An international team of researchers has found that the closest relatives of dinosaurs were more distinct creatures than they had expected. In the journal Nature, the team, including Randall Irmis of the Utah Museum of Natural History and the University of Utah and Sterling Nesbitt of the University of Texas at Austin, describes a proto-dinosaur that was rather squat, walked on four legs, probably ate plants or a combination of plants and meat, and lived around 10 million years earlier than dinosaurs.
The species, called Asilisaurus kongwe (derived from “asili”—Swahili for ancestor or foundation; “sauros”—Greek for lizard; and “kongwe”—Swahili for ancient) is the first proto-dinosaur recovered from the Triassic period in Africa. The first bones of Asilisaurus were found in 2007, and fossil bones of more than a dozen of the creatures were recovered from a single bone bed in southern Tanzania.
Asilisaurus kongwe is part of a newly recognized group known as silesaurs, which were scattered across the globe during the Triassic period, before the continents had separated, a write-up of the research notes. Silesaurs are the closest relatives of dinosaurs, analogous to the relationship between humans and chimps. The oldest dinosaurs discovered so far are 230 million years old, and the presence of their closest relatives 10 million to 15 million years earlier implies that silesaurs and dinosaurs of the bipedal, carnivorous sort had already diverged from a common ancestor by 245 million years ago. Silesaurs lived side by side with early dinosaurs throughout much of the Triassic period. Other relatives of dinosaurs may have also originated much earlier than previously thought, the researchers believe.
Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa has deciphered the earliest known Hebrew inscription, dating from to the 10th century B.C., written on a shard of clay found near the Valley of Elah in Israel. This makes it possible, he says, that parts of the Bible could have been written that far back, centuries earlier than scholars now believe.
As Galil explains:
It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies, such as the books of Judges and Samuel.
Here is the English translation of the inscription, which is similar in content to a number of biblical passages:
1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
Check out these pictures from the 2,000-year-old quarry found in the Jordan valley near Jericho (courtesy of the University of Haifa). The artificial underground cave was uncovered by a team from the university headed by biblical archaeologist Adam Zertal (who previously led the excavation of foot-shaped structures in the valley). A number of engravings were found in the cave, including Byzantine cross markings (pictured above left), Zodiac symbols (pictured below left) and Roman letters, and Zertal says it’s possible the cavern was an early monastery. —Heather Wax
Listen to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, on the Culture Shocks radio show today at 4 p.m. She’ll talk about the significance of Darwinius masillae (aka “Ida”), the 47 million-year-old primate fossil unveiled last week with much hype, and explain why the fossil is “spectacular but not a missing link.”
The program is hosted by the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.