Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Neanderthal legs and feet — suited to sprinting

By Anna Goldfield If you’re like me, you view long-distance running as a somewhat unrealistic aspiration and see those people who do it well as remarkable creatures. The truth, though, is that Homo sapiens are well-designed for loping along for long distances across open landscapes—especially when compared to Neanderthals. They had legs and feet that, recent research suggests, were better suited to sprinting, squatting, and hilly hiking than to running.

Humans, the outlier primates, xenophobic one minute, tolerant the next

By Christian Jarrett Whether they are proposing to build a wall or to exit an international coalition, populist politicians like to pitch themselves as keeping ‘outsiders’ at bay, and it clearly strikes a chord with their home crowd. To understand this phenomenon, evolutionary and social psychologists have offered a simple explanation. Humans, we’re told, have a deep-rooted inclination to mistrust ‘the other’ – people who do not belong to our

Fast evolution explains the tiny stature of extinct ‘Hobbit’ from Flores Island

An Indonesian island was home to H. Floresiensis – but how did the dwarfed human species evolve? areza taqwim/ By José Alexandre Felizola Diniz-Filho, Universidade Federal de Goias and Pasquale Raia, University of Naples Federico II It’s not every day that scientists discover a new human species. But that’s just what happened back in 2004, when archaeologists uncovered some very well-preserved fossil remains in the Liang Bua cave on Flores

Should the story of early humans’ dispersal out of Africa be rewritten?

By Richard Kemeny Giancarlo Scardia was in Jordan in 2013 as the Syrian Civil War ground on. He recalls seeing refugees gathered in giant camps and military aircraft moving toward the border. But Scardia, a geologist based at São Paulo State University in Brazil, wasn’t there to observe the conflict—his interest was in a much older story. Buried within layers of sediment in the Zarqa Valley in northern Jordan was

Do human beings have an instinct for engaging in warfare?

David P Barash writes: The most serious problem with [the American anthropologist Napoleon] Chagnon’s influence on our understanding of human nature [through his study of the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan/Brazilian Amazon] is one familiar to many branches of science: generalising from one data set — however intensive — to a wider universe of phenomena. Academic psychologists, for example, are still reeling from a 2010 study by the University of

Ancient farmers irreversibly altered Earth’s face by 3000 years ago

Mohi Kumar writes: When we think of how humans have altered the planet, greenhouse gas warming, industrial pollution, and nuclear fallout usually spring to mind. But now, a new study invites us to think much further back in time. Humans have been altering landscapes planetwide for thousands of years: since at least 1000 B.C.E., by which time people in regions across the globe had abandoned foraging in favor of continually

Myths about the Stone Age

By Stephen E. Nash When most members of the general public think of the Stone Age, they probably envision an adult male hominin wielding a stone tool. That picture is laughably incomplete. It assumes that only adult males made and used stone tools, and that stones were the only materials in these ancient people’s everyday tool kits. Both assumptions are at best questionable; at worst, they are simply wrong. First,

Hand gestures point towards the origins of language

There are few one-offs in life on Earth – rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words and sentences, which when combined with grammatical rules, convey complex ideas.  There were attempts in the 1950s to teach chimpanzees to ‘speak’ some words,

Gregory Bateson changed the way we think about changing ourselves

Tim Parks writes: [F]or Bateson the only worthy object of study appeared to be human behaviour, the kind of complex circumstances – the war, British academia, his family background – that had created the drama he was living through. What he would eventually do was to use the tools of observation and analysis that his father taught him, the zoologist’s attention to patterning and morphology, to bring a fresh approach

Neanderthals were nearly as right-handed as modern humans

By Anna Goldfield The human body is often visualized as a symmetrical form: Picture the geometric precision of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic drawing of a man’s proportions encased by a circle and square. In reality, we are actually quite lopsided. Most people have a dominant ear; the same is true for eyes, feet, and hands. Handedness is perhaps the most obvious of these asymmetries. From the time most children first

Oldest human skull outside Africa identified as 210,000 years old

Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock By Anthony Sinclair, University of Liverpool A 210,000-year-old human skull could provide new evidence that our species left Africa much earlier than previously thought. A new study published in Nature of two fossils found in Greece in the 1970s shows that one of them is the oldest Homo sapiens specimen ever found outside Africa by more than 50,000 years. This exciting discovery adds to a list of recent

Ancient humans used the moon as a calendar in the sky

Rebecca Boyle writes: The sun’s rhythm may have set the pace of each day, but when early humans needed a way to keep time beyond a single day and night, they looked to a second light in the sky. The moon was one of humankind’s first timepieces long before the first written language, before the earliest organized cities and well before structured religions. The moon’s face changes nightly and with

What does anthropology say about the emotional lives of others?

Andrew Beatty writes: In his classic thought experiment set out in ‘What Is An Emotion?’ (1884), William James, pioneer psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, tried to imagine what would be left of emotion if you subtracted the bodily symptoms. What, for example, would grief be ‘without its tears, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breastbone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing

The power of seeing what is not there

In a review of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s, Out of Our Minds: A History of What We Think and How We Think, Philip Marsden writes: Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human

Farming may have helped introduce ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds to language 12,000 years ago

The Atlantic reports: Thousands of years ago, small groups of humans across the globe began to transition from hunting and gathering their food to raising and planting it instead. They milked cattle, milled grains to make soft bread, and used new inventions like pottery to preserve meat and vegetables. And once they did that, they could start spicing up their speech by throwing some f and v sounds into the

Prehistoric humans invented stone tools multiple times, study finds

The Independent reports: Prehistoric humans invented tools on multiple occasions, according to researchers who have found a collection of 327 stone weapons carved more than 2.58 million years ago. This is the first evidence of ancient hominids sharpening stones to create specific tools, according to new research led by Arizona State University and George Washington University. The collection of “Oldowan” tools – which are created by chipping off bits of