Hominin Evolution Book Review: Bones of Contention (1987)

It has been a while since I posted on my blog and so out of guilt I’m back again to give you all a new post. This time I want to review a book published in 1987 on the political history of Palaeoanthropology. Written by biochemist Roger Lewin (1944 – Present) it charts the history of the science of Palaeoanthropology and is a must read for anyone interested in the origins of the genus Homo. In 1989, Lewin won the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books, for this very work. Many palaeoanthropologists at the top today could use with reading this book, to help them reflect on their own interaction with other workers in the field. The book was later revised in 1997, which at the time of posting was 21 years ago. There is no question that the field in need of an update to see if the field has changed or remained the same. I hope we will see this 3rd edition in the near future. Among other topics there is no doubt that the recent sexual misconduct of some scientists will need to be discussed in that new book. Let’s talk about the book. The title is very appropriate but when I first heard of it many years ago, I couldn’t help but bring out the immature side in me and snigger at the close similarity of the title with “Boners of Contentions”.  I pondered on the potential look of the T-shirt, I could have printed. Anyway, the book covers a number of important moments in palaeoanthropological history.

In no particular order, Lewin discusses the storm surrounding the Taung Child, Ramapithecus, the KBS Tuff, the famous Australopithecus afarensis A.L. 288-1 and finally the work of the Leakey, specifically the father and the son. Here we see human nature at its worst usually, particularly when we get emotionally invested in a fossil or hypothesis or even flawed radiometric dating. Human evolutionary research, whether the workers in the field, like it or not, is storytelling. Storytelling based on evidence, I might add, but it possesses shades of science fiction. The hominin fossil record is extremely fragmentary and the stories told by these fossils are also extremely fragmentary. They are necessarily weak and this is not particularly useful in a field, where the scientists develop emotional attachment to their pet hypotheses. Even in the light of new evidence many still ignore due to the embarrassment of admitting you are wrong, based on the new evidence. In Palaeoanthropology, admitting you were wrong has been virtually impossible. There is really only one recorded case of a straight up “I was wrong and someone else was right”, that honour goes to Arthur Keith and his review of Raymond Darts Taung Child.

The book allows me to reflect on my own strongly held convictions that Homo heidelbergensis is a valid taxon, at a time when palaeoanthropologists generally shy away from using it. I have imbued it with my own emotional attachment and will remain unconvinced that it should be invalidated. But equally, those who argue the latter, are blinded by their own biases. They do forget that the fossil record of the species is incredibly sparse, with only a handful of skulls representing it. Admittedly, they have a point regarding the Mauer Mandible as the holotype of the species. Ideally, the holotype should be a complete skeleton, but the early science of palaeoanthroplogy was not rigorous in how it proposed new species. So, we are stuck with a mandible in a hypodigm entirely of crania, you read right one mandible and a handful of crania. This, I would argue is no grounds to invalidate a species. In debates, the emotional investment, gets in the way of objective thought and they can get quite heated. Thankfully, I’m not the only palaeoanthropology student indulging in Pro-Heidelbergensis camp. In 2017, Roksandic et al., conducted a revision of the representatives of Homo heidelbergensis. Bones of Contention has allowed me to at the very least be aware of my flaws when it comes to interpreting the fossil record, but with the above paragraph, I’ve really only scratched the surface and it will require a separate essay on the topic for the future.

Bones of Contention is a well written book and while it loosely follows event chronologically, Lewin does compare and contrast most of the events, concluding with a theme that binds these momentous events together. The reminder that we are telling stories is the key thought all palaeoanthropologists should be aware of. I’m aware that the latter is quite a risky statement, but in order for the palaeoanthropology student to be as objective as possible, we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. Many at the top, I suspect, will laugh at this as obsurd. One could argue that the science is far more rigorous in every way today than the time Eoanthropus dawsonii was first unveiled to the world. The Humans that study the fossils, well they have not changed. We are still flawed scientists, whether we like to admit it or not. This is uncomfortable for me to say, but it is true. In the early 1900’s, scientists saw hominin evolution as a variation of the chain of being, a line from ancient apes to human’s, today a variation of multiregional evolutionism is the hip new hypothesis with the “river delta” as its logo.

One topic that the book does not cover is the nature of public engagement of palaeoanthropology contrasted with scientific process associated with palaeoanthropology. For me, these are two different worlds, incredibly incompatible and one scoffs at the other in righteous indignation. There will be no way to bridge the gap between the two. Yes, some seem to be bridging this gap, but if you really dig deeper, the reality is very different. Science is an ever shifting process of evidence evaluation, something that is incompatible with the requirement of certainty in the press. I often cringe at the often used phrase that “textbooks will have to be re-written on palaeoanthropology”. This comes as no surprise to any palaeoanthropology student, but this statement implies that palaeoanthropologists had figured out the evolutionary steps hominins took over the past seven million years to get to where we are today. Far from it and this is what angers a lot of palaeoanthropology students and lecturers. The media need a hook and unfortunately the most effective hook to draw the public in is the above statement. You can’t blame them for reaching as wide an audience as possible. But this has meant that palaeoanthropologists in particular are cautious when they engage with the media. The seemingly innocuous move to record conference talks on new scientific findings is very risky from the point of view of the speaker. Choice of words at a presentation on record and the choice of words on the academic paper may be subtly different but they have the potential to ruin the academic standing of the speaker. Additionally, journals have strict embargo rules on when engagement with the media can begin. Break these rules and the paper will never be published. There will remain a tension between these two worlds for many centuries to come. I hope that the 3rd edition of Bones of Contention will cover this in more detail than I have here.

The only criticism I have of the book is the placement of the black and white photographs in the book. It would be more beneficial to have them scattered throughout the book, associated with their appropriate chapters, instead of combining them together  in two groups in the centre of the book. This is not much of a criticism, but it does demonstrate the difficulty I had in my attempt to find one. It is an excellent book. To use a quote from Leonard to Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, reading this book “is like looking into an obnoxious little mirror”. It help us re-examine ourselves and re-focuses our thoughts on a very controversial science.





Palaeoanthropologist Alan Cyril Walker (1938 – 2017)

CaptureAlan Cyril Walker (born August 23, 1938) died on November 20, 2017, of pancreatic cancer. He was a world-renowned paleoanthropologist and the recipient of numerous awards for his extraordinary scientific achievements, including a “genius” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and lifetime awards such as the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the Leighton Wilkie prize of the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology (CRAFT) and the Stone Age Institute, Indiana University, and the International Fondation Fyssen Prize in Paris. He was one of the only scholars in the world elected to the Royal Academy (U.K.) as well as the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Walker was born in Leicester, England, the second of four sons of Cyril Walker, a carpenter, and Edith Tidd Walker, a housewife. He was preceded in death by his parents, his first wife Patricia Nicholson, and a younger brother, Gerald Walker. He is survived and mourned by his elder brother, J. Trevor Walker and his younger brother Michael D. Walker, both of whom livie in England, his loving second wife of 42 years, anthropologist and author Pat Shipman, of Moncure, N.C. , his son Simon B. Walker, and his son’s wife Shellene Wellnitz Walker, and his granddaughters Bryn and Meghan Walker of Morrisville, N. C. In addition, he is remembered fondly by many of his former students and colleagues in several countries.

Alan Walker earned an undergraduate degree with honors in the Natural Sciences (Geology, Zoology, Mineralogy, Petrology, and Palaeontology). Following his childhood fascination with animals and fossils, Walker obtained a grant to attend the University of London, earning a Ph.D. in Anatomy and Palaeontology under the mentorship of John Napier. His thesis topic was a study of the functional anatomy and behavior of living and fossil lemurs of Madagascar. His work had a major influence on the field, emphasizing deducing the behaviors of extinct species from living ones to paleontology. He later received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Chicago.

For much of his career, Dr. Walker was a brilliant teacher of human gross anatomy, training thousands of future physicians. Institutions where he worked included the Royal Free Hospital, School of Medicine, London (19165), Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda (1965-1969), the University of Nairobi Medical School, Kenya (1969-1974), Harvard Medical School (1973-1978), and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (1978-1995). In 1995 he moved to The Pennsylvania State University to teach anatomy and biology to undergraduate and graduate students, retiring in 2010 as an Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology & Biology.
Throughout his academic career, Alan Walker was known for his kindness and generosity to students, for the tremendous breadth of his interests and knowledge, and for pioneering new approaches to evolutionary problems. He was instrumental in developing the field of dental microwear to deduce diets of extinct species and was among the first to the study of the structure of the inner ear of fossils to understand their patterns of locomotion and movement of extinct animals.
He was also known for his collaborations in finding fossils with Richard and Meave Leakey in Kenya. One of their most important discoveries was the finding, excavation, and analysis of the most complete ever skeleton of Homo erectus from Nariokotome, Kenya. This skeleton revealed the startlingly tall and lanky stature of a youngster of the species that first migrated out of the African continent. His research also had a major impact on the study of fossil apes, following his discovery of thousands of bones of several extinct apelike creatures on Rusinga and Mfwangano Islands in Lake Victoria, Kenya.

In accordance with his wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial services. Condolences may be sent to his wife, Dr. Pat Shipman, at 3140 Chatham Church Road., Moncure NC 27559 or (pat.shipman9@gmail.com). In lieu of flowers, friends and family in the U.S. may send donations to St John’s College, Cambridge, at www.cantab.org/giveonline or, in the U.K., to https://johnian.joh.cam.ac.uk/giving/donate.


The Infectious Diseases of Migrant Populations

Syrian and Irawi immigrants getting off a boat from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos

The year 2015 will be remembered for the sudden increase of asylum seekers and refugees into Europe and this looks set to continue. Many academic studies attempted to estimate the risk of infectious disease thanks to this increased migration, but these fail to take into account the reasons for this migration. Most are assumed to have the same disease, which is not likely and so Professor Christian Wejse of the Department of Infectious Diseases, Aarhus University set out to find out the prevalence of different diseases among different migrant populations. Generally, refugees have high risk of contracting tuberculosis, hepatitis B and HIV, with cutaneous diphtheria, relapsing fever and shigella appearing to a lesser extent. Hepatitis C and malaria was considered low risk among migrant populations. So, what explains the patterns we see here. Poor living conditions during migrations featured as the primary culprit, which was tracked along migration routes. Despite high transmission of disease by the migrant population, the risk to the population of the host country was significantly low. This research demonstrates that there is a need for the creation of a standard for health reception and a reporting of asylum seekers and refugees.

Professor Christian Wejse discussed the results of his research at the Society for the study of Human Biology (SSHB) Conference in early December of 2016, at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus, Denmark.



Descent of Palaeoanthropology on Florence 18th – 20th of September 2014



Human Evolutionary research has come a long way since Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man and selection in relation to Sex’ in 1871. It has matured and developed into a respectable discipline. Less and less do we see personal egos influence research and conclusions, more and more do we see a worldwide interest in researching our hominin past, not just in the USA. A number of years ago, the European Society of the study of Human Evolution was established as an answer to the American conferences. This conference type is long overdue in Europe for those who don’t have the time or finances to travel to the US. I have been to the 2013 conference which was held in Vienna. My time there was nothing short of enjoyable. Loving every moment from cruising down the Danube to lectures on the carcass processing by Homo erectus in eastern Africa.

Now I have this conference to look forward to, taking place in the town of Florence, northern Italy. What follows are a few of what I consider highlights of the visit.

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 Cover Page of the Abstracts booklet with details of the excursion: Check it out Here

The Keynote will be given by Professor Guido Barbujani (pictured below) of the Department of Life Sciences and Biotechnologies of the University of Vienna. Here he will give us an overview of an aspect of linguistics research – comparing distantly related languages. Traditionally, comparisons were focused upon the lexial. When it came to languages with quite different vocabulary, the lexial comparison experienced numerous difficulties. The Parametric Comparative Method (PCM) of syntax and grammar appears to go beyond the difficulties found in lexial comparisons. What’s more, it is a much better predictor of differences found in the human genome, than that shown by geographical comparisons. I know little about linguistics, but on the face of it, this does sound promising. Based on what I know, linguistics has been nothing but conjecture, rather like most of theorical physics. It is the experimental physicists that have to help them test their hypotheses. Cross-disciplinary work is much better than going it alone, history reveals this to us. Today there is much communication going on between disciplines, working together bringing the skills and techniques of each discipline to the table to help unravel the mystery of the world.


My masters research involved the investigation of Paranthropean biogeography between eastern Africa and southern Africa. So, it will be no surprise to my friends and colleagues, that I will be particularly interest in the poster presentation by Andrew Gallagher, entitled Size and Sex variance in Paranthropus robustus: Taxonomic and Palaeobiological implications. Another poster presentation, I will be very interested in viewing is also shown during Poster Session 1 and that’s the one by Sandrine Prat entitled A specimen of Paranthropus robustus from Bolt’s Farm Cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.

What excites me most about this conference is the nomadic activity it indulges in from year to year. Most conferences in any discipline are like this anyway, but I want to emphasise here, because I get to see a part of Italy few tourists get to see or for that matter want to see. The words you see here on this post can never fully explain the childish excitement I’m experiencing here, in the Member’s Room in the British Museum.

Another highlight will be our visit to a spa resort to relax and bathe in the wonder and awe of palaeolithic cave archaeology. See what I did there! The Cave of the Fair Spa or Grotte di Equ080406_burren8i Terme in summary is a Mousterian Heaven. Being tectonically porous, sulphurous hot springs seep up from the earth below and since the Romans couldn’t get enough of hot springs, this area became a very popular resort to kick back and chill. Though I doubt the Romans knew what treasures lay at the back of nearby caves. Like the famed limestone landscape of the Burren in the West of Ireland (Above), this area is karstic.

Karst = Caves = Archaeological & Zooarchaeological Remains

Now that I think of it, would it not be interesting to discuss prehistoric use of hot springs. Let’s try to attempt to reconstruct an extended family of Homo neanderthalensis availing of the springs. Would these springs have been in demand? If yes, then was competition fierce among Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis for this location, especially during the winter months. Who knows? But its a fun idea to play around with, don’t you think?


 Equi Terme Hamlet

So I’m excited because I love discovery. It inspires me, makes me feel positive and I feel a sense of humility, knowing how far humanity has come since Homo ergaster left Africa a million and a half years ago. That’s fine, but there is alot of work needed to help us understand the past. My expertise lies in Archaeology and so I’m particularly interested in the stone tools that were deposited in these caves. Dating to Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS 3) from about 57,000 to 29,000 years ago, numerous excavations were undertaken at the caves in the decade of World War I. In July of 2014 a paper was published by Ghezzo et al, entitled Recovering data from historical collections: stratigraphic and spatial reconstruction of the outstanding carnivoran record from the Late Pleistocene Equi Cave (Apuane Alps, Italy), seeking to merge modern data with that of the early 20th century antiquarians. The zooarchaeological record of the Cave of the Fair Spa is one of the richest in northern Italy, but it also contains a lithic assemblage sometimes referred to as the Alpine Mousterian. So, its Mousterian with a twist (not literally, of course).


Rio Secco Cave, north-eastern Italy – Mousterian Assemblage

Decoding Homosexuality in the Archaeological record: Earliest Same-Sex Love

In October of 2013, Jim Parsons (actor) and Todd Spiewak (graphic designer) revealed their love for each other. Speaking on the GLESN Red Carpet, Jim had this to say:

“If we’re inspiring at all, it’s that we’re a very-average-normal-just-moving-along-with-our-lives kind of people”

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 Parsons made the announcement in a low-key statement, which attracted little of the gutter journalists, thankfully. This got me thinking about the perception of the announcement of homosexual relationships. Saying that we are tolerant in the 21st century is a ridiculous simplification. For one thing different cultures have different tolerance levels to such announcements. Islam is one such culture that is for the most part, out-right intolerant of homosexuality.

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Sleep (1866) – Jean Désiré Gustave Corbett

It has long been known that homosexuality in animals such as humans has been an ever present orientation. Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Volker Sommer (UCL) published Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective (2006) which examines the extent to which homosexuality operates in not just humans, but other animals also. While there may be a shortage of research into the evolutionary history of homosexuality, shortage of evidence for homosexuality in modern day nature, there is none. Deer, birds such as geese, flamingos, bison, dolphins, cats and virtually all primates, including humans. All this does not answer the question, though. How were homosexual partners perceived in the past? Easy……….when you are discussing modern day perceptions, hard (no pun intended)……..when you are talking about a gay Paranthropus boisei……………………….

Burial is not particularly useful until Homo neanderthalensis arrives on the scene, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even then, there is considerable debate as to whether our extinct cousins deliberately buried their dead. The majority of palaeoanthropologists will agree that the evidence supports the hypothesis that Homo neanderthalensis buried their dead. Cave art may help in some ways, but this has inherent problems. Art is a form of communication and could be read differently by different groups or individuals. Using science to determine the meaning of art is not very fruitful. Number one the researcher has her/his own set of cultural backgrounds and biases, which have potential to influence conclusions. Number two art was never meant to be scientifically analysed with regard to the meaning. Art welcomes varying interpretations. We can tell the age of the art a number of different ways. One method employed in the prehistoric rock-art sites of the Côa Valley, northern Portugal, involves stratigraphy. Soil found lying against the rock was laid after the art was (in this case) etched into the rock.

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We can determine the composition of the pigments used, such as those used in Lascaux (France) and Ekain (Spain). The research at these two sites, simply begs for your curiosity. The pigments applied to the walls of these caves included that minerals, groutite, hausmannite, and manganite, all oxides of manganese, not found anywhere near these sites. Chalmin et al,. (2006) found that the closest source could have been 250 km south in the central Pyrénées. What does this mean? One intriguing possibility is, of course, trade links. Palaeolithic and trade links were not two words archaeologists would put in the same sentence, but evidence points to our inability to give our ancestors more credit as early Homo sapiens.

Ekain Cave (Spain)

Look Up! Just look at the Ekain Cave art! What does it mean? We will just never know, but it is fun to play with hypotheses. But I digress……….we are trying to find evidence of homosexual activites in prehistory. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

Male Couple Engaged in Intercourse, possibly 14,000 B.C., found in the Cave of Enlène, Ariège, Pyrenees, France

Here we have a homosexual couple (yeah, this is what I mean by interpretation) making love, etched on stone, found in the Cavern d’Enlene, southern France. This site dates to about 14,500 uncal BP and was first excavated in 1869 by Felix Regnault and much later by Jean Clottes. What about the two Venus’ having hot fun below. The cave of Gönnersdorf, Germany, first excavated in 1968 by Gerhard Bosinski. This site revealed numerous statues of venus figurines and relief work.

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Honestly, we could look at alot of prehistoric art and with each one never entirely agree as to what they are depicting. Check out the “Sex on Rocks” (“Sexo en piedra”) on display in the Santillana del Mar Museum, Cantabria, Spain for more dildo action. Let’s return to the early question of this blog. How was homosexuality perceived in prehistoric times? Little research has been done to give a worthy answer. I would like to think that it was acceptable in alot of cultures around the world over the last 200,000 years. When history begins (i.e. the first use of the written word), the Greeks are accepted by all scientists as the true drivers of homosexual freedom, albeit in a male chauvinistic society. By the time the Romans came on the scene, Greece had long seen the last of its glory days, but Emperor Hadrian look with fondness at the history of Ancient Greece, especially when it came to sexuality. It is well documented that Hadrian (Below Left) was fond of young handsome men. Indeed he suffered depression at the loss of his lover, Antinous (Below Right).

Can we go back any further than the Greeks for expression of homosexual love? Maybe………….in 2011 the media was all a buzz with the discovery of the first gay cave cavemen (emmm….too much baggage there) buried together. But this turn out to be woefully distorted information from online media. One paper even goes as far as contradicting themselves. The title included gay cavemen and the end of the article included “third gender”. The is a difference, ya know! Dating to 2500 to 2800 B.C., the male burial contained all but those grave goods you would associate with a woman or man. The Corded Ware culture tended to certain burial formats when it came to woman and men. If it is not male or female than what is it? The idea of a third gender has been around for a long time and that is what the archaeological team suggested. Just to be clear, the burial contained a male, but the culture in which it lived considered him as someone different a third gender. So what about our gay Paranthropus boisei……..well we can always dream of female on female interactions, but one thing is for certain science is not ready to help here. Alot of focus has been given to the art humans produced over the past 40,000 or so thousand years, some to the sexual representation, offer, thus far the best chance to see how sexuality was tolerated or not. For me, like today, there may have been much complexity, some cultures accepted homosexuality, others shunned it. The earliest certified references to homosexuality can be found in the artefacts of Bronze Age Greece. In a male chauvinistic society, where female on female interactions don’t appear to have been as prominent. Cultural perception of sexuality appears to have gone through a wobble on the sexual see-saw, with more forms of sexuality such as transgender, third gender etc making appearances from time to time.

Artistic representations of sexuality in prehistory may have been used as part of rituals and rights of passage, but few represent two women or two men attracted to one another for love. There is no doubt in my mind that two females of Homo erectus had love for one another, though science can’t prove such an hypothesis, such a scenario is not beyond possibility. Now, many hundreds of thousands of years after Homo erectus made its first steps out of Africa, we see homosexuality embraced, in the Western World, at least, as a legitimate and tolerable love between two same-sex humans.


Check out homosexual rituals in various human culture here.

What about insects in hominin diets?

For those fans of human evolutionary research news, you will be well aware of the lack of research into the role insects played in the diet of hominins over the past 6 or so million years.


An Ant! – Credit: Wiki Commons

This topic was addressed back in 2001 in the chapter of an academic volume by William McGrew of the department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Since then nothing has been done to address ways in which such an investigation could be conducted. What can be done to address this? Look at what we………..modern primate diets and the role insects play in their diets from the human to the Orang-utan. Let’s then look at the earliest evidence for hominin consumption of insects. South Africa has nabbed that prize, thus far. The Lower Palaeolithic sites of Swartkrans, Sterkfontein and Drimolen contained hominin fossil bone tools with wear patterns similar to those wear patterns you find on sticks used by Chimps to fish for termites. Fossil remains of Paranthropus robustus were found at these sites and the evidence suggests they were feasting on termites.


Paranthropus boisei (Extinct cousin of Paranthropus robustus) – Credit: Wiki Commons

Examining the fossil evidence is one focus, but there are others including, lithics, residues, dental microwear, stable isotopes, DNA and coprolites (Fossilised shit…..basically). The dental microwear is quite problematic, because you have to take note that the tooth has been in the earth for millions of years (2.4 million years for the earliest Paranthropus specimen). Stable isotopic research is the much more promising of the topics discussed in William McGrew’s latest paper for the Journal of Human Evolution.


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