Early Visions

Early Visions

terrainYesterday “Little Foot” had her coming out party. Little Foot is an Australopithecine, an ancient hominid who fell into a cave in southern Africa where she remained until meticulously exhumed 3½ million years later.

Little Foot is the third almost complete skeleton of a very early hominid. The chances of this are so infinitesimal as to be mind-boggling. It’s a testament of course to remarkable technology but also to the very astute critical thinking and unique dedication of modern paleontologists. If you’re a whiz kid looking for the most exciting scientific career, I’d look down as much as up.

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Ever Outlasting

Ever Outlasting

travel ban against stupid looking peopleTime to check your clocks. No, I’m not reminding you about the end of daylight savings time. I want to be sure that your ticks still clock, sinets mounting into meconds and inuits into mours, because it isn’t just government that’s falling apart, science is, too.

Our world of disinformation and strangled reasoning has sucked in science. Walrus-looking agricultural science advisors with no science credentials, EPA forbidding use of the world ‘climate’ and what has really driven me crazy, paleontologists speaking like political idiots.

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Way Too Much Talking

Way Too Much Talking

way too much talkingWith the testimony this week by social media giants in the prism of fake news, I followed with special interest the discovery announced recently that old human teeth were “rewriting” human history.

A year ago German scientists made a remarkable find of 9.7 million-year old human-like teeth. For some reason, they took a year to officially report it. In a clearly rhetorical postulation the scientists suggested the teeth were hominin, and this would require a radical rethinking of current human evolution.

The mayor in the town where the discovery happened was pretty definitive: “I don’t want to over-dramatise it, but I would hypothesise that we shall have to start rewriting the history of mankind after today.”

His statement was immediately published by such normally careful media as USAToday and London’s Independent.

Well, no.

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Move To Survive

Move To Survive

thegreathumanodysseyMigration is a central issue today throughout the world. Misunderstood, mishandled and out of control, literally millions of people are on the move because of war and unfair economies. Don’t we realize that it was migration that saved us all?

A recent Nova production, The Great Human Odyssey, is a brilliant story that reminds us again and again that we, homo sapiens, survived for one reason and one alone: We moved when we had to.

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Earlier and Earlier

Earlier and Earlier

Photo by Nancy Haley.
Photo by Nancy Haley.

No, we aren’t quite as lucky as we thought. Science often does that to our ego: A rash of exciting new evolutionary studies has put the kibosh on the notion that we’re all descended from a single small group of Africans who left Africa 60-75,000 years ago.

Well, what d’ya know. It was fun for a while thinking we survived by the skin of our skin, and anyway we’ve now got something that will convince Mike Pence of evolution, right?

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Underground Brilliance

Underground Brilliance

undergroundbrililianceWhen the first great human civilizations developed in Africa 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals were also socializing in Europe.

Neanderthals were anatomically distinct from humans, even more than Yao Ming and Jimmy Durante.

They were bigger, not necessarily taller, more robust and likely much more muscular. Their face was much different with a protruding nose and receding chin and forehead. The best explanation for these differences is that they were adaptations to a much colder environment than in Africa where we humans evolved.

But they also had a larger brain, although this remains contentious among some scientists who argue that brain size alone is meaningless and that for comparative purposes needs to be taken in the context of the creature’s overall weight. Even this data of ratio is muddled, but I’ve always felt that skeptics in this area were humanogynists, persons biased against Neanderthals simply because they weren’t us.

But the two creatures have a remarkable amount in common. They are, after all, the last creatures to survive the great hominin experiment that began 6-8 million years before and which had birthed a dozen or more separate “man-like” species.

So they both had hands and feet that were similar, they were both entirely bipedal, their teeth suggested similar diets, and they both had very large brains relative to their body size.

And they both used fire and tools, created jewelry and primitive art.

Africa’s climate changed for the worse and the Africans left the continent seeking the greener pastures of Europe. Contact with the Neanderthals finally happened maybe 50,000 years ago, and not long thereafter the Neanderthals disappeared.

The great hominin experiment was over. Only one species remainded.

Why the immigrant prevailed over the native has intrigued us for years, and the popular notion presumed the Neanderthals were the dumb-ass thugs, since obviously, aren’t we the smartest thing that ever showed up?

Presumptions about self taint all social science, and that’s specially been the case with the Neanderthals for a long time. We’re discovering they were anything but dumb-asses.

A French discovery published in Nature this week details a Neanderthal boma 1000′ feet down a cave. Using the stalagmites of the cave the creatures formed a structure remarkably similar to the “bomas” that characterized traditional African nomadic peoples.

On the arid plains of Africa nomads created a circular kraal or homestead usually with thorn trees and other small bushes, primarily to protect livestock from wild animals.

The Neanderthal structure is remarkably similar, although there’s no indication and it seems difficult to suppose that they were protecting livestock.

There was evidence of fire within the Neanderthal boma, just as with more modern African nomads.

Commenting on the discovery, a Leiden University archaeologist Marie Soressi writes that “their discovery indicates that Neanderthals exhibited more complex social behaviour than was previously thought, and suggests that these hominins used the underground environment.”

We never thought to search for Neanderthal meaning … underground. Yet it makes perfect sense in a frigid environment since deep underground warmth can be conserved.

And keep something else in mind. As with all hominins sight is critically important. There is no light underground … unless you make it.

The need to govern our over estimation of ourselves has been a struggle vis-a-vis the Neanderthal since it was first discovered. Even today religious crazies concoct the most amazingly warped analysis to claim the creature didn’t share a similar evolutionary path as ours.

We’re winning that battle, I’m sure. But the battle to not stereotype is a tougher one. We could one day, for example, determine that the Neanderthal was smarter, fairer and … nicer than us!

Because “us” has changed radically since the days of thorn tree bomas, and had some random event not given us the advantage over the Neanderthals, then it might have been we pee-wees showing up in Sunday cartoons, not the “dumb-ass” Neanderthal.

Bioinformatics BS

Bioinformatics BS

talkingtoomuchRemarkable disarray at the moment among paleontologists, a virtual Guy Fawkes day for creationists.

Findings about homo naledi, continuing excavations at Dmanisi, even a new thesis that dinosaurs started to die before the meteor struck have just been waiting for something for creationists to exploit. Well, they got it.

Last October the respected journal Science published evidence that our closest ancestors didn’t migrate out Africa into Europe, but rather, migrated out of Europe into Africa.

In other words, white men came from white ground.

Here’s the point: it was wrong, a “bioinformatics error” according to the authors.

But now the authors are refusing to retract it, claiming instead that their original thesis was “not affected.”

That would be true if the original thesis had not been quantified. But the headline on the original research, “First ancient African genome reveals vast Eurasian migration,” is totally and completely and absolutely wrong.

“Vast” it can no longer be. There is indeed evidence for this tantalizingly fascinating “reverse migration” of some early men, but it might just be itty bitty.

Since the “respected” journal “Nature” has not decided yet whether to publish a retraction, it’s clear that all science is treading compromised.

I don’t see any disarray in paleontology, quite to the contrary. What I see is growing evidence that our previous models were far too simple.

The greatest taxonomist of all times, Ian Tattersol, recently explained it this way in Discover Magazine:

“In the 1990s, on the family tree of hominins, we had maybe 12 species. Now there are 25…. The family tree is even more bushy than that, but people are still trying to fit things into pre-existing categories.”

Things get bushier and bushier all the time, and that’s exciting and reflects how fast science is advancing. The fact that new research at Dmanisi suggests the first early man migrant was habilis not erectus, or that dinosaurs started to die out before the meteor … that’s all wonderful news for those of us who have always believed that paleontologists were reductionists.

It’s understandable. Galileo thought that the sun was the center of the universe even as he recognized himself as a heretic for his radical discoveries.

The problem occurs when a mistake made is not fully owned up to.

We aren’t splitting hairs, here. Research is not just in the neurons of scientists. It is the culmination of their thinking, of course, their toil and tools and neutral computer analysis, but it’s more than that.

It’s what it says it is.

“First ancient African genome reveals vast Eurasian migration,” is incorrect. It needs to be retracted or restated and republished and not sugar-coated in self-aggrandizing hyperbole about “what we really meant.”

#8 – Evolutionary Excitement

#8 – Evolutionary Excitement

by InkyBoy
by InkyBoy
My #8 most important story in Africa was the wondrous advancement in evolutionary science the continent provided us in 2015!

Paleontology — especially in Africa — is just simply growing in leaps and bounds. Not too many years ago when it was presumed we (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in a linear way from just a few creatures that preceded us and followed the apes, enormous attention was applied to finding the gaps, or “missing links” in that line.

That’s all blown away, now. The last few decades have proved so rich with discoveries showing that there were many, perhaps many many species of “early man.” Even the Neanderthals, who were likely not on our own linear evolutionary line, probably had cousins who died out.

So as the universe of potential discovery grows, so does the depth, range and interest of scientists, and that as you can imagine leads to more and more discoveries.

Here are the high points of 2015:

Most important certainly was the announcement of the initial conclusions about Homo Naledi, a new early man species found in South Africa in 2013.

I don’t agree with all the conclusions, particularly that the cave in which the 15 individuals were found was a burial site, but there are many other equally interesting conclusions that come from this remarkable discovery.

First and foremost, the appendages (hands and feet) of the creature were very close to our own, even though the brain size suggested a very primitive and early creature that would, for example, predate both homo erectus and homo habilis.

The individuals were astoundingly complete, at least in terms of what most 2½ million year old fossils normally look like.

And from my layman point of view, the incredible transparency of the discovery, from almost the moment it was found to the invitation to scientists worldwide to analysis the data, marked a real turning point in the until to now bitter infighting common among paleontologists.

Some other important bones discovered included fingers! Million-year old fingers aren’t easy to come by, and the discovery in Olduvai parallels Naledi’s suggestion that our physical traits existed much earlier in the hominin record than previously thought.

In the category of “keeps getting older” scientists also in South Africa found a homo habilis dated to almost 3 million years old. This predates by nearly a half million years the next oldest habilis find and resurrects suggestions this is our own most immediate ancestor.

This was hotly contested, by the way, with another 2015 discovery in Georgia of another homo erectus. The scientists on this site insist this creature is in line for our most immediate ancestor.

Moving away from old bones, there were scores of new tool finds, deeper analysis of existing data and actual field science regarding the dynamics of evolution itself.

Stone tools were very many years presumed to mean the user was an early man. That’s changed as we documented less than mankind, like chimpkind, also uses them.

In 2015 scientists announced finding what they claimed were the oldest fossil stone tools on record, more than 3 million years old. I disagree with their conclusion that this find by itself pushes back “humanness,” but it remains an argument that still carries weight.

One of the hottest topics this decade is trying to figure out why we prevailed and Neanderthals didn’t. Some really clever research suggests at least one of the reasons is that we had … and enjoyed music! (And that the big guy didn’t.)

Some may fear I’m sinking into the arcane, but there was also some really fascinating research on Africa’s cichlid fishes that qualifies the value of natural selection! Cool stuff.

Some people lay on their back and peer into the heavens, wondering what’s out there. I do sometimes as well, but I much prefer peering into the distant past and wondering what marvels of the universe transformed us into what we are, today!

(For my summary of all the top 10 stories in Africa in 2015, click here.)

Nearly Naledi

Nearly Naledi

nalediToday’s flowery announcement of Homo naledi probably exaggerates a truly outstanding discovery, thereby diminishing its import. Alas, anthropologists at it, again!

Homo naledi is undoubtedly a new species of early man, and that’s exciting enough, isn’t it? We’re pushing around 20 species, now, of early men and I’ve predicted for some time that number will probably never stop increasing, at least until we start hunting for fossils on Titan.

We know that our epoch of planet earth is one of quickly diminishing species, and that in the ages of rapidly increasingly species, there were dozens of apes, maybe hundreds of early primates. Why shouldn’t there be lots of types of early men?

The story of Homo naledi is exciting for two reasons in particular:

First, it’s a collection of fossils representing at least 15 individuals. We’ve never discovered such a single collection of early men species before.

Second, the creature has appendages – arms, legs and especially hands – that are much more similar to our own than any other early creatures found with a similarly small brain size.

There are other reasons the discovery is exciting: it was in the Sterkfontein area of South Africa, which post-apartheid has received the attention it’s deserved for decades and is year to year showing its exceptional worth.

The leader of the expedition is Lee Berger, an American resident in South Africa for most of his career. Another lead member of the team is one of my personal anthropological heroes (for his normally balanced approach to the science that he’s somewhat compromised in this case) John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin.

Unlike discoveries made by some of the find’s most vocal critics (Tim White of Ardi, in particular) the analysis of Homo naledi has been open and transparent since its find nearly two years ago.

In other words, and unlike Ardi’s find and numerous others, what was known was published remarkably soon after it was discovered. Today’s announcement is the summary of all that analysis, and – what I consider somewhat tentative – the age of the discovery.

Today Berger claimed that the cave site was 2-2.5 million years old.

If that also holds true of the fossils themselves, it’s astounding. It would mean the hominid line moves even further into the past, overlapping more and more species of men-like creatures that were not hominin, like the australopithecine.

It’s not astounding conceptually, because it’s what many scientists and I’ve believed all along, but it would be evidentially astounding.

And this is where two fights really begin. Disregard White’s pooh-poohing of the typing of the species, because that old battle of what species is what is really becoming an old man’s game. The real fight is over the age of the fossils.

Most early fossils are pretty easily dated. The unique structure and composition of this cave, however, makes easy dating impossible.

If the fossils are as old as the cave itself, it predates early human and that’s very exciting. The finders are also suggesting something else: burial, something also presumed to be utterly human.

It’s nearly impossible for us laymen to speculate on the actual age of the fossils, because that’s deep and intricate science.

But we can speculate upon the extent to which the situation seems to be a burial.

The creatures had very small brains and no other creatures anywhere near that brain size have been found in situations that suggest burial.

If burial is a human characteristic, and if this was a burial situation, does that mean that this was a more direct ancestor than any found this primitive before?

I don’t think so. The 15 individuals were mostly young people, many very young. Only one old individual is among the discovery.

Certainly in primitive situations more young die than old, perhaps many more young, so that would be consistent with the find. But 14:1?

Berger insists there is nothing evidential to suggest predation or warfare, because there aren’t fossilized wounds. But what about suffocation or a sudden methane blow?

So by process of elimination that didn’t consider my qualifications above, the current scientists – including my usually reluctant Hawks – have decided this was an early human burial site.

I don’t think so. I’m still thinking about why I don’t think so, but it strikes me as the exaggeration of an otherwise beautiful paleontological discovery, diverting interest and ergo science from deeper analysis of what we know, to cosmological speculation of what we’ll never know.

Ah, anthropology today.

In The Pink!

In The Pink!

oldesthandbonePaleontologists have some really new important bones from Olduvai Gorge, and they so perfectly fit into my collection of bones against paleontologists!

Olduvai is one of my favorite places in the world, a bit overrun these days by too many tourists but weathering it all well, and on every Tanzanian safari I lead we visit this magical place.

Few early man sites have been as productive as Olduvai in spite of its depth into prehistory capped by the 3-million year old lava of the super volcano Ngorongoro.

But since it was essentially “the first” real early man site, it’s probably been worked over more carefully than any other early man site in the world. I heard this year that Stanford scientists are testing a process to excavate into lava (have been unable to verify) but until recently at least Olduvai’s discoveries were limited to around 2½ million years ago.

So while the horse race among anthropologists to find the earliest hominin has had to move elsewhere (with great success, by the way), scientists who park themselves at Olduvai must be content with less sexy discoveries.

Like this year’s hand bone.

The “pinkie bone” as named by Discovery News, pushes back even earlier the date for contemporary human traits emerging in the fossil record.

Hands and their fingers are key components of modern humans and our most direct ancestors. Compared to skulls, jaws and teeth, we don’t have a lot of hands and fingers. In fact we have more feet and toes than hands and fingers.

Now this could be utterly coincidental, but I don’t think so. Paleontologists fall into that sexy class of scientists more likely to get on TV than microbiologists, and a good portion of them spend a good portion of their lives cultivating fame.

They are also much nastier to one another than other kinds of scientists but I suppose that’s governed by Nelson as well.

I think one plausible explanation for why we have fewer fossil hands and fingers is because scientists aren’t looking for them as earnestly as for skulls, jaws, teeth, toes and feet.

This is because skulls contain brains which we think are directly related to cognizance (except with Fox News presenters).

Jaws is one of the best markers towards common ancestry with apes. Teeth are marvelously durable and are a treasure box not just of the behavior and life history of the individual who had them, but of the mortality of that person’s race. Toes and feet contribute to understandings of bipedalism, which is generally considered the first indicator of hominin.

Hands and fingers … well, yes, they make tools. But there even seemed to be a greater desire for the discovery of fossil tools than the hands and fingers that had to make them.

Of course fingers especially are fragile things, made up of all sorts of tiny bones that are much less likely to become fossilized. But whether coincidence or subconscious intention, we haven’t had a lot of them.

What this current discovery does is push back to nearly 2 million years a creature with a modern-looking hand.

That’s considerably older than the other creatures whose hands we have found. In fact, it’s such a startling discovery that its scientists are suggesting it may represent still another species of early man.

Alas! My bone with paleontologists!

I’ve contended for some time that there are probably dozens of early men, dozens if not more than dozens of species of early hominin.

Paleontologists, on the other hand, are a bunch of reductionists after the fact.

By that I mean that of course every unique early man fossil found is often initially presented as something entirely new and, dare we suggest so, a new hominin species.

But that doesn’t last long. The overall culture among paleontologists is to reduce the body of evidence into as few different hominin species as possible. That’s understandable since the alternative is so daunting.

But the alternative happens to be right, and this most recent find from one of my most favorite places in the world is pretty irrefutable evidence.

None Too Many

None Too Many

nonetoomanyAn exciting early man discovery published today in Nature may hopefully reverse the insane tide of opinion that hominin evolution is singular and linear.

Clearly we, homo sapiens sapiens, are the end game in a multi-million year evolution that moved step by step from one ancient creature to another, a “linear” evolution into ourselves.

But that doesn’t mean that the “family” of early men wasn’t much broader, with all sorts of other linear evolutions going hither and yon, all dead-ending but us.

I refer to doubters as “insane” because while there are wondrous moments in science where intuitive notions prove wrong, in this case intuitive is really all we need.

All the Kings of The Ecological Hills, sharks, elephants, lions, super viruses, so-called “invasive species” like garlic mustard, and yes, even cock roaches … all of these “kings” did not arrive on a singular path from times long ago.

They all had multiple ancestors, many of which evolved into dead-ends. It’s just totally counter intuitive that we – the “King of Kings” – didn’t arrive on our throne the same way.

Early early man scientists, however, had so little to work with that it really didn’t even occur to them that there could have been other post-ape, post-preman creatures, just like there’s a whole lot of birds. The few discoveries in hand spanned a period of time that could, indeed, suggest one evolved into the other: that all of them seemed in one evolutionary track.

With more and more discoveries, however, this became less plausible, particularly among the post-Australopithecine hominins.

Australopithecine creatures predate homo creatures, and the principal morphological differences are the teeth and brain size. Whether or not some Australopithecine is ancestral to some homo, both are considered incapable of having evolved into modern apes or orangutans … but they are definitely ancestors to us, or to other hominins that went extinct.

That’s the controversy: which is it? Are there other early hominins that went extinct, or is every individual early man fossil we’ve found so far a certain step in the evolutionary ladder to us?

The question really died about 15 years ago when virtually every early man scientist back then espoused a “branching” or multiple ladders theory. Those other ladders never made it to the top: their final species went extinct. We made it.

Homo erectus, in particular, was often cited as one of those dead-ends that got pretty close biologically and socially to us. He migrated all over the earth. He made tools and recent discoveries suggest he used fire.

Then he disappeared hundreds of thousands of years before we appeared.

Meanwhile, all sorts of varied homo hominins more recent than any Austraolipithecine were being discovered: heidelbergensis, floresiensis, habilis, rudolfensis and neanderthalensis. Add us (homo sapiens) and erectus and you have 7 different species, none of which were presumed ancestral to the other.

(Some scientists added others like ergaster and gautengensis, making it 9 or more.)

And then (!) there were some other early manlike creature discoveries, post Australopithecine, that were so taxonomically different they were marginalized as hominins that might even be something else:

Orrorin tugenensis, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Paranthropus boisei and perhaps the most controversial of all, Paranthropus robustus.

If you considered these to be hominin, then there were at least 11-13 or more different hominin species, none of which was ancestral to the other.

That sounded, and still sounds, right to me. As I’ve often said, with time I imagine we’ll add to this list.

Then come these scientists who find some discoveries in Georgia a few years ago which were striking for being among the most complete skulls, and for so many skulls.

The scientists’ assessment at the time was that everything that they had found was a homo erectus and they extrapolated from other details of their discovery that really homo erectus was the only hominin species predating homo sapiens!

The old question was ressurrected.

Well, time has passed and criticism has mounted and basically the consensus that has emerged is that yes, probably there are fewer different hominin species than many once suggested, but that the Georgia finds are woefully insufficient to suggest there weren’t at least some different simultaneous homo species!

And today’s publication in Nature really helps return to this belief: Scientists working in Ethiopia report the discovery of an Australopithecine (remember, the homin creature that predates homo) that was contemporary with “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis) but way too different to be like Lucy, so a completely new species of Australopithecine!

Since Austraolopithecine predate homo this suggests that if there are multiple Australopithecine then it’s completely plausible there are multiple homo.

Done for the moment. (Hardly for the term: Stay tuned!)

Fascinating Chance

Fascinating Chance

toolmakingbychanceTools may no longer be as important a marker of humanness as previously thought, confirming my long held belief that tool making is universal among all life forms.

Stony Brook University scientists announced a couple weeks ago that they had found stone tools in northern Kenya as old as 3.3 million years. They called them the “world’s oldest stone tools” and that they predate by almost three-quarters of a million years previously discovered tools.

Since the oldest member of our genus, Homo, was announced in March by scientists working in Ethiopia (at 2.8 million years ago) the newly announced tools must have been used by another species, perhaps an Australopithecine.

Tool making among Australopithecine, a species that dates to more than 4 million years ago, has been claimed before but remains controversial. A major problem with older tool discoveries is that the chance of finding a tool that can be properly dated and also associated with something that had been alive at the same time becomes more and more difficult the older the tool is.

Nevertheless it always seemed intuitive to me that tools were not as important a marker of humanness as was argued.

When it was first demonstrated that chimps use tools, there was a very momentary gasp after which it just seemed like common sense. At what point is something not a “tool?” When a string of Army ants bridges a divide, is that not a tool of the ant species? When an oyster catcher hammers open a mollusk with a remarkably adapted beak, can we not call that beak a tool?

A sea gull can’t flake a rock, but it can drop a mollusk high enough above the ground to crack it open. Isn’t this “tool use?”

In the early days of paleontology finding stone tools represented a real possibility of finding human-like creatures. The only reason Lewis and Mary Leakey toiled for 27 years at Olduvai Gorge searching for a hominid was because they kept finding tools.

They were right.

But the tools that early human-like creatures used may have simply reflected their anatomy and not their brains or their consciousness.

Opposable thumbs, very dexterous hands with the ability to twist a grasp might perforce lead to the creation of a stone flake.

“Just as there were different styles of body shape and bipedal mechanics among early hominins, there were likely different styles of technical traditions,“ the eminent paleontologist John Hawks contends.

It seems to me that tool making is hardly more than a life form’s extension of its anatomy. Just as the evolution of species by natural selection is a simple truth, so should we see early tool use by natural selection.

Neither is capable of modifying their outcomes, and that seems to encumber the understanding of how natural selection might apply to tool use, since tools were modified over time to become better and better.

But that modification need not necessarily be considered consciously proactive by the tool maker or user. It could – I believe it is at its most primitive levels – the same outcome by chance that species modification is.

Just as we – homo sapiens sapiens – have emerged beyond the containments of natural selection (poor eyesight is no longer an impediment to survival, because it can be corrected by our engineering) so ultimately did tool making emerge from a dynamic of chance to one driven by human consciousness.

What we’re all fascinated with is the emergence of human consciousness and certainly the analysis of early tools can assist with this exploration. But the presumption that early tools reflect human consciousness is too sweeping a generalization.

Every creature, large and small, uses or makes tools or employs tool use. It’s just, well … natural.

OnSafari: Cradle of Humankind

OnSafari: Cradle of Humankind

CradleofHumankindOn our last day in South Africa we toured mankind’s first.

Or some of his first, anyway.

The Lanzerac was kind enough to give us an early breakfast so that we could leave at 7 a.m. It’s always such a crapshoot in South Africa when traveling around the cities during the week, because of traffic. Their highways are modern, but far too small for the concentrated traffic of rush hour.

We were fortunate. Sometimes from Stellenbosch it can take 90 minutes. We made it in 45, checked in to Mango Airlines and were on our way to Lanseira, the smaller municipal airport on the far northwestern side of Joburg.

That meant we were only 30 minutes from Maropeng, translated: Origins. This World Heritage Site includes the Maropeng center and early man museum, and ten minutes away by car, the Sterkfontein caves.

It shot to prominence 15 years ago when the American, Ron Clark, found “Little Foot,” only the third nearly complete skeleton of an early man, in this case, an Australopithecus Africanus.

So the South Africans sprang for something akin to a mini theme park.

After a brief introduction and circular time line that you walk through, depicting the stages of Planet Earth’s long trajectory to life, there is a short video about the early geological forces that formed the planet.

Then it’s to the “boat ride,” a simulation through time that somewhat parallels the deep river caves in which so many precious early fossils have been found in the region.

And this emerges into a decent museum about early man, and contemporary man.

The several-hour visit cave some meaning to what would otherwise have been just a travel day, something when combining South Africa with Botswana is unavoidable.

And so we end our last day in South Africa back at the lovely Michelangelo in Sandton. Tomorrow, to Botswana!

OnSafari: Early Man Gets Earlier

OnSafari: Early Man Gets Earlier

homohabilisIn less than a week I take my group to the Cradle of Humankind, and it’s appropriate that yesterday a milestone discovery was announced.

In what has certainly become the paradise for human fossil hunters, Afar in Ethiopia, a Univ. Of Arizona grad student found a mandible with teeth of a creature most scientists’ first looks suggest was our oldest direct ancestor.

This homo habilis is dated to 2.8 million years old, 400,000 years older than the next oldest find so far of this species.

While it will be a while before a scientific consensus can be achieved, the way I’m reading the first reports generated from the Nature publication, I think there’s a lot of loud clapping and back slapping.

There had been a gap of about a million years between rich and varied early man fossils of 3 million years and older, and 2 million years and younger.

The older ones are universally considered pre-hominid and most have been classified as Australopithecus. The younger ones begin with homo habilis and branched into at least one other species, homo erectus, before us – homo sapiens. This is the simple view, anyway. A good number of scientists would divide the fossil record into seven or eight additional species.

But in all cases, whether there were only two early man species, or eight, homo habilis was the oldest, so the first. This find that extends habilis into the million-year gap of which so little is known gives tenure to the notion it really was the first homo.

The problem is simply with having found so few species in this epoch of time. The reason for having found so few of them might have been relatively dramatic climate change. In a time of rapid climate change the chances of anything becoming fossilized are greatly reduced.

Not coincidentally, some scientists are now considering the possibility of rapid climate change in this period as the actual reason for the speciation of homo. Homo survived, Australopithecus and who knows what else, didn’t.

I find it somewhat confusing that a number of scientists are using this find to suggest that homo habilis evolved from Australopithecus. Seems to me that’s a stretch, and that it may be just as likely that Australopithecus and habilis both evolved from something else, or even more likely, had several evolution iterations (species creations) before sharing a common ancestor.

But the fossil record of the Australopithecine is rich and varied, with little among any of the finds to suggest a different species. If it were not the evolutionary root of habilis, and habilis or its ancestors also lived then, why have so many Australopithecine been found and so few habilis?

Perhaps more light will be shed on this when a competing scientific report on this same find is published in Science next week.

Just a little Love Song

Just a little Love Song

by InkyBoy
by InkyBoy
Is music one clue as to why modern humans displaced Neanderthals and now reign supreme?

One of the greatest mysteries in all paleontology is why we, modern homo sapiens sapiens, appeared so suddenly in Europe 50-65,000 years ago and equally suddenly (in paleontological terms) wiped out or subsumed the Neanderthals who had reigned in Europe for so much longer.

We know one of the reasons: we had better weapons than any of the other several species of hominin we were encountering as we fled drought in Africa.

But that sort of begs the question: why did Early Us know how to make those weapons and the Big Guy didn’t?

Neanderthal had a brain as large or larger than ours. It was a much stronger, bigger person. It would be like your high school football team beating the Seahawks (provided, of course, that Marshawn Lynch wasn’t denied the ball).

The prevailing views for last couple decades are changing.

The past notion was that Neanderthals lacked language to the same extent as our ancestors, because the absence of a hyoid bone suggested their larynx didn’t descend like ours. That is what changes our voices as we grow up, and it facilitates us making hundreds of thousands of sounds we can’t when we’re little.

Too bad. Hyoids presumed descended in the larynx in Neanderthals have now been found.

In fact descended hyoids have been found in even other old species of hominin, like heidelbergensis. I don’t want to give this up completely, though, because there are also Neanderthal whose descended larynx isn’t certain, but not so in any modern human.

How about art? Early Us left a lot of graffiti. Caves, the preferred domicile 50,000 years ago, are treasure troves of wall art, some of it quite masterful.

Well, a couple months ago scientists reported very primitive cave art found in Indonesia made by homo erectus a half million years ago!

And maybe even the Big Guy after all. Last year some archaeologists insisted they found Neanderthal cave art in Gibraltar, dated to 39,000 years ago.

Like Neanderthal’s maybe descending hyoids, I think this discovery is only maybe cave art by Neanderthals, because it might actually have been done by Early Us or by some progeny of Early Us and the Big Huy.

Now scientists are focusing on music.

Spears, rock axes, even picks and primitive balls and chains – and maybe now even cave art – have been associated with all sorts of early man species, some dating back millions not thousands of years. But musical instruments?

The oldest ever found and mostly accepted as such is a 43,000 year old flute. That corresponds close enough with the time homo sapiens sapiens began wiping out or subsuming the Neanderthal. But of course we can’t be sure that the person being wiped out wasn’t the piper.

The flute discovery has flown off into the stratosphere of tangents. All sorts of scientists, now, are wondering if chimps drumming on hollow logs is the precursor to Mozart, and that only Early Us mastered that maturation.

Take a deep breath, guys.

I think what we’re learning is that the whole range of things from better weapons to more advanced artistic and linguistic capabilities gave Early Us an extremely significant leg up not just on the Big Guy but every hominin to come before.

It was no single thing, and I’m sure music was a part of it. It’s much easier to go into battle against Neanderthal if you’re singing ‘Rule Britannia,’ can encrypt your texts and have a Gatling gun to boot.

Oh, by the way, the prevailing science today suggests that we didn’t wholesale wipe out the Neanderthal. There might have been skirmishes, but there were a lot of weddings, too.