The hobbits were cretins. Perhaps. Or perhaps not

By Razib Khan | September 28, 2010 1:53 am

I was thinking a bit about H. floresiensis today. Probably my thoughts were triggered by John Hawks’ post on the propensity for paleontologists to be “splitters,” naming new finds as species when they’re not. The issue with H. floresiensis is a little more cut & dried: if they weren’t a separate species they were obviously pathological. The original paper on the Flores hobbits came out in 2004. Is it too much to ask for a little clarity here six years on? Carl Zimmer has covered this story in depth before, so perhaps he’ll have some insights or inside sources who can shed some light at some point in the near future. John Hawks was sure that the specimens were pathological in the early days, but he hasn’t said much for a bit now. And from what I hear there are new controversies about “Ardi”. I was at a talk years ago where Tim White played up the importance of fossils as the final word, as opposed to the more indirect inferential methods of statistical genetics, but this is getting ridiculous. After the Neandertal admixture paper and the Denisova hominin, genomic inferences are looking pretty good. I assume there’s more coming in the near future (though Svante Pääbo may have kidnapped family members of people working in his lab to gain leverage, so word probably won’t start leaking until a few weeks before the paper breaks). Ötzi the Iceman is going to have his genome published next year.

With all that as preamble, here’s a new paper, Post-Cranial Skeletons of Hypothyroid Cretins Show a Similar Anatomical Mosaic as Homo floresiensis. It’s in PLoS ONE, so read it yourself. Does anyone care? I don’t know enough about about anatomy and osteology to make well-informed judgments about these sorts of things, so to the experts I absolutely defer. But frankly some of the experts strike me jokers. Here’s the problem: I don’t know who the jokers are!

I just went back and reread some of the press when the hobbit finds were revealed. New member of the human family tree! Evolution rewritten! And so forth. If H. floresiensis turns out to be pathological, I don’t know what to think about paleontology. More honestly, I might start slotting the discipline in with social psychology or macroeconomic modeling.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Human Evolution
  • Sandgroper

    I’ve had very similar thoughts to you on H floresiensis. It was one of those JFK – 9/11 moments for me, except in a good way – I remember where I was when I read the first National Geographic article on the discovery. But I fairly quickly moved towards thinking it must be pathology, and I got very fed up with the squabbling and general apparent incompetence of the various arguments that were being put (probably the most dismaying and disillusioning for me was Maciej Henneberg’s claim that LB1 had modern dental work, when I had previously trusted his opinion). If not for a few sane voices around like John Hawks I would have concluded that all paleoanthropologists are either not very bright or con men. However, I have to say that I think a lot of that was due to reporting – in person Morwood comes across as a more serious and competent person than he did in press reports.

    I have been trying to track it as well as I can, and the jury is still out, but the balance of opinion seems to be shifting away from pathology towards a previously unknown species. The last paper I read on it made the case that it could feasibly have derived from dwarfing from H erectus, even though LB1 shows some more primitive characters and a disproportionately small brain. Plus the other post crania found appear the same as LB1, and a whole colony of diseased people seems unlikely.

    But I can’t shake the suspicion that some people are leaning towards ‘new species’ because they want it to be, when it seems to me the null should be pathology. I reached the conclusion that it can’t be settled with certainty until someone finds another cranium, and that could take a long time. Or might never happen.

  • onur

    A genetic test would be conclusive.

  • Maciej Henneberg

    I agree with comments above. I have done further research and the modern dental work in the left lower first molar of LB1 is increasingly likely. There is caries in other teeth and serious periodontal disease, unlikely to occur in hunters-gatherers. I am a competent dental researcher. This may be dismaying news, but news it is.
    Genetic tests were carried out on LB bones by two independent laboratories. In both cases only modern human DNA fragments were found. Sadly, and automatically, they were dismissed as “contamination” because it was a priori expected that the “hobbit” DNA will be diferent from that of modern humans.

  • http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/laelaps Brian Switek

    “If H. floresiensis turns out to be pathological, I don’t know what to think about paleontology. More honestly, I might start slotting the discipline in with social psychology or macroeconomic modeling.”

    Because, you know, debate about one taxon can undermine the importance of an entire discipline and media-generated hype is so deadly that any academic that so much as named in a piece of sensationalist journalism has their reputation forever tarnished…

    Don’t go all John Maynard-Smith on me here. Paleontology, like any other science, has plenty of debates, disagreements, backbiting, and so on, but I don’t see the point of the disparaging coda of this post unless it’s just to be snarky for its own sake. In fact, the concluding comments are especially odd given the fact that this posts highlights how paleobiology is expanding to incorporate ideas and techniques from other disciplines such as genetics and microbiology. This is not a matter of genetics being superior to paleontology, but an indication that if we are going to understand evolution – especially in a historical context – we need both old-fashioned paleontology and new, collaborative efforts with other disciplines in the life sciences. The old debate over whale origins is a perfect example. Paleontologists said one thing, neontologists predicted another based on genetics, and ultimately new fossil data confirmed what was hypothesized on the basis of extant species. The same kind of interdisciplinary approach could be very useful in the case of the Hobbit, too, and may be the best way to cut through the persistent back-and-forth over whether the known specimens are pathological.

  • miko

    I’m not sure human paleontology is inherently worse than others. Their debates often get played out in the mainstream media, which stokes the egos and cranks up the rhetoric. There is a strong tendency to reward those who make “groundbreaking” claims with NatGeo special issues, etc. I think fields are most contentious when 1) when it’s new and no one knows what’s going on, and 2) when they are getting dried up and having diminishing returns. Paleontologists have never known what’s going on–they have a severe poverty of data. Paleontologists are set up for failure, and to look like squabbling jackasses. And because that’s what the field looks like, it probably attracts jackasses who like to squabble.

  • dave chamberlin

    Mix together in a science incredibly scant evidence and careers built around the fuedal defense of one theory or another, and you have the makings of good drama and bad science. Teiku Jacob, the Indonesian anthropologist, acted like a pin head himself. He impounded the one precious
    complete hobbit cranium, acting as if it was his personal property, and while incompetently making a caste of the skull he broke it into countless pieces. When the rest of the scientific community finally got another look at it it was glued back together like a dropped vase and cleaned in such a way that DNA extraction from it is far less likely.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    brian, i really meant paleoanthropology. but i wanted to emphasize the issue was in particular with the debate about human *fossils*, so i just said paleontology. the problem with a imbalance between public interest, sample size, as well as from what i can tell the outsized egos, does make it hard for the “rest of us.” the nature of the research means that those who have a good gestalt model of the fossils in their head are at an advantage, and when they’re contradicting each other for years it starts to get frustrating.

    anyway, it was an emotional response. i’m interested in the topic, but don’t have the personal knowledge/skills to evaluate it from the outside, and the confusion on this specific question gets tiresome.

  • Sandgroper

    #7 – Amen. And frustrating.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Interesting. But what about the paper?

    A mere browsing, and I’m no expert, this is my lazy layman take:

    The paper makes predictions to test in the future, which is good.

    But it refuses to test the hypothesis on the current material what I can see, which I would have expected. They hunt up data on cretins (from individual diseased individuals that are assumed to be representative) that lies close to what they have. That means the pattern they (should) test against is post-selected.

    For example, they mention but don’t include the cretin small foot vs H. floresiensis large foot. If they did include differing observations, the test would have rejected “cretins”. (If they persist in assuming a tough test criteria of “all data show the same pattern”.)

    I’m disappointed. (Likely because I have misunderstood the topic. But anyway.)

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    I guess this never panned out…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    until there’s a consensus whether they’re pathological or not we won’t go down that decision tree….

  • Andy

    Paleontologists have never known what’s going on–they have a severe poverty of data. Paleontologists are set up for failure, and to look like squabbling jackasses. And because that’s what the field looks like, it probably attracts jackasses who like to squabble.

    This is a rather “pop cultural” view of paleontology. Sure, sample sizes are small for some taxa. . .but then we have certain species of fossil fish and trilobites for which there are literally thousands of specimens out there. For every “jackass who likes to squabble”, there are 100 good scientists who are doing the careful work out of the limelight. Pick up a publication like Paleobiology or Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology – you might be pleasantly surprised!

    By the same token, if I have to sit through one more evo devo or molecular clock talk or paper by some gene squeezer who has never even considered if their results possibly correspond to historical reality, I’m going to scream! ;-)

  • dave chamberlin

    I happen to be one of John Hawks biggest fans. I read almost everything on his blog and order all my books through his amazon link to help fund his free and very well written weblog. Having said all that I must add his support of the hobbits were cretins theory is almost undoubtedly wrong. I listened carefully to his explanation in the blogging heads discussion he had with Razib and frankly there is a far more likely explanation. He reasoned correctly that a very large brain is incredibly expensive to operate so that if a smaller one could have evolved with the same abilities it would have. But there is a far more likely scenario to explain the existance of small brained “hobbits” on the island of Flores Indonesia than a relic community of tiny homo erectus raising one of their own who was severly retarded to adulthood. The island of Flores in Indonesia was also the home of three other freak creatures that are almost as startling in their appearance as the hobbits. It has the Komodo dragons, and it had pigmy elephants, and a rat like creature the size of large dogs. The island is and was a refugium, a hard to get to place that has repeatedly allowed species to evolve in isolation to fit unfilled niches. We won’t know the whole story untill we find another hobbit skull (kind of doubt we ever will)but to suggest that very primitive group of very archaic homo floresiensis raised a severly retarded member of thier group to adulthood as the most probable scenario when we wouldn’t do such a thing until modern times just doesn’t ring true. A far more likely explanation is the island was a very nutrition poor envirement and the hobbits evolved to tiny size and a tiny brain because it was their best survival option.

  • Sandgroper

    Speaking of which, H neanderthalensis, you think?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVC2cszdTao&feature=related

    Nah, it’s just the great Neil Young as a young man. Gives me pause, though.

    Andy, yeah, no doubt. Some of the best paleontologists I know are working in areas not remotely considered sexy by the press, like pollen spores and stuff.

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    Thanks, Dave!

    I don’t think I said that cretinism was likely; I wrote about cretinism a couple of years ago:

    http://johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/flores/cretin-flores-faq-2008.html

    It can’t explain the total pattern of skeletal features.

  • Sandgroper

    That’s right, it can’t explain the total pattern of skeletal features.

    That is a key point.

  • miko

    Sorry, Andy, I should have said paleoanthropologists, who are to paleontology what fMRI is to neuroscience. I don’t have that opinion of paleontology in general.

  • pconroy

    Dave said:

    We won’t know the whole story untill we find another hobbit skull (kind of doubt we ever will)but to suggest that very primitive group of very archaic homo floresiensis raised a severly retarded member of thier group to adulthood as the most probable scenario when we wouldn’t do such a thing until modern times just doesn’t ring true.

    I’ve no background in paleoanthropology, but having said that, I think – like I said a few times years ago – that there is circumstantial evidence that this is a pathological skeleton from a miniature* modern or almost modern population.

    1. The area is dotted with other miniature populations or unknown provenance, from the Andaman Islands, Malay peninsula, Phillipines, Northern Australia – the last being probably the closest geographically, and maybe genetically
    2. There is a miniature population living in a nearby village to the discovery site
    3. Historical and folklore of the island say that these people were once much shorter just 100’s of years ago, till they intermarried with and were assimilated by regular stature people.
    4. So you probably have an isolated miniature population, which has undergone range contraction and has become inbred leading to specific genetic diseases, like cretinism – think of the Samaritans and the frequency of a particular kind of blindness they have
    5. Added to that (and here’s where my imagination comes into play?!), if individuals afflicted with such conditions were shunned and forced to relocate away from the main community – though were looked after in term of food and rudimentary clothing and shelter (cave), think of a leper colony – then you have accounted for all the peculiarities of this case IMO

    * I don’t used the term dwarf, as they have certain common physical characteristics, which do not pertain to miniature populations.

  • dave chamberlin

    PConroy said “There is circumstantial evidence that this is a pathological skeleton from minature modern or almost modern population”

    From what I’ve read the first part of your statement is true but the second part is false. What is true is the skull is asymmetrical which definately implies pathology of some sort, as the real expert John Hawks pointed out.
    Studies made of mulitple specimens bones indicates that the homo floresiensis was truly archaic and not near modern. That these should be found to be only 14,000 years old is what shocked everybody. Paleoanthropology has a long and undistinguished history of very slowly accepting new evidence that contradicts old beliefs. Fotunately things are rapidly changing for the better thanks in great part to genetic analysis.

  • occamseraser

    Try reading the primary scientific literature on H. floresiensis instead of relying on second-hand blogs, some of which have their own agendas. Start with the special issue of the Journal of Human Evolution in 2009 (a monograph). Read the rebuttals in the Amer.J. Phys. Anthropology to the various pathologies du jour. Read Aiello’s 5 year review in the Amer. J. Phys. Anthropology on hobbits that concludes the path arguments fail again and again. Read original articles in Science and Nature and PNAS on everything from brains to hands to feet of “hobbits”. Ditto re: the core-and-flake lithics. There is a real scientific debate over dwarfing vs. preservation of primitive anatomies, but no pathology can explain the plesiomorphic anatomy of the hobbits.

    I’ve spoken to Paabo personally about the failure of aDNA retrieval from the Liang Bua specimens. His lab failed as did Cooper’s in Australia. Wet tropical caves are less than ideal environments for aDNA. Paabo claims all that was recovered were contaminants, which is all too normal and common in aDNA labs (which the geneticists here should know). He has nothing to gain by claiming otherwise; there’s no conspiracy here. That’s laughable nonsense, Henneberg’s specialty.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    occamseraser: “no pathology can explain the plesiomorphic anatomy of the hobbits.”

    This is absolutely right. We just have to accept that an offshoot of Homo erectus survived until 12,000 years ago on an island in SEAsia, it hunted megafauna collectively using “Upper Paleolithic” tools and may have used language while doing it. Next to the findings of both Neanderthals and an unknown hominin lineage in South Siberia next to Aurignacoid technologies, the Homo floresiensis find is a good testament of how archaeology and paleoanthropology are great at raising questions but are not good sources of answers.

    dave chamberlin: “Paleoanthropology has a long and undistinguished history of very slowly accepting new evidence that contradicts old beliefs. Fortunately things are rapidly changing for the better thanks in great part to genetic analysis.”

    Tell me more about it. I would add linguistics and kinship studies into the mix of sciences revolutionizing our ideas about human prehistory. Paleoanthropology will never have such dense data sets as the ones furnished by the sampling of modern populations.

  • occamseraser

    @German

    Like I said, read something to disabuse yourself of your misconceptions. They’re not UP tools (see Mark Moore, Adam Brumm et al.). Who ever claimed anything about “language” in hobbits? We have no clear idea when language emerged in the human career, genetics and a rich fossil record notwithstanding. I certainly don’t buy Richard Klein’s naive notions of a sudden 50 kya mutation for language.

    They didn’t survive until 12000 ya, see Robert’s 2009 geochron article in JHE. BTW, stone tools are documented on the island going back 1 mya (Brumm et al., Nature, 2010), and it seems plausible that these hominins (erectus?? something earlier??) were the ancestors of H. flo. We know surprisingly little about the colonization of island SE Asia. Read about the Callao fossil from the Philippines. Read. Think. Read some more.

    Genetics and the fossil record of human evolution provide reciprocal illumination as well as checks and balances. Read John Hawks blog if you’re too busy to read the primary, peer-reviewed lit.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    occamseraser:

    I’ll read the 2009-2010 articles you’ve mentioned. Thanks for the pointers. I ended up staying away from the controversy for a couple of years, as the cut-throat debates around the “hobbits” are just ridiculous.

    “Who ever claimed anything about “language” in hobbits? ”

    Morwood.

    “I certainly don’t buy Richard Klein’s naive notions of a sudden 50 kya mutation for language. ”

    I don’t “buy” it either. But why are talking about Klein?

    “They’re not UP tools.”

    But they did find microblades with Homo floresiensis, didn’t they?

    “Read John Hawks blog…”

    JH did make an interesting remark discussing the recent PNG find: “Or — let me be even more subversive — why is a New Guinea assemblage automatically assumed to be made by modern humans, when assemblages of equal (or greater!) technological sophistication on nearby Flores aren’t?”

    “if you’re too busy to read the primary, peer-reviewed lit.”

    I’m busy writing it.

    “Genetics and the fossil record of human evolution provide reciprocal illumination as well as checks and balances.”

    This is nonsense.

    “Read about the Callao fossil from the Philippines. Read. Think. Read some more.”

    We had a lovely debate about it here: http://averyremoteperiodindeed.blogspot.com/2010/06/humans-in-philippines-67000-years-ago.html

    Read. Think. Read some more.

  • occamseraser

    @german

    Ah, Stanford. That explains a lot.

    John is wrong about the tools on Flores. Sophisticated, they ain’t. And Moore and Brumm have tried repeatedly to correct the (mis)impressions left by Morwood’s first pics of tools in Nature. Of course, Moore’s 2009 suggestion that hobbits possibly passed on the rudimentary stone technology to late arriving modern humans is pretty silly. And if Morwood is on record speculating about hobbit language, then that’s silly too.

    So, the fossil record never qualifies or informs genetics, huh? Genetics never helps to interpret the fossil record? Nonsense, eh? Permit me to disagree….Is that what you’re teaching these days at SU? Oh, I forgot — there is no bioanthro there anymore ;)

    Thanks for jogging my memory re: Callao and “a very remote period indeed”. Lovely or lively?

  • occamseraser

    German –

    I’ve spent the last few hours trying to educate myself a little by reading your various posts scattered across the blogosphere (sorry, I had never heard of you or your book on kinship). Even stumbled across the “anthropreneur blog” (dead now?). I’m delighted to learn that you have 2 doctorates (I suddenly feel inadequate with only one), and your command of linguistic information is truly impressive. I hope it’s OK for me to place more stock than you in the “hard evidence” of fossils and genes. I guess your provocative OOAm theory hasn’t gained much traction, and perhaps that makes you cranky. But if you can buy H. erectus getting into NoAm and evolving/speciating/whatever into H. sapiens before returning to the Old World and eliminating all other non-sapiens hominins, then surely you can entertain an early isolation of some other hominin in the archipelago of Indonesia that might have been antecedent to H. flo. At least there’s evidence on hominins on Flores by at least 1mya.

    Forgive my warped sense of humor about what’s happened to bio anthro at Stanford. I think it’s a pity even though it’s none of my business.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Occamseraser:

    “But if you can buy H. erectus getting into NoAm and evolving/speciating/whatever into H. sapiens before returning to the Old World and eliminating all other non-sapiens hominins, then surely you can entertain an early isolation of some other hominin in the archipelago of Indonesia that might have been antecedent to H. flo. At least there’s evidence on hominins on Flores by at least 1mya.”

    I don’t have any apriori issues with Homo floresiensis deriving from a population that’s 1MM years old. I haven’t yet read the papers you’ve mentioned. For out of America, a Neanderthal population would work just as well. In any case, how else can you explain the fact that the so-called “archaic introgressions” in modern human genomes tend to be found at high frequencies in Amerindians? See more thoughts at http://rokus01.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/denisova-cave-and-the-mystery-of-the-mtdna-phylogenetic-tree/#comment-275 For an example of the process that seems so fantastic to you, see what has been proposed for wholly mammoths. Out of America: Ancient DNA Evidence for a New World Origin of Late Quaternary Woolly Mammoths, by Regis Debruyne et al.

    “I guess your provocative OOAm theory hasn’t gained much traction…”

    I’m really only starting to socialize it (after years of diligent risk assessment, cross-disciplinary training and personal conversations with archaeologists, geneticists, etc. in several countries), and I’m not in a hurry. What I’ve noticed so far is that institutional (or “domesticated”) scholars are overly specialized, hence for bigger questions they stick firmly to beliefs that are cultural lore by origin, and nothing else. As Tom Dillehay once told me, a good theory is like a soup that needs time to cook. Or something like that.

    “I hope it’s OK for me to place more stock than you in the “hard evidence” of fossils and genes.”

    This sort of bias does get me cranky.

    “So, the fossil record never qualifies or informs genetics, huh? Genetics never helps to interpret the fossil record? Nonsense, eh?

    Are you thinking about a Denisova Cave pinkie with a DNA sample attesting to what is likely a whole new species of hominins outside of Africa for which there’s no (other) fossil evidence? Or the Hofmeyr skull at 36,000 YBP in South Africa that clusters with Upper Paleolithic Eurasians, next to geneticists’ claims that Europe was peopled after an exodus from East Africa at 45-60K years. Or, maybe you’re thinking about the lack of archaeological evidence for a rapid coastal migration out of Africa?

    Let me give you a longer example. mtDNA geneticists originally used paleoanthropology and archaeology as a crutch to develop the out of African model. If you look at the original mtDNA papers (such as Johnson et al. 1983), you’ll see that the root was likely outside of Africa (and most likely in America). But since archaeologists convinced everybody that they have data to support a recent entry into the New World, while paleoanthropologists presented AMH fossils from Africa at 100+K, geneticists came up with an African root. But there’s never been a single ancient DNA study conducted on AMH in Africa that would establish the antiquity of mtDNA L lineages, so how can we say one discipline is integrated with the other when it comes to illustrating the out of Africa model? And there’s no paleobiological or archaeological data to illustrate a migration of East Asians into the New World at Clovis times. The only Clovis-type (well, fluted biface) tool in Northeast Asia (Uptar site) is younger than Clovis. A generalized “Mongoloid” morphology emerges in America earlier than in Asia.

    I can go on and on. Some of this reasoning is in my book. See also my comments at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/08/the-new-world-in-three-easy-steps/ IMO, genetics, kinship studies, linguistics, archaeology, paleoanthropology are all telling the same story. Some types of data louder, other softer. But it’s not the out of Africa and recently-into-the-Americas one.

    Sorry, I strayed away from the hobbits. I hope it’s okay with you…and Razib.

  • occamseraser

    @German —
    Tx for your thoughts.
    Care to add your 2 cents on the Endicott et al. paper in TREE last year that attempts to reconcile archeological and genetic data for human migrations OOA and beyond?

    Re: OOAm, I’ll stay tuned and try to keep an open mind. And good luck penetrating the “domesticated” fortress of academe.
    oe

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    @occamseraser

    I assume you mean Endicott et al. “Evaluating the mitochondrial timescale of human evolution”.

    It’s a good example of sterilized, domesticated science. In the first paragraph, the authors declare what they are not going to prove – but simply assume – in the following paragraphs: “Following the evolution of modern humans in Africa, recent genetic diversity has resulted from continuing evolution in Africa and a migration out-of-Africa. This migration traversed southern Asia and reached Australasia, and perhaps slightly later there was a wave of migration into western Europe. Modern humans did not arrive in the Americas until much later.”

    “However, there is currently no mitochondrial or Y-chromosomal evidence for multiple migrations of early modern humans from Africa [26], ”

    There’s no evidence for even a single “migration” out of Africa. There’re divergent lineages in Africa (such as mtDNA L0, L1, Y-DNA A and B) but they haven’t showed up in any ancient remains or at low frequencies in extant populations outside of Africa.

    “Regardless of any revision to the absolute chronology for the appearance of modern humans outside of Africa, the contemporary pattern of human mtDNA confirms a West to East migration from Africa [26].”

    False. Only one mtDNA M lineage is found in Africa, namely M1. It’s considered an example of a back migration into Africa similar to U6 and N1. There’re no indigenous M or N lineages in Africa that pre-date Eurasian M and N lineages. The greatest number of basal M and N lineages are in East Asia (compare the recent discovery of 3 rare but divergent M lineages in China), SE Asia and South Asia but not in West Asia or North, East Africa. It means we have a huge geographic gap between African L3 lineages and the first instances of M and N lineages outside of Africa. This is consistent with a back-migration of some Eurasian lineages into Africa around 45-40K (associated with Dabban in North Africa?) and with the existence of divergent lineages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Outside of those divergent lineages, there was an East to West migration across Eurasia into Europe and Africa (plus a north to south migration from (South) East Asia to the Sahul, but not an West to East migration from Africa.

    “In Southeast Asia there is a similar pattern, with human remains in Niah cave dated to 37-38 ka [36] and lithic evidence slightly earlier [37] (Figure 1). The human remains from Laibin (38-44 ka) [38] and Tianyuan (39- 42 ka) [39] in China also fall into this timeframe, consistent with modern humans having reached East Asia around the same time they first appear in Australia and New Guinea.”

    But what do all these finds have to do with an out of Africa migration? Did anybody do an ancient DNA analysis of these remains and connect them to the DNA found in AMH in Africa? No. Nobody even tried. Are there any special morphological similarities between these Asian remains and AMH or extant humans in Africa? No. Are there are special lithic similarities between Niah cave and African Late or Middle Stone Age? No. Is there any evidence for the incoming blade industries replacing old flake industries? No.

    “The palaeoanthropological evidence for the arrival of modern humans into Europe is particularly well studied and was recently recalibrated using improved radiocarbon methods [43]. Here too, the earliest direct evidence for modern humans falls around 40 ka at Oase [44], with lithics at Kostenki dated at 42-45 ka [45]. These dates fall squarely within the temporal distribution of early Upper Palaeolithic sites widely believed to be associated with the dispersal of modern humans [46]. Equivalent sites in the Near East have slightly earlier chronologies (but also larger confidence intervals), consistent with an East to West direction of movement of people and technologies. The Initial Upper Palaeolithic industries of U ̈ c ̧agzl (Turkey) and Ksar’Akil (Lebanon), and the early modern fossil from the latter site, might well map such ancestral populations at about 40-45 ka [47,48].”

    Kara-Bom and other sites in South Siberia showing, arguably, Upper Paleolithic/Aurignacoid technologies and evidence of continuity with Mousterian, aren’t even mentioned. The dates are older that those in Europe. mtDNA for Kostenki is U2, with no traces of L0, L1, L3, etc.

    “The lacuna in South Asia appears to be even greater because there is sound genetic evidence that population expansion in modern humans commenced here substantially before other regions outside of Africa [35]. ”

    Again an artificial simplification of what otherwise is a complex picture. Take mtDNA N lineages. South India shows an explosion of R* lineages, which are downstream from N* lineages, which are concentrated east of India, with early offshoots in Australia and America.

    “This general pattern is consistent with a geographical expansion of modern humans within Africa and into the Near East (Qafzeh and Skhul [52]) during the climatic amelioration associated with Marine Isotope Stage 5 (MIS5) (Figure 2).”

    But those AMH in West Asia were replaced by Neandertals. It’s Neandertals who seem to be modern – at least behaviorally, – not AMH.

    In addition, the paper offers no insight into Pleistocene demography and the likely difference in population sizes between Europe and Africa and the Sahul, Asia and America. (The roots of this demographic contrast between the “western” and “eastern” macroregions populated by hominin species may be as deep as Lower Paleolithic.) The implications of these differences must be important for mutation rate, archaeological visibility and the levels of genetic diversity. Not to mention the fact that there’s no mention of linguistic and cultural data. How can a narrative built exclusively on “hard sciences” be so thin, selective and flaky?

    I hope you are not one of the authors of this paper.

  • occamseraser

    Fret not. Not a co-author. I’ll pass your comments on to Endicott for his consideration. I met him recently, and he seems like a knowledgable fellow working independently of Paabo’s aDNA factory.

    You seems to be redefining “modern behavior”. The Africanists can’t even agree upon what constitutes “modernity” and when it coalesced from scattered odds and ends of apparently “modern” activities in the archeological record.

    “thin, selective and flaky”? Glass houses, German, glass houses.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “You seems to be redefining “modern behavior”. The Africanists can’t even agree upon what constitutes “modernity” and when it coalesced from scattered odds and ends of apparently “modern” activities in the archeological record.”

    Thorny, thorny issue – agree. But even is Neanderthals end up being incapable of “modern” innovations (I myself remained unconvinced by Riel Salvatore’s recent claims about Uluzzian), they did not seem to suffer from learning disabilities. And if they were capable of replacing AMH, I guess they carried with them some behavioral advantages. After Green et al. 2010, I indeed began pondering whether Neanderthals, although morphologically distinct, are genetically closer to us than AMH, and hence may share with us some heidelbergensian predisposition for “modern behavior” that AMH didn’t inherit. And of course I couldn’t help but notice that they sport blood type O and shovel shaped incisors – the two features that are most frequent in the New World . I think one of the values that cultural anthropology/ethnology and linguistics can bring to the discussions of human origins is precisely this focus on what constitutes “modern” behavior. Ochre and ostrich shells is too slim of a foundation to talk about “modernity” in the first place. In the Sahul the “modern package” seem to have been carefully “assembled” over millenia. I don’t think it’s coincidental that America, parts of Asia and the Sahul, while always behind Europe and Africa in terms of their archaeologically visible “hardware,” show remarkable diversity and complexity in their “software” (kinship structures, languages and mythologies) – something that archaeology can’t capture.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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