Lost Arcs

Kevin Lewis

April 24, 2021

Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: The ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish
Felix Höflmayer et al.
Antiquity, forthcoming


The origin of alphabetic script lies in second-millennium BC Bronze Age Levantine societies. A chronological gap, however, divides the earliest evidence from the Sinai and Egypt -- dated to the nineteenth century BC -- and from the thirteenth-century BC corpus in Palestine. Here, the authors report a newly discovered Late Bronze Age alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish, Israel. Dating to the fifteenth century BC, this inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant, and may therefore be regarded as the ‘missing link’. The proliferation of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant should be considered a product of Levantine-Egyptian interaction during the mid-second millennium BC, rather than of later Egyptian domination.

Biomechanical trade-offs in the pelvic floor constrain the evolution of the human birth canal
Ekaterina Stansfield et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 20 April 2021


Compared with most other primates, humans are characterized by a tight fit between the maternal birth canal and the fetal head, leading to a relatively high risk of neonatal and maternal mortality and morbidities. Obstetric selection is thought to favor a spacious birth canal, whereas the source for opposing selection is frequently assumed to relate to bipedal locomotion. Another, yet underinvestigated, hypothesis is that a more expansive birth canal suspends the soft tissue of the pelvic floor across a larger area, which is disadvantageous for continence and support of the weight of the inner organs and fetus. To test this “pelvic floor hypothesis,” we generated a finite element model of the human female pelvic floor and varied its radial size and thickness while keeping all else constant. This allowed us to study the effect of pelvic geometry on pelvic floor deflection (i.e., the amount of bending from the original position) and tissue stresses and stretches. Deflection grew disproportionately fast with increasing radial size, and stresses and stretches also increased. By contrast, an increase in thickness increased pelvic floor stiffness (i.e., the resistance to deformation), which reduced deflection but was unable to fully compensate for the effect of increasing radial size. Moreover, larger thicknesses increase the intra-abdominal pressure necessary for childbirth. Our results support the pelvic floor hypothesis and evince functional trade-offs affecting not only the size of the birth canal but also the thickness and stiffness of the pelvic floor.

Evidence for early dispersal of domestic sheep into Central Asia
William Taylor et al.
Nature Human Behaviour, forthcoming


The development and dispersal of agropastoralism transformed the cultural and ecological landscapes of the Old World, but little is known about when or how this process first impacted Central Asia. Here, we present archaeological and biomolecular evidence from Obishir V in southern Kyrgyzstan, establishing the presence of domesticated sheep by ca. 6,000 BCE. Zooarchaeological and collagen peptide mass fingerprinting show exploitation of Ovis and Capra, while cementum analysis of intact teeth implicates possible pastoral slaughter during the fall season. Most significantly, ancient DNA reveals these directly dated specimens as the domestic O. aries, within the genetic diversity of domesticated sheep lineages. Together, these results provide the earliest evidence for the use of livestock in the mountains of the Ferghana Valley, predating previous evidence by 3,000 years and suggesting that domestic animal economies reached the mountains of interior Central Asia far earlier than previously recognized.

Genomic insights into population history and biological adaptation in Oceania
Jeremy Choin et al.
Nature, 22 April 2021, Pages 583–589 


The Pacific region is of major importance for addressing questions regarding human dispersals, interactions with archaic hominins and natural selection processes. However, the demographic and adaptive history of Oceanian populations remains largely uncharacterized. Here we report high-coverage genomes of 317 individuals from 20 populations from the Pacific region. We find that the ancestors of Papuan-related (‘Near Oceanian’) groups underwent a strong bottleneck before the settlement of the region, and separated around 20,000–40,000 years ago. We infer that the East Asian ancestors of Pacific populations may have diverged from Taiwanese Indigenous peoples before the Neolithic expansion, which is thought to have started from Taiwan around 5,000 years ago. Additionally, this dispersal was not followed by an immediate, single admixture event with Near Oceanian populations, but involved recurrent episodes of genetic interactions. Our analyses reveal marked differences in the proportion and nature of Denisovan heritage among Pacific groups, suggesting that independent interbreeding with highly structured archaic populations occurred. Furthermore, whereas introgression of Neanderthal genetic information facilitated the adaptation of modern humans related to multiple phenotypes (for example, metabolism, pigmentation and neuronal development), Denisovan introgression was primarily beneficial for immune-related functions. Finally, we report evidence of selective sweeps and polygenic adaptation associated with pathogen exposure and lipid metabolism in the Pacific region, increasing our understanding of the mechanisms of biological adaptation to island environments.

Repeated mutation of a developmental enhancer contributed to human thermoregulatory evolution
Daniel Aldea et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 20 April 2021


Humans sweat to cool their bodies and have by far the highest eccrine sweat gland density among primates. Humans’ high eccrine gland density has long been recognized as a hallmark human evolutionary adaptation, but its genetic basis has been unknown. In humans, expression of the Engrailed 1 (EN1) transcription factor correlates with the onset of eccrine gland formation. In mice, regulation of ectodermal En1 expression is a major determinant of natural variation in eccrine gland density between strains, and increased En1 expression promotes the specification of more eccrine glands. Here, we show that regulation of EN1 has evolved specifically on the human lineage to promote eccrine gland formation. Using comparative genomics and validation of ectodermal enhancer activity in mice, we identified a human EN1 skin enhancer, hECE18. We showed that multiple epistatically interacting derived substitutions in the human ECE18 enhancer increased its activity compared with nonhuman ape orthologs in cultured keratinocytes. Repression of hECE18 in human cultured keratinocytes specifically attenuated EN1 expression, indicating this element positively regulates EN1 in this context. In a humanized enhancer knock-in mouse, hECE18 increased developmental En1 expression in the skin to induce the formation of more eccrine glands. Our study uncovers a genetic basis contributing to the evolution of one of the most singular human adaptations and implicates multiple interacting mutations in a single enhancer as a mechanism for human evolutionary change.


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