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Brief Updates: Archaeological Desks & Palaeoanthropology

17 May

The archaeologist Robert M Chapple has recently done something a bit special to celebrate his 100th post over at his blog.  In a thoughtful and entertaining entry Robert discusses the writing and thinking space of the humble desk, that much maligned friend of the archaeologist.  Indeed when a person thinks of an archaeologist the first thing that pops into a person’s head is the excitement of fieldwork in far-flung countries, a trowel perhaps, maybe some bones or Indiana Jones cracking his whip.  It is rarely the vital tool that is the desk, a space in which to hunker down, study site reports, books and process the archaeological record properly over a hot cup of tea, that pops into the minds of people asked to think about archaeology.

Yet the desk is where the action happens!  This is where the hard work of the amalgamation of knowledge happens, where the fieldwork is fleshed with the existing archive and the site is put within a larger context.  Interpretations are made and broken on the humble desk.  So Robert, recognising this vital space of thought and action, also saw it as a deeply personal space for the individual.  As such he asked a wide variety of his archaeological friends to send their own photographs of their desks for his 100th blog entry.  And it is a lovely entry, displaying both academic desks and personal spaces.  I was also asked to join in and you can see my little bedside table from which I am writing this now!  Although my work area is pretty bare compared to the desks (and fantastic 2 or 3 screen adapted computers) on show here, I got a serious longing for the university library where I carried out the majority of my dissertation research.

In other news I have produced a small article for the Teesside Archaeology Society TEESCAPES magazine.  I was kindly asked to write for them by my good friend Spencer Carter, who is the edited of the magazine and a specialist in studying and understanding the context of prehistoric microlithics.  Spencer is currently researching the Mesolithic period of northern England and his fantastic Microburin site, which documents his research and outreach work, can be found here.  My article, which was published in the 2014 Spring Edition of TEESSCAPES, focuses on the amazing palaeoanthropological highlights of 2013 and specifically mentions the Georgian site of the Homo erectus finds at Dmanisi (1), the Spanish site of Sima de la Huesos, and the Rising Star South African project.  It is an informal look back on year of research and excavations that bought much to the table in terms of our of knowledge of understanding human evolution.  (I may also have sneaked in an Alan Partridge joke).

teesscapes_2014-01_cvr

A great Spring 2014 edition of TEESSCAPES by the Teesside Archaeological Society with articles on a variety of topics including, but not limited to, history and archaeology in the national curriculum, the Mesolithic forests of the coast of NE England, museum reviews, Streethouse before the Saxons and human evolution. There are also field notes and books reviews. Read more about the editor’s views, Spencer Carter, in his enlightening blog on post on publishing and editing archaeology journals and open access in archaeology over at Microburin here.

I’ve tried to frame the article within a basic introduction to palaeoanthropology, some of the major new techniques being used in the study of past populations and some of the problems in trying to understand the fossil record and of human evolution in general.  It is a short article but I have to say I am very impressed by the presentation of the article, so a big thank you Spence!  I hope to start producing articles for TAS as and when I can, but this aside I would urge any reader to check it out and to check out any local archaeology societies or companies near to you.  They really are a wealth of original research and really help you get to grips with what is going on in your region and further abroad.  My own article also includes a cheeky photography of me in a lab coat which is sadly, at the moment, a rare occasion.  If you are an archaeologist, a student archaeologist or someone who just manages to engage in their passion between sleep and work then I heartily recommend jumping in and writing for your local society!

Notes

(1).   The article is a review of the amazing palaeoanthropological finds and research of 2013 and as such is likely to become out of touch with the passing of years, as new research highlights new evidence or different perspectives are investigated, hypothesized and studied in-depth.  A good example of this is the fairly recent claim that the Dmanisi individuals, discussed in my article, could possibly (but unlikely) represent different lineages of hominin species (check out Jamie Kendrick’s site The Human Story for more information on this issue and for in-depth entries on human evolution in general).

Further Information

  • Learn about the Teesside Archaeology Society here.
  • Current and past editions of TEESSCAPES can be found here.
  • Robert M Chapple’s awesome blog can be found and read here.
  • Spencer Carter’s fantastic Microburin site can be read here.

Palaeo Updates: Call for Palaeoanthropologists to Study Rising Star Hominin Remains and Start of John Hawks Human Evolution MOOC

22 Jan

Another quick post here but one that highlights a project that is pretty impressive in its implications for palaeoanthropology.  Also noted here is the start of a MOOC (Massively open online course) on human evolution that may interest the readers of this blog.

The Rising Star Expedition in South Africa has uncovered around 1200 skeletal elements from around 12 individual hominins in the first season of excavation, an unparalleled find in the excavation of palaeoanthropological sites.  Now the project is advertising openly for early career scientists to examine and describe the skeletal remains found in the cave (my favourite quote: “Palaeoheaven has arrived, it’s just solid fossils”).  This is a unique opportunity in the field of paelaeoanthropology.  Typically fossil hominin sites are kept secret with only a lucky few allowed access to prepare, study and describe the fossils once they have been carefully excavated on site and taken to a palaeo laboratory to be looked at in more detail.  This is usually a process that can take years of careful work by a small team.

But the Rising Star Expedition has been different from the very beginning, with key members of the team tweeting and blogging every incredible scene of the South African cave site and openly advertising for participants.  Now the team have advertised for early career scientists to apply for the chance to study the hominin fossils.  As stated on John Hawks blog entry on the advertisement, the Rising Star team want to recruit a large group of scientists to come together for a five-week long workshop in May/June of this year to study the remains and produce the first high quality and high impact research papers on this batch of fossil hominins.

Here is Rising Star director Lee Berger’s open invitation to study the hominin remains gathered from the Rising Star Expedition project in South Africa:

risingstarr2014

The announcement by Lee Berger, professor at the university of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and describer of Australopithecus sediba, found at the Malapa site.

Graduate students who have finished their data collection, and have the support of their supervisors, will also be considered for the opportunity.  As John Hawks states in his blog post the applicant for the workshop should be very clear in stating their experience and the datasets that they can bring to the project, be clear about your own skills, knowledge and value and do not be afraid to apply.  This is a fantastic opportunity to be involved in the study of human evolution, at the very cutting edge of the research.  I wish all the applicants the best of luck and I look forward to the dissemination of the research itself.

In other news today marks the beginning of the 8 week free MOOC course on Human Evolution: Past and Future produced by the aforementioned palaeoanthropologist John Hawks.  The MOOC, provided by Coursera, takes a in-depth look at human evolution detailing not just the complexity of the fossil record but also of the genetic record.  The course includes all the exciting news from the Rising Star Expedition and exciting footage and interviews with palaeoanthropologists at sites from around the world (including the Dmanisi site in Georgia, Malapa in South Africa and others).

I am particularly looking forward to the discussion of human evolution within the past 10,000 years and the stunning advancements made with extracting ancient DNA from fossil hominins.  I joined this course a few months ago when I first mentioned the course on this blog but you can still join up now.  Just remember that the course is split up into weekly topics so you may not want to miss one.  I have so far watched the majority of the interesting and well presented videos for the first week, the focus of which is our place among the primates.  I cannot wait to join in and participate in the course fully, hope to see you there!

Find Out More

Lee Berger Talks About Rising Star Project

11 Dec

Palaoeanthropologist Lee Berger, describer of Australopithecus sediba and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, can be heard here describing the recent Rising Star Expedition and the projects rescue of hominin bones from deep inside a cave in South Africa after a chance discovery by some cavers.

The project, with support from the National Geographic and the Speleological Exploration Club of South Africa, have recently recovered around 1200 individual fossil hominin elements during a three week recovery dig at the site.  As Berger discusses in the phenomenally exciting radio interview with National Geographic it his belief that there are articulated hominin remains yet to be uncovered and rescued from the cave site.  It truly promises to be an amazing site due to the massive haul of fossil material found within a concentration no bigger then many dining room tables.  Once the fossils have been analysed scientifically further information will be released, although the project is fairly unique in the fact that it is running as an open science project.  The National Geographic (and others including John Hawks and Lee Berger) has so far done an excellent job in documenting the project (see here).

In perhaps one of the most interesting periods ever for palaeoanthropological news the interview competes with the recent investigation of the five Homo erectus individuals at the Dmanisi site in Georgia and last week’s announcement of the sequencing of mtDNA from a 300,000 year old hominin from the Sima de los Huesos site in Spain (Meyer et al. 2013).  I hope to further explore the 300,000 year old mtDNA article in detail in an upcoming entry.

As ever, I heavily recommend heading over to John Hawks weblog as his posts on the Rising Star Expedition and human evolution continue to enthrall and shed light on the fossils and genetic investigations that he is so often a part of.  We are living in some truly fascinating times where we are really starting to learn about human evolution through the glorious combination of genetic analysis and the smart approaches to extracting ancient DNA, combined with the truly amazing fossil finds of the past decade and a bit.

Bibliography

Meyer, M., Fu, Q, Aximu-Petri, A., Glocke, I., Nickel, B., Arsuaga, J-L., Martínez, I., Gracia, A., Bermúdez de Castro, J .M., Carbonell, E & Pääbo, S. 2013. A Mitochondrial Genome Sequence of a Hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature. 505: 403-406.

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).

Bibliography

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.

Bibliography:

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.