More light shed on use of plants by Homo neanderthalensis

The ecology of Neanderthals is a pressing question in the study of hominin evolution. Diet appears to have played a prominent role in their adaptation to Eurasia. Based on isotope and zooarchaeological studies, Neanderthal diet has been reconstructed as heavily meat-based and generally similar across different environments. This image persists, despite recent studies suggesting more plant use and more variation. However, we have only a fragmentary picture of their dietary ecology, and how it may have varied among habitats, because we lack broad and environmentally representative information about their use of plants and other foods. To address the problem, we examined the plant microremains in Neanderthal dental calculus from five archaeological sites representing a variety of environments from the northern Balkans, and the western, central and eastern Mediterranean. The recovered microremains revealed the consumption of a variety of non-animal foods, including starchy plants. Using a modeling approach, we explored the relationships among microremains and environment, while controlling for chronology. In the process, we compared the effectiveness of various diversity metrics and their shortcomings for studying microbotanical remains, which are often morphologically redundant for identification. We developed Minimum Botanical Units as a new way of estimating how many plant types or parts are present in a microbotanical sample. In contrast to some previous work, we found no evidence that plant use is confined to the southern-most areas of Neanderthal distribution. Although interpreting the eco-geographic variation is limited by the incomplete preservation of dietary micro remains, it is clear that plant exploitation was a widespread and deeply rooted Neanderthal subsistence strategy, even if they were predominately game hunters. Given the limited dietary variation across Neanderthal range in time and space in both plant and animal food exploitation, we argue that vegetal consumption was a feature of a generally static dietary niche.

Dental calculus indicates widespread plant use within the stable Neanderthal dietary niche

Robert C. Power, Domingo C. Salazar-García, Mauro Rubini, Andrea Darlas, Katerina Harvati, Michael Walker, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Amanda G.Henry

DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.02.009

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.

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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.

1.6 Million Year Old Woman of Eastern Africa (2017 Review)

When fossil hunter Bernard Ngeneo came across the remains of this fossil, only the upper portion of the orbits were protruding from the ground. Excavation revealed one of the best preserved skulls of this time period, and one of the most striking early human fossils of any age.

KNM-ER 3733 represents a mature female of the early human species Homo erectus. The sex identification comes from a comparison of the anatomical features of her face with several other crania from Koobi Fora: KNM-ER 3883 (male), and KNM-WT 15000 (also male), found on the opposite side of Lake Turkana. The features of KNM-ER 3733 are markedly less robust. It’s known to be an adult on the basis of the cranial sutures (which were fully closed), the extent of the wear on the teeth, and the eruption of the third molars before the individual’s death.

DNA reveals Aboriginal people had a long and settled connection to country

Historic hair samples collected from Aboriginal people show that following an initial migration 50,000 years ago, populations spread rapidly around the east and west coasts of Australia.

Our research, published in Nature today, also shows that once settled, Aboriginal groups remained in their discrete geographical regions right up until the arrival of Europeans a few hundred years ago.

So where does the evidence for this rapid migration and long settlement come from?

Early expeditions

In a series of remarkable expeditions that ran from the 1920s to 1960s, scientists travelled widely across the Australian outback. They recorded as much anthropological information as possible about Aboriginal Australians.

They recorded film and audio, drawings, songlines, genealogies and extensive physical measurements under tough outback conditions. This included packing in the equipment on camels for the early trips.

Alan Rau, EO Stocker and Herbert Wilkinson on an expedition party departing for a day’s trip from Cockatoo Creek, Central Australia, 1931. South Australian Museum Archives Norman Tindale Collection (AA 338/5/7/8), Author provided

The extensive collections from the Board for Anthropological Expeditions are now curated in the South Australian Museum. They contain the vast majority of the black and white film footage you may have seen of traditional Aboriginal culture, songs, hunting practices and ceremonies.

The metadata collected was voluminous. It now comprises possibly the best anthropological collection of an indigenous people in the world.

Locked in the hair

But perhaps the biggest scientific contributions may yet turn out to be hidden within small locks of hair.

These were collected with permission (such as it was given in the situation and era) for a minor project to study the variation of Aboriginal hair types across Australia.

But the hair clippings turn out to preserve an incredible record of the genetic diversity and distribution of Indigenous Australia prior to European disruption.

Importantly, the detailed genealogical data collected with each sample allows the genetic lineages to be placed on the map back through several generations.

This allowed us to reconstruct the genetic structure within Australia prior to the forced relocation of Aboriginal people to missions and stations, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their traditional lands.

Reconnecting histories

This project was only possible through partnership with Aboriginal families and communities. So we needed to design an ethical framework and protocol for such unprecedented work.

This was based on large amounts of archival research performed by our team members in the Aboriginal Family History Unit of the South Australian Museum, to locate and contact the original donors, or their descendants and family elders.

We arranged a meeting time, and then the combined team spent several days in each Aboriginal community talking to individual families about the project, and passing on copies of the archival material.

We discussed both the potential and pitfalls of genetic research, and answered common questions. These included why the results cannot be used for land claim issues (insufficient geographical resolution) or as a test of Aboriginality (which is a cultural, rather than genetic, association).

The feedback from communities was overwhelmingly positive. There was a strong interest in how a genetic map of Aboriginal Australia could help people of the stolen generation to reconnect with family and country.

It could also help facilitate the repatriation of Aboriginal samples and artefacts held in museums.

The DNA results

The initial genetic results not only reveal exciting insights into the deep genetic history of the continent, but also showcase the enormous potential of our project.

We mapped the maternal genetic lineages onto the birthplace of the oldest recorded maternal ancestor (sometimes two to three generations back) and found there were striking patterns of Australia’s genetic past.

There were many very deep genetic branches, stretching back 45,000 to 50,000 years. We compared these dates to records of the earliest archaeological sites around Australia. We found that the people appear to have arrived in Australia almost exactly 50,000 years ago.

Early migration

Those first Australians entered a landmass we collectively call “Sahul”, where New Guinea was connected to Australia.

The Gulf of Carpentaria was a massive fresh water lake at the time and most likely a very attractive place for the founding population.

The genetic lineages show that the first Aboriginal populations swept around the coasts of Australia in two parallel waves. One went clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, before meeting somewhere in South Australia.

The occupation of the coasts was rapid, perhaps taking no longer than 2,000 to 3,000 years. But after that, the genetic patterns suggest that populations quickly settled down into specific territory or country, and have moved very little since.

The genetic lineages within each region are clearly very divergent. They tell us that people – once settled in a particular landscape – stayed connected within their realms for up to 50,000 years despite huge environmental and climate changes.

We should remember that this is about ten times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught.

This pattern is very unusual elsewhere in the world, and underlines why there might be such remarkable Aboriginal cultural and spiritual connection to land and country.

As Kaurna Elder, Lewis O’Brien, one of the original hair donors and part of the advisory group for the study, put it:

Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time, but it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.

Reprint from The Conversation

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.

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 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.

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 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.