Academic World News

Britains earliest humans

Archaeological discoveries made on the outskirts of Canterbury, Kent (England) confirm the presence of early humans in southern Britain between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago. The breakthrough, involving controlled excavations and radiometric dating, comes a century after stone tool artefacts were first uncovered at the site. The research, led by archaeologists at the University of Cambridge, confirms that Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, occupied southern Britain in this period – when it was still attached to Europe – and gives tantalizing evidence hinting at some of the earliest animal hide processing in European prehistory.

Shedding light on linguistic diversity and its evolution

Scholars from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the University of Auckland in New Zealand have created a new global repository of linguistic data. The project is designed to facilitate new insights into the evolution of words and sounds of the languages spoken across the world today. The Lexibank database contains standardized lexical data for more than 2000 languages. It is the most extensive publicly available collection compiled so far.

Origins of the Black Death identified

The Black Death, the biggest pandemic of our history, was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and lasted in Europe between the years 1346 and 1353. Despite the pandemic’s immense demographic and societal impacts, its origins have long been elusive. Now, a multidisciplinary team of scientists, including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and the University of Stirling, in the United Kingdom, have obtained and studied ancient Y. pestis genomes that trace the pandemic’s origins to Central Asia.

Great white sharks may have contributed to megalodon extinction

The diet of fossil extinct animals can hold clues to their lifestyle, behaviour, evolution and ultimately extinction. However, studying an animal’s diet after millions of years is difficult due to the poor preservation of chemical dietary indicators in organic material on these timescales. An international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, applied a new method to investigate the diet of the largest shark to have ever existed, the iconic Otodus megalodon. This new method investigates the zinc isotope composition of the highly mineralised part of teeth and proves to be particularly helpful to decipher the diet of these extinct animals.

Misperceptions about doctors’ trust in Covid-19 vaccines influence vaccination rate

How to increase vaccination rates by autumn, without any compulsion is shown by an international research team including the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance. They found that people’s willingness to get vaccinated is related to the presumed trust the medical doctors have in the vaccines. However, the study shows a large discrepancy between the assumptions of the population and the actual views of the medical profession.

Tobacco hawkmoths always find the right odor

A research team at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology has discovered how tobacco hawkmoths are able to detect odors that are important to them against a complex olfactory background. By looking at the specific activity patterns that the odors triggered in the moths' brains the researcher showed that the sense of smell enables moths not only to perceive the intense floral odors of nectar sources, but also to find the rather unobtrusive smell of their host plants on which the larvae thrive. What is especially amazing is that tobacco hawkmoths can reliably detect the odors of their host plants despite the multitude of background odors emitted by many other plants in the vicinity.

A Center for Visual Computing and Artificial Intelligence

The Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken (Germany) and Google have agreed on a strategic partnership to establish the Saarbrücken Research Center for Visual Computing, Interaction and Artificial Intelligence (VIA) at the MPI for Informatics. The center will conduct basic research in frontier areas of computer graphics, computer vision, and human machine interaction, at the intersection of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The VIA center will be headed by Christian Theobalt, scientific director at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics.

An alarm system against hardware attacks

Radio waves could protect computers, as well as card readers, from attacks on their hardware. As a team from the Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy in Bochum and the Ruhr University in Bochum has shown, the signal from one antenna in a device generates a characteristic electromagnetic pattern that is received by a second antenna. If an attacker manipulates the device with a wire, for example, the radio wave pattern changes and blows the whistle on the manipulation like an alarm system.

Neanderthals of the North

A multidisciplinary research team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics and other partner institutions investigated whether Neanderthals were well adapted to life in the cold or preferred more temperate environmental conditions. Based on investigations in Lichtenberg in the Wendland region (Lower Saxony, Germany), the researchers showed that during the last Ice Age, Neanderthals visited their northernmost settlement areas even during cold phases – albeit preferably in the summer months.

Spread of black rats was linked to human historical events

New ancient DNA analysis has shed light on how the black rat, blamed for spreading Black Death, dispersed across Europe – revealing that the rodent colonised the continent on two occasions in the Roman and Medieval periods. The study, led by the University of York along with the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History (Jena) and Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig), is the first ancient genetic study of the species, also known as the ship rat.

Sweet spots in the sea

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology now report that seagrasses release large amounts of sugar, largely in the form of sucrose, into their soils – worldwide more than one million tons of sucrose, enough for 32 billion cans of coke. Such high concentrations of sugar are surprising. Normally, microorganisms quickly consume any free sugars in their environment. The scientists found that seagrasses excrete phenolic compounds, and these deter most microorganisms from degrading the sucrose. This ensures that the sucrose remains buried underneath the meadows and cannot be converted into CO2 and returned to the ocean and atmosphere.

Asteroid treasure in the Hubble archive

With a sophisticated combination of human and artificial intelligence, astronomers uncovered 1701 new asteroid trails in archival data of the Hubble Space Telescope spanning the past 20 years. While about one third could be identified and attributed to known objects, more than 1000 trails probably correspond to previously unknown asteroids. These unidentified asteroids are faint and likely smaller than asteroids detected in ground-based surveys. They could give the astronomers valuable clues about conditions in the early solar system, when the planets were formed.