Origin of the higher primates – 1923 Expedition.

Human Evolution

What follows is a extract from an article by Russell Ciochon.

“On the road to Mandalay,/ Where the flyin’ fishes play,/ An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!” So wrote Kipling at the turn of the century of the wonders and enchantment of Burma and its city of Mandalay. Today, as enchanting as ever, the road to Mandalay beckons to paleontologists because Burma is the only place in the world that has yielded fossil evidence of an important link in the primate order. There are two groups of primates on the earth today. The higher primates – monkeys, apes, and humans – are the most familiar. They are sometimes called the Anthropoidea, or humanlike primates. The lower primates – the lemurs, lorises and tarsiers – make up the second group. These primitive primates, often called Prosimii, or pre- apes, were the first to evolve and were the forerunners of all later forms. However, fossils showing the beginning of the evolutionary branch leading from prosimians to anthropoids have been hard to come by.

An early discoverer of the “Burmese link” that demonstrates this transition was the legendary fossil collector Barnum Brown, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History. In the spring of 1923, Brown and his wife, Lilian, arrived in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. They journeyed by river steamer up the broad , muddy Irrawaddy to the port of Pakokku. From there they mounted a mini expedition to the little-explored Ponnyadaung (or Pondaung, as Brown spelled it) Hills, located deep in the teak-bamboo forest of Upper Burma. Outfitted with four bullocks, two small, mat-covered carts, and a pair of sway-backed saddle horses, they rode in search of the varicolored sandstones of the Pondaung Formation, rock deposits that had been discovered earlier in the century by British economic geologists. In the words of Lilian Brown, they were “rainbow-chasing” – following the sedimentary rocks shaded yellow, gray, red, purple, and green, seeking a prehistoric pot of gold. When Brown arrived in Burma, virtually nothing was known about the early prehistoric life of southern Asia. The prevailing scientific opinion was that Asia was the mother of all continents, the center of origin for much of the earth’s life. Brown had been sent by the American Museum to collect late Eocene (40- to 45-million-year-old) fossils in support of this “Garden of Eden” theory. He specifically sought to collect large skulls and skeletons of extinct animals that could be exhibited at the American Museum.

B. Brown In 1923, Barnum Brown (mounted) collected fossils in Burma’s Ponnyadaung Hills. This photograph (here tinted) was printed in Natural History in 1925, with a caption noting that the servant Mari (in the cart) died of malaria contracted on the journey. For two months, Brown’s small bullock-cart caravan creaked along the dirt tracks, the only roads in this remote part of Burma. Because the resident commissioner of Burma had provided a letter of introduction to all village headmen along the route, Brown was able to camp in villages that were nearest to exposures of the fossil-bearing Pondaung sandstones. One such stop brought him to the outskirts of Mogaung village, where he set up camp with Lilian and their two servants, Mari and Dos. Early each morning Brown would ride off in search of new fossil sites. One day, a short distance northwest of the village, he came upon a locality where he saw a number of small bones and teeth eroding out of the rock. Here he picked up part of a jaw with three teeth – a piece about the size of a fifty cent coin – that belonged to a medium size primate.

Barnum Brown probably did not realize that what he had discovered was an early higher primate. But Edwin Colbert, Brown’s colleague at the American Museum, did, and in 1937 he named the jaw Amphipithecus mogaungensis (near-ape of Mogaung). Amphipithecus joined the ranks of another Burmese fossil primate, discovered in 1913 by paleontologist G.D.P. Cotter. Cotter had explored the southern exposures of Burma’s Ponnyadaung Hills while working for Britain’s Geological Survey of India. A description of this specimen (a piece of upper jaw and two pieces of lower jaw) was published in 1927 by Guy Pilgrim, who named it Pondaungia cotteri. Pilgrim thought it could be an Eocene higher primate, but the fragments were too scrappy for precise identification. With Colbert’s more confident description of Amphipithecus in 1937, the late Eocene beds of the Ponnyadaung Hills became known as the source of earliest record of the Anthropoidea.

Anthropologists debated the evolutionary affinities of Amphipithecus and Pondaungia for the next four decades. Were they really the world’s earliest higher primates or were they prosimians with a few independently evolved anthropoid like features? Was Asia even the place to look for the origin of the higher primates? More fossil evidence was needed, but no one was able to work in the Ponnyadaung Hills during the years embracing the Japanese invasion, World War II, Burma’s achievement of independence, and the emergence of nationalistic policies that followed. I first visited Burma in 1975, to discuss the possibility of a joint U.S.-Burmese paleoanthropological research project. With U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War drawing to a close, my proposals fell on receptive ears. After discussing plans with geologists at the Mandalay Arts and Sciences University, I submitted a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reply stated that the Ministry had “no objection to a planned paleontological visit.” On my return to the United States I teamed up with Donald E. Savage, a seasoned paleontologist, and in March 1977, having obtained the necessary funding and entry visas, we set off on a two-month research tour of Burma.

Upon arrival in Rangoon, however, we were only given permission to prospect for fossils along the Irrawaddy River drainage, where the sediments date from the Pleistocene epoch (the last 2 million years of earth history). Ministry officials declared that the area around the more ancient Ponnyadaung Hills was so dangerous that we would need a police escort, which could not be provided at the time. Swallowing our disappointment, we flew north to Mandalay, where we were met by U Ba Maw and U Thaw Tint, our colleagues at Mandalay University, along with a geology student who was to be our field coordinator, Tin Maung Oo (who likes to be called “Tin”). For the next six weeks we explored a 300-mile section of the Irrawaddy River, collecting fossils along its banks and terraces. This fieldwork was rewarding, but we yearned to visit the Ponnyadaung Hills, a mere 200 miles to the west. To impress upon our Burmese colleagues how eager we were for information about the 40-million-year-old fossil beds, we left our copies of Barnum Brown’s field maps and publications with them. They promised to attempt a reconnaissance of the region in the late fall dry season.

Savage and I returned home and awaited further word on our research proposal to the Burmese government and on results from our Burmese collaborators’ visit to the Ponnyadaung Hills. We heard nothing for almost a year when suddenly a small package arrived from Mandalay. It contained plaster casts of jaws and teeth of several Eocene mammals, one of which was a nicely preserved jaw of Pondaungia. U Ba Maw and U Thaw Tint had not only found Brown’s localities; they had also succeeded in recovering a new fossil primate. An accompanying letter stated that they had found many more fossil mammal specimens, several of which they thought could also be primates. They encouraged us to return to Burma as soon as possible to visit the localities and to work with them on publication of the finds. In December 1978, arrangements were made, and we departed once again for Burma. On our approach into Mingaladon Airport in Rangoon we were asked to set our watches back in accordance with Burma Standard Time. The British businessman sitting next to me intoned, “Set your watch back thirty minutes and turn time back thirty years.” Indeed, little has changed in Burma since its independence in 1948. But our minds were set on a much longer time frame, for we were hoping to turn time back 40 million years!

Our knowledge of Amphipithecus comes from fragments of two separate jaws. One portion was found in 1923, another (shown overlapping) in 1977. This drawing of Amphipithecus is based on fossil evidence and an interpretation of the order of evolution of anatomical features found in living higher primates. After several days of preliminaries, we made the short hop by air to Mandalay and prepared for our journey to the Ponnyadaung Hills. U Ba Maw and U Thaw Tint could not accompany us on this trip since they were in the middle of university exams, but they sent some of their students with us. Before dawn on December 20, our small caravan – two World War II-vintage jeeps loaded with camping and excavation equipment, four geology students, a cook, a mechanic, two drivers, Tin, Savage, and myself – left for the field. To reach the Ponnyadaung Hills we had to cross the two great rivers of Burma. Crossing the Irrawaddy was a simple matter of driving over a steel-girder bridge, but at the Chindwin River our two jeeps had to be loaded onto a flatbed barge, along with chickens, goats, bicycles, and a large number of other passengers. A small tug then towed us across the mile-wide river. After several more hours of driving we reached the Pale Township People’s Council, where we checked in and picked up an escort of several armed policemen. Our Burmese colleagues had assured us that the only danger in the Ponnyadaung Hills was an unlikely encounter with a Bengal tiger, but for the sake of appearances, we decided to accept the offer of an escort.

On our five-hour climb from Pale into the Ponnyadaung Hills, the road deteriorated rapidly from a graded gravel track into a series of potholes and dust bowls interspersed by a washboard. The open scrub-brush and farmland near the Chindwin River quickly gave way to gently rolling forested hills. As we climbed still farther, the road became very steep, and the teak and bamboo forest surrounding us came alive with azure butterflies, screeching parakeets, and scampering red- orange jungle fowl. We encountered young Burmese men driving oxcarts loaded down with teak logs, but not a single motorized vehicle. At the fifty-five- mile post the road became impassable for even a four-wheel-drive jeep. We transferred our supplies onto two oxcarts, each pulled by two grunting oxen, and began the eight-mile hike down an old cart road into Mogaung village. The oxcart wheels creaked and squeaked – but not as a result of neglect, I was told; rather, the local villagers never grease the wheels because they feel the noise keeps away evil spirits.
Late in the evening of our daylong trek we reached our destination – Mogaung, a village of some nine hundred people. Surrounding the village, which consists of small teak huts raised off the ground on poles, is a bamboo fence. Inside, banana, coconut, and toddy palm trees grow in abundance, and pigs and chickens roam freely. We were lead to the hut of U Gyo, the village headman, where we were fed a traditional snack of bananas and green leaf tea. With Tin acting as translator, U Gyo greeted us graciously and suggested we use the new village schoolhouse as a base camp. It was rice-planting time, and school was not in session. We were exhausted, and after a quick meal of chicken curry, everyone bedded down. Early the next morning, with Barnum Brown’s field map in hand, we proceeded on foot northwest from Mogaung, through flooded paddy fields, across small streams, and along well-worn paths in the forest. After we had walked about one mile through the lush forest cover, the rainbow- banded sediments of the Pondaung Formation suddenly appeared. The local villagers called these areas kyit chaung, “placed without vegetation.” Owing to the chemical properties of the sediments, vegetation, especially fragile young rice plants, is not able to grow in them. In this case the villager’s loss is the paleontologist’s gain.

A family tree of the primates lists living groups at the top. The major fossil species, some of which left no descendants, are represented vertically by the branching tree. The Anthropoidea, or higher primates, are shown in orange; the Prosimii, or lower primates, which comprise all other primates, form a less unified group (yellow). Some early prosimians, perhaps a group related to lemurs and lorises, gave rise to the Anthropoidea. Amphipithecus and Pondaungia are transitional forms that possess a number of anthropoid features but also retain a few prosimian characteristics. Since Barnum Brown had left very precise field notes, we had no trouble finding his localities, and we soon began to accumulate a treasure trove of fossils. The Burmese geology students also showed us the spot where the new primate jaw had been found. Over the next couple of days, Savage and I collected the remains of many extinct animals, including hippo- and piglike anthracotheres, rhinolike brontotheres, small deerlike artiodactyls, rodents, lizards, turtles, fishes, and crocodiles. From studies of this fauna and some associated plant remains, together with an understanding of the type of rocks in which they occur, we can reconstruct the paleoenvironment of this part of Burma in the late Eocene. The sediments were deposited by a medium-size river that drained seaward toward the Burmese Gulf, which in the past was located much farther north. Along the banks of this river, which was partially covered by a forest canopy, anthrocotheres, brontotheres, and small artiodactyls came to drink. Turtles, crocodiles, and fish swam in the river. In the trees above, the ancestors of the higher primates romped.  On our second night in Mogaung village, the headman, U Gyo, honored us with a visit to “get better acquainted.” As spiritual leader and chief administrator of Mogaung, U Gyo had considerable power, but being sixty-five years of age, he had learned to use his position wisely. He spoke of how Mogaung village had changed over the past half century (“actually, very little”). I then asked him when Mogaung had last been visited by Westerners, “people like ourselves”. U Gyo thought a while and then began to recount the following story:

When I was a young boy of ten, I remember a white man and woman coming on horseback with several oxcarts of supplies. With the help of Mogaung villagers, they set up camp only a few hundred yards from where we are sitting. The man would ride off each morning and return late in the evening with his horse packed with odd-shaped rocks. The woman, who wore pants but was strikingly beautiful, would stay in camp and play with a small dog, whose hair she was constantly combing. We immediately realized that U Gyo was describing Barnum and Lilian Brown. I later showed him a photograph of Brown taken in Burma in 1923, and he confirmed the identification.

Outcrops of the 40-million-year-old Pondaung Formation are bare of vegetation.
After several more days of fossil hunting around the Mogaung village, we decided to hike to a locality Brown had discovered some six miles to the northeast, near the village of Gyat. We found some excellent exposures near a large lotus pond, which we could recognize from a photograph by Brown published in Natural History in 1925. Unfortunately, we were not able to find any fossils. In the late afternoon we trekked back to Mogaung, where our cook was preparing a special holiday meal of roast chicken and potatoes. It was Christmas Eve. Savage and I rested and sipped a clear, sweet alcoholic drink distilled from the fruit of the toddy palm tree. As the sun sank behind the mountains, the air became chilled, bringing out the smell of the teakwood smoke and frying oil.

As darkness fell we heard a commotion in the distance. One of our police guards, who had not returned with the field party, burst into camp brandishing his weapon proudly. He led a procession of villagers, two of whom shouldered a rough-hewn pole carrying a small deer. The deer was immediately butchered and some parts roasted that night. The following day we proceeded to our next camp, at nearby Legan village. There, the deer meat provided a magnificent Christmas Day feast for our entire field party and all the village elders. After another week of fossil hunting, we journeyed back to Mandalay, where more excitement was in store for us. At the Mandalay Arts and Sciences University we met with U Ba Maw and U Thaw Tint, who produced a box of small fossil jaws they had collected in the Ponnyadaung Hills. They weren’t sure what the six pieces were, but they had an idea they might be primates. Savage and I were almost breathless as each jaw was removed from the box. The first was a primate, the original of the cast they had previously sent us. Three of the others also proved to be early anthropoids. U Ba Maw and U Thaw Tint had tripled the early anthropoid sample of Burma. Of the four primate jaws they had discovered, two were Pondaungia and one was Amphipithecus. The fourth may represent a type of primate previously unknown to science. Our Burmese colleagues asked us to help them publish these finds in Western journals.

After returning to the United States, Savage and I began to study the casts and photographs of the new Ponnyadaung fossils, making comparisons with Brown’s Amphipithecus jaw and Cotter’s Pondaungia specimens. Since several of the new specimens are more complete than the older fossils, the characteristics of the two species are becoming clearer. Both fossil forms exhibit a combination of lower and higher primate features, with the latter considerably more predominant, indicating that they were at or across the evolutionary transition from prosimian to anthropoid.  Some of the lines of evidence that point to this conclusion can be illustrated by a look at Amphipithecus, the better known of the two species. For one thing, this gibbon-size animal, probably weighing about twenty pounds, was relatively large in comparison to most lower primates alive in the Eocene or even today. The lower jaw is deep (top to bottom), both absolutely and in relation to the height of the teeth, and this depth extends the full length of the jaw. In the lower primates, the jaw is not as deep and lessens in height toward the front. The Amphipithecus jaw is also very robust (thick). These jaw characteristics relate to the fact that the right and left halves of the lower jaw were fused, unlike those of nearly all extinct and living prosimians, whose jaws move independently as they chew. The fused jaws of anthropoids, which evolved for chewing tougher foods, are strengthened and reinforced to withstand the extra stresses that are placed on them during mastication. As in all anthropoids, the jaws of Amphipithecus are buttressed where they join by two horizontal, shelf-like thickenings of bone, called tori. (In contrast, the minority of Eocene lower primates that have fused jaws exhibit only one torus, suggesting they are unrelated to Amphipithecus.)

The cusps, or elevations, on the chewing surfaces of the teeth are relatively flat, a trend found in fruit eaters. Most prosimian teeth, instead, have a very crested cutting surface, useful for a diet of insects or leaves. In this respect, Amphipithecus resembles 30- to 35-million-year-old anthropoids found in Egypt’s Fayum province (see “Dawn Ape of the Fayum,” by Elwyn L. Simons, Natural History, May 1984.) Another important consideration is the number of teeth in the jaw. Among primates in general, there is a long evolutionary trend toward reduction in the number of teeth. Amphipithecus has three premolars, a relatively primitive feature it shares with some prosimians and New World monkeys. Old World monkeys (as well as apes and humans) have two premolars. In this respect, Amphipithecus (or some closely allied species) is a suitable candidate as a forerunner of both the New World and Old World anthropoids – in other words, of all higher primates.

The original specimen of the Amphipithecus lower jaw contained the root of the canine tooth, the root of the first premolar, the second and third premolars, and the first molar. Luckily, the new specimen has helped complete the picture, since it contains the first and second molars and part of the third. The square shape of the second molar (viewed from above) is significant, because this is characteristic of anthropoids. In contrast, among the lower primates there is a narrowing toward the front of this tooth. The newly discovered first molar has resolved a rather arcane controversy over the possible position of a rearward cusp known as the hypoconulid. A nick in the original specimen, where some believed this cusp has broken off, was not in the position characteristic of higher primates. As it turns out, the new specimen shows there is no hypoconulid cusp at all on the first and second molars. In this feature, Amphipithecus differs from all Old World anthropoids but resembles many New World monkeys.

Migration of the Early Anthropoids: The relative positions of continents, oceans, and shallow seas 40 million years ago are reconstructed in a map of the earth’s surface. Before higher primates (anthropoids) evolved, lower primates were present in Europe, Asia, North America, and probably Africa. The Burma fossil finds suggest that the higher primates arose from lower primates in Asia. Early forms probably then spread to Africa and, by way of volcanic islands, to South America (red arrows). Those in Africa subsequently gave rise to all the Old World monkeys, apes, and humans, while the New World monkeys evolved on their own in South America.  Another possibility (indicated by the blue band) is that a population of early higher primates came to occupy parts of both Asia and North America, which were connected by a land bridge. When this connection was severed, the New World and Old World groups began to evolve independently, the New World group eventually migrating to South America. No one has discovered fossils of higher primates in North America to support this second hypothesis.
The fossil finds from Burma suggest that the first higher primates evolved in Asia some 40 to 45 million years ago and spread from there to the other parts of the world. This geographic spread could have occurred by way of a number of routes, but I believe that the most likely sequence was the following one. At the end of the Eocene, early anthropoids, the Ponnyadaung primates or their close relatives, migrated across Asia into Africa by crossing the narrow, swamplike Tethys Sea, which then separated the two continents. Once in Africa, these early higher primates continued to evolve, with some populations becoming ancestors of the 30- to 35-million-year-old Fayum primates of Egypt (and ultimately of all Old World monkeys, apes, and humans). Other populations crossed the then-narrow equatorial Atlantic Ocean by island hopping along a series of volcanic islands. In this way they reached South America and became the ancestors of the New World monkeys.

The increasing clarity with which Western paleontologists are now able to view these events in primate evolution is owed in large part to the discoveries made by our Burmese colleagues, who continue to search for more fossil evidence. Although I have returned to Burma several times since my memorable visit to Mogaung village, I have not been granted further opportunity to visit the Ponnyadaung Hills. While a field trip to southern China was arranged in 1983, and one to Vietnam is planned for next year (both countries have related geological deposits), the road to Mandalay still beckon.

Reprint from Meta Religion

Favourite Quotes from Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1871)

Human Evolution
Charles Darwin

“It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase, for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent”

 p. 168 – Chapter 5 – Civilised Nations


“But we must not fall into the error of supposing that the early progenitors of the whole simian stock, including man, was identical with, or even closely resembled, any existing ape or monkey”

p. 182 – Chapter 6 – On the affinities and genealogy of Man


” At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked will not doubt be exterminated”

p. 183 – Chapter 6 – On the affinities and genealogy of Man


“At a still earlier period the progenitors of man must have been aquatic in their habitats for the morphology plainly tells us that our lungs consist of a modified swim bladder which once served as a float”

p.188 – Chapter 6 – On the affinities and genealogy of Man


“The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of Man, and this, in one sense is strictly true, for he owes his birth to a long line of progenitors. If any single link in this chain had never existed, man would not have been exactly what he now is. Unless we willfully close our eyes, we may with our present knowledge approximately recognise our parentage, nor need we feel ashamed of it”

p.193 – Chapter 6 – On the affinities and genealogy of Man


“Those who do not admit the principle of evolution, must look at species as separate creations, or as in some manner as distinct entities; and they must decide what forms of man they will consider as species by the analogy of the method commonly pursued in ranking other organic beings as species. But it is a hopeless endevour to decide this point until some definition of the term ‘species’ is generally accepted; and the definition must not include an indeterminate element such as an act of creation”

p. 205 – Chapter 7 – The Races of Man

New evidence on the diet of the Homo antecessor from Atapuerca

Human Evolution

A team led by experts of the University of Barcelona, the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) and the University of Alicante, analyzes for the first time the diet of the Homo antecessor with the study of the microscopic traces left by abrasive particles of food on dental enamel surfaces 

According to the new study, published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, the Homo antecessor processed and consumed food differently from Lower Pleistocene hominins
The dietary pattern of the Homo antecessor could be related to an environment with significant fluctuations in climate and food availability

The Homo antecessor, a hominin species that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula around 800,000 years ago, would have a mechanically more demanding diet than other hominin species in Europe and the African continent. This unique pattern, which would be characterised by the consumption of hard and abrasive foods, may be explained by the differences in food processing in a very demanding environment with fluctuations in climate and food resources, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports and led by a team from the University of Alicante, the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona and the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

This new research, which reveals for the first time the evidence on the diet of these hominines with the study of the microscopic traces left by food in the dental enamel, counts with the participation of the researchers Alejandro Pérez-Pérez and his team, formed by the doctors Laura Martínez, Ferrán Estebaranz, and Beatriz Pinilla (UB), Marina Lozano (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, IPHES), Alejandro Romero (University of Alicante), Jordi Galbany (George Washington University, United States) and the co-directors of Atapuerca, José María Bermúdez de Castro (National Research Centre on Human Evolution, CENIEH), Eudald Carbonell (IPHES) and Juan Luís Arsuaga (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Before /Prior to this research, the diet of the hominines of the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), our most remote European ancestors, had been inferred from animal remains –a great variety of large mammals and even turtles– found in the same levels in which the human remains were found. Evidence of cannibalism has also been suggested in some of these fossils.

Foods that leave a mark on the enamel

The study is based on the analysis of the buccal microwear pattern of the fossils from Trinchera  Elefante and Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca site. The examined microwear features are small marks on the buccal teeth enamel surface , whose density and length depend on the types of chewed food. “The usefulness of this methodology has been proved by the study of the microwear patterns of present populations, both hunter-gatherer and agricultural, showing that different feeding patterns correlate with specific microwear patterns in the vestibular surface of the dental crown”, explains Professor Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, professor at the Zoology and Biological Anthropology Unit of theof the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Barcelona.

In the new study, the Atapuerca fossils have been compared with samples from other Lower Pleistocene populations: with fossils of the African Homo ergaster, ancestors of all Europeans dated from 1.8 million years ago; and also with Homo heidelbergensis, which appeared more than 500,000 years ago in Europe and lasted until at least 200,000 years ago, and finally with Homo neanderthalensis, specimens from the Iberian Peninsula that lived between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Higher striation densities in Homo antecessor

The results of the study show that the teeth of H. antecessor show higher striation densities than the rest of the analyzed species. “Our findings do not allow us to say exactly what foods they ate, since the abrasive materials that cause the marks on the teeth may have different origins, but they do allow us to point out that H. antecessor would have had a diet largely based on hard and abrasive foods, such as plants containing phytoliths (which are silica particles produced by plants that are as hard as enamel), tubers with traces of soil particles, collagen or connective tissue and bone or raw meat”, says the researcher.

The researchers suggest that differences in the Gran Dolina microwear patterns among the compared samples could reflect cultural differences in the way food was processed. “Hunting and gathering activities are consistent with the highly-abrasive wear pattern we have encountered, but it is very difficult to think that the available food in the Atapuerca area was very different from that available to other hunter-gatherer hominins. Therefore, it would be the different ways of processing the food that would give rise to these differences in the dental microwear patterns. That is to say, they obtained, processed and consumed the food in different ways”, explains Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, who leads a team that has also applied this methodology in the study of feeding behaviors of the hominins of the Pleistocene of East Africa, including the species Paranthropus boiseiand Homo habilis.

A more primitive lithic industry

This pattern of great abrasiveness, observed on the enamel teeth surfaces in Gran Dolina contrasts with what has been observed in the compared species in the study. “UnlikeH. neanderthalensis, which had a more advanced lithic industry (called Mode 3 or Mousterian), the tools that have been found related to Homo antecessor are primitive (Mode 1). These industries would not facilitate food processing, as also suggested by evidence that they used teeth to chew bones. In addition, the lack of evidence of the use of fire in Atapuerca suggests that they would surely eat everything raw, causing more dental wear, including plant foods, meat, tendons or skin.

For the researchers, a diet with a high meat consumption could have evolutionary implications. “Meat in the diet could have contributed to the necessary energy gain to sustain a large brain like that of H. antecessor, with a brain volume of approximately 1,000 cubic centimeters, compared to the 764 of H. ergaster, but it would also represent a significant source of food in a highly demanding environment where preferred foods, such as ripe fruits and tender vegetables, would vary seasonally”.

The research contributes significantly to the better understanding of the dietary adaptations of our ancestors and highlights the importance of the ecological and cultural factors that have conditioned our biological evolution.

Paper reference:

A. Pérez-Pérez, M. Lozano, A. Romero, L. M. Martínez, J. Galbany, B. Pinilla, F. Estebaranz-Sánchez, J. M.  Bermúdez de Castro, E. Carbonell y J. L. Arsuaga. «The diet of the first Europeans from Atapuerca». Scientific Reports, February, 2017.

IN THE MICROSCOPE, Aliejandro Romero, the researcher of the University of Alicante qu eha participated in the project

Reprint from University of Alicante

Skulls reveals that ancient Americans didn’t mix with neighbours

Human Evolution

It’s a real head-scratcher. The shapes of human skulls from a narrow strip in Mexico reveal that first arrivals to the Americas may have kept to themselves, even when there were no geographical barriers that would have prevented them mixing.

Genetic studies have begun to unravel the complex story of the earliest American settlers, but archaeological studies can provide important details too – particularly the careful study of human skull shape. This is influenced by someone’s genetic history: when two populations become isolated from each other and can no longer interbreed, they each begin to develop unique genetic signatures – and skull shapes.

Mark Hubbe and Brianne Herrera at the Ohio State University in Columbus and their colleagues took detailed measurements from a series of 800 to 500-year-old skulls unearthed in three regions of Mexico. They then looked at equivalent measurements from skulls found at a number of sites across North and South America, East Asia and Australasia and analysed how skull shape varied with location.

Skulls from two of the Mexican regions – Sonora and Tlanepantla – clustered together in the shape analysis. But skulls from the third region, Michoacán, were different. The variation was on a scale normally seen between two populations that have been separated for millennia, often because they have settled in regions that are thousands of kilometres apart. Yet the distance between Michoacán and Tlanepantla is under 300 kilometres.

It’s an astonishing discovery, says Hubbe. Mexico was first inhabited at least 10,000 years ago, and the founding populations may well have had different genetic histories before they settled in the area. Crucially, the populations seem to have been so reluctant to interbreed that those genetic differences were still apparent just 500 years ago. “For whatever reason, these differences have been maintained for thousands of years,” says Hubbe.

Mexico lacks obvious geographical features that could have kept people apart – but formidable cultural and language barriers might have existed, says Hubbe.

“When it comes to population history, a whole host of scenarios are possible,” says Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel of the University at Buffalo, New York. “We see instances even in modern populations where neighbouring groups live in close geographic contact yet do not mix extensively in terms of marriage.”

Skull and other remains at Brazilian burial site

Hubbe and von Cramon-Taubadel collaborated on a second study, which involved analysing another set of early American skulls (pictured top and above). These came from Lagoa Santa in eastern Brazil and date back 10,000 to 7000 years, not long after South America was first inhabited.

“The Lagoa Santa material is unique in the entire New World,” says André Strauss at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was also involved in the work. “It presents abundant, well-preserved, old skeletons with reliable associated archaeological context.”

The researchers discovered that these earliest South Americans – the “Palaeoamericans” – had skull shapes that are distinctly different from those of most indigenous South American populations alive today.

“The differences between the Palaeoamericans and today’s South Americans are so large that they cannot simply have appeared in 10,000 years,” says Hubbe.

In other words, the Palaeoamericans cannot simply have evolved into today’s indigenous South Americans. Instead, the researchers estimate that the two populations split apart from a shared ancestral population at least 20,000 years ago, offering a much larger time window for the two groups to develop distinct skull features.

Because the consensus is that the Americas were not inhabited 20,000 years ago, this conclusion implies that South America may have been colonised in at least two distinct waves – one represented by the ancient people at Lagoa Santa and another by today’s indigenous South American populations.

This goes against the general assumption that South America was initially colonised in just one wave, before the Europeans arrived. It isn’t the first evidence that the South American story is more complicated, though – a 2015 study also raised the possibility of multiple colonisation waves by uncovering a genetic link between some of today’s Amazonian populations and indigenous groups in Australia.

“It is great to see this new analysis of morphological data,” says Pontus Skoglund at Harvard Medical School, an author on the 2015 study. “It reiterates that there is something interesting about the peopling of the Americas that we don’t quite understand yet.”

Journal reference: American Journal of Physical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23186

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602289

Article Reprint from New Scientist

A highly derived pliopithecoid from the Late Miocene of Haritalyangar, India

Human Evolution

The Late Miocene sequence at Haritalyangar, Himachal Pradesh, India, has produced abundant remains of the hominid Sivapithecus and the sivaladapids Sivaladapis and Indraloris. Also recovered from these sediments is an isolated and worn upper molar that was made the holotype of Krishnapithecus krishnaii and assigned to the Pliopithecoidea. However, the heavy wear and absence of definitive pliopithecoid features on the tooth rendered the assignment to this superfamily unconvincing. Here, we describe two lower molars from Haritalyangar that bear unmistakable pliopithecoid features and that are plausibly assignable to the same species as the type specimen of K. krishnaii. They convincingly demonstrate for the first time the presence of the Pliopithecoidea in South Asia. The new molars also reveal that K. krishnaii was perhaps the largest known pliopithecoid and that it possessed highly derived postcanine dental morphology. Because of its highly derived nature, it is difficult to determine its relationships within Pliopithecoidea, but a sister taxon relationship with either the Dionysopithecidae or Pliopithecinae is equally plausible; it is only distantly related to the Crouzeliinae. It is sufficiently distinct, however, from all other pliopithecoids to warrant placement in a separate family.

A highly derived pliopithecoid from the Late Miocene of Haritalyangar, India

How forensic science can unlock the mysteries of human evolution

Experimental Archaeology, Human Evolution, Human Origins, Palaeoanthropology, Science, Statistics

People are fascinated by the use of forensic science to solve crimes. Any science can be forensic when used in the criminal and civil justice system – biology, genetics and chemistry have been applied in this way. Now something rather special is happening: the scientific skill sets developed while investigating crime scenes, homicides and mass fatalities are being put to use outside the courtroom. Forensic anthropology is one field where this is happening.

Loosely defined, forensic anthropology is the analysis of human remains for the purpose of establishing identity in both living and dead individuals. In the case of the dead this often focuses on analyses of the skeleton. But any and all parts of the physical body can be analysed. The forensic anthropologist is an expert at assessing biological sex, age at death, living height and ancestral affinity from the skeleton.

Our newest research has extended forensic science’s reach from the present into prehistory. In the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we applied common forensic anthropology techniques to investigate the biological sex of artists who lived long before the invention of the written word.

We specifically focused on those who produced a type of art known as a hand stencil. We applied forensic biometrics to produce statistically robust results which, we hope, will offset some of the problems archaeological researchers have encountered in dealing with this ancient art form.

Sexing rock art

Ancient hand stencils were made by blowing, spitting or stippling pigment onto a hand while it was held against a rock surface. This left a negative impression on the rock in the shape of the hand.

Experimental production of a hand stencil. Jason Hall, University of Liverpool

These stencils are frequently found alongside pictorial cave art created during a period known as the Upper Palaeolithic, which started roughly 40 000 years ago.

Archaeologists have long been interested in such art. The presence of a human hand creates a direct, physical connection with an artist who lived millennia ago. Archaeologists have often focused on who made the art – not the individual’s identity, but whether the artist was male or female.

Until now, researchers have focused on studying hand size and finger length to address the artist’s sex. The size and shape of the hand is influenced by biological sex as sex hormones determine the relative length of fingers during development, known as 2D:4D ratios.

But many ratio-based studies applied to rock art have generally been difficult to replicate. They’ve often produced conflicting results. The problem with focusing on hand size and finger length is that two differently shaped hands can have identical linear dimensions and ratios.

To overcome this we adopted an approach based on forensic biometric principles. This promises to be both more statistically robust and more open to replication between researchers in different parts of the world.

The study used a branch of statistics called Geometric Morphometric Methods. The underpinnings of this discipline date back to the early 20th century. More recently computing and digital technology have allowed scientists to capture objects in 2D and 3D before extracting shape and size differences within a common spatial framework.

In our study we used experimentally produced stencils from 132 volunteers. The stencils were digitised and 19 anatomical landmarks were applied to each image. These correspond to features on the fingers and palms which are the same between individuals, as depicted in figure 2. This produced a matrix of x-y coordinates of each hand, which represented the shape of each hand as the equivalent of a map reference system.

Figure 2. Geometric morphometric landmarks applied to an experimentally produced hand stencil. This shows the 19 geometric landmarks applied to a hand. Emma Nelson, University of Liverpool

We used a technique called Procrustes superimposition to move and translate each hand outline into the same spatial framework and scale them against each other. This made the difference between individuals and sexes objectively apparent.

Procrustes also allowed us to treat shape and size as discrete entities, analysing them either independently or together. Then we applied discriminant statistics to investigate which component of hand form could best be used to assess whether an outline was from a male or a female. After discrimination we were able to predict the sex of the hand in 83% of cases using a size proxy, but with over 90% accuracy when size and shape of the hand were combined.

An analysis called Partial Least Squares was used to treat the hand as discrete anatomical units; that is, palm and fingers independently. Rather surprisingly the shape of the palm was a much better indicator of the sex of the hand than the fingers. This goes counter to received wisdom.

This would allow us to predict sex in hand stencils which have missing digits – a common issue in Palaeolithic rock art – where whole or part fingers are often missing or obscured.


This study adds to the body of research that has already used forensic science to understand prehistory. Beyond rock art, forensic anthropology is helping to develop the emergent field of palaeo-forensics: the application of forensic analyses into the deep past.

For instance, we have been able to understand fatal falls in Australopithecus sediba from Malapa and primitive mortuary practices in the species Homo naledi from Rising Star Cave, both in South Africa.

All of this shows the synergy that arises when the palaeo, archaeological and forensic sciences are brought together to advance humans’ understanding of the past.

The above article was reprinted from The Conversation

The Infectious Diseases of Migrant Populations

Europe, Human Evolution, Research, Social, Social Perception, Society, Statistics
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.

The Siberian and the Laika Hunting Dog

Culture, Ethnoarchaeology, Human Evolution, Science, Social, Social Perception, Society

Recently, I came across this early photograph of unknown origin. Confusion abounds online as to the origin and story behind it. After some time spent researching I ended up uncovering a dark past of Tsarist Russia. Siberia remained untouched by the outside world for many centuries, but that changed when the Ivan IV Vasilyevich (1530 – 1584) initiated a colonisation of Siberia beginning in July of 1580. This had disasterous concequences for the indigenous people who did not take to kindly to this subjugation. From 1706 to 1741, a series of Itelmen rebellions were brutally crushed, while the Koryak Rebellions of 1745 – 1756 marked a truly dark and bloody time in Siberian history. By about 1882, 12 indigenous groups were exterminated by the Russian Cossacks.

Yermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895) – Vasiliy Surikov

In the midst of all this chaos, groups of ethnographers were making there way into these territories to record and document the way of life and the diverse languages of Siberia. We have four very important people to thank for this. Waldemar (Vladimir) I. Jochelson (1855-1937) and Waldemar (Vladimir) G. Bogoras (1865-1936) published many articles on the way of life of the Siberian peoples, as part of the famous Jesup Expedition . Waldemar Jochelson and his wife Dina Brodskaya, lived among the Koryak, Yukaghir, and Sakha (Yakut) peoples for nearly two years. Dina’s primary task was to prepare medical records and photograph life in Siberian, while she could do little to address the outbreak of measles. The Koryak people had abandoned their camp along the river Gizhiga to retreat up into the mountains with the reindeer. They suffered a 25% death rate thanks to the measles outbreak. Waldemar Bogaras and his wife Sofia lived with the Chukchee people who by 1900 had suffered a 30% drop in population thanks to the measles outbreak.

River Gizhiga

And this brings me to the second consequence of warfare between the Russian Co
ssacks and the indigenous Siberian people – epidemic outbreak. The Siberian population was decimated by measles and smallpox outbreaks over the three hundred years of warfare. It was Waldemar who documented the languages and folklore of the Chukchee.

It is likely that Dina Brodskaya took the photograph of the Yukaghir adult and the Laika hunting dog in the autumn of 1900. I cannot imagine the frustration of the team in carrying the heavy photographic equipment across the inhospitable siberian wilderness.

Major groups of eastern Siberia

National History Symposium of North Korea 2016

Archaeology, Human Evolution, Human Origins, Palaeoanthropology, Palaeontology

On the 28th of November 1976, Eternal Leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, ordered the Kim Il Sung University to investigate the origins of the Korean people. Since then, both Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have proposed hypotheses to explain the origin of the Korean people and their history. On the 28th of November 2016, exactly 40 years later, a National History Symposium was held in Kim Il Sung University to take account of all the research that had been conducted within the country until now.

Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang, North Korea

The outside world has not been informed of these advances to a very clear level, but what we do know is that there is evidence that the Korean peninsula featured hominins by about the Upper Palaeolithic. According to the Pyongyang Times, Korean ancestors had settled down in the Taedong Basin around the present day capital Pyongyang “at the dawn of human history”.

State of Korean Palaeoanthropology in the year 2000. List of 45 Palaeolithic sites on the Korean Peninsula (Norton, 2000)

University President, Thae Hyong Chol and Minister of Higher Education, Ri Hye Jong both attended, but the current Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un was not present.

A number of people spoke at the Symposium, including:

  • University Dean: Choe Su Nam,
  • Laboratory Technician: Han Kum Sik and
  • Deputy Director of the National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage: Ro Chol Su,
  • Director of the Academy of Social Sciences: Son Su Ho
  • Kim Hyong Jik University Lecturer: Jon Ryong Ho.

A glimpse into the National History Symposium held at Kim Il Sung University

Out of Africa Reinforced

Human Evolution

It is crystal clear. The Out of Africa hypothesis is here to stay. For the passed few years we have seen a flood of genetic research that demonstrates a more complicated hominin evolutionary history. It was easy to see why the closet multi-regional evolutionists were secretly celebrating a potential comeback for a long defunct hypothesis.

It was initially Davidson Black, a Canadian palaeoanthropologist that first laid out the Multi-regional evolutionism (MRE) skeleton. His premature death, meant that German palaeoanthropologist, Franz Weidenreich, had to pick up where he left off. Since the 1940’s, MRE held sway in palaeoanthropological circles until the 1970’s when new evidence suggested that Africa was the melting pot of humanity. And it was from there that humanity entered Eurasia to take over the world and become the dominant species on the planet.

The advent of genetic research and eventually archaeogenetics in the 1990’s provided scientists with a new perspective of hominin evolution. Though restricted by the survivability of DNA, it shed a great deal of light on our relationship to the most famous hominin species – Homo neanderthalensis – Archaic hominins diverged from H. neanderthalensis many hundreds of thousands of years ago. According to the nuclear DNA of the Sima de los Huesos (SH) hominin, that split took place between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago, assuming the mutation rate is 0.5 (-1,000,000,000). Read more here. Using this assumed mutation rate, the divergence of H. neanderthalensis and the Denisovan Hominin is between 381,000 and 475,000 years ago. Read more here. All of this happened between 2014 and 2016.

In 2013 genetic research of Africa DNA demonstrated a ‘back-migration’ into Africa from Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Early Medieval period. In 2015, further evidence demonstrated a ‘backflow’ of hominins into eastern Africa. This fanned speculation that hominin movements not only involved an Out of Africa, but additionally an Into Africa. As yet, no work, thus far suggests that a ‘backflow’ occurred much earlier in the past. The evidence states that the African northeast was a one-way street.

In September of 2016, a team of scientists drove home the message that Out of Africa is here to stay. Native Australians become genetically distinct from the hominins of Papua between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago and both groups emerged from a small migratory group that arrived between 51,000 and 72,000 years ago. Read more here. A second paper provided more evidence that H. sapiens left Africa earlier than 75,000 years ago and 2% of the genome of the Papuan’s genome came from an early and largely extinct group of H. sapiens that left Africa.