Huge cache of stone artifacts may hold clues to exodus from Africa

Archaeologists have discovered a huge cache of ancient stone artifacts in Saudi Arabia that could shed light on when early humans first left Africa.

Some of the artifacts, which were found at Wadi Dabsa in southwest Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea, may be up to 1.76 million years old, according to a report by Live Science.

The discoveries are described in the journal Antiquity. The researchers are part of the DISPERSE project, which aims to better understand when and how early humans migrated out of Africa.

The stone artifacts include hand axes, stone knives, scrapers, piercers, spear points, and hammer stones. Because of their design, the archaeologists say many of the artifacts are “Acheulian” — or types of stone tools made between 1.76 million and 100,000 years ago.

“We hope to try and date the tufa [a type of limestone] and basalt flows within the site, which are associated [with] the large assemblage recovered from within the wadi,” said lead author Frederick Foulds, an archaeology professor at Durham University in England, in the Live Science report.

According to Foulds, his team can already see that the stone tools date to an era when the climate was wetter than it is now.

“It’s far more arid than it was at certain points in time,” Foulds said. “It’s strange to be walking over hard, dry rocks which were formed by water pooling during a far wetter period. We think it was during these wetter periods that it’s likely the site was occupied.”

The geography of the Wadi Dabsa region may have provided early humans with a refuge from extreme climatic changes brought on by glacial cycles, the researchers say.

NWT_Environment SCI

Eco-friendly habits viewed as “un-manly,” study reports

Some men try to avoid eco-friendly actions because they do not want to be seen as “unmanly,” according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

This finding comes from a team of researchers from various U.S. universities, who found that that those who engage in green behaviors are often stereotyped by others as more “girly” or “feminine.”

To find out why, the group analyzed over 2,000 American and Chinese participants. That revealed a psychological link between eco-friendliness and perceptions of femininity. The so-called “green-feminine stereotype” often causes both men and women to perceive eco-friendly products, behaviors, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts, Yahoo News reports.

For instance, participants viewed themselves as more feminine when they did something good for the environment versus when they did something bad. They also viewed a person who chose a reusable canvas grocery bag over a plastic bag as feminine.

This is a strange issue, and solving it could help more people aid the environment. Though there is not one solution, the team believes different marketing of eco-friendly products could help reverse the trend. For example, when BMW in China marketed its new hydro car with a masculine term to identify the model, men were more interested in purchasing the car than normal.

“Previous research shows that men tend to be more concerned about maintaining a masculine identity than women are with their feminine identity,” said study co-author James Wilkie, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame, in a statement. “We therefore thought that men might be more open to environmental products if we made them feel secure in their masculinity, so they are less threatened by adopting a green product.”

The marketing plan could work well, but, before such changes are made, it is also important to remind men that there is nothing inherently wrong with being eco-friendly. Helping the planet is not gender specific. 


Exercise could help stall dementia

Regular exercise may help slow down dementia, a new study in the journal Neurology reports.

Though there are many things that are not known about dementia, researchers do know that it does not happen all at one. Rather, it slowly builds over time. As a result, while there is currently no way to reverse it, people can take steps to slow down its progression.

In the new research, the American Academy of Neurology issued guidelines that explain how patients who are starting to see signs of cognitive decline can slow down negative symptoms. Of those, exercise appears to be one of the most important.

“If we can push it back two, three, five, years, that’s a big deal,” lead author Ronald Petersen, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, told Newsweek.

The guidelines state that people should exercise roughly 150 minutes, or 2 times, a week. Some people begin to struggle to keep track of important events as they age. However, that forgetfulness — known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — occurs far before full-blown dementia sets in. These new rules are to help people in that area, and give them a chance to stave off more serious problems.

To create the new guidelines, which recommend cognitive training and avoiding medication that can lead to confusion or cognitive impairment, the team looked over hundreds of different research studies. Overall, the trials showed that older people who exercised had significant cognitive improvement. While exercising can be difficult for people over 65, all it takes is some light aerobic exercise or walking. 

Researchers are not currently sure how exercise might help stave off dementia. However, they believe it could be beneficial because working out helps blood flow to parts of the brain that dementia commonly restricts. Past research has also found hat combining exercise with mental games or cognitive training might lead to improvement as well.

The team hopes the guidelines will help primary care doctors better understand how to handle patients with MCI. Studying the stages of cognitive decline could be helpful for learning how to treat different forms of dementia as well.

“If we get people who are only mildly symptomatic to enroll in clinical trials, we might be able to find ways to stop the process at this point,” explained Bruce Troen, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University at Buffalo Medical School who was not involved in the research. ” And that would be critical.”


Dropping temperatures could send Earth into a “mini Ice Age,” study reports

A group of researchers from Northumbria University have found evidence that Earth could be hit by a “mini Ice Age” within the next decade, according to research published in Astronomy and Geophysics

This new prediction is based on a mathematical model of the Sun’s magnetic energy that suggests the Earth’s temperature will begin to drop in 2021. That plummeting temperature will slowly progress and eventually lead to something known as the “Maunder minimum”, which is referred to a previous mini ice age that occurred between 1646 and 1715.

This study comes amid global warming concerns, and is built on a previous research that predicts the movements of two magnetic waves produced by the sun. It also suggests magnetic waves will decrease for three solar cycles that are set to begin in 2021 and last for up to 33 years.

According to the model, two magnetic waves will become increasingly offset during Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022. During Cycle 26 — which will occur between 2030 and 2040 — the waves will go out of sync and drop solar activity by as much as 60 percent.

“In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other — peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun,” said lead researcher Valentina Zharkova, a professor at Northumbria University, during an interview in 2015, according to Daily Mail. “Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder minimum’.”

While the model used to study these cycles claimed 97 percent accuracy, it cannot be fully used as proof for a future mini ice age. That is because global warming is constantly shifting the planet, making weather patterns largely unpredictable. Even so, if such an ice age were to occur it could be cold enough to freeze major rivers around the world.

The team hopes the new research will help officials prepare should such an event occur.

“We have to be sorted by that time and prepare everything on Earth for the next big solar activity,” added Zharkova, according to International Business Times.


More women are using marijuana during pregnancy

The number of California women who used marijuana during pregnancy greatly increased between 2009 and 2016, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports.

The data — which comes from researchers working with Kaiser Permanente — revealed that, while nearly all of the 280,000 participants looked at in the research did not use marijuana while pregnant, a small number of them did. And that number appears to be growing.

Researchers studied more than 30,000 women a year over an eight year period. All of them were roughly eight weeks pregnant at the time. During the trial, the team surveyed the women with questionnaires and analyzed them with urine toxicology tests. In the first year in the study, researchers found that 1,547 pregnant women had ingested marijuana. Last year, the number went up to 2,588.

Little is known about how marijuana affects pregnant women, fetuses, and newborns. However, some studies have found that it is linked to lower birth weights, and guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology recommend that pregnant women do not use the drug.

“The reason that this becomes worrisome to me as an OB/GYN is that there are no studies that have ever reassured me that it would be safe to use during pregnancy,” said study co-author Nancy Goler, a researcher at Kaiser Permanente, according to Sfgate.

The team also discovered that younger women used marijuana more than older women while pregnant. While many studies have looked at this trend in the past, this one is different because it includes results from toxicology tests — an objective, universal standard.

Scientists are not yet sure why more women are choosing to use marijuana during pregnancy, but further study into the topic could help provide answers. Some women are likely using it for  vomiting and nausea, but there could be other factors in play as well. The team plans to expand on their research, especially considering that the drug will become legal for recreational use in California on January 1st. 

“Continued monitoring of trends, exposure timing, and offspring outcomes is important as marijuana potency rises in an increasingly permissive legal landscape,” the authors wrote, according to The Los Angeles Times


Super Wolf Moon, plus other eye candy for skywatchers

The new year promises some celestial eye candy for dedicated skywatchers.

New Year’s Day always begins with what is known as the Wolf Moon, but this year’s will be a Super Wolf Moon because it will be at or near its closest point in its orbit around Earth, according to NASA.

Supermoons appear about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter that ordinary full moons.

“The supermoons are a great opportunity for people to start looking at the Moon, not just that once but every chance they have!” says Noah Petro, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Another supermoon will occur on January 31, coinciding with a total lunar eclipse visible across western North America and Eastern Asia.

“The lunar eclipse on January 31 will be visible during moonset,” explains Petro. “Folks in the Eastern United States, where the eclipse will be partial, will have to get up in the morning to see it. But it’s another great chance to watch the moon.”

The January 31st supermoon also will be what some people call a Blue Moon because it will be the second full moon in a month. Combined with the total lunar eclipse, it should be quite spectacle.

“We’re seeing all of the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets at that moment reflected from the surface of the Moon,” says Sarah Noble, a Program Scientist at NASA headquarters.

The Quadrantid meteor shower should peak during the early morning hours of Jan. 3 or 4, but light from the full moon will make visibility difficult.

Because blue moons occur in both January and March, there will be no full moon in February for the first time since 1999.


Apple faces lawsuits over software that slows iPhone performance

Apple is the target of eight lawsuits filed in various federal courts this week, which all allege that it is defrauding iPhone users by slowing their devices down without warning to compensate for poor battery performance. The lawsuits, which plaintiffs filed in U.S. district courts in California, New York, and Illinois, seek reimbursements for represent potentially millions of iPhone users across the United States.

The company had acknowledged the slowdown affect last week for the first time. It said that software updates it had implemented in the past year for the iPhone 6, 6s, SE, and 7 included a feature to “smooth out” aging batteries’ power supplies by throttling phone performance.

Without this adjustment, iPhones would have shut down abruptly because the aging batteries would be fried if forced to continue operating at the regular processing speeds, the company said. This disclosure took place only after a December 18 analysis by Primate Labs, which develops a performance-measuring app for iPhones. Primate Labs’ report identified impeded processing speed in many phones and determined that a software change was causing them.

But Apple could have just replaced the batteries instead, the lawsuits argue. One lawsuit, filed Thursday in San Francisco, states that Apple was using the software change to cover up the battery problem.

“Rather than curing the battery defect by providing a free battery replacement for all affected iPhones, Apple sought to mask the battery defect,” according to the complaint. It added that users experiencing slowed performance may have mistakenly chosen to buy new iPhones, not knowing that all they really had to do was replace the batteries for a fraction of the cost.


Northeastern states sue EPA over Midwest pollution

Eight northeastern states announced a joint lawsuit Tuesday against the Environmental Protection Agency, whom they charge with being derelict on regulating pollution coming from midwestern states. The complainants said that smog from midwestern coal-fired power plants and refineries is blowing upwind into their states’ territories and affecting their populations’ health.

“Millions of New Yorkers are breathing unhealthy air as smog pollution continues to pour in from other states,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who led the coalition of states filing the lawsuit.

The attorneys-general of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont were also participating in the lawsuit, which dates back to a late 2013 motion they had all filed to have nine “upwind” states added to the “Ozone Transport Region,” whose states are subject to tighter pollution controls. A consent decree that year required that the EPA had until October 2017 to decide whether to add the nine states, which included Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia to the region.

Scott Pruitt, the present-day EPA chief, decided this fall to ignore the order and not add the states. The participants in Tuesday’s lawsuit asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to overturn Pruitt’s decision and make the EPA add the nine “upwind” states to the zone.

Schiederman said that New York City is the nation’s ninth most smog-polluted city, according to the American Lung Association, and that the EPA’s own research found that pollution from upwind states adds to New York’s smog levels. He added that the EPA has the prerogative to add states to the Ozone Transport Region if their air pollution causes states already in the region to go over the official pollution limits.

NWT_Biology Science TECH

Calcium and vitamin D do not prevent bone fractures, new study finds

People who take calcium and vitamin D supplements to protect against bone fractures may want to rethink the strategy, according to a comprehensive new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Researchers, led by Dr. Jia-Guo Zhao of Tianjin Hospital in northeastern China, reviewed and analyzed a large number of clinical trials and other studies published in the last ten years for evidence of the efficacy of calcium and/or vitamin D in preventing bone fractures, according to the Los Angeles Times. A total of 51,145 people were included in the studies.

In 14 clinical trials that compared calcium supplements to a placebo or no treatment, no statistically significant relationship existed between the use of calcium tablets and the risk of bone fractures. This held true even when variables, such as the participant’s gender, past history of fractures, and amount of calcium consumed, were taken into account.

Another 17 trials looked at the connection between vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, and a reduction in bone fractures. Again, no statistically significant connection was found.

An additional 13 trials looked at people who took a combination of calcium and vitamin D. Once more, the researchers could find no statistically significant link between taking the supplement and a reduced risk of bone fractures.

One possible exception to the new findings involve women on hormone therapy, a group the researchers did not include in their study. An earlier report based on data from the long-term Women’s Health Initiative found a lower risk of fractures for this subset of women who used calcium and vitamin D supplements.

But for most people, the new findings “do not support the routine use of these supplements,” the authors write.


Childhood friends discover they are brothers

Two men who have been best friends for 60 years just found out they are brothers — and they say the discovery is the best Christmas gift possible.

Alan Robinson, who was adopted, and Walther Macfarlane, who never knew his biological father, met in the sixth grade and remained close for some six decades.

Macfarlane began searching the Internet for information about his father a few years ago, but without luck. Then, he and his children started using websites, like, that match people’s DNA.

A match for Macfarlane’s DNA was found and it belonged to a user named Robi737 — who turned out to be his friend Robinson. The results showed Robinson and Macfarlane had identical X chromosomes, indicating they share the same biological mother.

“This is the best Christmas present I could ever imagine having,” said Robinson, in a report by KXAN, adding, “It was an overwhelming experience, it’s still overwhelming. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to get over this feeling.”

The two men, who were born and raised in Hawaii, played football together and love a game of cribbage.

“I had a younger brother that I lost when he was 19, so I never had nieces or nephews,” explained Robinson. “I thought I’ll never know my birth mother, I’ll never have any nieces or nephews.”

Macfarlane and his newly found half-brother say they plan to spend their retirement traveling together.

“It really is a Christmas miracle and we’re just so happy that we found it,” said Macfarlane’s daughter, Cindy Macfarlane-Flores.