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Health & Science

The bread that cavemen ate; The sound of tasteless food; Wiping out a viral disease; The anti-alcoholism gene

The bread that cavemen ate
Anthropologists have long believed that our caveman ancestors survived mostly on meat. But a new analysis of Stone Age tools suggests that early modern humans ate ground flour as long as 28,000 years ago—some 20,000 years before the dawn of farming. The study examined grinding stones found at ancient settlement sites in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic. The flour came not from wheat or barley but from the ground-up roots of cattails and ferns, which are rich in starch and were likely peeled and dried first. Adding water would have created a dough that might have been added to soup or cooked as an unleavened flatbread. Meat certainly was a major part of the Paleolithic diet, with early humans spending much of their time hunting. The preparation of flour and vegetables left behind less durable evidence for anthropologists to find—until now. “It’s another nail in the coffin of the idea that hunter-gatherers didn’t use plants for food,” Ofer Bar-Yosef, a Harvard archaeologist not involved in the study, tells NatureNews.com. The researchers went so far as to replicate the recipe. “You make a kind of pita and cook it on the hot stone,” says Laura Longo of the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History. The result, Longo says, was “crispy like a cracker but not very tasty.”

The sound of tasteless food
A loud restaurant can do more than spoil your own conversation. Excessive background noise, a new study says, can drown out the taste of the food itself, making it seem bland. Researchers in England blindfolded college students and gave them different foods to eat—including pancakes, cookies, and chips—as they listened through headphones to loud white noise, soft static, or silence. The subjects reported that cookies tasted less sweet and chips weren’t as salty when accompanied by loud noise; crunchy foods, however, seemed crunchier. Whether the noise simply diverts attention from the flavor or actually interferes with how the brain processes it is unclear. The roar of jet engines, lead researcher Andy Woods tells the London Daily Telegraph, may explain the “general opinion that airplane foods aren’t fantastic.”

Wiping out a viral disease
For thousands of years, an infectious disease called rinderpest plagued the world’s cattle, killing up to 80 percent of the domesticated cows, water buffalo, and yaks it encountered. Now it’s gone—only the second viral disease in history to be eradicated, following smallpox’s exit in 1980. “This is something the entire global community can be proud of,” U.S. Department of Agriculture animal-disease expert William R. White tells The New York Times. “Rinderpest has caused almost unimaginable misery for a very long time.” Victory was hard-won; the first successful vaccine was developed in the 1950s, and in 1994 the United Nations launched a worldwide effort to track and contain outbreaks. But U.N. monitors haven’t seen a single case since 2001, in Kenya. “It is probably the most remarkable achievement in the history of veterinary science,” says Peter Roeder, a long-time veterinarian with the U.N.’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Program. Officials are now considering how many lab samples of rinderpest to keep on hand around the world, for research or just in case the disease reappears and a new vaccine is needed.

The anti-alcoholism gene
Ten percent to 20 percent of the population has a gene that makes them get drunk easily—and therefore makes them far less susceptible to alcoholism, a new study has found. In a study of about 230 people who have at least one alcoholic parent, researchers at the University of North Carolina identified a gene variant that makes some people’s brains more sensitive to alcohol. When given the equivalent of three drinks, people with the variant reported feeling very tipsy, and their posture and gait betrayed that they were drunk. The gene has “a big, big effect” on how people respond to booze, study leader Kirk Wilhelmsen tells USA Today. The 10 percent to 20 percent of the population that carry the gene variant tend to avoid drinking frequently or in great quantity, because they can’t “hold their liquor’’; as a result, they are less likely to become alcoholics in the long run. The discovery offers the hope of a treatment for alcoholism, if scientists can develop a way to tweak the gene or mimic its effects, Wilhelmsen says. “My expectation is this is actually going to lead somewhere.”

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