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Becoming Human: Archaeological Perspectives on Humanity, University of Bradford, 22nd November 2014

11 Nov

The University of Bradford is holding a free archaeology open day on the 22nd of November 2014 from 10am to 3pm as a part of the UK nation wide Becoming Human festival.  The University of Bradford’s day long event will feature a myriad of archaeologically-themed interactive showcases.   This will include stalls focusing on broad topics such as human evolution, past and present attitudes towards death, the role and function of pottery in prehistoric societies, and will also include a look at the fascinating Digitised Diseases project which highlights the value of 3D printing and digital visualisation in archaeology, among many other topics.  The event is free to attend, family friendly and does not need to be booked in advance.

becoming human 2

Poster for the open day. Image credit: Bradford University.

But what is the Becoming Human festival about?

Boiled down to its basic parts the festival hopes to challenge and inspire members of the public to think about just what it means to be considered human and what that means for us as a species today, how we interact with each other and why we do the things that we do.  The festival is all about the public engagement on a national-wide scale of current research in humanities that is being conducted in the country.  Throughout November 2014 (15th to the 23rd) there will be more than 150 individual events at a range of geographic locations helping to promote the value and wealth of humanities topics.  Poets and writers such as Will Self and Simon Armitage will be taking part as will the comedian Al Murray, in an effort to engage both your intellect and your imagination.  The other aims of the festival are to foster knowledge that is vital and accessible for all (something we bloggers can fully agree with!), and to help us understand ourselves and recognize the challenges that we face today.

In partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, the Becoming Human festival is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.  The aim of the 2014 festival is to gauge the appetite for an annual nation-wide festival celebrating the humanities subjects in all of their diversity.  As such archaeology will play a small but determined part within the 2014 festival, and the event at the University of Bradford highlights just why archaeology is so fundamentally important in understanding what it means to be human, both where have come from and understanding the implications for where we could be heading as a species.

I recently had the chance to visit the archaeology department at the University of Bradford to see my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate who is focusing on quantifying use wear in lithic tool assemblages as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project.  As well as highlighting the great breadth and depth of ongoing research at the department she also informed me about Bradford’s participation in the nation wide Becoming Human humanities festival.  Natalie had this to say about the upcoming Bradford showcase:

“The interactive stalls will be headed by prominent researchers such as Professor Ian Armit and Dr. Lindsey Buster, showcasing their work on Scupltor’s Cave.  Also contributing is the Jisc supported project Digitised Diseases, led by Dr. Andrew Wilson; a digital database for the viewing of fragile human skeletal remains with diagnostic attributes.  Dr. Adrian Evans will be demonstrating the key technologies and ideas that make up the multi million pound Fragmented Heritage Project, along with Dr Randolph Donahue who will be showing off the evolutionary family tree and Dr. Karina Croucher, who will be discussing attitudes towards life and death.  PhD researchers Rebecca Nicholls, Mike Copper and Emily Fioccoprile have also kindly contributed activities based on their PhD projects”.

becoming human

The program for Becoming Human at the department of archaeological sciences, Bradford. Image credit: Bradford University.

So if you are around in Yorkshire or near Bradford on the 22nd of November pop over to the archaeology department and learn about the human past in a fun and interactive environment!

Further Information

  • Learn more about the enticing Becoming Human festival here and browse the events by date and geographic location here.
  • Learn more about the University of Bradford archaeology themed Becoming Human day here.  Visited the open day and keen to learn more about the department of archaeology at Bradford?  Visit here!
  • Keep up to date with the rich variety of archaeological projects at Bradford via Dr. Karina Croucher’s twitter feed or visit her awesome blog focusing on both gender & identity and death & dying in the past and present.
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The Trials and Tribulations of Homo floresiensis: A Quick Introduction

1 Sep

I haven’t wrote about palaeoanthropology much recently, but I have been meaning to write about Homo floresiensis for a while now.  The diminutive hominin, most likely a new Homo species although this is still debated, was discovered by chance on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 during the excavation of the Liang Bua cave site, which was led by the now sadly deceased New Zealand archaeologist Mike Morwood (Brown et al. 2004).  The team that excavated at Liang Bua cave found the remains for a probable 12 separate H. floresiensis individuals dating from around 95,000 years ago to around 13,000 years ago (1), making H. floresiensis one of the last hominin species to live in conjunction with our species, H. sapiens (Brown et al. 2004: 1055).  One of the most complete individuals found at the site is LB1, an adult female aged around 30 who has almost both lower limbs, upper right arm, pelvis and cranium surviving (see image below).  It is this individual that has become the holotype, or type species, for H. floresiensis and on who most of the current research has, and continues, to focuses on (Brown et al. 2004, Brown 2012, Falk et al. 2005, Henneburg et al. 2014).

The majority of this research has been focused on the skeletal remains themselves and archaeological context as attempts to extract ancient DNA (aDNA) from the remains has not been successful, likely due to the cave environment that the skeletons were excavated from and the fragmentary nature of the surviving aDNA.  Morwood’s team formally announced the details of the skeletal remains in 2004 and stated that the remains included primitive and derived features resulting from long term isolation and endemic dwarfing (Brown et al. 2004: 1055-56).  It is important to note here that up until the excavation of H. floresiensis in 2003 it was thought that only H. erectus and H. sapiens were the only Homo hominins present in Late Pleistocene Asia (Brown et al. 2004: 1056).  Later hominin finds, such as at the Denisova Cave excavations in Siberia in 2010 and the announcement of the Denisovan species, have highlighted that other unknown hominins were present in Late Pleistocene Asian contexts helping to fundamental change, and challenge, the way that we think of the evolution of our species H. sapiens (Reich et al. 2010: 1053).

LB1

The species holotype is LB1, found in 2003 in the Liang Bua cave site on Flores, Indonesia. The adult female individual dates to 18,000 years old, stood 3.5 ft tall and represents one of the most complete H. floresiensis individuals found. Notice the large dentition relative to the overall cranium size. Image is not to scale. Image credit: Jennifer Clark (Human Origins Program) and Chip Clark (Smithsonian Institution).

There are many issues surrounding the remains of the H. floresiensis hominins that serve to obstruct and help obfuscate the research that has taken place into understanding the origin and anatomy of the floresiensis hominin.  Inevitability this is ongoing as McVie (2014) highlights in a recent Guardian newspaper article.  Thus it is pertinent to highlight them here to help understand where we are at with understanding the remains of the Flores hominin.  Indeed the H. floresiensis case has all the unfortunate tropes of a spectacular palaeoanthropological find (2) (the unexpectedness of the finds, the bickering academics, mishandling of remains etc.) and continues to show no sign of abating.

As is indicative above, H. floresiensis is a unique and interesting recent hominin ancestor, even more so as the only physical remains of the species are the 12 individuals found and excavated at the Liang Bua cave site in Indonesia.  It is the opposite to our modern notion of the (much maligned) Neandertal, being gracile, petite and small in statue and body.  Perhaps inevitably it was labelled a ‘hobbit’ species (although this word has led to problems with the Tolkein estate).  The type specimen LB1 was quickly repudiated as a H. sapiens individual with a pathology by several researchers and others who have, at various times, stated that all the H. floresiensis individuals, and in particular LB1 and partial skeleton LB6, display attributes varying from myxoedematous endemic cretinism (Oxnard et al. 2010, Brown 2012), Laron Syndrome (Falk et al. 2009, see Hawks 2007), or Down Syndrome (Benton 2014, Henneburg et al. 2014).  There have also comparisons even being made of the singularity of the Late Pleistocene epoch species being compared to the K/T impact boundary event 65 million years ago (Eckhardt et al. 2014), which frankly is a little mystifying.

McVie (2014) has highlighted a potential conflict of interest with regards to both the Eckhardt et al. (2014) and Henneburg et al. (2014) publications, as there is a suggestion that Henneburg (who helped author both articles) picked his reviewers to help favour his research team’s hypothesis and investigation.  The journal that both of the articles were recently published in, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (or PNAS), does not operate a peer review policy in the recognised sense, as most of the other respected journals use, but uses its own specific and trusted system (see here).  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that this team have now published 3 separate papers each focusing on different pathological conditions each time in their continued belief that the H. floresiensis remains are probable members of H. sapiens and represent pathological processes (Henneburg et al. 2014).

Regardless of the ongoing new-species-or-not debate there must be further investigation of the context of the remains.  As Hawks (2007) highlights it is the exact nature of where H. floresiensis fits in both the evolutionary tree and the archaeological context of Asia that remains to be thoroughly demonstrated.  This can only be determined by further finds with consolidated archaeological contexts over an extensive period of time and, with luck, further specimens of this hopeful new species.  The specimens of this population found on Flores, Indonesia, are both tantalising for the human evolution implications and frustrating for their apparent uniqueness in location and time.  As such the Flores H. floresiensis remains are surely one of the most interesting and divisive points of interest in the palaeoanthropological world today.

Notes

(1). A new analysis of the chosen radiocarbon samples and the stratigraphy of the cave site by Sutikna et al. (2016) has led to a serious revision in the chronology of the Homo floresiensis fossils.  It seems that all fossil evidence of H. floresiensis is older than 60,000 years, which is a major revision and leaves a lot of questions regarding the contextual material culture and faunal remains and their association with the fossil hominins.  John Hawks has covered the implications that this new article by Sutikna et al. has in a detailed and interesting read, check it out here.

(2). An excellent counter example of this is the University of the Witwatersrand and National Geographic funded Rising Star project currently underway in South Africa, where the remains of a spectacular palaeoanthropological site (with the evidence of numerous hominin individuals of some importance) has been well and truly open to researchers and members of the public to take part in and to learn about.  This has included an extensive and on-going social media presence and an open call for researchers to join collaborative workshops to study the remains.

Lean More

  • The Smithsonian Institute has a handy guide in introducing the hominins of human evolution at the Human Origins website and, as a part of this, there is a nice guide to H. floresiensis.
  •  For a full round of the issues involved in the research of H. floresiensis and the LB1 type fossil, I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the species which covers all pertinent academic articles published.

Bibliography

Benton, A. 2014. Was the “Hobbit” a Human with Downs Syndrome? Probably Not. EvoAnth. Accessed 19/08/14. (Open Access).

Brown, P. 2012. LB1 and LB6 Homo floresiensis are Not Modern Human (Homo sapiens) Cretins. Journal of Human Evolution. 62 (2): 201-224.

Brown, P., Sutikna, T., Morwood, M. J., Soejono, R. P., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E. & Rokus Awe Due. 2004. A New Small-Bodied Hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, IndonesiaNature. 431 (7012): 1055–1061.

Eckhardt, R. B., Henneburg, M., Weller, A. S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Rare Events in Earth History Include the LB1 Human Skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a Developmental Singularity, not a Unique Taxon. PNAS. 111 (33): 11961-11966. (Open Access).

Falk, D., Hildebot, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M. J., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., Jatmiko, E. W. S., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. 2005. The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science. 308 (5719): 242-245.

Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Jungers, W., Larson, S., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, E. W. S. & Prior, S. 2009. The Type Specimen (LB1) of Homo floresiensis Did Hot Have Laron Syndrome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 140 (1): 52-63.

Hawks, J. 2007. Another Diagnosis for a Hobbit. John Hawk’s Weblog. Accessed 24/08/14. (Open Access).

Henneberg, M., Eckhardt, R. B., Chavanaves, S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Evolved Developmental Homeostasis Disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, Denotes Down Syndrome and Not Diagnostic Traits of the Invalid Species Homo floresiensis. PNAS. Early View: 1-6. (Open Access).

McKie, R. 2014. Homo floresiensis: Scientists Clash Over Claims ‘Hobbit Man’ was Modern Human with Downs Syndrome. The Guardian. Accessed 19/08/14.

Oxnard, C., Obendorf, P. J. & Kefford, B. J. 2010. Post-Cranial Skeletons of Hypothyroid Cretins Show a Similar Anatomical Mosaic as Homo floresiensis. PLoS ONE. 5 (9): 1-11. (Open Access).

Reich, D., Green, R. E., Kircher, M., Krause, J. Patterson, N., Durand, E. Y., Viola, B., Briggs, A. W. & Stenzel, U. et al. 2010. Genetic History of an Archaic Hominin Group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature. 468 (7327): 1053–1060. (Open Access).

Sutikna, T., Tocheri, M. W., Morwood, M. J., Saptomo, E. W., Awe, R. D., Wasisto, S. … & Storey, M. 2016. Revised Stratigraphy and Chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature. In Press. doi:10.1038/nature17179.

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.

Disability in Primates: Social Consequences

5 Mar

I am afraid I have been rather busy lately, so I have not had the time to produce posts (although a fair few are in the early daft stage).  This should be rectified with a few forthcoming posts on various topics of interest but for now I just wanted to highlight this article of note.

The article, by Turner et al (2014), highlights the lack of studies in the social treatment of disabled individuals in extant nonhuman primate populations.  Turner et al (2013) help rectify the situation and discuss a detailed case study of a population of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), from the Awajishima Monkey Center, in their social interactions in a population which includes a number of physically disabled individuals.

A paraphrased highlight of the abstract:

“Debates about the likelihood of conspecific care for disabled individuals in ancestral hominins rely on evidence from extant primates, yet little is known about social treatment (positive, neutral or negative) of physically disabled individuals in nonhuman primates….Overall, there was little evidence either for conspecific care or for social selection against disability. In general, there was a socially neutral response to disability, and while neutral social context allows for the possibility of care behaviors, our findings emphasize the self-reliant abilities of these disabled primates and suggest caution when inferring conspecific care for even very disabled ancestral humans.”

From Turner et al (2014:1), with the added italic emphasis mine.

I am intrigued what effect this study could have on the study of physical impairment in the archaeological record.  There are a number of techniques now available to the researcher to enable to detect social responses to physical impairment in the human record (burial position, age at death estimations, care provisioning, biogeochemical approaches), but they require great care in the interpretation of results.  Turner et al (2014) study highlights the real value of being able to observe the behaviour of nonhuman primates in a simulated wild environment, something that whilst not directly able to provide answers to hominin evolution does provide an important parallel.

I will update this post further when I get chance to discuss the results of the article in more depth.

On a related note I noticed this post on John Hawks weblog recently, ‘Chimpanzee communities are hundreds of years old‘, tantalizing to think of the implications for the understanding of behaviour and attitudes in great ape groups and how they may differ in regards to physical impairment or long term disablement (Langergraber et al. 2014).

Bibliography

Langergraber, K. E., Rowney, C., Schubert, G., Crockford, C, Hobaiter, C., Wittig, R., Wrangham, R. W., Zuberuhler, K. & Vigilant, L. 2014. How Old are Chimpanzee Communities? Time to the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the Y-Chromosome in Highly Patrilocal Societies. Journal of Human Evolution. (In Press).

Turner, S. E., Fedigan, L. M., Matthews, H. D. & Nakamichi, M. 2014. Social Consequences of Disability in a Nonhuman Primate. Journal of Human Evolution. In Press. (Behind a pay wall).

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!

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