To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

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Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean

Science reports:

Odysseus, who voyaged across the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic, may have had some astonishingly ancient forerunners. A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

The finds strongly suggest that the urge to go to sea, and the cognitive and technological means to do so, predates modern humans, says Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who gave an overview of recent finds at a meeting here last week of the Society for American Archaeology. “The orthodoxy until pretty recently was that you don’t have seafarers until the early Bronze Age,” adds archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, an initial skeptic. “Now we are talking about seafaring Neandertals. It’s a pretty stunning change.”

Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication. The earliest known boat, found in the Netherlands, dates back only 10,000 years or so, and convincing evidence of sails only show up in Egypt’s Old Kingdom around 2500 B.C.E. Not until 2000 B.C.E. is there physical evidence that sailors crossed the open ocean, from India to Arabia.

But a growing inventory of stone tools and the occasional bone scattered across Eurasia tells a radically different story. (Wooden boats and paddles don’t typically survive the ages.) Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s mammals have shrunk dramatically, and meat-eating hominids are to blame

The Washington Post reports:

Life on Earth used to look a lot more impressive. Just a little more than 100,000 years ago, there were sloths as long as a giraffe is tall, monstrous bears whose shoulders were six feet off the ground, and Bunyanesque beavers that weighed as much as an NFL linebacker. But over time, all of these creatures disappeared in a manner so rapid and so mysterious that scientists still can’t fully explain what went down.

Did an asteroid discharge the mega-beasts, similar to the one thought to have snuffed out the dinosaurs? Or was it widespread climatic change or a plague of new diseases? Did our penchant for hunting play a role?

It’s likely that a combination of factors led to a planet-wide demise in sizable mammals as the Ice Age came to a close. But a study published Thursday in the journal Science provides evidence that the major drivers were humans and other hominids.

“We looked at the entire fossil record for 65 million years, in million-year increments, and we asked the question, ‘Is it ever bad to be big?’ ” said lead author Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico. For most of evolutionary history, the answer was no — larger body mass did not make an animal more likely to go extinct, she said. “For 65 million years, it didn’t matter what size you were.”

That is, until a new kind of predator arrived on the scene: Homo erectus. Around 1.8 million years ago, hominids that had long been dependent on plants became hominids that were “heavily and increasingly dependent on meat as a food source,” Smith said.

As these tool-wielding team hunters spread out from Africa, large-mammal extinctions followed. If you’re going to spend time and energy on a hunt, these early humans and their ancestors probably believed, it’s go big or go home.

“You hunt a rabbit, you have food for a small family for a day,” Smith said. “You hunt a mammoth, you feed the village.” [Continue reading…]

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Who first buried the dead?


Paige Madison writes:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call “human.” The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognized as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling, and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 centimeters across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness—especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualize the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilize. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behavior that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values, and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however. [Continue reading…]

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There’s no scientific basis for race — it’s a made-up label

 

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

In the first half of the 19th century, one of America’s most prominent scientists was a doctor named Samuel Morton. Morton lived in Philadelphia, and he collected skulls.

He wasn’t choosy about his suppliers. He accepted skulls scavenged from battlefields and snatched from catacombs. One of his most famous craniums belonged to an Irishman who’d been sent as a convict to Tasmania (and ultimately hanged for killing and eating other convicts). With each skull Morton performed the same procedure: He stuffed it with pepper seeds—later he switched to lead shot—which he then decanted to ascertain the volume of the braincase.

Morton believed that people could be divided into five races and that these represented separate acts of creation. The races had distinct characters, which corresponded to their place in a divinely determined hierarchy. Morton’s “craniometry” showed, he claimed, that whites, or “Caucasians,” were the most intelligent of the races. East Asians—Morton used the term “Mongolian”—though “ingenious” and “susceptible of cultivation,” were one step down. Next came Southeast Asians, followed by Native Americans. Blacks, or “Ethiopians,” were at the bottom. In the decades before the Civil War, Morton’s ideas were quickly taken up by the defenders of slavery.

“He had a lot of influence, particularly in the South,” says Paul Wolff Mitchell, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is showing me the skull collection, now housed at the Penn Museum. We’re standing over the braincase of a particularly large-headed Dutchman who helped inflate Morton’s estimate of Caucasian capacities. When Morton died, in 1851, the Charleston Medical Journal in South Carolina praised him for “giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.”

Today Morton is known as the father of scientific racism. So many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced to the idea that one race is inferior to another that a tour of his collection is a haunting experience. To an uncomfortable degree we still live with Morton’s legacy: Racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self.

This is the case even though what science actually has to tell us about race is just the opposite of what Morton contended. [Continue reading…]

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Rights of the dead and the living clash when scientists extract DNA from human remains

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Who gets to decide for the dead, such as this Egyptian mummy?
AP Photo/Ric Feld

By Chip Colwell, University of Colorado Denver

The remains of a 6-inch long mummy from Chile are not those of a space alien, according to recently reported research. The tiny body with its strange features – a pointed head, elongated bones – had been the subject of fierce debate over whether a UFO might have left it behind. The scientists gained access to the body, which is now in a private collection, and their DNA testing proved the remains are those of a human fetus. The undeveloped girl suffered from a bone disease and was the child of an unknown local Atacama woman.

This study was supposed to end the mummy’s controversy. Instead, it ignited another one.

The mummified fetus from the Atacama region of Chile.
Bhattacharya S et al. 2018, CC BY

Authorities in Chile have denounced the research. They believe a looter plundered the girl from her grave and illegally took her from the country. The Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology issued a damning statement. It asked, “Could you imagine the same study carried out using the corpse of someone’s miscarried baby in Europe or America?”

As an archaeologist, I share in the excitement around how technology and techniques to study DNA are leaping ahead. As never before, the mysteries of our bodies and histories are finding exciting answers – from the revelation that humans interbred with Neanderthals, to how Britain was populated, to the enigma of a decapitated Egyptian mummy.

But, I have also closely studied the history of collecting human remains for science. I am gravely concerned that the current “bone rush” to make new genetic discoveries has set off an ethical crisis.

[Read more…]

Neanderthals cared for each other and survived into old age – new research

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shutterstock

By James Ohman, Liverpool John Moores University and Asier Gomez-Olivencia, University of the Basque Country

When we think of Neanderthals, we often imagine these distant ancestors of ours to be rather brutish, dying at a young age and ultimately becoming extinct. But new findings show that at least some of these ancient Neanderthals survived into old age – despite suffering from sickness or diseases.

Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers, living in harsh environments, mostly colder than today. And of course they had to face different dangers to modern humans – not only during the hunt, but also because they shared ecosystems with large carnivores such as lions, leopards and hyenas.

But despite this harsh life of the hunter gatherer, our research indicates that some Neanderthals lived to be fairly old and even had some of the signs of age related illnesses – such as degenerative lesions in the spine, consistent with osteoarthritis. Our research also found that an adult male Neanderthal survived bone fractures. And when he died, he was buried by members of his group.

[Read more…]

The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’

Gavin Evans writes:

One of the strangest ironies of our time is that a body of thoroughly debunked “science” is being revived by people who claim to be defending truth against a rising tide of ignorance. The idea that certain races are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and pundits who portray themselves as noble dissidents, standing up for inconvenient facts. Through a surprising mix of fringe and mainstream media sources, these ideas are reaching a new audience, which regards them as proof of the superiority of certain races.

The claim that there is a link between race and intelligence is the main tenet of what is known as “race science” or, in many cases, “scientific racism”. Race scientists claim there are evolutionary bases for disparities in social outcomes – such as life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration rates – between racial groups. In particular, many of them argue that black people fare worse than white people because they tend to be less naturally intelligent.

Although race science has been repeatedly debunked by scholarly research, in recent years it has made a comeback. Many of the keenest promoters of race science today are stars of the “alt-right”, who like to use pseudoscience to lend intellectual justification to ethno-nationalist politics. If you believe that poor people are poor because they are inherently less intelligent, then it is easy to leap to the conclusion that liberal remedies, such as affirmative action or foreign aid, are doomed to fail.

There are scores of recent examples of rightwingers banging the drum for race science. In July 2016, for example, Steve Bannon, who was then Breitbart boss and would go on to be Donald Trump’s chief strategist, wrote an article in which he suggested that some black people who had been shot by the police might have deserved it. “There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent,” Bannon wrote, evoking one of scientific racism’s ugliest contentions: that black people are more genetically predisposed to violence than others. [Continue reading…]

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DNA from more than 900 ancient people trace the prehistoric migrations of our species

Carl Zimmer writes:

David Reich wore a hooded, white suit, cream-colored clogs, and a blue surgical mask. Only his eyes were visible as he inspected the bone fragments on the counter.

Dr. Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, pointed out a strawberry-sized chunk: “This is from a 4,000-year-old site in Central Asia — from Uzbekistan, I think.”

He moved down the row. “This is a 2,500-year-old sample from a site in Britain. This is Bronze Age Russian, and these are Arabian samples. These people would have never met each other in time or space.”

Dr. Reich hopes that his team of scientists and technicians can find DNA in these bones. Odds are good that they will.

In less than three years, Dr. Reich’s laboratory has published DNA from the genomes of 938 ancient humans — more than all other research teams working in this field combined. The work in his lab has reshaped our understanding of human prehistory.

“They often answer age-old questions and sometimes provide astonishing unanticipated insights,” said Svante Paabo, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Paleoanthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Dr. Reich, Dr. Paabo and other experts in ancient DNA are putting together a new history of humanity, one that runs in parallel with the narratives gleaned from fossils and written records. In Dr. Reich’s research, he and his colleagues have shed light on the peopling of the planet and the spread of agriculture, among other momentous events.

In a book to be published next week, “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” Dr. Reich, 43, explains how advances in DNA sequencing and analysis have helped this new field take off. [Continue reading…]

Evidence of complex cognitive abilities in humans more than 300,000 years ago

Gemma Tarlach writes:

Three papers, published together in Science today, add up to a paradigm-shoving conclusion: Key aspects of what we think of as modern human behavior evolved more than 300,000 years ago, a radical revision to the evolutionary timeline.

To understand the significance of the trio of studies, let’s take a brisk walk through recent changes in our understanding of human evolution. For decades, the consensus was that Homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago in Africa, with anatomically modern humans emerging 100,000 years ago and leaving their ancestral continent around 50,000 years ago.

In the past few years, however, a series of surprising fossil finds, as well as advanced genetic analysis, have smashed that old paradigm like an angry Hulk.

The new picture of human evolution just emerging is that our species is more than 300,000 years old and left Africa much earlier than we thought, beginning at least 120,000 years ago and possibly as early as 200,000 years ago. Genetic analysis suggests our species may be even older, and was already interbreeding with Neanderthals, up to 470,000 years ago.

Fossilized bones, and the ancient DNA researchers are sometimes able to extract from them, can only tell us so much, however. Often missing from the picture is how the individuals lived. While the timeline for the physical evolution of our species gets pushed further and further back, Homo sapiens are defined as much by their modern human behavior as the shape of their skull. Any early Homo sapiens running around might have looked at lot like us, the thinking went, but they didn’t act like us and weren’t capable of the same cognitive feats, such as symbolic thinking.

While there was no definitive date for the emergence of modern human behavior — after all, it was a process, not the flip of a switch — the nice, round number of 100,000 years ago has often been cited as a landmark. That’s about when some of the earliest evidence of modern human behavior, such assembling ochre-based compounds to create paint kits, appears.

Enter today’s studies, which take a multifaceted look at the Kenyan site of Olorgesailie. Taken in sum, the papers present evidence that gradual climate change drove humans to adapt to a new environment and altered food supply; the adaptations appear to include far-flung social and trade networks, advanced tool technology and manipulation of ochre, a variety of high-iron rock used throughout the human story as pigment. [Continue reading…]

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