December 19, 2012
One-hundred years ago, on December 18, 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward introduced the world to a tantalizing fossil: England’s most ancient human ancestor, perhaps one of the world’s oldest hominids. Best known as Piltdown Man, the “discovery” turned out to be the biggest hoax in the history of paleoanthropology. It’s a scientific crime that researchers are still trying to solve.
Piltdown Man consists of five skull fragments, a lower jaw with two teeth and an isolated canine. The first fossil fragment was allegedly unearthed by a man digging in gravel beds in Piltdown in East Sussex, England. The man gave the skull fragment to Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and fossil collector. In 1911, Dawson did his own digging in the gravel and found additional skull fragments, as well as stone tools and the bones of extinct animals such as hippos and mastodons, which suggested the human-like skull bones were of a great antiquity. In 1912, Dawson wrote to Smith Woodward about his finds. The two of them—along with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist—returned to the Piltdown gravels to continue excavating. They found additional skull fragments and the lower jaw. The following year Teilhard de Chardin discovered the lone canine tooth.
Smith Woodward reconstructed the Piltdown man skull based on the available fossil evidence. His work indicated the hominid had a human-like skull with a big brain but a very primitive ape-like jaw. Smith Woodward named the species Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson’s Dawn Man). It was the first hominid found in England, and other anatomists took Piltdown as evidence that the evolution of a big brain was probably one of the first traits that distinguished hominids from other apes.
At the time of the discoveries, the field of paleoanthropology was still in its infancy. The only other hominid fossils that had been found by 1912 were Neanderthals in continental Europe and the even older Homo erectus of Indonesia. As additional fossils were discovered elsewhere, such as Africa and China, it became harder to see how Piltdown fit with the rest of the fossil record. The growing collection of hominid bones suggested upright walking was the first major adaptation to evolve in hominids with increases in brain size coming millions of years later after the emergence of the genus Homo. Finally, in the 1950s, it became clear why Piltdown was so odd: It was a fake.
In 1949, physical anthropologist Kenneth Oakley conducted fluorine tests on the Piltdown Man bones to estimate how old they were. The test measures how much fluoride bones have absorbed from the soil in which they’re buried. By comparing the fluoride levels to those of other buried objects with known ages, scientists can establish a relative age of the bones. With this method, Oakley determined Piltodwn Man wasn’t so ancient; the fossils were less than 50,000 years old. In 1959, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and anthropologist Joseph Weiner took a closer look at Piltdown Man’s anatomy and realized the jaw and skull fragments belonged to two different species. The skull was most likely human while the jaw resembled an orangutan. Microscopic scratches on the jaw’s teeth revealed someone had filed them down to make them appear more like human teeth. And all of the bones had been stained to make them look old.
Since the truth about Piltdown Man was revealed, there have been many suspects implicated in the forgery. Dawson was the prime suspect. But he died in 1916, so scientists never had the chance to question his possible role in the hoax. Teilhard de Chardin, who found the isolated canine tooth on his own, is another possibility. One of Smith Woodward’s colleagues, Martin Hinton, may have also played a role. In 1978, workers found an old trunk of Hinton’s at the Natural History Museum in London. The trunk held teeth and bones stained in a similar way as the Piltodwn Man fossils. Despite much interest and speculation, no one has ever definitively tied any of these men to the hoax.
And now, a century after the announcement of Piltdown Man, scientists are still intrigued by the fake hominid’s origins. A team of 15 British researchers are using new methods to investigate the mystery. Radiocarbon dating and DNA testing will help identify exactly how old the bones are and confirm the jaw belongs to an orangutan. Chemical tests will also help the team pinpoint where the bones came from and whether they were all stained in the same way.
It will be several months before the analyses are complete. But if it turns out all the material was stained in the same way, or came from the same location, then it’s more likely that just one person was responsible for the scientific fraud. And that person is likely to be Dawson. It turns out that Dawson was responsible for at least 38 fake finds during his amateur fossil-hunting career, the Telegraph reports. Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and one of the scientists investigating Piltdown, speculates in a commentary in Nature that Dawson may have committed such hoaxes in an effort to achieve scientific glory.
Stringer writes that Piltdown Man serves as a good reminder for scientists to “keep their guard up.” I think it also highlights the importance of open science in the field of paleoanthropology. The hoax wasn’t uncovered until scientists unconnected to the discovery analyzed the evidence. Today, numerous hominid species are known based on just a handful of fossils that only a handful of scientists have ever had the chance to study. In no way do I think some of these fossils might be fake. But giving other scientists greater access to the complete hominid fossil record will not only allow more errors to be detected but will also stimulate new interpretations and explanations of how our ancestors evolved.
And with that sentiment, I end my last Hominid Hunting post as I head off to a new job with Science News. I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of all things hominid with my readers, and I’ve appreciated all of the spirited feedback.
Ed. Note: Thanks, Erin, for all of your blogging the past couple of years! It’s been a thrill and best of luck to you going forward. — BW
December 5, 2012
Perhaps no other human trait is as variable as human height. At 5’4″, I’d be dwarfed standing next to 6’3″ Kerri Walsh, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball. But next to an African pygmy woman, I’d be a giant. The source of that variation is something that anthropologists have been trying to root out for decades. Diet, climate and environment are frequently linked to height differences across human populations.
More recently, researchers have implicated another factor: mortality rate. In a new study in the journal Current Anthropology, Andrea Bamberg Migliano and Myrtille Guillon, both of the University College London, make the case that people living in populations with low life expectancies don’t grow as tall as people living in groups with longer life spans. They also argue changes in mortality rates might account for the jump in body size from Australopithecus to Homo some 2 million years ago.
From an evolutionary standpoint, Migliano and Guillon note, it’s beneficial to start reproducing as soon as possible if you live in a society where individuals typically die young. That way you can have as many babies as possible in a short amount of time. Thus, you should stop growing relatively early in life and start devoting your energy to having children and taking care of them. Having a shorter developmental period means you can’t grow as tall, on average, as someone who has more time to mature. But getting big has reproductive benefits: Larger individuals tend to take in more energy and therefore can invest more energy in reproducing. So in societies with lower mortality rates, and longer adulthoods, it’s better to mature slowly and grow bigger and taller. Over time, populations experiencing different mortality rates will adapt to have shorter or longer developmental periods—and therefore be shorter or taller. (Of course, there is also variation within a population. But here, and throughout the post, I’m talking about population averages.)
To investigate this idea, Migliano and Guillon looked at previously collected height and mortality data from 89 small-scale populations from all over the world. These groups live in a variety of environments, including deserts, forests and savannas, and have different subsistence strategies, including hunter-gathering, pastoralism and agriculture. Using statistical analyses, the team wanted to see what kind of factors best explained the variation of heights in their data set.
In one analysis, three measures of survivorship—life expectancy at birth, life expectancy at age 15 and probability of survival to age 15—accounted for about 70 percent of height variance. The researchers also found evidence that people from societies with high mortality rates do indeed develop faster: Girls from groups that have low life expectancies start menstruating earlier than girls who are more likely to live longer. Environmental setting also influenced height, with people from savannas tending to be taller than people from forests. Diet, however, seemed to play a much smaller role, at least in the study samples.
Other variables not considered in the study may also contribute to height variation, the researchers point out. Temperature and humidity probably somehow factor in. For example, some work suggests shorter people generate less heat in hot, humid environments and therefore cool down more efficiently. That might explain why people living in tropical forests are shorter than those from savannas.
There are some situations, however, where the study’s findings don’t hold up. In modern Western societies, where mortality rates are low, growth is actually sped up because of an overabundance of food. Some studies now show that obesity may contribute to early puberty in girls. On the other hand, severe malnourishment can lead to delayed growth.
Based on the study’s findings, Migliano and Guillon suggest lower death rates probably contributed to changes in body size and height during the Australopithecus-Homo transition. In one study, anthropologists estimated early Homo species were about 30 percent bigger than australopithecines. Homo erectus grew even taller, within the range of variation of modern people. The larger brain of the genus Homo may have allowed the group to lower its mortality rate by outsmarting predators or foraging more efficiently than Australopithecus. Within H. erectus, differences in mortality rates between populations—which lived over a much larger geographic expanse than australopithecines—probably accounts for the variation of height seen in the fossil record of that species.
Much more investigation is needed to corroborate the link between death and height in the fossil record. But the work does highlight how even seemingly simple physical features have complex evolutionary histories.
November 14, 2012
The nearly 2-million-year-old Paranthropus boisei was the cow of the hominid family. Unlike other human cousins, the species was a fan of dining on grasses. But it turns out it wasn’t the only, or even the first, hominid grazer. Australopithecus bahrelghazali was munching on grasses and sedges at least 1.5 million years before the origin of P. boisei, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The findings may mean early hominids were capable of consuming a wide variety of foods and colonizing new environments.
But before we discuss how scientists figured out A. bahrelghazali‘s diet, and why that matters, we need to address a far more pressing question: Who the heck was A. bahrelghazali?
In 1993, researchers in Chad unearthed a 3.5-million-year-old hominid lower jaw fragment and a few attached teeth. Based on the fossils’ age, many paleoanthropologists think the bones belonged to Australopithecus afarensis. But the specimen was found more than 1,500 miles farther west than any other A. afarensis bones, and subtle differences in the size and shape of the fossils led the discoverers to conclude they had found a new species. They named it A. bahrelghazali after the Bahr el Ghazal valley in Chad where the bones were recovered. Since then, researchers haven’t found any other A. bahrelghazali fossils and its species’ status remains controversial.
With just a jaw and teeth, there’s not too much scientists can say about what A. bahrelghazali looked like or how it lived its life. But, fortunately, diet is something that can be gleamed from these fossils. Analyzing the teeth’s chemistry is one way to assess what the species ate. This is possible because the carbon found in plants comes in two versions, or isotopes, called C3 and C4. Trees and other forest plants are rich in C3; grasses, sedges and other grassland plants have an abundance of C4. When an animal eats these plants—or eats other animals that eat these plants—the different carbon isotopes get incorporated into the individual’s teeth, serving as a record of what it once ate. Previous work on P. boisei has shown that C4 plants made up as much as 77 percent of that hominid’s diet.
In the new study, Julia Lee-Thorp of Oxford University and colleagues come to a similar conclusion for A. bahrelghazali, that the species mainly ate C4 plants, probably grasses and sedges. And like modern baboons that live on savannas, the hominid probably ate different parts of these plants, including underground tubers and bulbs. This diet is not surprising given the type of habitat A. bahrelghazali lived in. Based on the other types of animals found near the hominid, the researchers say A. bahrelghazali made its home in an open grassland, with few trees, near a lake. So forest foods weren’t really a dining option.
The results mean that by 3.5 million years ago hominids were probably already “broad generalists” capable of eating a variety of foods depending on what was locally available, the researchers say. (The younger Australopithecus sediba,which lived roughly 2 million years ago, demonstrates some of the stranger foods that hominids could eat: The South African species liked to eat wood—a dietary preference not seen in any other hominid.) Being a food generalist may have allowed A. bahrelghazali to explore new environments and leave behind the forests that earlier hominids, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, and their ancestors resided in.
November 5, 2012
If you’re on the shorter end of the height spectrum, you know how frustrating it can be to take a stroll with someone who’s tall. At times, you might have to remind your companion to slow down, that your shorter legs can’t keep up. This might have been an even bigger problem for our famous ancestor, Lucy. Within the species Australopithecus afarensis, there was considerable variability in height and limb length, and different members of the species may have had vastly different preferences for walking speeds, new research suggests. How did our ancestors cope with such a dilemma?
The problem really became apparent in 2010 with the discovery of a partial A. afarensis skeleton, nicknamed “Big Man,” in Ethiopia. As his name suggests, the five-foot-tall Big Man was big, at least for an early hominid, and compared to the three-and-a-half-foot-tall Lucy. Big Man’s shin, for instance, was about 50 percent longer than that of Lucy’s—the sort of length difference you see today between a six-year-old child and a six-foot-tall man. But in Lucy and Big Man’s case, both individuals were adults, suggesting there was a large range of heights for A. afarensis. The variation might have been related to sex, with males being significantly taller than females. Or there might have been regional differences in A. afarensis size. Lucy and Big Man were both found in Ethiopia but at different sites.
To understand the walking behavior of Lucy, Big Man and their kind, Patricia Ann Kramer of the University of Washington in Seattle did some experiments with people. In modern humans, the length of the lower leg (or tibia) plays a big role in how much energy a person expends while walking and what his/her preferred speed is. Kramer examined this relationship by measuring the tibia length of 36 children and 16 adults and then placing the volunteers on treadmills to record how much energy they used (measured in terms of oxygen consumption) while walking at different speeds. She discovered that, in general, individuals with longer lower legs have higher “optimal velocities.” That means the speed at which longer-legged people consume the least amount of energy is faster than that of shorter-legged people.
Kramer used the data to create a mathematical equation that related leg length to speed to estimate Lucy’s and Big Man’s optimal velocities based on their tibia lengths. Lucy’s would have been 1.04 meters per second (about 3.4 feet per second) while Big Man’s would have been as much as 1.33 meters per second (about 4.4 feet per second). To put this in perspective, if both individuals walked for an hour at their optimal speeds, Lucy would have covered 3.74 kilometers (2.3 miles) while Big Man would have traversed 4.68 kilometers (2.9 miles), Kramer reports in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Based on two individuals, it’s hard to say how representative these results are for A. afarensis. And even assuming there were big differences in walking speeds, it’s hard to say how it would have affected the behavior of these early hominids. If size differences were sex based, then some members of a group might have had to compromise their preferred walking speed—perhaps females had to walk faster (and thus expend more energy) to keep up with males or maybe males slowed down (also expending more energy) to appease females or maybe both sexes had to adjust their velocities. Another possibility is that males and females spent time away from each other during the day, Kramer says. Among wild chimpanzees, males and females often range separately while searching for food, which might be a consequence of different walking speeds. More studies that examine sex-based ranging patterns in primates might offer more clues to how A. afarensis could have coped. Of course, this variation in height might not have been a problem at all if differences were largely regional.
Although Kramer’s work doesn’t provide any definite answers, it highlights how difficult it is to reconstruct the biology and behavior or our ancestors. It’s clear that A. afarensis walked upright, but we still have a lot to learn about how the early hominid traveled across the East African landscape.
October 25, 2012
The most famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton is named for the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But a better anthem for the species might be “Lucy in the Trees with Chimpanzees.” A new study investigating how A. afarensis‘ shoulders grew during childhood indicate the early hominid spent at least some of its time climbing in trees. The work, published online today in Science, adds another bit of evidence to a decades-long debate about how Lucy and her kind traveled through their environment.
There’s no question that A. afarensis, which lived about 3.85 million to 2.95 million years ago, walked upright on two legs. The species possessed numerous physical features associated with bipedalism, such as thighs that angled in toward the knees and arched feet that lacked the grasping big toes seen in tree-climbing apes. But the hominid also had characteristics that are normally found in arboreal apes, such as curved fingers and toes, which are useful for gripping tree limbs. So the controversial question has been: Did A. afarensis actually climb trees? Or were the so-called climbing traits just evolutionary holdovers that the species didn’t use but hadn’t lost yet?
The new study takes a novel route in addressing these questions, looking at the development of the shoulder blades in A. afarensis. David Green of Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences began by carefully liberating the left and right shoulder blades from the block of rock holding together the Dikika Child, a 3-year-old A. afarensis that lived about 3.3 million years ago. The fossil was unearthed in Ethiopia between 2000 and 2003, and it’s taken this long to remove the delicate shoulder blades, which are a rare find in the hominid fossil record.
The pair compared the Dikika Child’s shoulder bones with those of a few adult A. afarensis specimens, as well as those of juvenile and adult shoulders from other Australopithecus species, Homo erectus, modern humans and modern apes. By comparing children to adults, the researchers could assess how the size and shape of the shoulder blade changed as a young A. afarensis grew up. In chimpanzees and gorillas, the shoulder blade develops in a characteristic way because frequent climbing during childhood affects how the shoulder grows—in other words, the apes’ shoulders change as a result of climbing. The shoulders of modern humans and H. erectus look very different and have their own growth trajectory because neither species spends any significant time climbing during childhood and adolescence (playing on “monkey” bars doesn’t count). In the new research, Green and Alemseged conclude the shoulder of A. afarensis developed in the same manner as an African ape’s, indicating the early hominid must have spent at least some time climbing in trees.
That doesn’t mean swinging through the treetops was A. afarensis‘ preferred mode of locomotion. In the past, paleoanthropologists have suggested that Lucy’s small size (she was no bigger than a chimp) made her vulnerable to leopards and other hungry predators. So while the hominid might have spent most of its time walking upright on the ground, at night it might have taken shelter in trees—perhaps making a nest as many chimpanzees do.