Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:06 am

World will go on, finds Mayan dig

The excavation of a ninth-century house in Xultún yields the ancients’ oldest astronomical calculations
The house under excavation in Guatemala is thought to have been home to a Mayan scribe

The house under excavation in Guatemala is thought to have been home to a Mayan scribe, seen on the left

On the walls of a ninth-century house recently excavated in Guatemala, archaeologists have discovered the oldest Mayan astronomical calculations and the first Mayan wall paintings in a domestic setting.

The discovery at Xultún – once a sprawling city with tens of thousands of inhabitants, and now covered in jungle – fascinates experts on Mayan civilisation. But the key finding for people who have been taken in by absurd ideas about the Mayan calendar – and the world itself – ending in December 2012 is that calendrical calculations written on a wall inside the house continue 7,000 years into the future. One cycle finishes on December 21 this year and everything rolls smoothly on to the next cycle.

The house, covered in thick vegetation, was spotted in 2010 by an archaeology student who was following looters’ trenches to explore the largely unexcavated site of Xultún. Then the National Geographic Society funded an organised dig, the results of which are published in the journal Science and National Geographic magazine.

A scribe with royal connections apparently lived in the house. One wall is covered with tiny red and black glyphs, representing the various cycles charted by the Maya: the 260-day ceremonial calendar, 365-day solar calendar, 584-day cycle of Venus and 780-day cycle of Mars. “For the first time, we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” says William Saturno of Boston University, who led the excavation.

The only similar calculations known today are in the Dresden Codex, a book written on bark in the 15th century, shortly before the Spanish conquest of central America, and about 500 years after the Maya’s classic period ended.

Far from predicting the end of the world, the symbols reflect confidence in continuity. “The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,” Saturno says. “We keep looking for endings; the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change.”

Murals with human figures adorn other walls of the Xultún house. One depicts a seated king wearing blue feathers. Near him is a man in vibrant orange holding a pen. His curious title can be translated as Younger Brother Obsidian. Saturno believes he was a son or brother of the king and may have been the artist-scribe who lived in the house. A third wall features three seated men, painted in black. They are wearing white loincloths, with medallions around their necks and single-feathered headdresses – costumes never seen before in Mayan art. One of the trio, who looks particularly burly, is labelled Older Brother Obsidian.

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Big freeze: scientists protest over funding cuts

A new UK campaign, Science for the Future, was launched last week with a protest stunt in which researchers held a mock Victorian funeral procession at Westminster and delivered the “coffin of British science” to Downing Street.

The campaign is aimed mainly at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of seven research councils that direct public funds to scientists. Although the EPSRC budget is due to remain more or less steady – at about £800m a year – for the next three years, this represents a significant cut in real terms.

Rather than “salami-slice” its budget to spread the pain evenly, the council will impose deeper cuts on certain disciplines, including synthetic organic chemistry – an industrially vital field, on which pharmaceutical and other companies rely for making new molecules.

Hard hitters

Nasa estimates there are about 4,700 “potentially hazardous asteroids”, larger than 100 metres in diameter, in orbits that take them within 5m miles of earth. Only a quarter have been identified.

Although organic chemists (such as Tony Barrett of Imperial College London) feature prominently in the new campaign, physicists are involved too – organisers insist that they are not simply trying to defend their own patch.

Their main complaint is outlined in a letter of support for the campaign by nine Nobel laureates, which claims that: “Through manipulating the processes of peer review to meet policy objectives and establishing favouritism schemes, where substantial funding packages are given to a few selected individuals identified by its own administration, the EPSRC is no longer allocating funds on a fair and transparent basis.”

Of course, the EPSRC disagrees. The council argues that it must address “some of the biggest challenges we face as a society” and that only by making hard choices can it protect Britain’s global research standing.

Where the two sides agree is that scientists must lobby for more funding in the next government spending review.

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Prehistoric pollinator discovered in amber

The oldest record of insects pollinating plants has been discovered in dinosaur-era Spanish amber. Several thrips – tiny insects that still play a role in pollination today – were preserved in the 110m-year-old amber with hundreds of pollen grains attached to their bodies.

thrip

The first pollinator? Thrips carried pollen on their ring-shaped hairs

More than 80 per cent of modern plants rely on insects to transfer pollen from male to female flower parts. While evolutionary biologists realised that this practice must be very ancient, direct evidence was missing, until now.

Inside the amber the international research team found six female thrips, each less than 2mm long, carrying pollen on specialised hairs with a ringed shape, which seem to have evolved to trap the grains. The source of the pollen is an extinct tree related to present-day cycads or ginkgo.

The scientists used the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, to obtain a high-resolution three-dimensional scan of the pollen grain distribution over the thrips. Their report appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers believe the thrips were gathering pollen from the tree’s (male) cones to feed to their larvae, which may have lived in the tree’s female reproductive parts (ovules). In the process they would have fertilised the ovules. “Thrips might turn out to be one of the first pollinator groups in geological history,” says Carmen Soriano of the ESRF.

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Space: the new medical frontier

Astronauts suffer many types of biological stress in space, including a decline in their immune system. Now research on the International Space Station is beginning to suggest what goes wrong – and the findings may benefit people on earth whose immune defences are suffering through disease or ageing.

Italian scientists at the University of Teramo, the European Centre for Brain Research and the Santa Lucia Foundation found that an enzyme called 5-Lipoxygenase or 5-LOX becomes more active in weightlessness.

Blood samples from healthy donors were sent to the space station. One set was exposed to weightlessness for two days while the other was kept in a small centrifuge to maintain terrestrial gravity. The samples were then frozen and analysed back on earth.

The weightless samples showed more 5-LOX activity in blood that remained exposed to gravity on the space station or was kept on earth.

“We now have a target enzyme that could play a role in causing weakened immune systems,” says Mauro Maccarrone from Teramo. “The 5-LOX enzyme can be blocked with existing drugs, so using these findings to improve health could be a close reality.”

A follow-up experiment returned to earth in a Soyuz capsule with the most recent space station crew earlier this month. The scientists will look for other changes in the cells to help understand the underlying mechanisms. Limiting signalling molecules such as those controlled by 5-LOX might even slow parts of the ageing process, say the scientists.

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