Random Samples

Science  27 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5922, pp. 1651

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    One of the most important prehistoric sites in Spain has been severely damaged by the landowner, archaeologists say.

    The Cueva de Chaves de Bastaras in northeastern Spain shelters a 4000-square-meter Neolithic site discovered in 1974. It's protected under local heritage laws but is on land belonging to Fimbas S.A., a company that runs a game preserve.

    Archaeologist Vicente Baldellou, director of the Museum of Huesca and chief of the excavation, says he found a “catastrophic” situation at the cave earlier this month. Earthmoving machines had hauled away blocks of stone that had fallen from the ceiling of the cave and scraped away 3 meters of soil. A drinking trough for game animals had been installed. “They've taken away the entire deposit of the Neolithic,” says Baldellou. He complained to local authorities, who are investigating. Fimbas S.A. declined to comment.

    Researchers have excavated only 10% of the site but have already found a man's grave, ceramics, and painted pebbles dating back to 5000 B.C.E., Baldellou says. “Chaves is exceptional for its unique stratigraphic sequence,” says Mauro S. Hernández Pérez, a Neolithic researcher at the University of Alicante in Spain, who calls the cave “the best referent for knowledge of the Early Neolithic in the interior of the [Iberian] peninsula.” Baldellou still hopes to retrieve some artifacts. “But without context, they lose 90% of their interest. This is irretrievable,” he says.


    Human hairs in 200,000-year-old hyena feces could help settle a long-running dispute about ancient remains—if the hairs are indeed human.

    Researchers have found fossils of early humans and their evolutionary forebears in many South African caves. Some think the hominins either died or were buried there, but others think it more likely that wild animals dragged their bones or bodies into the caves.


    The fossilized hyena feces, or coprolites, come from Gladysvale Cave north of Johannesburg, where australopithecine teeth and a hominin hand bone were found in the 1990s. A team led by Lucinda Backwell, a paleontologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, tweezed 40 hairs from a coprolite and examined half of them with a scanning electron microscope. Comparing their microscopic structure with that of other animal hairs, Backwell found that five of the hairs appeared to be human. If they are, the team says in a paper slated for the June issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, they would be the oldest known—20 times as old as the previous record holder, hair from a 9000-year-old mummy found in Chile.

    Some researchers say the team's conclusions are premature. Noel Boaz, a paleoanthropologist at Ross University School of Medicine in the West Indies, says the hairs might be from monkeys. And Robert Blumenschine, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, says the hairs don't prove that hyenas carried hominin bones into their caves, just that “a hyena ate at least part of a hominin.”


    Eating carcasses of livestock treated with antibiotics is wrecking the immune systems of Spanish vultures, according to a new study. Spain is the European stronghold of vultures, who have long lived off dead livestock dumped by farmers at sites called muladares. Because research suggests that overuse of antibiotics can suppress the immune system, ecologists Jesús Lemus and Guillermo Blanco of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid have worried that the drugs, used widely in cattle and pigs, might hurt vultures.

    Last year, they reported that high antibiotic levels in the birds were associated with severe bacterial and fungal diseases. In the latest study, Lemus and Blanco climbed trees to reach vulture nests in central Spain and took blood samples from 71 nestlings of three species. They then compared parameters related to immune function with blood samples from vultures in southern and western Spain, where fewer antibiotics are used and birds feed mainly on wild prey.


    Both the cellular and the humoral immune systems of the central Spain vultures were suppressed, they reported online last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Pending further studies, they say muladares should be “rejected as a management tool in conservation programs.”

    The study shows that scientists need to be much more aware of unexpected effects of antibiotic use high up the food chain, says environmental chemist Alistair Boxall of the University of York, U.K. He notes that an anti-inflammatory drug has been linked to vulture deaths in India and Pakistan.