From archaeology to astronomy and from marine biology to paleontology, the scientific quest for knowledge took giant strides in 2019. These 20 staggering discoveries – whether they concern outer space, the ocean’s depths, or even our own DNA – shattered ideas that we once trusted as fact.
20. Seismic activity detected on Mars
Scientific study of our planetary neighbor, Mars, came on leaps and bounds in 2019. Indeed, it was then that NASA’s InSight craft achieved a historic first: its seismometer recorded tremors out on the Red Planet. And this seismic activity, which is being referred to as “Mars quakes,” revealed some enlightening details about the distant orb’s surface and core.
In fact, NASA found that these tremors were curiously similar to our Moon’s seismic events, indicating that the Red Planet’s surface is actually far more fragmented and arid than astronomers initially suspected. And, with the historic lander still operating on Mars, NASA and the InSight team hope that, over time, it will reveal yet more of the planet’s mysteries.
19. Astronomists find distant habitable planet
Back in 2015 the Kepler telescope detected an exo-planet some 100 or so light years from Earth, which has been named K2-18b. It wasn’t until four years later, though, that experts reached a startling conclusion about the distant sphere. They professed that K2-18b is in fact the only planet – other than our own – known to possess both an atmosphere and the right climates to sustain liquid seas.
These qualities, the study concludes, could potentially render the planet habitable. According to Business Insider, one of the researchers involved, Angelos Tsiaras, said, “It has an atmosphere, and it has water in it, making [K2-18b] the best candidate for habitability that we know.” Perhaps in the coming years, then, scientists may designate it as a potential second home for the human race – or even detect alien lifeforms on the foreign orb. Only time will tell…
18. UN finds Earth to be in its sixth mass extinction event
In more harrowing news, experts reached a devastating conclusion about the rate of extinction on Earth. A 2019 study by the United Nations, you see, determined that as many as a million species could face eradication in the coming decades. And these findings, the report concludes, suggest that our planet is currently in the midst of a mass extinction event – the sixth of its kind here on Earth.
But while prior mass extinction events have largely been attributed to natural causes, this current devastating loss of lifeforms, the report reveals, is actually down to the actions of humankind. Practices such as the destruction of our planet’s forests and large-scale agriculture, for example, devastate animal habitats.
17. Lost continent found deep below the Earth’s surface
One of 2019’s most jaw-dropping discoveries involved scientists locating what was, almost certainly, a once-in-a-lifetime find: that of a lost continent. Experts from around the globe, pooling their minds and resources, miraculously managed to locate the piece of continental crust, known as Greater Adria, deep below Southern Europe. The landmass had become lost despite having roughly the same dimensions as modern-day Greenland.
In fact, it was more than 200 million years ago that tectonic movement tore Greater Adria away from Africa. The vast landmass was then eventually lost under the planet’s crust – until now. Harnessing a tool that measures seismic activity, scientists managed to locate the huge continent a whopping 900 miles below Southern Europe. And with modern technology offering seemingly endless insights into the natural world, who knows what else they might find next hidden beneath our feet.
16. Ancient DNA reveals the spread of populations across Eurasia
Anthropologists, in a paper released in September 2019, revealed some startling conclusions about the dispersion of primitive populations across the globe. By studying ancient human DNA, they found that peoples from what is now Iran didn’t just populate Europe to their west, but they in fact headed east as well, extending their genetic influence all the way to South Asia.
Moreover, this conclusion has allowed experts to draft maps not just of the spread of human beings across Eurasia, but also of the Indo-European languages they carried with them. Indeed, the team behind the paper found that individuals in South Asia and Eastern Europe, despite the presumably vast differences separating their current tongues, actually share some specific verbal traits due to their common Eurasian ancestry.
15. Puzzle that stumped Darwin finally solved
Most people would agree that it takes some real brains to outsmart Charles Darwin. But scientists in 2019, quite remarkably, did just that. Indeed, a group of marine biologists offered a plausible solution to the conundrum that left Darwin so perplexed it would later become known as Darwin’s Paradox: the question of how coral reefs thrive in waters that seemingly lack the resources needed for this to be possible.
The team behind the study revealed their pioneering solution in Science in the summer of 2019. They claimed to have finally found the elusive food source that fuels the world’s coral reefs. These beautiful ocean habitats, the group contend, obtain nourishment by consuming the larvae of tiny fish around the ocean floor. It seems, then, that we can consider yet another of science’s enduring mysteries solved – just so long as this new theory holds up to scrutiny, of course.
14. Scientists sequence entire genome using ancient ‘chewing gum’
More than five millennia ago, a female hunter-gatherer chewed on some tree pitch – a sticky substance made from heated bark – then discarded it into the muds of Lolland, Denmark. And scientists miraculously not only unearthed the ancient, now fossilized “chewing gum” in 2019 but also utilized it to reproduce the genome of the woman who’d munched on it all those centuries ago.
Sequencing genomes, as you can imagine, is no mean feat – let alone when the DNA is more than 5,000 years old. And, in this instance, researchers reproduced the complete genetic makeup of one of our predecessors without even having access to bones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that staggering feat of science had never been achieved before.
13. Every human alive descends from one woman in Botswana
In a momentous anthropological study published in October 2019, researchers claimed to have traced all Homo sapien lineage back to one individual. A single female, it seems, who resided in an area near the Zambezi River in what’s now Botswana, is the ancestor of every human being on our planet.
By studying the DNA of various populations around Africa, the scientists responsible for the report followed human ancestry back 200,000 years to a specific region in Southern Africa. What’s more, this research inevitably has significant implications for science, in that it backs up the theory that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and then dispersed around the globe.
12. Two new treatments against Ebola
In a hugely promising medical development, scientists trialed a couple of new treatments in 2019 with which to fight Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRN). And they achieved startling successes. Known as mAb-114 and REGN-EB3, the therapies involve injecting patients with antibodies and, in testing, appeared to prevent death in nine out of ten recently infected individuals.
The World Health Organisation deemed Ebola to be a “public health emergency of international concern” in the summer of 2019, so the development has presumably come as a welcome relief across affected countries. Indeed, Jean Jacques-Muyembe, a senior public health official in the DRC, optimistically informed Wired, “From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable.”
11. Electric eel with the strongest zap of any known species recorded
In September 2019 researcher C. David de Santana published news of a momentous natural discovery. He and his team had catalogued not just one, but two new species of electric eel. And this disproved the long-accepted theory that just one distinct form of the snake-like fish exists on the planet.
What’s more, one of these two new electric eel species is, according to Santana and his team, the most powerful natural emitter of electricity known to man, capable of generating a terrifying 860 Volts. Indeed, the discovery of these two new strains, although potentially unsettling for those living near the Amazon Basin, is certainly cause for celebration in this epoch of extinction and natural devastation.
10. Anthropologists retrieve oldest skull of human ancestor ever found
To most people, the finding of human bones presumably isn’t cause to celebrate. In 2016, though, anthropologists unearthed a skull that would generate a great deal of excitement. The fossilized cranium they’d found, you see, was revealed in 2019 to be almost four million years old, making it the earliest Australopithecus skull ever recovered.
The “iconic cranium,” as expert Tim White referred to it in Nature, has allowed anthropologists to construct an image of Australopithecus anamensis, the group of human ancestors to which it belonged. This in turn has revealed that, contrary to prior assumptions, the species actually walked the Earth with another group of our predecessors known as the Australopithecus afarensis. The skull, then, has proven itself to be so much more than mere bone and has become a vital piece of evidence allowing scientists to amend the timeline of evolution.
9. Fossils point to a distinct species of human ancestor
Deep in the jungles of Luzon, a small island in the Philippines, archaeologists unearthed some ancient teeth and bones. And these remnants, a group of experts contend, are evidence that a previously unknown species of human ancestor, called Homo luzonensis after the island on which they were discovered, resided there around 50,000 years earlier.
In a 2019 study, you see, anthropologists argued that the teeth and bones found in Luzon share traits with both Homo and Australopith species. This mix of features, they claim, proves that the fossils belong to a distinct species. And though some experts remain unconvinced, the findings are likely to lead to long-standing interpretations of human ancestry being challenged.
8. Impeccably preserved Egyptian tomb unearthed
One significant archaeological find of 2019 – that of an ancient tomb in Saqqara, Egypt – garnered attention not because of its long-buried inhabitant but, believe it or not, because of its walls. The crypt, which housed the body of an Egyptian official named Khuwy, is adorned with vibrant paintings that remain astonishingly intact despite being 4,000 years old.
Indeed, the hieroglyphs that litter its walls are still miraculously rich in color, radiating striking blues and reds around its newly unearthed corridors. The spectacle is quite extraordinary, and serves as a stark reminder that, even after four millennia, the glory and magnificence of Ancient Egypt are still far from fading into insignificance.
7. Skull reveals humans’ botched attempt to leave Africa
The discovery of an early Homo sapiens skull in Greece – the oldest of its kind seen beyond Africa – became the topic of a 2019 study that drew some astounding conclusions. The project deduced that Homo sapiens made an unsuccessful attempt to leave Africa some 200,000 or so years ago – far earlier than the exodus of human ancestors from which everyone alive today descends.
And this dispersal of humans out of Africa, the study proposes, ended rather tragically: with Homo sapiens dying out and the Neanderthals flourishing in their place. Then, tens of thousands of years later, Homo sapiens again migrated from Africa – this time successfully. Eleanor Scerri, an academic in the field, told Live Science, “This study may confirm the arguments made for multiple, early dispersals [of Homo sapiens from Africa].”
6. Two new treatments for cystic fibrosis pioneered
The year 2019 saw the announcement of some critical developments in the battle against cystic fibrosis. The crippling disease, which targets the lungs, affects many thousands of sufferers around the globe. Thankfully, though, a couple of new drug treatments have been formulated, offering a potentially crucial defense against the devastating ailment.
Dr. Francis S Collins, who back in the late 1980s helped to discern which gene leads to cystic fibrosis, certainly views the new therapies as encouraging. Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, he stated that the treatments could be used to help “90 percent of persons with cystic fibrosis… This should be a cause for major celebration.”
5. Bones suggest human beings first arrived in America by boat
In Western Idaho, near the Columbia River, a discovery was made that could potentially rewrite a pivotal chapter in the history of North America. Namely, that of how and when human beings first came to the continent. Indeed, scientists have dated some fossilized remains from the Idaho site as being roughly 16,000 years old – significantly older than the continent’s presumed first settlers, the Clovis people.
What’s more, the Beringia land bridge – the assumed route by which human beings arrived in America – is thought to have only become accessible around 14,000 years ago. Could it be, then, that the first Americans didn’t arrive via a land bridge, as is popularly believed, but they in fact did so much earlier and by boat? Certainly, the find raises some serious questions – but until more research is conducted, we’re unlikely to receive solid answers.
4. Fossils reveal the timeline of the extinction of the dinosaurs
When an asteroid pummeled into the Earth some 60 million years ago, it dug more than 300 feet into the Earth’s surface. That was followed by wildfires, a tsunami and the mass extinction of many species of dinosaurs. And scientists have been able to form a remarkably detailed timeline of this cataclysmic event thanks, in part, to a 2019 research study.
It was in fact back in 2016 that scientists collected rock samples from the Chicxulub crater off the coast of Mexico – the presumed site of the ruinous collision. Then, in September 2019 researchers revealed some astounding information derived from these humble old stones. Preserved within the fossils, you see, was an intricate timeline of the fateful extinction event, providing experts with a vital window into the effects of the catastrophic impact.
3. Child happens upon a fossilized dinosaur nest
One of the most miraculous archaeological finds of 2019 occurred in China, in the Guangdong city of Héyuán. Surprisingly, though, this discovery wasn’t made by experts; it was made by a 10-year-old boy. In fact, the child, Zhang Yangzhe, was simply digging for an object to use to smash open a walnut when he stumbled upon a 60-million-year-old dinosaur egg.
And it wasn’t just the discovery of a single fossil that Zhang’s hunger for walnuts led to. Indeed, when experts were brought to the site to investigate further, they found another 10 eggs in the area. The boy had stumbled upon, they determined, an entire nest. That’s unlikely to have been a day that Zhang will forget in a hurry.
2. Archaeologists stumble upon the fabled ‘sword in the stone’ – sort of…
An archaeological dig in Majorca, Spain, was drawing to a close in 2019 when an extraordinary chance discovery was made. In fact, the team responsible for the site were already transforming the area into a public museum. However, when moving a stone, they unveiled an astonishing memento from history: a sword made more than 3,000 years ago.
Moreover, the weapon remains miraculously well preserved despite its considerable age. It’s likely a Bronze Age relic, experts believe, of the Talaiotic culture that thrived in the area at the time. And what’s more, given the scarcity of similar relics from the period, the sword is likely to play a crucial role in future studies of that elusive society. The retrieval of the blade, then, was a big win for archaeology – and for the safety of the Majorcan general public.
1. Ancient city of Heracleion unearthed below the sea
It may be somewhat unsurprising that Egypt, a country long famed for its ancient sites, hosted some remarkable discoveries in 2019. One particularly astounding find saw marine archaeologists, operating in the Bay of Aboukir, excavate and map more than half a mile of a lost city: the ancient sunken port of Heracleion.
The former maritime town once sat at the delta of the Nile but was tragically lost to the Mediterranean many centuries ago. Now, thankfully, archaeologists are unearthing the city’s treasures for the world once again. And Heracleion’s riches, it seems, are in abundance. Shipwrecks near the sunken city have offered a plethora of ancient artefacts including money, trinkets and dinnerware. Not a bad haul by any standards.