SCIENCE IN THE NEWS #2118 - Digest

By StaffThis is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about the discovery of a possible ancient human ancestor. We tell about the discovery of burial places in Peru. And we tell about breastfeeding and the disease AIDS.

Researchers in Kenya have found the head bone of a human-like creature that is about three-million-five-hundred-thousand years old. The ancient skull is from a creature never before discovered. Scientists say the new fossil comes from a creature completely different from other early humans. This skull may be from a direct ancestor of humans. Its discovery shows that at least two kinds of creatures were developing in Africa around the same time.

Meave Leakey and her team members reported their findings in Nature magazine. The National Geographic Society paid for the research. Mizz Leakey is an official at the National Museums of Kenya. She also is a member of a well-known family of scientists. She and her team discovered parts of the ancient skull in Nineteen-Ninety-Nine. The skull was buried near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Scientists cleaned and examined the bones for many months.Mizz Leakey and her team believe their discovery may represent a new group of early human ancestors. They believe it may be different from other human-like creatures in the scientific family called hominids. They named the creature Kenyanthropus Platyops, or "flat-faced man of Kenya."

They chose this name because the creature had a flat face. It also had small teeth. Scientists believe a flat face and small teeth represent steps toward the development of humans. The small teeth mean the creature probably could not eat thick grass. Instead, it probably ate softer foods like fruit.

The researchers say the creature had a small brain. Its brain was about the size of a chimpanzee. But the scientists did not find bones from the rest of the body. So they cannot tell its size or its sex. They cannot tell how old it was or when it died. They cannot tell if it walked on two legs.The discovery of the Kenyan flat-faced man questions the belief of some experts about another ancient creature. In Nineteen-Seventy-Four, Donald Johanson found bones of this ancient creature in Ethiopia. This creature also lived about three-million years ago. The Ethiopian discovery has the scientific name Australopithecus afarensis. But the creature is commonly known as Lucy. Some scientists believe Lucy was the only direct ancestor of modern humans.

Like the Kenyan skull, Lucy had a small brain. But its face was not flat. Lucy's face looked as if it had been pushed forward. The face looked like that of an ape. Some of its teeth were huge. So scientists believe it mainly ate thick grasses. These qualities would make it less developed than the Kenyan flat-faced man. This raises questions about which creature was the direct ancestor of modern humans.Maeve Leakey's team suggests that the Kenyan flat-faced man may be linked to Homo rudolfensis. This was a two-million-year old creature with a similar face. It had a larger brain than the Kenyan man. But the reason may be that its brain had more time to develop. Several scientists believe more hominids may be discovered from the same period as Lucy and the flat-faced man of Kenya. And some experts say we may learn that more than one kind of hominid lived as long ago as six-million years.Maeve Leakey's daughter, Louise, helped find the Kenyan skull. The Leakey family has been making important discoveries about early humans for a long time. Maeve Leakey's husband Richard is also a well-known paleontologist.

So were his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey. The work of Louis Leakey led researchers to search for ancient ancestors of humans in Africa. Earlier, experts thought most ancient human-like creatures were found in Asia.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))You are listening to the Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS on VOA. This is Sarah Long with Bob Doughty in Washington.


Scientists working in Peru have reported finding three burial areas rich with ancient treasures. The graves are one-thousand-five-hundred years old. They were filled with clay containers, cloth, gold objects and metalwork. The scientists believe the objects are from the Moche (Moe-chay) culture. The Moche controlled what is now the northern coast of Peru for about seven-hundred years. They disappeared before the Inca civilization occupied the area.The Moche people were skilled in making clay objects and metalwork. But they had no written language. Their artwork provides ideas about how the Moche lived. About three-hundred-fifty Moche burial places have been discovered. But almost all the graves have been damaged.

National Geographic magazine reported the recent discovery of three treasure-filled graves. The National Geographic Society provided financial support for the research project. Christopher Donnan of the University of California at Los Angeles led the research team. Mr. Donnan has studied the Moche for thirty-five years. He and his team began digging in a pyramid at Dos Cabezas along the Peruvian coast in Nineteen-Ninety-Seven. The pyramid is more than thirty-two meters high.The researchers reported finding three complete graves in the earthen structure. Each room had the remains of a young man. The rooms were filled with copper and gold objects, protective shields and heavy sticks. Some of the artwork had images of hunting and fighting. One of the bodies had a mask of copper and gold covering his face.

The scientists say the bodies were unusually tall. They were one-hundred-seventy-five centimeters tall or taller. However, most Moche males were between about one-hundred-fifty and one-hundred-seventy centimeters tall. Mr. Donnan said the three men may have suffered from a condition similar to Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes long thin bones.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Some scientists believe that a mother with the disease AIDS whobreastfeeds her baby increases the baby's chance of getting the disease. However, a new report has found that women infected with the AIDS virus put their babies in greater danger by NOT breastfeeding them.

Michael Latham is a professor of international nutrition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He and another expert went to Africa last year to examine AIDS programs and policies. The two scientists spoke with government and non-government officials in Kenya, Uganda, Namibia and Botswana. They discovered an unnecessary fear that breastfeeding causes higher cases of the H-I-V AIDS virus among babies. Instead, Mr. Latham says only three to six percent of babies are likely to become infected if they receive breast milk from an infected mother.Peter Lamptey leads AIDS prevention programs for an international public health organization in North Carolina. He says another study has results similar to Mr. Latham's report. The study was done in South Africa in Nineteen-Ninety-Nine among mothers with H-I-V and their babies. The researches discovered that a baby's chance of getting H-I-V depends on what the baby is fed.

The study found that only eight percent of babies given only breast milk in their first three months of life became infected with the AIDS virus. Thirteen percent of babies given only processed milk for babies, or formula, became infected. But twenty percent of babies who were given both formula and breast milk became infected with H-I-V.

Doctors call this last method "mixed feeding." Instead of mixed feeding, doctors say breast milk is the best way to protect against the AIDS virus. Even if the mother is infected, her body develops antibodies against the disease that are passed on to her baby.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Jerilyn Watson, George Grow and Jill Moss. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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