Ancient Cave Art in Alabama May Be The Largest Ever Found in North America

New details of our past are coming to light, hiding in the nooks crannies of the world, as we refine our techniques to go looking for them. Most lauded is the reconstruction of the evolution of humanity since our African origins around 300,000 years ago, by analyzing our living fossil DNA.


Replete with the ghosts of African Eurasian populations of the deep past, these have been resurrected only through the ability of science to reach into the world of the minuscule by studying biomolecules.

Now, digital analysis of rock surfaces reveals how other ghosts of the deep past – this time from almost 2,000 years ago in North America – have been coaxed into the light.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, professor Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee colleagues have published images of giant glyphs carved into the mud surface of the low ceiling of a cave in Alabama.

The motifs, which depict human forms animals, are some of the largest known cave images found in North America may represent spirits of the underworld.

In the first image below, a drawing of a diamondback rattlesnake, an animal sacred to indigenous people in the south-eastern US, stretches almost 3 meters long. The next one down shows a human figure just over 1.8 meters in length.

(Photograph by S. Alvarez; illustration by J. Simek/ Antiquity)

Above: Serpent figure with a round head diamond-shaped body markings. Note that the base of the engraved glyph joins a natural fissure in the ceiling limestone (3.3m long).

In terms of dating the findings, ancient people rejuvenated a light in the cave (a flaming torch of American bamboo) by stubbing it against the cave’s wall. This left a residue that the researchers were able to date with radiocarbon to 133-433 CE. This was also in accord with the age of pottery fragments ancient artists left in the cave.

HumanFigureCaveArtMotif(Photograph by S. Alvarez; illustration by J. Simek/ Antiquity)

Above: Cave art petroglyph of a human figure, 1.81 meters tall.

The problem is seeing the paintings. The cave ceiling is only 60 centimeters high, which makes stepping back to view the large images impossible. They were revealed only through a technique called photogrammetry, in which thousands of overlapping photographs of an object or place are taken from different angles digitally combined in 3D.

Photogrammetry is a cheap technique increasingly used in archaeology to record artifacts, buildings, landscapes, caves. It allowed Professor Simek’s team to “lower” the cave floor up to 4 meters, enough for the complete motifs to come into view for the first time.


Ancient art in other places

Rock art is found on almost every continent, the earliest is at least 64,000 years old. It is likely that we know of only a tiny percentage of the rock art created in the past.

Pigments can dull disappear; thin engravings can erode to nothing; cave walls can crumble or be covered over by crusts of carbonate deposits or mud. Assuming more art does survive, the chances are we may never see it unless we invest in research new technologies.

Rock art in the dark zone of caves beyond the natural light in cave mouths was only discovered in North America in 1979, more than a century after its discovery in Europe (at Altamira in northern Spain). Some 500 European caves are known to contain rock art from the Pleistocene era between 2.6 million 11,700 years ago.

One example critical to our own research only came to light through digital manipulation of images that we took of it. Below is a hstencil in the cave of Maltravieso (Estremadura, western Spain) which was not immediately apparent when we were searching the cave for suitable samples to date its art.

The stencil had been obscured by the build-up of calcium carbonate deposits. We photographed the area then used digital image enhancement software which revealed the hstencil very clearly (below, right).

HandMotifCaveArt(Author provided)

Until it re-emerged on our computer screen, this 64,000-year-old hstencil remained undiscovered despite 70 years of intensive study in the cave.

Light engravings – a very common Pleistocene technique – are notoriously difficult to see. Parts of them may come to light using light shone at an oblique angle, which we refer to as raking light.


But with a technique known as reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), which is similar to photogrammetry, 3D models can be illuminated from any angle. These can reveal far more complete complex images.

It’s not easy to show this in a couple of stills, but hopefully the two shots below of an engraved bison in a cave in El Castillo in northern Spain give a flavor.

BisonHeadCaveArt(Author provided)

Above: Digital photograph of the head of an engraved bison from El Castillo Cave, Spain (left), RTI image of the same bison head (right).

Future archaeological searches for rock art will probably benefit from recent developments in airport security.

Full body scanners use far infra-red frequency light that safely penetrates clothing to reveal concealed weapons or contraband, similar techniques have been used to “see through” layers of prehistoric wall plaster to paintings underneath.

When these scanners become small cheap enough to take into caves, who knows what further ghosts will come to light?  The Conversation

Paul Pettitt, Professor in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University Alistair Pike, Professor of Archaeological Sciences, University of Southampton.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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NOAA Image Catches Wildfire Smoke Dust on Collision Course

The video is mesmerizing: As three whitish-gray geysers gush eastward from the mountains of New Mexico, a sheet of brown spills down from the north like swash on a beach.

What it represents is far more destructive.

The image, a time-lapse captured by a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration satellite, shows two devastating events happening in the Western United States. The first is a wildfire outbreak in northern New Mexico that started last month has intensified in the past two weeks, fueled by extreme drought high winds. The second is a dust storm caused by violent winds in Colorado.

Both are examples of the sorts of natural disasters that are becoming more severe frequent as a result of climate change.

Seven large fires were burning in New Mexico as of Tuesday, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. The satellite image shows four of them. The westernmost is the Cerro Pelado fire, covering about 27,000 acres near the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The northernmost is the Cooks Peak fire, covering about 59,000 acres near Taos. Just south of that are the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fires, which merged around April 22 into one huge, 160,000-acre blaze.

The total lburning in the satellite image is roughly 380 square miles, an area larger than Indianapolis. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire in particular has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, including in Las Vegas, N.M., a town of 13,000 about an hour east of Santa Fe.

Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystems of the West, but human activity has made them far worse. Drought is a major contributor. The past two decades have been the driest in 12 centuries in the American Southwest, largely because of climate change, there are no indications that conditions will improve anytime soon.

The other big factor is wind, which is fueling all of the fires in northern New Mexico right now. In fact, the Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn — meaning a fire set intentionally, under controlled conditions, to clear out dry vegetation reduce the risk of larger, uncontrolled fires — but gusty, unpredictable winds blew it out of control.

High winds were also responsible for the second phenomenon visible in the image NOAA released: the dust storm in Colorado.

“Visibility is dropping to near zero winds are gusting to 50-60 m.p.h. within this blowing dust,” the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo., said on Twitter on Friday, warning of extremely dangerous conditions for drivers.

The satellite imagery underscores how widespread the effects of such disasters can be. While the “brownout” conditions were relatively localized during the dust storm, winds carried the dust particles across hundreds of miles of southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, the Oklahoma Texas Panhandles.

Fine particulate matter degrades air quality poses health hazards, particularly for people with underlying lung or heart diseases. That applies to dust as well as to smoke, soot other byproducts of wildfires.

Last summer, wildfires led to air quality warnings across almost the entire country turned the sun red as far east as New York City. And researchers found in January that dangerous levels of smoke ozone were increasing over much of the Western United States.

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RedShift BioAnalytics Announces Launch of Next Generation Apollo for Ultra-Sensitive Biophysical Characterization of Biomolecules

RedShift BioAnalytics (RedShiftBio?) announces the launch of Apollo, the company’s latest system using ground-breaking MMS technology. Apollo provides ultra-sensitive, ultra-precise measurements of the structure of biomolecules through a novel technology called Microfluidic Modulation Spectroscopy (MMS), now even more rapidly, with less sample volume, with improved software analytics features.   

MMS overcomes many of the limitations of existing technologies in a typical biophysical characterization toolkit with ultra-sensitive highly reproducible structural measurements of proteins other biomolecules. Users are able to compare higher-order structure similarity profiles for confidence in structural similarity activity to inform discovery, screening, formulation, quality control in biopharmaceutical drug development. It can be used for a wide range of biomolecules from mAb-based biotherapeutics to robust measurements of ADCs, AAVs, mRNA. 

Key features benefits of Apollo include:  

  • Accurate reproducible measurements with broad concentration range from 0.1 mg/ml to >200 mg/ml allows measurements in native conditions
  • 20x faster 30x more sensitive to changes in structure than CD or FTIR
  • Real-time buffer subtraction minimizes background noise interference from excipients
  • Dramatically reduced sample volume requirements from first-generation AQS3pro 

“Apollo represents a tremendous step forward in our product portfolio, incorporating the feedback from our customers at leading biopharmaceutical companies in North America, Europe, Asia,” said Julien Bradley, CEO of RedShiftBio. “The improvements over our first generation AQS3pro system are very significant will make our already industry-leading tool in biophysical characterization even more valuable easy to use in a wider range of applications.”

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Untouched Moon Fragments Kept in Storage For 50 Years Are Finally Being Studied

When the Apollo 15 17 missions returned to Earth with pieces of the Moon in 1971 1972, some of the samples were deliberately set aside for the future.

Flash forward half a century these samples are finally being studied. 


In 2019, shortly after an upcoming Artemis mission to the Moon was announced, nine teams of researchers were selected to analyze the untouched rocks soil brought back by the Apollo missions.

Some of the vacuum-sealed samples have never been opened on Earth before. Others have been carefully stored in a freezer since their arrival fifty years ago.

Transporting the precious cargo from Texas to NASA laboratories around the country has taken years of prep.

A special facility had to be built in Marylat the Goddard Space Flight Center to house the lunar samples, it took four years to set up.

Only now can researchers finally begin to analyze the long-kept treasures from the Apollo missions in prep for the Artemis missions.

“When you think of how these samples have come from another world, how far they have travelled the Solar System history they have preserved inside of them, it always blows my mind,” says planetary scientist Natalie Curran, who is studying the lunar samples at Goddard.

Some of the lunar pieces that Curran is analyzing were frozen upon arrival to Earth in 1972, they need to be kept under precise conditions.


To handle the precious samples, researchers must enter a walk-in freezer kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) stick their arms into a nitrogen-purged glove box. Only when their hands are covered in thick rubber gloves, can they touch the lunar rocks.

“Everything we do involves a lot of logistics a lot of infrastructure, but adding the cold makes it a lot harder,” says astromaterial researcher Ryan Zeigler, who helped curate the lab’s handling methods.

“It’s an important learning lesson for Artemis, as being able to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than it is for Apollo. This work gives us some lessons learned a good feed forward for Artemis.”

Frozen Apollo 17 sample being handled inside a nitrogen-purged glove box. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Curran is the principal investigator for Goddard’s Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab, which is considering the lunar samples as time capsules.

Using noble gasses, the team is seeking to measure how long pieces from the surface of the Moon have been exposed to cosmic rays. That knowledge could help reveal how conditions on the Moon have changed over time.


“Cosmic rays can be damaging to organic material that may be in a sample, so understanding the duration helps to determine the effects that exposure has had on the organic,” explains Curran.

Another team of researchers at Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory is studying whether the lunar samples contain volatile organic compounds at what concentrations.

Early studies in the 1970s found some lunar rocks contained amino acids, which are important building blocks of life on Earth. But since those days, technology our understanding of astrobiology has improved a lot.

“We think some of the amino acids in the lunar soils may have formed from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds such as formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” explains Jamie Elsila, a researcher with the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory.

“Our research goal is to identify quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, to use the data to understthe prebiotic organic chemistry of the Moon.”

Researchers at NASA will also be comparing differences between frozen lunar samples unfrozen samples, to see which preservation method proved better in the long run.


The findings will ultimately inform future handling of lunar samples, which will be brought back via the Artemis missions.

Some of the samples will no doubt be put aside for the future, when improved technology could help us see something we hadn’t noticed before.

“It’s very cool to think about all the work that went into collecting the samples on the Moon then all the forethought care that went into preserving them for us to be able to analyze at this time,” says Elsila.

More information about the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program can be found here.


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