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Posts Tagged ‘Biology & Evolution’

Biohistory,Biology & Evolution

Our 2018 Highlights- Dan David research is at the Top

The 2018 Altmetric Top 100; The PLOS Blogs (SciComm) Top 6 Human Evolution Discoveries of 2018; The Ynet top Scientific Research for 2018

Dan David Centerf for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research at Tel Aviv Univesity was engaged in many excavations of prehistoric sites in Israel during the last two decades. Together with our local and global collaborators we have reached “The 2018 Altmetric Top 100” and “The 6 Human Evolution Discoveries of 2018” in PLOS Blogs (SciComm). Ynet, the Israel most popular digital newspaper also chose the Misliya paper among the most important ones in science for the year 2018.

See our movie on Misliya Cave

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Biohistory,Biology & Evolution

Dan David Centre for Human Evolution and Biohistory Inaugurated

The Centre will focus on humankind’s past, present and future, while perpetuating the legacy of late TAU benefactor and passionate amateur anthropologist, Dan David

The recent discovery by a TAU-led team of a fossilized human jawbone in an Israeli cave has led to a new dating for the earliest modern human to be found outside of Africa. Based on scientific analysis in TAU labs, the fossil was estimated to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years old, pushing back by about 100,000 years the time that Homo sapiens was first believed to have ventured out of Africa.  

This astounding discovery was made by physical anthropologists at TAU’s Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory. The Centre, which is part of the Sackler  Faculty of Medicine and of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Israel Centre for Biodiversity Studies, houses TAU’s unique Biological Anthropology Collection of specimens dating back 1.5 million years. The Collection, which is housed at the Steinhardt Museum, offers scientists boundless opportunities to investigate all stages of the historical, biological and cultural development of humankind, enabling them to paint a detailed picture of ancient life in spheres ranging from demography, migration, health and diet, to the division of labour, religious beliefs or ancestral cult, and much more.

The Centre is a dynamic hub for state-of-the-art research that could have implications not only for understanding human evolution but also for enhancing human health in modern times.

​The Centre was inaugurated in a festive ceremony held in the Fabian-Cyril Boisson Auditorium Donated by Nathalie Kerber at the Steinhardt Museum. The Dan David Foundation was represented by TAU Honorary Fellow and Governor Gabriela David, widow of Dan David, and her son, TAU Governor and TAU Global Campaign Cabinet Member, Ariel David. The ceremony was moderated by Head of the Centre Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, Sackler Faculty of Medicine.​​

AU Governor and Global Campaign Cabinet Member Ariel David

Dan David – a seeker of knowledge

The Centre honours the memory and legacy of major TAU benefactor Dan David, an inventor, businessman, philanthropist, and a seeker of knowledge. David was fascinated by how the past informs the present and the future, as reflected in the annual Dan David Prize, which he founded and is administered by TAU. he also donated the Dan David Classroom Building on campus, as well as scholarships for management students.

In his welcoming greetings, TAU President Joseph Klafter said the new Centre is “a mirror image of the Dan David Prize, because human evolution is past, present and future.” He described David as a “dreamer who dreamt big,” and thanked the David family for realizing the dream of establishing a large and technologically advanced research center in biological anthropology at TAU, a subject “close to Dan’s heart.”

Addressing Gabriela and Ariel David, Prof. Klafter said, “You believed in this project when it was still a sketch on a piece of paper, and when this museum was still a pile of sand. Beyond your commitment to the David Centre, you have both been pillars of support for Tel Aviv University for many years, and in many ways. It is hard to imagine this university without Dan David, but it’s just as difficult to imagine TAU without Gabi and Ariel,” said Prof. Klafter.

“We are proud that Tel Aviv University, the Steinhardt Museum and the Dan David Centre will play an important and central role in educating Israeli children about human evolution,” he added.  

Dean of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine Prof. Ehud Grossman paid tribute to the founding members of the field of physical anthropology at Tel Aviv University. “These pioneers paved the way for us to amass the one of the largest and most important fossil collections of biological anthropology in the world,” he said. He welcomed the new young faculty members from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine who are affiliated with the Centre: Dr. Hila May, head of the Laboratory for Bio-History and Evolutionary Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, and Dr. Rachel Sarig of the Department of Oral Biology and Orthodontics of the Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine.

Prof. Tamar Dayan, Chair of the Steinhardt Natural History Museum said, “In 2012 the future of biological anthropology in Israel looked bleak. Now, today, with the inauguration of this Centre, we are celebrating success,” she said. “The joint efforts of the Dan David Foundation, TAU and the Steinhardt Museum are bearing magnificent fruit – with two new outstanding faculty members in the Faculty of Medicine, a new storage facility, state-of-the-art preparation laboratory and advanced scientific equipment, and a very beautiful new exhibition to portray the biological and cultural evolution of humankind. I am sure that Dan would have been happy and proud that his family has played such a pivotal role in ensuring that both science and society will gain ever deeper insight into the history of humankind,” she concluded.

A mission close to Dan David’s heart

In his response, Mr. Ariel David thanked all those at TAU involved in making the project a reality, including Prof. Klafter; Amos Elad, Vice President for Resource Development; Prof. Israel Hershkovitz; and Prof. Tamar Dayan. “All these people have been dedicated to this project from the beginning,” he said.  

“This centre aims to be a guiding light for scientific discoveries and future findings that will enable innovative research through the most advanced technologies – from micro CT to ancient DNA analysis,” continued David. “I am convinced that this project will make Tel Aviv University an international player in the search for answers to basic questions about the way we evolved, how we spread across the world and what makes us unique and human.”

“Finally, I hope this Center will serve a cause that was close to my father’s heart – creating a hub for nurturing new generations of talented young researchers,” said David. “When I see the growth and success of the young staff already working at the Centre, I have no doubt that we are on the right track to achieving this goal.”

Pioneers of physical anthropology in Israel

Head of the Centre Prof. Israel Hershkovitz gave an overview of the history of physical anthropology in Israel, paying tribute to pioneers in the field including TAU Prof. (emer.) Baruch Arensburg of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, a major expert in the field, who was present at the ceremony. Hershkovitz noted that the Centre comprises over 1,200 sq. meters of space for storing, researching and exhibiting TAU’s Biological fossil Collection, which comprises unique specimens gathered from throughout the Levant over 80 years. “It is the only collection in the world to provide a continuous record of all those who passed through the region in the past 1.5 million years – from Homo Erectus, Homo Heidelbergensis and Neanderthal, through to anatomically modern humans,” he noted.


From the exhibit “What Makes Us Human?”  Photo: Shai Ben-Efraim

Hershkovitz recalled his first meeting with Dan David in 2003, when Dan asked to accompany him on an anthropological dig. “Since that tour, Dan became a champion of my research – as friend, dig participant and benefactor. His generous support enabled numerous breakthroughs, including important discoveries at the Qesem, Misliyah and Manot Caves, among others,” he said.  

The ceremony concluded with a fascinating presentation on “Teeth as a Time Capsule” given by Dr. Rachel Sarig, who explained the importance of teeth in the field of physical anthropology.

Also present were TAU Rector Yaron Oz; Director-General Gady Frank; Director of the Steinhardt Museum Alon Sapan; Deputy Chairperson of the Board of Governors Dame Shirley Porter; TAU Governor and Global Campaign Cabinet Member Sylvan Adams and his wife, Margaret; and leading paleontologists from TAU and other institutions in Israel. The ceremony ended with a plaque unveiling at the Centre, located on the 4th floor of the Museum, as well as a tour of the exhibit, “What Makes Us Human?” The exhibit presents a series of presentations through which the observer can follow the major milestones – physical and cognitive – in human evolution.

Featured image: From left: Amos Elad; Prof. Israel Hershkovitz; Ariel David and Gabriela David. Photo: Yehonatan Zur

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Anthropology,Biology & Evolution

Ancient coffins in Israeli cave reveal migration from Turkey and Iran

Genome analysis of 6,500-year-old human remains points to origin of ancient Chalcolithic culture

An international team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Harvard University has discovered that waves of migration from Anatolia and the Zagros mountains (today’s Turkey and Iran) to the Levant helped develop the Chalcolithic culture that existed in Israel’s Upper Galilee region some 6,500 years ago.

The study is one of the largest ancient DNA studies ever conducted in Israel and for the first time sheds light on the origins of the Chalcolithic culture in the Levant, approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago.

Research for the study was led by Dr. Hila May and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of the Department of Anatomy and AnthropologyDan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine; Dr. Dina Shalem of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College and the Israel Antiquities Authority; and Éadaoin Harney and Prof. David Reich of Harvard University. It was published today in Nature Communications.

In 1995, Zvi Gal, Dina Shalem and Howard Smithline of the Israel Antiquities Authority began excavating the Peqi’in Cave in northern Israel, which dates to the Chalcolithic Period in the Levant. The team unearthed dozens of burials in the natural stalactite cave that is 17 meters long and 5-8 meters wide.

Cave of wonders

The large number of unique ceramic ossuaries and the variety of burial offerings discovered in the cave suggest that it was once used as a mortuary center by the local Chalcolithic people.

“The uniqueness of the cave is evident in the number of people buried in it — more than 600 — and the variety of ossuaries and jars and the outstanding motifs on them, including geometric and anthropomorphic designs,” Dr. Shalem says. “Some of the findings in the cave are typical to the region, but others suggest cultural exchange with remote regions.

“The study resolves a long debate about the origin of the unique culture of the Chalcolithic people. Did the cultural change in the region following waves of migration, the infiltration of ideas due to trade relations and/or cultural exchange, or local invention? We now know that the answer is migration.”

Ancient genes

The researchers subjected 22 of the skeletons excavated at Peqi’in, dating to the Chalcolithic Period, to a whole genome analysis.

“This study of 22 individuals is one of the largest ancient DNA studies carried out from a single archaeological site, and by far the largest ever reported in the Near East,” Dr. May says.

“The genetic analysis provided an answer to the central question we set out to address,” says Prof. Reich. “It showed that the Peqi’in people had substantial ancestry from northerners — similar to those living in Iran and Turkey — that was not present in earlier Levantine farmers.”

“Certain characteristics, such as genetic mutations contributing to blue eye color, were not seen in the DNA test results of earlier Levantine human remains,” adds Dr. May. “The chances for the success of such a study seemed slim, since most of the ancient DNA studies carried out in Israel have failed due to difficult climatic conditions in the region that destroy DNA.”

“Fortunately, however, human DNA was preserved in the bones of the buried people in Peqi’in cave, likely due to the cool conditions within the cave and the limestone crust that covered the bones and preserved the DNA,” says Prof. Hershkovitz.

“We also find that the Peqi’in population experienced abrupt demographic change 6,000 years ago,” concludes Harney, who led the statistical analysis for the study.

“Indeed, these findings suggest that the rise and falls of the Chalcolithic culture are probably due to demographic changes in the region,” says Dr. May.

Featured image: Coffins from the Chalcolithic Period, found in the Peqi’in Cave (Photo: Marianne Salzberger, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

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Biology & Evolution

Did human culture impact our brain’s evolution?

A new model shows how small modifications can adapt our brain to ecological and cultural changes

A  new Tel Aviv University study suggests that cultural activities, such as the use of language, influence our learning processes, affecting our ability to collect different kinds of data, make connections between them, and infer a desirable mode of behavior from them.

“We believe that, over lengthy time scales, some aspects of the brain must have changed to better accommodate the learning parameters required by various cultural activities,” said Prof. Arnon Lotem, of TAU’s Department of Zoology, who led the research for the study. “The effect of culture on cognitive evolution is captured through small modifications of evolving learning and data acquisition mechanisms. Their coordinated action improves the brain network’s ability to support learning processes involved in such cultural phenomena as language or tool-making.”

Prof. Lotem developed the new learning model in collaboration with Prof. Joseph Halpern and Prof. Shimon Edelman, both of Cornell University, and Dr. Oren Kolodny of Stanford University (formerly a PhD student at TAU). The research was recently published in PNAS.

“Our new computational approach to studying human and animal cognition may explain how human culture shaped the evolution of human cognition and memory,” Prof. Lotem said. “The brain is not a rigid learning machine in which a particular event necessarily leads to another particular event. Instead, it functions according to coevolving mechanisms of learning and data acquisition, with certain memory parameters that jointly construct a complex network, capable of supporting a range of cognitive abilities.

“Any change in these parameters may change the constructed network and thus the function of the brain,” Prof. Lotem said. “This is how small modifications can adapt our brain to ecological as well as to cultural changes. Our model reflects this.”

How do we learn things?

To learn, the brain calculates statistics on the data it takes in from the environment, monitoring the distribution of data and determining the level of connections between them. The new learning model assumes a limited window of memory and constructs an associative network that represents the frequency of the connections between data items.

“A computer remembers all the data it is fed. But our brain developed in a way that limits the quantity of data it can receive and remember,” said Prof. Lotem. “Our model hypothesizes that the brain does this ‘intentionally’ — that is, the mechanism of filtering the data from the surroundings is an integral element in the learning process. Moreover, a limited working memory may paradoxically be helpful in some cognitive tasks that require extensive computation. This may explain why our working memory is actually more limited than that of our closest relatives, chimpanzees.”

Working with a large memory window imposes a far greater computational burden on the brain than working with a small window. Human language, for example, presents computational challenges. When we listen to a string of syllables, we need to scan a massive number of possible combinations to identify familiar words.

But this is only a problem if the person who is learning really needs to care about the exact order of data items, which is the case with language, according to Dr. Lotem. On the other hand, a person only has to identify a small combination of typical features in order to discriminate between two types of trees in the forest. The exact order of the features is not as important, computation is simpler and a larger working memory may be better.

From human brain to robot brain

“Some of these principles that evolved in the biological brain may be useful in the development of AI someday,” Dr. Lotem said. “Currently the concept of limiting memory in order to improve computation is not something that people do in the field of AI, but perhaps they should try and see whether it can paradoxically be helpful in some cases, as in our human brain.”

 “Excluding very recent cultural innovations, the assumption that culture shaped the evolution of cognition is both more parsimonious and more productive than assuming the opposite,” the researchers concluded. They are currently examining how natural variations in learning and memory parameters may influence learning tasks that require extensive computation.

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Biology & Evolution

How did squids become so smart?

New study finds cephalopods evolved differently from other animals, including humans

Cephalopods – a family of marine animals that includes octopuses, squid and cuttlefish – are extraordinarily smart for underwater creatures. You might have seen videos of them opening jars, using various objects as tools, or even correctly predicting the future, as Paul the octopus did with game results for the 2010 World Cup. 

But how did these animals develop such a high level of intelligence? A new study from Eli Eisenberg from Tel Aviv University’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, done in collaboration with Joshua Rosenthal from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, has found that these spineless species use a different path to complexity at the molecular level, which may have contributed to their behavioral sophistication.

Don’t shoot the messenger

For most animals – including humans – genetic mutation happens through the DNA. Scientists believe that evolution occurred through these mutations, which created different traits, and eventually only the traits beneficial for survival and reproduction stuck around.

For squids, octopuses and cuttlefish, however, it seems the experimentation happened with RNA, the “messenger” that connects the DNA code and the parts of our cells that create proteins based on that code. According to Dr. Eisenberg, experimenting with RNA means a much slower pace of genomic evolution, but cephalopods have apparently preferred to make this sacrifice in return for the benefits RNA changes have allowed them. Forgoing a large fraction of genomic mutations is a big price to pay, suggesting the functional implications of RNA editing must be immense.

Therefore, Dr. Eisenberg hypothesizes that this form of “editing” might have played a role in the development  of the impressive neural network and complex brain of cephalopods, leading to the sophistication we see in the behavior of these animals.

What squids can teach us

Dr. Eisenberg’s discovery has made waves around the world. With his study recognized by leading scientists in the field as well as non-scientific publications like the New York Times, his findings could have a profound effect.

Extrapolating from the way squids “edit” their genetics could give us new ways to affect the world. There are currently barriers to manipulating human DNA, but RNA is far less dangerous to deal with. This could one day help us change our own genetics or even develop cures for chronic illnesses. 

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