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Concept: Europe


Investigations at Happisburgh, UK, have revealed the oldest known hominin footprint surface outside Africa at between ca. 1 million and 0.78 million years ago. The site has long been recognised for the preservation of sediments containing Early Pleistocene fauna and flora, but since 2005 has also yielded humanly made flint artefacts, extending the record of human occupation of northern Europe by at least 350,000 years. The sediments consist of sands, gravels and laminated silts laid down by a large river within the upper reaches of its estuary. In May 2013 extensive areas of the laminated sediments were exposed on the foreshore. On the surface of one of the laminated silt horizons a series of hollows was revealed in an area of ca. 12 m(2). The surface was recorded using multi-image photogrammetry which showed that the hollows are distinctly elongated and the majority fall within the range of juvenile to adult hominin foot sizes. In many cases the arch and front/back of the foot can be identified and in one case the impression of toes can be seen. Using foot length to stature ratios, the hominins are estimated to have been between ca. 0.93 and 1.73 m in height, suggestive of a group of mixed ages. The orientation of the prints indicates movement in a southerly direction on mud-flats along the river edge. Early Pleistocene human fossils are extremely rare in Europe, with no evidence from the UK. The only known species in western Europe of a similar age is Homo antecessor, whose fossil remains have been found at Atapuerca, Spain. The foot sizes and estimated stature of the hominins from Happisburgh fall within the range derived from the fossil evidence of Homo antecessor.

Concepts: Human, Foot, United Kingdom, Europe, Netherlands, Western Europe, Human evolution, Northern Europe


The Neolithic and Bronze Age transitions were profound cultural shifts catalyzed in parts of Europe by migrations, first of early farmers from the Near East and then Bronze Age herders from the Pontic Steppe. However, a decades-long, unresolved controversy is whether population change or cultural adoption occurred at the Atlantic edge, within the British Isles. We address this issue by using the first whole genome data from prehistoric Irish individuals. A Neolithic woman (3343-3020 cal BC) from a megalithic burial (10.3× coverage) possessed a genome of predominantly Near Eastern origin. She had some hunter-gatherer ancestry but belonged to a population of large effective size, suggesting a substantial influx of early farmers to the island. Three Bronze Age individuals from Rathlin Island (2026-1534 cal BC), including one high coverage (10.5×) genome, showed substantial Steppe genetic heritage indicating that the European population upheavals of the third millennium manifested all of the way from southern Siberia to the western ocean. This turnover invites the possibility of accompanying introduction of Indo-European, perhaps early Celtic, language. Irish Bronze Age haplotypic similarity is strongest within modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh populations, and several important genetic variants that today show maximal or very high frequencies in Ireland appear at this horizon. These include those coding for lactase persistence, blue eye color, Y chromosome R1b haplotypes, and the hemochromatosis C282Y allele; to our knowledge, the first detection of a known Mendelian disease variant in prehistory. These findings together suggest the establishment of central attributes of the Irish genome 4,000 y ago.

Concepts: Gene, United Kingdom, Europe, Ireland, Neolithic, British Isles, Northern Ireland, Celtic languages


The recent genealogical history of human populations is a complex mosaic formed by individual migration, large-scale population movements, and other demographic events. Population genomics datasets can provide a window into this recent history, as rare traces of recent shared genetic ancestry are detectable due to long segments of shared genomic material. We make use of genomic data for 2,257 Europeans (in the Population Reference Sample [POPRES] dataset) to conduct one of the first surveys of recent genealogical ancestry over the past 3,000 years at a continental scale. We detected 1.9 million shared long genomic segments, and used the lengths of these to infer the distribution of shared ancestors across time and geography. We find that a pair of modern Europeans living in neighboring populations share around 2-12 genetic common ancestors from the last 1,500 years, and upwards of 100 genetic ancestors from the previous 1,000 years. These numbers drop off exponentially with geographic distance, but since these genetic ancestors are a tiny fraction of common genealogical ancestors, individuals from opposite ends of Europe are still expected to share millions of common genealogical ancestors over the last 1,000 years. There is also substantial regional variation in the number of shared genetic ancestors. For example, there are especially high numbers of common ancestors shared between many eastern populations that date roughly to the migration period (which includes the Slavic and Hunnic expansions into that region). Some of the lowest levels of common ancestry are seen in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, which may indicate different effects of historical population expansions in these areas and/or more stably structured populations. Population genomic datasets have considerable power to uncover recent demographic history, and will allow a much fuller picture of the close genealogical kinship of individuals across the world.

Concepts: Genetics, Genomics, Demography, Europe, Immigration, Common descent, World population, Ancestor


The Turin Shroud is traditionally considered to be the burial cloth in which the body of Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death approximately 2000 years ago. Here, we report the main findings from the analysis of genomic DNA extracted from dust particles vacuumed from parts of the body image and the lateral edge used for radiocarbon dating. Several plant taxa native to the Mediterranean area were identified as well as species with a primary center of origin in Asia, the Middle East or the Americas but introduced in a historical interval later than the Medieval period. Regarding human mitogenome lineages, our analyses detected sequences from multiple subjects of different ethnic origins, which clustered into a number of Western Eurasian haplogroups, including some known to be typical of Western Europe, the Near East, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent. Such diversity does not exclude a Medieval origin in Europe but it would be also compatible with the historic path followed by the Turin Shroud during its presumed journey from the Near East. Furthermore, the results raise the possibility of an Indian manufacture of the linen cloth.

Concepts: Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, Europe, Asia, Islam, Jordan, Jesus, Shroud of Turin


The bacteria Yersinia pestis is the etiological agent of plague and has caused human pandemics with millions of deaths in historic times. How and when it originated remains contentious. Here, we report the oldest direct evidence of Yersinia pestis identified by ancient DNA in human teeth from Asia and Europe dating from 2,800 to 5,000 years ago. By sequencing the genomes, we find that these ancient plague strains are basal to all known Yersinia pestis. We find the origins of the Yersinia pestis lineage to be at least two times older than previous estimates. We also identify a temporal sequence of genetic changes that lead to increased virulence and the emergence of the bubonic plague. Our results show that plague infection was endemic in the human populations of Eurasia at least 3,000 years before any historical recordings of pandemics.

Concepts: Bacteria, Europe, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, World population, Third Pandemic


The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Middle Ages, Europe, Pandemic, Italy, Yersinia pestis, Black Death, Silk Road


BACKGROUND: Pterosaurs have been known from the Cretaceous sediments of the Isle of Wight (southern England, United Kingdom) since 1870. We describe the three-dimensional pelvic girdle and associated vertebrae of a small near-adult pterodactyloid from the Atherfield Clay Formation (lower Aptian, Lower Cretaceous). Despite acknowledged variation in the pterosaur pelvis, previous studies have not adequately sampled or incorporated pelvic characters into phylogenetic analyses. METHODOLOGYPRINCIPAL FINDINGS: The new specimen represents the new taxon Vectidraco daisymorrisae gen. et sp. nov., diagnosed by the presence of a concavity posterodorsal to the acetabulum and the form of its postacetabular process on the ilium. Several characters suggest that Vectidraco belongs to Azhdarchoidea. We constructed a pelvis-only phylogenetic analysis to test whether the pterosaur pelvis carries a useful phylogenetic signal. Resolution in recovered trees was poor, but they approximately matched trees recovered from analyses of total evidence. We also added Vectidraco and our pelvic characters to an existing total-evidence matrix for pterosaurs. Both analyses recovered Vectidraco within Azhdarchoidea. CONCLUSIONSSIGNIFICANCE: The Lower Cretaceous strata of western Europe have yielded members of several pterosaur lineages, but Aptian pterosaurs from western Europe are rare. With a pelvis length of 40 mm, the new animal would have had a total length of c. 350 mm, and a wingspan of c. 750 mm. Barremian and Aptian pterodactyloids from western Europe show that small-bodied azhdarchoids lived alongside ornithocheirids and istiodactylids. This assemblage is similar in terms of which lineages are represented to the coeval beds of Liaoning, China; however, the number of species and specimens present at Liaoning is much higher. While the general phylogenetic composition of western European and Chinese communities appear to have been approximately similar, the differences may be due to different palaeoenvironmental and depositional settings. The western Europe pterodactyloid record may therefore be artificially low in diversity due to preservational factors.

Concepts: Europe, Pelvis, Acetabulum, Cretaceous, Pterosaur, Pterodactyloidea, Western Europe, Ilium


The implementation of the ‘Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy’ in April 2013, commonly known as the ‘bedroom tax’, affects an estimated 660 000 working age social housing tenants in the UK, reducing weekly incomes by £12-£22. This study aimed to examine the impact of this tax on health and wellbeing in a North East England community in which 68.5% of residents live in social housing.

Concepts: European Union, United Kingdom, Europe, England, Decolonization, Rooms, North East England, Pennines


Organochlorine (OC) pesticides and the more persistent polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have well-established dose-dependent toxicities to birds, fish and mammals in experimental studies, but the actual impact of OC pollutants on European marine top predators remains unknown. Here we show that several cetacean species have very high mean blubber PCB concentrations likely to cause population declines and suppress population recovery. In a large pan-European meta-analysis of stranded (n = 929) or biopsied (n = 152) cetaceans, three out of four species:- striped dolphins (SDs), bottlenose dolphins (BNDs) and killer whales (KWs) had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds. Some locations (e.g. western Mediterranean Sea, south-west Iberian Peninsula) are global PCB “hotspots” for marine mammals. Blubber PCB concentrations initially declined following a mid-1980s EU ban, but have since stabilised in UK harbour porpoises and SDs in the western Mediterranean Sea. Some small or declining populations of BNDs and KWs in the NE Atlantic were associated with low recruitment, consistent with PCB-induced reproductive toxicity. Despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.

Concepts: Mediterranean Sea, Europe, Spain, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale, Marine mammals


Nine burials excavated from the Magdalen Hill Archaeological Research Project (MHARP) in Winchester, UK, showing skeletal signs of lepromatous leprosy (LL) have been studied using a multidisciplinary approach including osteological, geochemical and biomolecular techniques. DNA from Mycobacterium leprae was amplified from all nine skeletons but not from control skeletons devoid of indicative pathology. In several specimens we corroborated the identification of M. leprae with detection of mycolic acids specific to the cell wall of M. leprae and persistent in the skeletal samples. In five cases, the preservation of the material allowed detailed genotyping using single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and multiple locus variable number tandem repeat analysis (MLVA). Three of the five cases proved to be infected with SNP type 3I-1, ancestral to contemporary M. leprae isolates found in southern states of America and likely carried by European migrants. From the remaining two burials we identified, for the first time in the British Isles, the occurrence of SNP type 2F. Stable isotope analysis conducted on tooth enamel taken from two of the type 3I-1 and one of the type 2F remains revealed that all three individuals had probably spent their formative years in the Winchester area. Previously, type 2F has been implicated as the precursor strain that migrated from the Middle East to India and South-East Asia, subsequently evolving to type 1 strains. Thus we show that type 2F had also spread westwards to Britain by the early medieval period.

Concepts: Middle East, Mycobacterium, Europe, Variable number tandem repeat, Islam, British Isles, Leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae