Tag Archives: archaeology

Why did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish?

Georges Bank is a very large shallow area in the North Atlantic, roughly the size of a New England state, that serves as a fishing ground and whaling area (these days for watching the whales, not harpooning them) for ports in New England, New York and Eastern Canada. Eighteen thousand years ago, sea levels were globally at a very low point (with vast quantities of the Earth’s water busy being ice), and at that time George’s Bank would have been a highland region on the very edge of the North American continent, extending via a lower ridge to eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and separated by a low plain (covered in part by glaciers) to the rest of New England.1

As sea levels began rising around twelve thousand years ago, George’s bank became a narrower peninsula and eventually an island visible from the mainland. We know that people lived on this island because artifacts of early Native American groups have been dredged up here, along with the teeth of Pleistocene elephants and other items.
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Happy Birthday Maria Reiche

Maria Reiche was an archaeologist and mathematician who worked on the Nazca lines in Peru. Originally, she worked with Paul Kosok, who discovered the remarkable drawings, and starting in the mid 1940s, Reiche mapped in the drawings. She believed that the lines represented a calendar and a sort of observatory. She is probably single handedly responsible for the preservation of these important archaeological features.

She died in Lima in 1998.

Several crackpots have suggested that the Nazca lines, since they can only be taken in visually from a height achievable only with flying machines such as airplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons or … whatever … must have been drawn for the benefit of aliens in their UFOs.

Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

The question of diversity in science, and more specifically, success for women, is often discussed in relation to bench or lab oriented fields. If you read the blogs that cover this sort of topic, they are very often written by bench scientists, for bench scientists, and about bench scientists. Which makes sense because most scientists probably are bench scientists.

Here I want to do two separate but related things. I want to discuss certain aspects of the nature of fieldwork in my area in the 20th century that have had a strong effect on the way women have pursued their careers (or not). Although I characterize this as the situation of the 20th century, this does not mean that the situation has or has not changed substantially since then. Simply put, I’m not discussing the current career related situaton for women in field paleoanthropology here in this post.

The second thing I want to do is to talk about a successful female social scientist with a strong connection to fieldwork in palaeoanthropology, as well as theoretical and administrative contributions. This person is also someone who straddles the boundary between classic mid- to late-Twentieth Century patterns of professional activity (in these field sciences) and more recent patterns. I’m speaking here of Barbara Isaac.

The link between these two topics is a bit tenuous but it is also meaningful. There is nothing stereotypical about Barbara Isaac’s career, and there is nothing short of admirable about her as a person and a scholar. My intention here is to not make strong links between these two parallel topics.
Continue reading Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

Great Moments in Human Evolution: The Invention of Chipped Stone Tools

Or not.

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

The Origin of the Chicken

From whence the humble chicken? Gallus gallus is a domesticated chicken-like bird (thus, the name “chicken”) that originates in southeast Asia. Ever since Darwin we’ve known that the chicken originated in southeast Asia, although the exact details of which one or more of several possible jungle fowls is the primal form has been debated. The idea that more than one wild species contributed to the early chicken has been on the table for a long time, though perhaps not as long as the chickens themselves have been on the table

Notice the yellow legs on this chicken. If you pluck out the feathers, you’ll notice that the skin is yellow as well. But if you go find, say, a crow, and pluck its feathers, it will be grayish in color. Or maybe black, I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve defeathered a crow. The point is, that some birds are yellow, some are not.ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a gene that is expressed in certain tissues that produces an enzyme that cleaves the carotenoid molecules that provide the yellow color. If there is no functional copy of this gene (if the individual is homozygotic for the broken version) then this cleaving does not happen, and you get a yellow bird (depending on other factors we shall ignore).In short, new research confirms as previously thought that the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) is ancestral to the modern chicken, as Darwin suspected. But this research also suggests that another bird, the grey jungle fowl (Gallus sonneratii) also contributed to the chicken’s genome, providing the yellow color we see on this chicken’s legs.The research, reported in PLoS Genetics, gives us two results. One is the first characterization of the process of pigmentation mentioned above, and the second is a new family tree for this bird.

Many bird species possess yellow skin and legs whereas other species have white or black skin color. Yellow or white skin is due to the presence or absence of carotenoids. The genetic basis underlying this diversity is unknown. Domestic chickens with yellow skin are homozygous for a recessive allele, and white skinned chickens carry the dominant allele. As a result, chickens represent an ideal model for analyzing genetic mechanism responsible for skin color variation. In this study we demonstrate that yellow skin is caused by regulatory mutation(s) that inhibit expression of the beta-carotene dioxygenase 2 (BCDO2) enzyme in skin, but not in other tissues. Because BCDO2 cleaves colorful carotenoids into colorless apocarotenoids, a reduction in expression of this gene produces yellow skin. This study also provides the first conclusive evidence of a hybrid origin of the domestic chicken. It has been generally assumed that the red junglefowl is the sole ancestor of the domestic chicken. A phylogenetic analysis, however, demonstrates that though the white skin allele originates from the red junglefowl, the yellow skin allele originates from a different species, most likely the grey junglefowl. This result significantly advances our understanding of chicken domestication.

Here is the phylogenetic tree that the authors of this paper present:i-a782d8d10ab087febef2b5b4a719fe02-chicken_tree.jpgClick here for a much larger image (84kb)You will read in press reports that “Darwin got it wrong” when it comes to chickens. Let’s have a look at what he said and see how wrong he was. Darwin addressed the two major theories of his time. One is a multiregional theory, much like the now discredited version of human evolution, where each kind of chicken was domesticated from a different wild form. The other is that all descended from one ancestor, Gallus gallus bankiva, also known as Gallus bankiva.Darwin uses chickens in a big way in developing his ideas about evolution. Chickens were perhaps as important as pigeons for examining breed characteristics. Therefore, he wrote quite a bit about chickens. In the end, he favored the single origin hypothesis, but he also describes the primordial species of his choosing … the red jungle fowl … as much more diverse in character than it is generally characterized today…

… Gallus bankiva, has a much wider geographical range than the three previous species; … This species varies considerably in the wild state. Mr. Blyth informs me that the specimens, both male and female, brought from near the Himalaya, are rather paler coloured than those from other parts of India; whilst those from the Malay peninsula and Java are brighter coloured than the Indian birds. I have seen specimens from these countries, and the difference of tint in the hackles was conspicuous. The Malayan hens were a shade redder on the breast and neck than the Indian hens. The Malayan males generally had a red ear-lappet, instead of a white one as in India; but Mr. Blyth has seen one Indian specimen without the white ear-lappet. The legs are leaden blue in the Indian, whereas they show some tendency to be yellowish in the Malayan and Javan specimens. In the former Mr. Blyth finds the tarsus remarkably variable in length. According to Temminck20 the Timor specimens differ as a local race from that of Java. These several wild varieties have not as yet been ranked as distinct species; if they should, as is not unlikely, be hereafter thus ranked, the circumstance would be quite immaterial as far as the parentage and differences of our domestic breeds are concerned. The wild G. bankiva agrees most closely with the blackbreasted red Game-breed, in colouring and in all other respects, except in being smaller, and in the tail being carried more horizontally. But the manner in which the tail is carried is highly variable in many of our breeds,…(Darwin 1868:233)

What we see here (my emphasis added) is evidence that skin color varied across different populations of this species.The study at hand asserts:

On the basis of observed character differences and cross-breeding experiments, Darwin concluded that domestic chickens were derived solely from the red junglefowl, though this was later challenged by Hutt [1], who stated that as many as four different species of junglefowls may have contributed to chicken domestication. Molecular studies of mtDNA and retroviral insertions have supported Darwin’s view. A study that analyzed both repeat nuclear elements and mitochondrial sequences found evidence that grey and Ceylon junglefowls may hybridize with domestic chickens, but did not provide evidence that these two species have contributed to chicken domestication. To date, no studies have compared gene sequences associated with a specific phenotype found in domestic chickens across numerous wild junglefowls and domestic breeds….We searched for the causal mutation … This analysis revealed a surprisingly high sequence diversity between the two groups (0.81%), well above the genome average for chicken (~0.5%) [15] and approaching the sequence divergence between chimpanzee and human (1.2%). We therefore included three other species of junglefowls in the sequence comparison: grey (G. sonneratii), Ceylon (G. lafayetii), and green (G. varius) junglefowls. This step was also motivated by the fact that grey and Ceylon junglefowls have red or yellowish legs which implies deposition of carotenoids and a Y/Y genotype…In contrast, mtDNA sequences from the same samples showed the expected pattern in which domestic chickens cluster with red junglefowl within a clade well separated from other junglefowls

The grey and red jungle fowl have, at present, disjunct ranges, but that may be a product of recent ecological changes, including human alterations of habitats. Also, in the early days of chicken domestication, there is no reason to suspect that a single origin would be followed by immediate isolation from wild forms, and in fact, all the available evidence including that reported here suggests the contrary.I think the truth of the matter is that Darwin did not really get the origin of the chicken wrong … he had it substantially right. Rather, Darwin had a better idea of variation in the wild forms than we may appreciate today, and he leaned a bit more towards a simpler history at the start than we tend to today. That’s not bad considering that all of the modern theory about origins of domesticated forms post dates, and often derives from, Darwin.In other words, Newton understood gravity, so today we can design an airplane. But if Newton designed and airplane that did not fly, would that mean that he got gravity wrong?I think not.

(More on Darwin here)Darwin, C. R. 1868. The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London: John Murray. First edition, first issue. Volume 1.Eriksson, J., Larson, G., Gunnarsson, U., Bed’hom, B., Tixier-Boichard, M., StrÃ?¶mstedt, L., Wright, D., Jungerius, A., Vereijken, A., Randi, E., Jensen, P., Andersson, L., Georges, M. (2008). Identification of the Yellow Skin Gene Reveals a Hybrid Origin of the Domestic Chicken. PLoS Genetics, 4(2), e1000010. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000010

Beer is fundemental

Back in the 1980s, archaeologists working in the middle east realized one day that the origin of agriculture …. domesticated barley, to be exact … in that region was all about beer. This is because this early barley could not be de-shelled to make flour. The only practical way to consume it was to make beer out of it.That explained a lot of things…Now, there is a report that the origin of chocolate is also all about beer. Continue reading Beer is fundemental

British Colonialist Archaeology: More of the same?

[A repost from gregladen.com, unmodified]There is a ceremonial burial in Britain .. ceremonial because it has some red stuff smeared on bone … that has now bee dated to a few thousand years earlier than previously thought (to ca 25,000 years old).

Age of earliest human burial in Britain pinpointed from PhysOrg.com
The oldest known buried remains in Britain are 29,000 years old, archaeologists have found – 4,000 years older than previously thought. The findings show that ceremonial burials were taking place in western Europe much earlier than researchers had believed.[]

Some have suggested that this is evidence that ceremonial burial may have been invented in Western Europe rather than elsewhere. Let me tell you why that is an overstatement.1) “Ceremonial burial” is redundant. Never mind those absurd theories that for the first several tens of thousands of years people buried their dead to get rid of the smell, and not for ritual reasons. It is reasonable to assume that those that buried their dead did so for “ceremonial” or “symbolic” (whatever term you like) reasons. Today, there are people who have “ritual” behavior but who do not bury their dead. Thus, the link between burial and ritual behavior or symbolic capacity is arbitrary and not very useful. In other words, I question the premise of the question: “When did ritual behavior begin” in relation to burial per se.2) There is nothing special to separate any “gracile” population from another with respect to brains and behavior. So, if we find several instances of ritual activity associated with gracile Homo sapiens, the best guess for the minimum age for the beginning of that activity may be the beginning of the visible evidence of that species. This is highly conjectural. Archaeological evidence for a particular behavior that is concentrated in the later period of Homo sapiens would not suffice for such a conjecture. For example, the earliest evidence for the practice of agriculture is about 10,000 years old, so it would not be reasonable to argue that agriculture was a common practice before that. But, if there is evidence of a behavior linked to “ritual” scattered throughout the paleolithic. This evidence is expected to be rare to begin with, so a scattering with no clear demarcation in time could be reasonably thought of as evidence for this behavior being a species typical trait for gracile Homo sapiens. The question then arises: Do we see this behavior emerge at the origin of this species/subspecies, or does it develop shortly thereafter, or is it a behavior that existed in some for prior?3) There is specific evidence of ritual behavior some connected to burial prior to 25,000 years ago. Kebara has a Neanderthal skeleton that is a burial. Yes, it is true that some researchers have suggested that this is not a burial, but they are in my opinion wrong about this. We can discuss this at another time if you like. For now, I’ll just say that Kebara is a nearly complete skeleton, with only a few bones missing some of which (the lower legs/feet) were clearly removed by previous excavators using crappy excavation techniques, and the head removed probably in antiquity, some years after the burial itself happened. (One mastoid process of the skull is intact, the rest of the cranium gone). This burial is about 65,000 years old.In Southern Africa and elsewhere there are a number of other objects with red stuff (ocher) spread on them, or that otherwise suggest symbolic/ritual behavior, dated to roughly the same age (at least in terms of order of magnitude) as Kebara.There is evidence that gracile Homo sapiens existed at just under 120,000 years ago in Southern Africa, and there is evidence of other “modern” behaviors, in terms of food gathering and lithic technology, dating back much farther in time.So, in my opinion, the new British date is cool, but it is primarily a moderate yet important adjustment to the existing data set. It does not change our thinking about anything except the local sequence for Britain.

Man the Hunter and Human Evolution

hunting, human evolution

Hunting and Human Evolution

I’ve never been that big of a fan of hunting as the explanation for everything that happened in human evolution, and I’ve tended to explore other areas more. This has led some to believe that I’m simply against acknowledging any role of hunting in human prehistory and evolution. This of course is not true at all, but I do think the issue needs to be addressed in a more complex and subtle way than it usually is. The present comments are a tiny contribution towards a much larger requirement of thought and discussion.

Why is hunting thought to be a key factor in human evolution? Partly because it was once widely believed that among the primates, only humans ate a fair amount of meat (not counting insects). If human hunting and meat consumption was unique among primates, then the evolution and effects of this behavior could easily be understood as vitally important. Moreover, a lot of fieldwork and thinking about human evolution centered on Europe, where cave paintings of animals were common, with some hunting themes seemingly represented in these paintings.

Of course, the uniqueness of human hunting behavior is now understood to be a gross overstatement. There is hunting of mammals and the like by several primates, and in particular, chimpanzee hunting (mainly of monkeys) is fairly common.

We now know that almost all of the important events that have happened in human evolution (since the chimp-human split) happened in Africa, and that the European record, while interesting, is not the primary record for these events. Therefore, one would think that the European bias would be somewhat reduced in current thinking (the fact that it is not is of great interest, but I’ll not go into that here!).

But I think the most important reason for hunting taking center stage in the study of human evolution, to what appears to be an unjustified level, has to do with the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.”

Have you ever been hunting, or been along with others while they did so? I’ve accompanied both North American game hunters (armed with firearms) and Efe foragers (armed with arrows and spears). Most of my time has been in the latter pursuit, and in a few instances, I joined the hunt not just as an observer but as a participant/observer.

I don’t think hunting is a normal human activity in the same way that hunting is a normal lion activity, or a normal wolf activity. Humans seem to react to hunting in a very powerful way, similar to how humans react to violence in general (and hunting seems to be fairly violent) or to certain kinds of sporting events (as observer or as participant). A lot of yelling and screaming and jumping around can ensue under certain conditions. Yes, most forager groups disdain bragging and avoid giving too much credit to any individual for being a great hunter, but the visceral reaction to, say, a near miss or to those moments when the hunted animal turns on the hunter (usually only briefly and to the animal’s final chagrin), is powerful and can’t be covered up or put into the background by cultural norms of modesty.

The Real Reason We Hunt?

Richard Wrangham thinks that it is possible that hunting by chimpanzees is more important as a form of male bonding than it is as a form of food acquisition. He bases this assertion on two things. First, the chimpanzees at Kibale, where he works, seem to hunt more when there is abundant non-meat food (i.e., fruit). Hunting is not used by these chimps as a way to supplement their diets. Hunting is not part of a sensible ecological strategy for garnering energy from the environment, but rather something that is done when one has the extra time and energy. The second part of his argument (as I understand it) is that one of the most critically important things a male chimpanzee can do, in evolutionary/fitness terms, is to be adept at cooperating with other males of it’s group, to facilitate the act of killing extra-group chimpanzees. The experience of hunting monkeys and the male-male interaction that relates to this primes and prepares the chimps for this important yet rare event. Hunting monkeys is training for being an effective, fierce, demonic male chimp.

Is this the case in humans? There is no way to know this at this time. There certainly are groups of human foragers (in the ethnographic present) who rely so much on meat that hunting is basically a form of subsistence, no matter what other function it may have. Even when plant foods are abundant, meat is still important to almost every group of forager (and non-forager, likely) as a source of “complete proteins.” All traditional human hunting is imbued with ritual and ceremony that exceeds that generally linked with gathering. So in the end, there is evidence that hunting can be and often is an ecologically important activity for human foragers. There is also evidence that hunting is (probably) always an important social activity, mainly among men.

[Ask me later: Why a photograph of the Afrikaans Language Monument in this particular place, at this particular time…]

“Man The Hunter”

So, now, return to the idea that the “man the hunter” concept is something that derives from the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.” As you may have guessed, I’m not using the incorrect gender non-neutral term “Man” to refer to humans. I’m talking about men. Guys, to be more exact. Guys, for various reasons including insecurity about reproduction as well as food and subsistence, etc., tend to invent methods of bonding that can sometimes be quite elaborate. In many societies, throughout time, hunting has probably been one of these methods. Certainly, many of the male scholars who first looked into human evolution were themselves hunters (shooting quail on the moorland, big game in East Africa, etc.) and had a good, Victorian understanding of this process of bonding.

When a 19th or 20th century guy archaeologist holds a beautifully made, often phallic-shaped obsidian spearhead in his hands, feeling it’s heft and running his fingers along the still sharp, elongated, stone-hard edge, he is bonding with another guy, of a much earlier time period, who could probably have killed his quarry just as effectively with a sharp stick, but opted instead to produce, carry around, display, and use this really cool piece of gear. So it’s a guy thing, and it’s a gear thing. It’s sort of a guys-with-gear thing.

Hunting isn’t likely the driving force in human evolutionary change, but it can certainly be an important human activity that is related to human evolutionary change.

One final brief note on something to be addressed at another time: The assumption that hunting by men is central to human evolution has led many to assume that hunting drove the evolution of tool use, and thus, tool use is a male thing. This contradicts the best evidence we have about technology in primates, which suggests that females, not males, are the tool makers, tool users, and the teachers (or at least facilitaters) who pass this ability on to subsequent generations. So, gear, it turns out, may be more of a girl thing after all.