Random Samples

Science  19 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5896, pp. 1613

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    Just when our ancestors began lighting their own fires rather than letting nature do it is one of archaeology's burning questions.

    In 2004, Israeli archaeologists at the ancient hominid site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (GBY) in Israel, first occupied 790,000 years ago, convinced many experts that hominids living there had mastered fire, pushing back previously accepted dates by a half-million years (Science, 30 April 2004, p. 663). Now a member of that team has evidence that fire was controlled during the entire 100,000-year occupation of GBY.

    Nira Alperson-Afil of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzed the distribution of burned and unburned pieces of flint from eight occupational levels, looking for evidence of “phantom hearths”: fireplaces obliterated by time but whose locations are indicated by debitage from the toolmakers who gathered around them.


    Although only about 2% of the flint at the site is burned, Alperson-Afil found clusters where at least half the flint was burnt—revealed by pinhead-sized bubbles called “potlidding”—in each of the eight levels, she reports online this month in Quaternary Science Reviews.

    The GBY hominids made tools belonging to the Acheulian cultural tradition, which arose in Africa about 1.6 million years ago. Ralph Rowlett, a prehistorian at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says that the study offers persuasive evidence that not only tools but mastery of fire was probably part of the “cultural package” of hominids who settled in the Near East after migrating from Africa.


    Aided by testimony from U.S. climate guru James Hansen, six Greenpeace activists last week were found not guilty of causing more than $60,000 worth of damage to a coal-fired power plant last year. The accused were in the process of painting “Gordon, bin it” (a message to U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown) on the plant's chimney when they were arrested.

    The case was brought by the energy company E.ON, owner of the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, where there are plans to build the first of a new generation of coal-fired plants. But after an 8-day criminal trial, the jury agreed with Hansen, who argued that the miscreants had a “lawful excuse”—that they were trying to protect “property of greater value (the Earth!) from the impact of climate change.” Hansen has called for a moratorium on all coal-fired plants.

    Geologist Nigel Woodcock of the University of Cambridge says that the court's acceptance of the “just-war” argument “potentially opens the way for other direct actions by environmentalists who feel that their voice is not being heard.”


    Sort of like the “wave” that fans generate at football games, there's a “shimmer” that ripples through African honey bee hives. But unlike the fans, the bees have a serious purpose: warding off predators.

    Bees create their ripple by doing a headstand and flipping their abdomens upward. One bee's flip triggers movement by its neighbor, says Gerald Kastberger, an ethologist at the University of Graz in Austria. The changing reflection of light from the bees' wings creates a shimmer across the surface of the hive. Kastberger and colleagues studied films of 450 shimmers frame by frame and discovered that the bees shimmered whenever a hornet or wasp drifted too close to the hive, causing would-be attackers to retreat. They reported their findings 10 September in PLoS One.

    Michael Breed, an animal behaviorist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the work clinches the purpose of shimmering: “The most analogous thing is when large groups of fish get together. Once a predator is spotted, there's a lot of visual disruption, which makes it harder to catch individual prey.”



    Until a 1989 ban on ivory trading, the elephant population in Tanzania's Mikumi National Park was being ravaged by poaching. Now, almost 20 years later, more than 1000 elephants remain, but the past trauma continues to take a toll. “It disrupted the elephants' intricate social structure” and with it their breeding patterns, says Kathleen Gobush, lead author of a study in the current online issue of Conservation Biology, who is now at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawaii.

    Normally, old females, known as matriarchs, guide groups of female relatives. But many families lost their matriarchs and older females, leaving younger ones adrift. Today, some 30% of adult Mikumi females are alone, and many are calfless despite being in their reproductive prime. Such lonely individuals have a rough go of it, say Gobush and her colleagues, who analyzed hormones in the elephants' dung. “They have very high stress hormone levels,” which have apparently hampered their reproductive success, she says. “It may require another full generation or two before they fully recover.”

    The study “confirms that elephants are profoundly affected by the loss of older matriarchs and by deaths and disruptions in their families,” says elephant researcher Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Nairobi, Kenya. “The more we know about their sensitivity to loss and disruptions, the more we have to consider the ethics of what we do to them,” such as culling and translocations.