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Panorama of "The Walls of China", the eroded lunette on the eastern side of Lake Mungo, carved into fantastic shapes by the occasional rain which falls. A comparison between the cranium of Mungo Lady and a fully modern human (right) shows we are the same.
The remains of Mungo Lady were found by the University of Melbourne geologist Professor Jim Bowler in 1969. In 1969, while mapping evidence of ancient shorelines in the dry basins of western New South Wales, Jim Bowler discovered some burnt human bones buried in the beach sands of an ancient lake.
Lake Mungo is one of a series of lake basins formed by a channel of the ancient Lachlan River, known as Willandra Creek.
Genetic research has found links between Australian Aborigines and the earliest settlers of the Indian subcontinent, supporting the belief humans reached Australia via south Asia.
The findings indicate that a group of hunter-gatherers moved from the Horn of Africa, across the mouth of the Red Sea into Arabia and southern Asia at least 50 000 years ago.
The so-called "Southern Route" theory of how humans reached Australia was backed by the discovery that modern Indian populations have telltale genetic mutations exclusively shared by Aborigines. Members of 26 Indian "relic" tribes or communities known to have very early roots in the region were found to have seven DNA genomes that share traits specific to Australian Aborigines. Raghavendra Rao and other researchers from the Anthropological Survey of India carried out the research, which has been reported in the BMC Evolutionary Biology journal.
The genetic evidence that modern human populations expanded rapidly along the coastlines of southern Asia, southeastern Asia and Indonesia to arrive in Australia at least 45 000 years ago is backed by archeological evidence of human occupation in the Lake Mungo area dated to roughly the same period. When he was young Mungo Man lost his two lower canine teeth, possibly knocked out in a ritual.
Mungo Man reached a good age for the hard life of a hunter-gatherer, and died when he was about 50. The latest research suggests Australia's Adam and Eve are not as old as we thought - and lived much richer lives than we suspected. Fifty thousand years ago, a lush landscape greeted the first Australians making their way towards the south-east of the continent.
A study of the sediments and graves at Lake Mungo, published this week in Nature, uncovers the muddy layers deposited as the lake began to dry up.
This treasure-trove of history was found by the University of Melbourne geologist Professor Jim Bowler in 1969.
The comprehensive study of 25 different sediment layers at Mungo - a collaboration between four universities, the CSIRO, and NSW National Parks and Wildlife and led by Bowler - concludes that both graves are 40,000 years old. This is much younger than the 62,000 years Mungo Man was attributed with in 1999 by a team led by Professor Alan Thorne, of the Australian National University. Dr Tim Flannery, a proponent of the controversial theory that Australia's megafauna was wiped out 46,000 years ago in a "blitzkrieg" of hunting by the arriving people, also claims the new Mungo dates support this view. For Bowler, however, these debates are irritating speculative distractions from the study's main findings. Two years ago Thorne made world headlines with a study of Mungo Man's DNA that he claimed supported his idea that modern humans evolved from archaic humans in several places around the world, rather than striding out of Africa a relatively short time ago. In 2001 a member of Bowler's team, Dr Richard Roberts of Wollongong University, along with Flannery, director of the South Australian Museum, published research on their blitzkreig theory. The conclusion has been challenged by other scientists, including Dr Judith Field of the University of Sydney and Dr Richard Fullager of the Australian Museum, who point to the presence of megafauna fossils at the 36 000-year-old Cuddie Springs site in NSW.
Flannery praises the Bowler team's research on Mungo Man as "the most thorough and rigorous dating" of ancient human remains. Bowler, however, is sceptical of Flannery's theory and says the Mungo study provides no definitive new evidence to support it. All silcrete on the "Walls of China" was carried there by aborigines from the western side of the lake. This tool would originally have had a sharp point for making holes in leather, which has broken off, and the tool was then thrown away.
The tools are elegantly made, with the minimum of flakes being removed, and no evidence of retouching. For thousands of years Aborigines wandered among the Walls of China, a line of ancient sand and clay landforms stretching for almost 30 kilometres along the western (Ed: wrong, should be eastern) edge of Lake Mungo.
Then, five years later, 500 metres from where Mungo Woman was discovered, the burial site of another ancient human was found. Almost from the moment of his exhumation, Mungo Man has challenged scientific beliefs and divided anthropologists. Yet those debates have paled in comparison with the controversy that now surrounds Mungo Man. For more than a decade, two theories have competed to explain the origins of Homo sapiens, or modern humans. 2 million years ago and it was this species' descendants, including Neanderthals, who were replaced. But the Out of Africa idea has long been disputed by Dr Alan Thorne, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's research school of Pacific and Asian studies.
The two scientists agree with the Out of Africa theory that Homo erectus began in Africa about 2 million years ago, and emigrated. Although acrimony between supporters of the different evolutionary views may appear to be little more than an inflated difference of opinion, it goes much deeper. Thorne's argument hinges in part on the DNA that scientists were able to extract from Mungo Man. Out of Africa distinguishes between Homo erectus who, because he was "primitive", was overpowered by "modern" Homo sapiens. Thorne says the fact that modern Aborigines have the same skeleton and teeth as Mungo Man's shows that while his mitochondrial DNA disappeared, the rest of his genes did not. But University of Sydney prehistorian Peter White says the debate over Mungo Man's mitochondrial DNA is essentially irrelevant to the big picture of evolution. Even without the genetic analysis, Thorne argues Mungo Man's anatomy is evidence enough for the multi-region theory.
Thorne thinks Mungo Man is about 60,000 years old (an age that would substantially increase the length of time Australia was known to have been inhabited). He claims Thorne's ANU dating team "largely ignored" field evidence that showed Mungo Man couldn't have been as old as 60,000 years. Clay pellets in the grave indicate it was dug from a higher, and therefore younger, level of sand, he says. In an article in Australasian Science last year, Thorne suggested the clay had been sprinkled on Mungo Man's body as part of the burial ceremony. Dr Peter Brown, a senior lecturer in archaeology and paleoanthropology at the University of New England, is also sceptical about Thorne's conclusions over the age of the Mungo skeleton.
Brown says the oldest specimens from which genetic material have been extracted are about 30,000 years old, and these had been preserved in ideal conditions - a cool and dry environment.
The Willandra Lakes, where Mungo Man was unearthed, are hot, with a fluctuating climate, making it unlikely, Brown thinks, that genetic material could be preserved there for any length of time. Brown also challenges Thorne's claim that early humans remained on the same evolutionary path by interbreeding. DNA extracted from a 60,000-year-old skeleton found at Lake Mungo in western NSW suggests Adam and Eve might have been Australian. So Mr Mungo, scientists say the DNA they extracted from your 60,000-year-old body suggests you are a modern man and you did not come from Africa after all. But Mr Mungo, all the scientific evidence so far has pointed to modern man spreading out of Africa, killing off earlier versions of humans such as the Neanderthals as they went. The carbon dating and DNA testing of Mungo Man has challenged the accepted version of how humans developed and spread around the world. Not an Eve in the Biblical sense, but a form of human being called homo sapiens who was a sparkling, new, improved version of one of the many types of humans descended from chimpanzees, a process that began 3.5 million years before. Until now the accepted theory was that earlier offshoots from the chimps such as the half-ape homo erectus and Neanderthal Man, that thick-looking, 28,000-year-old caveman bloke found in Germany, were steadily replaced by the homo sapiens mob as they started spreading out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. They thought the evidence was clear: DNA taken from people around the globe showed they were all from the same stem. It took five years, but they were able to retrieve two micrograms of mitochondrial DNA, a common human gene that was enough to establish Mungo was a modern human but he also had certain genes that were now extinct. Australian National University anthropologist Alan Thorne, who led the research team examining Mungo Man, explained the significance of that extinct gene.
The extinct DNA means Mungo was one version of modern man who developed from more primitive human forms independent from those in Africa.
He believes modern man did not spread out from Africa, wiping out all other human versions to emerge supreme, seeing modern man more as a lover than a killer. He believes modern man emerged in several parts of the world by inter-breeding with other versions of humans, rather than being a supreme conquering single species. Thorne said Mungo and his people probably came to Australia by bamboo raft from what is now Indonesia. But later arrivals from Africa killed off Mungo's version of modern man just as we continue to kill each other today. GEORGE NEGUS: Out of Africa or out of Australia - it's the discovery that could turn the accepted theory of human evolution on its head.
It all revolves around the so-called 'Mungo Man' - a skeleton discovered in 1974 at Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales and believed to be 60,000 years old. A new DNA study of the remains by an Australian research team suggests rather than originating in Africa, modern humans may have evolved in different parts of the world. But some scientists are sceptical about this conclusion, which has sparked intense academic interest around the world. NICK GRIMM: The dust of the Australian outback may have yielded one of the most important clues to human origins.
DR PAUL TACON, AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM: This opens up a new door into the investigation of the great jigsaw puzzle that is the human past. Long after his death, he's upsetting conventions, bruising egos and threatening reputations. That's what science is about - it's about new ideas, new data and new ways of analysing material, throwing out old ideas and moving on. NICK GRIMM: Anthropologist Alan Thorne was today swamped with media attention from around the world. After all, his research team may have overturned one of conventional wisdoms of human evolutionary science.
DR ALAN THORNE: The principal discovery really is that one of the 10 people of the past that we've recovered DNA from is not only the oldest evidence for human occupation of Australia but his DNA is currently the oldest known DNA from my human anywhere in the world.
NICK GRIMM: Dr Thorne's team believe Mungo Man died around 60,000 years ago, at least 20,000 earlier than Australia was thought to be occupied by humans. But even more remarkable is the fact that Mungo Man, while undoubtedly ancient, was otherwise quite contemporary. NICK GRIMM: The consequences of that discovery are set to revolutionise our understanding of our origins. The widely accepted hypothesis of human evolution contends that homo erectus left Africa 2 million years ago, along the way becoming the so-called Neanderthals who inhabited Europe. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, supposedly then evolved in Africa 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, moving out across the globe while the Neanderthals became extinct. Its advocates argue that Homo erectus indeed left Africa two million years ago, occupying large parts of the world and evolved into modern man in a variety of separate locations. SIMON EASTEAL: It opens up for serious investigation the idea that our origins are much more complex than what's been presented by this very simple story of "Out of Africa". NICK GRIMM: Dr Thorne's colleague, geneticist Simon Easteal studied bone flakes from Mungo Man's skeleton and found the DNA contained in them was similar but fundamentally different to Australia's later occupants. SIMON EASTEAL: It has important bearings on our perceptions of where we came from as human beings. But it's also important in the sense that general area of investigation is important in understanding how genetic variation is important in disease in contemporary human populations. NICK GRIMM: It's believed that some groups evolved into modern humans and then became extinct which explains why Mungo Man's DNA does not match that of the more recent Aborigines. PROFESSOR JIM BOWLER, MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY: The day in which I came across those remains, I immediately realised that here we were looking at amazing evidence of past human occupation in Australia. While he's pleased to see new life breathed into Mungo Man's dry bones, he's adamant Dr Thorne's team have got their dates wrong. PROFESSOR JIM BOWLER: If you're looking out the laboratory window and trying to reconstruct nature, in that context, nature is much more complex than our simple models, our reductionist models constructed in the laboratory. So the dates, although wonderful set of numbers in themselves, when they relate to the actual burial, are seriously flawed.
PROFESSOR JIM BOWLER: It's obvious that the age of the earth is quite different from the age of the grave. NICK GRIMM: Paul Tacon from the Australian Museum is watching the debate over Mungo Man with interest.
He believes the new research has not yet discredited the "Out of Africa" theory but he says the pendulum is swinging towards the new theory. DR PAUL TACON: With all of science, there are large egos involved and scientists have a lot at stake.
So when results are thrust into the public arena such as they have been today, it can be a very emotional roller coaster for people on both sides. And there are some people who would never be persuaded one way or another whatever evidence we turn up. Fresh analysis of the skeletal remains found at Lake Mungo in NSW 25 years ago indicate he may be up to 68,000 years old - making him 28,000 years older than earlier scientific estimates. The revised dating of the remains by scientists at the Australian National University rewrites the history of Australia's occupation and has profound implications for worldwide debate over the origins of modern man.
Cross-matching a range of recent dating tests puts the minimum date of the burial of the remains at 56,000 to 68,000 years ago. But the researchers add that the location of the Mungo skeleton, deep in Australia's south-east, suggests Homo sapiens arrived in the north-east much earlier, taking time to migrate inland and adapt to desert conditions before travelling down the continent. The previous accepted estimate was that humans had roamed the country for 40,000 to 60,000 years.
The redating was carried out using three different methods - uranium series, electron spin resonance and optically stimulated luminescence.
The findings strengthen the theory that two forms of man - the delicate people first and the robust people later - came to the outer reaches of the continent from two different parts of Asia tens of thousands of years ago. These groups, along with others that came later, are then said to have merged to form modern Aborigines and Melanesians. The finding is certain to spark renewed debate between the multi-regionalists, who believe different people migrated from different parts of Asia, and those who support the ``out of Africa'' model that dates all human origin to Africa. The discovery began more than a quarter of a century ago, when on 26February 1974, the shifting sands of a lunette around Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area revealed an eroding gravesite.
It was a human skeleton - known as Lake Mungo 3 - that had been covered in red ochre during a burial ritual. Five years earlier the cremated remains of a female skeleton, known by local Aborigines as Mungo Lady, were found in the same area. Using carbon-dating, a technique only reliable to around 40,000 years old, the skeleton was first estimated at 28,000 to 32,000 years old.
Dr Thorne said the new research also provided new minimum ages for human cremation and the use of ochre in burials.
Discovered at Lake Mungo in far west NSW in 1974, Mungo Man had been covered in red ochre during a burial ritual. Australian scientists say analysis of the oldest DNA ever taken from skeletal remains challenges the theory that all modern humans can trace their recent ancestry to Africa. Dr Alan Thorne, Australian National University The study is based on the 60,000-year-old so-called Mungo Man skeleton, which was unearthed in New South Wales in 1974, and nine other anatomically modern Australian individuals who lived 8-15,000 years ago. The Australian National University team looked at the DNA found in the mitochondria of these ancient people's cells. But the Australian researchers contend that the DNA sequences isolated from Mungo Man's bones show him to have a genetic lineage that is both older and distinct from this line.
Given the undoubted modern appearance of Mungo Man, they argue, major doubt must now be cast on the so-called "Out of Africa" hypothesis in which all living people are said to be descended from a group of modern humans who left their African homeland no earlier than about 120,000 years ago.
Dr Thorne, whose team have published their research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a proponent of the alternative, multi-regional explanation for the emergence of modern humans. This suggests that modern humans arose simultaneously in Africa, Europe and Asia from one of our predecessors, Homo erectus, who left Africa more that 1.5 million years ago. But Out of Africa supporters are not about to let go of their beliefs because of the Australian research.
But even assuming the DNA sequences were correct, Professor Stringer said it could just mean that there was much more genetic diversity in the past than was previously realised.
Many important archaeological findings have been made at the lake, most significantly the discovery of the remains of Mungo Man, the oldest human remains found in Australia, and Mungo Lady, the oldest human remains in the world to be ritually cremated.
Note the fish traps, the wide variety of food hunted and collected, and the gunyahs or dwellings. These unique features are ephemeral, and are continually in the process of being formed and destroyed by the action of wind and especially rain.
He was searching for ancient lakes and came across the charred remains of Mungo Lady, who had been cremated.
Note the trench in the area of the discovery of Mungo Lady, and the disturbed area where Mungo Man was found. His family mourned for him, and carefully buried him in the lunette, on his back with his hands crossed in his lap, and sprinkled with red ochre. Twenty thousand years ago Lake Mungo had become the dry dusty hole we know today, but 20,000 years before that it had been a refuge from the encroaching desert, the study shows.
At 40,000 years old, Mungo Man and Mungo Lady remain Australia's oldest human burials and the earliest evidence on Earth of cultural sophistication, he says.
In its 1999 study, Thorne's team used three techniques to date Mungo Man at 62,000 years old, and it stands by its figure. They dated 28 sites across the continent, arguing their analysis showed the megafauna died out suddenly 46 600 years ago. He says the finding that humans arrived at Lake Mungo between 46,000 and 50 000 years ago supports the idea that 47,000 years ago was a critical time in Australia's history.
He argues that climate change at 40 000 years ago was more intense than had been previously realised and could have played a role in the megafauna's demise.
When the lake, part of the Willandra Lakes region in far south-west NSW, dried up about 10,000 years ago, the bones and relics of the people who once lived on its shores were swallowed up by the desert sands.
Reassembled, they formed the frame of a young adult female, who became known as Mungo Woman.
Jim Bowler, now a professor of earth sciences at Melbourne University, noticed a tip of bone protruding from the desert sand.
An article about to be published by three Australian scientists argues that the Mungo Man skeleton proves the prevailing view of where modern humans came from is wrong. The more accepted of these is the Out of Africa theory, proposed by Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988. Thorne, along with Professor Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan, has championed what is known as the "multi-region" theory. In a study soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, he and his two co-authors argue that a new anatomical and genetic examination of Mungo Man shows the multi-region theory must be right. For centuries it has been argued that differences between "races" of humans mean some are inferior, some superior. Dr Simon Easteal, an evolutionary geneticist at the ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research, found that the skeleton's genetic material contained a small section of mitochondrial DNA. Thorne thinks the distinction is pointless, because it is impossible to define a time or place where the evolutionary transition between them occurred. Some anthropologists argue that the reason none of Mungo Man's genetic material showed up elsewhere may be that he didn't have any descendants. But if they ever agree on a minimum time for the process, the age of Mungo Man could prove critical. He may have existed 60,000 years ago, but he wouldn't appear odd or different walking the streets today. A second Mungo Man and Mungo Baby have been found but local Aboriginal elders do not want their remains disturbed. But just imagine: if DNA can teach us so much about Mungo Man, what would happen if it actually brought him back to life? Here you are, cloned and recycled and DNA-proofed, looking very sharp in your Mambo T-shirt and back-to-front Aussie Olympic cap, not looking a day over 60,000. Scientists have believed that all modern humans are descended from an original Eve who lived in the gardens of Ethiopia some 150,000 years ago.
La Trobe University geneticist John Mitchell suggested the results may prove that some versions of modern man left Africa much earlier and Mungo Man simply reached Australia first. The research, to be published today in the Journal of Human Evolution, came up with almost identical dates.
The burial of Mungo Man involved the spreading of red ochre over the body during the burial ceremony. Professor Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, said that, given experience with European fossils, there was some doubt over whether DNA analysis of such old samples was reliable. Five years later and just 400 metres away on the same beach sands where Mungo Lady was found, Bowler noticed the tip of a cranium being uncovered by natural erosion. Over the years his molar teeth became worn and scratched, possibly from eating a gritty diet or stripping the long leaves of water reeds with his teeth to make twine.
Megafauna - giant prehistoric animals such as marsupial lions, goannas and the rhinoceros-sized diprotodon - were abundant. Families clustered around the lake left artefacts, 775 of which researchers used to determine that the number of people living there peaked between 43,000 and 44,000 years ago, with the first wanderers arriving between 46,000 and 50,000 years ago.
As well, the sand sample Thorne's group dated was taken hundreds of metres from the burial site. A Thorne team member, Professor Rainer Grun, says the fact that the latest results were consistent between laboratories doesn't mean they are absolutely correct.
Homo sapiens would have had to move pretty fast to get from Africa to NSW by 62,000 years ago. This has modern humans originating in Africa about 200,000 to 250,000 years ago and spreading around the world.
They think Homo sapiens did not evolve solely in Africa but simultaneously in Africa, Europe, North Asia and South-East Asia. According to the multi-region theory, the long process of evolution in different regions explains the "differences" between Asians, Africans, Europeans and Aborigines.
He also analysed genetic material from nearly 3,500 people, including Neanderthals, ancient Aborigines whose remains are about 30,000 years old, and present-day Aborigines.
But if Mungo Man was descended from a person who had left Africa in the past 200,000 years, Thorne argues, then his mitochondrial DNA should have looked like that of the other samples. But until researchers can figure out how to collect nuclear DNA (from the nucleus of human cells) from ancient bones, there is no way of establishing that Mungo Man did not pass on his genes. This is the earliest known use of pigment for artistic, philosophical or religious purposes.
Mungo Man was found in the same area as the cremated remains of a female skeleton known by local Aborigines as Mungo Lady. And he said the research community would want to see the work repeated in other labs before major conclusions were drawn from the Australian research.
Excavation by archaeologists revealed this to be the fully articulated skeleton of a human male, now known as Mungo Man. As Mungo Man grew older his bones ached with arthritis, especially his right elbow, which was so damaged that bits of bone were completely worn out or broken away. Easteal found that Mungo Man's DNA bore no similarity to the DNA taken from any of the other samples. Recent lab studies of this type have suggested that our most recent common ancestor lived less than 200,000 years ago in Africa. Such wear and tear is typical of people who have used a woomera (spear thrower, atlatl - Don) to throw spears over many years. By the time the people living at Lake Mungo ceremoniously buried two of their dead, 40,000 years ago, water levels had begun to drop. He says his team's results are based on careful geological field work that was crosschecked between four laboratories, while Thorne's team was "locked in a laboratory in Canberra and virtually misinterpreted the field evidence". Its premise is that modern humans evolved so recently that we are effectively genetically identical, however different we may appear.
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