A few weeks ago I happened to listen to a fascinating interview on NPR with Brian Switek, the blogger behind Laelaps, and author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. Switek was discussing his newest book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. To be frank I was captivated by the discussion, and immediately purchased a copy of the book. The reason is simple: despite our current divergent interests Brian Switek began at the same place I did, with dinosaurs. Though after reading My Beloved Brontosaurus I can’t assert that my dinomania matched Switek’s, it was of the same quality. The difference is that while Switek remained true to dinosaurs, my own interests wandered into other domains. Today I am focused more upon evolutionary forces operating on the scale of thousands of years within a species, rather than geological scale transmogrifications. But every now and then I wonder about dinosaurs, and whatever happened to them over the past 20 years after my “dinosaurs years” faded into the distance.
By this time I’m sure you’ve encountered articles about the reconstructed last common ancestor of all placental mammals. Greg Mayer at Why Evolution is True has an excellent review of the implications, along with a link to a moderately skeptical piece by Anne Yoder in Science. Yoder’s piece is titled Fossils vs. Clocks, while the original paper is The Placental Mammal Ancestor and the Post–K-Pg Radiation of Placentals. The results clearly support the “Explosive Model” in the figure to the left for the origination of placentals. That might prompt the thought: “isn’t this what we knew all along?”
The standard story for the last generation in the popular imagination is that a massive asteroid impact was the direct cause of the extinction of all dinosaurs (and of course a host of other groups) except the lineage which we now term birds. And yet it turns out that there is actually some debate about this, though at least in some form it seems likely that the impact is going to be important (see this Brian Switek piece for exploration of this issue, and the general opinion of the scientific literature as of now). The second aspect to focus on is timing. Contrary to the intuition of many, over the past 20 years molecular phylogenetics has inferred a very definite (on the order of tens of millions of years) pre-K-T boundary coalescence for the common ancestors of the disinct mammalian lineages. A plausible explanation for this is that these lineages diversified through allopatry, as the Mesozoic supercontinent fragmented. Morphological diversification of these mammalian lineages also may have occurred after the K-T event.
Update: That charlatan David Klinghoffer seems to be enjoying this. As a rule I don’t follow dishonest propagandists, but it’s interesting how appealing this sort of “two sides” story is to Creationists. End Update
Reading this article this morning, DNA and Fossils Tell Differing Tales of Human Origins, really aggravated me. I believe that it’s totally misrepresenting the tensions in the scientific process here, and misleading the public. The standard conflict/”two views” format is used, and to disastrous effect. Here are some of the sections which I found alarming:
The geneticists reached this conclusion, reported on Thursday in the journal Cell, after decoding the entire genome of three isolated hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa, hoping to cast light on the origins of modern human evolution. But the finding is regarded skeptically by some paleoanthropologists because of the absence in the fossil record of anything that would support the geneticists’ statistical calculation….
In a report still under review, a third group of geneticists says there are signs of Neanderthals having interbred with Asians and East Africans. But Neanderthals were a cold-adapted species that never reached East Africa.
Although all known African fossils are of modern humans, a 13,000-year-old skull from the Iwo Eleru site in Nigeria has certain primitive features. “This might have indicated interbreeding with archaics,” said Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “For half of Africa we really have no fossil record to speak of, so I think it’s quite likely there were surviving archaic forms living alongside modern humans.”
Paleoanthropologists like Dr. Klein consider it “irresponsible” of the geneticists to publish genetic findings about human origins without even trying to show how they may fit in with the existing fossil and archaeological evidence. Dr. Akey said he agreed that genetics can provide only part of the story. “But hopefully this is just a period when new discoveries are being made and there hasn’t been enough incubation time to synthesize all the disparities,” he said.
There’s a new paper out, Partial genetic turnover in neandertals: continuity in the east and population replacement in the west. The primary results are above. Basically, using 13 mtDNA samples the authors conclude that it looks as if there was a founder effect for Neanderthals in Western Europe ~50 K years ago, generating a very homogenized genetic background for this particular population before the arrival of modern humans. Perhaps it’s just me, but press releases with headlines such as “European Neanderthals Were On the Verge of Extinction Even Before the Arrival of Modern Humans” strike me as hyperbolic. I’m also confused by quotes like the one below:
I missed this piece in Edge from Chris Stringer in November, Rethinking “Out of Africa”. He sums up his current thinking at the end:
We’ve got the lineage of the hobbit, ‘Homo floresiensis’ (in quotation marks because its human status in not yet clear), perhaps diverging more than two million years ago, evolving in isolation in southeast Asia, and apparently going extinct about 17,000 years ago.
We’ve got Homo erectus, most likely originating in Africa, giving rise to lineages which continue in the Far East in China and Java, but which eventually go extinct. In Europe, it perhaps gave rise to the species Homo antecessor, “Pioneer Man,” known from the site of Atapuerca in Spain. Again, going extinct.
In the western part of the Old World, we get the development of a new species, Homo heidelbergensis, present in Europe, Asia and Africa. We knew heidelbergensis had gone two ways, to modern humans and the Neanderthals. But we now know because of the Denisovans that actually heidelbergensis went three ways—in fact the Denisovans seem to represent an off-shoot of the Neanderthal lineage.
North of the Mediterranean, heidelbergensis gave rise to the Neanderthals, over in the Far East, it gave rise to the Denisovans. In Africa heidelbergensis evolved into modern humans, who eventually spread from Africa about 60,000 years ago, but as I mentioned, there’s evidence thatheidelbergensis populations carried on in Africa for a period of time. But we now know that the Neanderthals and the Denisovans did not go genetically extinct. They went physically extinct, but their genes were input into modern humans, perhaps in western Asia in the case of the Neanderthals. And then a smaller group of modern humans picked up DNA from the Denisovans in south east Asia.
We end up with quite a complex story, with even some of this ancient DNA coming back into modern humans within Africa. So our evolutionary story is mostly, but not absolutely, a Recent African Origin.
Now, I know that Milford Wolpoff has still not totally buried the hatchet with Stringer, but their views are actually converging a great deal. What does that tell us? Well, paleoanthropology most definitely is a science, reality and results are dictating to the intellectual antagonists.
(Via Ruchira Paul)
Paintings at Lascaux, Prof saxx
Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a reliance on symbolic thought and to express cultural creativity. These developments are often thought to be associated with the origin of language.
First, I’d like to put into the record that I suspect that Neanderthals had language as we’d understand it. I suspect within the next few decades genomics may clarify the issue, because people with congenital linguistic defects will probably be sequenced to the point where we’ll get a sense of all the many regions of the genome necessary for language competency. We can then crosscheck that against the Neanderthal genome. So let’s take that off the table, even if it’s under dispute.
Recently something popped up into my Google news feed in regards to “Neanderthal-human mating.” If you are a regular reader you know that I’m wild for this particular combination of the “wild thing.” But a quick perusal of the press release told me that this was a paper I had already reviewed when it was published online in January. I even used the results in the paper to confirm Neanderthal admixture in my own family (we’ve all been genotyped). One of my siblings is in fact a hemizygote for the Neanderthal alleles on the locus in question! I guess it shows the power of press releases upon the media. I would offer up the explanation that this just shows that the more respectable press doesn’t want to touch papers which aren’t in print, but that’s not a good explanation when they are willing to hype up stuff which is presented at conferences at even an earlier stage.
A second aspect I noted is that except for Ron Bailey at Reason all the articles which use a color headshot use a brunette reconstruction, like the one here which is from the Smithsonian. But the most recent research (dating to 2007) seems to suggest that the Neanderthals may have been highly depigmented. This shouldn’t be too surprising when one considers that they were resident in northern climes for hundreds of thousands of years.
But there are some new tidbits, from researchers in the field of study:
Every year or so there seems to be a redating of a key fossil in human evolution. It’s nice to see scientific self-correction in action, and soon after Neandertals got a little older, casting doubt on their supposedly long co-existence with modern humans, we now have a redating of Homo erectus soloensis from Java to about 150-550 thousand years ago, but certainly long before there were any anatomically modern humans in the area.
I think Dienekes is jumping the gun a bit in terms of the solidity of any given finding in knocking down prior consensus. That being said, the very young ages for Southeast Asian H. erectus, on the order of ~30-50,000 years B.P., always seemed strange to me. The paper Dienekes is referring to, The Age of the 20 Meter Solo River Terrace, Java, Indonesia and the Survival of Homo erectus in Asia, is rather technical in the earth science, as it involves dating and interpreting confounds in the stratigraphy. But this section of the discussion gets to the gist of the matter if you can’t follow the details of fossil dating:
If the middle Pleistocene 40Ar/39Ar ages better reflect the age of the Solo River 20 meter terrace deposits and hominins, the site of Ngandong remains a relatively late source of H. erectus; however, these H. erectus would not be the contemporaries of Neandertals and modern humans, and their chronology would widen the gap between the last surviving H. erectus and the population from Flores – whose source population has been argued to be Indonesian H. erectus…although this point is contested…Instead, the Ngandong hominins would be contemporaries of the H. heidelbergensis from Atapuerca, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, and, possibly the archaic H. sapiensspecimen from Bodo (Ethiopia), which might favor arguments that they are more closely affiliated with these taxa and differ from H. erectus…Such ages for Ngandong would suggest that a series of geographically relatively isolated lineages of hominins lived during the middle Pleistocene.
There was a reference to complex pre-Cambrian life in a book I’m reading, Kraken, and it made me double-check Wikipedia’s Cambrian explosion entry. Lacking total clarity, I decided to read a new paper which was published in Nature, Earth’s earliest non-marine eukaryotes. The Cambrian explosion is pegged to ~500 million years ago, but these data indicate a freshwater ecosystem which predates ~1 billion years before the present. Also, there was weird stuff in the discussion which startled me:
…Early eukaryotes were clearly capable of diversifying within non-marine habitats, not just in marine settings as has been generally assumed. This idea directly supports phylogenomic studies which find that the cyanobacteria evolved first in freshwater habitats and later migrated into marine settings….
Cyanobacteria are the ubiquitous blue-green algae which were’t familiar with. New Scientist has some quotes from paleontologists who seem to think that this paper is credible. There’s a good and a bad to this. The good, I’ll have to read up on this area which I’m so fuzzy about in terms of details. The bad is that it slices my finite time pie even more.