OnSafari from Above

OnSafari from Above

I just love the flight down from Europe to East Africa! Whether from London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich or Paris most of the flights are day time and travel over some of the most dramatic scenery on earth!

This time I started from Frankfurt flying over the gorgeous springtime greenery of what many of us Americans consider an overly manicured Europe. But you’ve got to admit those perfectly planted farm fields with bursts of little thick forests all around them are definitely where the Pied Piper is hiding his kiddies!
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Let’s be clear: the dozens of early man species all contributed to the branching tree of life that ultimately grew into Sen. Marco Rubio. Just because Ancestry shows you have 2% Homo neanderthalensis does not mean that all the other early species in the millions of years that preceded the first neanderthal had no skin (oh, sorry, I mean amino acid) in the game. For example, in my opinion regardless of their DNA typing I think it’s evident that most of the Senators on the right get their instincts more from Australopithecus afarensis than Homo neanderthalensis. Credit where credit’s due.

2018 Thunderbolt

2018 Thunderbolt

It’s overload. As in America the earth-shaking news in Africa in 2018 came nearly daily, and it’s all quite similar to the earth-shaking news in America and the rest of the world.

So what’s striking more than the individual stories are the parallels. Tomorrow I’ll detail these for you. Friday I’ll tell you what it presages and what to do about it. Meanwhile, today:

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#MeToo Flintstones

#MeToo Flintstones

The #MeToo movement has infected Early Man. It just shows how charged culturally society is, today. Unable to govern ourselves sanely by political means, the cultural side of things explodes and like all sudden bursts of power often over-reaches.

Several women early-person scientists interviewed recently by NPR claimed that women were more important for the survival of the group than men in “early man” societies, implying that misogynistic attitudes by the mostly male college of early man scientists suppresses reality.

NPR interviewed Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah who has spent a good amount of her career studying the Hadzabe people who live in northern Tanzania. These are an extremely interesting group of people who in modern times have been terribly mistreated and as a result have been unable to integrate into modern Tanzanian life.

Hawkes has alienated quite a few of her colleages by using “Backtime” cultural presumption – deducting behavior in ancient peoples based on the current behavior of their distant offspring. The technique is mostly discarded by paleontologists, and particularly so with reference to Hawkes’ work.

(Hawkes calls the Hadzabe “Hazda” to underscore her affinity with current Hadzabe who use that contraction. Not dissimilar to calling Americans “Dudes.”)

Hawkes’ central theory is that the contemporary Hadzabe barely manage to survive and principally by their women gathering plants rather than by the men hunting. Hawkes back-extrapolates this to presume early-man women were no less important than men in victualing the tribe.

“The Important Grandmothers” theory was broadcast by NPR a few weeks ago, but it’s very old news. Hawkes has been promoting this theory all her career. It first gained popular attention in 2012 when the Atlantic summarized the debate. BTW, that debate wasn’t about how early Hadzabe lived, but whether Hawkes science was legitimate.

Early man’s increasing brain size relative to body weight required much more protein than needed by apes, for example. (Caveat: very recent science suggests that it wasn’t brain size so much as brain structure. Either way, we know that this evolutionary advancement that was restricted to hominins required more fuel than the old brains.) Hard evolutionary evidence for this was the emergence of incisors, a dental tool for eating meat.

Plants don’t provide enough protein. Apes – which are largely plant eaters – don’t need to consume other animals. Early man with an advancing brain did. He had to hunt. The anatomical difference between man and woman is not in dispute. The male was much more adapted to hunting than the female.

We know from anatomical analysis, and even more so from the Hadzabe’s click speech, that they are closely allied with the San people of southern Africa, the Bushmen, who are generally considered among the most primitive extant peoples on earth.

The few surviving naturalist San even of today maintain a remarkable hunter-gatherer society. So the San like the Hadzabe have been studied by some anthropologists to provide some type of insight to early man’s behavior: “Backtime.”

With the San it parallels nicely with traditional theories. The types of tools, patterns of migration, diet, etc. all support a wide range of important presumptions about the hunter-gatherer behavior of early man, where it is the man whose victualing is paramount.

The Hadzabe are different. Hawkes documents women Hadzabe providing more food and useful food than the men. Actually it’s not even that. She doesn’t include all Hadzabe, excluding modern acting Hadzabe who nevertheless often interact with the traditional groups.

There are cogent explanations why Hawkes’ restricted data is true, none of which could possibly have been the case with early man.

The most important one is that there are so many fewer animals left in the Hadzabe’s ecosystem. (Note in marked contrast to a much less changed Kalahari where the San live.) Those animals that remain in the Hadzabe’s region tend to take harbor in nearby Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks, where Hadzabe are forbidden to enter.

There are other reasons. Several generations ago the then communist Tanzanian government decided there shouldn’t be primitive peoples in Tanzania. In the case of the Hadzabe they rounded them up and put them in reservations and forced them to farm potatoes.

This lasted for more than a decade. There are still other reasons:

Because of the Hadzabe’s purported lifestyle they’ve now become a major tourist attraction, (which I find despicable). They now earn and manage relatively large sums of money which they use at … stores. A young man who might have years ago learned to hunt now goes to school to learn English and math.

NPR’s neglect in checking all this out is discouraging and typical of much of their African reporting. But it begs the question whether the mostly discredited Hawkes work enjoys some simpatico resurrection from the #MeToo movement.

The problem with social revolutions is that they lack governing mechanisms, checks-and-balances that render justice. In this case, just reasoning.

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.