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Vesuvius eruption turned ancient resident’s brain to glass

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The cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. created temperatures so hot that one poor soul’s brain was transformed into glass, researchers report.

Archaeologists working at the site of Herculaneum — the other city wiped out in the eruption, alongside Pompeii — discovered small bits of black glass inside the skull of one of the victims.

Tests of the glassy material revealed several proteins often found in human brain tissue, as well as fatty acids found in human hair and brain triglycerides, said lead researcher Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone, a biomedical researcher at the University of Naples Federico II, in Italy.

“In archaeology — as well as in more recent times — the preservation of brain remains is an extremely rare find, but this is the first-ever discovery of ancient human brain remains, vitrified by heat at about 950 degrees Fahrenheit during a volcanic eruption,” Petrone said.

Petrone has been researching victims of Vesuvius since the mid-1990s, when the director of the archaeological site asked him to excavate and study 80 victims discovered within several seafront chambers located on the town’s beach.

The 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius was the first volcanic eruption ever to be described in detail. Greek scholar Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption from 18 miles away and provided detailed descriptions of the earthquakes, ash cloud and tsunami associated with the disaster, according to Oregon State University’s volcano experts.

Pompeii is the most prominent town associated with the Vesuvius eruption. About 10 feet of volcanic ash, dust and cinders fell on Pompeii, burying everything except the roofs of some buildings and essentially wiping the city from the face of the Earth.

But Herculaneum also fell victim to Vesuvius, buried under 75 feet of ash produced by the explosive force of the eruption. It had been a seaside resort, with a population of about 5,000 at the time of the eruption, OSU experts say.

In the 1960s, a human victim of the volcanic hot ash avalanche from Mount Vesuvius was found lying on a wooden bed in Herculaneum, buried within a small room.

Petrone and his colleagues were recently called in to examine the remains of this person, who appears to have been the “guardian” of the College of the Augustales.

The bones of the victim revealed that he was a young man, probably in his mid-20s, Petrone said.

“His bones were totally burst and charred, as well as the wood of the bed,” Petrone said. “Looking carefully at the remains of this victim, I noticed that something dark was shining inside the head,” he explained.

“They were small black fragments with a glassy appearance, something like obsidian but definitely more fragile,” Petrone continued. “I could find this material exclusively in the victim’s skull, therefore it could only be the remains of the brain tissues. But I had to demonstrate it.”

Petrone theorized that the man’s brain had undergone “vitrification,” a process by which living tissue turns to glass or a glaze if it burns at high heat and then rapidly cools afterward.

“Vitrification rarely occurs in nature and is particularly rare to find in the archaeological record,” said Petrone, noting that the most commonly detected vitrified remains are plant tissues that have been turned to charcoal.

Laboratory tests determined that the glassy material from the man’s head contained proteins and fats associated with the brain and hair, Petrone said.

“All this evidence was the undisputable proof that it was the brain of the guardian, vitrified by the high temperature of the ash surge that killed him,” Petrone said.

The glass brain fragments add to the evidence that the inhabitants of Herculaneum died instantly from the intense heat of the fast-moving cloud of volcanic ash and gases that erupted from Vesuvius, Petrone said. Previously, scholars had thought the victims died from suffocation, choking on the ash.

The findings were published Jan. 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Those results have proved crucial to risk evaluation, since they showed that even if people were sheltered within buildings, they did not survive due to the high temperature — a matter with clear implications for the volcanic risk to which the 3 million inhabitants of modern Metropolitan Naples are nowadays exposed,” Petrone said.

More information

Oregon State University has more about Vesuvius.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Astronomers find massive black hole in the early universe

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June 25 (UPI) — With the help of a trio of Hawaiian telescopes, astronomers have imaged the 13-billion-year-old light of a distant quasar — the second-most distant quasar ever found.

Scientists gave the new quasar an indigenous Hawaiian name, Pōniuāʻena, which means “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance.” Researchers described the brilliant object in a new paper, which is available in preprint format online and will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Quasars are like lighthouses, their beams hailing from far away in the ancient universe. Powered by supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, quasars are some of the brightest objects in the universe.

As astronomers peer deeper into the cosmos, they’re able to see what the universe was like during its earliest days. In this instance, the Pōniuāʻena’s lighthouse-like beacon hails from a period when the universe was still in its infancy — just 700 million years after the Big Bang.

The light of J1342+0928, a quasar spotted in 2018, is older and more distant, but the power and size of Pōniuāʻena is unmatched in the early universe. Spectroscopic observations of Pōniuāʻena, recorded by the Keck and Gemini observatories, revealed a supermassive black hole with a mass 1.5 billion times that of the sun.

“Pōniuāʻena is the most distant object known in the universe hosting a black hole exceeding one billion solar masses,” lead study author Jinyi Yang, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said in a news release.

According to Yang and colleagues, for a black hole to grow to such a tremendous size so early in the history of the universe, it would have needed to start out as a 10,000 solar mass “seed” black hole, born no later than 100 million years after the Big Bang.

“How can the universe produce such a massive black hole so early in its history?” said Xiaohui Fan, associate head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. “This discovery presents the biggest challenge yet for the theory of black hole formation and growth in the early universe.”

The light of distant objects, including quasars and massive galaxies in the early universe, can help scientists pinpoint the reionization of the universe. Astrophysicists estimate reionization occurred between 300 million years and one billion years after the Big Bang, but astronomers haven’t been able to determine exactly when and how quickly it happened.

The phenomenon describes the ionization of hydrogen gas as the first stars, quasars, galaxies and black holes came into existence. Prior to the reionization, the universe was without distinct light sources. Diffuse light dominated, and most radiation was absorbed by neutral hydrogen gas.

“Poniua’ena acts like a cosmic lighthouse,” said study co-author Joseph Hennawi, a cosmologist and an associate professor in the department of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “As its light travels the long journey towards Earth, its spectrum is altered by diffuse gas in the intergalactic medium which allowed us to pinpoint when the Epoch of Reionization occurred.”

Poniua’ena was initially spotted by a deep universe survey using the observations of the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the Island of Maui. Later, scientists used the Gemini Observatory’s GNIRS instrument, as well as the Keck Observatory’s Near Infrared Echellette Spectrograph, to confirm the identify of Poniua’ena.

“The preliminary data from Gemini suggested this was likely to be an important discovery,” said study co-author Aaron Barth, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of California, Irvine. “Our team had observing time scheduled at Keck just a few weeks later, perfectly timed to observe the new quasar using Keck’s NIRES spectrograph in order to confirm its extremely high redshift and measure the mass of its black hole.”



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Sled dogs are closely related to 9,500-year-old ‘ancient dog’

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June 26 (UPI) — Modern sled dogs are part of an ancient lineage, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science.

Genetic analysis suggests sled dogs emerged much earlier than previously thought, researchers report.

“We have extracted DNA from a 9,500-year-old dog from the Siberian island of Zhokhov, which the dog is named after,” Mikkel Sinding, doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute, said in a news release.

“Based on that DNA we have sequenced the oldest complete dog genome to date, and the results show an extremely early diversification of dogs into types of sledge dogs,” said Sinding, one of the authors on the study.

Until now, most scientists assumed Zhokhov was a kind of proto-dog — an ancient dog. Breeds, researchers estimated, came later.

But when scientists compared the DNA of modern dogs to DNA extracted from the 9,500-year-old dog, they found considerable overlap between the genomes of the Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute and the Greenland sledge dog and the genome of Zhokhov.

“This means that modern sledge dogs and Zhokhov had the same common origin in Siberia more than 9,500 years ago,” Shyam Gopalakrishnan, assistant professor at the Globe Institute. “Until now, we have thought that sledge dogs were only 2-3,000 years old.”

Researchers also analyzed the genomes of a 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf and ten modern Greenlandic sledge dogs, as well as dogs and wolves from different parts of the world.

“We can see that the modern sledge dogs have most of their genomes in common with Zhokhov,” said Sinding. “So, they are more closely related to this ancient dog than to other dogs and wolves. But not just that — we can see traces of crossbreeding with wolves such as the 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf — but not with modern wolves. It further emphasizes that the origin of the modern sledge dog goes back much further than we had thought.”

The modern sled dogs have more genetic overlap with other breeds than they do with Zhokhov. The Greenland sled dogs have the least overlap with other breeds of any modern breed — suggesting the Greenland sled dogs were one of the earliest breeds, the original sled dog.



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Early peoples in Pacific Northwest were smoking smooth sumac

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June 26 (UPI) — Some 1,400 years ago, people living in what is now Washington state were smoking smooth sumac, Rhus glabra. Scientists found residues of the native plant in an ancient pipe.

The discovery, described this week in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, marks the first time researchers have recovered non-tobacco residues from an ancient pipe.

Scientists also identified the chemical signatures of N. quadrivalvis, a species of tobacco paleobotanists and archaeologists estimate was once widely cultivated in the Americas, but is no longer grown in the region.

“Smoking often played a religious or ceremonial role for Native American tribes and our research shows these specific plants were important to these communities in the past,” lead study author Korey Brownstein, a former doctoral student at Washington State University, now at the University of Chicago, said in a news release. “We think the Rhus glabra may have been mixed with tobacco for its medicinal qualities and to improve the flavor of smoke.”

Researchers used a novel chemical analysis technique that allows scientists to isolate and identify thousands of plant compounds, or metabolites, from residues in a variety of artifacts, including pipes and bowls.

“Not only does it tell you, yes, you found the plant you’re interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being smoked,” said study co-author David Gang, a professor in Washington State’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this technology represents a new frontier in archaeo-chemistry.”

Previous analysis methods only targeted a small number of biological compounds, such as nicotine, anabasine, cotinine and caffeine. Early analysis methods weren’t precise enough to identify different strains of tobacco or isolate the metabolites of specific plants.

In a second pipe recovered from an archaeological site in Washington state, scientists found the residue of a different strain of tobacco, N. rustica, grown by native populations on the other side of the country.

“Our findings show Native American communities interacted widely with one another within and between ecological regions, including the trade of tobacco seeds and materials,” said study co-author Shannon Tushingham, an assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State. “The research also casts doubt on the commonly held view that trade tobacco grown by Europeans overtook the use of natively-grown smoke plants after Euro-American contact.”

Authors of the newly published study are currently working with modern indigenous communities such as the Nez Perce to rediscover ancient plant management practices.

At a greenhouse managed by the Nez Perce, tribe members are growing pre-contact tobacco, with hopes of smoking the same strains of tobacco that their ancestors smoked.

“We took over an entire greenhouse to grow these plants and collected millions of seeds so that the Nez Perce people could reintroduce these native plants back onto their land,” Brownstein said. “I think these kinds of projects are so important because they help build trust between us and tribal communities and show that we can work together to make discoveries.”



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