Meganthropus palaeojavanicus – The Early Years of Palaeoanthropological Research (1942 – 1955)

Meganthropus palaeojavanicus (from the Ancient Greek, meaning Ancient Java’s Great Human) is a redundant genus and species that was first formally introduced by Gustav vonKoenigswald (1902 – 1982) in 1950. The genus once referred to a set of fossils found on the island of Java in the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s and 1980’s. The Javan fossils are now attributed to the hominin Homo erectus that lived from 1.9 million years ago to 300,000 years ago and had a range from Africa to Eurasia.

vonKoenigswald’s Meganthropus palaeojavanicus

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Gustav Heinrich Ralph vonKoenigswald (1902 – 1982)

On the 15th of January 1942, the Director of the Geological Survey of the Netherlands Indies, W. C. B. Koolhoven wrote a letter to anatomist and palaeoanthropologist, Franz Weidenreich informing him that vonKoenigswald wishes the 1939 and 1941 to be attributed to a new genus and species of ape called M. palaeojavanicus. In 1945, Weidenreich referred to it as “vonKoenigswald’s Meganthropus palaeojavanicus”. Held in the Senckenberg Forschungsinstitute und Naturmuseum, an unpublished 1949 scientific paper written by vonKoenigswald proposes that Sangiran 1a,  It was not until 1950, the vonKoenigswald committed his new genus and species to print in a formal introduction. As the sixth decade of the 20th century developed, consensus shifted towards H. erectus as the taxonomic appellation of the Javan fossils.

“Meganthropus” Fossils

The following are a list of fossils that were taxonomically assigned to Meganthropus, but have now been officially assigned to H. erectus

Franz Weidenreich
Franz Weidenreich (1873 – 1948)

Sangiran 6a

Kromopawiro (a team member) discovered the fossil adult mandible fragment “near Glagahombo, north of Sangiran” not far from where another cranium was uncovered in 1939 and south of Sangiran 4’s location. Weidenreich described the 1.6 million year old fossil in 1945, in which he pointed out the size of the mandible and the primitive premolar morphology as evidence to support the application of a new genus and species – M. palaeojavanicus. This conclusion was revised in 1989, when Kramer concluded that the size was within the size range of H. erectus.

Sangiran 7

Dating to between 1.51 and 1.6 million years of age, Sangiran 7 (comprising 54 teeth) was recovered from 1937 to 1941. Fred Grine analysed some of the teeth in 1984, but it would be a decade later before he revised his earlier conclusion that they were hominin. As a result, three teeth FS 67, 72 and 83 were re-attributed to Pongo sp.

Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (1895 – 1971)

Sangiran 8

Uncovered in 1952, Sangiran 8 comprises fragment of mandible, with some teeth roots intact and a complete third molar crown. This individual is interpreted to have died in the jaws of a crocodile, based upon the scare marks on the fossil. The fossil was first described in 1953 by P. Marks concluding it lay outside the size range of H. erectus. In 1955, Le Gros Clark concluded that the fossil was within the range of H. erectus and that has remained the official attribution for Sangiran 8 ever since.

Sangiran 27

This partial adult cranium was first found in 1978 near Sangiran village, north of the River Chemoro and it was found as construction was underway on a new dam. The skull was found in the upper levels of the Sangiran Formation dating to between 1.66 and 1.58 million years of age. The fossil was described by Teuku Jacob in 1980, in which he attributed it to Meganthropus but was taxonomically revised in 2008 for reasons similar to the taxonomic revision of Sangiran 8. Indriati and Anton (2008) also noted that hyper-robust features of the fossil reflects earlier representatives of H. erectus.

Modern Uses of Meganthropus

Though taxonomically and scientifically redundant, Meganthropus is used by pseudoscientific Creationists as evidence for the Nephilim, giants that lived before Noah’s flood, referenced from an Iron Age manuscript called the “Book of Enoch”.

Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre (1624) – Giovanni Lanfranco (1582 – 1647)

A trickle of scientific papers and posters have been published and presented over the decades, claiming evidence for Meganthropus. Authors have suggest that Sangiran 5 is evidence of the existence of an older, “more robust morph”, with pongo-like characteristics. Suggesting that a Gigantopithecus-like counterpart lived in island South-East Asia. The most recent appearance of support for Meganthropus was at the 83rd annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 2014, a team of scientists led by Clement Zanolli presented a poster on their analysis of a fossil mandible fragment code named Arjuna 9. They suggested that teeth had enamel thickness and dental tissue proportions that differed from those seen in H. erectus. The statistical analysis of the enamel-dentine junction also seemed to support an attribution to Pongo sp. The fact remains, no evidence exists to support classifying the Javan fossils as Meganthropus.

Gorjanović-Kramberger Hypothesis: Took 99 Years, But We Finally Tested It

You meet Homo neanderthalensis in a dark alley……………….What do you do?

Homo neanderthalensis is one of the best understood species of hominin today. One that lasted many hundreds of thousands of years throughout Europe. Despite what we know through the lens of science, there is still much that we want to know about this species of human. Interrogating the subtle pieces of evidence is the task of palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, palaeoenvironmental scientists throughout the world. Contrary to what you may see on your average human evolution documentary, the kind of research conducted can be much more subtle. Here I will draw your attention to a difficult question. If we could fill the Great Hall of the South Kensington Museum with a few hundred individuals of our extinct cousin, what differences would we see in the upper chest and neck. The answer to that, at the beginning of 2015: We are not happy that we really know enough to give an answer.

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Range of Homo neanderthalensis

H. neanderthalensis is a well represented species of human in the fossil record, but the post-cranial anatomy is less well accounted for than the skulls. Not ideal for an investigation into the chest and abdominal regions of the human body. Nevertheless, it is vital we exhaustively examine what we have, to reveal potential clues to the kind of morphology these populations once exhibited. To that end, ten palaeobiologists from various Spanish academic institutions presented evidence that may be useful here. The mechanics of the breathing system, constrained by the rib cage and not the evolution of the species, is the focus here. Research continues to be a work in progress, new technologies arrive and they help further our understanding of the past. This research is no exception. Two year into the new millennium a new form of analysis that gauged quantity within a structure was applied to a collection of isolated ribs from an individual codenamed Shanidar 3. This individual had a more splayed lower rib cage compared to the more barrel-like form of our lower rib cage. Thus started a series of papers that suggested the lower rib cage of Homo neanderthalensis was generally less like ours. Comparatively less investigative research has been given to the upper end of the rib cage. This latest academic paper sets out to help understand just that.

Title and Authors of the Paper in Question
Title and Authors of the Paper in Question
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Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger (1856 – 1936)

In 1906 and a time when ancient humans were Anti or Post Diluvian Era (Noah’s Great Flood), Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger suggested that the superior ribs are an important facet of an upper thoracic orchestra of components, that together control upper thoracic breathing, separate from diaphragmatic breathing. It was not until 2015 that this hypothesis was put to the test on six hominin first-ribs from the cave site of El Sidrón, Asturias, northern Spain. The six first-rib fragments may represent, at most, four individuals. The first step was to identify the bone fragments and place them in their correct anatomical position. Below is a re-organisation of the information given about the sample itself. The first-rib of Kebara 2 was found to be similar in shape space and form space (both terms used in a statistical analysis of shape, known as Procrustes Least Squares (PLS)) to SD-1767 and SD-1699, indeed H. neanderthalensis exhibits straighter first-ribs than modern day Homo sapiens. What could this mean? The scalene muscles are the ones that give your neck, its shape. They run from the Rib 1 and Rib 2 up the side of your neck attaching to the vertebrae. Alteration in shape of the first ribs, and the attached muscles will have to operate differently, but may help explain the differences we see between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis. The principle component analysis (PCA) reveals some overlap in the linearity of the rib shaft. Such results are reflected in analysis of the specimens of Krapina Cave, Croatia and ATD6-108 representing Homo antecessor, from Gran Dolina Cave, Atapuerca, Spain. So, the straightness of the first-ribs may affect the movement of the upper torso during breathing.

Juvenile 1: SD-2148 (Right) and SD-2172 (Left)

Juvenile 2: SD-417 (Left) and SD-1225 (Right)

Large Adolescent / Small Adult: SD-1767 (Left)

Large Adult: SD-1699 (Right)

Looking at the juveniles, it is important to understand costal cartilage development. Understanding adult H. neanderthalensis individuals is easier, as there are more post-cranial fossils, but the El Sidrón hominins will be useful in understanding the ontogeny of costal cartilage in future fossil ribs of  juveniles. The El Sidrón juveniles confirm a tighter upper chest for H. neanderthalensis. The first-ribs are smaller, but feature larger attachments at the rib heads, whereas the lower ribs have smaller attachment points. Therefore, a H. neanderthalensis individual, exhibited a smaller upper torso, which was further from the cranium thanks to the slightly longer neck vertebrae. First-ribs that are straighter would have to project out from the skeleton more and Gorjanović-Kramberger proposed that the rest of the rib-cage would project outward, just as much. The scientific team added to this, that a change in the first ribs would in turn affect the rest of the rib-cage, because the ribs are latched together with intercostal muscle, preventing individual ribs from varying in shape, that ultimately allows coordination of muscle, chest wall and breathing action. Upper ribs connect directly with the sternum and so, result in distinctive rib shape compared with the lower thorax.

Association of Intercostal Muscle and Rib Bone
Association of Intercostal Muscle and Rib Bone

To summarise, the first ribs appear to determine the shape of the upper thorax ribs, but straightness of the first rib is linked with the straightness of the upper ribs. Together, this suggests the existence of different rib shape and functions between the upper and lower thorax. When you look at a particular fossil specimen, it is important you are aware of what bones, muscles, cartilage was associated with it. They all interact in subtle ways which we are piecing together in hominins, with the variety in body forms available going back 7 million years. In examination of the monophyly of Paranthropus, cladistical statistics showed us that the skeletal points used, should not be linked with eachother. An example of that, would be the masticatory system in Paranthropus comprising numerous points, all interacting with one another. This is a shame because the crania and mandibles are predominantly all we have of that genus. Currently, most are happy that Paranthropus boisei, Paranthropus aethiopicus and Paranthropus robustus are part of the same family – they are monophyletic. The rib cage, is similar to the masticatory system but it is a single unit with two functions, one  is upper thoracic respiration and the other is diaphragmatic respiration. H. neanderthalensis evolved a more restrictive respiratory system and highly developed arm muscles, evolutionarily more important for the condition in which it lived. So, if you were to meet our ancient ancestor in a dark alley, what should you do? It would have been prone to breathlessness, but could rearrange your face easier. Moral of the story, RUN!

The costal remains of the El Sidrón Neanderthal site (Asturias, northern Spain) and their importance for understanding Neanderthal thorax morphology

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

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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.

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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?

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 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).

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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.

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Check out homosexual rituals in various human culture here.