November 4, 2011 10:11 pm

Neolithic wisdom goes to pot

Biochemical analysis of prehistoric cooking vessels casts doubt on the popular idea that ancient northern Europe made an abrupt transition to farming

Analysis of more than 100 prehistoric cooking pots has cast doubt on the popular idea that Neolithic northern Europe made an abrupt transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to a more settled farming society.

An international team led by researchers from York and Bradford universities used the latest biochemical technology to analyse cooking residues preserved in 133 pottery vessels from 15 archaeological sites in Denmark and north Germany.

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The pots date from about 4,000BC, when domesticated plants (such as wheat) and animals (cattle, sheep and goats) appeared in the western Baltic region. The results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that extensive exploitation of fish and other aquatic resources continued after the arrival of agriculture. Biochemical residues in more than 20 per cent of pots came from cooked fish, shellfish, seals and other marine animals.

“This research provides clear evidence that people across the western Baltic continued to exploit marine and freshwater resources despite the arrival of domesticated animals and plants,” says Oliver Craig of York University, the lead author. “Although farming was introduced rapidly across this region, it may not have caused such a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life as we previously thought.”

The other surprise was the extent to which the pots were used for cooking dairy products. About half contained residues of milk from the domesticated animals that had recently arrived in the region.

Some vessels had been used for both dairy and aquatic products – though it is impossible to tell whether this was done in different cooking operations or simultaneously. The archaeologists had expected the pots to be used mainly for cooking cereals and meats.

Grain’s gains

Researchers at China’s Wuhan University have genetically engineered rice to produce serum albumin, the blood protein.

Rice grains could eventually be a supplementary source of albumin.

“Our data set represents the first large-scale study combining a wide range of molecular evidence and isotope data to discriminate terrestrial, marine and freshwater resources processed in archaeological ceramics,” says Carl Heron, professor of archaeological sciences at Bradford.

Genetic analysis of DNA extracted from human remains, dating from before and after the arrival of agriculture in the Baltic region, is expected soon to provide more answers about what happened. Did a wave of pastoralists sweep in from the east, replacing or wiping out most of the original hunter-gatherer population – and at the same time begin to exploit the abundant marine and freshwater resources? Or was there a gentler process in which the indigenous foragers adopted domesticated animals and plants through contact with newly arrived farmers?

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When fizzy drinks may lead to violence

Fizzy drinks

There is much evidence linking alcohol to violence, but now a controversial study has shown a link with soft drinks too. The study related self-reported consumption of “carbonated non-diet soft drinks” among 1,878 students in 22 Boston high schools to the pupils’ record of violent behaviour.

The researchers, Sara Solnick of the University of Vermont and David Hemenway of Harvard University, found that teenagers who drink more than five cans of fizzy pop a week were significantly more likely than lighter drinkers to carry a knife or gun and to have been violent toward peers, partners or family members.

Heavy consumption of fizzy drinks raised the probability of aggressive behaviour by between 9 and 15 percentage points – a similar amount to drinking alcohol or smoking.

“There may be a direct cause-and-effect relationship, perhaps due to the sugar or caffeine content of soft drinks, or there may be other factors, unaccounted for in our analyses, that cause both high soft drink consumption and aggression,” conclude the authors in a paper in the journal Injury Prevention.

Their paper is entitled “The Twinkie Defence”, after a 1979 case in which Dan White was prosecuted for murder in San Francisco. White’s lawyers argued that his state of mind was altered by switching from a healthy diet to eating junk food (such as Twinkies) and drinking Coca-Cola. White was convicted of manslaughter.

Strong reservations have been expressed about the study. “This work is presenting an overly simplistic interpretation of the role of soft drinks,” says Peter Kinderman of Liverpool University. “There are a large number of risk factors that would contribute to violent behaviour that have nothing to do with the consumption of these drinks.”

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Hurricanes bring safety in numbers

Hurricanes (from left) Karl, Igor and Julia over the Atlantic in 2010

Hurricanes (from left) Karl, Igor and Julia over the Atlantic in 2010

Hurricanes and other tropical storms are much more “clustered” over time than scientific models looking at their impact have recognised – and this clustering is beneficial for coastal ecosystems, according to researchers from the universities of Exeter in the UK and Queensland in Australia.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, mapped the variability of hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico over the past 100 years. It found short periods of intense hurricane formation, followed by longer, relatively quiet periods – with particularly strong clustering in storms that affect the northern Caribbean and Florida.

Modelling of coral reefs found that clustered hurricanes are better for reef health than random hurricane events – the first in the sequence causes a lot of damage, but as it removes most of the fragile corals the storms following in quick succession are less harmful. A prolonged quiet period allows the coral to recover before they are hit by the next series of storms.

Previous forecasts of habitat collapse have been too pessimistic because models assumed that hurricanes would occur randomly over time, the study shows. “We didn’t at first expect clustering to have advantages but this study has clearly shown that clustering can help by giving ecosystems more time to recover from natural catastrophes,” says David Stephenson of Exeter.

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The hunt for a new hepatitis C treatment

The hepatitis C virus

The world faces a “silent epidemic” of hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that can lurk in the body without symptoms for many years before it starts to destroy the liver. But drug companies are rising to the challenge, with a range of treatments in development.

The latest contender is Biotica, based in Cambridge, which has discovered a class of antiviral compounds that promise to be effective weapons against hepatitis C – and probably HIV too.

Sangamides, as they are called, are modified versions of natural chemicals known as polyketides that bacteria produce to defend themselves against other microbes. They work by inhibiting cyclophilin, a human protein that hepatitis C virus hijacks at several stages of its replication cycle.

The current standard treatment for hepatitis C – interferon to prime the patient’s immune system plus ribavirin, a broad-spectrum antiviral drug – has serious side-effects.

Although Biotica has many competitors with hepatitis C drugs already in clinical trials, Edward Hodgkin, chief executive, believes that its candidate, BC556, is good enough to justify the minimum of seven or eight years work needed to bring it to market.

The medical need for a good treatment is huge, with hepatitis C infecting an estimated 170m people worldwide. “We believe that only a combination therapy, as in the treatment of HIV, will offer patients a long-term fully efficacious treatment for hepatitis C,” he says. That will probably mean combining BC556 with two other drugs.

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