There is a growing body of evidence that coffee may be good for your long-term health, reducing the risk of type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to one recent meta-study, it may also lower your risk of liver damage from boozing. The study was conducted by scientists from the University of Southampton. It’s not a clinical trial—rather, researchers pooled results from nine previous studies that recorded both the incidence of liver cirrhosis and caffeine consumption. In total, 432,133 participants contributed to the studies, across a broad demographic range. Liver cirrhosis is a big killer, claiming over a million people worldwide every year. It’s most famously caused by excessive long-term alcohol consumption, but also brought about by hepatitis infections, immune disorders, and even obesity or diabetes. The results of the meta-study demonstrate a significant protective effect from consuming coffee: the analysis shows that increasing coffee consumption by two cups per day halves the risk of liver cirrhosis, including alcoholic cirrhosis. The halving of the risk also holds true for death rates. The stats get better the more coffee you consume: four cups a day drops the risk of liver cirrhosis by 65 percent. Given the complex chemical makeup of coffee, it’s difficult to say exactly how the caffeine is protecting the liver. This is also only a meta-study: although the analysis seems robust, controlling for bias and variables across that great a sample size and time period is an imperfect science at best. [Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics via Reuters]Contact the author at email@example.com.
Gizmodo / Maddie Stone
Scientists Discover a Boiling River of Amazonian Legend
Deep in the heart of the Amazon, legends tell of a river so hot that it boils from below. As a geoscientist, Andrés Ruzo’s training told him the stories couldn’t be true. But that was before he saw the river with his own eyes.It’s incredible to think there are natural wonders on this planet not yet known to science, but such was the case for the river at Mayantuyacu, publicized for the first time in The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon. The book is an engrossing, true story of discovery, adventure, science, and mysticism, told by a man who was driven to explain something impossible, and is now on a quest to preserve it.http://www.amazon.com/Boiling-River-…When he was twelve years old growing up in Peru, Ruzo’s grandfather told him a strange story. After Spanish conquistadors killed the last Inca emperor, they headed deep into the Amazon rainforest in search of gold. Few of these men would ever return, but those who did spoke of a waking nightmare—poisoned water, man-eating snakes, starvation, disease, and a river that boils from below, as if lit by a great fire.“The planet’s gotten small, and natural wonders like this are few and far between “The image of that boiling river seared itself into Ruzo’s mind. But it wasn’t until years later, as a PhD student in geophysics at Southern Methodist University, that he started to wonder if the legend could be true. This wasn’t just idle curiosity: Ruzo’s thesis project was initially focused on creating the first detailed geothermal map of Peru, including parts of the Amazon. If a boiling river existed, it would surely merit recognition.But his senior colleagues dismissed the idea as preposterous. It would take a tremendous amount of geothermal heat to boil even a small section of a river—and the Amazon basin lies hundreds of miles from any active volcanoes. One advisor even suggested that Ruzo stop asking “stupid questions” if he wanted to finish his PhD.But Ruzo didn’t stop asking. And eventually, he found someone who took his questions about a boiling river seriously: his aunt. That’s because she’d been to one.The Boiling River at Mayantuyacu, via Sofia RuzoThe river turned out to be no legend at all, but the sacred geothermal healing site of Mayantuyacu, nestled deep in the Peruvian rainforest and protected by a powerful shaman. Ruzo couldn’t quite believe it until he saw it for himself, but once he did, his life changed.Up to 82 feet (25 meters) wide and 20 feet (six meters) deep, the river surges for nearly 4 miles at temperatures hot enough to brew tea or cook any animals unfortunate enough to fall in. And yes, a small portion of it is so hot that it actually boils. There are documented hot springs in the Amazon, but nothing nearly as large as this river.“You’re surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest,” Ruzo told Gizmodo. “You feel this water surging past you and plumes of vapor coming up. It’s truly a spectacular place.”Mayantuyacu is visited each year by a handful of tourists, who come to experience the traditional medicinal practices of the Asháninka people. Save several obscure references in petroleum journals from the 1930s, scientific documentation of the river is non-existent. Somehow, this natural wonder has managed to elude widespread notice for over seventy five years.Many of us turn to fiction to escape the mundanity of the real world. But as The Boiling River so poignantly illustrates, fantastical discoveries are lurking all around us. It takes a special type of persistence, and a little bit of crazy, to pull the clues out of the white noise of everyday routine. When Ruzo did, he was rewarded with the biggest adventure of his life.Sampling 207 degree Fahrenheit water, via Devlin GandyAnd it’s an adventure that’s just beginning. Having forged a strong relationship with the local community, Ruzo is now conducting detailed geothermal studies of the boiling river, attempting to place it in the context of the Amazon basin. He’s also collaborating with microbial ecologists to investigate the extremophile organisms living in its scalding waters. Anything that survives here could offer insights into how life got its start billions of years ago, when the Earth was a much harsher planet.But most importantly, Ruzo’s trying to save the boiling river. “In the middle of my PhD, I realized, this river is a natural wonder,” Ruzo said. “And it’s not going to be around unless we do something about it.”Since Ruzo first visited Mayantuyacu in 2011, the surrounding forest has been decimated by illegal logging. If action isn’t taken, the site—held sacred by generations of Asháninka cultural practitioners—could soon vanish.Ruzo hopes that by putting a spotlight on the boiling river, he can garner the public interest and financial support needed to ensure its long-term survival. While Mayantuyacu faces many threats, from loggers to would-be energy developers, the coalition to protect its unique natural and cultural heritage grows stronger every day. Destruction of Amazon rainforest surrounding the Boiling River site, via Andres RuzoRuzo recently received a grant from National Geographic, part of which will go toward using technology—drones, satellites, and the like—to learn which regions of the surrounding forest are the most vulnerable. To strengthen the conservation effort on the ground, he’s teamed up with Peruvian environmental organizations, and local community leaders.Ultimately, if the boiling river is to survive, it’ll be because people came together and recognized its intrinsic value. After reading Ruzo’s captivating, real-life adventure story, you might be inclined to agree.“I don’t like the concept of one person leading this charge—I think it’s about building a community on an international scale,” Ruzo said. “The planet’s gotten small, and natural wonders like this are few and far between.”Follow the author @themadstoneTop image via Devlin Gandy
The United States’ commitment to combatting climate change will affect the entire world. Last week, the Supreme Court froze Obama’s plan to uphold that commitment, sparking fears that the Paris climate agreement would fall apart. But the death of justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend changes everything.Scalia might have been surprisingly progressive on technology, but when it came to climate change, the justice was a staunch defender of the proud American tradition of doing nothing. In 2007, he wrote an alarming dissent to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, on the grounds that “it is not the Atmospheric Protection Agency.” In 2006, when the attorney general of Massachusetts gently reminded him which atmospheric layer was suffering the most from carbon emissions, Scalia replied:Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist. That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.Scalia popularized this use of the “I’m not a scientist” line, always followed by some shady deductive reasoning that makes him therefore absolved of any responsibility to help save our planet. And on February 9, along with four other Supreme Court justices, Scalia voted to put a stay on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a signature set of environmental rules for combatting carbon pollution and transitioning the US to a clean energy economy. With his death, the odds of that plan surviving—along with the Paris climate agreement and, inevitably, humanity—just got a lot better.The Paris agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to combat climate change by slashing their carbon pollution to stay within a 2-degree Celsius global warming target, was based largely on trust. (A binding emissions agreement was not reached, for fear of it being struck down by rabidly anti-science meat popsicles in the US House of Representatives.) The onus was on each individual country to come up with a suitable plan and to reduce its carbon emissions accordingly. For its initial pledge, the US—historically the largest carbon emitter, now the second largest after China—promised to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. The only credible way for the US to meet that goal was the Clean Power Plan, which mandates that each state reduce its power plant carbon emissions by a third by 2030.A court that was 5-4 against the Clean Power Plan is now split evenly.It took years of glacially slow international negotiations to get everyone on board with universal participation in climate action. Developing countries, many of whom are already facing the catastrophic effects of climate change, have historically argued that it’s unfair for them to be forced to slow their economic growth, when it’s the US and other developed nations who got us all into this mess. (Fair point.) In fact, it was the inability of rich and poor nations to compromise that doomed the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. In December, two decades after the first climate talks and more than fifty years after scientists began sounding the alarm, the world finally reached a consensus that all nations needs to get off fossil fuels.If the United States jumped ship now, that would be nothing short of catastrophic for global climate action. Navroz K. Dubash, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi said the United States potentially backing out would be “the proverbial string which causes Paris to unravel.” That’s precisely the scenario that was beginning to look very likely last week.Since Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan last summer, over two dozen states have sued the federal government, calling the plan a “power grab,” and “the most far-reaching and burdensome rule the EPA has ever forced onto the states.” Last week, Scalia and four other justices put a freeze on enforcement of the new rules until litigation moves forward—an unprecedented move that, as Harvard law professor Jody Freeman told the New York Times “indicates a high degree of initial judicial skepticism from five justices on the court.”It’s expected that the Clean Power Plan will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court for a final verdict, where it probably would have faced a swift death. As fate would have it, Scalia died first. A court that was 5-4 against the Clean Power Plan is now split evenly. And it seems very unlikely that Obama, who has made saving the planet his presidential moonshot, would nominate an anti-environment justice to take Scalia’s place.Of course, Senate Republicans are already swearing on their mothers’ graves to block any Supreme Court nomination the president puts forward in his last year. So at this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll have a climate-friendly court by the time the Clean Power Plan makes its way back. If approval of a new justice is delayed until the Cruz administration takes over, you can bet the Clean Power Plan—along with every other pro-environment idea the president has put forth these last few months—is going to be cast into the proverbial saralacc pit.And if that’s the case, what for the Paris climate agreement? Well, we need only look to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for a striking example of where climate treaties go without US leadership: nowhere.In his death, Scalia has scored a win for the planet. But the battle for Earth is far from over.Image: GettyFollow the author @themadstone
Since Albert Einstein first predicted their existence a century ago, physicists have been on the hunt for gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime. That hunt is now over. Gravitational waves exist, and we’ve found them.That’s according to researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), who have been holed up for weeks, working round-the-clock to confirm that the very first direct detection of gravitational waves is the real deal. False signals have been detected before, and even though the rumors first reported by Gizmodo have been flying for a month, the LIGO team wanted to be absolutely certain before making an official announcement.That announcement has just come. Gravitational waves were observed on September 14th, 2015, at 5:51 am ET by both of the LIGO detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The source? A supermassive black hole collision that took place 1.3 billion years ago. When it occurred, about three times the mass of the sun was converted to energy in a fraction of a second.The discovery has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.Gravitational waves are ripples in the universe caused by some of the most energetic cosmic events, from exploding stars to supermassive black hole mergers. As they propagate through space and time, gravitational waves cause tiny tremors in atoms that make up matter. While Einstein predicted them in his general theory of relativity in 1916, and their existence was indirectly demonstrated in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the LIGO detector came online in 2002 that the hunt for elusive spacetime ripples started to get serious.R. Hurt, Caltech / JPLBut the first generation LIGO experiment, which ran for eight years, wasn’t sensitive enough. Which is understandable. Gravitational waves are minuscule— the atomic jitters that pass through our world when two black holes bash together in a distant galaxy are on the order of a billionth of a billionth the diameter of an atom. LIGO detects them by proxy, using high powered lasers to measure tiny changes in the distance between two objects positioned thousands of miles apart. A million things can screw this up, including a rumbling freight train, a tremor in the Earth, and the inconvenient reality that all objects with a temperature above absolute zero are vibrating all the time.After a series of upgrades that lasted from 2010 to 2015, LIGO was back online this past fall. With more powerful lasers and improved system for isolating the experiment from vibrations in the ground, the prospects of detecting the first gravitational waves have never looked better. Some scientists even predicted that we’d have our first positive detection in 2016—but few could have known how quickly it would come.In fact, LIGO saw gravitational waves almost immediately. The team then spent the entire fall exhaustively investigating potential instrumental and environmental disturbances to confirm that the signal was real.According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, when a pair of black holes orbit on another, they lose energy slowly, causing them to creep gradually closer. In the final minutes of their merger, they speed up considerably, until finally, moving at about half the speed of light, they bash together, forming a larger black hole. A tremendous burst of energy is released, propagating through space as gravitational waves.The two black holes behind the all the hubbub are 29 and 36 times the mass of the Sun, respectively. During the peak of their cosmic collision, LIGO researchers estimate that their power output was 50 times that of the entire visible universe.“The description of this observation is beautifully described in the Einstein theory of general relativity formulated 100 years ago and comprises the first test of the theory in strong gravitation,” said Rainer Weiss, who first proposed LIGO as a means of detecting gravitational waves in the 1980s. “It would have been wonderful to watch Einstein’s face had we been able to tell him.”The discovery of gravitational waves has been an open secret for weeks now. The scientists’ own excitement got the better of them on several occasions, including last week, when theoretical physicist Clifford Burgess at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, sent an email to his entire department, telling them that LIGO had found a real, and “spectacular,” signal of two large black holes merging.Now, the muzzle has been lifted and the physicists can geek out at the top of their lungs. Keep an eye on social media today, it should be a ruckus.The discovery of gravitational waves confirms an important aspect of the theory of relativity, but it does much more than that. Quite literally, it opens up a new chapter in our exploration of the cosmos, one where electromagnetic radiation is no longer our only tool for “seeing” the universe. As MIT astrophysicist Scott Hughes told Gizmodo in a phone interview, we can use gravitational waves to probe mysterious celestial objects like black holes and neutron stars, which typically no light.“There’s a lot of rich information encoded in gravitational waves,” he said, noting that the shape of a spacetime ripple can tell us about the size and motion of the object that produced it. “As an astronomer, I try to think about how to go from the ‘sound’ of the waveform that LIGO measures, to the parameters that produce that waveform.”Hughes also notes that once our detectors are sensitive enough to catch gravitational waves regularly, we can start to build a census of the universe’s most energetic events. “Actually getting some demographic data is one of the key things we hope to do in an era of detection,” he said.“Whenever first detection happens, there’s gonna be a party, no question,” he continued. “But after that, when detection becomes routine, is when things start getting really interesting.”A century-long hunt is over. But a new cosmic exploration is just beginning.Follow the author @themadstone
TechCrunch / Emily Calandrelli
SETI Scientist Explains Why We Haven’t Found Aliens Yet
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a field of science that’s been around for over 60 years. While SETI tools and strategies have improved immensely over that time, we have yet to find definitive evidence for intelligent alien life in our universe. TechCrunch spoke with famed astronomer Jill Tarter, to understand how the search has changed over the years and why… Read More
Go go Dragon! SpaceX just posted video of its Dragon 2 spacecraft testing its ability to hover. Once certified, this spacecraft will carry astronauts to the space station as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Crewed test flights are tentatively planned to start in 2017.The Dragon 2 (or Crew Dragon) is the spacecraft that will sit atop the Falcon 9 rockets. Although it’ll be launched into orbit by the rocket, the eight SuperDraco engines will be used to bring the craft down for a controlled landing when it brings crews safely home.The hover test was the latest in a long line of tests for certifying the Dragon 2 to transport humans. The craft performed beautifully during two tethered tests in November 2015 at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas. A NASA statement describing the eight thrusters as landing the full-sized spacecraft mockup with the “accuracy of a helicopter.”Despite the flawless performance, the thrusters won’t be used the first few times humans ride in the Dragon. Initially, the spacecraft will use parachutes to slow its descent through the atmosphere, and splash down in the ocean in a manner familiar to fans of the Apollo missions.Check out the full video of the descent landing tether test:[SpaceX]Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.
KIC 8462852 has quickly become one of the biggest astronomical mysteries of the decade. It’ll be months before we have any firm answers on this fitfully flickering star, but astronomers intend to get to the bottom of it. How?“If we could catch it in the act of dimming again, that would really help,” Penn State’s Jason Wright told Gizmodo. Wright’s the astronomer who made KIC 8462852 famous last fall, when he nonchalantly suggested that the star might be occluded by an alien megastructure. He, along with several other astronomers I spoke with this week, agrees that the way we’re going to figure this weird star out is to watch it doing something weird.KIC 8462852, also known as “Tabby’s Star,” was first spotted in the Kepler Space Telescope’s dataset last September. Despite being an ordinary, main sequence F-type star—slightly hotter and larger than our sun—it caught astronomers’ attention. Over four years of observational data, the star’s light output intermittently tanked, something that isn’t consistent with any astronomical phenomenon we’re aware of. Explanations for the star’s unruly behavior ranged from a swarm of comets to gravity darkening to alien megastructures. You can imagine which of those possibilities sparked a global hysteria.But KIC 8462852 wasn’t done surprising us. The mystery deepened last week when Louisiana State University’s Bradley Schaefer decided to look at KIC 8462852 in old photographic plates of the sky. When he did, he saw something astonishing: over the past century, the star’s total light output has dropped by about 19 percent. This star isn’t just sputtering—it’s fading out entirely. “Observationally, there is zero precedent for any main sequence star to vary in brightness like this,” Schaefer told Gizmodo. “Seeing this star fade by 20 percent over a century is more than just startling.”Dips in KIC 846285’s brightness over Kepler’s 1500 day observational period. The bottom two panels are blown-up versions of the top one centered around day 800 and 1500. Via Boyajian et al. 2015“We were baffled when it was just the Kepler data, and if it were just this we’d be baffled,” Wright said. “The comet hypothesis was great because it could explain almost anything, but it doesn’t really work for the new data.”What we do know, according to Wright, is that whatever’s occluding the star isn’t emitting strongly in the infrared spectrum, meaning it isn’t very warm. That means we’re talking about something in a distant orbit, which doesn’t improve our odds of getting a good look at it.KIC 8462852 is fading over time. Blue diamonds represent measurements taken between 1890 and 1989, while solid and dashed lines are fitted trends. Via Schaefer 2016.But there is one way astronomers can learn what’s causing the star to sputter—and that’s to catch KIC 8462852 doing it again.When Kepler watched KIC 8462852 flicker several years back, it was only collecting white light—aggregating information across the visible spectrum. All we can do with this data is pinpoint dimming events. But if it happened again, astronomers would be prepared to make precise measurements in a broader range of wavelengths. As KIC 8462852’s starlight passes through whatever material is occluding it, certain colors will be absorbed more than others. This gives us a spectral fingerprint, which can be used to work out what type of material we’re looking at.“From the spectrum, we might see absorption lines from any gas associated with the ‘occulter,’” Shaefer said. “We might see a reddening that would point to the occulter being mainly dust, or we might see a color neutral dip that would point to a solid body. This would greatly narrow down models.”For the next few months, astronomers are sitting tight. KIC 8462852 is behind the Sun and only visible during daylight hours, making it impossible to observe from the ground. According to Tabetha Boyajian, the Yale astronomer who discovered the star, a few satellites are monitoring it, but the temporal coverage isn’t great. “Mainly, we are now using this time to prepare for what to do when the star becomes visible again in a few months,” she said. This includes discussing different scenarios, and figuring out what data will be needed to confirm or refute each of them. “When the dipping begins again, we will be prepared to hit it with everything we have,” she said.Wright added that although two independent surveys haven’t turned up any evidence of extraterrestrial technology, UC Berkeley’s SETI program is now working with the billionaire-backed alien hunting initiative Breakthrough Listen, and plans to conduct a very sensitive broadband sweep of the star’s neighborhood in the next few months. The prospect that we’re looking at a bona fide Dyson sphere is as unlikely as ever, but….well, it hasn’t been ruled out.“The ET hypothesis has very little predicative power,” Wright said, noting that you can invoke it to explain just about anything—the so-called “aliens in the gaps” fallacy. Nevertheless, you can bet astronomers won’t rest until they’re sure one way or the other.Follow the author @themadstoneTop image via Harun Mehmedinovic/Gavin Heffernan/project SKYGLOW
The search for extraterrestrial life is the ultimate hybrid of creativity and science, the quest to discover something we can’t even describe yet. Jill Tarter embodies that creativity in her work with the SETI Institute, and is the subject of a special video released today.WeTransfer’s Creative Class is an online series highlighting creative people doing cool things in the world. This season, the series features SETI Institute astronomer Jill Tarter, the real-life inspiration for Carl Sagan’s Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact.Tarter chatted with Gizmodo about the role of creativity in the search for intelligent aliens, exclaiming, “You have to try to think creativity about how do you discover what you really can’t imagine!”Jill Tarter, real-life alien-hunting astronomer. Image courtesy of Jill Tarter“I like to say we’re looking for photons, but maybe it’s zeta rays that the advanced technologies of the universe are using to communicate,” Tarter offered as an analogy. “I don’t know what a zeta ray is because we haven’t invented it yet. We don’t understand that physics yet. Maybe that’s in our future.”We haven’t found aliens yet, so we need to keep expanding the very way that we search. “How do you look at the universe in new ways that will allow you to find things you that you didn’t imagine?” Tarter said. “[Astronomer Martin Harwit] made this case for essentially venture investing in the astronomical sciences because every time you open up a new observation space, we found something we didn’t expect!”What will we find if we listen in just the right way? Image credit: Warner Bros.Astronomy is full of such examples. Tarter recounts the iconic discovery of pulsars that started in 1965-66, when a team of graduate students built a new type of radio telescope:Jocelyn Bell and her colleagues spent the summer nailing up kilometers of wire and fence posts to make a low-frequency detector. They made it for a very scientific goal, but yet when Jocelyn was looking at the data, she found these little bits scruff. She was curious enough and systematic enough to follow up on them.Suddenly, wow! There are radio beacons out there more precise than any clock we’ve built. There are entire stars, neutron stars, that are spinning around several times a second. Unbelievable! They found it because they had a new tool. They had a different way of looking at the universe.This happens again and again and again. Every time we invent a new tool, discoveries follow. “I think being creative, building new ways to look at the universe, can lead to amazing results.” Tarter said. “You don’t do that if you think, ‘Well, I’m going to do today what I did yesterday.’”Our conversation with Tarter was so interesting and so long that we couldn’t transcribe it all in just one night. Instead, check out her Creative Class special here:Check back tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Tarter about how the SETI Institute searches for alien life, how that search might change as technology improves, and her life as one of the first women in the industry.Top image: SETI astronomer Jill Tarter is the real-life inspiration for Contact’s Ellie Arroway. Credit: Warner Bros. Corrections: We mistranscribed science fiction zeta rays as more mundane beta rays, and went camping with tent pegs while building a radio telescope. Such is the woe of phone interviews! Apologies, Jill.Contact the author at email@example.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.
Gizmodo / George Dvorsky
Discovery of Brutal Massacre Pushes Back History of Human Warfare
Anthropologists working in Kenya have uncovered the remains of a group of prehistoric foragers who were ruthlessly massacred about 10,000 years ago. It’s considered the earliest example of organized violence among nomadic hunter-gatherers, a rare find that’s offering an unprecedented glimpse into what life—and death—was like for prehistoric foragers. Archaeological evidence of warfare is abundant among settled societies, but the same cannot be said for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. This is why the discovery of 27 foragers who were killed in a massacre some 10,000 years ago is as unique as it is important. In grim detail, it shows what the dark side of life was like for ancient hunter-gatherers, while at the same time extending the history of human warfare. The details of this work, conducted by researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), can now be found in the latest edition of Nature. A male skeleton, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr. The team, led by Marta Mirazon Lahr of the University of Cambridge, discovered the remains 18 miles (30 km) west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a site called Nataruk. Twenty-one of the 27 individuals unearthed were adults: eight male, eight female, and five unidentified. The partial remains of six children—all under the age of six, except for one young teenager—were found close to the bodies of four adult women and some partial remains. This skeleton was that of a man, with lesions on the left side of his skull consistent with a wound from a blunt implement, such as a club, and a perforating lesion on his neck vertebrae consistent with an arrow wound. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr. These foragers died in brutal fashion. Ten of the skeletons exhibited signs of a violent death, including extreme blunt-force trauma to the skull and cheekbones (possibly delivered by a wooden club), signs of arrow lesions to the neck, stone projectile tips lodged in the skull and midsection of two men, and numerous broken hands, knees, and ribs.A skeleton of a female found reclining on her left elbow, with fractures on the knees and possibly the left foot. The position of the hands suggests her wrists may have been bound. She was found surrounded by fish. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr.None of the bodies were buried, and were likely left to rot where they died. Some individuals had fallen into a lagoon, allowing their bones to be preserved in sediment. A number of skeletons with severe skull fractures were found face down. The positions of four bodies suggests they were bound and tied, including a woman in the late stages of pregnancy; the bones of her 9-month old fetus were also recovered. It’s not known why she and some others were bound in this particular way. As the depiction at left shows, the pregnant woman was found in a sitting position, with her hands crossed between her legs.One adult male appears to have been hit in the head by at least two projectiles, followed by a blow to the knees with a blunt instrument, and then finally falling face down into the lagoon’s shallow water. Another male took two blows to the head, crushing his skull at the points of impact. “The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.” — Marta Mirazon LahrThe researchers were surprised at the roughly equal proportion of males to females. Typically in such encounters, the victors, after killing the men, claim the surviving women and children. But at Nataruk, no one appears to have been spared. The researchers also discovered bits of arrow or spear tips, two of which were made from obsidian—a black volcanic rock that can be worked to razor-like sharpness. The presence of this rare material suggests the two groups came from different home ranges. Carbon dating places the skeletons to between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, around the start of the Holocene Epoch.Today, this area of Kenya is arid scrubland, but back then it was a fertile lakeshore capable of sustaining a significant population of hunter-gatherers. The site of the massacre transpired at the edge of a lagoon near a large lake. The researchers theorize that the massacred remains belonged to an extended family group of hunter-gatherers who were brutally attacked and killed by a rival group of prehistoric foragers. They say it’s the earliest scientifically-dated historical evidence of human conflict, and a precursor to organized warfare. “The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” said Lahr. “These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers.”The location of the massacre occurred in a highly desireable place; the foragers would have had easy access to drinking water and fishing. It was likely coveted by rival groups, giving rise to territorial disputes. “The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources—territory, women, children, food stored in pots—whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life,” said Mirazon Lahr. “This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterize other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life.” The researchers caution that Nataruk could just be an example of a “standard antagonistic response” between two groups who happened to run into each other. We’ll likely never know the true reasons for the massacre at Nataruk. The origin of war is a contentious issue among anthropologists, with some saying it’s an atavistic remnant of our species’ more brutal evolutionary past, while others suggest it’s a consequence of ownership and resulting disputes over access to land, water, food, and other resources. Regardless, the new study shows that ancient foragers were not immune to the ravages of war, and that human conflict emerged at a time before our species set aside its nomadic way of life. The myth of the Noble Savage remains exactly that — a myth. [Nature] Top image: Skeleton KNM-WT 71255 after excavation. This skeleton was that of a man, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. Image and caption by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr.Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him @dvorsky.
It’s probably not aliens. Seriously guys, it’s very, very unlikely that it’s aliens. But the weird, flickering star known as KIC 8462852 still isn’t sitting right with astronomers. In fact, it just got a lot weirder.Ever since KIC 84628532 was spotted in the Kepler Space Telescope’s dataset, astronomers have puzzled over what the heck could be responsible for the star’s logic-defying light curve. Over four years of observational data, KIC 8462852 flickered erratically, its light output sometimes dropping by as much as 20%. That’s highly unusual stellar behavior, and it can’t be explained by a transiting planet.Some astronomers proposed that KIC 8462852 might be occluded by a swarm of comets. Others suggested aliens.Specifically, astronomer Jason Wright tossed out the idea that the star’s weird distortion might be the result of a giant alien construction project—you know, like a Dyson sphere. The idea electrified the citizens of Earth and mobilized a worldwide SETI search for hard evidence of our celestial neighbors. Sadly, two independent searches, for radio signals and laser beams—both of which could indicate a technological society—didn’t pan out. (And remember, we’ve confused inexplicable observations for aliens many, many times before.)But according to a study just released arXiv, the comet hypothesis is now falling flat, too, and the mystery of KIC 8462852 has deepened considerably. While Kepler only has a few years of data on the star, astronomer Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University decided to look at photographic plates of the sky dating back to the late 19th century. To his amazement, he learned that over the last hundred years, KIC 8462852’s light output has steadily faded by about 19%, something that’s “completely unprecedented for any F-type main sequence star.”“This presents some trouble for the comet hypothesis,” Tabetha Boyajian, a lead researcher on the team that originally discovered the star, told New Scientist. “We need more data through continuous monitoring to figure out what is going on.”Indeed, it’s hard to imagine either aliens or natural celestial bodies dampening a star’s light output that much over such a short period of time. It’ll be a while yet before we’ve solved the mystery of KIC 8462852. But this is what’s great about scientific discovery. Literally all possible explanations are on the table at this point—and the truth about this tantalizing star could be more fascinating than we ever imagined.[New Scientist]Follow the author @themadstoneTop image via NASA/JPL-Caltech