lived about 34,000 years ago near Auxerre in central France, and thus overlapped with modern humans, who have existed since c.100,000 years ago, according to excavations at Mount Carmel, Israel. Now the latest data suggests that the primitive Homo erectus, believed to have died out about 300,000 years ago, lived on the Indonesian island of Java until 27,000 to 53,000 years ago. It is not known if this surviving population of H. erectus actually had any contact with any of the other human species or could have interbred with them.

A team of scientists announced that their re-examination of Homo erectus skulls found at two sites on Java during the 1930s resulted in revised age estimates for these archaic humans. If their findings are verified, it means that the three human species once walked the Earth at the same time. It would also mean that Homo sapiens did not evolve from Homo erectus in Southeast Asia.

Stone Age High-Tech

German archeologists have found evidence that early humans were hunting big game at a much earlier date than thought possible. In early 1997, excavators in an open-pit mine site at Schoeningen found three intact heavy wooden spears about six-feet long that they believe are about 400,000 years old. The spears are balanced for javelin-like throwing to kill large animals. It was previously assumed that early humans were probably scavengers and foragers who lacked the sophistication and weapon-making know-how to hunt big game until some 40,000 years ago.

Paleolithic Nimrods

Recent evidence observed from studies of butchery marks on unearthed animal bones at a South African cave site indicates that Homo sapiens living there some 100,000 years ago were active hunters who probably coordinated their animal hunts and killed their prey in groups with primitive weapons.

Neanderthal Music Makers

The latest in the wave of intriguing discoveries about early humans is that the Neanderthals probably made music. Excavators at a cave near Idrija in northwestern Slovenia found a piece of a young cave bear's thighbone with four artificial holes drilled into it that were aligned in a straight line on one side. It appears to be a bone flute. Similar flute-type bone instruments have been found in Europe and Asia at modern human (Homo sapien) sites. It is not known if the hollow-bone object was ever used to make sounds or even music. Preliminary estimates date the artifact at between 43,000 and 82,000 years old. If the dating proves correct, it could be the oldest known musical instrument in the world.

Also in 1996, a 50,000 year-old mastodon tusk was found in the Neander Valley, Germany, that had sixteen aligned holes drilled into it, also suggesting that it might have been a Neanderthal musical instrument.

A Family Tree Grows in Ethiopia

The partial upper jaw of a 2.3 million-year old fossil of the genus Homo—the same lineage that humans belong to—was found in 1994 at a site in Hadar, Ethiopia. It was discovered in sediments containing nearby stone flakes and chopping tools dating from the same age. The prehistoric jawbone was dated 400,000 years older than the oldest known Homo fossil. The exciting find also marked the first time that a fossil Homo was unearthed in association with stone artifacts. Although the discovery was made two years earlier, it was not announced until 1996.

Even though the fossil has teeth similar in appearance to H. habilis, scientists cannot determine its genus unless its skull or more of its bones are found. It could be an unknown species of hominid.

No Family Ties

Analysis of ancient DNA extracted from the original Neanderthal skeletal remains found in the Neander Valley, Germany, in 1856, indicates that Neanderthals did not interbreed with modern humans. This remarkable achievement—the oldest DNA ever extracted from a hominid remains—was accomplished in 1997 by scientists at the University of Munich in Germany. Their unprecedented genetic findings imply that Neanderthals were not our ancestors but a distinct species who split off from the hominid line at a much earlier date than modern humans and reached their evolutionary end about 35,000 years ago.

Made in Siberia

A possible link between the Old World and the migration of Paleoindians to the New World has been found in Siberia. In 1966, American and Russian archaeologists discovered a two-inch fluted point—a pre-Columbian projectile found across North American and South America thought to be an invention of the Clovis culture—at a site called Uptar about 25 miles north of the Siberian city of Magadan. It was discovered with other artifacts that date to 8,300 years ago. Tools found at the site could be older, perhaps 11,000 to 12,000 years past.

Archaeologists agree that the earliest human inhabitants of the Americas crossed the Bering land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska before rising sea levels submerged it about 11,000 years ago. If the Uptar point is older than 12,000 years, it may be a precursor to the technology used by the earliest inhabitants of the New World.

The important question is whether the fluted point was invented independently on both continents or whether the Clovis people brought the technology with them when they crossed the land bridge from Siberia into America.

Neolithic Neurosurgeons

A skull found at a site dating from c.5000 B.C. near the Alsatian town of Ensisheim shows the earliest known evidence of an attempt to operate on the brain. Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence of successful trepanation dates from about 3000 B.C. The Ensisheim skull is that of a 50-year-old man who had twice undergone rudimentary surgery. At least the first operation was successful because the wound in his skull had healed before his death.

More Bird-like Dinosaurs

Two important archeological finds have added new evidence to the theory that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs.

In late 1996, scientists announced the discovery of a three-foot-long, 120-million-year-old fossil dinosaur in Liaoning province, northeastern China, with traces of a feathery down running from its head and down along its back and tail that suggest it could be a possible ancestor of birds. It is the first specimen of a dinosaur fossil with down-type feathers.

And more recently, a 90-million-year-old, seven-foot-long, meat-eating dinosaur that had bird-like arms was found in an ancient riverbed in Patagonia, Argentina. The dinosaur, was named Unenlagia (“half bird”) comahuensis in the Mapuche Indian tongue by its discoverer. Unenlagia didn't actually fly, but could apparently fold its arms wing-like against its body and flap them like a bird. Its pelvis resembles that of the Archaeopteryx, the oldest known fossil bird dating from the Jurassic period about 145 million years ago.

T. Rex Dethroned

Researchers found more fossil bones belonging to the skull of the world's largest meat-eating dinosaur—Giganotosaurus carolinii–discovered in southern Argentina during 1993—and were able to determine that the huge creature was some 45-feet long and may have weighed almost 10 tons. It is larger than the long-time record holder, the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Giganotosaurus lived about 100 million years ago during the upper Cretaceous period and is not closely related to T. rex, who roamed the Earth 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. The new predator is named after its discoverer, Rubin Carolini.

In addition to losing the honor of being the largest known flesh-eating dinosaur, scientists have found indications that the Tyrannosaurus rex occasionally suffered from painful bouts of gout.

Another contender for the largest carnivorous dinosaur is Carcharodontosaurus (shark-toothed) whose remains were uncovered in the Moroccan Sahara. Its skull measured over 5-feet long and it was estimated to be about 45-feet long.

An Earlier Origin For Life

The age of the Earth is generally accepted to be about 4.5 billion years old and some of the earliest known signs of life are fossilized bacteria found in a South African rock formation dating about 3.2 billion years ago. New research has detected evidence in rocks from southwestern Greenland, that suggests life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, millions of years earlier than previously imagined.

Although no fossils were found in the Greenland rocks, researchers found chemical-biological evidence in them that could only have been produced by ancient life forms.

Rain from Space

Controversial data resulting from images taken by NASA's Polar spacecraft, launched in 1996, suggest that the Earth is bombarded by tens of thousands small icy comets every day. These house-size cosmic snowballs breakup upon entering the upper atmosphere, vaporize into clouds, and fall to Earth as rain. It is estimated that they add about one inch of water to the oceans every 10,000 years.

Some scientists even speculate that during the Earth's early violent history, giant comets bombarded the planet over millions of years, delivering enough water to form the oceans and possibly brought the simple organic compounds that developed into primal Earth life.

Antimatter Cloudburst

In 1997, astrophysicists announced their finding of an enormous cloud of antimatter, some 4,000-light years across and rising up some 3,500 light-years from someplace near the center of our Milky Way galaxy. (A light year is roughly 5.9 trillion miles.) The surprising discovery was made from observations using the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory that was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on April 7, 1991.

Antimatter particles have the same characteristics as normal matter but have the opposite electrical charge of their ordinary matter counterparts. When antimatter collides with normal matter they annihilate each other, producing gamma rays. Not to worry, it is quite unlikely that particles of the antimatter cloud would ever reach the Earth.

Earliest New World Agriculture

The date for the first domestication of plants in ancient America has been moved back by several thousand years. New radiocarbon dating of squash seeds found in a Mexican cave once occupied by pre-Columbian humans in Guila Naquitz indicate that they are 10,000 years old. Corn (maize) and beans weren't cultivated in Mexico until about 4,000 years later.

Fido the Wolf

It was generally accepted that humans first tamed dogs about 14,000 years ago. However, new controversial evidence based on genetic analysis of material in wolf and dog breeds suggest that humans domesticated wolves as far back as 135,000 years ago and that modern dogs are the evolutionary descendants of these ancestral wolves.

Like Father, Like Daughter

Some scientists now think that girls get their woman's intuition and adept social skills from their father's genes whereas boys inherit their social ineptitude from their mothers. Boys only get one X chromosome from their mother and one Y from their father. Girls receive two X chromosomes, one from each parent. Researchers studying Turner's syndrome, a genetic disorder, found that those women who only get a single X chromosome from their mother as opposed to those who only received a single X from their father, tend to have more problems in social interactions.

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