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.


Lessons of Homo naledi

New discoveries of fossilised hominin remains have to varying degrees helped to shape our ever-morphing interpretation of hominin evolution. Homo naledi is a case in point.

Though many worker in the field of palaeoanthropology were disappointed with the confirmed Middle Pleistocene age of the Dinaledi remains, this news nevertheless fills a void in our understanding of Middle Pleistocene evolution.

H. naledi confirms what we have known since the astonishing discovery of Homo floresiensis, namely that small brained hominins continued to thrive in some part of the planet right up to recent times. H. naledi can now join Homo floresiensis in the small brain Middle to Late Pleistocene club.

Palaeoanthropologist can now exercise a high level of skepticism on dating hominin fossilised remains using morphological stucture and statistics. In 2015, palaeoanthropologist John Francis Thackeray concluded Homo naledi to be over 1.5 Ma, while Mana Dembo and her colleagues concluded an age of 930,000 years of age for the Rising Star remains. Though Dembo et al were closer to actual age of the remains, they were still nearly 600,000 years off.

Finally, H. naledi continues to confirm what we have known since the announcement of Australopithecus sediba that hominin evolution features an ever changing mosasicism. With Australopithecine-like shoulders and cranium, while the lower limbs and foot appears more derived.

Upper Palaeolithic Beads of southern France


The Upper Palaeolithic is marked by the dominance of artefacts, left behind by our ancestors. When compared to more recent times particularly to the advent of farming 10,000 years ago, evidence for how our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors lived and ordered their societies is very much lacking. Recently, questions are beginning to be raised about how we prejudge Upper Palaeolithic hominins.

Claire Heckel of the American Museum of Natural History, in association with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) wants to harness the power of statistics and the archaeological record to understand the level societal complexity. Many decades ago, archaeologists assumed that early hunter-gatherers were simple people with simple societal structure. The rise of farming in the fertile crescent was argued to be a sharp contrast to what came before, with the sudden need to settle, develop states and thereafter kingdoms. Archaeologist today can’t entirely shed their idea of the contrast between the two moments in time. The question here is: Have we exaggerated the simplicity of Upper Palaeolithic hominins?

In order to begin to answer this question, we first need to find evidence of how Upper Palaeolithic society was structured. Heckel was very interested in what a tiny insignificant object like a bead could tell us about Upper Palaeolithic society. These Basket-shaped beads were found at four archaeological caves and rock shelters in Aquitaine, southern France. The beads are extremely interesting due to the projected time and effort needed to craft them. Some of the beads were made from steatite (soapstone), which is a talc-schist metamorphic rock, which got its name from the soapy feel of the talc in the rock. While others were crafted from mammoth ivory, broken into segments in a five-stage process.

The archaeological record has not always been very clear in shedding light on the past and so many anthropologists have appealed to ethnography to help explain what we see in the archaeological record. Many forget that what happens to the Kalahari Bushmen cannot count as a way of explaining the Upper Palaeolithic hominins of frozen Europe. The first archaeologists to try to use ethnography, was Dr. Lewis Binford who lived with the Nunamuit of Alaska as a way of peeking into life in Late Glacial Europe. This was flawed logic because it does not count as evidence and we need to return to the archaeological record to the direct clues. That is what Claire Heckel is doing here, by using morphometric analysis of 402 basket-shaped beads, the level of standardisation can be quantified.
Taking 6,432 data points on the 402 basket-shaped beads, Heckel used Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to compare and contrast the shape and form of the beads from 4 cave and rock shelter sites. The results suggested that bead production was a highly standardised process and the statistical analyses were compared to those of Neolithic and Bronze age archaeological sites throughout the world, the level of mastery was comparable to the bead production specialisation during the advent of farming. There has been some debate as to how we should describe craft work in the Upper Palaeolithic.

For example, Jacques Pelegrin argued in 2007, that the word Mastery should be used to describe intensive craft work in the Upper Palaeolithic, while the word specialisation should be used to describe intensive craft work in the Neolithic. This debate continues today but however you phrase it, there is exchange taking place in the region of Aquitaine, southern France. Exposures of Steatite are easily identifiable compared to mammoth ivory, part of a biological organism that roamed the landscape. We can gauge the distance the steatite travelled from the source to the cave or rock shelter sites, an impossible task to overcome when it comes to ivory.

Heckel proposed three different models to explain the archaeological record in Aquitaine. Model 1 suggested that there was a single point in the region, where these beads were produced and distributed from there. Model 3 suggested that the Upper Palaeolithic nomadic groups crafted the beads at the four caves sites. But it was Model 2 that best fitted the above statistical analyses, suggesting that there were multiple territories with their own individual centre of production, while exchange and distribution resulted in the deposition at the cave and rock shelter sites. Heckel’s work is only the beginning of a long research process to see if we have exaggerated the simplicity of Upper Palaeolithic societal structure. Based on the basket-shaped beads found at the early Aurignacian archaeological sites, a small group of people appear to be spending a great deal of time crafting these beautiful objects.

Reprint from Heritage Daily


Benefits of Palaeoanthropology

Human evolution is a way to find who we really are. A way to humility. A process of clear critical thinking, relying on evidence, that brings us closer to our ancestors. Discovers how they looked, how they moved, what they ate, the predators they encountered, the herbivores they hunted and the ecosystems they inhabited. It gives us an appreciation of the plight of the planets most endangered biological organisms, trying to etch out a living in fragile ecosystems that are being destroyed by humanities greed. We can never empathise with these creatures unless we learn the lessons of passed mass extinctions. 6 million years of hominin evolution is complicated. There is much that has yet to be discovered, but that is what makes the science of palaeoanthropology exciting.

Cancer: The Earliest Carcinoma Yet Discovered

 Pretty isn’t it………… you are looking at the rise of metastatic carcinoma in human body cells. A form of cancer with the ability to infect other organs in a biological organism. While Leprosy is the oldest documented disease in the world, thus far, dating to 4000 B.C. India. Ignoring the debate regarding the true age of knowledge in the Edwin Smith Papyrus (While it dates to 1600 B.C, the knowledge it contains may be as much as 1400 years older), evidence for Cancer may date back to northern Sudan 3,200 years ago.


 Skeleton 244-8 was recovered from tomb G244 in the Amara West C cemetery in 2013. This 25 to 35 year old man was found with a considerable coverage of pin-sized perforations from shoulder to proximal femor. The bone tissue was therefore attacked by something. Historically Metastatic organ cancers are the most likely candidate as they prefer bone tissue. Tumor cells spread through haematopoietic-rich bone marrow creating holes as a result of bone reabsorption in a process known as osteolysis.


 This research is helping us better understand the evolution of cancer and is a useful glance-back to remind us that animals and plants are not the only organisms that evolve, disease causing bacteria have evolved with us (animals, plants etc.) for hundreds of millions of years.

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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