Tag Archives: africa

In parts of Africa, a better economy means less pollution

As economies expand, so does air pollution, a product of larger fossil-fuel consumption by vehicles, industries, and homes. But a new study of air quality in Africa has found the exact opposite. Nitrogen oxide (a byproduct of combustion), is declining in the north equatorial part of the continent thanks to fewer people using fires to manage land.

The savannah in Senegal. Image credit: Flickr / Christophe Durpaire

Africa is not a big industrial polluter like the United States or China but it has long been subject to widespread biomass burning during the dry season. This is considered an effective and more importantly cheap method to clear land in preparation for the planting season. It also has the advantage of retaining the mineral nutrients of the soil.

But burning vegetation can also bring potentially serious consequences for human health and global warming. The fires for land management can combine with urban pollution from cars or factories and produce toxic air. Plus, the fires release carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that causes global warming, into the atmosphere.

Thinking of bush fires probably brings to mind images of the out-of-control blazes that happened over the past few years in Australia, which had more than 11 million hectares of bush, forest, and park burned. Nevertheless, north equatorial Africa is actually the region with the most biomass fires in the world, with 70% of the world’s burned land.

The region includes 15 countries from Senegal in the west to South Sudan in the east. An important part of the population lives as nomadic herders amid vast areas of savanna and grassland, traditionally setting fires during the dry season, which goes from November to February. Nevertheless, in recent years, the population has grown and savanna has transformed into villages and plots for crops, bringing social and economic changes to the area.

This has led to fewer people setting up fires to protect the infrastructure and their livelihoods, the new study has shown. Researchers found that from 2005 to 2017 there was a 4.5% overall decline in the region in lower-atmosphere concentrations of nitrogen oxides (NOx) during the dry season, which is the time when fires combine with urban pollution.

“The traditional paradigm is that as middle and low-income countries grow you often see more emissions, and to see a different kind of trajectory is very interesting,” Jonathan Hickman, a researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who was the lead author on the study, said in a statement. “It’s nice to see a decline occurring when you’d expect to see pollution increasing.”

Scientists usually consider the density of NOx as a proxy for overall air quality. Once they are in the air, these pollutants are involved in chemical reactions that produce an array of other dangerous pollutants, including aerosols that damage crops and human health. The researchers used satellite data to measure gases present in the region’s air and to determine fire trends between 2005 and 2017.

Combining both sets of information, the researchers found that fire trends and the level of gases in the air were closely linked. The decline in NOx actually matched with the areas where population density and economic activity have increased, the study showed, according to economic and demographic data. That said, this could change in the mid-future.

As the population continues to grow and urbanize in the region, more people will be subject to concentrated urban pollution, which could cancel out the benefits of decreased fires, the researchers believe. Up to 80% of the power generated in Africa is from fossil fuels, particularly cars. A growing number of cars is being imported, driving up emissions from transportation.

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

How satellite alerts are tackling deforestation across African countries

Subscriptions to satellite alerts can help tackle deforestation, one of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, a new study showed. A group of African countries where organizations received warnings from a service using satellites saw an 18% plunge in forest loss over a two-year period.

Credit image: Flickr / CIFOR

Land-use changes like deforestation account for 6% to 17% of global carbon emissions. And avoiding deforestation is much more effective at reducing emissions than regrowing forests. Needless to say, forests also provide essential support not just for countless ecosystems, but also for human populations.

A group of US researchers wanted to understand whether automated deforestation alerts could help to reduce forest loss. They focused on the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) system, which provides frequent, high-resolution alerts when it detects a drop in forest cover. Governments and organizations can freely access the service and receive weekly emails with geographic coordinates of the alerts within the monitored areas.

“The first question was to look at whether there was any impact from having access to this free alert system. Then we were looking at the effect of users subscribing to this data to receive alerts for a specific area,” Fanny Moffette, lead author of the paper and researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madiso, said in a statement.

Moffette and her team looked at the impact of GLAD in 22 tropical countries across South America, Africa, and Asia from 2011 to 2018. Subscriptions to alerts decreased the probability of deforestation in Africa by 18% relative to the average 2011–2016 levels, the study showed, with no effect seen in other continents.

Africa’s tropical forests include the Guinean Forests and the Congo Basin, an expansive rainforest often referred to as the “world’s second set of lungs”. The continent’s forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, are home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else in the world, and support an estimated 100 million people.

Calculated using the social cost of carbon for avoided deforestation in Africa, the researchers estimated the alert system’s value to be between $149 million and $696 million. In other words, that’s how much money was saved by preventing deforestation. Protected areas and concessions were the most benefited areas, suggesting alerts can increase the capacity to enforce deforestation policies.

However, being covered by GLAD doesn’t automatically mean less deforestation, the researchers said. Only those African countries in which organizations had actually subscribed to receive alerts saw a decrease in deforestation. Having access to information is good but it’s more important to have people committed to using it.

But the situation is more complex when looking at the entire planet.

While the results were positive in Africa, the researchers found no decline in deforestation in South American or Asian countries, even where organizations subscribed to receive warnings. There are multiple possible reasons for this discrepancy, such as political unrest that limited the use of GLAD in other countries, or a lack of interest in tackling deforestation.

“We see an effect mainly in Africa due to two main reasons,” said Moffette. “GLAD added more to efforts in Africa than on other continents, in the sense that there was already some evidence of countries using monitoring systems in countries like Indonesia and Peru. And Colombia and Venezuela, which are a large part of our sample, had significant political unrest during this period.”

Looking forward, the researchers believe the influence of the GLAD program might grow, as a larger number of governments and organizations register to receive deforestation warnings. Moffette and her team wish to keep looking at GLAD and the effects of the new features recently added to the platform.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

A second wave is looming over Africa. A locust second wave, that is

Despite a year of control efforts, a new generation of desert locust swarms is now threatening the agricultural livelihoods and food security of millions in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. The United Nations is appealing for funds to support surveillance and control operations in the most-affected countries.

Image credit FAO

The other plague

Locust infestations have increased in the past few months, especially in Ethiopia and Somalia due to favorable weather and rainfall. Locust opulations are now predicted to increase even more in the coming months and extend across the region, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

“We have achieved much, but the battle against this relentless pest is not yet over,” said the Director-General of FAO, QU Dongyu, in a statement. “We must not waiver. Locusts keep growing day and night and risks are exacerbating food insecurity for vulnerable families across the affected region.”

Locusts have caused famines and widespread destruction since the time of Egyptian pharaohs — famously being one of the biblical plagues. However, in recent times, the pests have become more and more aggressive. FAO estimates desert locust swarms could threaten the livelihoods of 10% of the world’s population if current trends continue unabated.

The most effective way to fight locust outbreaks is by mass aerial sprays of pesticides. However, many countries lack the financial resources and infrastructure required to mount a long-range pest management strategy. This is why governments plagued by locusts are left scrambling for solutions.

More than 1.3 million hectares of locust infestations have been treated in ten countries since January thanks to international support and a response campaign led by FAO. This has helped to prevent the loss of about 2.7 million tons of cereal worth $800 million, which is enough to feed 18 million people a year.

However, the struggle is far from over. New locust swarms are already forming and threatening to re-invade northern Kenya and breeding is also underway on both sides of the Red Sea, posing a new threat to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Yemen. This was worsened by the cyclone Gati, which allowed locusts to expand.

The second wave

When plentiful rain falls and annual green vegetation develops, locusts can increase rapidly in numbers and, within a month or two, start to concentrate and become gregarious. Unless checked, this can lead to the formation of small groups or bands of wingless hoppers or swarms of winged adults.

Controlling these swarms is complicated by several factors. The swarm is highly mobile, migrating from 50 to more than 100 km in a day; the total invasion period frequently occurs in a relatively brief time, sometimes as short as a month; swarms are variable in size and can extend up to thousands of hectares. So basically, you’ve got a huge but very mobile wave you need to control somehow — and it’s not easy.

The FAO argues that countries in the Horn of Africa are now much better prepared than for the last invasion. The UN agency has so far received $200 million from donors, which has allowed to rapidly scale up locust response capacity. Over 1,500 control personnel have been trained and 110 spraying vehicles are operational.

Still, FAO is now asking for another $40 million in donations to increase surveillance and control activities next year. More than 35 million people are already acutely food insecure in the five countries most affected by locusts, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan and Yemen, and this could worsen with the current outbreak.

“We lost so much of our pastures and vegetation because of the locusts and as a result we are still losing a good number of our livestock,” Gonjoba Guyo, a pastoralist in North Horr sub-country in northern Kenya, told BBC. “I have lost 14 goats, four cows and two camels because of the locust outbreak and now there is lots of fear.”

The pandemic is sparing most of Africa and we’re not really sure why

As the world is recoiling from a devastating pandemic wave, Africa seems to have mostly weathered the storm — despite being considered one of the most at-risk areas.

Image credits: Olumide Bamgbelu.

It seemed like a recipe for disaster. Many of the healthcare systems on the continent are inadequate, suffering from insufficient funding, trained staff, and vital equipment (such as ventilators). To make matters even worse, even basic supplies like soap and water are subject to shortages.

Many experts feared the worst, especially as socially distancing would be difficult to enforce in areas where people work day to day. Testing was scarce, and in addition to the coronavirus burden, there were also the challenges of diseases such as malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera. Yet after the first stage of the pandemic, Africa seems to be surprisingly resilient.

It’s not just that the number of cases is relatively low — after all, the official number of cases still depends on how many tests you do, and Africa arguably misses more cases than other areas. In a recent study, Sophie Uyoga at the Kenya Medical Research Institute–Wellcome Trust Research Programme found that 5.6% of Kenyans (for a sample size of 3000 blood donors) had antibodies for SARS-CoV-2. This would put Kenya’s infection rate around the same level as Spain’s, yet Kenya’s fatalities are much lower than expected for this rate; and this is happening as antibody tests generally tend to underestimate infection rates, as some people don’t develop detectable antibodies.

It’s not just Kenya, either. A survey of 500 asymptomatic health care workers in Blantyre, Malawi found an infection rate of 12.3% among them — again, comparable to that of countries that suffered the brunt of COVID-19, and yet there were 8 times fewer fatalities than expected for this rate.

So it’s not that the disease isn’t spreading through Africa — it’s spreading like wildfire, just like in Spain or Italy a couple of months ago — but the effects aren’t that striking. You can miss the number of cases by not performing tests, you might even miss the number of hospitalizations, but you can’t hide coffins. How come Africa hasn’t experienced a rise in mortality like other areas?

There’s no clear-cut answer, but one possible answer is that Africa’s youthfulness is protecting it. The median age in Africa is under 20 years, compared to over 40 years in Europe and around 35 in North America. The population in African cities, which are crowded and more vulnerable than the rest of the country, tend to be even lower than the average for the rural parts of the continent.

This theory is good news for Africa on one hand, but it also comes with a warning: when the virus starts to spread to the rural areas where population age is more advanced, the outcomes could be worse.

As many as 3.3 million people may die in Africa this year from the coronavirus

Credit: Pixabay.

Many African countries have fragile or almost non-existent healthcare systems, which can be easily overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. A new assessment by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa paints a bleak picture, estimating as many as 1.2 billion coronavirus infections and 3.3 million deaths if no interventions are put in place to defend the virus.

Even under the best-case scenario, which involves very strict social distancing, the African continent could see around 122 million infections and 300,000 deaths.

A ticking time bomb

At the moment, there are around 18,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, the real number of COVID-19 cases is much higher and might explode soon, seeing how the continent is a few weeks behind Europe.

Crowded urban conditions, poverty, and a widespread incidence of chronic conditions are some of the factors that make Africa particularly vulnerable to the worst COVID-19 outcomes.

Many have watched with horror as the death toll rose day by day in countries like Italy and Spain. If things are so dramatic in rich countries with very advanced healthcare systems, it’s easy to imagine that the crisis will play out much worse in Africa.

The only good thing is the fact that many African countries have a younger demographic and COVID-19 appears to cause more fatalities in the elderly. 

According to a recent report compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO) that assessed the readiness of 34 African countries, only 50% of the nations had undertaken any COVID-19 staff training for case management and just over half the countries had personal protection equipment (PPE) available and accessible to healthcare workers.

A 2015 study found that many African countries had less than two dozen ICU beds to cover their entire population. Kenya claims it has 500 ICU beds while Nigeria has 120 critical care beds. These two countries, along with South Africa, are positive outliers, but even their capacity pales in comparison with what is found in other regions around the world.

Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo Brazzaville, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe have zero ICU beds available to treat COVID-19 patients.

What’s more, many African countries not only have to struggle with insufficient ICU beds and medical supplies, but they also face human resources deficiencies. For instance, Kenya has hundreds ICU beds but does not have enough anesthesiologists to man them.

Considering about 5% of COVID-19 patients require critical care, the situation in Africa could be dramatic.

To make matters worse, lockdowns may not be effective in many African countries. For one, they’re unlikely to be respected by the local population. Secondly, shutting down an already fragile economy could push 27 million people into extreme poverty, the new U.N. report warns. The authors cite a World Bank assessment that found sub-Saharan Africa will experience its first recession in a quarter-century, estimating a 2.6% contraction in GDP.

In order to have a glimmer of hope that the coronavirus situation in Africa won’t turn into a humanitarian disaster, the U.N. experts estimate at least $44 billion in aid would be required to pay for testing, personal protective equipment, and medicine. In a worst-case scenario that would involve over a billion infected individuals, at least $446 billion would be required.

The U.N. authors are urging financial institutions and governments from wealthy countries to immediately postpone debt repayments for two years for all African countries.

Researchers dive deep into the genetic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade

Print showing an alleged incident of an enslaved African girl whipped to death for refusing to dance naked on the deck of the slave ship Recovery, a slaver owned by Bristol merchants. Captain John Kimber was denounced before the House of Commons by William Wilberforce over the incident. In response to outrage by abolitionists, Captain Kimber was brought up on charges before the High Court of Admiralty in June 1792, but acquitted of all charges. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.  

Researchers in Brazil combined historical and genetic data to reveal new insights about the transatlantic slave trade that saw more than 9 million Africans shipped in chains to the Americans from the early 16th century until the mid-19th century. The findings suggest that the African populations imported their genetic diversity and spread their mutations in the Americas through admixture with indigenous and European populations.

“We know in the Americas that the slave trade was a human tragedy, but it is part of our history and identity. This is why my group, but mainly myself and my former PhD student Mateus Gouveia focused in the African Diaspora,” Eduardo Tarazona-Santos, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and lead author of the new study, told ZME Science.

African populations are the most diverse in the world, genetically speaking. Tarazona worked closely with colleagues in Brazil, Peru, and the United States to assemble what he calls the “largest up-to-date dataset of Americas and African genetic data”, which includes 6,267 individuals with more than 10% African ancestry from 25 populations.

Researchers compared the genetic data with historical demographic data from Slave Voyages database, which tracked and mapped the dispersal of enslaved Africa into the Americas.

“We came out with a mathematical method that makes this comparison compatible. Then we realized that comparing genetic and historical-demography data is something modern geneticists had forgotten to do during the last 10-20 years, but it this kind of comparisons were more common before and have a solid tradition in human population genetics, since the work by Luca Cavalli-Sforza (who passed away in 2018) sixty years ago in the Parma Valley in Italy, where he compared genetic data (from blood groups) with parish record data. So recovering this kind of work, is like making a tribute to Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Reading his books has been an inspiration for many young investigators that in the nineties decided to dedicate to human population genetics, as I did,” Tarazona said.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade transported more than 9 million Africans to the Americas between the early 16th and the mid-19th centuries. Credit: Eduardo Tarazona-Santos, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.

The researchers found that West Central African ancestry (from countries such as Nigeria and Ghana) is the most common in the Americas. West African ancestry (i.e. Senegal and Gambia) increases going northward while bantu ancestry (from south and southeast Africa) is more significant in the South of Brazil.

Historical records show that the transatlantic slave trade was at its height between 1750 and 1850. The new study found that this period also coincides with the most admixture between imported African populations and locals of European and indigenous ancestry. This timing implies that the 19th century was critical in shaping the structure of the African gene pool in the New World.

“The African Diaspora was so massive (>9 million people), that the genetic diversity observed in the African portions of our admixed genomes is similar to that of African populations of origin of slavery. However, admixture homogenized this diversity (and the mutations responsible for diseases) between the different populations of the African continent,” Tarazona told ZME.

All in all, the study provides unique insights into the gene flow caused by the massive transatlantic slave trade, whose influence is still important in today’s social and cultural setting in the Americas.

“Our results imply that the Africans imported most of their genetic diversity, including the mutations responsible for the diseases, and that admixture has spread these mutations in the Americas along most of the continent. In Africa, they are more compartmentalized geographically. This is important when we interpret data about where there are in the Americas mutations responsible for diseases such as cystic fibrosis and hereditary cancer,” Tarazona concluded.

The findings appeared on March 2 in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Massive locust swarms hit East Africa

Crops and livelihoods are being hit in large parts of East Africa by a plague of desert locusts, fueled by unusually warm weather. The swarms, carrying hundreds of millions of insects, are already affecting Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, destroying vegetation from crops and pastures.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The swarms of desert locusts loom like buzzing dark clouds on the horizon, scouring the land in search for food. They are already affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, such as Kenya and Somalia. Authorities are trying to contain the swarm, with limited success.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said the outbreak could soon spread even further as favorable ecological conditions for the locust breeding will continue until June.

Despite not being currently affected, South Sudan and Uganda could soon be next.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion. FAO is activating fast-track mechanisms that will allow us to move swiftly to support governments in mounting a collective campaign to deal with this crisis,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said in a statement.

Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia had seen such massive swarms of locusts for over 25 years. The locusts are now spreading fast and heading toward Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, known as the country’s “breadbasket.” This could have severe consequences for food security all around the region.

While still looking at the reasons, the World Meteorological Organization said that widespread and heavy rains seen in East Arica since October have contributed to the explosion in locusts. Rainfall from October to November was 300% above average across the Horn of Africa.

The ability of a locust to survive largely depends on the weather. Female prefers to lay their eggs in sandy and moist soil as they need such moisture to fully develop. Once the eggs hatch, they also need fresh vegetation to survive – which explains why they target the crops.

The record rain registered in the region was mainly triggered by a shift in sea surface temperatures, called the Indian Ocean Dipole or “El Niño of the Indian Ocean.” This also caused a record amount of tropical cyclone activity in the North Indian Ocean, researchers argued.

“Unusually high rainfall in desert and savanna can definitely lead to blooms of rich vegetation that swarming insects like locusts will readily take advantage of,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews said. “The climate across the affected areas varies from favorably moist to desert.”

The FAO has said that the locust swarms could grow to 500 times their current size by June if left unchecked. Rapid respond measures were recommended by international agencies, including aerial pest control so to slow the locust, the oldest migratory insect in the world.

There were warning signs, as FAO alerted back in November over the locust infestation in Ethiopia, claiming it would soon expand if it wasn’t managed. Farmers in the Amhara region of Ethiopia lost all their crops. Even a passenger plane was taken off course in Ethiopia last month because of a locust swarm.

“Prevention and control measures must be scaled up to contain further spread of the desert locust,” Workneh Gebeyehu, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, said in a press release. “Countries must act urgently to avoid a food security crisis in the region.”

Ostrich eggshell beads reveal cultural evolution in Africa

Examples of OES beads showing subtle size differences between regions. Scale bar = 5 mm; (a) Nelson Bay Cave, South Africa; (b) Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa; (c) Magubike Rockshelter, Tanzania; (d) Daumboy 3 Rockshelter, Tanzania.

Jewelry and trinkets are ever-present in mankind’s evolution. Since the dawn of time, humans loved having pretty objects around them — and they sometimes went to great trouble to achieve this goal. Humans aren’t unique in enjoying trinkets, but we are unique in our ability to create such objects.

Whether it’s metal, rocks, or organic material, mankind has created a dazzling array of adornments. So deep is our fascination with these objects that oftentimes, researchers can tell many things about a specific culture just by looking at the adornments they crafted. This is exactly the case with ostrich eggshells, the authors of a new study say: they are a good indicator of cultural shifts in ancient Africa.

Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest ornaments ever made by mankind. Humans have been making them for at least 50,000 years and remarkably, some of them have been preserved well enough to survive to this day. Previous research has shown that 2,000 years ago, these beads exhibited an important change in size, becoming much larger. Now, a new study by Jennifer Miller and Elizabeth Sawchuk investigated this idea even further, analyzing the evolution of this type of beads in previously un-investigated parts of Africa.

A string of modern ostrich eggshell beads from eastern Africa. Image credits: Hans Sell.

Miller and Sawchuk analyzed evidence from 30 archaeological sites spanning the past 10,000 years of human history on the continent. In total, they recorded the diameters of 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads, including some which had never before been analyzed.

“These beads are symbols that were made by hunter-gatherers from both regions for more than 40,000 years,” says lead author Jennifer Miller, “so changes – or lack thereof – in these symbols tells us how these communities responded to cultural contact and economic change.”

As expected, the authors found a significant increase in bead size some 2,000 years ago. This change is linked to the emergence of a new culture in the area, probably the same culture that brought about new herding practices. But this was only the case in southern Africa.

In eastern Africa, the authors found no correlation between bead size and herding or this new culture. This suggests that the beads tell a more nuanced story, and bead size alone is not a sufficient indicator of culture in Africa.

These differences are subtle, and more work is needed to understand what it all means. But these shifts tell an interesting story and raise even more interesting questions. For instance, the fact that 2,000 years ago, bead size changed in some parts of Africa but not in others indicates significant differences across cultures. This may be because local foragers adopted herding while retaining their bead-making traditions, because migrant herders possessed similar traditions prior to contact, and/or because incoming herders adopted local styles — but it’s not exactly clear yet.

“In the modern world, migration, cultural contact, and economic change often create tension,” says Sawchuk, “ancient peoples experienced these situations too, and the patterns in cultural objects like ostrich eggshell beads give us a chance to study how they navigated these experiences.”

Lastly, it’s remarkable that something as small as eggshell beads can tell such stories, Miller concludes.

“Ostrich eggshell beads are small and tend to be overlooked in archaeological analysis, but they have the power to tell big stories about ancient human relationships. Today, we encounter economic change, cultural contact and immigration–people 5,000 years ago experienced these things too, and the beads give us a chance to understand how they dealt with it.”

The study has been published in PLoS ONE.

Difficulties in accessing healthcare and bribery goes hand in hand in Africa

African patients who had to pay a bribe for healthcare report difficulty in accessing care.

A large survey in sub-Saharan Africa found that adults who had to pay bribes for healthcare in the past year were between four and nine times as likely to have difficulty in accessing medical services. The data comes from a survey carried out from 2014-2015 in 32 countries.

Tit for tat

“When patients in sub-Saharan Africa have to pay bribes for healthcare, they are much more likely to report difficulties in obtaining medical care,” says lead author Amber Hsiao from the Technical University of Berlin.

“Bribery at the point of care and its implications need to be better monitored and addressed in the quest to reach universal health coverage.”

Having to pay a bribe can discourage people from seeking care when they need it, and erodes public confidence in the healthcare system. However, the extent to which the practice limits healthcare access has been unclear. The study aimed to find out.

Out of 31,322 adults who had received medical care between 2014 and 2015, roughly 14% said they had to bribe to obtain care at least once in the past year. After controlling for regional and individual factors, the team found that survey respondents who had paid one or two bribes were 4.11 times more likely to encounter difficulty in obtaining care. Those who reported paying bribes “often” were nine times more likely to have the same issue.

Controlling for individual and regional factors, survey respondents who had paid one or two bribes were 4.11 times more likely to report difficulties in obtaining care than those who had paid no bribes.

The team hopes that their findings can help guide the efforts of policymakers and researchers as they work toward the United Nations’ goal of universal health coverage by 2030. They also recommend further research on individual countries to find strategies of combating bribery and healthcare corruption in general.

The paper “Effect of corruption on perceived difficulties in healthcare access in sub-Saharan Africa” has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Suspension Bridge.

Wildfires in Africa keep the Amazon lush with fertilizing smoke

New research from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine shows that African wildfires supply the Amazon with vital nutrients.

Suspension Bridge.

Image via Pixabay.

The team reports that winds blow nutrient-rich aerosol (i.e. smoke) from Africa that keep the Amazon Basin fertile. These aerosols are estimated to deposit around one half of the phosphorus that plant life in the Basin consumes. In effect, this makes the African continent a key player in the Amazonian ecosystem.

Airmail nutrients

“It had been assumed that Saharan dust was the main fertilizer to the Amazon Basin and Tropical Atlantic Ocean by supplying phosphorus to both of these ecosystems,” says the study’s senior author Cassandra Gaston, an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UM’s Rosenstiel School.

“Our findings reveal that biomass burning emissions transported from Africa are potentially a more important source of phosphorus to these ecosystems than dust.”

Previous research has shown that dust blown over from the Sahara and other desert regions in Africa act as sources of nutrients for South America. The role of smoke in this, however, was still unknown.

Besides seeding the Amazonian Basin with phosphorus — enabling its wealth of biodiversity and productivity to sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide — the team also found that these aerosols fertilize the Tropical Atlantic and Southern oceans (TAO), sustaining the phytoplankton that is the basis of the marine ecosystem in the region.

The findings are based on measurements of windborne dust, phosphorus  and soluble phosphorus Amazon’s northeastern coast. The team also tracked winds from the African continent using satellite data.

Wind-borne dust wasn”t very rich in phosphorus. The team reports that it actually acts as the area’s main supply of low-solubility phosphorus (P) in February through April contributing around 5%. September through November, however, the team recorded high levels of soluble P originating from biomass fires in Southern Africa. This also coincided with the season when dust deposits are lower.

The team crosschecked their findings by identifying aerosols from Africa on high-soluble-P measurement days using satellite imagery. They also traced back all high-soluble-P aerosols in air masses that had passed over the Sahara and the Sahel where biomass burning was active.

The team says their findings offer a new perspective on biomass-burning emissions, which are considered primarily destructive in terms of air quality. While such events are known to promote new growth in their wake, it’s exciting to see how it can affect developments on a whole other continent.

It also helps explain how the Amazon Basin manages to retain its immense biodiversity and productivity despite heavy, year-round rainfall, which drains the soil of nutrients. It dentifies an important nutrient source for marine ecosystems in the region.

The paper “African biomass burning is a substantial source of phosphorus deposition to the Amazon, Tropical Atlantic Ocean, and Southern Ocean” has been published in the journal PNAS.


New research paints the history of East Africa’s farmers, and how they evolved to eat dairy

New research is looking into how one of the world’s more diverse areas first took to farming.


Image via Pixabay.

A collaborative effort between archaeologists, geneticists, and museum curators is helping us piece together what life in sub-Saharan Africa was like thousands of years ago. The study reveals how herding and farming first took root in the region and offers new insight into how groups of humans developed lactose persistence — the ability to digest milk.

Got milk?

“The origins of food producers in East Africa have remained elusive because of gaps in the archaeological record,” said co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University’s campus in Madrid, Spain.

“This study uses DNA to answer previously unresolvable questions about how people were moving and interacting.”

The study involved experts in several fields from North American, European, and African institutions. The team analyzed ancient samples of DNA retrieved from 41 human skeletons curated in the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia. From these bits of DNA, the team wanted to piece together the history of early African food producers.

The first food-producing endeavor that spread through most of Africa was the herding of animals — cattle, sheep, and goats. It continues to be a linchpin of local food production throughout the arid grasslands that cover much of sub-Saharan Africa today, feeding millions of people. Previous research has also shown that the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania was a key site in the transition from foraging to herding.

Livestock herders first appeared in northern Kenya around 5000 years ago — where they built monumental cemeteries — later spreading south into the Rift Valley. Who these people were and where they came from, however, remained a mystery.

The present study shows that some of the people who carried this knowledge south draw their roots from northeast Africa. These communities later developed in East Africa by mixing with local foragers there between 4500-3500 years ago. This suggests that previous hypotheses holding that animal domestication spread through trade rather than the movement of people were wrong.

“Today, East Africa is one of the most genetically, linguistically, and culturally diverse places in the world,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk, Ph.D., a bioarchaeologist at Stony Brook University and co-first author of the study. “Our findings trace the roots of this mosaic back several millennia. Distinct peoples have coexisted in the Rift Valley for a very long time.”

These herders and foragers then evolved into genetically-isolated populations in East Africa, though the team says the two groups continued to live side-by-side. There seem to have been strong social barriers between the two groups which persisted long after they met, the team reports.

The next major genetic shift takes place during the Iron Age, around 1200 years ago. This time saw the movement of other groups of people from northeastern and western Africa into the region. Many East Africans today show a heavy genetic legacy from these new groups, the researchers add. The same period also saw the introduction of two new, and massively-important, practices into the area: farming and iron-working.

One important finding of the study is that it shows how East Africa served as an independent center of evolution for lactase persistence, or people retaining the ability to digest milk into adulthood. This isn’t a feature humanity’s ‘factory settings’ include, rather, it’s a genetic adaptation that several groups of people today have inherited from our livestock-herding ancestors. It is found in high proportions among Kenyan and Tanzanian herders today, the team writes, suggesting that this group acquired lactase persistence independently during their history.

The paper “Ancient DNA reveals a multistep spread of the first herders into sub-Saharan Africa” has been published in the journal Science.

More than 20 African countries are planting a 8,000-km-long ‘Great Green Wall’

The Sahara desert has been slowly expanding southwards for decades through a region as the Sahel. Heavy grazing, deforestation, and numerous droughts have degraded the once lush Sahel, making it easy pickings for the Sahara’s expansion. In order to stave off an ecological disaster across the continent, 20 different African countries have embarked on an ambitious tree-planting programme called the ‘Great Green Wall’. The 10-mile(16-km) deep wall of green aims to stretch across 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of terrain at the southern edge of the Sahara desert, arresting the desert’s spread. With so much hate surrounding the walls built to divide us, both physical and psychological, it’s refreshing to finally hear about a wall that we can all stand behind.

The green border

The Great Green Wall was first launched in 2007 at the initiative of 12 African countries — the other 9 joining later The plan is to plant trees that can resist tough droughts — such as acacias — across a narrow region stretching from Senegal in the east of Africa to Djibouti in the west of Africa.

Once complete, the wall will run through 11 countries in total. The wall is currently only about 15% complete, but the results are already showing. In Senegal alone, over 11 million trees have been planted since the project rolled out. Nigeria has seen the restoration of 12 million acres of degraded land and Ethiopia has claimed back 37 million acres of land.

Aerial photos showing the same surroundings around Galma, a town in Niger. Left: 1975, Right: 2003 after reforestation. Credit: USGS.

Aerial photos showing the same area around Galma, a town in Niger. Left: 1975, Right: 2003 after reforestation. Credit: USGS.

Tree planting in the Sahel has improved the area’s resilience against desertification. The green wall slows down the drying and scouring effects of the wind, restores micro-climates, and allows food crops to grow around trees which fertilize the soil. The ultimate goal of $8-billion project is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, which would create 350,000 rural jobs and absorb 250 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

“There are many world wonders, but the Great Green Wall will be unique and everyone can be a part of its history,” said Dr. Dlamini Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission. “Together, we can change the future of African communities in the Sahel.”

However, since the project’s inception, some changes to the plan have been made. The idea of the Great Green Wall morphed into a program centered around indigenous land use techniques, not literally planting a forest on the edge of a desert — that would be highly impractical. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing,” said Mohamed Bakarr, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environment Facility.

The Great Green Wall is a symbol of hope in an area where, until not too long ago, everyone was panicking over the prospect of the Sahara expanding. There is still much work ahead, though. Some are arguing that the project is moving too slowly. Seeing how the Sahel’s population is expected to double in 20 years, researchers say that regreening needs to be finished within 10 to 15 years.

Fossil monkey teeth.

Fossil Friday: Newly-found fossil teeth solve ancient monkey mystery

Fossil teeth uncovered in Kenya, Africa, fill a missing link in the evolution of old world monkeys, a new paper reports.

Fossil monkey teeth.

Some specimens of A. metios that the team recovered.
Image credits D. Tab Rasmussen et al., (2019), PNAS.

The 22-million-year-old chompers allowed the team to describe a new species — which they christened Alophia metios — that fills a major gap in the evolution of old world monkeys (family Cercopithecidae), a team of U.S. and Kenyan researchers reports. It forms a link between a 19-million-year old fossil tooth unearthed in Uganda and a 25-million-year-old fossil tooth found in Tanzania.

Surprisingly, the teeth exhibit more primitive features compared to those of earlier species of monkeys, giving us an unique glimpse into what the lineage dined on in its earliest days.

Kenya find me a tooth?

“For a group as highly successful as the monkeys of Africa and Asia, it would seem that scientists would have already figured out their evolutionary history,” said the study’s corresponding author John Kappelman, an anthropology and geology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Although the isolated tooth from Tanzania is important for documenting the earliest occurrence of monkeys, the next 6 million years of the group’s existence are one big blank. This new monkey importantly reveals what happened during the group’s later evolution.”

The team had their sights set specifically on the fossil-rich region of West Turkana, as the time interval they were interested in studying is only represented by a handful of African fossil sites. West Turkana is very arid today, but between 19 and 25 million years ago it was peppered with lush forest and woodland landscapes fed by a network of river and streams. Hundreds of mammal and reptile jaws, limbs, and teeth were recovered during fieldwork, ranging from 21 million to more than 24 million years old — including remains of early elephants.

At first, A. metios’ teeth confused the team. The fossil teeth were very primitive, more primitive than geologically younger monkey fossils, in fact. They even lacked a hallmark structure of monkey teeth, “lophs” — which are a pair of molar crests.

Fossil teeth comparison.

A comparison of cercopithecoid dental evolution over time. Specimens arranged left to right from oldest to youngest species. A are Alophia teeth, B are the same but reversed for comparison. C is Noropithecus, D is Victoriapithecus, E is Nsungewepithecus, F and G Alophia and Alophia reversed, H are Noropithecus teeth in reverse, I are Victoriapithecus teeth in reverse.
Image credits D. Tab Rasmussen et al., (2019), PNAS.

“These teeth are so primitive that when we first showed them to other scientists, they told us, “Oh no, that isn’t a monkey. It’s a pig,” said Ellen Miller, an anthropology professor at Wake Forest University and paper co-author.

“But because of other dental features, we are able to convince them that yes, it is in fact a monkey.”

The species’ name, Alophia, is a tribute to this feature — the word means “without lophs”. It’s quite a significant result, actually, since these lophs are a key feature of monkey teeth today. Lophs and cusps on molars allow the animals to eat a wide range of foods, from animal to plant matter. These teeth are like “uber food processor[s]”, the team explains, and helped monkeys adapt to the diverse environments they inhabit today, from Africa to Asia.

Exactly how and when these structures evolved, however, remained a mystery.  The researchers speculate that Alophia’s primitive dentition was suited to a diet of hard fruits, seeds, and nuts — but not leaves, as these are more efficiently processed by teeth such as those first seen in monkeys from 19 million years ago. This would suggest that the later inclusion of leaves in the diet of monkeys was a key driver of their (and their dental) evolution

“It is usually assumed that the trait responsible for a group’s success evolved when the group originated, but Alophia shows us this is not the case for Old World monkeys,” says co-author Samuel Muteti, a researcher at the National Museums of Kenya.

“Instead, the characteristic dentition of modern monkeys evolved long after the group first appeared.”

Monkeys as a lineage first appeared during a time when Africa and the Arabian peninsula were still joined together. Species here evolved in relative isolation until the whole island-continent connected to Eurasia, between 20 to 24 million years ago. After this time, we see mammals such as antelope, pigs, lions, or rhinos — what we’d consider African species today — making their way to Africa and Arabia.

One of the team’s hypotheses is that these immigrant species placed a lot of environmental stress on monkeys, and competition between them and the new arrivals drove monkeys to start exploiting leaves as a food source. Alternatively, changing climate conditions could have been at the root of this dietary shift.

“The way to test between these hypotheses is to collect more fossils,” Kappelman said. “Establishing when, exactly, the Eurasian fauna entered Afro-Arabia remains one of the most important questions in paleontology, and West Turkana is one of the only places we know of to find that answer.”

The paper “Primitive Old World monkey from the earliest Miocene of Kenya and the evolution of cercopithecoid bilophodonty” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Anopheles Gambiae.

We can eradicate malaria — but we need to use new tricks

Malaria can be eradicated completely, according to new research. The study goes on to analyze why previous efforts fell short of this goal and takes a look at what new strategies could help continue our fight against this terrible parasite.

Anopheles Gambiae.

A feeding female Anopheles gambiae mosquito. A. gambiae is a known malaria vector.
Image credits CDC / James Gathany.

The early years of this new millennium were fraught with malaria. Several outbreaks of unprecedented size moved the world as a whole to take action. By 2015 the disease’s spreading rate was halved, and such efforts ground to a standstill. Countries like Zanzibar continued to deal with the disease — however, it was never completely wiped out.

A new study led by Professor Anders Björkman at the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology, Karolinska Institutet takes a look at why our efforts fell short in the past — some key issues being changes in mosquito behavior and natural selection of the parasites making them more drug resistant.


“But after [2015], the decline tailed off,” says Professor Björkman who has been running the Karolinska Institutet’s eponymous malaria project for 18 years. “Except for in Zanzibar, where the action taken for its 1.4 million citizens has led to approximately a 96 per cent decline in the incidence of malaria.”

“We’ve optimised these measures with the Zanzibar Malaria Control Programme and can now explain why malaria has not yet been fully eliminated.”

The world-wide anti-malaria offensive was carried largely by the development of new drugs, and the widespread distribution of anti-mosquito sprays and insecticide-infused nets. While definitely successful, such measures are lackluster today at best.

Björkman’s team has been monitoring roughly 100,000 residents from two districts in Zanzibar since 2002. Their study shows that malaria-carrying species of mosquitoes now predominantly bite people outdoors instead of indoors, as used to be the case. The insects also seem to have developed a resistance, or at least a tolerance, to modern pesticides. Finally, Plasmodium, the protozoan parasite that causes malaria, has been undergoing a process of forced natural selection at the hands of our medicine. The current form of Plasmodium is much more difficult to detect and treat but spreads with the same virulence as before.

“Both the mosquitoes and the parasites have found ways to avoid control measures,” says Professor Björkman. “We now need to develop new strategies to overcome this if we’re to attain the goal of eliminating the disease from Zanzibar, an endeavour that can prove a model for the entire continent.”

There’s a lot at stake, too. One of the findings that surprised the team most (and not in a good way) was the sheer decline in child mortality experienced in Zanzibar. Malaria control measures, they note, led to a 70% drop in overall child mortality rates. It’s an immense percentage, given that the highest estimation of malaria-related child deaths in Africa previous to this study was of only 20%. Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the highest rate of newborn deaths in the world (34 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011) and the highest rate of date for children under five (1 in 9 children) according to the United States Agency for International Development.

This tidbit suggests that malaria has a much more dramatic and chronic effect on general infant health than we dared assume. The disease overtaxes a baby’s immune system, spreading it too thinly to defend against other pathogens. Professor Björkman considers malaria to still be “the greatest obstacle to a healthy childhood in Africa” because of this.

“If you ask African women today, their greatest concern is usually that malaria doesn’t affect their pregnancy and their babies. The global community must continue the fight for improved strategies and control measures. If this happens, I think we’ll be able to reach the goal of ultimate elimination.”

Zanzibar was chosen for this study as the country has made huge efforts to put global anti-malaria initiatives in place, and actively works to control the disease to this day. The researchers hope that their findings can guide anti-malaria strategies throughout Africa.

The paper “From high to low malaria transmission in Zanzibar – challenges and opportunities to achieve elimination” has been published in the journal BMC Medicine.

DNA sequencing might help finally link smugglers to ivory shipments

New genetic sequencing efforts aim to give lawmakers the evidence they need to put ivory cartels down for good.

Tusk mammoth.

Image credits Roy Buri.

Although elephant ivory has been banned from international trade since 1989 (with few, disgraceful exceptions), African elephants continue to fall to poachers. Back in 2016, poaching was cited as the primary driver of elephant loss by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — a figure that totaled a chilling 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015. Current estimates place the number of African elephants in the wild at about 415,000.

This doesn’t sit well with an international team of researchers, led by members from the University of Washington (UW). By performing DNA analysis of large ivory seizures, the team links multiple shipments from a three-year period, when trafficking was at its peak, to dealers operating out of a handful of ports in Africa.

Tusky business

“Our prior work on DNA testing of illegal ivory shipments showed that the major elephant ‘poaching hotspots’ in Africa were relatively few in number,” said lead and corresponding author Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology.

“Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.”

The team worked with samples of ivory trafficked between 2011 and 2014. After developing a rigorous sorting and DNA testing system, the team sequenced samples of tusks recovered from 38 different shipments. Through this approach, they could identify individual pairs of tusks, even if they were separated and shipped at different times to different areas of the globe.

Tusks from the same pair — although separated and shipped off on different boats — always originated from the same port, the team reports. They were almost always shipped within 10 months of one another, with high overlap in the geographic origins of tusks in the matching shipments, they add. They report that 11 of the 38 shipments the team analyzed contained tusks that had been separated after poaching but later shipped through the same ports (at different times) between 2011-2014.

It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but you have to consider that the illegal ivory trade is underpinned by large shipments. Roughly 70% of seizures between 1996 and 2011 involved at least half a metric ton (about 0.55 U.S. tons) of ivory, past research revealed.


Tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 in Singapore after they had been sorted into pairs by the process developed by Wasser and his team.
Image credits Center for Conservation Biology / University of Washington.

Some of Wasser’s previous work involved developing a “genetic reference map” of African elephant populations, which they used to see which groups were most targeted by poachers. They built this map from DNA samples extracted mainly from elephant droppings (science is glamorous like that). Later, they cross-referenced this map with DNA from seized tusks, allowing the team to identify where each tusk was obtained with an accuracy of about 300 kilometers (roughly 186 miles). In a later paper, they announced that the bulk of seized tusks came from two “poaching hotspots” on the continent.

In order to sift through all this genetic data, Wasser’s team developed a protocol that could quickly subsample hundreds of tusks at a time, as they had “neither the time nor the money to collect samples and extract DNA from every tusk in a shipment,” he explains. They used this protocol for the current research, as well.

The team would identify pairs of tusks by measuring their diameters at the base, their color, and gum line (the place where an elephant’s lip rested on the tusk). This step let the team extract DNA from a single tusk in each pair, which should theoretically have slashed their work in half. The team, however, quickly noted that many tusks were ‘orphans’ — they were missing their partner tusk.

After comparing DNA samples from tusks among 38 large ivory consignments, confiscated from 2011 to 2014, they were able to match up 26 pairs of tusks from 11 shipments, even though they were only testing, on average, about one-third of the tusks in each seizure.

“There is so much information in an ivory seizure — so much more than what a traditional investigation can uncover,” said Wasser.

“Not only can we identify the geographic origins of the poached elephants and the number of populations represented in a seizure, but we can use the same genetic tools to link different seizures to the same underlying criminal network.”

Linking these large shipments to individual smuggling networks will help build the case against cartels that handle most of the ivory trade and shipment, Wasser explains. The team’s work could be used in court to link several counts of trafficking against the smugglers — who are usually only convicted for a single shipment.

“We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures — linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels,” said Wasser.

“It is an investigative tool to help officials track these networks and collect evidence for criminal cases.”

The paper has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Biologists discover new bird species in Africa — and it’s already in trouble

The scenario is, unfortunately, becoming more and more common: we discover a new species, but it’s already threatened by extinction. The same thing has now happened with a bird species in Africa.

While Mountain Sooty Boubous occupy high-elevation forests, recently discovered species live in mid-elevation forests. Image credits: J. Engel.

Africa’s Albertine Rift region is a biodiversity hotspot — you could hardly ask for a more spectacular area. It spans six countries, including the rift valley and the surrounding mountains. However, this amazing ecology is threatened by deforestation as a growing population seeks new farmland. Illegal timber extraction is another problem, and artisanal gold mining causes even more damage.

While carrying out a survey of the area, biologists discovered a new bird, which they named Willard’s Sooty Boubou, as opposed to the previously recognized high-elevation species, the Mountain Sooty Boubou. Although the birds seem otherwise quite similar, Willard’s Sooty Boubou is found at approximately 1200-1900 meters and the Mountain Sooty Boubou at 1800-3800 meters.

The team was quite happy to find the bird, but after analyzing its habitat, there were fewer reasons for joy. More than half of the bird’s habitat has already been destroyed for agriculture and, in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, some 70% of the habitat has already been transformed.

If we want this bird, and other species, to be able to survive in the future, conservation measures are essential, says Fabio Berzaghi, a member of the team who published the study.

“The Albertine Rift is a crossroads of amazing biodiversity, dramatic and diverse landscapes, and heartbreaking social and political unrest. It goes from glaciers to volcanoes to plateaus to lakes, with a succession of vegetation types from high-elevation cloud forests to lowland tropical forests,” says Berzaghi. “It is home to gorillas and forest elephants as well as a high number of endemic animal and plant species. Unfortunately, much of the region has gone through never-ending conflicts, with very negative consequences for both humans and biodiversity, and conservation involving local populations is paramount.”

Ultimately, this is more than just a scientific endeavor — it’s not like finding a new species is the end things; quite the contrary. By identifying it and seeing what ecological niche it fills, scientists can know how to better protect it in the face of growing threats. Berzaghi hopes that the work won’t be in vain, and the diverse habitats of the area will receive the attention they so desperately need.

“Conservation agencies have an opportunity to move beyond taxonomic debate and use the models derived from this species to improve conservation outcomes for not only this species, but also a broad set of mid-elevation Albertine Rift endemic vertebrates through protection of mid-elevation forests that have received relatively little protection in comparison to high-elevation montane habitats.”

Journal Reference: “Comparative niche modeling of two bush-shrikes (Laniarius) and the conservation of mid-elevation Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift” will be available September 19, 2018, at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-18-28.1


The earliest monument in east Africa was built without anyone being ‘the boss’

A massive cemetery complex in the plains of Kenya shoots down the theory that social hierarchy is required to build monuments.


The site’s location.
Image credits Elisabeth A. Hildebrand et al., 2018, PNAS.

An international team of researchers has uncovered the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in all of Eastern Africa. Christened the Lothagam North Pillar Site, the monument complex was built over 5,000 years ago. The most surprising bit? Its builders were simple herders living around Lake Turkana, Kenya. They’re believed to have had an egalitarian mindset, rejecting any social stratification.

The discovery contradicts the long-standing view that a stratified society, split between rulers and ruled, is required to construct large public buildings or monuments.

Communal building

The site represents a communal cemetery built and used over a period of several centuries (between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago, roughly), the team reports.

It is comprised of a round platform about 30 meters in diameter, in the center of which the early herders dug a large cavity to inter their dead in. After this cavity was filled, they capped it with stones and placed megalithic pillars on top. These pillars were sourced from as far as a kilometer away.

The team estimates that a minimum of 580 individuals were “densely buried” in this central cavity. There doesn’t seem to be any particular individual that received special treatment — people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, were buried here. All individuals were buried with personal ornaments but nobody stands out as being poorer or wealthier than their peers. In fact, the distribution of ornaments is surprisingly even throughout the cemetery, which the team takes as an indicator of a relatively egalitarian society without strong social stratification.

Stone circles and cairns were subsequently erected at the site over time.


Ornaments and palette recovered from Lothagam North.
Image credits Elisabeth A. Hildebrand et al., 2018, PNAS.

Given the expenditure of both effort and resources required to build large structures, as well as the logistical hurdles associated with organizing the whole thing, archaeologists simply took it as a given that a group needs a political structure to be able to undertake such projects. There’s also the fact that the roles these buildings played — they’re reminders of shared history, culture, religion, or ideas — are indicative of a settled, socially stratified society with abundant resources and strong leadership.

Taken together, it made archaeologists view ancient monuments as definite indicators of complex societies that allow specialization of work — and, through it, differentiated social classes.

The people who built the Lothagam North cemetery, however, were simple herders. We have no evidence that they had a rigidly-tiered society; if anything, their burial site suggests they were all equal in their society’s eyes.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.”

The discovery could lead historians to reshape how we understand the emergence of complex societies.

The authors write that Lothagam North was likely built during a period of profound change. The Turkana Basin had so far been populated by diverse groups of fisher-hunter-gatherers, but now groups of herders had started settling in and around the basin. So on one hand, these new arrivals brought about massive innovation — from hunter-gathering to animal husbandry. At the same time, the area experienced a drop in rainfall levels, causing Lake Turkana to shrink by as much as fifty percent, the team explains.

It’s possible, then, that the herders constructed the cemetery as a place for people to come together to form and maintain social networks to cope with major economic and environmental change.

“The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity,” says co-author Anneke Janzen. “Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.”

It took several centuries for pastoralism to overtake hunter-gathering as the main source of sustenance in the basin, and for the lake to stabilize. After this happened, however, the cemetery ceased to be used — further supporting the team’s hypothesis.

“The Lothagam North Pillar Site is the earliest known monumental site in eastern Africa, built by the region’s first herders,” Hildebrand adds. “This finding makes us reconsider how we define social complexity, and the kinds of motives that lead groups of people to create public architecture.”

The paper “A monumental cemetery built by eastern Africa’s first herders near Lake Turkana, Kenya” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

: Fossil finger bone of Homo sapiens from the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ian Cartwright

Ancient human fossil finger found in Arabia could rewrite our species’ history

: Fossil finger bone of Homo sapiens from the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ian Cartwright

: Fossil finger bone of Homo sapiens from the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ian Cartwright

A fossilized 90,000-year-old finger unearthed in Arabia is the earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens presence outside Africa and the Levant. Although today the region where the fossil was found is dry and rather inhospitable, the climate there used to be humid and monsoonal at the time the human the finger belonged to was still alive. As such, the findings suggest that not only were early humans more geographically dispersed than we used to think, they were also successfully adapting to new environments — a huge step forward in our species’ quest for global domination.

“The Arabian Peninsula has long been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution. This discovery firmly puts Arabia on the map as a key region for understanding our origins and expansion to the rest of the world. As fieldwork carries on, we continue to make remarkable discoveries in Saudi Arabia,” said Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The team of international researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History was conducting archaeological fieldwork in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia when they came across the striking fossil. The site of Al Wusta where the researchers set camp used to house a freshwater lake, which attracted all sorts of creatures from hippopotamuses to tiny freshwater snails. Among the many animal fossils and human tools, the researchers also found a 3.2-cm-long fossil, which was immediately recognized as a human finger bone.

In order to properly identify the finger bone, researchers scanned it in 3-D then compared it to various other finger bones like recent modern humans, Neanderthals, but also species of primates. The analysis confirmed that the fossil belonged to an early human, marking the first ancient human fossil found in Arabia.

The age of the fossil was dated using a technique called uranium series dating, which involves etching microscopic holes in the fossil with a laser and measuring the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements. By this method, the researchers estimate the fossil is around 88,000 years old. Dates obtained from other animal fossils and sediments at the Al Wusta site converged to about the same age, approximately 90,000 years ago.

General view of the excavations at the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. The ancient lake bed (in white) is surrounded by sand dunes of the Nefud Desert. Credit: Michael Petraglia

General view of the excavations at the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. The ancient lakebed (in white) is surrounded by sand dunes of the Nefud Desert. Credit: Michael Petraglia

Although tiny and seemingly insignificant, this finger fossil might be an important piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle that is the story of human dispersal out of Africa. Traditionally, the expansion of our species out of the African continent is thought to have occurred in at least two phases. One early dispersal followed the Levantine corridor, alongside the eastern portion o the Mediterranean Basin. Findings in the Misliya Cave, Israel, suggest this dispersal occurred as early as 177,000 years ago. The second phase of modern human dispersal out of Africa is thought to have taken place as early as 65,000 years ago, partially overlapping with the Neanderthals’ presence in the Levant, which stretched from about 70,000 to 48,000 years ago. Oddly enough, researchers have identified fewer human fossils in this second phase than in the much earlier first phase. Instead, scientists studying the second phase have had to mostly rely on stone artifacts associations, chronometry, and other indirect evidence.

Where does the Al Wasta finger bone fit into all of this? Its age suggests that H. sapiens occupied areas outside of Africa and the Levant at a time between phase 1 (177,00-133,000 years ago) and the later phase 2 (~65,000 years ago). This supports the argument that there were never two different phases of dispersal, and instead African groups have diffused continuously across the Levantine-Arabian nexus to Eurasia as early as 177,000 years ago. What’s more, Al Wusta stone tools differ in detail and assemblage from the Levantine variety recovered from both early and late migrations.

“This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant. The ability of these early people to widely colonize this region casts doubt on long-held views that early dispersals out of Africa were localized and unsuccessful,” said lead author Dr. Huw Groucutt, of the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Big dinosaur is a big piece of evidence for Africa’s geological past

Africa is a fantastic place to search for humanoid fossils but when it comes to dinosaurs, things are a bit different. That’s why this new find by paleontologists working in Egypt is thrilling: it fills up what was an empty page in the continent’s geological history.

Image credits: Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

If you think the world has changed a lot in the past few decades, you should have seen it during the Cretaceous. Some 100 million years ago, the Earth was a completely different place, with lush vegetation and a flourishing population of reptiles. Flowering plants had just emerged, but reptiles ruled the planet — both on land, and on the sea. Huge beasts, the kind the Earth has never since seen roamed on all four corners of the globe. The biggest of them all were, rather unintuitively, gentle giants.

The typical appearance of these gentle giants included a long neck and tail, as well as four sturdy legs to support their body. Mansourasaurus shahinae, the newly found species, is no exception.

Mansourasaurus lived about 80 million years ago, and the fossils suggest that individuals measured around 8 to 10 meters (26 to 33 feet) — about as big as a bus. It had a long neck and rough, bony plates on its skin. Paleontologists were excited to make the discovery, likening it to a paleontological Holy Grail.

“It was thrilling for my students to uncover bone after bone, as each new element we recovered helped to reveal who this giant dinosaur was,” said Dr. Hesham Sallam of Mansoura University, who led the research.

Artistic depiction of how the dinosaur might have looked like. Image credits: Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Study co-researcher Dr. Matt Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History said that his jaw “hit the floor” when he saw photos of the fossils.

“This was the Holy Grail,” he said. “A well-preserved dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs in Africa that we palaeontologists had been searching for for a long, long time.”

It’s not just that this is a new and interesting species, but it starts filling up what was a rather blank page in the African fossil record. Not much at all is known of the Cretaceous dinosaurs in today’s Africa.

The left dentary, or lower jaw bone, of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae as it was found in rocks from the Upper Cretaceous (~80 million-year-old) Quseir Formation of the Dakhla Oasis, Egypt. Credit: Hesham Sallam, Mansoura University.

There’s a huge gap in the fossil record, just as the continents were undergoing severe tectonic changes, and the world was nearing one of the biggest extinctions in history. For most of the dinosaurs’ history (the Triassic and Jurassic periods), almost all of the planet’s landmass was concentrated in a single continent: Pangaea. During the Cretaceous, the continents started to split up and move towards the shape we see today. This is why scientists sometimes find the same (or very similar) species in completely different parts of the world: those different parts were once together.

Mansourasaurus shahinae is a key new dinosaur species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African palaeontology,” said researcher Eric Gorscak, a postdoctoral research scientist at The Field Museum. This enables researchers to not only understand how these creatures moved and spread about, but also gives a unique insight into their evolutionary history.

“Africa remains a giant question mark in terms of land-dwelling animals at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Mansourasaurus helps us address long standing questions about Africa’s fossil record and palaeobiology – what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related?”

However, while this is a key finding which opens up intriguing possibilities, it’s not the last piece of the puzzle — it’s only the first one. Hopefully, there will be many more coming soon.

“What’s exciting is that our team is just getting started. Now that we have a group of well-trained vertebrate paleontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites, we expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come,” says Sallam.

Journal Reference: Hesham M. Sallam et al. New Egyptian sauropod reveals Late Cretaceous dinosaur dispersal between Europe and Africa. doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0455-5.

Credit: Pixabay.

Trump Administration reverses ban on African ivory

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, seems hellbent on reversing every piece of environmental legislature enacted by his arch-nemesis, his predecessor in the Oval Office, Barrack Obama — even if that means setting the world on fire.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Trump’s Administration has done so much to hurt the environment that keeping a tally can be a full-time job. National Geographic has a running list of all the vast changes Trump has made to U.S. science and environmental policy, if you’re interested. Among his ‘best-of’, we can remember him revoking flood standards, disbanding climate panels and programs, budget cuts for the environment, expanding offshore drilling, moving forward with the scrapping of ‘Clean Power Act’ or — the big one — exiting the Paris Agreement. The United States could become literally the only country in the world not part of the Paris Agreement, after Syria, a ravaged and war-torn country, recently joined. 

With this ‘impressive’ track-record in mind, it’s difficult to image what Trump could do to make things worse. Expect the unexpected with this ‘big, powerful’ man. Even when you’d think he couldn’t possibly stoop any lower, there he is, defying all odds. This week’s environmental bombshell comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which announced it would lift a 2014 Obama-imposed ban on ivory imported from Zimbabwe and Zambia. According to the USFWS, allowing wealthy white Americans to lure and shoot elephants in the African savannah will actually help conservation efforts.

Though Elephants are listed as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act, there’s a provision that says trophies belonging to listed species can be imported on US soil as long as there’s evidence that the hunting can aid conservation.

“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management programme can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” a USFWS spokesman said.

“To support conservation, hunters should choose to hunt only in countries that have strong governance, sound management practices, and healthy wildlife populations.”

Needless to say, environmental and animal rights groups were not convinced at all, especially in the context of a recent controversy ensued after Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe in 2015.

“Evidence shows that poaching has increased in areas where trophy hunting is permitted,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society. “Remember, it was Zimbabwe where Walter Palmer shot Cecil, one of the most beloved and well-studied African lions, who was lured out of a national park for the killing. Palmer paid a big fee even though it did irreparable damage to the nation’s reputation.”

“Let’s be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the US government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them.”

A notice regarding this change to the 2014 ban will be posted in the Federal Register on Friday with more specifics.