Proconsul: Guilty as Charged!

Proconsul: Guilty as Charged!

pronconsulIf you like Whodunnits, you’ll love this! The answer is proconsul. Now, guess what it did.

It was another brilliant piece in the puzzle of evolution reported this week out of Lake Victoria. Published Tuesday in a scientific journal is definitive evidence that proconsul – at least some of his kind – lived in the forest.

Proconsul was an early primate of 23-25 million years ago, and it’s long been conjectured that he was the earliest common ancestor of apes and men.

There have been many fossils of proconsul found but whenever their prehistoric habitat could also be established, it was that they lived on a savannah. While that fit the general linear evolution into a hominin, it complicated the presumption that they also gave rise to the apes.

I’ve always been leery of the concept of “earliest common ancestor” among paleontologists as it tends to reenforce the linear notions of evolution, when in fact with each new piece found to the puzzle we discover how richly branched evolution was.

The idea that there was ever a “single” anything before homo sapiens sapiens seems questionable to me, and in fact there are several if not a half dozen species of proconsul already identified. So think of it more as a family of species rather than a single species.

Then it works brilliantly.

Proconsul is so important because it’s the first species in the paleontological record that is definitely not monkey-like or a lemur, which were the first primates.

The first primates were preceded by a group of early mammals, mostly little vole-like creatures, that flourished about ten million years after the dinosaurs disappeared. After earth shook off the apocalyptic event of the asteroid crashing into earth that killed the dinosaurs, it blossomed.

It was warm and humid and more and more oxygen was being created in the atmosphere in large part because of the growing plants in the sea. Earth became mostly a giant, beautiful forest, quite different from what the dinosaurs had left behind.

And so mammals and primates prospered, and they necessarily became more and more arboreal.

Then things really started to happen about 25 million years ago. The earth began cooling, earth’s tectonics got active, and in Africa the great jungles were split by the formation of the Great Rift Valley which gave rise to savannahs.

At the same time proconsul appeared. It differed from the monkeys and lemurs mostly in not having a tail. That’s not good for a creature that swings through the forest so it made sense he lived on the ground.

Apes live on the ground, much of the time, even though their home is in the forest. So that works, too. Problem was that whenever habitat could be determined with the many proconsuls found, it was always a non-forest savannah.

Alas brilliant field work mostly by Baylor University and University of Rhode Island scientists working on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria found a proconsul and its fossil preserved habitat of a forest!

Rusinga Island, by the way, is where Lewis Leakey found one of the first proconsuls almost a half century ago. (The first was discovered in 1909.) The island is rich in Miocene fossils and has been worked continuously since Leakey’s earliest discoveries. But it’s taken all this time and all this work to confirm the habitat-creature association that has been presumed by scientists for nearly a half century.

Sometimes, perseverance pays!

Not Paleontology’s Waterloo

Not Paleontology’s Waterloo

EpicPaleoBattleBe cautious about the headlines out this week regarding new early man finds in Georgia (former Soviet Union) suggesting there was only one species of early man.

A 1.8m-year old early hominin found in Dmanisi, by a team from the Georgian National Museum looks like “the earliest form of Homo erectus,” according to the current star of paleontology, Tim White, but was found together with four other hominin that previously would have been considered separate species.

This suggests, the Georgian team argues in this week’s Science that there was really only a single lineage of hominin and not the multiple branching lineages we’ve presumed to date.

In other words, the nearly two dozen named separate species and sub-species of early man that define current hominin paleontology is wrong, and there was only one species with great physical variation.

The Georgian team suggests the variation in physical appearance and brain size of currently living humans supports this view as well.

A number of respectable journals like National Geographic and the Economist Magazine are saying as much, too.

Be wary. Not everyone agrees. Tim White’s pronouncement at a glance of the evidence that the find is a homo erectus suggests he doesn’t believe so.

“I think they will be proved right that some of those early African fossils can reasonably join a variable Homo erectus species,” Chris Stringer told London’s Guardian. He continued:

“But Africa is a huge continent with a deep record of the earliest stages of human evolution, and there certainly seems to have been species-level diversity there prior to two million years ago. So I still doubt that all of the ‘early Homo’ fossils can reasonably be lumped into an evolving Homo erectus lineage. We need similarly complete African fossils from two to 2.5m years ago to test that idea properly.”

The recent paleontological star, American Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand who discovered Australopithecus sediba answered “No” to London’s Guardian’s question as to whether the Georgian find will radically alter the early man ancestral tree.

“This is a fantastic and important discovery, but I don’t think the evidence they have lives up to this broad claim they are making,” Berger continued.

I find it incredibly exciting how beautiful the now five finds from the Georgia site are, and certain in the years to come they will provide enormous science.

And maybe it’s just because for 30 years I’ve been telling my clients a story as we stand in Olduvai that could be significantly changed, if some of the more radical claims prove true, that makes me so skeptical.

But I don’t think so. Rather, I think it’s a reflection of our increasingly conservative times and scandalous media that otherwise respectable publications like NatGeo and the Economist will leap to such early conclusions.

It’s quite possible that the science from Dmanisi will simplify an admittedly too complex branching tree popular today: It’s quite possible that Homo erectus had far more variation than we previously thought.

But the notion that there weren’t multiple species of homo is not yet supported by the science, despite the attempts of the Georgian team to imply such. There is nothing yet to suggest that these finds were the same species as Homo habilis or Homo sapiens.

Ultimately, of course, it would only be the ability to analyze whatever nano traces of DNA might still be extracted from these stone fossils that could tell us for sure. The nature of fossil creation makes this highly unlikely, but I think the likelihood of such is greater than the claims currently being echoed in the popular media.

It heralds back to the epic battle of the 1980s between Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey. Johanson, discoverer of Lucy, was certain the hominin line was linear. Leakey was the champion of the multi-branching theories.

That battle ended in 2000 when Johanson conceded his mistake by writing in Time’s millennium addition why Leakey was one of the most important men of the 20th century.

So stay tuned, dear reader. And you’ll have to stay tuned for quite a long while, because while this won’t take quite as long as it did for erectus to be replaced by sapiens it’s not going to be a battle that ends soon.

Second Place

Second Place

Is a successful evolutionary adaptation to become subsumed by a more successful species? A famous anthropologist will suggest as much in his new book due out this fall.

University of Wisconsin professors John Hawks and Zach Throckmorton
will soon publish the definitive conclusions of the hectic paleontological research on Neanderthals that has consumed the last decade.

The science is not disputed. It’s derived from a bounty of Neanderthal fossils, but more importantly from the DNA which led to a complete Neanderthal genome last year.

More than 80% of the world’s population outside sub-Saharan Africa have a genetic makeup that is about 3% Neanderthal. Why not sub-Saharan people, too? Because that’s where the dominant hominin species originated from, which ultimately subsumed the only other hominin species extant, the Neanderthal, to become the last surviving human species on earth.

Us.

That wealth of scientific evidence led to all sorts of exciting discoveries, but none as exciting as trying to finally conclude what happened to these big guys.

Their brains were larger than ours, and there’s some dispute that the brain/body weight ratio wasn’t much different. But clearly they were highly successful creatures who mastered the challenging climate of northern Europe, probably better than those who conquered them: us.

I use the term “conquered” loosely. While there was a time that we thought one might be eating the other, so to speak, the general consensus today is that interbreeding, and not organized clan fighting, did them in.

The question, of course, is why did the interbreeding subsume them, instead of them subsuming us? Why were we the more successful creature?

But wait, wait! Hawks implies the inverse: he suggests that the Neanderthal was successful from a natural selection point of view, because natural selection preserved his best traits in us: the 3% of our genetic makeup that is all that’s left of these poor sops:

“I love that because it makes the Neandertals into the evolutionary success story they really were. They succeeded by becoming part of us,” Hawks paraphrases in his blog.

Is this just a word game? I think so. Hawks is a superb scientist and fabulous story teller, and I can’t wait to read the book. But this is mostly PR and a bit of a philological twist-up.

Neanderthal were subsumed by homo sapiens sapiens – and not the reverse – because we are the more successful organism. Now in the long history of early hominins Neanderthal ranks pretty much at the top, but in the contest between us and him, he lost.

That’s not evolutionary success despite the implications in Hawks’ statement. And I don’t think it’s arguable that those of us with 3% Neanderthal genes are hybrids. That’s not enough divergence to be a hybrid. It might be just enough for me to become this nit-picking, ornery and untrained bully about science. But it just doesn’t rank hybrid.

So watch for Hawks’ book, it should be fabulous. But let’s keep him more scientific even if it does mean less entertaining.

#6: Wherefor Old Man?

#6: Wherefor Old Man?

Over my lifetime the study of man’s evolution developed as explosively and quickly as NASA’s mission to the moon. But unlike NASA’s manned space flights, the science of early man just keeps rocketing out to the very edge of time.

This is my 6th most important story for Africa in 2012. To see a list of all The Top Ten, click here.

Did scientists in 2012 at long last, after decades of quibbling and backstabbing as well as serious argument, finally find our direct human ancestor?

When I think back to when I was boy and that the sum total of all knowledge about early man was Mary Leakey’s discovery of the “Nutcracker Man” (Australopithecus boisei), it’s absolutely astounding to think of how much more we know, today.

In sixty years we’ve learned 6 million years worth of old man treasures. It’s mind blowing. Back in 1959 when I read about Mary Leakey’s discovery in the “Weekly Reader” it probably contributed enormously to the fact my life would be dedicated to Africa.

Scientists had found proof that we humans had evolved from much more primitive beings who roamed a pristine earth almost a million years ago. (Later science would become more accurate and determine that Nutcracker was closer to two million than one million years old.)

Everyone thought back then, scientists included, that this skull represented some creature that was our direct ancestor. Scientists had already discovered early giraffes and Mastodons and Sabre Tooth Tigers, and with few exceptions all these old creatures seemed to be precursors to ones that lived around us right now.

How that’s changed! Since Mary Leakey’s discovery, about 10,000 other unique hominin species fossils have been found! And we know there were at least 2 dozen different hominin species, not just one. All of them but our precursors died out, went extinct.

That incredible notion, that there were “men” species as diverse and unable to interbreed as the different kinds of antelope on the veld or different kinds of whales in the ocean was absolutely astounding. Imagine old Nutcracker man walking around the veld, competing maybe fighting maybe running from, other early men who were so different from him genetically that they couldn’t interbreed.

With time we learned how many of these competing hominin there were. Maybe 6, or 13, or 27 as scientists made more and more discoveries. With time we could paint a picture of an earlier earth with all these guys, some much smarter, some much more agile, some much stronger, all competing in a world that was growing increasingly colder and less fecund.

Scientists came up with all sorts of exciting presumptions. Perhaps the reason Nutcracker’s species didn’t survive and evolve long enough to become us was because Homo Erectus ate him up!

Perhaps the reason that Neanderthal with a brain size much bigger than Homo Sapiens succumbed to our species was because early Homo Sapiens had a better language capability, because our early ancestors had a larynx and Neanderthal didn’t, so could make 250,000 more sounds than Neanderthal!

No one back in 1959 would have imagined such a rich and complicated evolutionary history.

And now, it seems, we come almost full circle.

Over the years all sorts of presumptions have been made regarding which of all these species of early man finally evolved into us. For a long time it was presumed that Homo Erectus was the real progenitor: Peking Man. His brain size was 950 cc (ours is around 1300 cc) but most importantly, he has been found almost all over the world – he migrated.

Then there were scientists arguing that an even more primitive version, Homo Habilis, was the true precursor. This theory was boosted not too long ago when scientists determined through DNA analysis that all men living today on earth came from a small band of individuals who left Africa only 50,000 years ago during a period of severe climate stress.

Peking Man was nearly a million years out of Africa. So he had to have died off.

And there were other candidates, recently ones like the recent announcement of an Ethiopian skeleton of Ardipithecus kadabba.

Some of them, like the Neanderthal, may have actually been smarter and better adapted physically to earth than we are. So we didn’t necessarily survive just because we were the best thinker or strongest builder or cleverest fighter. But ultimately we are the “best” in some composite sense masterfully explained by natural selection.

But the greatest irony you can imagine has brought the story full circle. A far distant cousin to Mary Leakey’s first breakthrough discovery of early man, may indeed be our most direct ancestor.

Sediba, found near Johannesburg nearly ten years ago but encased in stone so it took this long to extract the fossil, may be our closest paleontological relative and the reasons why have flipped the science on its head.

There’s something very uncomfortable with the notion that the very first old man fossil ever found, predating all sorts of creatures that would evolve with different kinds of brain and teeth and fingers and toes – all a massive evolutionary explosion of mankind’s remarkably varied attempt to survive – turns out to … be the one. The real direct ancestor to us.

The chance seems just so slim.

Or is it?

Obama/Neanderthal/Romney Debate

Obama/Neanderthal/Romney Debate

Animus in our culture is pervasive and not just in politics. Recent awe-inspiring discoveries about Neanderthals have enraged the Right, once again.

The various emotions I feel following the Obama/Romney debate are complex, but all so similar to the same emotions provoked by the angry outbursts of creationists over new and exciting Neanderthal discoveries.

Harvard and the Max Planck Institute have been meticulously studying the DNA of Neanderthals for several years, now. Discoveries understandably come out allele by allele, and this week they announced a real breakthrough:

Neanderthals interbred with modern humans a lot more than previously thought, and the two sub-species likely lived peaceably side-by-side for tens of thousands of years. The “disappearance” of the Neanderthal was not a wipe-out by a more warring subspecies – us – but likely assimilation by romance.

As much as 4% of modern man’s DNA is Neanderthal, and that’s incredibly significant. Recent studies also confirm that modern Africans carry less Neanderthal genes than non-Africans, and along with other microbiology and genetics, further confirm relatively stable Neanderthal assimilation into our current species, rather than anything more dramatic.

Regrettably, I now concede one of my most powerful stories given during my lecture at Olduvai, where I wow my clients with the notion that we (homo sapiens sapiens) might have eaten the Neanderthals up!

It was a great story and a plausible notion for years, and the wow came not in some Carl Sagan notion of our intrinsic animus but rather that the Neanderthals, while “smarter” (their brain/body ration might be larger), they lacked something “we” had that allowed us to conquer them. For many years that was presumed to be better language.

The possibility that most of our direct African ancestors were capable of a better manipulation of language than Neanderthals has become more contentious over the years, but it’s not yet fallen from complete grace. So until recently it was a wonderful notion that language trumped IQ.

I concede, but there are enough wow moments in the evolution of man that, other than having to redo my lesson plan, I still have full faith in the energy of the lecture!

But not for creationists. The recent discoveries have just angered them, further.

A couple weeks before the Harvard/Planck study was announced, there was new archaeological evidence that Neanderthals were peaceful, and separately, that Neanderthal decorated himself with bird feathers.

That was not so profound from my point of view, but the creationists went ape about it:

“More breaking news from this week about Neanderthal man, they found feathers in his living arrangement and it was not there by accident rather it was there by intelligent design!”

The quote above is from one of the leading creationists. Take a minute to scan all the recent posts under his rubric of “archaeology” and you’ll collect his enormous animus.

You’ll note reference after reference about science’s notion of Neanderthal as an oaf. When quite to the contrary, for years there’s been nothing in scientific discovery to suggest Neanderthal were less smart than us! In fact, if the brain/body weight argument regains traction, it can be plausibly argued they were smarter!

This creationist isn’t a god-fearing man displaying disdain or arrogance about science’s mistakes about the heavens. It’s an animal filled with anger. And it brings me back to the Romney/Obama debate, because the collection of emotions are similar.

Truth matters. In fact it apparently matters so much that it creates anger in those who deny it. And when that anger is sufficiently mobilized by celebration, the dynamic begins to be powered by less, not more, truth.

So just say something again and again that is a lie, or claim you don’t believe something you do (or once did), and you’re right on the same squad as Darth Nader, denying the truth and somehow remarkably gaining energy from doing so.

And at this point rational debate goes to pot. Evil trumps good.

We ought to take some lessons from our early ancestors. There was less animus and more romance than we ever thought possible.

Is this Obama’s secret? But will it win the House?

Back Home after 2 Million Years

Back Home after 2 Million Years

The remarkable new science of early man evolution is shifting from the hallowed halls of Harvard, Berkeley, Wisconsin and Rutgers to Wit, where it all began!

It all began about 2 million years ago.

Southern Africa was experiencing the end of a long period of climate change during which the Great Rift Valley had formed, one of earth’s most central geological features. A period of intense drought was ending. There were a lot of earthquakes going on as earth’s gargantuan plates sought long-term resting places.

Around what is now Johannesburg the veld was full of life, despite the millennia of drought that had considerably reduced the area’s biomass. But that meant that everything that was left was very successful.

There were dozens of species of rodents and antelopes, thousands of birds, and many predators like the Saber-toothed tiger. And there were men, or almost men. At least 4 species of hominins, maybe more.

Two of those were Australopithecus sediba, a woman with her child or perhaps much younger brother. They were walking among the tall forests and over the occasional meadows looking for food. They weren’t hunters.

They were looking for tubers, fruits and seeds, a pantry of nourishment hard to find in the dry conditions in which they’d been born. So often they ate more than just the leaves of a bush: they ate the bark, too.

Virtually all their waking hours were spent searching for food and avoiding predation from the tiger .. and maybe from the other types of early man especially those who had developed incisors and were eating meat, likely an evolutionary response to diminishing food sources.

All the forms of hominin at the time were small and chimp-like. But what made these two different from other types was that the front of their small brains resembled ours. And their pelvis resembled ours. Our brains and our pelvis are two very distinctive parts of the anatomy of homo sapiens.

What these two creatures didn’t know, and all the other animals in their area didn’t know either, was that they were foraging over a huge underground cave. The area was in the final stages of forming what would later become earth’s greatest vein of gold and other precious minerals, a hundred million or more years of work.

So one final touch on this geological sculpture opened up the earth above them, and they and many other animals with them tumbled into the cave and were crushed to death. Even the feared saber–tooth tiger that might have been preying on them fell prey to the earth opening up below them both.

Then hardly a few days or weeks afterwards and reflecting the great climate changes occurring on earth at the time, there was a torrential thunderstorm, and huge rivers of water poured into the cave, pushing the two early man creatures, the tiger and many other animals together into a far underground pool that quickly solidified as rock.

The site of these two creatures and many of the animals with them was discovered more than a decade ago. Excavating the remaining bones from rock, however, is a very difficult process, so the fossil bones of the female were presented to science only two years ago.

Australopithecus sediba
immediately became the star of early man studies. As more and more scientists got a look at the bones, it seemed reasonable that she might be a direct ancestor to us, something that few scientists have claimed of any of the ancient Australopithecine before.

Now, thanks to new scanning technologies similar to an MRI, the bones of the younger male still in stone can be studied without being recovered from the stone!

The machine creates a perfect picture of just the fossil bone separate from the rock that cakes it. And then new 3D imaging technology creates a facsimile out of a plastic-like substance.

My narrative above, of course, is totally fictional. But what really is known of the creatures themselves is turning paleontology upside down. The results are stunning.

For years we’ve presumed that our larger pelvis was the result of having to birth a creature with a larger brain. But Au. sediba’s pelvis is relatively as large as ours, and its brain is only a third as big.

For years we’ve presumed that brain size (or more correctly the ratio of brain size to body size) determined the cognitive intelligence of the creature. But recently neuroscience has concluded cognitive intelligence is not so linked to the size of our brain as the specific formation of its frontal lobe. And guess what? Au. sediba’s frontal lobe is remarkably like ours, and remarkably unlike other early men we have in study.

And perhaps the most stunning discovery of all might be … skin. Fossil bones are not organic. When we say that this creature or that ate this or that, it’s a presumption from the fossil remains of seeds and plant casings that have turned to stone.

But the unique, fast way these creatures and all the life around them was encased in stone lends hope that real organic matter with DNA, such as skin, might be preserved!

There’s another stunning development. Unlike many American paleontologists who guard their science like their family heirlooms, the science being undertaken at the University of Witwatersrand is the most transparent paleontology ever undertaken.

The ongoing excavations will be video streamed in real time! The laboratory work, the fossil bones already completely recovered are wide open to virtually any scientist in the world to take a look at. This transparency is not simply revolutionary, it is incredibly refreshing and long overdue.

Compare this southern African science, for example, to American Tim White’s ten-year secrecy of the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus.

The chief scientist and discover is an American, Lee Berger, who has been associated with the University of Witwatersrand for more than ten years. His wife, Jackie Smilg, is the person developing the scanning technology.

And with full backing of the government of South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind is becoming not only a major tourist attraction, but a scientific center.

For all of modern history, early man science has had its thoroughfare in the universities and museums of the western world. No longer. It’s back home!

What goes around comes around.

Top Ten 2010 Stories

Top Ten 2010 Stories

East Africa is booming, so many of the stories of 2010 were terrifically good news. But there were the tragedies as well like the Kampala bombings. Below I try to put the year in perspective with my top ten stories for East Africa for 2010.

1. Populace democracy grows.
2. Terrorism grows, as does the battle against it.
3. Huge stop in the mercenary purchases of Coltan.
4. Momentum for peace in the runup to establishing a new South Sudan.
5. Tourism clashes with development, especially with the proposed Serengeti Highway.
6. New discoveries of fossil fuels produces new wealth and a new relationship with China.
7. Gay Rights grow public but loses ground.
8. Rhino poaching becomes corporate.
9. Hot air ballooning’s safety newly questioned in game parks.
10. Newest early man discoveries reconfirm sub-Saharan Africa as the birthplace of man.

#1: POPULACE DEMOCRACY GROWS
Theoretically, all the East African countries have operated as “democracies” except for the torrential years of Idi Amin in Uganda. But the quality of this democracy was never very good.

Tanzania was a one-party state for its first 20 years, and that same party continues to rule although more democratically today. Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi experienced one dictator after another, even while democratic elections at regional levels challenged the executive.

But the end of the Cold War destroyed the alliances these developing countries had with super powers. Purse strings were cut, and political cow-towing ended. All of them moved towards a truly more democratic culture.

And in 2010 huge leaps were made in all the countries towards more truly representative government. The most important example by far was the overwhelming passing of the new constitution in Kenya in a national referendum where more than 75% of registered voters participated.

And like the U.S. election which followed shortly thereafter, and like support for national health care in the U.S. and so many other issues (like no tax cuts for the rich), Kenyan politicians dragged their feet right up to the critical moment. They tried and tried, and ultimately failed, to dissuade Kenyans from their fundamental desire to eliminate tribalism in government and more fairly distribute the huge wealth being newly created.

I see this as People vs. Politicians, and in this wonderful case, the People won!

And there was some progress as well in Tanzania’s December election, with the opposition growing and its influence today moving that country towards a more democratic constitution.

(It was not so good in Rwanda or Uganda, where stiff-arm techniques and government manipulation of the electoral process undermined any attempt at real democracy.) But the huge leap forward in Kenya, and the little hop in Tanzania, made this the absolute top story of the year.

#2: TERRORISM GROWS
Four smaller bombings in Nairobi’s central business district over the year were eclipsed by two horrible simultaneous bombings in Kampala bars on July 11 while patrons were watching the world cup.

Police display an unexploded suicide vest.

Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in Somali, claimed responsibility. And throughout the year Shabaab grew increasingly visible along the Kenyan border as its power in Somali increased.

I’ve written for a long time about how the west has had its collective head in the sand as regards terrorism and Al-Qaeda in particular. Long ago I pointed out that the locus of Al-Qaeda terrorism had moved to the horn from Afghanistan, and this year proved it in spades.

The country with the most to lose and most to gain in this war on terror is Kenya, because of its long shared border with Somalia. And the year also marked a striking increase in the Kenyan government’s war on terror, and with considerable success.

With much more deftness and delicacy than us Kenya has stepped up the battle against Al-Shabaab while pursuing policies aimed at pacifying any overt threats to its security, by such brilliant moves as allowing Omar Bashir into the country and not arresting him (on an international U.N. warrant). As I said in a blog, Kenya Gets It, and the story is therefore a hopeful one.

#3: CONGO WAR & COLTAN
This is also a U.S. story.

The Dodd-Frank Act is our victory!
The Congo Wars continue but are abating, and in large part because of a little known provision in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act which now makes it almost impossible for major corporations in the U.S. to buy the precious metal Coltan on the black market.

A black market which has funded perhaps Africa’s most horrible war for more than a generation. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – have been killed and raped, and more than 20,000 children conscripted into brutal wars, funded by purchases of Coltan and other precious metals by Intel, Sony and Apple.

It certainly wasn’t just this little legislative move. The U.N. peace-keeping force, fabulous diplomatic initiatives by Uganda and a real diplomatic vigilance by the U.S. all were instrumental. But the year ended with the least violence in the region in more than two decades.

#4: SOUTH SUDAN
I may be jumping the gun on this one, because the referendum to create a new country, the South Sudan, is not scheduled to occur before next month. But the runup to the referendum, including the registration process, while labored looks like it’s working.

Allied loosely with the Congo Wars, the civil war between the North and South Sudan had gone on for generations until a brokered peace deal five years ago included the ultimate end to the story: succession of the South into a new country.

The concept is rife with problems, most notably that the division line straddles important oil-producing areas. But in spite of all of this, and many other ups and downs along the way, it looks to me like there will be a South Sudan, and soon. And this year’s new U.N. presence in Juba, donor-construction of roads and airports, all points to the main global players in the controversy also thinking the same.

The creation of a new state out of a near failed one is not the be-all or end-all of the many problems of this massive and powerfully oil-rich area. But it is a giant leap forward.

#5: THE SERENGETI HIGHWAY & TOURISM
Last night NBC news aired a segment on the Serengeti Highway controversy, elevating an East African story into American prime time. Good.

But like so many reports of this controversy, the simplification ran amok. NBC’s reporter Engels claimed the motivation for the road was to facilitate rare earth metals like Coltan (see above) getting into Chinese hands more quickly.

While there may be something to this, it’s definitely not the main reason, which is much more general and harder therefore to fight. As I’ve often written, the highway as planned will be a real boon to the Maasai currently living to the east of the Serengeti, as much if not more than to the Chinese.

And as far as I know, Maasai don’t use Coltan.

Roads bring commerce and may be the single quickest way to develop a region. This region is sorely in need of development and recent Tanzania politics has aligned to the need for this regional development.

The highway is just one of many such issues which came to the fore throughout 2010 in Kenya and Tanzania. Concern that the west is just interested in East Africa as a vacation destination with no regards for the struggle for development, has governed quite a few local elections this year.

The whole concept of tourism may be changing as the debate progresses. I believe very deeply that the Serengeti highway as proposed would hinder rather than help development. But as I’ve pointed out, alternatives are in the works.

And the real story of which the highway story is only a part, is how dramatically different East Africans have begun to view tourists in 2010.

#6: NEW RESOURCE DISCOVERIES ALTER GEOPOLITICS
For years I and other African experts have referred to East Africa as “resource-poor.” Kenya, in particular, had nothing but potash. Boy, did that change this year!

Although only one proven reserve has been announced in Kenya, several have begun production in Uganda and we know many more are to come.

China has announced plans for a pipeline and oil port in northern Kenya at a cost of nearly $16 billion dollars, that’s more than twice the entire annual budget for the Kenya government! Deep earth techniques have matured, and China knows how to use them.

More gold has been found in Tanzania, new coal deposits in Uganda, more precious metals in Rwanda… East Africa is turning into the world’s rare earth commodities market.

A lot of these new discoveries are a result of technology improving: going deeper into the earth. But 2010 freed East Africa from the shackle of being “resource-poor” and that’s a very big deal.

#7: GAY RIGHTS ON THE HOOK
African societies have never embraced gay rights but as they rapidly develop, until now there was none of the gay bashing of the sort the rightest backlash produces in the U.S.

U.S. Righties manipulating East Africa.

That changed this year, and in large part because of the meddling of U.S. rightest groups.

In what appears to now have been a concerted many year effort, support from U.S. righties is leading to a vote in Uganda’s parliament that would make homosexuality a capital offense, and would jail for long terms those who failed to out known gays.

This extreme is not African, it is American. Mostly an insidious attempt by those unable to evince such insanity in their own society to go to some more manipulative place. The story isn’t over as the vote has yet to occur, but it emerged and reached a crescendo this year.

#8: RHINO POACHING EXPLODES
Poaching is a constant problem in wildlife reserves worldwide and Africa in particular. Rhino are particularly vulnerable, and efforts to ensure safe, wild habitats have been decades in the making.

Dagger from rhino horn.

This year, they seemed to come apart. It’s not clear if the economic downturn has something to do with this, but the poaching seems to have morphed this year from individual crimes to corporate business plans.

This leap in criminal sophistication must be explained by wealth opportunities that haven’t existed previously. And whether that was the depressing of financial goals caused by the economic downturn, increased wealth in the Horn of Africa where so much of the rhino horn is destined, or reduced law enforcement, we don’t yet know. But 2010 was the sad year that this poaching exploded.

#9: IS HOT AIR BALLOONING SAFE?
Hot air ballooning in Africa’s two great wildernesses of the Maasai Mara (Kenya) and the Serengeti (Tanzania) has been a staple of exciting options to visiting tourists for nearly 30 years. That might be changing.

Is it Safe?

A terrible accident in the Serengeti in early October that killed two passengers and injured others opened a hornet’s nest of new questions.

After working on this story for some time I’ve personally concluded 2010 was the year I learned I should not step into a hot air balloon in East Africa, at least for the time being!

#10: EARLY MAN WONDERS
There were not quite as many spectacular discoveries or announcements about early man this year as in years previously, but one really did stand out as outstanding and you might wonder what it has to do with East Africa!

Representation by Tomislan Maricic.

DNA testing of Neanderthal proved that early man from Africa didn’t wipe them out after all, but absorbed them into the ever-evolving homin species.

And that absorption, and not massacre, happened outside Africa to be sure. But it finally helps smooth out the story that began in Africa: It’s likely that Neanderthal were earlier migrants from Africa, and absorption was therefore easier, physiologically and biologically.

It’s a wonderful story, and fresh and exciting, unlike the only other major African early man announcement about Ardi which was really a much older story, anyway.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR to all my loyal readers, with a giant thank you from me for your attention but especially your wonderful comments throughout the year. See you next year!

AFRICA, Show us The Way!

AFRICA, Show us The Way!


In this age of belt tightening and budget angst the impoverished State of Kentucky is going to give $37½ million dollars to a wacko anti-science group to build a creationism theme park.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the cradle of mankind. The earliest known hominid, our direct evolutionary ancestor, is at least 6 million years old. Olduvai Gorge, where so much of these marvelous discoveries were made, is top on my list of things to see on safari.

Natural selection is not immediately intuitive. It takes some study. But once you get into it, the rush is unbelievable! The majesty of living things, and man’s unique position within that, is awesome. Complexity and simplicity seem to merge in an array of life forms that is unbelievable.

No doubt what many describe as art which consumes and inspires is relational to the patterns and designs of the natural world. “Beauty” is natural engineering at its finest. To me much of the greatest beauty of the world is in Africa, where it just stands to reason, so much of it began.

Roll your cursor back and forth over the graphic below. African flower mantids have so remarkably adapted to African flowers that without a graphic like this one you’d never in a million years find them! This is beauty, complex mathematics and natural selection all rolled up into a powerful single lesson.

I’ve labored for years with people and clients who don’t believe that natural selection explains life on earth, most of whom squander in the cartoons of creationism. Only 39% of Americans believe in evolution. This is worse than embarrassing. There is no other educated population in the world with such a miserable statistic.

And the number is increasing, not decreasing. We’ve countered the limited beliefs of the critics fact-by-fact. We’ve politely and consistently tolerated the position of those arguing against evolution, giving “equal voice” to nonsense. I know, now, how wrong that was.

Creationism is wrong. It’s a lie. It’s perfectly legal to believe lies, so I’m not so insane as to suggest that people who believe lies should be somehow punished. But the time has come to firmly not reward them.

Kentucky already has a Creationism Museum that commercially is doing very well. It’s not certain and will never be known if its financial success is for the same reason that people used to pay to go to freak shows, or if there really are believers in support. But either way, institutions like it should not be subsided by public funds.

In other words, I guess we can tolerate lunacy but we sure ought not support it.

The weakness with which scientists, teachers and politicians have defended such concepts as natural selection against fringe idiots has produced a terrible legacy. Natural selection is just one of many issues like woman’s rights and child poverty and national health care that have suffered in my lifetime because their advocates have cowered to baseless critics.

Our legacy of poor defense has resulted in the U.S. dropping from Number 1 when I was in high school to 18th of 36 nations whose high school students graduate on time.

And those who do graduate are getting dumber and dumber.

As you enter the gates of the United States Grand Canyon National Park, you can purchase in their shop a “guide book” that says the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood and is only a few thousand years old.

In the last year alone, the Texas State Board of Education has ordered text books used in public schools there to question the American separation of church and state, to remove Thomas Jefferson as an influential political philosopher, to study the “unintended consequences” of Affirmative Action and Title IX, to replace “capitalism” with “free-enterprise system” and to describe the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic” rather than “democratic.”

This is the state of education in America. It has struggled to reach this nadir for more than a generation. We have allowed it to sink, because we haven’t defended with the vigor of certainty that which is science.

There is a lot of talk these days about compromise and purism. We made a mistake in my life time by tolerating as equals those who disbelieved evolution.

I don’t know if there’s time to turn it around. But if there is, there can be no compromise on the struggle.

Thanks to http://dududiaries.wildlifedirect.org/.

Grandpa Neandertal!

Grandpa Neandertal!

Representation by Tomislan Maricic in SCIENCE.
Neandertal weren’t wiped out by us barbaic humans. They’re are one of our great-great-great, great-great-great? or something grandparents!

Between a hundredth and a twenty-fifth of those of us non-Africans is Neandertal! (Modern Africans as a race have little or no Neandertal DNA.)

The report issued today in Science radically changes our view of ourselves. It was only one year ago this week that Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania reported that essentially all people alive today were more or less pure ancestors of a small band of hominins that crossed over from Africa 50,000 years ago.

Not necessarily so.

Quite likely that band prospered, moved north and interbred with another type of hominin, the Neanderthal. Or maybe that band went extinct or was absorbed by a group of hominins already living in Europe that had already interbred with Neandertal!

Maybe… Neandertal and we, homo sapiens, are one and the same species, after all?

This is great, joyous science! How different, for example, it is from the secretive, arrogant paleoanthropology of Ardi announced not too long ago.

This is open to us all, to the world, and it is breath-taking!

At this point I should direct all of you not to the report itself, but to those brilliant and affable scientists who can translate it into terms we can all understand. There are many of these wonderful individuals, but my favorite is the University of Wisconsin’s John Hawks.

Today’s report in Science is probably the most exciting research on close-to-modern hominins ever seen. And not a single element of that report came from the field.

It all came from… DNA.

You remember that the human genome project started in 1990 and took about 13-14 years to complete, and that by 2004 we had a nearly complete working blueprint of our genes.

They did it with Neandertal in about two years. The Max Planck Institute mapped the genome of Neandertal from five species found in Europe from a bone powder weighing less than an aspirin.

To come to the amazing conclusions they did, they had to compare the Neandertal genome not only to our genome, but also to chimp’s.

And by simultaneously looking at the sections of the Neandertal and modern man genome that differ from a modern chimp’s, the most groundbreaking science was achieved: some of us modern humans have more divergence from Neandertal DNA than others. Modern Asians carry more Neandertal DNA than modern Africans.

That means our common modern human ancestors, the guys who previously we thought wiped out the Neandertals when they met them… didn’t. They absorbed them into the population and probably before migrating east to Asia. (There’s no evidence, yet, that Neandertals got themselves to Asia.)

The report also took a first look at some of the genes we now carry that likely came from Neandertals. (It will take much longer, and may never be possible to find them all.) And reexamined genes of importance that we absolutely don’t have from Neandertals.

Why would that be? Why do we carry some of the genes and not others?

Because some worked and some didn’t for evolving us. We’ve known for some time, for example, that really important genes, ones that effect energetics, longevity, and our brain, don’t come from the Neandertal. These are the dynamite genes carried in the mitochondrial DNA that has been available for examination for more than a few years.

Genes relating to our brain functions, stamina and life span didn’t come from Neandertal. It’s a stretch but not entirely unfair to conclude that may be some of the reasons Neandertal went extinct: because they didn’t share these important characteristics with our ancestoral lineage.

And genes relating to diabetes and a few rare diseases did come from Neandertals. As did certain genes relating to “cognition.” But since we still don’t really know how these genes even in modern humans translate into the workings of diabetes, these rare diseases or “cognition”, we don’t of course know how to determine if this was useful or not in our own modern evolution.

There is so much science left to do! And what’s amazing is that this type of science is done mostly in front of a computer screen, not out brushing pumice away from fossils.

And finally one of the most awesome aspects of this science, which continues from the genome project itself, is that it is all PUBLIC. Everything, every discovery, every postulate, every tool and method is on the internet.

It’s there for every cerebral scientist to use to further his own intricate theories, as it’s there for an 8th grader to create a science project.

Kudus to these guys: University of California’s Richard E. Green and a host of others, and Max Plank’s Hernán A. Burbano and a host of others.

Becoming Human Becoming Silly

Becoming Human Becoming Silly

Yesterday evening PBS’s NOVA series aired its second of three parts on “Becoming Human.”  Entertaining, yes.  Enlightening? … no.

Those of us passionate about early man would stop all other work to review the newest Far Side cartoon, and not because we didn’t have good, steady work demanding our attention.  It’s just … well, he was so good!

Same with grand productions like NOVA and the BBC.  But in contrast to Far Side and last month’s Discovery Channel production of Ardi (see earlier blogs), NOVA’s “Becoming Human” series doesn’t tell us much new and actually takes a few too many liberties in order to make short sentences.

Much of the footage, in fact, can be found in earlier NOVA productions, especially those about Asian and Indonesian early men.

Part II repeated nearly 10 minutes of footage I originally thought was specific to Part I, and the background music sounds like a single-tracked hominid grinding a street organ.  Another 5-6 minutes came from earlier NOVA footage of the story of Toumai.

Well, so what, eh?  Well… there are a few too many simplicities.  Like the near complete ignoring until the end of Part II of Homo habilis, and prior to the admission that this “human” species preceded erectus (the star of Part II), endless repeating that Homo erectus was the “first human.”

Carefully without saying so, the repetitious and too quick presentation of NOVA’s chart of early man could be easily interpreted as linear rather than branching as it really is.  This unearths a debate that was put to rest a generation ago.

I can’t wait for Part III to clarify that no, Part II didn’t really mean we evolved directly from Homo erectus.

And then there’s the curious way the producers present a not new theory that evolving brain size was an adaptation to climate change.  And how “fast” that climate change was.  (One or two or maybe three hundred thousand years.)   However you cut it this remarkable simplicity can be easily transformed into acceptance of our current climate change crisis.

Here’s how the NYTimes TV critic, Neil Genzlinger, put it:
“Here’s some cheery news: that global warming thing everyone is so worried about is actually going to make us all a lot smarter. Unfortunately, it’s also going to leave us with heads the size of basketballs.”

Genzlinger goes on to positively review the series, but I think he might also be under the spell of big, public TV.

One really good feature almost redeems the entire presentation: the discussions of aging and dating.

Dating is so crucial to early man finds, and both the graphics and explanations especially of the Afar finds were done masterfully.  The explanation of how DNA corruption can pinpoint the time that two species diverge was magnificent.

And for the first time I can recall, the brilliant way scientists study fossilized teeth was described in detail, explaining how a specimen can be aged.  My goodness what a blast it was to hear how dental examination showed Turkana Boy to be 8 not 14 years old, and Lucy to be 3 not 12!

The older ages of Turkana Boy and Lucy that have been presumed for years had been derived from more classic anatomical analysis, specifically in the state of fusion between limbs.  So what the dental analysis shows was that early man was growing up much faster than had previously been speculated by his slowly growing brain.

This is enlightening.  Let’s hope Part III has more of this.  So far, though, Discovery 1 – NOVA 0.

Dummying ARDI

Dummying ARDI

Last night Discovery Channel ratings skyrocketed with a two-hr documentary on Ardi. Ardi is a big, very big paleontology story. But when newer (older) finds are discovered in the future, Ardi’s lasting story will be something quite different from paleontology.

To me the unchangeable story about Ardi is the remarkable way it was told. Enough of Ardi was found in 1994 to give it a name and place in the tree of early man. But jealous scientists held the bulk of the data secret for nearly 15 years, until – in their words – they could tell the whole story.

This should be criminal. Essentially a handful of scientists molded Ardi almost as successfully as 4 million years burial by mother Earth.

Last night’s Discovery Channel two-hour prime time show was Ardi’s coming out party. It was grand, but way overblown. The University of Minnesota biologist, P.Z. Myers, remarked during his real-time blogging while watching the show, “So far this program is taking longer to watch than it took me to read the original papers.”

The two-hour show had so many commercials, and so much repetition, that the real talking-head substance was less than 35 minutes.

Ardi is an amazing paleontological find for several reasons. First, it’s a complete-enough skeleton to render science on an entire individual. There are only three other such cases (Lucy, Turkana Boy and Small Foot).

Second, so much excavation has been completed over these 15 years at the Middle Awash site in Ethiopia where it was found that an entire environment surrounding the creature has also been reconstructed.

Third, Ardi is truly bipedal, but retains anatomical features – particularly in the foot – that are more chimp-like than man-like. Ardi may have been as comfortable living in the trees as on the ground.

But the grand conclusions that the project’s two lead scientists, Tim White and Owen Lovejoy, headlined in HD, were simply premature if not silly.

Ardi has not completely rewoven the theories of early man, as Tim White repeatedly suggested. It is a single, albeit magnificent find, but it does not alter good foundations that hominids evolved 6-7 million years ago into a multiple branching line of creatures.

White’s hidden agenda is to return to a long ago discarded notion of a single line of hominid evolution. That’s what’s silly. Clearly, White has been focusing too much time on Ardi and not enough on his fellow scientists’ discoveries.

And Lovejoy’s outrageous claim that Ardi’s reduced canines suggests a more gentle, more “moral” human social organization is absurd.

The state of Ardi’s mouth is anomalous with other time-lined hominid mouths. In other words, other early hominids around that time and after that time, had bigger canines. Chimps have bigger canines, and Lovejoy’s presumption of theory by contrasting these two situations is a real stretch, and in fact, worrisome. It’s less science than religion.

Lovejoy is right to refresh the question, why bipedalism? And he provides at least one renewed and exciting thesis: to better carry food longer distances. But from that he leaps to the notion this allowed male Ardi’s to woo female Ardi’s with gifts, and allowed Ardi’s to carry food back to their children.

Soon, Lovejoy is going to discover a florist selling corsages 4.5 million years ago.

And there is nothing to suggest that baby Ardi’s didn’t travel on their mother’s back or held to their bosom like baboons and chimps and didn’t need to have food brought to them.

But the greatest disservice to science is the way the lead scientists, and the Discovery program suggests Ardi’s bipedalism revolutionizes prior theories.

The discovery that an early, bipedal hominid probably spent a good amount of time in the trees is extremely important and wondrous, too. But it does not in its single instance suggest that bipedalism was not somehow related to the developing savannah ecology, a view at least until now widely held. This will be the science to watch in the coming months.

University of Wisconsin anthropologist, John Hawks, summed it up beautifully in his blog today,
“I don’t think the anatomy supports the film’s representation of the locomotor behavior. The film shows Ardi walking just as if she were Lucy. She didn’t walk that way.”

I’m sure there’s much more intricate science I’ll never understand that will be of major dispute, and I presume this for the simple reason that science withheld is science uncertain.

Years from now there will be new finds and even older hominid discoveries. Ardi will remain important, but its persistent story will be how guarded its discoverers were, and how successful they were from keeping Ardi from the greater community for the better part of a human generation.

And analysis will shift from bipedalism to why, a long time ago when Ardi was discovered, scientists had to guard their finest discoveries to carefully construct outrageous claims about them.

Ardi’s Story Begins

Ardi’s Story Begins

Fifteen years ago one of the most important early man fossils was found in Ethiopia. Is this really the discovery of the century?

Yesterday what is arguably the most important discovery of an early hominid since Lucy in 1974 was officially reported in the journal, Science, by a team of 7 researchers that have jealously guarded their findings for almost a generation.

Personally, I look forward to a wonderful weekend of dissecting the voluminous information about Ardipithecus ramidus. But over the last 15 years a lot has leaked out, and what struck me in the great fanfare yesterday, was that where was some really weak science as the rekindling of personal fights between scientist celebrities gets into high gear.

If there is a team chairman, it’s Tim White of the University of California – Berkeley. Throughout his imminent career White has almost always been Number Two. He’s now Number One. And this despite the fact that it was actually Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the curator of the Cleveland Natural History Museum who actually made the find.

White moved north to Ethiopia from Kenya in the mid 1990s when he was shunned by his former Number One, Richard Leakey, who was admittedly turning the rich fossil grounds of East Africa into a personal dynasty. Time and again White was passed over in conferences and by scientific journals for the much less academic and probably less scientifically acute, Leakey.

Haile-Selassie is a gentle man, one of those scientists really consumed by his work. His interest in the media is minimal. He really is the lead scientist in this discovery, but he makes a poor front man, and White saw his chance.

Much of Ardi’s skull was found in 1994, but scientists knew at the time that the area in which it was found was rich with more of crushed Ardi, plus all of Ardi’s real time surroundings. That’s a bit unusual. Often fossil finds are separated from their “homes” either by geological or current weather forces. The fifteen years of excavations produced not only 110 Ardi pieces, but ten times as many other animals that lived at the same time.

This led to a reconstruction of an Ardi skeleton, and Ardi’s “home.” That’s really the biggest news. There are only three other skeleton finds of early man. And it’s very rare to be able to create an entire environment for the fossil found. There are some exciting finds: that this early man, for instance, lived mostly in the trees.

For the last 15 years, White was a bit obsessed for fear he would lose control. It’s not really congenial or useful science to keep your finds reserved to your own team for so long, but he managed to do so. We’ll let him try to explain why.

Here’s the first indications of poor popular science. These are the sound bites, newspaper articles and television spots that will win these scientists fame and grants. It’s always a dumming down of science, but I find two of these really flabbergasting.

FIRST, no one is mentioning Toumai. Toumai doesn’t really have a scientific name, yet, because there is such quibbling between its discoverer, Michel Brunet, and especially, Tim White. Brunet insists he is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, distinctly hominid. If so, at 6 million years old, it absolutely makes Toumai the oldest hominid found.

White has continually rebuffed Brunet using a pretty weak argument: so little of Toumai was found – his fossil is limited to his skull. But that’s the case with thousands of early hominids. But alas, guess what, White has a nearly whole skeleton!

SECOND, a lowly member of the scientific team, Owen Lovejoy, an imminent scientist in his own right, is purporting some pretty unusual conclusions that I think would make Jay Gould and Charles Darwin turn over in their graves.

Lovejoy embraces a very controversial notion that behavior preceded biological evolution. Ardi’s physiognomy was much more modern than earliest man. The size of the male and female were not as divergent, and neither had monkey-like teeth. Lovejoy – presumably endorsed by the other team members – claims that these physical aspects were the result of a developing social family relationship between the male and female.

He even claims that it is likely that male Ardi’s wooed female Ardi’s with presents to get them to mate. (The presents being food.) He believes that the social behavior “allowed” for the later evolutionary trends that made men and women similar, and that ultimately “allowed” the human brain to grow considerably after birth, so that the baby could make it through the mother’s birth canal.

This is really stuff for a Simpson’s Show, and I would find it laughable if it weren’t vaguely representative of cultural zealots too often taking charge today in America.

Already, less celebrated scientists like William Jungers of Stoney Brook are taking aim at this popular unveiling of what might not be quite as big as the media would like.

“This is a fascinating skeleton, but based on what they present, the evidence for bipedalism is limited at best,” said William Jungers, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York State.

Without a real demonstration of bipedalism, Ardi could not be considered a hominid at all. If she isn’t a hominid, she wouldn’t rank the first 14 minutes on World News Tonight with Charles Gibson.

Stay tuned.

Zinj’s Golden! Birthday?

Zinj’s Golden! Birthday?

Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact date that Australopithecus boisei was found by Mary Leakey, but it was in July, 1959 and reported in August. Time to celebrate!

The discovery of Nutcracker Man in 1959 was the single most important paleontological discovery that jump started the science, quashed forever (except in weird and extreme circles) creationism, and paved the way for the next 50 years of jaw-dropping science.

We don’t know the exact date he was found, and like Africans everywhere he goes by a number of different names. Zinj seems to be the most used, a shortening of the initial scientific designation of Zinjanthropus boisei. “Zinj” is an Arabic contraction of “East Africa”. For most of my lifetime, though, it has been known as Australopithecus boisei.

And because Mary Leakey’s diaries and the entries in the National Museum in Nairobi differ by several days, we aren’t even absolutely sure of the exact date Zinj saw the sun for the first time in more than a million years. Possibly July 17, possibly July 25. And the actual announcement of the discovery wasn’t until August. (I read it in the “Weekly Reader” in October.) But good grief, you can’t fault a two million-year old creature for forgetting his date of discovery by a few days.

The Leakeys had excavated tirelessly Olduvai Gorge for 28 years before finding Zinj and were widely considered to be kooks. When the then Princess Elizabeth made a state visit to the colony of Kenya in 1954, Lewis Leakey was warned if he met the princess to “not say anything about that early man gibberish.”

Zinj was probably the 3rd or 4th early man skull to have been found, but the first to be reckoned as such. And shortly after the scientific community accepted its near million-year age, the other skulls that had been masquerading as chimp-like primates in South Africa were unmasked as true hominids. The science exploded.

Today we have nearly 10,000 early hominid remains and nearly 1,000 early hominid skulls or partial skulls. That’s quite a feat in less than twice the time the Leakey’s spent in finding the first!

And to think of the twists and turns in theory and application that Grandpa Darwin prepared for us, once these important pieces of evidence were unearthed! Shortly after the Zinj discovery, it was widely and near unanimously presumed by world science that hominid evolution was linear: old lemur to old ape to old chimp to old man to us.

We now understand that’s a grade schooler’s explanation of calculus. We know now there were at least 22 different kinds of early hominids. In fact, even today, there’s uncertainty where Zinj belongs. Most people think he’s an australopithecine, but there’s growing evidence to suggest he’s actually a paranthopus! Wikipedia is lobbying for that.

So happy birthday (or, rather happy unearthing?), Zinj! How amazing to see in my own lifetime your entire story from ungrave to exalted cradle of display: For today your actual self is on PUBLIC DISPLAY in the Nairobi Museum!

That gives me goose (or should I say, pterodactyl) bumps!

Nairobi Museum

Nairobi Museum

For all the stress of Nairobi, the city, its stellar museum makes it all worthwhile.

My second safari of the season, the Howard and Godfrey families, arrived unusually altogether on Saturday night. Like most travelers to East Africa, what they wanted to do was see animals, so I’d been unsuccessful suggesting a two-night stay in Nairobi to begin.

Two nights gives you a full day to see all of the city’s attractions, and they’re really nice: in order of my preference: the museum, walking downtown and visiting contemporary art galleries, the Karen Blixen Homestead, Giraffe Manor and Kazuri Beads. There’s also the elephant feeding at Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage which is wonderful, but the 11 a.m. schedule in the Langata area often makes any other additional option then difficult.

So I made the decision that on our first day out of Nairobi, hardly 12 hours after everyone arrived, that we would visit the museum and the city, have lunch, and then bee-line it down to Tsavo. After all, it was a Sunday, the quietest day of the week, and I knew traffic would be manageable. I was … sort of right.

But the morning in the museum was a hit. I start with Ahmed, the huge (“hugest” according to Dillon) elephant ever found in Kenya. Guarded until its death a generation ago, it is now fiberglassed for eternity, and provides an excellent place to begin the fascinating discussion of elephants.

We then visit the gourd pyramid, where gourds from ethnic groups around Kenya are beautifully linked together as a demonstration of how varied the people of East Africa are.

But my favorite room is the early man exhibit, including what I really believe is one of the most phenomenally valuable exhibits of any museum in the world.

There are a number of excellent early man exhibits in museums around the world, and South Africa’s Sterkfontein Cradle of Mankind museum is probably the overall best. But what I find so wonderful about Nairobi’s exhibit is that they seem to keep it contemporary. When Michel Brunet published finding Toumai, what may be the earliest hominid ever discovered (6 mya), the display in Nairobi was changed pretty quickly to reflect this possibility.

The long glass display case of casts of early hominids is excellent arranged, with perfect, concise description. And it all begins with a hands-on exhibit of what a fossil is.

But the gem is the smaller, square and often sealed-off room that displays the original skulls of 7 early hominids including both Nutcracker Man and Turkana Boy. These are two of the most important finds ever made, certainly vying with Lucy for the most important ever. I think of the protection that Lucy received during her recent world tour, versus the trust that museum officials in Nairobi accord their visitors who stick their noses up to the glass of these invaluable fossils.

I think everyone was pretty pleased with the tour. We followed it with a walking tour of Nairobi and lunch at the Stanley’s Thorntree café.

I hope they were, anyway. The subsequent drive into Tsavo on the “new” Mombasa road was a nightmare. The truck traffic was unbelievable. More on this in a later blog.

Hominid Uno?

Hominid Uno?

New research nails man’s birthplace near the Kalahari Desert. Science continues to trump the dwindling support for creationism or anything anti-evolutionist.

Today’s announcement by Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania that continuing analysis of worldwide human DNA nails the birthplace of modern man near the Kalahari is a much sexier story in the U.S. than elsewhere. And I like that. Sort of like the continuing twisting of the screw of “I gotcha” into the bungled cork ideology of intelligent design, the last and dying religious ideology about hominid creation.

New research puts our birthplace in what is now the Kalahari Desert. Less than 100,000 years later, a few dozen of our surviving ancestors migrated into the Middle East to create modern humanity.

Olduvai Gorge has always been one of my very favorite places on safari. The first picture that I ever had taken in Africa was of myself spreading my arms above Olduvai Gorge in the early 1970s. Not a year has passed since that I haven’t visited it multiple times.

The spectrum of public interest and debate that has accompanied my developing love for the paleontology of Africa is mind boggling. In my career in Africa the science has increased more than anyone could have imagined. But so have the social politics of evolution.

Emerging from the liberal society of the 1960s, evolution was hardly more controversial than gravity. A generation later state legislatures were outlawing it. Science leaped forward while American society uturned back to the Dark Ages.

This was almost exclusively an American phenomenon.

For years, literally generations, paleontologists have postulated that our birthplace had to be in Africa. This wasn’t just because that’s where the vast majority of early hominids were found, but also because diligent (I should say, ‘unrelenting’) science in related areas like geology and chemistry were coming to likewise deductions.

The first real hard scientific evidence came from three pioneering academics in 1987. Publishing somewhat to their peril, they described their discovery of Mitochondrial Eve. Rebecca L. Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan C. Wilson described a shortcut if blueprint for later, more thorough DNA analysis of where man began.

It was very hard science and that was very hard for much of poorly educated American society to grasp, and easy for fanatics from the pulpit to contest. But for most of us half-educated dimwits, it was extraordinarily exciting.

But it was the human genome project that reenforced “Mitochondrial Eve” in spades. Two scientists from the University of Cambridge used the results appearing in the genome project to conclude in a May, 2007, study that not only did we originate in Africa, but all of us are ancestors of a small band (several dozen, maybe) of modern humans who entered the Middle East from Africa 50,000 years ago.

Toomas Kivisild and Phillip Endicott were not field researchers. They were numbers guys, crunching the data collected by the genome project in their offices in England. It was, as they said, “simple numbers.”

The earliest hominid may be 7 million years old, but they all died off. All of us are related to someone who walked out of Africa into the Middle East only 50,000 years ago.

Now, continuing study of the human genome project has added even more to our understanding of that “first man.” Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania has determined that maybe 100,000 years before that fateful crossing into the Middle East, the ancestors of that small band of humans was formed near the Kalahari Desert. That is when modern man emerged as a mutate from earlier forms of hominids.

That makes us the newest and most youthful of all forms of hominids, probably including the otherwise short-lived Neanderthals. We’re a mere 150,000 years old. Of the as many as 20 other forms of early hominids, none lived for less than a third of a million years.

We’ve got a long way to go to be Hominid Uno. Hope we can make it!