Top stories: Making weather from corn, a dying oasis, and the Roman gates of hell | Science

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Top stories: Making weather from corn, a dying oasis, and the Roman gates of hell | Science


This Roman ‘gate to hell’ killed its victims with a cloud of deadly carbon dioxide

Is it possible to walk through the gates of hell and live? The Romans thought so, and they staged elaborate sacrifices at what they believed were entrances to the underworld scattered across the ancient Mediterranean. The sacrifices—healthy bulls led down to the gates of hell—died quickly without human intervention, but the castrated priests who accompanied them returned unharmed. Now, a new study of one ancient site suggests that these “miracles” may have a simple geological explanation.

Genes of ‘extinct’ Caribbean islanders found in living people

Many scientists and historians believe that the Taino—indigenous Caribbean people—were wiped out by disease, slavery, and other brutal consequences shortly after European colonization, without passing down any genes to people in the Caribbean today. But a new genetic study of a 1000-year-old skeleton from the Bahamas shows that at least one modern Caribbean population is related to the region’s precontact indigenous people, offering direct molecular evidence against the idea of Taino “extinction.”

Meet the scientists running to transform Congress in 2018

At least 60 candidates with scientific backgrounds are bidding for seats in the U.S. Congress, almost all of whom are Democrats energized by what they regard as a rising antiscience sentiment pervading Washington, D.C. The candidates—mostly first-timers running for House of Representatives seats—include a physicist who spent 2 decades at a prominent national laboratory, a clinical oncologist at a top-rated cancer center, a former chemistry professor at a 4-year state college, a geologist trying to document every aspect of a tiny piece of the Mojave Desert, and a postdoctoral bioengineering fellow.

The United States’s Corn Belt is making its own weather

The Great Plains of the central United States—the Corn Belt—is one of the most fertile regions on Earth, producing more than 10 billion bushels of corn each year. It’s also home to some mysterious weather: Whereas the rest of the world has warmed, the region’s summer temperatures have dropped as much as a full degree Celsius, and rainfall has increased up to 35%, the largest spike anywhere in the world. The culprit, according to a new study, isn’t greenhouse gas emissions or sea surface temperature—it’s the corn itself.

Can Iran and Afghanistan cooperate to bring an oasis back from the dead?

The Hamoun wetlands, which once encompassed as much as 5800 square kilometers along Iran’s border with Afghanistan and supported settlements stretching back 5 millennia, “are an ecological catastrophe,” says Nayyereh Pourmollae, who heads the environment department of Sistan and Baluchestan province in southeastern Iran. On the Iranian side, villages are emptying. Winds in what has become a dust bowl ravage crops and sweep up pesticide residues and other pollutants. And a haven for migratory birds and other wildlife is vanishing. But now, after years of bickering about which country is to blame, Iran and Afghanistan are discussing solutions.

Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree

Horses radically changed human history, revolutionizing how people traveled, farmed, and even made war. Yet every time we think we’ve answered the question of where these animals came from, another study brings us back to square one. Such is the case with an extensive new study of ancient horse DNA, which largely disproves the current theory: that modern horses arose more than 5000 years ago in Kazakhstan. Instead, the new work suggests that modern-day domestic horses come from an as-yet-undiscovered stock. The research also shows that the world’s only remaining wild horses, called Przewalski’s horses, are not truly wild.

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