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Some of the oldest remains of early human ancestors have been unearthed in Olduvai Gorge, a rift valley setting in northern Tanzania where anthropologists have discovered fossils of hominids that existed 1.8 million years ago.

The region has preserved many fossils and stone tools, indicating that early humans settled and hunted there.

Now a team led by researchers at MIT and the University of Alcalá in Spain has discovered evidence that hot springs may have existed in Olduvai Gorge around that time, near early human archaeological sites. The proximity of these hydrothermal features raises the possibility that early humans could have used hot springs as a cooking resource, for instance to boil fresh kills, long before humans are thought to have used fire as a controlled source for cooking.

"As far as we can tell, this is the first time researchers have put forth concrete evidence for the possibility that people were using hydrothermal environments as a resource, where animals would've been gathering, and where the potential to cook was available," says Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

Summons and his colleagues have published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study's lead author is Ainara Sistiaga, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow based at MIT and the University of Copenhagen. The team includes Fatima Husain, a graduate student in EAPS, along with archaeologists, geologists, and geochemists from the University of Alcalá and the University of Valladolid, in Spain; the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania; and Pennsylvania State University.

An unexpected reconstruction

In 2016, Sistiaga joined an archaeological expedition to Olduvai Gorge, where researchers with the Olduvai Paleoanthropology and Paleoecology Project were collecting sediments from a 3-kilometer-long layer of exposed rock that was deposited around 1.7 million years ago. This geologic layer was striking because its sandy composition was markedly different from the dark clay layer just below, which was deposited 1.8 million years ago.

"Something was changing in the environment, so we wanted to understand what happened and how that impacted humans," says Sistiaga, who had originally planned to analyze the sediments to see how the landscape changed in response to climate and how these changes may have affected the way early humans lived in the region.

It's thought that around 1.7 million years ago, East Africa underwent a gradual aridification, moving from a wetter, tree-populated climate to dryer, grassier terrain. Sistiaga brought back sandy rocks collected from the Olduvai Gorge layer and began to analyze them in Summons' lab for signs of certain lipids that can contain residue of leaf waxes, offering clues to the kind of vegetation present at the time.

"You can reconstruct something about the plants that were there by the carbon numbers and the isotopes, and that's what our lab specializes in, and why Ainara was doing it in our lab," Summons says. "But then she discovered other classes of compounds that were totally unexpected."

An unambiguous sign

Within the sediments she brought back, Sistiaga came across lipids that looked completely different from the plant-derived lipids she knew. She took the data to Summons, who realized that they were a close match with lipids produced not by plants, but by specific groups of bacteria that he and his colleagues had reported on, in a completely different context, nearly 20 years ago.

The lipids that Sistiaga extracted from sediments deposited 1.7 million years ago in Tanzania were the same lipids that are produced by a modern bacteria that Summons and his colleagues previously studied in the United States, in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

One specific bacterium, Thermocrinis ruber, is a hyperthermophilic organism that will only thrive in very hot waters, such as those found in the outflow channels of boiling hot springs.

"They won't even grow unless the temperature is above 80 degrees Celsius [176 degrees Fahrenheit]," Summons says. "Some of the samples Ainara brought back from this sandy layer in Olduvai Gorge had these same assemblages of bacterial lipids that we think are unambiguously indicative of high-temperature water."

That is, it appears that heat-loving bacteria similar to those Summons had worked on more than 20 years ago in Yellowstone may also have lived in Olduvai Gorge 1.7 million years ago. By extension, the team proposes, high-temperature features such as hot springs and hydrothermal waters could also have been present.

"It's not a crazy idea that, with all this tectonic activity in the middle of the rift system, there could have been extrusion of hydrothermal fluids," notes Sistiaga, who says that Olduvai Gorge is a geologically active tectonic region that has upheaved volcanoes over millions of years — activity that could also have boiled up groundwater to form hot springs at the surface.

The region where the team collected the sediments is adjacent to sites of early human habitation featuring stone tools, along with animal bones. It is possible, then, that nearby hot springs may have enabled hominins to cook food such as meat and certain tough tubers and roots.

"The authors' comprehensive analyses paint a vivid picture of the ancient Olduvai Gorge ecosystem and landscape, including the first compelling evidence for ancient hydrothermal springs," says Richard Pancost, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study. "This introduces the fascinating possibility that such springs could have been used by early hominins to cook food."

"Why wouldn't you eat it?"

Exactly how early humans may have cooked with hot springs is still an open question. They could have butchered animals and dipped the meat in hot springs to make them more palatable. In a similar way, they could have boiled roots and tubers, much like cooking raw potatoes, to make them more easily digestible. Animals could have also met their demise while falling into the hydrothermal waters, where early humans could have fished them out as a precooked meal.

"If there was a wildebeest that fell into the water and was cooked, why wouldn't you eat it?" Sistiaga poses.

While there is currently no sure-fire way to establish whether early humans indeed used hot springs to cook, the team plans to look for similar lipids, and signs of hydrothermal reservoirs, in other layers and locations throughout Olduvai Gorge, as well as near other sites in the world where human settlements have been found.

"We can prove in other sites that maybe hot springs were present, but we would still lack evidence of how humans interacted with them. That's a question of behavior, and understanding the behavior of extinct species almost 2 million years ago is very difficult, Sistiaga says. "I hope we can find other evidence that supports at least the presence of this resource in other important sites for human evolution."

This research was supported, in part, by the European Commission (MSCA-GF), the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and the Government of Spain.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News. Read the original article.

  • Whether you have a lot of money or a lot of debt, it matters how you handle your personal finances. A crucial step when it comes to saving is to reassess your relationship with money and to learn to adopt a broader, more logical point of view.
  • In this video, social innovator and activist Vicki Robin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, and author Bruce Feiler offer advice on achieving financial independence, learning to control your emotions, spending smarter, and teaching children about money.
  • It all starts with education and understanding. The more you know about how money works, the better you will be at avoiding mistakes and the easier it will be to take control of your financial circumstances.



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  • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
  • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
  • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.

    • From time to time, asteroids whizzing past Earth get trapped by our gravitational pull, falling into orbit around the planet. These rocks only stay for a while, eventually escaping and continuing on their journey to who-knows-where. While they're here, they're considered "minimoons."

      Astronomers have detected an object that's likely to become our next minimoon. But it's either not an asteroid or it's an odd one. Really, scientists suspect it's man-made tech returning home after many years out in cold, lonely space.

      Minimoons

      Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was 2006 RH120, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was 2020 CD3, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.

      2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.

      Identifying 2020 SO

      The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their average rate of travel is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even moon rocks sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.

      For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.

      So, what is it? NASA estimates that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the Surveyor 2 mission that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.

      When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.

      Centaur rocket stage

      Centaur rocket stage

      Credit: NASA/Wikimedia

      What we may be able to learn

      Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.

      While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.

      Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.

      • Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
      • The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
      • Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.

      There's no evidence of an afterlife. But there's also no proof that our medical death needs to be the end of our subjective experience. There's no proof that death is irreversible, or immortality impossible.

      In fact, some researchers believe immortality isn't just possible, but inevitable.

      Alexey Turchin, an author, life extensionist, and transhumanist researcher from Moscow, believes artificial intelligence will eventually become so powerful that humans will be able to "download" themselves — or, the quantifiable information contained in their brains — into computers and live forever.

      It'll take a long time to develop that technology — anywhere from 100 to 600 years, according to Turchin.

      "The development of AI is going rather fast, but we are still far away from being able to 'download' a human into a computer," Turchin told Russia Beyond. "If we want to do it with a good probability of success, then count on [the year] 2600, to be sure."

      That might be out of reach for modern humans. But downloading yourself onto a computer is just one potential route to immortality. In 2018, Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection — and, therefore, immortality — possible.

      Immortality and identity 

      The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."

      Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be you? Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?

      If you believe that your copy is not you, that implies you believe there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, your "informational identity" does not constitute your true identity.

      In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.

      It's no matter: The researchers say resurrection, in some form, should be possible in either scenario.

      "If no 'soul' exist[s], resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul[s] exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.

      "The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."

      Potential resurrection methods

      Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to most speculative.

      The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination, and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. The researchers noted that there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism.

      Other methods get far stranger. For example, one method includes super-intelligent AI that uses a Dyson sphere to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.

      Turchin

      "The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.

      "DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."

      Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.

      "If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.

      How? Sending tiny robots back in time.

      "A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being[s] without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."

      Pixabay

      The paper goes on to outline some more resurrection methods, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens, and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: God exists and one day he resurrects us.

      In short, it's all extremely speculative.

      But the aim of the paper was to catalogue known potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the Immortality Roadmap, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.

      Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some modern people to survive long enough to see it happen.

      Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects — all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.

      But odds are you're not interested. Although Turchin and other scientists are bent on finding ways to avoid death and extend life indefinitely, surveys repeatedly show that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.