A teen’s fall and death during the last ice age

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Yucatan Peninsula. Even the tropical jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula reveal traces of the last ice age. The remains of them mammoth animals of the Late Pleistocene are safe and sound, not buried but submerged in the water-filled chambers in underground caves.

Cave divers discovered the skeletons of ice age animals that roamed the Earth before their extinction – giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, elephant-like gomphotheres and other megafauna. And then researchers discovered a young woman they call Naia,  preserved as one of the oldest human skeletons found in North America and the most complete. She is under 5 feet tall and may have been about 15 or 16 years old when she fell to her death some 13,000 years ago.

At the Yucatan Peninsula, freshwater from the underground cave system is the main source of water. In the search for fresh water, Naia’s people and the Late Pleistocene animals they hunted during the last ice age entered the cave, wandering slick passages. With a wrong step, they fell into a bell-shaped pit hole, now named Hoyo Negro, Spanish for “Black Hole.” The chamber is more than 100 feet deep and 200 feet at its widest.

Beddows, an expert cave diver, joined the research team that studied Naia and published their findings in Science magazine.

Today, Hoyo Negro is filled with water. But about 13,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the sea level was some 250 feet lower than it is today, Sea levels drop in the grip of ice ages. And so did the water level in the caves.

Underwater caves and Pleistocene animals. (Tiffany Chen/MEDILL)

“The groundwater layer literally just sunk down through the rocks,” Beddows said. “Since fresh rain water floats on the heavier marine water that is down below across the whole peninsula, when marine water is lower, then the layer of the fresh water is lower.”

Beddows is looking at the water flows and rocks of the peninsula to assess how sea level change really does allow the fresh groundwater to go up and down. By knowing more about the rock beds, Beddows and her students are able to better interpret the water level in Hoyo Negro since the fresh water is tied to the sea.

“When Naia fell in, it looks like there would have been some shallow water still inside Hoyo Negro,” Beddows said. “She would have fallen over 100 feet, hit the water, hit the rocks. There is good evidence that she floated before the body finally settled on the rocks, because of the way her body is broken up.”

Researchers found Naia’s body in three sections: the upper body, middle part and legs found in clumps on rocks with some short distance between them, which is a trait found in bodies that float on water. When bodies biologically break down, the spinal columns separate and leave parts of the body floating in different directions.

“The skeletons are beautifully laid out,” said Beddows. “The caves have a low energy level. The sedimentation rate is very low, and because now the [caves] are flooded, the constant water temperature at 26 degrees Celsius also helps preserve the skeleton.”

Photo at top: Geologist Patricia Beddows’ research on the Yucatan Peninsula will help provide Naia and other skeletons with a timeline and a better interpretation of their fall. She is an expert diver pursuing her science in a vast network of caves. (Tiffany Chen/Medill)

Feral cats hunting down lizards in the Yucatan

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Quintana Roo, Mexico – The lush forests, cobalt  blue waters and and rich biodiversity leaves the tourists in awe in the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet, over the past 20 years, locals and tourists at the coastal town  of Akumal noticed a drop in the population of lizards. And stray cats are to blame.

Something rattled in the bush. A cat with a grey-speckled coat gazed intensely into the green. Tip-toeing towards a tropical bush, the cat lowered its shoulder-blade making its belly closer to the floor. It stopped. It pounced. And it turned towards me. There, a gecko- looking reptile, waved its limbs and squirmed between the cat’s teeth. The cat held the amphibian hard enough so it couldn’t escape and light enough, so the cat didn’t kill it. I thought I’d just witnessed a lion hunting an antelope in the safari. But for these cats, the hunt isn’t for food, necessarily. It’s for sport.

Domestic cats are listed among the “100 of the world’s worst invasive alien species” in many areas, according to the Invasive Species Specialist Group. An estimated 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals are killed annually in the U.S. by feral cats who have shed domestic life. These cats are posing threats to birds, amphibians and small mammals around the world.

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Sputnik Coffee Company: A bona fide coffee business burgeoning in Back of the Yards

By Hayley Prokos
Medill Reports

A small homage to Soviet glory is bringing life to a barren corner of Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Four enterprising friends have opened a bustling coffee business and café on W. 51st and Hoyne Avenue, calling their business the Sputnik Coffee Company.

With few cafés nearby, Sputnik has become a convenient and affordable place for residents and those who work in the area to get a caffeine fix and custom pastry.

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Female Founders and Funding

By Alexa Adler
Medill Reports

Female founders receive less than 3 percent of venture capital funding. In this TV special, Alexa Adler interviews industry experts Nicole Yeary, Samara Mejia Hernandez, Desiree Vargas Wrigley and Sam Yagan to learn more about this disparity.

Photo at top: Alexa Adler hosts a TV special about gender related funding disparities for founders. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)

Chicago leads a national-level push towards mental well-being within poetry slam circuits

The 2018 National Poetry Slam, in Chicago this week, is addressing longtime wellness problems plaguing the slam world

by Vangmayi Parakala
Medill Reports 

CHICAGO – On Monday afternoon, the conference room at the Palmer House Hilton was abuzz. Under the ornate ceiling décor were busy-but-excited-seeming groups of volunteers streaming in for their official check-in. The National Poetry Slam 2018 is to begin in four hours.

Many of these people — they were loud, happy and welcoming each other with hugs — were meeting for the first time. Already, the group was making the Palmer House Hilton their home. The hotel in Chicago’s Loop district is playing host to the five-day poetry festival-and-competition which will end with the National Poetry Slam finals on Saturday August 18.

Over heaped plates of falafel and hummus, rice and pita, the group coordinators were getting to know their volunteers, distributing name tags, and briefing them about the duties that lay ahead. Sitting to one far corner of the conference room were the Wellness Team volunteers – three of the total 40 expected to join the team through the week. This is the first time that mental and physical health is being given dedicated attention of this scale at a national poetry event.

Since its early days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, slam poetry has been criticized for encouraging a certain type of poetry. The format rewards verse that is easily consumable and drawn from heart-wrenching personal stories of grief and trauma. Picked at random from the audience, judges tend to score highly poems that are powerful, moving and emotionally compelling. This, coupled with slam poetry’s being a genre heavy with stories of everyday and marginalized voices, can mean that violence, abuse, or oppression of some kind are dominant themes.

Add to that the very stress of competitive events, and the need for on-site mental and physical healthcare becomes obvious.

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Chicago State athletic director; diligent basketball coaching search worth the wait

By Patrick Engel
Medill Reports

Chris Zorich knows the narrative that surrounded his three-month coaching search. He heard the criticism of his long hiring process and Chicago State’s lack of a men’s and women’s head basketball coach during the entire spring and summer evaluation periods. The first seven words he spoke while standing behind a podium Wednesday acknowledged it.

“This has been a long time coming,” Zorich said, grinning.

And he doesn’t care one bit about the criticism, because he says he’s found his ideal coaches.

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Take a look inside Chicago’s 29Rooms

By Katelyn Sabater
Medill Reports

Refinery29 finally brought the Instagram worthy, interactive exhibit to Chicago at 1522 W Hubbard St. After popping up in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, residents got to experience this year’s theme: Turn It Into Art.

Refinery29 is a media and entertainment company focused on women with a global audience of 425 million across all platforms. Their mission is to be a catalyst for women to feel, see, and claim their power through their storytelling.

“29Rooms is where you can experience Refinery 29’s imaginative spirit in real life,” says Executive Creative Director Piera Gelardi.

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Opinions Differ on How Merged Bayer-Monsanto Affects Some Seed Businesses

By Yanchun (Roxanne) Liu
Medill Reports

Academics and independent seed companies have divergent outlooks on whether the merger between agrichemical giants Monsanto Co. and Bayer AG will drive away potential customers from companies that sell organic seeds and seeds that aren’t non-genetically modified.

German drug maker Bayer said in a press release on June 7 that it completed its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based provider of genetically modified organism seeds and crop protection chemicals. The tie-up further consolidates the global agrichemical sector, after Dow Chemical Co. merged with DuPont Co. in August and China National Chemical Corp. purchased Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta AG in June 2017.

The new company is likely to continue Monsanto’s strategy of increasing the prices of GMO seeds with new genetics each year, but the price increase will not be as aggressive as it was five years ago because of declining crop prices, said Chris Shaw, a senior analyst at Monness Crespi Hardt & Co., a New York-based equity research and trading firm. Prices have dropped and stayed at relatively low levels over the past few years, reducing farmers’ incomes and undermining seed companies’ ability to increase prices, Shaw said.

“If the price of GMO seeds rises as a result of the merger, that can sort of open up an opportunity for non-GMO seed producers to raise their prices a little bit, because their product will be more attractive if the rival product is more expensive,” said John Bovay, an assistant professor in agricultural economics at the University of Connecticut.

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Eco-therapy initiative helps young refugees in Chicago

By Jessica Nieberg
Medill Reports

Clearing brush and trimming tree branches may be an Earth Day activity for some, but for Muntadher Al Maeeni, it’s a therapeutic experience. The teenage Iraqi refugee has been in the United States for more than two years, and he’s found community through a program called REACH, which trains youths like Muntadher to be leaders and gain confidence through outdoor activities.

Shana Wills runs the program which hopes to fill in the gap of resources that the disadvantaged and refugee teenagers need. “I watched a lot of boys fall into recruitment by gangs, become suicidal, become severely depressed,” she said.

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Big Ten Media Days review

By DeForest Mapp, Connor Yahn, Brianna Williams and Jake Riepma
Medill Reports

The annual Big Ten Media Days were held in downtown Chicago. Medill anchors and reporters, DeForest Mapp, Connor Yahn, Brianna Williams and Jake Riepma all give insight on what to expect for the 2018 football season, just weeks away.

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