an ancient mystery
August 8, 2018

Half a billion years ago, Earth hit its stride. After millions of years of slow going, evolutionarily speaking, the "Cambrian explosion" saw a rapid acceleration in the number of species evolving from existing life. Fossilized evidence from the era suggests that the Cambrian explosion is when the ancestors of most of the animals we know now came into being.

Still, scientists have long theorized about what might have predated the Cambrian explosion. New research is providing some answers.

To solve this mystery, researchers turned to Ediacaran organisms, named after the Ediacaran Period that lasted from 635 million to 542 million years ago, The Conversation explained. Fossils of these ancient creatures have been turning up for decades, but scientists never quite knew what they were — animals, plants, fungi, or perhaps something else entirely. Their "frond-like" appearance led many to believe they were more closely associated with plant species than our own Kingdom Animalia.

But in a study published this week in the journal Paleontology, scientists took a hard look at these Ediacaran organisms — and determined that despite being unlike any others on Earth today, they were in fact animals, Science Magazine reported. By analyzing over 200 fossils of a known animal species, Stromatoveris psygmoglena, which existed after the Cambrian explosion, researchers concluded that their biology was close enough to other Ediacaran organisms to count as one of them.

The sheer volume of Ediacaran fossils that have been discovered suggests that they "dominated Earth's seas" during their time, Science Magazine explained. Before this study, scientists more or less agreed that the development of animals was what killed them off. But with these new fossils linking the Ediacarans to a species that lived 200 million years after the Cambrian explosion, "it's not quite so neat anymore," said study author Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill. Read more at Science Magazine. Shivani Ishwar

November 2, 2017

We've all seen the movie: Egyptologists discover a long-lost secret room within the Great Pyramid of Giza, and some sort of magical or mummified chaos ensues. Only this time, it's happening in real life — archaeologists have found a basketball court-length "void" hidden behind the walls of the Great Pyramid using advanced modern particle physics, NPR reports. "It is not known why the cavity exists or indeed if it holds anything of value because it is not obviously accessible," the BBC writes.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built around 2500 BC. The newly discovered space sits above the pyramid's Grand Gallery. Some researchers believe the empty area's purpose is purely structural, meant to relieve the pressure of the 460-foot tall feat of human engineering. "What we are sure about is that this big void is there; that it is impressive; and that it was not expected as far as I know by any sort of theory," explained the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute's Mehdi Tayoubi.

Unfortunately, real life is not often as exciting as Hollywood. "The romantic interpretation and what everyone wants to hear is that this is a hidden room and the king's body is inside or there's grave goods we didn't know about or we're going to learn more about history," Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian told NPR. "And none of that is responsible speculation at the moment." Learn more about the mysterious space via Gizmodo, below. Jeva Lange

March 30, 2017

Geologists have discovered hundreds of networks of mysterious caves in Brazil that they believe were dug by an enormous prehistoric animal of some kind, such as a giant sloth or giant armadillo, Discover reports. "I'd never seen anything like it before," said Amilcar Adamy, who first stumbled upon a burrow in 2010.

The caves were clearly not formed by any natural geological process — and besides, the walls are covered in gigantic claw marks. Another geologist, Heinrich Frank, separately discovered "paleoburrows," including one that was four feet wide and an estimated 250 feet long. Once he began looking for the tunnels, they turned up everywhere. "In these burrows, sometimes you get the feeling that there's some creature waiting around the next curve — that's how much it feels like a prehistoric animal den," said Frank. He's found more than 1,500 just in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Frank added: "There's no geological process in the world that produces long tunnels with a circular or elliptical cross-section, which branch and rise and fall, with claw marks on the walls. I've [also] seen dozens of caves that have inorganic origins, and in these cases, it's very clear that digging animals had no role in their creation."

The mystery deepened in 2015, when Adamy found a paleoburrow with branches totaling 2,000 feet in length and shafts that were originally six feet tall by three to five feet wide. "This wasn't made by one or two individuals," said Adamy. "It was made by many, over generations." Now there are other known burrows that are estimated to be 3,000 feet in length.

But why so big? Modern armadillos in Brazil are only 65 to 90 pounds and burrow 16-inch diameter holes that are 20 feet long. "What would dig one five feet wide and 250 feet long?" Frank wondered. "There's no explanation — not predators, not climate, not humidity. I really don't know."

And then there is the fact that there were North American giant sloths and giant armadillos, but there are no known paleoburrows in the United States. But that, too, could just be a matter of time. As Greg McDonald, a Bureau of Land Management paleontologist, told Discover: "The fact that we don't have them here could simply be that we've overlooked them." Jeva Lange

December 14, 2016

The discovery of a Stonehenge-like megalith in the Amazon rainforest has forced researchers to reassess what the region might have looked like 1,000 years ago, centuries before European conquest began, The New York Times reports. Prior to the discovery of the megalith, scholars had believed that the Amazon was relatively untouched by people other than small, nomadic populations. Taken alongside recent discoveries of complex infrastructure like roads, land carvings, and settlements, the megalith has led scholars to consider that instead, as many as 10 million people might have lived in the ancient Amazon.

The megalith was first discovered by a cattle rancher in the 1960s and appears to align with the sun's movement on the winter solstice, hinting at advances in astronomy. Ceramic burial urns were also found at the site, indicating it might have functioned as a cemetery. "We're starting to piece together the puzzle of the Amazon Basin's human history, and what we're finding in [the Brazilian state of] Amapá is absolutely fascinating," said Mariana Cabral, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais who has spent the last decade working at the site.

"It makes me wonder," said Lailson Camelo de Silva, the rancher who discovered the megalith and now serves as its caretaker. "What other secrets about our past are still hidden in Brazil's jungles?" Explore the megalith below. Jeva Lange

August 15, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to have been an enormous arrangement of giant wooden timbers, 1,640 feet in diameter, just two miles northeast of Stonehenge, The Independent reports.

An abrupt halt in the construction of the circle, however, appears to indicate ancient religious and political strife in the region. The complex, called Durrington Walls, was a contemporary of Stonehenge, although it was five times larger in diameter than the famed English stones. Durrington Walls was apparently never completed, with work ceasing around 2460 B.C. even though the complex was almost finished. Curiously, the timbers were then removed and shortly thereafter, the postholes were deliberately filled in:

Two of the postholes have just been fully excavated — and, at the bottom of one, the prehistoric people who decommissioned and buried the site, formerly occupied by the giant timber circle, had placed one of their tools (a spade made of a cow's shoulder blade) at the bottom of the post hole before it was filled in. […] It was as if the religious "revolutionaries" were trying, quite literally, to bury the past. [The Independent]

The deconstruction of the Durrington Walls circle occurred at practically exactly the same time that the Stonehenge circle was changed from a large diameter of medium-sized stones to the tight circle of gigantic stones that remains today. Two other ancient religious sites — Avebury, an avenue of standing stones, and the large artificial mound at Silbury Hill — were also built during this time, indicating some sort of major religious, and thereby political, change in the ancient world. Jeva Lange

September 10, 2015

A newly discovered skeleton from the Scottish island of Tiree may predate the earliest known case of rickets in Britain by 3,000 years — but that's not even the most interesting thing about it.

Rickets, a disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency, is commonly linked to a lack of sunlight, and the disease has typically been associated with Victorian Britain's urban slums. But this rickets-infected skeleton is from a woman who lived in a farming community in the Neolithic era.

"Vitamin D deficiency shouldn't be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle," Ian Armit, a professor at the University of Bradford, says, "so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman's access to sunlight as a child. It's most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness, or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know."

An analysis of the woman's teeth showed that she suffered from "physiological stress, possibly malnutrition or ill health, between the ages of 4 and 14 years old," a press release by the University of Bradford notes. The woman was buried without the usual rites of the Neolithic times.

Janet Montgomery, a researcher from Durham University, acknowledged that there are still many questions left unanswered. "We can only speculate as to why a disease linked to urban deprivation emerged so early in a farming community," she said. Becca Stanek

August 12, 2014

Archaeologists in northern Greece have unearthed an ancient burial site that likely dates back to 325-300 B.C., built after the death of Alexander the Great.

The heavily guarded tomb should be opened within the next two weeks, The Associated Press reports. The archaeologists have already uncovered steps that lead to a path surrounded by masonry walls and an arch covering two sphinxes.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras visited the site, and said the tomb is "clearly extremely important." Experts are still trying to determine who the tomb belonged to, with some saying it was a senior official. Excavator Katerina Peristeri believes that the mound was once home to a large stone lion that was discovered about 3 miles away 100 years ago. The lion has been associated with Laomedon of Mytilene, a military commander of Alexander's who became governor of Syria. It's likely the mystery will be solved soon. "The excavation will answer the crucial question of who was buried inside," Samaras said. Catherine Garcia

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