Archive | October, 2013

Killer Whales: A BBC Natural World Documentary

26 Oct

The BBC strand of a wildlife documentary series, entitled Natural World, have a new episode up on the BBC Iplayer focusing on recent scientific research on the globally distributed killer whale (Orcinus orca).  It is available to view here, although readers outside of the UK may have trouble watching it online (If you have any links please leave a comment!).

It was whilst watching the program, and its discussion on whether there are different species of killer whale (likely 3-5, with various sub-species), that it reminded of the Dmanisi Homo erectus fossils (Lordkipanidze et al. 2013) which were subject of the previous post.  Lordkipanidze et al. (2013: 330) postulated that the morphology of the 5 Homo erectus crania present at Dmanisi, Georgia, represent, when examined against comparable material, the evidence for wide morphological differences within and among early Homo, possibly indicating rather less individual species than is currently documented and described.

The Natural World episode highlighted the differences between killer whale ‘cultural’ groups and species with niché but distinct differences in external anatomy (body size, eye and saddle markings, shape and size of dorsal fins), vocalisation and the different hunting methods used when groups targeted varying prey groups.  This is important as it will help to inform on how humans try to conserve killer whale populations around the globe as an understanding of the distinct species could have an important ecological impact on what groups of killer whales are under threat the most.  Of course the big difference between the above comparison was the use of DNA testing and active observational fieldwork, if only we could test the early Homo fossils in such a way!

Further into the program we came across evidence of an individual killer whale who had likely been maimed as a juvenile and who had been adopted, at different times, by no less than 4 different pods of killer whales. There was also footage of said killer whale shadowing and receiving food from one member of her current pod who could successfully hunt (whether this was deliberate is another question).  This reminded me of a nice little paper by Fashing & Nguyen (2011) of the relevance of behaviour towards disabled, injured or dying individuals among animal groups and it’s relevance towards palaeopathology.

Palaeoanthropologists should take into account the wider aspect of how animals treat members of their own species when they are disabled, injured or dying, as Fashing & Nguyen (2011: 129) note that ‘recent evidence from paleoanthropology indicates that inferences into the evolution of human behavior based solely on a chimpanzee model are less informative than previously believed’.  Lordkipanidze et al. (2013), in their study, compare the Dmanisi individuals against modern Homo sapiens and chimpanzees, amongst others, but it could be said that these two groups in particular do not reflect good study comparative groups as their anatomical plasticity is generally quite homogeneous.  As ever, of course, further research is needed and I for one look forward to it.

The program also debated the troubling nature of the capture of killer whales for the purposes of entertainment for large sea life centers across the world, a practice that has now been largely banned in the Western World.  There is a haunting passage in the Natural World episode showing archive footage of the frenzy of killer whale captures during the 60’s and 70’s, with an appropriately sinister (and awesome) Pink Floyd track playing in the background.  Killer whales are, by their nature, large social predators – they need the security of their family pods and the sea environment in which to live and to hunt.

At SeaWorld, in the United States of America, there have been a recorded 100 separate episodes of aggression towards humans from captive killer whales since 1988, and there have been 4 recorded fatalities of trainers involving captive killer whales across the globe.  Let me re-iterate here that killer whales pose little threat to humans in the wild, that there has been no recorded human death by killer whale in the wild but there have been incidents (see list).  Clearly captivity leads to abnormal behaviour amongst these amazing creatures, as it can be said for many animal species (worth a watch is the 2013 documentary Blackfish).

All in all, this was an enlightening program on the advances made in studying the killer whale, highlighting the distinct hunting differences, group structure and vocalisation of an apex predator who has both inspired and caused fear in humanity throughout the ages.  It is well worth watching the episode, if not the series, for insights into the natural world.  Previous episodes worth a watch also deal with the remarkable walrus and the delightful orangutan.

Watch the BBC documentary here (United Kingdom residents only).


Fashing, P. J. & Nguyen. 2011. Behavior Towards the Dying, Diseased, or Disabled Among Animals and its Relevance to Paleopathology. International Journal of Paleopathology. 1 (2-3): 128-129.

Lordkipanidze, D., Ponce de León, M. S., Margvelashvili, A., Rak, Y., Rightmire, G. P., Vekua, A. and Zollikofer, C. P. E. 2013. A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early HomoScience.  342 (6156): 326-331. (Full article here, email if this doesn’t work).

D4500: The 5th Dmanisi Skull

22 Oct

A paper has been by published by Lordkipanidze et al. (2013) in the journal Science which highlights the unique fossil finds at the Dmanisi palaeoanthropological site, in Georgia, of the cranial and post-cranial remains of 5 Homo erectus individuals.  In particular the paper discusses the morphological aspects of the fifth Dmanisi skull, D4500 and associated mandible D2600, as a remarkably well preserved find.  Discovered during field work at Dmanisi in 2005, D4500 and D2600 represents one of the best preserved and complete adult skulls of Early Pleistocene Homo fossils so far discovered and described (Lordkipanidze et al. 2013: 326).

The paper in question debates the morphological variation between the cranial remains of the five Homo erectus individuals at Dmanisi, suggesting that there is greater variation in the Homo genus than is typically given credit for.  The paper compares the five Dmanisi crania and their morphological variations between the individuals to early and later Homo species hominins (including early African Homo species and Homo neaderthalensis), modern Homo sapiens and extant apes (including Pan troglodytes).  The conclusions of the article suggest that there is wide variation within the early Homo palaeodeme of morphological variation, much more than has been noted or given credit for with perhaps too many species being named and described as individual species in the early Homo fossil record.  Lordkipanidze et al (2013:330) argue that the Dmanisi collection could represent evidence of the single lineage hypothesis for early Homo.  Of course this is a contentious issues and further research is needed, but this is exciting nonetheless.

There has been numerous online blog entries debating the article and its implication for the evolution of the Homo genus.  To my mind the articles linked to below perhaps sum up the best reactions and thoughts to the article, although I look forward to further peer-reviewed research being carried out.  Outlining the main issues from the article, and the evolutionary mechanism behind the variations present in the Homo genus, is Weiss’s article over at the The Mermaid’s Tale which is informative and exciting.  He also discusses the background to the one species hypothesis within Homo which Lordkipanidze et al. (2013) imply could be a possibility as a result of their study of D4500.  They also suggest it as a mechanism for phylogenetic continuity across continents for early Homo.  John Hawks presents critical comments on the article and evocatively describes just how well D4500 has survived and how beautiful and complete a specimen the individual actually is.  In particular Hawks offers his own interesting comments on early Homo evolution and the importance of understanding the many facets of evolution that are at work, including the genetic differences and how modern populations of Homo sapiens often provide poor comparative models for ancient Homo species.  At A. P. Van Arsdale’s blog there is a nice breakdown of the article itself, including just why the five crania at Dmanisi are so important and just what their discovery may mean for interpreting the hominin fossil record.

Now to end this brief blog post I think it is only right that I post a picture of the articulated skull of D4500 himself*.  It is a beautifully preserved specimen and one worth taking the time to ponder over.

dmanisi skull 5

The articulated individual known as D4500 (cranium) and D2600 (mandible) exhibiting a small braincase with a large prognathic face, found at the Georgian site of Dmanisi in 2005.  The skull also boasts of one of the best preserved basicranial of any Homo erectus known (Hawks 2013) although the dentition displays that most of the teeth were worn past their crowns. Source: Lordkipanidze et al. (2013: 327).

*It is likely that the individual is a male, but expected a flood of research to take place in the next few years on the Dmanisi individuals and their context within human evolution.

Further Information

  • A full list of scientific publications from the Dmanisi palaeoanthropological site can be found here on the official website (though I am unsure how often the site is updated).  The website has detailed information on the formation and geology of the site, including the hominins and the different species of fauna that have been found, plus you can still get a place to dig at the actual site!
  • Check out The Human Story’s take on a new 2014 article suggesting that there could possibly be two hominin lineages suggested at the Dmanisi site.


Hawks, J. 2013. The New Skull from Dmanisi. John Hawks Weblog. 18/10/2013.

Lordkipanidze, D., Ponce de León, M. S., Margvelashvili, A., Rak, Y., Rightmire, G. P., Vekua, A. & Zollikofer, C. P. E. 2013. A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo. Science.  342 (6156): 326-331. (Full article here, email if this doesn’t work).

Van Arsdale, A. P. 2013. The New (Wonderfu) Dmanisi Skull. The Pleistocene Scene-  A.P. Van Arsdale Blog. 17/10/2013.

Weiss, K. 2013.  How Many ‘Human’ Species are there? Is it even a Real Question?  Why does Anybody Care?  The Dmanisi SkullsThe Mermaid’s Tale.  21/10/2013.

Future Steps?

15 Oct

I have recently had surgery on my lower right leg following the transverse fracture of the tibia and fibula a few months ago, so I haven’t posted for a while.  The surgery, in which osteotomies were performed on the tibia and fibula to re-align the bones and re-distribute the weight along with having the tibia internally fixated with a locking plate and screws, was quite successful thankfully (x-rays to come if I can get my hands on one, quite looking forward to seeing the new hardware for the first time!).  It also gave me some more time to ruminate on the meaning of this blog: of the blog’s form, function and interactivity.  The basic thinking behind the site remains, as per my established aim, for it to become a repository for both my own continual learning and to provide a place for a wide audience to learn about human osteology, specifically the role human osteology plays within archaeology.


An example of a high tibial osteotomy near the knee to improve the angle of weigh-bearing and biomechanical properties of the leg: where (a) represents the presenting angle, (b) the surgery to access the joint and (C) highlights the wedge of bone removed in the osteotomy procedure and finally (d) the corrected angle post-surgery.  In my case the distal tibia and fibula were surgically fractured and osteotomies carried out on the medial aspect of both bones to improve the biomechanical loading of the lower limb with internal fixation applied to improve strength (Source: SOTRS).

Development Of A Medium

This blog has developed naturally over the two and a half years since its inception to include what I like to think of as a ‘three-pronged’ approach:

Firstly, the development of the Skeletal Series to introduce the individual aspects of a human skeletal to a general audience.  This is ongoing and has proved relatively successful I think, with some lovely feedback from both members of the academic and public spheres.

Secondly, the ongoing Guest Posts in which various organisations and individuals have agreed to write an informed blog entry on their specific area of knowledge or interest.  This has been a  particularly fruitful approach in widening the topics of discussion on this blog.  This has also led to the development of the first interview on the site, of which I am particularly happy as it has allowed the elucidation of a new methodology in a clear and straightforward manner.  I am hoping that these interviews will become a much a feature of the blog as the guest posts have, and it is something I shall try to develop on the site.

Thirdly, general posts by myself on a wide variety of topics that perk my interest.  Within this I have included posts on specific articles, brief book reviews and personal posts.  The personal posts often discuss the effects of a bone disease little mentioned in the public sphere helping I hope, in a small part, to raise the profile of McCune Albright Syndrome.  As a person with McCune Albright Syndrome, and its component bone disease Fibrous Dysplasia, I have found little online in the form of information from other individual’s with the same syndrome, as such I hope my efforts in describing what I have been through, and what I continue to go through, remains useful in providing information on the syndrome and in providing a personal perspective.

Further to this the site also has numerous links to many resources including links dedicated to researchers, journals and other blogs.  These links are located in the categories side bar (referring to categories discussed in my blog posts), and the blog roll (links to external sites) which can be found underneath the body of the posts.  I hope these provide further in-depth information for the dedicated learner and explorer.

Whilst I am deeply happy that this ‘three-pronged’ approach has developed organically, I cannot help but think of the future of the blog.  I do not post as often as a should, nor as often as I want, but I post because I want to, the pressure to actually post being purely self-contained so to speak.  As such there may be periods where this blog is silent, but that does not mean that it has ceased to function.  Indeed I often wonder how many hours of work have actually gone into producing this blog, as it can be quite time intensive to source, write and produce the blog posts themselves.

There are remarkably few dedicated and consistently updated bioarchaeology/human osteology related blogs on the internet (there is a whole delicious raft of archaeology blogs however) and, whilst my site is certainly one of them, the other two are fairly well-known and well-regarded blogs.  Kristina Killgrove, the bioarchaeologist behind Powered By Osteons, has stated that she sees her site as an open lab book where her own research is presented in detail to the public.  Her site is regularly features posts on popular presentations of human osteology in the public domain, as well as updates on themes and articles in bioarchaeology (particularly Roman bioarchaeology).  Katy Meyers, a doctoral researcher who blogs at Bones Don’t Lie, regularly writes about the main topics in bioarchaeology including posts on mortuary approaches and reviews of academic articles (articles often not available to the public).

In sum Katy’s blog helpfully introduces a wide audience to the many facets of what it is bioarchaeologists actually study and why.  Katy is also arguing that her site should be taken and perceived ‘as a scholarly publication’, which would be recognised and credited as a function of her research, in particular as a dedicated source and evidence of her public engagement.

What Does It Mean?

Having mulled over many a thought in relation to open access, public outreach and viewing blogs as scholarly publications, I have thought and developed several ideas in my relation to my own creation.  Could I argue that this site is a scholarly publication?  Whilst I try hard to reference scientific articles as and when possible, particularly open access articles, I am overtly aware that my site is purely written, edited and overseen by me alone.  There is no peer review process, no-one looking over my shoulder for factual mistakes, scientific faux-pas or grammar mishaps.  A blog is a fluid, dynamic interface which, by its very nature, can be changed, edited or deleted in an instant.  They are, essentially ephemeral in tone, having no physical basis in reality (the average blog lasts for just 3 years).  Not that this last point mitigates the content of a blog just it’s possible permanence.

As highlighted in a previous entry there are plenty of scrupulous ‘journals’ out there, willing to discredit real research and plagiarise hard-working researchers, but there are also blogs which are peer-reviewed and monitored for content.  A key counterpoint is to remember that blogs can have a real immediate impact on an audience’s  understanding of a topic.  The nature of a blog is that it is fast fast fast: posts can be produced rapidly and posted online extremely quickly, reaching an international audience within minutes.  This is their inherent value, that research that has been carried out can be produced rapidly to an interested or already developed audience, as well as reaching new people continually.  On a personal level I am astounded and honoured to be mentioned in a few academic articles as a resource for human osteology/bioarchaeology online and for the value of the content of this blog (see previous posts).  It is, of course, wonderful to be acknowledged and recognised in such a way, particularly by your peers and established academic researchers.

I try to edit older posts for content and spelling/grammar mistakes, update posts detailing ongoing research programs or news items and new scientific methods or evidence (I often cringe when re-reading the earlier blog entries!)*.  Of course I also maintain control over what is exhibited and shown on the site itself.  Friends have suggested that I move the site and place advertisements to gain a small stream of revenue from the internet traffic.  I have always resisted this line of thought as I want the blog to be educational and free, without any pressure to buy a book or click on adverts.  Wordpress, necessarily, add a single advert into posts when they are viewed alone but these are largely unobtrusive to the reader.  My view may change in the future, if I decide to host the site myself or pay WordPress to upgrade the site, but ethically it does not bode well for me to place adverts over a site such as this, especially if I am espousing the spread of free education.

On a personal level this blog is my main interaction with academia now that I have finished my Masters degree, as it allows me to engage with a wide and disparate international audience, to dream up collaborations, ideas and possible research projects.  So far however I have not mentioned any original research on this site conducted by myself (minus my MSc thesis abstract).  Although this is something I hope to change within a relatively short time, it can feel as if this blog could (and sometimes does) become an eternal feedback loop (co-incidentally there is a fantastic blog post here, by Benjamin Studebaker, that discusses echo chambers in journalism and blogs).  Interactivity on the site has been mostly conducted via personal email or over Facebook, and I admit I have been slow to advertise the site itself on any other social media platform.  It is only recently that I have installed the ‘social media’ advertisement buttons on the blog site itself; I have yet to make a personalised Twitter or Facebook handle for the blog (frankly this is something I am loath to do).  In a way I want the site to stand alone, on its own merits as such.  This may be foolhardy, especially in the sense that I want this blog to help educate a general and interested audience, but it is also perhaps just a factor in my own beliefs regarding the use of social media.

Future Steps

So what are the future steps for this blog?  The social buttons that are now an integral part of the posts, which also feature email and print buttons, are ready for the sharing.  I am pretty keen that information on this site should be shared if possible.  There are issues regarding the printing of separate blog entries from this site as it is likely that copyright issues, with regards to the images specifically, would be a problem (I would expect the use of Creative Commons attribution attribution share alike licence to apply for any use of the written material on this site).  Is there a way around the copyright image issue?  The image below highlights what the printed pages would hopefully look like in physical form.


What the option to print the skeletal series looks like, with the example of the human spine entry. Note that the hyperlinks in the body of the text present as full website addresses in the text itself when printing the entries on paper. The copyright of the image would also be a problem.

So what can I do to mitigate this problem?  I could make the posts unavailable to print, but that would make the rest of the post inaccessible to print.  I could remove the images from the posts themselves and produce my own diagrams, but at this current period in time I do not have the photographs or drawings necessary to illustrate the posts.  What I have thought of is to go through each of the skeletal posts again, edit and add to them and produce a cheap ebook to sell online, a kind of basic introduction to the human skeletal system and its range of applications in human osteology.  The writing would be somewhat clearer and more concise, and I have thought about the illustrations as well and where they could possibly originate from.  At the moment this is a possible pipe dream, but one in which I have been ruminating on as a natural extension of the skeletal series posts when they have been completed eventually.  The posts themselves will remain up and free, as this is one of the main aims of this site.  I am a firm believer in giving the audience options where possible on how they should invest or use social media, so would you, as a reader of this blog, be interested in such a product? (I’ll need to do market research beforehand of course!).

Returning back to the eternal feedback loop comment above, I have often wondered about the content on this blog, what to post and what not to post.  Where osteological articles or news are especially well covered in the national news or respected archaeological/osteological blogs (see Richard III for example), I do not think that this blog has much more to add to the in-depth coverage already written and produced.  What I hope this blog introduces is both my specialist interests and the little seen tidbits of information and useful resources.  I am particularly keen on open access sources for academic articles, especially since having finished university my own access to osteological and archaeological articles is somewhat limited.  I will also continue to post about tertiary education and how it is changing, as previously mentioned in articles on human osteology courses available in the UK and on MOOCs for example.

As stated above this blog has developed guest posts and interviews (more to come hopefully) alongside the typical posts, and I hope to further use the medium of blogging to explore different methods of communication.  Therefore there should be a photographic essay or two gracing this site within a few months, helping to show what exactly goes in archaeological departments at Universities.  From there I think many topics within our bone-obsessed realm could be opened up by photo-essays; sometimes the word can only hope to capture what a picture can capture (but we’ll see how the photographs develop first!).  Ultimately of course this blog is merely an expression of my passion and love for human osteology and archaeology, as such it remains a place where I document this.

So these are my thoughts on where this blog has come from and where it hopes to go and to develop.  We shall see what the future holds.  But dear reader, what are your thoughts, what do you want to see on the blog?

* I’ve edited this entry more times than I care to remember!


Chapple, R. 2013.  What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been!  Reflections on Two Years of Blogging. Robert M. Chapple, Archaeologist.  (A delightful entry on the journey of blogging for the author, an Irish archaeologist, on what it has been like and what he has done.  It is certainly worth a read).

Quick Mention: ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’ By Ann Oakley

1 Oct

I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time.  The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile.  Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley.  After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.

Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating.  Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).


Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’.  The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society.  This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period.  As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self.  The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.

This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America.  The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism.  The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).

The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32).  The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted.  Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008).  Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).

For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event.  It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.

This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes.  By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.


Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness5 (1): 83-94.

Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.