May 23, 2012
Iraq is the home of the Fertile Crescent, the Cradle of Civilization. But the country’s importance in human history goes back even further, to the time of the Neanderthals. In 1951, American archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered Neanderthal remains in Shanidar Cave. The cave sits in the Zagros Mountains in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, about 250 miles north of Baghdad. From 1951 to 1960, Solecki and colleagues excavated the cave and recovered fossils belonging to 10 individuals dating to between 65,000 and 35,000 years ago. Politics prevented further archaeological work, but the Shanidar fossils still provide important insights on the Neanderthals of West Asia. Here are a few of the most intriguing finds:
Shanidar 1: Nicknamed Nandy, Shanidar 1 lived sometime between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. He had a hard life. A blow to the head in his youth probably blinded him in his left eye. A withered right arm and leg suggest the head injury probably also caused brain damage that paralyzed the right side of Nandy’s body. He also fractured his foot at some point. Yet his bones all show signs of healing, and Nandy lived to be a senior citizen by Neanderthal standards, dying sometime between the ages of 35 and 45. The find revealed that Neanderthals must have taken care of their sick and wounded.
Shanidar 3: Also an adult male, Shanidar 3 had plenty of problems of his own. In addition to suffering from arthritis, the Neanderthal seems to have been violently attacked. A tiny groove on one of his ribs indicates he was probably struck in the chest. A 2009 analysis (PDF) points to a modern human, Homo sapiens, as the assailant. Based on experimental stabbings of pig carcasses, a team led by Steven Churchill of Duke University determined that the most likely weapon was some kind of dart, shot from long range. Because modern humans are the only hominids known to have made projectile weapons, the researchers blamed our species for the wound. The wound may have harmed Shandiar 3′s lungs, but it’s possible he survived the attack. A callous that formed over the groove shows that he must have lived at least a few week after the incident. And modern people with similar injuries can survive even with little medical care.
Today, you can examine Shanidar 3 for yourself at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where the fossil is on display.
Shanidar 4: Yet another adult male, Shanidar 4 was found on his side curled up in the fetal position. An analysis of the ancient pollen found in association with the fossilized skeleton revealed bright flowers had been brought into the cave. Solecki interpreted the pollen studies as evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead and adorned the graves with flowers, suggesting Neanderthals had rituals. Skeptical anthropologists say natural forces—perhaps burrowing rodents—introduced the pretty flora into the cave. Although Neanderthals might not have decorated the graves, they were responsible for burying at least some of the individuals in Shanidar.
April 30, 2012
Summer is just around the corner, and it’s the perfect time to start thinking about what books to bring to the beach. If you’re looking for something more cerebral than the latest romance novel or courtroom thriller, consider one of the latest books covering human evolution. Here are a few picks.
Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth. Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London has been one of the biggest proponents of a theory of modern human origins called Out of Africa, which suggests that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, left the continent and then completely replaced all other hominids without any interbreeding. Recent findings—such as the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the discovery of Neanderthal-human matings—have shown that the story of our species’ origin and dispersal around the world was more complicated than Stringer had realized. In Lone Survivors, he discusses the latest fossil and genetic evidence and provides an updated look at how our species came to be. (If you’re looking for an abridged version, Stringer discusses his new thinking at Edge.)
Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins. If you’re looking for a broader survey of human evolution, try Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet. Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, covers the last seven million years of hominid history, starting with the cast of contenders for earliest hominid. He ends by discussing how our superior brains and capacity for symbolic thinking and language allowed us to become masters of the planet, so to speak.
The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution. Two of my favorite subjects in human evolution—the Hobbit (a.k.a. Homo floresiensis) and the Taung Child—are the subject of Dean Falk’s The Fossil Chronicles. On the face of it, the two don’t have much in common. But Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University who studies brain evolution, argues that both fossils changed the course of human evolution studies. She recounts the history of the discoveries and traces how they changed scientific thinking: The Hobbit showed that humans shared the world with other hominids until very recently, while the Taung Child forced anthropologists to realize Africa was the birthplace of our lineage.
How to Think Like a Neanderthal. One of the most enduring debates in human evolution centers on Neanderthal intellect. Were they smart, or were they dumb? In How to Think Like a Neanderthal, anthropologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge, both of the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, try and get into the Neanderthal mind by examining the genetic, fossil and archaeological records.
Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. Everyone supposedly knows how people came to the New World. About 12,000 years ago, the ancestors of the first Americans left Asia and walked across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. But archaeologists Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter in England provide a controversial alternative scenario in Across Atlantic Ice. They argue that Europeans aboard boats may have gotten here first, about 18,000 years ago, by following the edges of an ancient ice sheet across the Atlantic.
An oldie but a goodie, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Lucy is not new, but it’s still a great read that offers an insider’s view on how paleoanthropology works. Written by Lucy’s discoverer, Don Johanson, in 1981, the book gives readers a firsthand look at how the iconic fossil was discovered and how researchers went about studying her. If you want a more contemporary look at Lucy, try Johanson’s 2010 book, Lucy’s Legacy.
Another classic, In the Shadow of Man. Now I’ve broken two rules. In the Shadow of Man is not new nor is it really about human evolution. It’s Jane Goodall’s first book. Written in the early 1970s, it chronicles the beginning of Goodall’s decades-long study of the chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and highlights some of her early discoveries, including the chimps’ use of tools. If you’re a wildlife fan, this is a great treat.
April 2, 2012
Lucy wasn’t alone. A new fossil foot unearthed in East Africa comes from an unknown hominid species that lived at the same time and in the same region as Lucy‘s species, Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy and her neighbors were both capable of walking upright on two legs, researchers say. But while Lucy spent most of her time on the ground, the newly discovered species was more adept at moving around in the trees.
“This find alters our understanding of the evolution of bipedalism because it shows that there was more diversity than previously recognized in the ways that early [hominids] moved around their environments,” says Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and George Washington University.
The new discovery—eight bones from the front part of a right foot—comes from Ethiopia’s Woranso-Mille site and dates to 3.4 million years ago. This coincides with the period when Australopithecus afarensis lived in this part of Africa, about 3.0 million to 3.9 million years ago. The analysis of the bones was led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Bruce Latimer, a physical anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
The researchers determined that the foot possesses features indicative of bipedal walking, such as certain joints seen in modern humans that allow the toes to push off the ground and propel the foot forward during upright walking. But the foot also appears apelike: Its opposable, grasping big toe suggests the unnamed species was a good tree climber and probably spent much less time on the ground than Lucy and later hominids, the researchers reported last week in Nature.
Haile-Selassie and his colleagues can’t give the species a name based on the scant fossil evidence. But the foot does resemble an even earlier hominid, the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus, which also had an opposable big toe. Perhaps some species of Ardipithecus survived until this time.
Regardless of who the foot belonged to, it seems two types of hominids were around during this relatively early period in human evolution—and it means the evolution of bipedalism was probably more complicated than scientists suspected. For decades, the question has been what factor led the ancestors of hominids to walk upright. Now anthropologists also have to consider what factor(s) led to the origin of different styles of bipedalism.
October 26, 2011
Most natural history museums don’t have human evolution exhibits, and if they do, the bones are probably reproductions. The real fossils are usually owned by and housed in the country in which they were found. Fortunately, the Internet offers several places where you can see hominid bones up close. Here are a few of my favorite sites.
Smithsonian Human Origins Program: Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a great human evolution exhibit. But for those who can’t make it to Washington, D.C., the museum scanned more than 65 fossils to create 3-D models you can play with online. With the click of a mouse, you can rotate the fossils to get a view from any angle. Each specimen includes information on when and where the fossil was found, how old it is, and in some cases, why it’s important to the study of human evolution. The museum also has online collections of artifacts and primate bones.
eLucy: Unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy is a 40 percent complete skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis. At eLucy, you can compare Lucy’s bones—her legs, ankle, arms, fingers, ribs, spine, hips and jaw—with the corresponding bones of humans and chimpanzees to see what aspects of Lucy were human-like and what aspects were still primitive. The site, funded by the University of Texas at Austin, uses a lot of technical terms, but it does have a glossary and an FAQ page that provides answers to questions about how Lucy lived and basic questions about evolution. (Fun fact: Lucy’s name comes from the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which Lucy’s discoverers were listening to after they found the fossils.)
The Natural History Museum, London: Like the Smithsonian, the Natural History Museum in London has an online collection of interactive 3-D fossils. Although the collection is much smaller—it has only three skulls, of Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus and a Neanderthal—the site allows for side-by-side comparisons with either a modern human skull or a chimpanzee skull, or you can contrast the ancient hominids with each other.
The Middle Awash Project: The Middle Awash site in Ethiopia is home to the early hominid Ardipithecus. The Middle Awash Project maintains a database of fossils found at the site—everything from birds to hippos to monkeys to horses. There are a couple ways you can search the database, by age or by animal type. The database uses scientific names, so you may need to Google the terms if you’re unfamiliar with them. To see all of the database’s hominid fossils, choose “Hominidae” for the field called “Family” and hit search. The database has pictures of bones from Homo erectus and Ardipithecus kadabba, which lived 5.7 million years ago. Although the black-and-white pictures aren’t that pretty, you probably won’t find a similar collection of such ancient hominid bones anywhere else online.
ESRF Paleontological Mircotomographic Database: After you agree to the site’s terms and conditions, you can view images of Homo erectus, Neanderthal and early modern human fossils. Scientists created the images at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France with microtomography, which uses X-rays to make 3-D images of an object. The site doesn’t provide a lot of information about the fossils—although each image includes a reference to an academic paper about the specimen—but the images are neat because they are big and detailed. The database also has pictures of invertebrate fossils such as ammonites, critters preserved in amber and ancient eel-like creatures called conodonts.
Have I missed any good sites? If you have a favorite website to view hominid fossils, let me know in the comments below.