Category Archives: Paleoanthropology

Neanderthal Civilization?


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

Four Stone Hearth #101 – The Phoenix Edition


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 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, 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 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:

100th Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival


What happens when you stuff an Orangutan jaw into a human skull?  You get a great hoax to perpetuate on the scientific community that lasts for 30+ years! 

The Piltdown hoax is only one of the many great articles featured in this 100th “episode” of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival

Should We Clone a Neanderthal? Who Will Adopt It?


Kyle Munkittrick thinks so.  John Hawks isn’t so sure:

Of course today this is all just idle talk. Someone who’s talking about other extinct species, I don’t take very seriously. We’re talking about an ancient population of humans here. Not like quaggas; more like Tasmanians — a group of people whose culture hasn’t survived, and yet still has many living descendants. This shouldn’t be a conversation about cloning, it should be about the logical consequence: adoption. Who will step up to adopt a Neandertal child, and why aren’t they helping living children instead?

Neandertal Genome Sequenced!

This is about as cool as it gets:

In the 7 May 2010 issue of Science, Green et al.
report a draft sequence of the Neandertal genome composed of over 3
billion nucleotides from three individuals, and compare it with the
genomes of five modern humans. A companion paper by Burbano et al. describes a method for sequencing target regions of Neandertal DNA. A News Focus , podcast segment, and special online presentation
featuring video commentary, text, and a timeline of Neandertal-related
discoveries provide additional context for their findings.

New Neandertal Museum in Croatia

I guess I have one more reason to visit eastern Europe.  A new museum in Croatia is dedicated to everyone’s favorite cousin, the Neandertal

“Today we look at the Neanderthals as humans. They had emotions, helped the weak and the sick, we have found indications of burying rituals and established that they had the speech gene just like ours,” Radovcic said.

Findings throughout Europe show that the Neanderthals painted pictures, probably engaged in some sort of tribal dancing or music, and even cleaned their teeth.

“Even if they were not our direct ancestors, they were very close relatives to our ancestors, which again makes them our ancestors,”

The idea of a Neadertal brushing its teeth is particularly appealing to me … not sure why.

Monkey Nose

Matthew Cobb ponders the age old question about whether during human evolution our sense of smell has been traded in in favor of our vision.  How this would work, at least theoretically, is as we became more dependent on our eye sight, our smell became less and less important to us and so the receptor sites in our noses became less sensitive.  Another way of putting it is that we “devolved” our sense of smell, deactivated certain genes, in favor of better eye sight. 

Imagine having Lasik eye surgery and the doctor telling you it will cost you your sense of smell.

Well … Not so fast:

A study by a group of Japanese researchers (Atsushi Matsui, Yasuhiro Ho and Yoshihito Niimura), about to appear in Molecular Biology and Evolution [subscription needed], looks at this widely-accepted suggestion and finds little evidence to support it.

They looked at the olfactory receptor (OR) genes in five primate species (human, chimpanzee, orangutan, marmoset and rhesus macaque) together with two “strepsirhines” – the bushbaby and the mouse lemur, with the tree shrew as a comparison (“outgroup”). Surprisingly, they found no significant differences in the number of functional OR genes between the marmoset (New World Monkey) and the macaque (Old World Monkey) and the hominoids. In fact, humans had the second largest number of intact ORs (396), just behind the chimpanzee (399), and as against only 296 in the orangutan. This suggests that – whatever you might think – you can probably detect a similar number of odours as any of the other primates.

Maybe our evolutionary Lasik eye surgery was free!

Queer Eye for the Neandertal Guy

Did Neandertal’s wear make up?  Did they know all the words to Dancing Queen?  Did they have more style than Homo Sapiens?

These are just some of the questions that come up in response to the Daily Mail’s “Neandertal Make up” piece.  Here’s a quote from Professor Chris Stringer,

‘When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called “Neanderthal”, and I can’t see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon.’

John Hawks wonders if that might inspire football fans to start wearing make up.  I counter that we should simply start calling the guys at Queer Eye for the Straight Guy a bunch of Neandertals.  

Ardipithecus, Poster Child for an Evolutionary Adaptive Plateau

“Ardi”, or Ardipithecus ramidus, has been much in the news lately.  Most of the reporting has been decent, but there are some clearly over hyped ones.  Thankfully, Paleoanthropologist John Hawks wrote an article for Seed magazine about Ardipithicus and its significance to the ongoing science of human origins.  He also wrote up a great FAQ page on his blog, where he goes into some real detail.

As paleoanthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy describes it, Ardi gives us a view of a previously unknown “adaptive plateau” among early hominins—a suite of anatomical and behavioral characteristics that lasted for a long, stable period in the early Pliocene environment. The Ardipithecus form might account for the bulk of the whole story of human evolution—a kind of hominin that was different from anything that came before or after.

Hobbit’s, Lumpers, and Open Access: Paleoanthropology Talking Points

Hobbit Fossil

Hobbit Fossil

Science Saturday on had one of my favorite bloggers on it this week.  John Hawks, of the University of Wisconsin, and of was interviewed by Razib Khan of Gene Expression on a number of talking points in the field of Paleoanthropology.

Here’s a scattered list of notes about the interview:

Lumpers vs Splitters:  What do you want to get out of the word “species”, anyway?

Computer software analysis of data in science:  assumptions are hidden in the code; implicit assumptions, how do you sort THAT out?

HOBBITS!  Homo floresiensis.  A new species or just pathology?  Rotations of pre-molars and asymmetric skeletal structure doesn’t look good.  That is, is this “Hobbit” a good model of it’s population?

Open Access Fossils?  Should more data be made available in an open format so that all scientists can have access to it?  Or would that increase the likelyhood of scientists getting “scooped”?