Category Archives: Science

Neanderthal Civilization?

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As part of the new 102nd Four Stone Hearth, a piece by Julien Riel-Salvatore explaining his new paper about how Neanderthals were much more advanced than previously thought has caught fire.  And why not?  Neanderthals have had a long history of being derided as the dumb jocks of the humanoid evolutionary line.  They had the brawn, but they lacked the brains.

While they certainly didn’t have the cognitive capacity that we do, they weren’t as dumb as all that.

I showed that, among, other things, around 42,000 calendar years ago (ca. 36.5 radiocarbon years BP), a new culture (better, behavioral adaptation) – the Uluzzian – emerged in southern Italy and is widely believed to have been made by Neanderthals. The thing is, the Uluzzian is associated with bone tools, stone armatures likely used as part of composite projectile weapons, shell ornaments, coloring material (ochre, limonite), and possible evidence of small game exploitation. These features are all generally associated with modern human groups, not so much with Neanderthals.

His post is a bit long, but it’s worth it if you’re into Neanderthals as much as I am.

Make sure to check out the 102’nd Four Stone Hearth Here

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Four Stone Hearth #101 – The Phoenix Edition

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This is the Phoenix edition of the Four Stone Hearth.  It’s 100th installment saw the relinquishing of power of the original editor in chief, Martin Rundkvist of aardvarchaeology.  I want to extend my thanks to Martin for turning the Four Stone Hearth into the shining example of what is possible with a Blog Carnival.

We now have a new head-honcho, Aferensis.  Most readers will know him, and know he’ll do a great job at keeping the flame burning for a long time coming.

We’re heading into a new age, and it seems like it is appropriate that this is the 101’st edition.   It’s been speculated that Blog Carnivals are going out of fashion – as evidenced by the demise of a few great ones like The Tangled Bank and The Skeptics Circle.

I think, however, that the blog carnival has an important place in the dissemination of science information to the general reading public.  If nothing else, it provides a hub through which lots of great info can be read that might not have crossed ones radar.  But, it also is a way for bloggers to interact, have fun, and keep the flame of science blogging burning bright – no small issue since most science bloggers are not paid for their blogging.

So, with that in mind here’s the 101’st collection of great blog posts in anthropology:

We’ll start with a hat tip to the previous editor of this blog carnival, Martin Rundkvist, with Archeology 101: Chronology, or, How Can I Get a Date? A good chunk of Creationists base their refusal to believe in human evolution on their total lack of understanding of how scientists date things.  Martin breaks it down for us.

Over at Athropology.net we have a post entitled, “A Curious Look At The 3.39 Million Year Old “Stone Tool Markings” From Dikika, Ethiopia.”  Here’s a quote:

I don’t know who this is worse for, the editors & reviewers over at Nature or the authors of the article who can’t tell the difference between crocodile teeth markings and stone tool modification.

Them sounds like fightin’ words!

You think your neighborhood is bad?  Welcome to Texas:

The family says their dog scared up the monkey under the backyard patio and the creature then chased the woman into her garage – trapping her for over an hour.

Bonvito has two posts.  The first discusses the counterintuitive idea that male primate rank has little to do with reproductive success:

Rhesus females also prefer novel males for mating. This female mate selection is thought to be one of the primary factors why males migrate out of their natal group. The migrating males, who are at the very bottom of the hierarchy, have to be in constant high alert, especially so during the mating season when high ranking males are on guard (i.e., those who are on top are particularly protective of their position on this period).

The second is about Jane Goodall’s connection with Gary Larson’s Far Side.  Is the famous primatologist able to take a joke?

One of the biggest mistakes we make as humans is our tendency to glorify the past and sanitize it.  For instance, we look up to Napoleon and Caesar and totally ignore the horrific violence and death they caused in their selfish pursuits of power.  Judith of Zenobia: Empress of the East takes a hard look at the Peloponnesian War and it’s consequences. A quote:

The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.

Anthropology is not just about long dead people or exotic tribal societies in Africa.  It’s also about modern cultures and modern living.  Krystal D’Costa, of Anthropology in Practice, has a post about the struggle of keeping the faith during Ramadan and still running a successful food cart business.

While many Muslims choose to slow down during this period, for those who make their livelihood as food cart vendors, it can present a personal challenge: They are surrounded by foods that they themselves cannot eat all day long. It creates a challenge for the individual, but also for the business as they have to rely on sight and smell to gauge flavors

She also has a great post about the odd fact that Nescafe is so popular in coffee producing countries!

… why does Nescafe seem to be popular among coffee producing countries that theoretically have access to their own supply of coffee beans? Anthropologist Kevin Birth offered some suggestions that cover the expenses associated with grinding and brewing beans, but today we’ll look a bit more closely at the relationship between local consumption and consumer identity.

You think the life of an Archaeologist is easy?  Watch out for moose! Magnus Reuterdahl of Testimony of the Spade gives us a glimpse into his world.

For those who don’t know, Eric Michael Johnson, formally of the Primate Diaries on ScienceBlogs.com, is in exile.  Well … he’s in blogging exile.  And he decided he was going to go on tour.  His most recent stop is at Anthropology in Practice where he talks about the cultural divides of Myspace and Facebook, functional racism, and class. Great stuff.

In the wake of many teens departure Boyd describes what was left behind as the formation of a digital ghetto. Abandoned Myspace profiles “often fell into disrepair, covered in spam, a form of digital graffiti [as] spammers took over like street gangs.” In contrast, Facebook was seen as a virtual gated community with the “same values signaled by the suburbs.” The class bias represented in this was extremely telling in 2009 when Facebook and Myspace converged with roughly equal numbers of visitors. A New York Times story about this convergence was titled “Do You Know Anyone Still on Myspace?” This confession by the author is extremely revealing. Given data showing equal traffic his preference was to make assumptions based on his network of friends, a trend that is likely to be pervasive throughout the mainstream media on stories that are much more important.

A Primate of Modern Aspect has a piece about ape sex, the human inability to stay objective, and evolutionary psychology.

Here’s the thing that gets me all riled up when I read these sorts of op-eds: Lots of people study primate sexuality.  It’s a fascinating field.  And who the primates are having sex with is only part of the fun.  We know about stress, group dynamics, cognition, and general evolutionary theory because of the good, hard work of these people who are driven by curiosity. But for some reason, the only time primate sexuality gets any attention is when we turn it into a debate about how humans should be having sex.

We never say, “Hey, those muriquis are too promiscuous.  Don’t they know that all of their close evolutionary cousins are polygynous?  If they just did what came naturally to them, they’d have a lot less psychological stress.”  Or, “Those gibbons are so sexually repressed.  If they just gave in to their natural predilection for promiscuity, I bet those nasty gibbons would have fewer territorial disputes and gibbon society would be much more peaceful.”

Help! These Baboons need a name.

A Hot Cup of Joe deconstructs the PseudoArchaeology of Glenn Beck.

It should be no surprise that, since he has little grasp on the rest of reality, that Glenn Beck would fare any better at understanding archaeology.

Anna of Anna’s Bones adds the third installment to her “Stripped” series:

I felt the blood rush towards my head. Everything was upside down. I adjusted my hands according to yoga instructions I had been given many years ago – “you have a very long back” I had been told. I tilted my head to the side to meet 50 pairs of very confused eyes staring intently at me… I was, after all, doing downward dog in a Paleoanthropology workshop.

In DIY Knapping, at A Very Remote Period Indeed, we get a nice video showing how hard this practice really was.

Kris Hirst discusses Gary Feinman’s photo essay on About.com on a Regional Survey in China:

Mick Morrison has a post about the teaching of Archaeology, digital learning, and blogging (rather relevant to a blog carnival, I dare say!).

Finally, here is a picture of John Hawks, a Paleoanthropologist who clearly loves his job:

Calling for Submissions – I’m Hosting the 101st Four Stone Hearth

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The 101’st Four Stone Hearth Anthropology Blog Carnival is being hosted right here, by yours truly.  We’re looking for submissions of blog posts/articles in the following topic areas:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

If you’re a blogger, you’ve written a recent post in one of the topic areas above, and you’d like to get some extra traffic to your site make sure to submit your post to either me at

mail{at}nickhorton{dot}net

or to aferensis.

You can also nominate others, of course.

Also, please feel free to leave comments below about what you’d like to see, and if there is anything I can do to make you more likely to get interested in not only reading the Four Stone Hearth every fortnight, but participating in it as well.

Gender Differences, The Brain, and Testosterone

In a new book by Cordelia Fine she claims that there is no innate genetic difference between men and women’s brains.  I haven’t read the book so I’m going to make only a quick statement based upon the reviews I just read:  here, here, and here.

Here are some basical claims, as far as I can tell:

  1. The gender differences sometimes seen in behavioral and neuroscience studies are not innate.
  2. Much of the related science is flawed anyway, so even if it does seem to show innateness we shouldn’t take it seriously.

I worry about the first claim.  The reason comes down to our definitions of “innate”.  If we mean “at birth” when we say “innate”, then I agree with her.  But, if we mean that there is some genetic code that at some point will cause men and women to have (at least slight) differences in behavior, then I disagree with her.

The reason is puberty.  Far too many of the studies that “debunk” innateness of gender differences are done on babies and young children.  I find these to be stupid.  Boys and Girls are far more similar (in a whole lot of ways) than Men and Women. 

Before puberty, a boy has about as much testosterone as his little sister does.  But, during puberty he has more testosterone running through his system than Mark Mcgwire!

Why does this matter?  Because testosterone affects the brain – a lot.  Testosterone has been implicated in a whole host of different behavior and cognitive differences including memory, attention, spatial perception, mood.  Men with abnormally low testosterone are more prone to depression, aggression, and anxiety and may even be at a higher risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

The “trigger” that gets pulled in boys as they go through puberty that releases all of that Man-making testosterone IS genetic.  How much of it that gets released is partly related to environment (of course), but that is missing the point.

Men, on average, have something like 10 times the levels of circulating testosterone than women do.  We can’t pretend like this isn’t going to be expressed in some way as behavioral differences.

female-bodybuilder

Anecdotally, I’ve worked as a strength coach for a long time, and I’ve known a lot of women on steroids.  Trust me, they are more like men than most men.  Hormones change behavior.

“Normal” men have bodies that produce a substantially greater amount of this hormone than women’s bodies do.  So, as a group, men will likely exhibit more of the characteristics associated with high levels of testosterone than women will.  The brain can’t be taken as something separate from the hormones that affect it. That’s like talking about how a car works but pretending that it won’t matter if we try to run it without any gas or oil in it. 

This is an under-researched area, no doubt.  But, until I see some studies showing that these hormone levels don’t change behavior, I’m sticking to the view that there are “genetic” behavioral differences between the sexes in the broad and general sense.

Worms Made You Who You Are? Natural Selection is Weird

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In a paper over at BMC Biology, the authors give us some evidence that parasitic worms may have been a factor in human evolution.

In fact they go so far as to call it a “major selective factor in humans.”

More than 2 billion individuals worldwide suffer from helminth infections. The highest parasite burdens occur in children and helminth infection during pregnancy is a risk factor for preterm delivery and reduced birth weight. Therefore, helminth infections can be regarded as a strong selective pressure.

They go on to tell us that parasitic worms have shaped our genes:

In summary, our data are consistent with the notion whereby parasitic worms have acted as a powerful selective force on human populations and have contributed to shape nucleotide variability at a number of genes involved in immune responses. We also show that several genes associated with helminth diversity are involved in the pathogenesis of atopic conditions or in airway hyperresponsiveness.

Giants in a Giant World: Why Were Dino’s So Darned Big?

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Dinosaurs were big, some of them were monstrous.  But, how is that even possible?  Aren’t there natural constraints on size that prevent our own big mammals from getting to the size of buildings?

There are a few key problems that have contributed to what is known as the Dinosaur Paradox.

Cromercrox tries to hash it out:

First, the digestion …

Sauropods swallowed enormous amounts of low-quality food that simply composted in their enormous bodies. The food wasn´t processed in the complex ways seen in ruminants or rabbits – it just went in the thin end, down to the thick middle, and took a long time to digest. As every gardener knows, the best and most efficient compost heaps are also the largest, so large gut volume combined with an active microflora and long retention times means an emphasis on size. Sauropods were gigantic walking compost heaps. (And I bet they farted like anything).

But wait, there´s more.

Indeed there is.  As I mentioned in an early article on whether dinosaurs were warm blooded, the lungs that these beasts had are quite different than ours (and other mammals).  Basically, they have the lungs of birds – air sac lungs.  These would have aided in the expelling of the enormous amount of heat generated by the fermentation process we talked about above.

Unlike mammals, which have a simple set of lungs that pulls air in and expels carbon dioxide, birds have a complex series of air sacs, accessory to the lungs, which penetrate many parts of the body, including the bones. At least some dinosaurs are known to have similar arrangements. The apposition of air sacs to the surfaces of the gut in sauropod dinosaurs would have allowed for the transfer of terrific amounts of excess heat, dumped through to the wet surfaces of air-sac membranes and converted into water vapour. Another constraint on size, lifted.

The last reason sited for their excessive size is reproduction.  Unlike the modern form of large animals like elephants and hippos, dinosaurs laid eggs.  This meant that it was easy to create new ones.

Sauropods were hard to kill not just because they were big, but because replacing them was relatively easy  – just lay a pile more eggs and bury them, the work of a moment, rather than incurring the energetic and temporal costs and life-historical limitations of gestation. Another constraint lifted – sauropods could grow bigger in a given environment, because making more of them was easier; they fed full-time on low-quality browse which they took time to digest (another incentive to grow larger) without having to chew it (ditto) and because of their bird-like structure, they were good at dissipating excess heat (the same) and were relatively lightly constructed (the same again, with a bag of crisps, please).

Bada-bing, bada-boom!  You get big-ole dino’s roaming the earth.

What he didn’t mention was that the earth had a far thicker atmosphere during this time.  In fact, during the time of the Mesozoic it is often compared to the thickness of water! Sure, it would feel different because air is not water. But, the thickness would be similar. While this could not account for all of the size issues (as even with the buoyancy of water, the shear size of these guys was still ridiculous), when combined with the above data, it helps to explain how the biggest of the biggest got so darn big.

Is Kin Selection Dead?

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None other that E.O. Wilson, father of Sociobiology, and one of the greatest minds in Biology of the last half-century says that it’s time to dump the idea of kin selection:

"We hope our new theory for the evolution of eusociality will open up sociobiology to new avenues of research by liberating the study of social evolution from mandatory adherence to kin selection theory. After four decades ruling the roost, it is time to recognise this theory’s very limited prowess."

Kin Selection, as defined by John Maynard Smith (the great mathematical biologist, and likely the inventor of the term) is:

By kin selection I mean the evolution of characteristics which favour the survival of close relatives of the affected individual, by processes which do not require any discontinuities in the population breeding structure.

Say what?

This is a better one:

It seeks to explain why individuals take the seemingly paradoxical step of sacrificing their own reproductive potential in order to care for the offspring of relatives.

OK, think of ants. Worker ants will do all kinds of crazy stuff that results in their death in order to increase the likelyhood that the queen ants can continue to breed.  This SEEMS like a bad idea on the part of the worker ant, since from his own perspective … he’s dead.

The idea, then, has been that over time, the genes of the species evolved in such a way as to cause certain members of the same family-line to sacrifice themselves so that others can breed.  Since they are kin, they share a large portion of their genomes, and therefore it is believed that the sacrifice isn’t actually all that crazy, since the sister will be passing on what basically amounts to YOUR genes.

Kin selection has been the dominant method of explaining the eusociality of hierarchical species such as ants, bees, and even wolves and humans.

What’s amazing here is that Wilson has been a long-time backer of kin selection theory.   So, to see him pull back is something interesting. I’m not sure if I agree with him yet. But, he ain’t no dummy.