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Archaeologists report earliest evidence for plant farming in east Africa

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Archaeologists report earliest evidence for plant farming in east Africa


A trove of ancient plant remains excavated in Kenya helps explain the history of plant farming in equatorial eastern Africa, a region long thought to be important for early farming but where scant evidence from actual physical crops has been previously uncovered.

In a new study published July 10 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Pittsburgh and their colleagues report the largest and most extensively dated archaeobotanical record from interior east Africa.

Up until now, scientists have had virtually no success in gathering ancient plant remains from east Africa and, as a result, have had little idea where and how early plant farming got its start in the large and diverse area comprising Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

“There are many narratives about how agriculture began in east Africa, but there’s not a lot of direct evidence of the plants themselves,” said WashU’s Natalie Mueller, an assistant professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences and co-first author of the new study. The work was conducted at the Kakapel Rockshelter in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya.

“We found a huge assemblage of plants, including a lot of crop remains,” Mueller said. “The past shows a rich history of diverse and flexible farming systems in the region, in opposition to modern stereotypes about Africa.”

The new research reveals a pattern of gradual introductions of different crops that originated from different parts of Africa.

In particular, the remnants of cowpea discovered at Kakapel rock shelter and directly dated to 2,300 years ago constitute the earliest documented arrival of a domesticated crop — and presumably of farming lifeways — to eastern Africa. Cowpea is assumed to have originated in west Africa and to have arrived in the Lake Victoria basin concurrent with the spread of Bantu-speaking peoples migrating from central Africa, the study authors said.

“Our findings at Kakapel reveal the earliest evidence of domesticated crops in east Africa, reflecting the dynamic interactions between local herders and incoming Bantu-speaking farmers,” said Emmanuel Ndiema from the National Museums of Kenya, a project partner. “This study exemplifies National Museums of Kenya’s commitment to uncovering the deep historical roots of Kenya’s agricultural heritage and fostering an appreciation of how past human adaptations can inform future food security and environmental sustainability.”

Constantly changing landscape

Situated north of Lake Victoria, in the foothills of Mount Elgon near the Kenya-Uganda border, Kakapel is a recognized rock art site that contains archaeological artifacts that reflect more than 9,000 years of human occupation in the region. The site has been recognized as a Kenyan national monument since 2004.

“Kakapel Rockshelter is one of the only sites in the region where we can see such a long sequence of occupation by so many diverse communities,” said Steven T. Goldstein, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh (WashU PhD ’17), the other first author of this study. “Using our innovative approaches to excavation, we have been uniquely able to detect the arrival of domesticated plants and animals into Kenya and study the impacts of these introductions on local environments, human technology and sociocultural systems.”

Mueller first joined Goldstein and National Museums of Kenya to conduct excavations at the Kakapel Rockshelter site in 2018. Their work is ongoing. Mueller is the lead scientist for plant investigations at Kakapel; the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology (in Jena, Germany) is another partner on the project.

Mueller used a flotation technique to separate remnants of wild and domesticated plant species from ashes and other debris in a hearth excavated at Kakapel. Although she has used this technique in her research in many other parts of the world, it is sometimes difficult to use this approach in water-scarce locations — so it has not been widely used in east Africa.

The scientists used direct radiocarbon dating on carbonized seeds to document the arrival of cowpea (also known as the black-eyed pea, today an important legume around the world) about 2,300 years ago, at about the same time that people in this area began to use domesticated cattle. Researchers also found evidence that sorghum arrived from the northeast at least 1,000 years ago. They also recovered hundreds of finger millet seeds, dating back to at least 1,000 years ago. This crop is indigenous to eastern Africa and is an important heritage crop for the communities that live near Kakapel today.

One unusual crop that Mueller uncovered was field pea (Pisum), burnt but perfectly intact. Peas were not previously considered to be part of early agriculture in this region. “To our knowledge, this is the only evidence of peas in Iron Age eastern Africa,” Mueller said.

The exceptional pea is pictured in the paper, and it represents its own little mystery. “The standard peas that we eat in North America were domesticated in the near east,” Mueller said. “They were grown in Egypt and probably ended up in east Africa by traveling down the Nile through Sudan, which is also likely how sorghum ended up in east Africa. But there is another kind of pea that was domesticated independently in Ethiopia called the Abyssinian pea, and our sample could be either one!”

Many of the plant remnants that Mueller and her team found at Kakapel could not be positively identified, Mueller said, because even modern scientists working in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda today don’t have access to a good reference collection of samples of plants from east Africa. (As a separate project, Mueller is currently working on building such a comparative collection of Tanzania’s plants.)

“Our work shows that African farming was constantly changing as people migrated, adopted new crops and abandoned others at a local level,” Mueller said. “Prior to European colonialism, community-scale flexibility and decision-making was critical for food security — and it still is in many places.”

Findings from this study may have implications for many other fields, Mueller said, including historical linguistics, plant science and genetics, African history and domestication studies.

Mueller is continuing to work on identifying the wild plants in the assemblage, especially those from the oldest parts of the site, before the beginning of agriculture. “This is where human evolution occurred,” Mueller said. “This is where hunting and gathering was invented by people at the dawn of time. But there has been no archaeological evidence about which plants hunter-gatherers were eating from this region. If we can get that kind of information from this assemblage, then that is a great contribution.”



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Waste Styrofoam can now be converted into polymers for electronics

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Archaeologists report earliest evidence for plant farming in east Africa


University of Delaware and Argonne National Laboratory have come up with a chemical reaction that can convert Styrofoam into a high-value conducting polymer known as PEDOT:PSS. In a new paper published in JACS Au, the study demonstrates how upgraded plastic waste can be successfully incorporated into functional electronic devices, including silicon-based hybrid solar cells and organic electrochemical transistors.

The research group of corresponding author Laure Kayser, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in UD’s College of Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, regularly works with PEDOT:PSS, a polymer that has both electronic and ionic conductivity, and was interested in finding ways to synthesize this material from plastic waste.

After connecting with Argonne chemist David Kaphan during an event hosted by UD’s research office, the research teams at UD and Argonne began evaluating the hypothesis that PEDOT:PSS could be made by sulfonating polystyrene, a synthetic plastic found in many types of disposable containers and packing materials.

Sulfonation is a common chemical reaction where a hydrogen atom is replaced by sulfonic acid; the process is used to create a variety of products such as dyes, drugs and ion exchange resins. These reactions can either be “hard” (with higher conversion efficiency but that require caustic reagents) or “soft” (a less efficient method but one that uses milder materials).

In this paper, the researchers wanted to find something in the middle: “A reagent that is efficient enough to get really high degrees of functionalization but that doesn’t mess up your polymer chain,” Kayser explained.

The researchers first turned to a method described in a previous study for sulfonating small molecules, one that showed promising results in terms of efficiency and yield, using 1,3-Disulfonic acid imidazolium chloride ([Dsim]Cl). But adding functional groups onto a polymer is more challenging than for a small molecule, the researchers explained, because not only are unwanted byproducts harder to separate, any small errors in the polymer chain can change its overall properties.

To address this challenge, the researchers embarked on many months of trial and error to find the optimal conditions that minimized side reactions, said Kelsey Koutsoukos, a materials science doctoral candidate and second author of this paper.

“We screened different organic solvents, different molar ratios of the sulfonating agent, and evaluated different temperatures and times to see which conditions were the best for achieving high degrees of sulfonation,” he said.

The researchers were able to find reaction conditions that resulted in high polymer sulfonation, minimal defects and high efficiency, all while using a mild sulfonating agent. And because the researchers were able to use polystyrene, specifically waste Styrofoam, as a starting material, their method also represents an efficient way to convert plastic waste into PEDOT:PSS.

Once the researchers had PEDOT:PSS in hand, they were able to compare how their waste-derived polymer performed compared to commercially available PEDOT:PSS.

“In this paper, we looked at two devices — an organic electronic transistor and a solar cell,” said Chun-Yuan Lo, a chemistry doctoral candidate and the paper’s first author. “The performance of both types of conductive polymers was comparable, and shows that our method is a very eco-friendly approach for converting polystyrene waste into high-value electronic materials.”

Specific analyses conducted at UD included X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) at the surface analysis facility, film thickness analysis at the UD Nanofabrication Facility, and solar cell evaluation at the Institute of Energy Conversion. Argonne’s advanced spectroscopy equipment, such as carbon NMR, was used for detailed polymer characterization. Additional support was provided by materials science and engineering professor Robert Opila for solar cell analysis and by David C. Martin, the Karl W. and Renate Böer Chaired Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, for the electronic device performance analyses.

One unexpected finding related to the chemistry, the researchers added, is the ability to use stoichiometric ratios during the reaction.

“Typically, for sulfonation of polystyrene, you have to use an excess of really harsh reagents. Here, being able to use a stoichiometric ratio means that we can minimize the amount of waste being generated,” Koutsoukos said.

This finding is something the Kayser group will be looking into further as a way to “fine-tune” the degree of sulfonation. So far, they’ve found that by varying the ratio of starting materials, they can change the degree of sulfonation on the polymer. Along with studying how this degree of sulfonation impacts the electrical properties of PEDOT:PSS, the team is interested in seeing how this fine-tuning capability can be used for other applications, such as fuel cells or water filtration devices, where the degree of sulfonation greatly impacts a material’s properties.

“For the electronic devices community, the key takeaway is that you can make electronic materials from trash, and they perform just as well as what you would purchase commercially,” Kayser said. “For the more traditional polymer scientists, the fact that you can very efficiently and precisely control the degree of sulfonation is going to be of interest to a lot of different communities and applications.”

The researchers also see great potential for how this research can contribute to ongoing global sustainability efforts by providing a new way to convert waste products into value-added materials.

“Many scientists and researchers are working hard on upcycling and recycling efforts, either by chemical or mechanical means, and our study provides another example of how we can address this challenge,” Lo said.

The complete list of co-authors includes Chun-Yuan Lo, Kelsey Koutsoukos, Dan My Nguyen, Yuhang Wu, David Angel Trujillo, Tulaja Shrestha, Ethan Mackey, Vidhika Damani, Robert Opila, David Martin, and Laure Kayser from the University of Delaware and Tabitha Miller, Uddhav Kanbur, and David Kaphan from Argonne National Laboratory.



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New snake discovery rewrites history, points to North America’s role in snake evolution

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A new species of fossil snake unearthed in Wyoming is rewriting our understanding of snake evolution. The discovery, based on four remarkably well-preserved specimens found curled together in a burrow, reveals a new species named Hibernophis breithaupti. This snake lived in North America 34 million years ago and sheds light on the origin and diversification of boas and pythons.

Hibernophis breithaupti has unique anatomical features, in part because the specimens are articulated — meaning they were found all in one piece with the bones still arranged in the proper order — which is unusual for fossil snakes. Researchers believe it may be an early member of Booidea, a group that includes modern boas and pythons. Modern boas are widespread in the Americas, but their early evolution is not well understood.These new and very complete fossils add important new information, in particular, on the evolution of small, burrowing boas known as rubber boas.

Traditionally, there has been much debate on the evolution of small burrowing boas. Hibernophis breithaupti shows that northern and more central parts of North America might have been a key hub for their development. The discovery of these snakes curled together also hints at the oldest potential evidence for a behavior familiar to us today — hibernation in groups.

“Modern garter snakes are famous for gathering by the thousands to hibernate together in dens and burrows,” says Michael Caldwell, a U of A paleontologist who co-led the research along with his former graduate student Jasmine Croghan, and collaborators from Australia and Brazil. “They do this to conserve heat through the effect created by the ball of hibernating animals. It’s fascinating to see possible evidence of such social behavior or hibernation dating back 34 million years.”



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Good timing: Study unravels how our brains track time

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Archaeologists report earliest evidence for plant farming in east Africa


Ever hear the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun? A new study by a team of UNLV researchers suggests that there’s a lot of truth to the trope.

Many people think of their brains as being intrinsically synced to the human-made clocks on their electronic devices, counting time in very specific, minute-by-minute increments. But the study, published this month in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Cell Press journal Current Biology, showed that our brains don’t work that way.

By analyzing changes in brain activity patterns, the research team found that we perceive the passage of time based on the number of experiences we have — not some kind of internal clock. What’s more, increasing speed or output during an activity appears to affect how our brains perceive time.

“We tell time in our own experience by things we do, things that happen to us,” said James Hyman, a UNLV associate professor of psychology and the study’s senior author. “When we’re still and we’re bored, time goes very slowly because we’re not doing anything or nothing is happening. On the contrary, when a lot of events happen, each one of those activities is advancing our brains forward. And if this is how our brains objectively tell time, then the more that we do and the more that happens to us, the faster time goes.”

Methodology and Findings

The findings are based on analysis of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain important for monitoring activity and tracking experiences. To do this, rodents were tasked with using their noses to respond to a prompt 200 times.

Scientists already knew that brain patterns are similar, but slightly different, each time you do a repetitive motion, so they set out to answer: Is it possible to detect whether these slight differences in brain pattern changes correspond with doing the first versus 200th motion in series? And does the amount of time it takes to complete a series of motions impact brain wave activity?

By comparing pattern changes throughout the course of the task, researchers observed that there are indeed detectable changes in brain activity that occur as one moves from the beginning to middle to end of carrying out a task. And regardless of how slowly or quickly the animals moved, the brain patterns followed the same path. The patterns were consistent when researchers applied a machine learning-based mathematical model to predict the flow of brain activity, bolstering evidence that it’s experiences — not time, or a prescribed number of minutes, as you would measure it on a clock — that produce changes in our neurons’ activity patterns.

Hyman drove home the crux of the findings by sharing an anecdote of two factory workers tasked with making 100 widgets during their shift, with one worker completing the task in 30 minutes and the other in 90 minutes.

“The length of time it took to complete the task didn’t impact the brain patterns. The brain is not a clock; it acts like a counter,” Hyman explained. “Our brains register a vibe, a feeling about time. …And what that means for our workers making widgets is that you can tell the difference between making widget No. 85 and widget No. 60, but not necessarily between No. 85 and No. 88.”

But exactly “how” does the brain count? Researchers discovered that as the brain progresses through a task involving a series of motions, various small groups of firing cells begin to collaborate — essentially passing off the task to a different group of neurons every few repetitions, similar to runners passing the baton in a relay race.

“So, the cells are working together and over time randomly align to get the job done: one cell will take a few tasks and then another takes a few tasks,” Hyman said. “The cells are tracking motions and, thus, chunks of activities and time over the course of the task.”

And the study’s findings about our brains’ perception of time applies to activities-based actions other than physical motions too.

“This is the part of the brain we use for tracking something like a conversation through dinner,” Hyman said. “Think of the flow of conversation and you can recall things earlier and later in the dinner. But to pick apart one sentence from the next in your memory, it’s impossible. But you know you talked about one topic at the start, another topic during dessert, and another at the end.”

By observing the rodents who worked quickly, scientists also concluded that keeping up a good pace helps influence time perception: “The more we do, the faster time moves. They say that time flies when you’re having fun. As opposed to having fun, maybe it should be ‘time flies when you’re doing a lot’.”

Takeaways

While there’s already a wealth of information on brain processes over very short time scales of less than a second, Hyman said that the UNLV study is groundbreaking in its examination of brain patterns and perception of time over a span of just a few minutes to hours — “which is how we live much of our life: one hour at a time. ”

“This is among the first studies looking at behavioral time scales in this particular part of the brain called the ACC, which we know is so important for our behavior and our emotions,” Hyman said.

The ACC is implicated in most psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, and is a concentration area for mood disorders, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety. ACC function is also central to various dementias including Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by distortions in time. The ACC has long been linked to helping humans with sequencing events or tasks such as following recipes, and the research team speculates that their findings about time perception might fall within this realm.

While the findings are a breakthrough, more research is needed. Still, Hyman said, the preliminary findings posit some potentially helpful tidbits about time perception and its likely connection to memory processes for everyday citizens’ daily lives. For example, researchers speculate that it could lend insights for navigating things like school assignments or even breakups.

“If we want to remember something, we may want to slow down by studying in short bouts and take time before engaging in the next activity. Give yourself quiet times to not move,” Hyman said. “Conversely, if you want to move on from something quickly, get involved in an activity right away.”

Hyman said there’s also a huge relationship between the ACC, emotion, and cognition. Thinking of the brain as a physical entity that one can take ownership over might help us control our subjective experiences.

“When things move faster, we tend to think it’s more fun — or sometimes overwhelming. But we don’t need to think of it as being a purely psychological experience, as fun or overwhelming; rather, if you view it as a physical process, it can be helpful,” he said. “If it’s overwhelming, slow down or if you’re bored, add activities. People already do this, but it’s empowering to know it’s a way to work your own mental health, since our brains are working like this already.”



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