Thanksgiving dinner of today owes debt to cavemen

As you prepare your traditional Thanksgiving feast, you may want to swap out those pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakers with a mastodon and a caveman instead. We owe a lot to this ancient duo. Without them, your mom couldn’t bake your favorite pumpkin pie. Gone would be your sister-in-law Celia’s delicious squash casserole. And your Pinterest-ready cornucopia would be dreary.

Believe it or not, it’s not your grandmother nor is it Martha Stewart who had the most influence on this part of your traditional celebration. It’s your great, great, great-to-the-ten-thousandth grandmother who we should thank for saving the squashes of today from going the way of the mastodon and giant sloth. That’s according to a new study running in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The authors came to this conclusion after studying something decidedly unappetizing: seeds preserved in ancient animal dung. Yes, what we know about these Thanksgiving favorites came from a probe of petrified poo. Please, impress your Auntie Mary with this Turkey Day tidbit only after she’s finished with the pie course.

Study authors ran genetic tests on ancient seeds for 91 plants of the Cucurbita genus — the fancy Latin name for your squashes, pumpkins and gourds. The really wild version of these baseball-sized plants were a bit like your great Uncle Bill after a few holiday martinis.

“They were small, tough and bitter,” author Logan Kistler said.

Lindsay Wyatt, a plant breeder who did not work on the study, but who grew some of these ancient gourds a few years ago, said they were definitely not fit for your holiday menu (unless you didn’t really like your guests?).

“I had to smash them open with a cinder block to get the seeds out, you could crush them pretty easily but they were not knife friendly,” Wyatt said. “They were also so bitter that even after I washed my hands after handling them, when I’d eat my lunch later in the day it made the lunch taste funny.”

Bitter and hard was not a problem for the megafauna of the era, according to the study. The mastodons and giant sloths were strong enough to get through the tough skin. The authors say the large animals had fewer copies of the bitter tasting gene, meaning to them it wasn’t toxic as it was for smaller animals. These large animals actually encouraged wild gourds to grow, grazing so much there was room for these plants. Unable to digest the seeds, the animals would spread the seeds around as they traveled and essentially pooped in different places.

As these animals started to disappear, these wild gourds did, too. What saved the gourd then from extinction were ancient farmers. Our ancestors didn’t mind the tough skin, as gourds could be used to carry liquid in those pre-pottery days. Fisherman also used them to keep their nets afloat. But they had to do something about the taste. So farmers must have cultivated the gourds that weren’t as bitter.

The growing tradition carries on today. “What we grow changes with personal taste and fads and viability, this is not a static discipline; this is a constant evolutionary process with plants,” Kistler said.

Wyatt, who works for Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, said even in the last few years market appetite has shaped the variety of gourds.

“I think this is in part because of the Pinterest side of things,” Wyatt said, meaning people want to take pictures of a wider variety of seasonal gourds. “But also with the growing interest in locally grown fruit and vegetables, there is a much wider appreciation of culinary quality these days.”

Her company does what our ancestors did, although the gourds our ancestors grew would likely taste different from the ones Americans like today. Growing fruits and vegetables “is a continual process of improvement,” she said. And tastes vary. Americans like sweeter gourds. Some Asian cultures prefer more neutral tasting gourds with a heavier starch quality that holds up well in cooking.

Daniel Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology and climate studies at the University of Maine, said he appreciated this PNAS study as a reminder of the impact even a tiny population like these ancient ancestors could have on what’s on our table thousands of years later.

“Humans have such a large and sometimes unexpected influence on economies and ecosystems,” Sandweiss said. “The squash we have today are remaining representatives of this genus of plant which otherwise would have been in trouble for survival because of the changing landscape.”

“It’s fascinating to think what impact human intervention can have even through the depth of time,” Sandweiss said.

Climate change, a new technology, your decision to try a different pumpkin pie recipe — all of these factors could change food tradition for thousands of years to come. If that’s too much pressure to think about this holiday, maybe you should consider another current Thanksgiving tradition that has evolved over thousands of years of heavy meals — a nice, long after-dinner nap.

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Thanksgiving dinner of today owes debt to cavemen

As you prepare your traditional Thanksgiving feast, you may want to swap out those pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakers with a mastodon and a caveman instead. We owe a lot to this ancient duo. Without them, your mom couldn’t bake your favorite pumpkin pie. Gone would be your sister-in-law Celia’s delicious squash casserole. And your Pinterest-ready cornucopia would be dreary.

Believe it or not, it’s not your grandmother nor is it Martha Stewart who had the most influence on this part of your traditional celebration. It’s your great, great, great-to-the-ten-thousandth grandmother who we should thank for saving the squashes of today from going the way of the mastodon and giant sloth. That’s according to a new study running in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The authors came to this conclusion after studying something decidedly unappetizing: seeds preserved in ancient animal dung. Yes, what we know about these Thanksgiving favorites came from a probe of petrified poo. Please, impress your Auntie Mary with this Turkey Day tidbit only after she’s finished with the pie course.

Study authors ran genetic tests on ancient seeds for 91 plants of the Cucurbita genus — the fancy Latin name for your squashes, pumpkins and gourds. The really wild version of these baseball-sized plants were a bit like your great Uncle Bill after a few holiday martinis.

“They were small, tough and bitter,” author Logan Kistler said.

Lindsay Wyatt, a plant breeder who did not work on the study, but who grew some of these ancient gourds a few years ago, said they were definitely not fit for your holiday menu (unless you didn’t really like your guests?).

“I had to smash them open with a cinder block to get the seeds out, you could crush them pretty easily but they were not knife friendly,” Wyatt said. “They were also so bitter that even after I washed my hands after handling them, when I’d eat my lunch later in the day it made the lunch taste funny.”

Bitter and hard was not a problem for the megafauna of the era, according to the study. The mastodons and giant sloths were strong enough to get through the tough skin. The authors say the large animals had fewer copies of the bitter tasting gene, meaning to them it wasn’t toxic as it was for smaller animals. These large animals actually encouraged wild gourds to grow, grazing so much there was room for these plants. Unable to digest the seeds, the animals would spread the seeds around as they traveled and essentially pooped in different places.

As these animals started to disappear, these wild gourds did, too. What saved the gourd then from extinction were ancient farmers. Our ancestors didn’t mind the tough skin, as gourds could be used to carry liquid in those pre-pottery days. Fisherman also used them to keep their nets afloat. But they had to do something about the taste. So farmers must have cultivated the gourds that weren’t as bitter.

The growing tradition carries on today. “What we grow changes with personal taste and fads and viability, this is not a static discipline; this is a constant evolutionary process with plants,” Kistler said.

Wyatt, who works for Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, said even in the last few years market appetite has shaped the variety of gourds.

“I think this is in part because of the Pinterest side of things,” Wyatt said, meaning people want to take pictures of a wider variety of seasonal gourds. “But also with the growing interest in locally grown fruit and vegetables, there is a much wider appreciation of culinary quality these days.”

Her company does what our ancestors did, although the gourds our ancestors grew would likely taste different from the ones Americans like today. Growing fruits and vegetables “is a continual process of improvement,” she said. And tastes vary. Americans like sweeter gourds. Some Asian cultures prefer more neutral tasting gourds with a heavier starch quality that holds up well in cooking.

Daniel Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology and climate studies at the University of Maine, said he appreciated this PNAS study as a reminder of the impact even a tiny population like these ancient ancestors could have on what’s on our table thousands of years later.

“Humans have such a large and sometimes unexpected influence on economies and ecosystems,” Sandweiss said. “The squash we have today are remaining representatives of this genus of plant which otherwise would have been in trouble for survival because of the changing landscape.”

“It’s fascinating to think what impact human intervention can have even through the depth of time,” Sandweiss said.

Climate change, a new technology, your decision to try a different pumpkin pie recipe — all of these factors could change food tradition for thousands of years to come. If that’s too much pressure to think about this holiday, maybe you should consider another current Thanksgiving tradition that has evolved over thousands of years of heavy meals — a nice, long after-dinner nap.

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UCLA suspends players arrested in China

LiAngelo Ball and two teammates on UCLA’s basketball team — who have been suspended indefinitely — publicly apologized after they shoplifted during a trip to China.

After Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill read statements acknowledging their role in an international incident that caused President Donald Trump to take credit for intervening on their behalf, UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford announced their indefinite suspensions.

“They will have to earn their way back,” Alford said.

Riley, in his statement, said he was embarrassed and ashamed “for disappointing my family, my teammates, my coaches, and the entire UCLA community.”

He said he took “full responsibility for the mistake that I’ve made: shoplifting,” and that his actions went “beyond me letting my school down, but I’ve let my country down.”

“To President Trump and the United States government, thank you for taking the time to intervene on our behalf,” he added. “We really appreciate you helping us out.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had tweeted: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

Ball apologized to his family and teammates, calling the incident a “stupid mistake” and saying he had “learned my lesson.”

Hill, too, apologized to his teammates and family.

“What I did was stupid. There’s no other way to put it,” he said.

Ball, Riley and Hill were allowed to leave China after the situation was “resolved to the satisfaction of the Chinese authorities,” said Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12 athletic conference, of which UCLA is a member.

The three were arrested last week while their team was in the city of Hangzhou ahead of the squad’s season opener in Shanghai. They were questioned on suspicion of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store near their hotel.

Athletic Director Dan Guerrero confirmed the trio shoplifted from three stores.

The three had stayed at the hotel, reportedly awaiting next steps in their case, while their teammates went to Shanghai, where UCLA defeated Georgia Tech 63-60 on Saturday. They stayed in China as their team returned to the United States over the weekend.

School officials said the charges were withdrawn by Chinese authorities after the players admitted guilt. A conviction of grand larceny in China could result in years of prison. But Trump said Tuesday that he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help.

UCLA’s trip coincided with Trump’s two-day state visit to the Chinese capital, Beijing, as part of his 13-day trip to Asia. Trump told reporters that Xi had been helpful in working to resolve the case.

Scott acknowledged Trump, among others, in his statement.

“We are grateful for the role that our Chinese hosts played, and for the courtesy and professionalism of the local authorities,” Scott said. “We also want to acknowledge UCLA’s significant efforts on behalf of their student athletes.

“Finally, we want to thank the President, the White House and the US State Department for their efforts towards resolution.”

Trump’s request was first reported by the Washington Post.

The Bruins, ranked 23rd nationally, will play a home game Wednesday night against Central Arkansas.

Days before the game in Shanghai, the Bruins were in Hangzhou to visit the headquarters of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that sponsored Saturday’s contest.

The game was the culmination of a weeklong cultural and sports exchange involving the student athletes.

Before the players’ release, LiAngelo Ball’s father, LaVar, had said in a statement on social media that the Chinese judicial process could take months.

LaVar Ball and his youngest son, LaMelo, were in Hong Kong on Tuesday evening to promote a pop-up shop for the family’s athletic apparel line, Big Baller Brand.

LaVar, LaMelo and Tina Ball — the family’s matriarch — all went to China to watch LiAngelo play his first game as a Bruin and promote the opening of a Big Baller Brand pop-up shop in Shanghai.

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Clue, paper airplanes, Wiffle Ball become hall of famers

Paper airplanes, Clue and the Wiffle Ball have all been voted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame, according to a museum news release.

“All three of these really capture the best essences of play,” WROC TV reports Christopher Bensch, The Strong’s vice president for collections, said. “Social play, active play, creative play.”

Clue

A British couple designed Clue during World War II. They based the game on the popular murder-mystery dinner parties. Parker Brothers purchased the rights to the game and it remains a top seller, the museum said.

“Millions of Clue games are sold each year,” curator Nicholas Ricketts said. “Clue has also had its own movie, been featured in numerous television and books, and remains an icon of pop culture.”

Wiffle Ball

In the 1953, David A. Mullany, a retired semi-pro baseball player in Connecticut, noticed his son and friends couldn’t play baseball in their cramped backyard. So Mullany picked up some ball-shaped plastic parts from a factory. He and his son found a ball with eight oblong perforations worked best, Wiffle Ball’s website says.

“The Wiffle Ball changed the outdoor play landscape, taking the basics of backyard baseball and transforming it into something easier for kids to negotiate,” curator Michelle Parnett-Dwyer said. “In more that 60 years since its introduction, generations of Little League, high school, college and pro sluggers have begun their baseball careers swinging at a Wiffle Ball.”

Paper airplanes

The exact origins of the paper airplane is unclear, the news release said. According to Aviation for Kids, the use of paper airplanes is believe to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago. 1909 is the earliest known date of the creation of the modern paper airplane.

“Where some toys require financial investment, paper airplanes start with a simple sheet of paper, coupled with creativity and dexterity, to produce a toy with infinite aeronautical possibilities,” Bensch said.

The toys were selected from a field of 12 that were announced in September. These three toys beat out the Magic 8 Ball, Matchbox Cars, My Little Pony, PEZ Candy Dispenser, play food, sand, Transformers, Uno and Risk.

The National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong was established in 1998 and is located in Rochester, New York.

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Experimental technology can ‘smell’ disease on your breath

Smell is a primary human sense, key to our survival.

Like a super-sensitive human nose, an experimental technology can “smell” and identify the chemical composition of a person’s breath and then diagnose up to 17 potential diseases, according to the scientists who developed it.

These researchers, led by Hossam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, say their Na-Nose, which uses nanorays to analyze breath, can identify Parkinson’s disease, various cancers, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease with 86% accuracy.

“I would say our technology in many cases (is) equivalent to the accuracy of the currently available invasive technology,” Haick said, adding that for some diseases, including gastric cancer, Na-Nose has a “much higher” accuracy rate than currently available technologies. And, unlike most screenings, including standard blood tests, breath analysis technology is noninvasive — a benefit most patients would appreciate.

The theory behind the technology is that each of us has a unique chemical “fingerprint.” Each disease also has a particular chemical signature, which can be detected on our breath. The Na-Nose technology, which consists of a sensor chamber with a breathing tube and software, is able to detect this precise chemistry of disease by interpreting the impact on our usual chemical fingerprint.

Seven companies have licensed the underlying research for the technology from Technion in hopes of creating a commercial product, Haick said. He hopes that the companies, each specializing in a different application, will translate the science and technology from the lab to mass production.

One application, for example, would turn smartphones into “sniffphones” that would monitor our health routinely.

But with further testing and regulations to meet, neither the Na-nose device nor any variations will be available on the market — or in our doctor’s offices — for a number of years, said Haick.

Dogs, flies and rats

Though Na-Nose may seem revolutionary, smell was recognized as a potential diagnostic tool in antiquity.

“The ancient Greeks used breath and urine scent to diagnose disease,” said Dr. Mangilal Agarwal, director of the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute and an associate professor at Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. “Thucydides said there was a specific scent to plague victims in Athens, and Hippocrates cataloged a specific disease because it caused bad breath and bad-smelling sweat.”

Agarwal, who is not involved with the Na-Nose technology, said he is working on a number of projects that analyze scents to diagnose diseases, including hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), prostate cancer and breast cancer.

“Breath has the scents or volatile biomarkers necessary to identify many diseases,” he said. “We know this from canines who can detect hypoglycemia and epileptic seizures, fruit flies (and canines) that can detect cancer, and from giant rats that detect tuberculosis in Africa.”

Similar research is being conducted in Spain, Latvia, Belgium, England, Italy and various corners of the United States.

“Dr. Haick’s group is certainly ahead of our group in terms of getting close to doctor’s visit tests,” Agarwal said, adding that an important aspect to breath analysis is that it “excels at capturing changes in human health in a noninvasive manner.”

“Quick diagnosis can help in identifying the most appropriate treatment response,” he said. He added that prostate cancer grows on a longer time-scale, but the prostate biopsy is such “a sufficiently unpleasant experience” that a noninvasive test would be beneficial and lower health-care costs.

The high accuracy claims of Haick’s research group is “very reasonable, if the signal is not masked by environmental fluctuations in some manner,” Agarwal said, though he cautions that some “breath-based tests have had difficulty duplicating results in different regions, likely because the sensor has difficulty adjusting to different background air signals.”

Other scientists raise additional concerns.

Not ready for prime time?

Dr. George Preti, a faculty researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit scientific institute in Philadelphia, said it’s hard to distinguish body chemicals from environmental chemicals in breath samples because “most of the compounds detected in breath are also detected in room air and their levels are similar to each other.”

Until scientists “understand the origin and biochemical pathways leading to disease-related” markers in human breath, reliable results from a diagnostic breath test will be difficult to achieve, he stated in a recent review of studies.

In fact, there are more than a few issues that must be addressed before effective technologies will be produced, according to Dr. Lisa Spacek, an adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Terence Risby, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Using breath to diagnose disease first requires a profile of breath molecules for normal health to be established, Spacek and Risby say in a recently published paper. These must take into account variables such as age, gender, ethnicity and body mass index.

Researchers also need to investigate the factors that might contaminate breath results, such as what someone ate within eight hours of breath collection or whether they used a mouth rinse, say Spacek and Risby. Another issue: How do you store breath that is not immediately analyzed?

Advances in instrumentation, particularly portable monitors, is one factor inspiring and enabling the new research into breath analysis.

Though the field is growing and results are promising, translation of the work into meaningful tests is another matter: “I take every claim by manufacturers … with a grain of salt,” Risby wrote in an email.

Today’s widespread interest in breath analysis stems from the relatively recent discovery — within the past 20 years or so — that nitric oxide, a common pollutant, works as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system, Risby observes. The three scientists who made the discovery won a Nobel Prize for their efforts in 1998.

So despite ancient roots, Risby says, “clinical breath analysis remains in its infancy.”

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