Java earthquake and avian bird flu

It’s foolish to ponder the obvious, but today’s earthquake in Indonesia is going to do nothing to help control what seems to be limited human-to-human transmission of H5N1 there. WHO already thought that the Indonesian cases were serious enough to put the manufacturer of Tamiflu on alert and send 9,500 treatments doses to Indonesia earlier this week. Over 3,000 dead is tragic, but now there seems to be a perfect incubator for the disease, with populations on the move and infrastructure disrupted.

How do they plan to pull this off?!?

They plan to make a tall blond elf-girl from Lord of The Rings act Bob Dylan as a boy… Ok, I understand acting is a power of transformation, but this one is destined to be a flop.

CATE BLANCHETT is to play Bob Dylan in director TODD HAYNES’ upcoming biopic ‘I’M NOT THERE’.

The director has also cast Adrien Brody, Colin Farrell, Richard Gere, Julianne Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg to play the legendary singer at different times of his career in a highly unconventional seven-handed biography.

Haynes is still looking for a final “Bob Dylan” to complete his casting and says he’s seeking a young black woman to portray the musician’s “inner-blackness”.

It’s the first time Bob Dylan has given approval to a film based on his life, although Martin Scorsese is also currently making a two-part TV documentary to screen this autumn.

A distribution deal for I’m Not There is due to be announced at the Cannes Film Festival this month and Haynes plans to start filming in the autumn.

mapping the human-chimpanzee split with DNA

Now this is just damned peculiar.

By MATT CRENSON, AP National Writer

NEW YORK – One of the most detailed comparisons yet of human and chimp DNA shows that the split between the two species was a long, messy affair that may even have featured an unusual evolutionary version of breakup sex.

Previous genetic research has shown that chimpanzees and humans are sister species, having split off from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago. The new study goes farther by looking at approximately 800 times more DNA than earlier efforts.

That additional data make it possible to determine not just when, but how the split happened.

“For the first time we’re able to see the details written out in the DNA,” said Eric Lander, one of the collaborators on the study. “What they tell us at the least is that the human-chimp speciation was very unusual.”

Unusual, indeed. The researchers, from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, propose that humans and chimpanzees first split up about 10 million years ago. Then, after evolving in different directions for about 4 million years, they got back together for a brief fling that produced a third, hybrid population with characteristics of both lines.

That genetic collaboration then gave rise to two separate branches — one leading to humans and the other to chimps.

The work has inspired both admiration and skepticism. Many paleontologists have a hard time believing that some of the fossil humans that are known to have lived during that era could have been pairing up with apes.

“It’s a totally cool and extremely clever analysis,” said Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard who wasn’t involved in the study. “My problem is imagining what it would be like to have a bipedal hominid and a chimpanzee viewing each other as appropriate mates — not to put it too crudely.”

Past studies that compared human and chimp DNA could only average the differences between a limited number of spots in their genetic codes to come up with a single date for the split, rather than a span of years. The genius of the new study is that it breaks the genetic code into pieces and then looks at each section individually.

Surprisingly, some genes differ so much between the two species that they must not have been mixing for the past 10 million years. But others are similar enough that they appear to have been in contact no more than 6.3 million years ago.

That finding, and some details about which particular genes split when, led the study’s authors to propose their controversial scenario.

The new data also suggest the final human-chimp split was much more recent than the 7 million-year date that fossils and previous studies indicate — certainly no earlier than 6.3 million years ago, and more likely in the neighborhood of 5.4 million years.

Homo floresiensis and microcephaly

I saw the story of “new research” of Homo floresiensis, but the team leader Robert Martin made up his mind about this a long time ago. It’s more of a new press release than a new study. Martin is saying the same stuf he said in the article in the Asian edition of Time this time last year:

“Brains do not shrink proportionally to bodies in a species but remain relatively large,” says Martin. “That’s why the heads of small dogs, for example, are proportionally large for their bodies compared with larger dogs. To get a brain this size, H. erectus would have to have shrunk to about 3% of its previous 60-kg size. That’s about the size of a house cat’s.” Martin says one thing would persuade him—more physical evidence: “Show me eight more similar skulls from the site and I’ll shut up.”

Maybe Martin is right, but this is the same stuff he already said from looking at the same bones, after he found a microcephalic skull that he found useful for comparison

Oops. It’s actually far more technical than that. I should have checked John Hawks’ site first. Obviously, he actually knows what he’s talking about.

paleolithic site in Israel

For a moment i was interested in in this story about a paleolithic site being discovered in Jerusalem, in an area known as Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. The details are more than a little dodgy though. 200,000 year old skeletons? Pottery? Ehh….

The comments from readers at the bottom of the page are even more cringe-inducing, with a lot of zealots sniping at who the rightful heirs of Israel are.

Maybe another article that will make sense of the find will surface soon.

4,200 year old observatory found in Peruvian Andes

South America is dominating archaeoastronomy this morning. From the Los Angeles Times:

Archaeologists working high in the Peruvian Andes have discovered the oldest celestial observatory in the Americas — a 4,200-year-old structure marking the summer and winter solstices that is as old as the stone pillars of Stonehenge.

The observatory was built atop a 33-foot-high pyramid with precise alignments and sight lines that provide an astronomical calendar for agriculture, said archaeologist Robert Benfer of the University of Missouri.

The people who built the observatory — three millennia before the emergence of the Incas — are a mystery, but they achieved a level of art and science that archaeologists say they did not know existed in the region until at least 800 years later.

Among the most impressive finds was a huge clay sculpture flanked by two animal figures.

The disk, protected from looters beneath thousands of years of dirt and debris, marked the position of the winter solstice.

“It’s really quite a shock to everyone … to see sculptures of that sophistication coming out of a building of that time period,” said archaeologist Richard Burger of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the discovery.

The discovery adds strong evidence to the recent idea that a sophisticated civilization developed in South America in the pre-ceramic era, before the development of fired pottery sometime after 1500 B.C.

Benfer’s find “pushes the envelope of civilization farther south and inland from the coast, and adds the important dimension of astronomy to these ancient folks’ way of life,” said archaeologist Michael Moseley of the University of Florida, a noted Peru expert.

The 20-acre site, called Buena Vista, is about 25 miles inland in the Rio Chillon Valley, just north of Lima. “It is on a totally barren, rock-covered hill looking down on a beautiful fertile valley,” said Benfer, who presented the find last month at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Puerto Rico.

The site is remarkably well-preserved, Benfer said, because it rains in the area only about once a year.

Just who the people were who inhabited the region is unknown because writing did not emerge in the Americas for another 2,000 years. For brevity, most call them Andeans.

Benfer and archaeologist Bernardino Ojeda of Peru’s National Agrarian University have been working at Buena Vista for four years. The site contains ruins dating from 10,000 years ago to well into the ceramic era in the first millennium B.C.

The large pyramid and a temple occupy about 2 acres near the center of the site. Radiocarbon dating of cotton and burned twigs found in the temple’s offering pit place its use at about 2200 B.C.

That is about 400 years after the first pyramid was built in Egypt and about the same time that the peoples who would become the Greeks were settling into the Mediterranean.

Brazilian Stonehenge

A stone structure, believed to be an astronomical observatory much like Stonehenge, has been found in the Brazilian state of Amapá. It consists of 127 blocks of granite stone. The pottery found at the site dates to 2,000 years ago.

Curiously, the BBC story states, “It was traditionally thought that before European colonisation, the Amazon had no advanced societies.” Yeah, well… bullshit. There are massive earthworks in Beni in Bolivia that are pre-Columbian. Amapá is quite some distance away across the Amazon basin, but it is no stretch of the imagination to accept that there there were other advanced societies in the Amazon.

Update: I shoulda known. Alun has a lot more on the story.