Much is made of the early use of stone tools by human ancestors. Darwin saw the freeing of the hands ad co-evolving with the use of the hands to make and use tools which co-evolved with the big brain. And that would make the initial appearance of stone tools in the archaeological record a great and momentous thing. However, things did not work out that way. Continue reading Great Moments in Human Evolution: The Invention of Chipped Stone Tools→
One of the most interesting and exciting stories in science is that of the Younger Dryas. The Younger Dryas was a climate event that had important effects on human history, and that has been reasonably linked to some of our most important cultural changes, and ultimately some evolutionary changes as well. That is one reason why it is interesting. In addition, the Younger Dryas was a pretty big deal … a climate change or something like a climate change that caused massive changes all around the earth, and fairly recently. But the cause of the Younger Dryas is at present unknown, although a series of explanations have been advanced, each as convincing as the next depending on one’s point of view. The Younger Dryas itself is interesting, and the story of how scientists have studied it and the changing explanations emerging from that research is just as interesting.
The latest science is beginning to suggest that it is all even more interesting and exciting (and scary) than previously thought.
Fallback foods are the foods that an organism eats when it can’t find the good stuff. It has been suggested that adaptive changes in fallback food strategies can leave a more distinct mark on the morphology of an organism, including in the fossil record, than changes in preferred food strategies. This assertion is based on work done by the Grants and others with Galapagos Island finches, by Richard Wrangham and me with hominids, and by Betsy Burr and me with rodents. Continue reading The Potato and Human Evolution→
From Scientific American, a piece on the “Cooking Hypothesis” (which yours truly helped develop some years back).
Our hominid ancestors could never have eaten enough raw food to support our large, calorie-hungry brains, Richard Wrangham claims. The secret to our evolution, he says, is cooking
Cooking does indeed turn a lot of stuff that is not edible to humans (or any primate) into usable energy. We think the increase in body size that comes along with the genus Homo (with Homo erectus and kin) is itself a biological signal of cooking.
The problem with his idea: proof is slim that any human could control fire that far back. Other researchers believe cooking did not occur until perhaps only 500,000 years ago. Consistent signs of cooking came even later, when Neandertals were coping with an ice age. “They developed earth oven cookery,” says C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “And that only goes back a couple hundred thousand years.” He and others postulate that the introduction of energy-rich, softer animal products, not cooking, was what led to H. erectus’s bigger brain and smaller teeth.
Birds evolved during the Mesozoic, during the various “Ages” of the dinosaurs, as a subset of those dinosaurs. Many researchers believe that these early birds were different from their then very close dinosaur cousins because of their flight adaptations, and some have linked this idea to flight-based or tree- based foraging.Today, most birds fly (counting by species) and their flight is linked to their primary dietary adaptation. Some birds actually feed on the wing, while others fly to food sites and once there do not locomote very much. Other birds forage on the ground habitually. The difference between these two kinds of birds should be evident in the morphology of their feet.If you examine bird feet today and can successfully characterize these feet in a way that links reliably to mode of foraging, then you should be able to look at Mesozoic bird (and dinosaur) feet and say something about how they foraged. In this way, you can test the hypothesis that early birds were flight- and tree-foragers rather than foot-foragers. A paper in Current Biology does this. Continue reading Evolution of Birds: New Evidence for Foraging Behavior→
Many years ago a couple of researchers (Hatley and Kappleman) suggested omnivory, including eating of roots, to be a common theme in the adaptations we see in bears, humans, and pigs. Some years later, Richard Wrangham and I independently and for different reasons came to the idea that roots are potentially important in human evolution, so we collaborated on a paper suggesting this. Subsequently, bits and pieces of data have been accumulating to support this hypothesis (the “root hypothesis”). And here, Jim Moore of San Diego, is reporting on living chimps eating roots in a relatively savanna like environment. As we predicted.
Chimps dig up clues to human past? from PhysOrg.com One of the keys enabling the earliest human ancestors to trade a forest home for more open country may have been the ability to gather underground foods. Now a team of scientists reports for the first time that in Tanzania our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, are using sticks and pieces of bark to dig for edible roots, tubers and bulbs.[…]
I find it absolutely fascinating that scientists often bother to estimate the effects of diet by feeding controlled quantities of food, especially plant food, to rats to see what happens.For example, there is a common substance in cooked food that, if fed in even modest quantity to rats, causes the rats to get cancer and die in no time. This raises concerns for humans because, well, the rats died. So the substance must be “bad for you.”But this approach to nutritional science, and the reasoning that goes with it, is deeply flawed. Continue reading Plants can help you. They can kill you. And they can get you stoned.→