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Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.John Hawks 2014.

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the UK, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).  Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.  There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.

Bibliography

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).

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

Thoughts on Academic Archaeology

5 Jan

There have been many excellent blog lists highlighting the incredible archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds from 2013.  Off the top of my head here are four blogs (and one site) that are fantastic at summing up the advances that 2013 have brought:

  • John Hawks reviews his year in Human Evolution, and may I just say what a year it has been in the study of human evolution (for some reason very hard to link to the specific blog entry, just scroll two down or so or look at the whole amazing site!).
  • Katie Wong looks at the fantastic list of human evolutionary finds and studies at Scientific American, with links to the articles for your further perusal.
  • Katy looks at the year’s most interesting and important mortuary archaeological finds at Bones Don’t Lie.
  • Paige, at Imponderabilia, highlights some remarkable archaeological finds from the past 12 months.
  • …and of course Past Horizons is the site where you can keep up to date on all manner of archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds throughout the upcoming year and previous years!

So in highlighting the finds of 2013 I think it would be dreary of me to create my own list because so many great bloggers got there ahead of me (and I wouldn’t know when to stop).  Instead I am going to do something slightly different.

I am going to highlight what I would like to see change in academia regarding my own past experiences  of academia itself and those that I have heard from friends.  Now hear me out – I am aware that this will be a quite personal list relating to human osteology and funerary archaeology but I also think some of the categories stretch over the whole subject of how archaeology is taught at the university level education, where there could be improvements and what I believe could enhance the under-taking of an archaeological degree.  In a way it is also wish list for what I (looking back on my undergraduate and masters education) wish I had been taught.

So without further ado I introduce to you my thoughts on what could improve the academic experience for the bioarchaeologists and archaeologists at university level education:

1) Human Evolution

I highlight human evolution first because there is often a human origins module in most undergraduate archaeology programs.  The past few years have seen tremendous change in how much our knowledge has grown and it continues to grow with the application of new techniques and discovering new remains.  My main worry is that many universities may teach outdated theories or not teach human evolution at all.  For me human evolution contains the best combination of archaeology: science, anatomy and fieldwork.  Granted not every student who takes archaeology may be interested in human evolution or palaeolithic archaeology (and very rarely have the chance to dig at a palaeoanthropological site), but just to give that basic bedrock knowledge of who we are would be one worth keeping as a core module.  In my eyes it is a vital basic module, one that can be hard to keep on top of agreed but surely one fundamental to archaeology and the study of our origins as we are today.   Further to this it helps to contextualise archaeology as a subject itself, the importance of evolutionary biology and the continuing role of the historical context of science.

2) Genetics

Genetics is mentioned primarily due my background because when I was studying for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology degree, I felt that having a basic introductory module in genetics would have been fundamentally beneficial to understanding the scientific literature.  Of course a student of archaeology at the university level may have already attained a college level knowledge of biology (how I wish I had chosen it now!), but a tailored course on the importance of genetics and the understanding of molecular biology would reap benefits for the modern zooarchaeologists, palaeobotanists and human osteologists.  My view is based on the belief that although macro study and recognition of skeletal material is fundamental to the bioarchaeological sciences (and to the maintenance of a job), a paradigm shift is possibly underway (1) in the way in the fact that genetic studies have fundamentally opened up a new and developing understanding of human evolution and the continued evolutionary adaption of organisms to their environment (see Hawks et al. 2011).  Although there will always be a need for human osteologists etc in the archaeological and academic sector, an understanding of genetics and an ability to study the results of such studies and original examinations would provide the bioarchaeologist with a much more informed toolkit to assess archaeological remains and their context, either in a commercial environment or in a research post.

3) Media Relations

Kristina Killgrove has an illuminating short series on her blog entitled Presenting Anthropology.  This is invigorating, dynamic teaching of archaeology as a social media outreach.  It also makes the students think of how they are presenting archaeology to the public.  We all know of the repeated failures of presenting the skeletal system properly in shows such as Bones etc (definitely check out Kristina’s Powered By Osteons if you haven’t!).  Blogging is fantastic and I’d heartily recommend any student of archaeology to give it a go, but I also realise it is not the be all and end all of outreach and media relations.  Sometimes you have to actively engage with the very people who misrepresent you.  I’d quite like to see the extension of the teaching of social media and active outreach to the majority of archaeology courses if it was possible, especially to highlight the value of those avenues of outreach.  Archaeology is easily cast aside by the people that lead us but that need only be the case if we let them.  Therefore I would actively encourage each and every person who identifies as an archaeologist to promote the value and worth of heritage to as wide of an audience as you can!  Again, at a university level, I think a simple guest lecture on this topic would hopefully sum up the current state of play whilst lecturers and course leaders could actively encourage their students to get out there, both in person and online.

4) Reviewing Each Other In Class, Writing Articles & How to Apply for Funding

Reviewing each other in class is not an especially new idea as many academic modules across all distinctions include active seminars and student participation.  However I believe that, as an marked component of a module, individual and group marking of a student’s paper could encourage active and valuable feedback that reflects the peer-review process and academic publishing.  I asked a few of my friends whether they think they would value such an idea, of scoring an essay a student in the class has wrote individually and then discussing it in a group, and many said they would feel uncomfortable with the idea.  I can understand that but I also think it could be a valuable exercise in understanding the different approaches and viewpoints that a university level class facilitates.  There is a variation of this when, often in seminar setting, a published article is handed out and the individual students have to discuss it and then the group discuss the article’s merits together, but it is my belief that comments on your own writing would be more helpful or the approach could be combined to provide a comparison of the literature and approaches used.

This naturally leads into another facet of this idea that under-graduate and master level students are, in my experience, not given advice on how to write an article for a journal.  I do not just mean content alone but style, diagram placing and referencing as well.  Many academic journals have strict guidelines on what particular format or program the article should have been wrote in before acceptance or the peer review process takes place (if you get that far!).  A class or two could help inform the students of such basic knowledge.  As a part of this idea I also think it would helpful be to be told on what to look out for in an academic journal.  We all know there are predatory journals out there in the academic publishing world, waiting to snap up an article to boost the publishing houses qualifications or ‘seriousness’.  (Two fantastic sites to check out are Retraction Watch and Scholarly Open Access).  Another natural extension of this is (for those who are either looking at MA or MSc courses, PhD or post-doc funding) for students to be given advice on how to apply for funding, to be informed on what bodies fund what research depending on the applicants research area, and how to write a funding form or grant efficiently and effectively.  I am aware that this already happens for PhD students but this is normally at an individual level, wouldn’t a concise one off lecture be helpful to all?

5) Guest Speakers

A relatively simple wish, for archaeology departments to regularly hold guest speaker events either at the department or at the Student Union.  The University of Sheffield’s archaeology department is very active in bringing in a wide range of guest speakers for the weekly Tuesday Lunchtime Lecture and I was grateful for seeing some invigorating and inspiring guest speakers.  This may be a wish that is already largely fulfilled but it is one worth highlighting anyway.  Guest lectures can be relatively easy to organize, with social media definitely making it easier to make contact with a variety of archaeologists both in the commercial sector or in the academic sector.  Guest speakers are also a great way to introduce the great variety of strands in archaeology to an already dedicated and largely interested audience.  I think there could be great scope in grading the guest speakers for a variety of audiences, from introductory talks to the various aspects that make up archaeology a a whole right up to the cutting edge specialist researchers whose knowledge would be beneficial to a select audience.

6) Active Science

Sometimes in academia it can be difficult to think that you are actually contributing anything to the great font of knowledge, especially at the masters level were you are not entirely sure your work will have any impact.  It should be stated here that the majority of universities that offer archaeology also have an active on-going field archaeology project with the undergraduate courses especially stating that fieldwork must be completed before beginning the 2nd year of study.  However I think that there is the opportunity for university students to participate at a deeper level, particularly if the university department runs specialist and technical equipment.  In my own experience there was limited opportunity, outside of the normal fieldwork sessions, to join in with scientific research opportunities.  This may have been a consequence due to the nature of the archaeology departments of where I studied (and the lack of technical equipment) but I cannot help but feel that a greater integration of student and lecturer would provide numerous benefits to both, including gaining all important technical and research experience.

7) Improve Field/Commercial Skills

From informal chats with David Connolly (BAJR leader), reading Doug’s Archaeology and carefully reading the Institute For Archaeology‘s quarterly magazine a common gripe from commercial archaeological units is the fact that many students require training for commercial fieldwork after they have joined an archaeological unit.  As stated above many universities that offer archaeology as an undergraduate degree course state that 2-3 weeks (sometimes more) of fieldwork during the 1st year must be completed before the student can proceed onto the 2nd year of the course.  However this is generally conducted at a research excavation which is quite unlike a commercial excavation.  After the 1st year many students will take modules that they are particularly interested in, thus the opportunity to excavate may not be taken up again before job seeking starts.

I would argue that commercial excavation is very different from university led research excavation and that time and monetary constraints are major factors involved in the excavation ahead of building work (as if so often the case at commercial sites).  Further to this the skills needed often need to be quickly learnt and applied to help record the archaeology effectively and efficiently.  You only ever get the chance to dig and excavate once.  It is also well known that the environment of commercial digging is fundamentally different to research led excavations.  Therefore I propose that, at some stage and preferably at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, guest talks or lectures are given on the differences between excavation types.  Ideally the skills needed to excavate on commercial sites should also be taught and maintained (I do realise not everyone wants to dig though!).

8) Contact Time

It has been noted that many non-EU students who come to study archaeology at the post-graduate level can be put off at first by the lack of contact time, either in scheduled tuition meetings, lectures, practical/lab classes and/or seminars.  This is generally the way with British academia, it is normally standard that the student must allocate his or her time carefully to allow the full maximum use of the university’s resources for their needs.  Modules often have a stated hour learning limit (ie 50hrs reading time, 24hrs lecture time) in the modular handbooks over the semester or year, given out at the start of each term.  However some students have started to question the amount of active contact time in consideration of, and relation to, the hike in university fees in the UK.  This is a tricky situation as students should receive quality education but also accept that the lecturer has other research needs and a whole raft of students and colleagues to work with and projects to proceed on with.  Archaeology, as a discipline, places varying pressures across the department and as such there is no easy answer to this one.  I wish I had more contact time but I also wish I had made slightly better use of the time I was given to access the human osteology lab.

Notes

(1) This may be hyperbole!  The importance of genetics in understanding the relationships between hominin species in the Homo genus however is helping to suggest relationships and interbreeding that could not be conclusively evidenced from the fossil anatomical record alone.  The picture is far from clear but recent DNA studies of the Altai Neandertal suggest that genetic drift and interbreeding are distinctly important mechanism in understanding the evolution of of the Homo species (if indeed they are different species or sub-species).
 
Bibliography

Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive EvolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104 (52): 20753-20758.

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.

MOOCs: The Future of Education?

21 Jul

It is safe to say that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are helping to change the way lecturers, students and the public access and engage in the education sector and academic institutions.  They are also helping people around the world access education that may otherwise be out-of-bounds to them.  Recent articles in The New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted the inherent value of MOOCs, but there are also questions pertaining to the future of MOOCs and their value to academic institutions themselves.  A key feature of MOOCs is their accessibility for anyone, providing an internet connection is available, with students taking the courses typically numbering in their thousands, sometimes in the tens of thousands.  Another feature, at least for the moment, is the fact that the majority of MOOCs are currently free to sign up for, participate in and to complete.

What is a MOOC?

MOOC’s typically come in the form on web-based lectures in which it is up to the individual to take an active part in the learning, relying on self-discipline to complete set essays and/or exams, depending on how the individual MOOC is assessed.  The format of a MOOC itself can vary on a number of factors, including who is teaching and creating the course content, who the company that provides the course is, and what institution licences the course itself.  Typically a MOOC will include traditional educational course content such as lectures (via online video/audio) and video films, but they can have open goals to achieve and can include expert interviews, participatory science experiments, active online communities to participate in and the opportunity to learn in a more informal setting and diverse student groups.  Importantly the student must have self-discipline and self-regulation to access and complete the online content, digital literacy to navigate access to the course and, of course, the time to dedicate to the MOOC.

The benefits of a MOOC are numerous for both the organizer and the participant and include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) You can move beyond time zones and physical boundaries.

2) You can connect across disciplines and across corporate channels.  The student is not tied down by subject matter or discipline, and can cross scientific and humanities ‘borders’ to take part in various individual courses.

3) You do not need a degree to partake in a MOOC, only the discipline to learn and to keep up with the course.

4) The MOOC can be presented in a variety of languages, engaging a wide global audience.

5) Contextualised content can be shared quickly by all participants.

6) You can use any online tools that are relevant to your target region, or that are already being used by the participants themselves (think social media, website forums and instant communication sites).

Further discussion on MOOC’s, their benefits and criticisms can be read here.

Who Provides and Funds MOOCs?

As highlighted in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education diagram and short article, the main companies that provide MOOCs include CourseraKhan AcademyUdacity and EdX.  Funding for these companies comes from several different sources depending on the company itself, but can include capital input from non-profit organisations (such Bill and Melinda gates Foundation, National Science Foundation, MacArthur Foundation etc), venture capitalists , universities themselves (Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc) or large companies (such as Google and the publisher Pearson).  Coursera now charges licensing fees when educational institutions use their courses, whilst ‘gateway’ MOOC courses to university degree programs are typically charged for the student to take part in.  Other revenue streams for MOOC providers include employee recruitment, secure assessments, applicant screening, tuition fees and sponsorship whilst Coursera, Udacity and Edx all gain revenue from the certification of completed courses.

moocccc

Some of the main providers of MOOCs (Image credit: Minding the Campus).

The MOOC courses above all offer certification on the completion of individual courses taken, and some of them can be used as academic credit depending on the educational institution.  I must point out here that a number of different companies, universities, educational establishments and even government’s have set up their own MOOC courses which may not offer accreditation or a certification of completion.  Always be aware of the accreditation of any courses that you are taking and take the time to research the company background to see if the course offers any academic credit, certification of completion or accreditation.

Completion Rates and Discussion Points

The British current affairs magazine Private Eye has, in a recent issue, highlighted the ongoing research of UK PhD candidate Katy Jordan, who studies the completion rates of MOOCs across a variety of topics and universities in various countries.  The stats and figures makes for interesting reading, highlighting as they do the low completion rates for 29 MOOCs so far studied in the research (an average completion rate of under 10%, whilst Private Eye quote just 6.8%).  It is worth noting that MOOC courses are being added to the research dataset over the course of Jordan’s investigation and research.  The completion rates are low but, when translated as people who have completed the courses, they typically number in the thousands.  Still, it is worth keeping a note of Jordan’s research to highlight the larger themes of why there is such a low completion rate.

Importantly MOOC’s offer a fundamentally different way for individuals to take part in education itself.  As highlighted on John Hawk’s weblog last month, the success of 17-year-old Daniel, an individual with severe autism, on the completion of several different MOOC courses has opened up the way in which he interacts with the education establishment, knowledge itself and, ultimately, people.  The coursea blog article on Daniel highlights how he managed to take part and complete several university level humanities courses, with the help of his dedicated family and the MOOC providers despite his autism.  The courses gave him the confidence to help peer review his course mates essays, and to expand his own knowledge and self articulation.  This is accessible education for the masses, wherever and whoever you are.

It is clear that MOOCs are becoming more and more incorporated and entrenched within academic life at the University level across the globe, particularly in America and the UK.  Yet there has been backlash against certain courses, particularly regarding perceived intellectual copyright infringement and the way Universities view MOOC’s themselves.  Thomas Leddy, a philosopher caught up in the recent Jan José State University open letter fiasco, highlights the fact that “the vibrant ecosystem of higher learning as a whole will decline because fewer and fewer students will actually be inspired by live teachers or will even read books by such teachers”.  His article, in the Boston Review, laments the fact that MOOC’s de-value the effort of reading key literature, critical thinking and the effort of writing critically.  Is this view justified?  Certainly there are MOOC’s online where there is no critical thinking involved, where the conclusion of the study is a multiple choice quiz, which, it could be said, limits the actual value of completing the course.  However that could also be said of certain modules taught throughout the educational system.  We are only at the beginning of the MOOC revolution, and I firmly believe that to draw negative conclusions at this early stage is to risk losing out on an important dynamic educational resource when we have already seen so many benefits of the courses to so many people.

Part of the Educational Family

Ultimately it is clear that whilst there are conflicts of interest between academic institutions, MOOC providers and the people who access the courses themselves, MOOCs are a helpful educational tool.  They are able to inform a diverse and interested audience on the latest research developments in a number of disciplines, if they are produced and evaluated in the correct way.  In human osteology and physical anthropology it is, to my mind, a given that you must have physical access to actual bones or casts to learn the anatomy and idiosyncrasies of the skeletal system.  However a MOOC could, with clear and efficient images, provide a relevant and informative view on skeletal anatomy, human evolution and knowledge of archaeological sites quite successfully.   This is where, of course, a combined academic course would come in useful but even so the dissemination of scientific knowledge to a wide audience is heavily encouraged, especially from experts in the field who can communicate clearly and efficiently.

It is clear however that neither model of residential university level education or MOOC can outrank or compete with each other.  Every educational establishment must offer a variety of ways to learn that offer an integrative learning environment in which both the lecturer and the student benefit.  MOOCs offer an important, and possibly integral, part to play in this.  I, for one, am keen to see what the future holds for MOOCs, and I look forward to taking part in John Hawks MOOC ‘Human Evolution: Past and Future‘ in January 2014.

Further Reading:

Anatomically Modern Humans: A Brief Introduction

22 Apr

The imperative of  the human species to ‘Know Thyself‘ has developed into a rapidly expanding field in palaeoanthropology.  The exploration of our species, Homo sapiens, is a particularly active field which utilizes multi-disciplinary approaches to untangle the evolutionary threads of our beginning.  The following essay introduces concepts and approaches used in this field, whilst raising current research issues.

——~…~——

“For a species that is both narcissistic and inquisitive, Homo sapiens has so far done a remarkably poor job of defining itself as a morphological entity”, Tattersall and Schwartz (2008: 49).

Thus starts the opening sentence to Tattersall and Schwartz’s 2008 article on the problems of clarifying the morphological distinctiveness of anatomically modern humans (AMH or the species Homo sapiens).  It is perhaps applicable not just to the morphological characteristics but also the fossil record and origins of AMH themselves (Pearson 2008: 38).  This paper, then, will discuss the principles behind the definitions and evolution of AMH in context with reference to its behaviour and morphological traits.  In turn, the dominant models of the origin and subsequent dispersion of AMH will be discussed, with reference to where Homo sapiens ‘fit’ in the palaeoanthropological record.  A wealth of new genetic research data and fossil finds has considerably opened up the treasure chest of hominin information, which is having a considerable impact on our understanding of the H. sapiens place in the evolutionary records (Bowden et al. 2012, Curnoe et al. 2012, Krause et al. 2010, Prat et al. 2011, Wood 2005: 42).  It is directly as a result of how the reporting of evolutionary science has changed in the past few decades (McEwan 2012), and how technological approaches have uncovered so much genetic data in reconstructing fossil record relationships (Jurmain et al. 2011: 270), that the definition of AMH is not so easy.  This paper will conclude with a talk on how the biocultural evolution of H. sapiens is now impacting both our environment and localised populations in certain contexts (Le Fanu 2009, Hawks et al. 2007, Jurmain et al. 2011).

It is important to note that H. sapiens are the last species of the genus Homo, with the first species tentatively dated in Africa to nearly 2.5 million YA (years ago), which led to the first dispersal of hominins (largely H. erectus) from Africa around 1.8 YA (Jurmain et a.l 2011: 240); AMH dispersal occurred much later.  It was once thought that AMH were defined by modern anatomy and behaviour at the junction of the Upper Palaeolithic around 40,000 YA (Nowell 2010: 438), however, recent palaeoanthropological finds and research have discovered a distinct ‘decoupling’ between early AMH anatomy and later symbolic/modern behaviour, with anatomically similar traits of AMH in fossils pinpointed to east and south Africa to around 200,000 YA (Rightmire 2008: 8, Wood 2005).  However there are problems concurrent with the dating of the hominin fossil record, as Millard (2008: 870) concludes that ‘the dating evidence for many key fossils is poor’.  Typically there are a number of assigned morphological features that mark out Homo sapiens compared to other species in the Homo genus (Table 1).  As Tattersall and Schwartz (2008: 51) note, however impressive the suite of features ‘not all of them are expressed with equal emphasis in all living humans’.  When this is combined with the fossil record of AMH, with individuals often taken as examples for their own long lost skeletal population and the problems inherent in the preservation of skeletal elements (geological pressure, scavenging etc), we should rightly be wary of definitively assigning a species name before comparison with relative contextual remains, stratigraphic layers and other similar period sites (Millard 2008, Pettitt 2005).

General Characteristic Morphological features of AMH:

Cranial:

  • Cranial capacity in excess 1350cc (variable).
  • Distinct chin (inverted T).
  • Relatively veretical frontal bone
  • Relatvely flat non-projecting face.
  • Brow ridge expressed more clearly in males.
  • Round occipital region.
  • Small incisor teeth.

Post Cranial:

  • Narrow thorax.
  • Small and narrow pelvis.
  • Straight limb bones.
  • Typically less ‘robust’, more gracile, then recent ancestors.

Table 1. General morphology for Homo sapiens (Pettitt 2005: 132, Tattersall and Schwartz 2008: 51, Wood 2005: 110). NB see also Pearson’s Table 2 (2008: 39).

Using a cladistics framework, Pearson (2008: 38) highlighted the fact that there are specific difficulties in using statistical measurements of metrical and discrete measurements as having been conceptualised as derived features in AMH crania, with comparison to Neandertal and H. erectus crania.  However there are further problems when trying to establish if the earliest H. sapiens African fossils of Omo Kibish, the Herto crania, or Near Eastern Skhul and Qafzeh fossils fit within the 95% rate of modern features, with results not even reaching the 75% fit of the modern features for AMH (Pearson 2008: 39).  In part this is due to fossils, such as the Herto crania, which are used as the mean of that particular population, which ultimately ‘conflates individual, within-population variation and between-population variation’ (Jurmain et al. 2011, Pearson 2008: 39).  Other problems of quantifying such long chronological morphological differences include the lack of various populations of modern (Australian aboriginals, for example) and certain prehistoric peoples being outside of the 95% confidence to fit the given morphological concept of AMH.  Clearly there needs to be a control on the temporal/geographic population of the AMH under consideration in such studies, when carrying out both the statistical analysis with other fossil hominins and when taking the defining measurements.

Pettitt (2005: 132-137) argues that H. sapiens should be classed into three arbitrary chronological groups of morphological continuity: 1) those of the earliest H. Sapiens, including material from Bodo (Ethopia), Broken Hill (Zambia) and Elandfontein (South Africa) amongst others; 2) Transitional (or archaic) H. sapiens including Herto, Omo Kibish 1 and 2 (Ethiopia), Florisbad (South Africa) and Jebel Irhoud (Morocco); 3) finally AMH including Makapansgat, Border Cave and Equus Cave (South Africa), Taramsa (Egypt), and Dar-es-Soltan (Morocco) examples (see Table 2 below for dates).  This ordering of morphological continuity defines AMH through the evolution of H. sapien traits with retention of H. ergaster traits (earliest), whilst the AMH group compromise clear AMH dating to less than 125,000 YA (Pettitt 2005: 132).  As Pearson (2008: 44) suggests, ‘the process of becoming modern likely occurred as a series of steps, regardless of whether one considers these different steps to be different taxa in a bushy phylogeny or merely different grades in a single evolving lineage’. Pearson (2008: 44) goes on to say that the ‘evolution of modern man should be viewed as a process rather than an event involving rapid morphological change due to drift during population bottlenecks and selection for new advantageous traits or genes, or a combination of the two’, rather than a singular smooth process.  Therefore we should be wary of relying purely on the often sparse fossil record.  Regardless, it is widely recognised that H. Sapiens are a probably daughter species of H. erectus (i.e. as a result of a speciation occurrence) which spread across Africa and into Western Eurasia at the beginning of,  or just before, the Middle Pleistocene (Jurmain et al. 2011, Rightmire 2008: 8).

Recent research has also led to five majority agreements in regards to the tenets of AMH behaviour (Table 2; Nowell 2010: 447). Wood (2005: 109) makes the salient point that early eurocentrism in the search for AMH behavioural origins clouded certain judgements, such as focusing on Western Europe to the detriment of African archaeological sites.

Points of Consensus on Modern Behaviour:

  • The relationship between modern anatomy and modern behaviour is more complex than once thought.
  • Modern behaviour has symbolic thoughts at its core.
  •  Archaeological record of the African Middle Stone Age has rendered invalid the idea of a ‘human revolution’ occurring for the first time in the Upper Palaeolithic of Western Europe.
  • Later Neandertal sites have demonstrated modern behaviour to either some form or some degree, such as personal adornment or symbolic behaviour.
  • The triad of social, cultural and demographic factors are key in understanding variability and patterning in the archaeology record.

Table 2. Agreed points in visioning the concept of modern behaviour (Balter 2011: 21, Nowell 2010: 447, Pettitt 2005, Zilhao 2006; 2010: 1025).

Research (Jurmain et al 2011, Prat et al 2012) has also highlighted symbolic  behaviour in a number of early H. Sapiens sites throughout Africa and the Near East; Balter (2011: 21) highlights Aterian sites in North Africa where various personal and possible symbolic artefacts have been found, whilst Blombos Cave in South Africa (77,000 YA), and Katanda in the DR of Congo (80,000 YA), have some of the earliest symbolic artefacts recovered including incised ochre, worked bone and beads; almost a full 45,000 years before any such artefacts appear in the European record (Jurmain et al. 2011: 298-299).   Mellars (2006: 9383) proposes a model that indicates climatic, environmental and cultural changes around 80,000 to 60,000 YA as major causative agents of cognitive change alongside population pressures in the dispersal of African H. Sapiens.  However Nowell (2010: 441) states that the gradual emergence of behaviours as a mosaic of features, and not as a single revolutionary package, should be considered within the archaeological record, whilst defining that for the majority of researcher’s symbolic language and codified social relationships define modern behaviour.  Mosaic features in fossil hominids have been noted in recent discoveries of the Australopithecus sediba specimen, highlighting a mix of Australopithecus and Homo anatomical features (Wong 2012: 25).

The origins of AMH living outside of Africa have led to the formation of two major competing models in palaeoanthropolog: the multi-regional continuity hypothesis that proposes already living populations of hominins and local populations in Asia, Europe and Africa continued their ‘indigenous evolutionary development from pre-modern Middle Pleistocene forms to anatomically modern human’ (Jurmain et al. 2011: 281), whilst the complete replacement (or out of Africa) hypothesis  proposes that AMH arose in Africa 200,000 YA to completely replace those in Europe and Asia (Table 3; Jurmain et al. 2011: 279).  Critical to the multi-regional hypothesis are the tenets that i) a level of gene flow between geographically separated populations prevented speciation, ii) all living humans derive largely from the species H. erectus, iii) natural selection in regional populations is responsible for the regional variants found in extant populations, and finally, iv) that the emergence of H. sapiens was not restricted to one area per se but was a phenomenon that occurred throughout the geographic range where ‘humans lived’ (Johanson 2001: 1).

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Table 3. Timeline of major H. sapiens discoveries, question marks denote tentative dates (Jurmain et al. 2011: 413) (Click to enlarge).

Critical to the complete replacement theory are that i) H. sapiens arose in one place, highly likely to be East/South Africa, ii) H. sapiens ultimately migrated out of Africa, and replaced all human populations without interbreeding, and that iii) modern human variation is a relatively recent phenomenon (Johanson 2001: 1).

Although not all factors of the multiregional hypothesis cannot be falsified, it seems prevalent that H. sapiens originated in Eastern Africa (with Ethiopia so far providing the most stable dated site), and dispersed to Europe and Asia from 65,000 YA onwards in various waves (Table 2; Jurmain et al. 2011: 282, Mellars 2006: 9381).    The two most securely dated sites in Europe for AMH are Pecstera Cu Oase in Romania at 42,000 YA and Buran Kaya III in the Crimea, Ukraine at 31,900 YA (Hoffecker 2009: 16040, Prat et al. 2011).  Unsurprisingly, Hoffecker (2009: 16040) notes that the issue of the mechanism of transition is a ‘controversial topic in palaeoanthropology’.  Arguments have been made that AMH crossed into Eurasia via a Levantine corridor, with the earliest AMH dates from Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel at around 120,000 to 100,000 YA (Wood 2005: 98), whilst recent work in North African Aterian populations from around the same period are pointed out as being possible ancestors to at least some of the H. sapiens who left Africa during this period (Balter 2011: 23).  The palaeoanthropological evidence suggests that they, the Aterians, possessed the right symbolic behaviour, anatomy and favourable climatic conditions to be at least a contender for contributing to one of the waves of H. sapiens leaving (Balter 2011: 22-23).  There are a variety of sites across Europe after 40,000 YA that show a variety of evidence for AMH presence, including the triad of modern human behaviour with symbolic artefacts and modern skeletal morphology.  However, we should not forget that Europe was already populated with the H. Neandertalensis species prior, and co-existed with H. sapiens for approximately 10,000 years or so (Hoffecker 2009: 16040, Wood 2005: 110).  This subject will be tackled shortly.

The most secured dates found in Asia are from areas such as the Sahul region (conjoined landmass of Australia, Papua New Guinea and Tasmania), where it is possible AMH occupied various areas (Wood 2005: 111-112).  It must be remembered that while the ‘dwarf’ species H. floresiensis survived up until 18,000 YA on the island of Flores with temporal overlap between themselves and H. sapiens, it seems unlikely there was regional overlap from the archaeological evidence (Wood 2005: 111).  Curnoe et a.l (2012: 1) note that the AMH fossil record for East Asia is, at this time, poorly recorded owing to a lack of detailed description, rigorous taxonomy classification and a distinct lack of accurately dated fossils.  However there are a few key sites: Liujiang in Southern China has produced a skeleton which, although it lacks exact stratigraphic position, has been dated to an estimated broad range from 153-30,000 YA, whilst the Niah Cave child in East Malaysia has been dated to 45-39,000 YA for the cranium from a recent field and lab program (Curnoe et al. 2012: 2).  Tianyuan cave, just south of the Zhoukoudian cave, has fragmentary evidence of an AMH crania and teeth which are dated to 40,000 YA, with a possible mix of archaic and modern features; the American and Chinese team who excavated it have suggested it is evidence of interbreeding in China with resident archaic populations, but suggest an African origin for the AMH itself (Jurmain et al. 2011: 287).

The above examples highlight problems in understanding the definition of AMH, both anatomically and behaviourally.  With the advent of dispersals from Africa AMH interacted with other hominids, prominent of which are the Neandertals in Eurasia and the elusive Denisovans in Siberia (Krause et al. 2010, Hubin 2009, Noonan 2010, Zilhao 2006).  Genetic evidence is unravelling what it is to be an AMH (Hawks et al. 2007), and there is evidence to suggest that Neandertals contributed up to 4% of non-African modern human DNA via gene flow (Green et al. 2010: 711, Reich et al. 2010: 1057).

Roughly one third of Neandertal mtDNA genetic diversity, dating from 70,000 to 38,000 YA, is comparable to contemporary human populations (Briggs et al. 2009:  319), although Noonan (2010: 550) and Herrera et al. (2009: 253) raise the flag of caution as the majority of Neandertal remains were not collected with their regard to DNA investigation, whilst modern DNA contamination, despite the safeguards, is still prevalent.  Briggs et al. (2009: 321) postulate that low mtDNA diversity throughout much of the Neandertal lineage may indicate a low effective population size, although it could be reflective of AMH direct/indirect  influences as they spread from Africa (interbreeding or out competing for example).  Herrera et al. (2009: 253) note that there are difficulties such as identifying haplotypes indicative of interbreeding.  Nonetheless, as Zilhao et al. (2010: 1027) points out that a Mid-Palaeolithic Iberian Neandertal sites shows distinct features associated with AMH including symbolic behaviour, with ochre and shells displaying evidence of body paint, and organisation skills, which that studies believes is the outcome of demographic pressure, technology and ‘social complexification’ within the Neandertal species itself (Roebroeks et al. 2012: 2).

Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree of complete mtDNA rooted with chimpanzee and bonobo mtDNA, showing geographic origin of mtDNA samples (Krause et al. 2010: 896) (Click to enlarge).

Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree of complete mtDNA rooted with chimpanzee and bonobo mtDNA, showing geographic origin of mtDNA samples (Krause et al. 2010: 896) (Click to enlarge).

Meanwhile Krause et al. (2010: 896) provide evidence that the Denisovans split before Neandertal and AMH at around 1 million YA, whilst Neandertals and H. sapiens ancestors split around 690,000 to 550,000 YA (Jurmain et al. 2011: 270).  Pairwise nucleotide differences indicate that Neandertals differ from modern humans at around 202 nucleotide positions whilst the Denisovan individual differs at 385 positions (Krause et al. 2010: 895), which alongside the phylogenetic evidence (Figure 1), supports a deeper divergence of the Denisovan hominin than between the closer related H. sapiens and Neandertal species.

There is the distinct possibility of admixture; this is reinforced by the apparent coexistence of the surrounding area by Neandertals, AMH and Denisovans in the Altai region at roughly the same time periods, and by the fact that Denisova populations contributed roughly 4-6% present day DNA in AMH Melanesian populations; this suggests they interacted with Melanesian ancestors, but probably not in the Siberia region (Krause et al. 2010: 895, Reich et al. 2010: 1053).  The lack of complete remains and its physically limited location from this suspected new species at Denisova Cave limit our knowledge but tests are continuing.  If this hominin, as hypothesised, had a wide geographical range (Reich et al. 2010: 1059), the question must be asked why we haven’t noticed it before?  Interestingly Abi-Rached et al. (2011: 94) highlight that the fact that as the AMH Eurasian populations mixed with archaic hominids, adaptive introgression of vital immune system components (Human Leukocytes Antigen class 1) helped to provide a mechanism for rapid evolution.  The adapted introgression of the genes now represent more than half of the HLA alleles in modern Eurasians, and were later introduced into African populations (Abi-Rached et al. 2011: 89).  Therefore the definition of AMH must include evidence of interbreeding to some degree.  Future genomic studies in other archaic hominins should provide more information relating to the relationships between species; however it seems clear that gene flow was relatively common in the Upper Pleistocene (Reich et al. 2010: 1059).

Increased AMH demographic growth and geographic spread dated from 80,000 YA to the present, has led to rapid genetic evolutionary selective pressures on features including ‘skin pigmentation, adaptation to cold and diet’ amongst others (Hawks et al. 2007: 20756).  Some of the most dramatic have been associated with the uptake of agriculture during the Neolithic period, both in terms of our ability in coping with disease and changes from interaction via population density (Barnes et al. 2011: 848).  This is partly the result of cultural and ecological reasons (i.e. a biocultural pathway), and Hawks et al. (2007: 20756-20757) remark that in their study it was noted ‘new adaptive alleles continued to reflect demographic growth, (that) the Neolithic and later periods would have experienced a rate of adaptive evolution >100 times higher than characterised most of human evolution’.  Two examples help highlight the effects of biocultural change in modern population; coevolution of humans and cattle since the Neolithic has resulted in distinct populations of modern humans becoming lactose persistence, such as Europeans, whilst other populations, such as African and Asian adults, are largely lactose intolerant (Jurmain et al. 2011: 313).  This is through active selection of breeding cattle which ‘inadvertently selected for the gene that produces lactose persistence in themselves’ (Jurmain et al. 2011: 313); this example shows the geographical distribution of lactose persistence is often related to a history of cultural dependency on fresh milk products.  On the other hand, modern population pressures include the admixture of populations who have had the pressures of urbanisation, agriculture and gene selection for disease loading (such as Tuberculosis) who then interact with indigenous populations, such as Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guinea populations, who are not predisposed to deal with TB because of their lack of long term cattle coevolution (Barnes et al. 2011).  The importance is recognising that there is great variation at an environmental genetic level in modern AMH, and this is highly likely to be the case during the long and concurrent evolution of AMH (Jurmain et al. 2011).

In conclusion the definition of AMH comes to thus; either a strict definition of AMH present at around 40-35,000 YA onwards, with the full suite of the triad of anatomically modern skeletal elements, modern behavioural & cognitive functions, and similar genetics to today’s worldwide population (Tattersall & Schwartz 2008), or we can take the view that H. sapiens evolved with a mosaic of features that they themselves appeared at different times during the evolution of AMH (Jurmain et al. 2011, Pettitt 2005).  It is this author’s belief that the origin of H. sapiens species lies at the Omo Kibish site in Eastern Africa as the earliest evidence so far, and the definition of AMH must be taken with accord of the fossil record (Jurmain et al. 2011).  Throughout this paper, a long chronology has been presented and discussed of H. sapiens in the context of human evolution, and consideration has been given to the relatively modern genetic changes in modern human populations (Hawks et al. 2007).  This view belies the complexity of defining AMH, especially as new hominins are found (Krause et al. 2010, Reich et al. 2010, Wong 2012), as the consideration of the context is paramount.  There is inherent variation in the record, as evidenced between the distinct morphological variation between Omo 1 and Omo 2 fossils, leading up to the palaeogenetic and modern genetic variation and morphological in populations from inside and outside Africa (Briggs et al. 2009, Hawks et al. 2007, Harvati et al. 2012).  In comparison, the origin of the Homo genus is still in dispute (Wong 2012: 24) and the chimpanzee fossil record is distinctly lacking (Wood 2005: 69-70).  Only recently has SNP genotyping revealed the extent of Pan troglodytes ellioti as a genetically distinct species (Bowden et al. 2012: 1).  The importance of this is that we should seek to place the well discussed H. sapiens within a larger framework of where hominins (both extant and extinct) diverged, interacted and evolved (see discussion- Patterson et al. 2006: 1106, Wakeley 2008).  The definition of AMH is therefore but one fragment of our long evolutionary history.

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Zilhao, J., Angelucci, D. E. Badel-García, E., d’Errico., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., Douka, K., Highm, T. F. G., Martínez-Sánchez, M. J., Montes-Bernárdez, R., Murcia-Mascasrós, S., Pérez-Sirvent, C., Roldán-García, C., Vanhaeren, M., Villaverde, V., Wood, R & Zapata, J. 2010. Symbolic use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neanderthals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (3): 1023–1028.

John Hawks Announces Free Online ‘Human Evolution: Past & Present’ Course for 2014

7 Apr

The palaeoanthropologist professor John Hawks has released news about an exciting and innovative massive open online course (MOOC) entitled ‘Human Evolution: Past and Present’.  The course is to be taught online and will begin in January 2014.  John Hawks is a well known anthropologist who studies the bones and genetics of ancient humans, and is the Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The course will detail all the latest aspects of continuing research into human evolution, and the course will feature expert interviews, mini-documentaries, guided laboratories, participatory science, as well as looking to the future of human evolution with the ‘impact of technology on our future evolution’.  This represents the best of open access science, and the chance to participate in a truly worldwide educational initiative.

Importantly Hawks announces that:

“This course and all its materials will be open and free for anyone, anywhere in the world. As of this moment, more than 6500 people have already signed up for the course. The course is still more than nine months away, and I’ll be developing materials across the entire time up through January” (emphasis mine).

Update 30/01/14

Sadly due to US export restrictions the US goverment have now banned Coursera MOOC courses in Sudan, Iran and Cuba.  This frankly illogical banning of the freedom of education is indicative of the worst aspects of a government.

Further Information

  • Read more on the announcement of the MOOC on the John Hawks weblog here, and sign up here for the course.  This is a fantastic initiative and one not to miss if you are interested in human evolution and human osteology.

Highlights: Disability in History, A 7 Year Walk, & Science Writing

14 Jan

The first few weeks of 2013 have been pretty busy so far, but I have noticed several interesting articles that are worth a read.  Regular readers of this blog will know I have a personal interest in disability and it’s effects upon the individual and society, from both the prehistory and historic periods.  As such I am excited to highlight the work of English Heritage and their information on the European centered ‘History of Disability: From 1050AD to the Present Day‘ webpage.  The site has a wonderful overview of the changing attitudes and roles that disabled people faced throughout this period.  Taking in the broad categories of the Medieval period, the Tudors, and the later centuries block by block, the website helps provide information on the social aspects of physical and mental disability in the various period societies.  In conjunction with the website, I also came across this article ‘Graciosi: Medieval Christian Attitudes to Disability‘ by Cusack (1997: 414-419), published in the Disability and Rehabilitation journal, which is free to view on the Academia website.  It is an interesting read, and helps to  introduce the Medieval and later period views on disability and the social implications for individuals affected.

Meanwhile over at the BBC website there is an article on Paul Salopek and the journey he hopes to make over the next 7 years.  Starting in Ethiopia in East Africa and ending near the southern point of South America in Tierra del Fuego, Salopek hopes to walk the entire journey to retrace the journey of early humans and the evolution and expansion of Homo sapiens.  Specifically the biologist and journalist will be relaying his thoughts and encounters with people each and every day of his journey, helping to detail the explosion of modern man, whilst also taking the time to articulate his views via ‘slow journalism’, as opposed to today’s fast paced news sites and blogs.

Directly related to this is a recent entry on John hawks’ weblog, titled ‘Online Communication Bias Upon the Public Perception of Science‘, where the renowned palaeoanthropologist highlights a recent Science article by Brossard & Schuele (2013: 40-41) on the negative effects of science representation in online and digital media.  The comments by Hawks are quite eye opening, as is the original paper (unfortunately behind a pay wall).  The article highlights and relates to the way we (as a public body) consume science articles in the fast moving digital world of journalism through popular and established media, particularly the main papers.  The authors found that the main body of the article is often misunderstood, with the comments sections in particular affecting the readers comprehension of the articles themselves.

So this is a brief update into my recent readings.  The next few blog entries will concentrate on the next Skeletal Series update, which have admittedly been a long time coming.  Further to this I will also write about an exciting and informative methodological update in relation to the ‘Bioarchaeology of Care‘, as espoused by Tilley & Oxenham (2011).  Generously Tilley has emailed me a copy of her recent paper, and it provides further detailed information on how the disabled individuals found in the archaeological record are assessed for care.

A Clarion Call For Guest Blog Entries

19 Apr

Archaeology, and all of it’s related disciplines, heavily depend on collaboration between various people’s, projects, institutions and countries worldwide.  Blogging can play its part in informing a new audience of goings on, recent finds and new approaches in research in various disciplines.  Blogging can open up research projects to the public and allow opportunities for various sets of people with broad-based skill sets to inject their own knowledge into projects, often in new and interesting combinations.   Science is an inclusive discipline and encourages a broad audience to digest and produce results based on research and experiments adhering to a peer review process.  An interesting example comes via John Hawks own advertisement of the Malapa Soft Tissue project, a project which aims to investigate hominin skin preserved from a 2 million year old site in South Africa, and openly calls for people to join in the research.

These Bones of Mine hopes to introduce the basics of human osteology to a new and disparate audience, whilst also discussing and highlighting interesting news from the archaeological world and beyond.  I also hope it to be a site where information can be passed on to interested sectors of the internet audience.  Therefore, I heartily welcome guest posts on a range of topics.  These include, but are not limited to, the following range of subjects:

  • Osteology (both human and animal)
  • Archaeology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Archaeological Practice (experience of fieldwork, units etc)
  • Prehistoric Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Palaeoanthropolgy
  • Ethnography
  • Palaeontology
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Zooarchaeology
  • Palaeobotany
  • Genetics
  • Palaeogenetics
  • Forensic Anthropology

Alongside outside subjects such as Human Rights Issues, Heritage at Risk, Cultural Sociology, and Literature or Music.  Any subject within these titles will be considered, and I am particularly keen on prehistory, human osteology, and the effects of an holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the research of archaeological remains.

Please feel free to email me at the following address with ideas for blog posts: thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com

Do not be offended if the subject matter is not appropriate or if I do not reply quickly the academic year is quickly filling up with approaching essay deadlines, dissertation research  and conferences to attend.  The guest posts should be referenced as appropriate (Harvard style) and not extend beyond 2000 words.  Images are welcome, as is the inclusion of the writers own thoughts and interests.  I cannot offer any monetary funding, nor will I openly advertise commercial or private sector companies.  Thank you for your time.

Previous guest blogs include the following (top most recent):

Further updated posts can be found on the ‘Guest Posts‘ tab.

‘Personal Stories In Science’ at Deep Sea News

2 Feb

Whilst recently reading over John Hawk’s excellent weblog I came across this entry on embracing personal experience on the rise through science.  The link to the original blog entry, here at DeepSeaNews.Com, concerns how personal experiences can be shared and related to give inspiration to aspiring scientists.  The entry, by Kevin Zelnio, details his experiences of how he ended up pursuing a career in marine biology.  Especially important is his message concerning that whilst his story isn’t unique, his personal details are, and that we all have stories inside of ourselves that can be shared and can help enthuse and inspire other people who are struggling on the path to start a career in science.

As I have blogged about many times before, my bone condition has helped to shape my life to a certain extent, and has largely changed it for the better.  My undergraduate degree, alongside my own medical experiences, have helped me pursue an education in which I have a keen willingness to engage with and to pursue at a higher level.  I enjoy producing art (in a somewhat limited sense!) & enjoy both making and listening to music immensely; I’ve taken part in things in which I’d never thought I’d get a chance.  However, this is only a part of my life.  Whatever I end up doing in the future, I will certainly not regret one day that I have lived.  I won’t bore you with details but I may produce a more personal update sometime in the future, if it will make inspiring reading!

Self Portrait Of My Hand & Foot!

Another part of the picture here is the presentation, research and results from the academic world and the wider release of the results in the public sector.  As a recent post by Kristina Killgrove, here at her blog Powered By Osteons, discusses the recent results concerning the US consultation on public access to scholarly work, with some stiff reactions from the AAA & AIA (whom, for some unfathomable reason, are against Open Access).  As more academics than ever are blogging and sharing research from a number of fields around the world, it is perhaps surprising to find this sort of structured defensive of research that, previously, can take years and even decades to become available to an often very interested public.  As detailed on the blog post, the academic blogs are having a field day in criticising the reactions from the AAA & AIA.  The letter regarding the comments from the AAA is found here

The personal experiences of scientists pursuing careers and the turmoil that they have been through are perhaps now more than ever what a lot of people need to hear, especially in the field of archaeology and archaeological sciences.  As the jobs market constricts nationally & the world economy shrinks, it can be especially disheartening to pursue a dream and realize that sometimes things are just outside of your control employment-wise.  More students than ever are pursuing Master & PhD courses whilst competition to gain a job becomes stiffer then ever; certainly as more qualifications are required, alongside extensive site and commercial experience to become a competitive employee.

As I enter my second semester as a graduate student at the University of Sheffield, I’m starting to realize that I should soon start job hunting and sending out my own CV.  What happens after September when the course finishes, I certainly do not know!  However, I shall take comfort knowing that the path to a science career is not an easy option to take, that I shall sweat to become what I want to be, and to know that working hard can indeed sometimes have its benefits.