The year 2020 in scientific discoveries

By Katie Hunt, CNN

Published 8:17 AM ET, Tue December 29, 2020
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Ancient skull: A Homo erectus skullcap found northwest of Johannesburg has been identified as the oldest to date. The hominin, a direct ancestor of modern humans, moved out of Africa into other continents. Therese van Wyk/University of Johannesburg
Stone Age chewing gum: This piece of birch pitch was chewed by a girl who lived 5,700 years ago in what's now Denmark. Geneticists were able to sequence her genome and oral microbiome from the substance. It was the first time human genetic material had successfully been extracted from something besides human bones. Theis Jensen
Smart Neanderthals: The discovery of a 41,000 to 52,000-year-old yarn fragment wrapped around a thin stone tool in a French cave showed that Neanderthals were cognitively similar to early modern humans. Making the yarn would have required an understanding of basic math concepts and suggested that it was possible Neanderthals could make things like bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets, snares and even watercraft. M-H. Moncel
Prehistoric Picasso: Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm were part of the team that made the discovery of the world's oldest rock art found in a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Endra
Full belly: Dinosaur stomachs and evidence of their diets are rarely preserved in the fossil record, but the last meal eaten by an armored nodosaur just before it died was captured in exquisite detail, according to a study of a unique fossil published in June. Sue Sabrowski/Royal Tyreell Museum of Palaentology
Crazy beast: An artist's impression of Adalatherium, a bizarre mammal dubbed "crazy beast" and first described in 2020 is shown here. It would have lived among the dinosaurs and is unlike any other mammal -- extinct or living. Andrey Atuchin
Primitive human ancestor: This is an artist's rendering of Ikaria wariootia -- a wormlike creature about the size of a grain of rice that was uncovered in South Australia. It's the oldest ancestor on the family tree that includes humans and most animals. The creature lived 555 million years ago. Sohail Wasif/University of California-Riverside
Oldest material found on Earth: A magnified view of a presolar grain, or stardust, that is about 8 micrometers. It existed before our solar system was created. Courtesy Janaína N. Ávila
Skyscraper reef: While mapping the seafloor off the coast of North Queensland, a team from Schmidt Ocean Institute came across a new vertical coral reef in the waters measuring 500 meters (about 1,600 feet). That's taller than some of the world's highest skyscrapers. It's the first "detached reef" to be detected in the ocean depths in over 120 years. Schmidt Ocean Institute
Frozen bear: An Ice Age cave bear was found in Siberian permafrost with all its soft tissue intact. It could be up to 39,500 years old. North-Eastern Federal University Yakutsk
Voice from the dead: Researchers in the United Kingdom re-created the voice of a mummified Egyptian priest by 3D printing his voice box after scanning the priest's remains. Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries
Viking diversity: A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used as part of a massive DNA analysis of over 400 Viking skeletons. The study found that the Vikings were surprisingly genetically diverse. Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology
Volcano turned brains into glass: In January, researchers published an analysis of a skull belonging to a person who perished during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Although the remains were found in the 1960s, the new study found that parts of the brain had been vitrified, or turned into a glassy black substance by the heat. Further investigation revealed cells in the vitrified brain and intact nerve cells in the spinal cord, which, like the brain, had been vitrified. The New England Journal of Medicine