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Technological and cultural innovations amongst early humans not sparked by climate change

- Wits University

While climate shifts may have influenced early human subsistence strategies, it may not have been the driving factor behind cultural innovation.

Researchers working in the Klipdrift Complex. Picture by Magnus Haaland.Environmental records obtained from archaeological sites in the southern Cape suggest climate may not have been directly linked to cultural and technological innovations of Middle Stone Age humans in southern Africa after all.

A study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by an international team of researchers, led by Dr Patrick Roberts from the University of Oxford and including researchers from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University, shows that while climate shifts may have influenced human subsistence strategies, it may not have been the driving factor behind cultural innovation.

Klipdrift complex. Picture by Magnus Halaand. The Middle Stone Age marked a period of dramatic change amongst early humans in southern Africa, and climate change has been postulated as a primary driver for the appearance of technological and cultural innovations such as bone tools, ochre production, and personal ornamentation.

While some researchers suggest that climate instability may have directly inspired technological advances, others postulate that environmental stability may have provided a stable setting that allowed for experimentation. However, the disconnection of palaeoenvironmental records from archaeological sites makes it difficult to test these alternatives.

The authors of this study carried out analyses of animal remains, shellfish taxa and the stable carbon and oxygen isotope measurements in ostrich eggshell, from two archaeological sites, Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter, spanning 98,000 to 73,000 years ago and 65,000 to 59,000 years ago, respectively, to acquire data regarding possible palaeoenvironmental conditions in southern Africa at the time.

For instance, ostrich eggshell carbon and oxygen stable isotope levels may reflect vegetation and water consumption, which in turn vary with rainfall seasonality and amount in this region.

The researchers found that climatic and environmental variation, reflected in ostrich eggshell stable isotope measurements, faunal records, and shellfish indicators, may not have occurred in phase with Middle Stone Age human technological and cultural innovation at these two sites.

Researchers working in Blombos Cave. Picture by Magnus Halaand.“While acknowledging that climate and environmental shifts may have influenced human subsistence strategies, the research suggests climate change may not have been the driving factor behind cultural and technological innovations in these localities and encourage context-specific evaluation of the role of climate change in driving early human experimentation,” says Professor Chris Henshilwood, one of the lead researchers from Wits University.

"Our results suggest that although climate and environmental changes occurred, they were not coincident with cultural innovations, including personal ornamentation, or the appearance of complex tool-types. This suggests that we have to consider that other factors drove human innovation at this stage in our species' evolution,” says Dr Patrick Roberts.

Diagnosing disease in your DNA

- Deborah Minors

Molecular diagnostics uses genetic material to look for infectious organisms like TB and HIV. If you don’t know what you’ve got, how do you treat it?

Wits alumnae Professor Wendy Stevens and Professor Lesley Scott delivered the 13th Prestigious Research Lecture in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits on 14 June 2016. Their lecture was entitled: “Unlocking access to Global HIV and TB care through Molecular Diagnostics”.

What lurks within?

 Stevens and Scott head a team of predominantly women scientists who have dedicated 15 years to finding ways to diagnose South Africa’s leading infectious disease killers: HIV and TB. Through their efforts, South Africa is one of the first countries worldwide to embrace molecular diagnostics at scale.

Molecular diagnostics is becoming fundamental to medical diagnosis. If you don’t know what you’ve got, how do you treat it?” says Stevens, who is Head of the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology at Wits University and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

The implementation of molecular diagnostic technology by Stevens and Scott, and their teams at Wits and the NHLS, is revolutionising HIV and TB diagnosis in South Africa.

Tech to terminate TB infection

Scott, Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology at Wits and Head of Research and Development for the National Priority Programmes of the NHLS, says, “South Africa is the epicentre of TB and HIV. If we can’t treat it here, we can’t treat it anywhere. In China, they want to use similar molecular technologies and approaches to diagnosing TB.”

The technology that Stevens and Scott have implemented for TB diagnosis specifically is called the GeneXpert. It’s a simple test that uses a patient’s genetic material (DNA, RNA) to show within hours if a patient has TB. Previously, this diagnosis took six weeks.

The GeneXpert ‘reads’ the genetic material and amplifies the TB bacteria. Then an SMS or WhatsApp message can be sent to the healthcare worker or patient that says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the presence of TB, and whether or not the patient is drug resistant.

“The GeneXpert can immediately identify over 80 percent of individuals with multi-drug resistant TB, which is highly infectious and 60 percent fatal,” says Stevens. “The quick turnaround for results means that patients don’t go missing or infect others or die. In 2014 approximately 9.6- million people developed TB globally and 1.5 million died.”

TB diagnosis using the GeneXpert machine can now be done at the patient’s bedside, irrespective of whether they are in a rural clinic or city hospital.  However, the machines must be checked prior to testing to ensure their efficacy. Initially this was almost impossible to do.

“Not only would it take several weeks but it also posed a severe biosafety risk, because it meant transporting live organisms, sometimes over great distances,” explains Scott.

Scott and her R&D team subsequently invented the Smartspot TBcheck, which checks the efficacy of the GeneXpert machine on the spot before a patient is tested. Scott won the 2015 Innovation Prize for Africa and the Special Prize for Social Impact for the Smartspot TBcheck. This technology saved an estimated 37-million lives between 2000 and 2013 and the World Health Organisation has approved it.

“Leap-frog” technology

Other molecular diagnostic tools, for HIV for example, will WhatsApp or SMS a number that shows a patient’s viral load (the quantity of HIV virus in the blood). No virus in the blood means the patient is doing well. Testing the viral load is the only way to establish if a patient is not taking their medicine or is resistant to antiretroviral treatment (ARV).

“Drug resistance is the next big thing in molecular diagnostics across all infections,” says Scott. “Multi-drug resistant TB is way scarier than Ebola.”

Molecular technology enables the rapid communication of test results to the patient and healthcare worker, and to a national centralised data warehouse. The quicker infected patients are informed and treated, the less likely the chance of transmission, which means fewer HIV and TB-related infections and deaths. It’s revolutionary technology in a country like South Africa where the TB-infected population has up to 65 percent co-infection with HIV.  

“It’s an example of ‘leap-frogging’ – using technology to solve primary healthcare problems,” says Stevens. “South Africans are particularly innovative because we have a lot to fix, and Wits Medical School graduates specifically are equipped with skills because of this need. We’re applied scientists with a generalist approach, so we can address needs at scale.”

Taking TB tech to scale

Together with the National Department of Health, the NHLS, and clinical stakeholders, Stevens put together the plans for the use of several molecular technologies in South Africa – the first country to roll these out at scale.

Molecular diagnostics enables the collection of large volumes of test results in a central data warehouse in real time that can be fast-tracked to the clinics – volumes such as four-million HIV viral loads, four-million CD4 counts, and two-million TB tests in 2014. In South Africa, molecular diagnostics has contributed to a reduction in HIV early infant diagnosis from 25 percent in 2006 to less than 2 percent today.

Stevens says molecular diagnostics can also help healthcare workers manage the load of patient care. Nurses and other healthcare workers who may be ill-equipped in rural South Africa can easily use the tech to simplify and catalyze testing and results. “It’s about getting the right test to the right patient at the right time.”

A South African solution

“We tailored the diagnostic tests for South Africa, and they reach 80 percent of the public sector. Test results go to 266 laboratories across the country. South Africa is unique in that the NHLS is entirely networked,” says Scott.

“With molecular technologies we can now implement highly centralised, high throughput testing, as well as decentralised, low throughput testing in clinics and hospitals countrywide. This considerably reduces the money spent on these tests while simultaneously advancing, faster, simpler, more accurate testing and diagnostics in future – potentially for any kind of disease.”

Precision medicine ahead

Molecular diagnostics has potential in non-communicable diseases too.  Here ‘precision medicine’ refers to the use of molecular testing on the DNA/RNA of patients with cancers and inherited disorders, and in evaluating your likelihood of infection. For example, precision medicine can find the gene in a woman’s DNA that causes breast cancer, predict the outcome, and select the right treatment. The doom of diagnosis aside, it empowers that woman to make informed choices.

“The medicine of tomorrow is personalised. In future your DNA will be in the pharmacies,” says Scott. “The laboratory is the back-bone of getting a result. The ‘back-room girls’ in the lab will be coming to the fore once we realise what this tech can do.”

Closely guarded mystery solved!

- Wits University

Eight-year-old South African boy discovers early turtle fossil that explains why the turtle got its shell.

It is common knowledge that the modern turtle shell is largely used for protection. No other living vertebrate has so drastically altered its body to form such an impenetrable protective structure as the turtle.

However a new study by an international group of scientists, including those from the Evolutionary Science Institute at Wits University, on the earliest partially shelled fossil turtles suggests the broad ribbed proto shell was initially an adaptation, not for protection, but rather for burrowing underground.

A new fossil of the oldest proto-turtle, Eunotosaurus, discovered by then eight-year-old Kobus Snyman on his father’s farm in the Karoo in South Africa. Credit: Tyler R. Lyson Lead author Dr. Tyler Lyson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science says, “Why the turtle shell evolved is a very Dr. Seuss like question and the answer seems pretty obvious – it was for protection. But just like the bird feather did not initially evolve for flight – we now have early relatives of birds such as tyrannosaur dinosaurs with feathers that definitely were not flying – the earliest beginnings of the turtle shell was not for protection but rather for digging underground to escape the harsh South African environment where these early proto-turtles lived”. 

The early evolution of the turtle shell had long puzzled scientists. “We knew from both the fossil record and observing how the turtle shell develops in modern turtles that one of the first major changes towards a shell was the broadening of the ribs,” says Dr. Lyson. While distinctly broadened ribs may not seem like a significant modification, it has a serious impact on both breathing and speed in quadrupedal animals.

Ribs are used to support the body during locomotion and play a crucial role in ventilating your lungs. Distinctly broadened ribs stiffen the torso, which shortens an animal’s stride length and slows it down and interferes with breathing. “The integral role of ribs in both locomotion and breathing is likely why we don’t see much variation in the shape of ribs,” says Dr. Lyson. “Ribs are generally pretty boring bones. The ribs of whales, snakes, dinosaurs, humans, and pretty much all other animals look the same. Turtles are the one exception, where they are highly modified to form the majority of the shell.”

Fossil of the oldest proto-turtle, Eunotosaurus (left). Its broadened ribs were later incorporated into the modern protective turtle shell as found in Pelusios (right). Credit: Luke Norton.A big breakthrough came with the discovery of several specimens of the oldest (260 million year old) partially shelled proto-turtle, Eunotosaurus africanus, from the Karoo Basin of South Africa. Several of these specimens were discovered by two of the studies’ co-authors, Drs. Roger Smith and Bruce Rubidge from the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg but the most important specimen was found by a then eight-year-old South African boy on his father’s farm in the Western Cape of South Africa.

This specimen, which is about 15 cm long, comprises a well-preserved skeleton together with the fully articulated hands and feet. “I want to thank Kobus Snyman and shake his hand because without Kobus both finding the specimen and taking it to his local museum, the Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert, this study would not have been possible,” says Prof Rubidge. 

The study includes authors from the United States, South Africa, and Switzerland.

Translating science into stories that matter: The tale of Early Childhood Development

- Deborah Minors

Research into public understanding of Early Childhood Development (ECD) compared to the actual science has informed SA’s ECD policy, which Wits helped draft.

Dr Eric Lindland is a cognitive anthropologist whose research focuses on how metaphors are used in language, symbolism and ethics to bridge meanings across cultural systems.  Lindland is a fellow of the Frameworks Institute, a communications research institution that helps the public understand social issues like early child development.

“The Institute’s mission is to advance the non-profit sector’s communications capacity. It’s a ‘translation organisation’ that helps to frame the public discourse about social problems,” says Lindland.

Lindland delivered a public lecture entitled Communications Strategies for Social Change at the School of Public Health at Wits on Friday, 1 July 2016. He shared the methodology that a he and a team from Wits, the University of Stellenbosch, and UNICEF used to research South Africans’ understanding of ECD. 

The methodology explores the perception gap between what the experts say on a social matter (in this case, ECD) and what the public hears. The methodology uses culturally accessible metaphors to enhance communication and understanding. Understanding cultural perceptions is at the heart of re-framing perceptions.

Cognitive shortcuts and cultural models

“Human beings don’t come to the world as naïve blank slates, but rather as experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception.  People’s brains are not a fishbowl you can drop something into. Rather, people’s brains are a rich, complex ecosystem – like a wetlands where there’s a lot going on,” says Lindland.

The ecosystem of the mind contains ’cultural models’ – cognitive shortcuts we create through years of experience. Cultural models are not unique; they are shared by human beings. Religion is one, for example.  We rely on these models to make sense of the world.

Cultural models can be problematic or advantageous.  Just as a communications message risks being consumed by ‘dangerous animals’ [prejudicial cultural models] in the wetlands of the mind, there are also positive cultural models that provide strategic advantage to communicators.

“If we don’t know what the cultural models are, we don’t know how people will interpret our message,” said Lindland. “Knowing the models enables the message to be framed effectively.”

The Frameworks methodology was used to guide research conducted by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits, in partnership with stakeholders in government and civil society. The research will inform the messages to be used when implementing the South African National Early Childhood Development Policy. Professor Linda Richter is the Director of the Centre of Human Development and the lead author of the national ECD policy.

Richter’s research interest is in life-course human development issues, concentrating mainly on infancy and early childhood.  As lead author of the national ECD policy, she had to identify the core scientific principles that South African ECD experts want to communicate to the public.

South African ECD stories

“What is the story about children’s development that needs to be told in South Africa? There is a big gap between policy makers and the public understanding of ECD,” says Richter. “Consider the discovery of Homo naledi, which turned into a racial issue. That led to the Department of Science and Technology requiring that a portion of research money be spent on communicating science effectively.”

The Frameworks research comprised expert interviews with ECD professionals and implementers, as well as cultural model interviews with Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa, and isiZulu-speaking South Africans in all nine provinces.  Additionally, on-the-street “vox pop” interviews were conducted in all these languages in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg.

The preliminary research findings reveal both overlaps and incongruities between the science of ECD and public understanding of it. For example, science confirms that key brain development happens between the ages of nought to three years, but the interviews suggest the public think this happens at school-going age.

“The first 1000 days of life, including pregnancy, are the most influential. But among the public there is an issue of ‘aging up’ and a poor understanding of the importance of the early years,” says Lindland.

There are also disparities between the expert view that stimulation, interaction, and communication are fundamental to ECD, whereas the public cite safety, food, and love as paramount.

Lindland says, “Science tells us kids need stimulation and communication. The public doesn’t realise that cognitive development is critical. When South Africans generally think about ECD, they’re focused on love, safety, discipline, and nutrition, but the challenge is what’s not there.”

The preliminary findings reveal other communication anomalies between the expert science of ECD and these respondents’ attitude and understanding of it: 

  • Experts know that a child’s brain and cognition develops early; respondents think primarily in terms of the child’s physical, social, and emotional development
  • Experts recognise that pervasive risk factors, such as maternal depression, threaten a child’s development; respondents think in terms of extreme factors, e.g., rape and human trafficking
  • Experts confirm that children have human rights; those members of the public interviewed, across all languages, think that children have too many rights
  • Experts propose that government empower and enable parents in ECD; these respondents think that the government should provide ECD services directly to children and families
  • Experts think that physical punishment is harmful to young children, who learn better from guidance, explanation and distraction; many members of the people believe that all children need to be spanked to learn not to do certain things.

On the same page

There are some ways, however, where ECD experts and the public are on the same page. These initial findings suggest that South Africans, like the experts, recognise that ECD is foundational and that a child’s environment and access to quality services impact development. The findings suggest that experts and the public agree children’s development matters because a good society depends upon it, and that government should play a role.

The Frameworks research will help frame the story of ECD in South Africa in response to the cultural models that inform it. Ultimately the findings will guide strategies that can build communications bridges between the science of ECD and the public’s understanding and acceptance of it. And if you can change understanding, you can change policy.

“We need to make the science of ECD a story that people in South Africa feel invested in. This research explores the stories [cultural models] that exist about ECD in South Africa so that we can see how we can frame our communications in future to make ECD a public issue,” says Richter.