A Pleistocene Person

Some thoughts on stuff.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Man the hunted

Potentially interesting new study presented at AAAS:
The popular view of our ancient ancestors as hunters who conquered all in their way is wrong, researchers have told a major US science conference. Instead, they argue, early humans were on the menu for predatory beasts. This may have driven humans to evolve increased levels of co-operation.
Humans on the run?

Seal scientists

Humans not up to the task of gaterhing data to answer your research question? What do you do? Use a proxy? Sophisticated technological equipment? An elephant seal?

Onbviously the answer is elephant seal:
Elephant seals on South Georgia have been recruited to the cause of science. Equipped with computerised tags stuck to their heads, the animals have been collecting remarkable new information on conditions in the Southern Ocean.

As the animals swim for thousands of km and dive down to 2,000 m, their tags record details of temperature, depth and the salinity of the water. When the seals pop up to breathe, the computers transmit the information to scientists in Scotland via satellite.
Low maintainence research assistants

I wonder if they can be persuaded to take up pollen analysis?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Good news

According to archaeoblog a notable archaeological site in Yorkshire appears like it will be saved from quarrying. This is good news, even if it is in Yorkshire.

I signed the petition some time ago and so am particularly pleased. Finally, a petition that may have made a difference.

CONTROVERSIAL plans for sand and gravel quarrying near Thornborough Henges in North Yorkshire look set to founder as new research offers further evidence the ancient monument was aligned with the stars.

Councillors have been urged to turn down an application to quarry 112 acres of land on a site just over half a mile away from the henges at Ladybridge Farm, near Masham, amid claims they are of national importance.
Not so grim up't north

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Muslims invites Iranian pres. to Auschwitz

Thought this was pretty cool. Sends out an excellent message:

From the European Jewish Press

A Muslim cultural institue in German on Monday criticised Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for disparaging the Holocaust, daring him to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"In this place of horror he can again deny the Holocaust, if he has the courage," a spokesman for the Islam-Archiv-Deutschland Central Institute told the German Catholic press agency KNA.

In recent statements, the hardline Iranian president has dismissed the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of mainland Europe’s Jews as a "myth" used to justify the creation of Israel and called for the state to be "wiped off the map".
By denying the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad not only denigrated the Jewish victims of the genocide but also the 200,000 Roms and Arabs murdered in the "gypsy camp" of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps, the institute spokesman said.

The fact that the president of an Islamic state repeated Nazi anti-Semitism was harmful to the image of Islam and "a disgrace for all the world’s Muslims", he added.

The Berlin-based institute, founded in 1927, is the oldest Muslim body in Germany.

It has been dedicated to preserving the community’s archives since the 18th century and fostering relations between Muslims and other religions.

A controversial contest for cartoons of the Holocaust was launched in Iran on Monday in a tit-for-tat move over European newspaper publications of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that have angered Muslims worldwide.

The first entry was said to be from renowned Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig, according to the website organising the competition with Iran’s biggest-selling newspaper Hamshahri.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Climate prediction

Check this out and contribute to science! I wonder if they will let everone involved get their names on a final paper? I'm sure it would still have fewer authors than some of the ice core studies!

BBC story and climate prediction website

Mexican footprints

The latest installment of the Mexican footprints controversy continues. Funnily enough, it actually continues with what should have been the first stage of the issue - the inital arguments by Sylvia Gonzalez et al.

To summarise;

1) a joint UK-Mexican team announce the find of footprints in Mexico dated to around 40,000 years ago. Announcement recieves wide coverage in popular media but is not yet published in the literature.

2) responses come in. Some are sceptical that the observed features are footprints. Paul Renne then go on to do some good old geochronology. They get dates of 1.3 Myr and publish this in Nature. They also then announce results from palaeomagnetic studies that support an old date such as this.

3) The original study published with a footnote at the end providing something of a response to Renne. Some of the original authors have asked to be removed from the paper, though are happy to let their data be used.

Clearly the above order is screwed up. This isn't how such things can happen, particularly not in the notorously er 'difficult' debate on the peopling of the Americas.

Is the Gonzalez response convincing? Well, maybe, sort of, kinda. They maintain that they have found footprints and they also note that (as yet) stratigraphic evidence does not support the dates of Renne et al. They do admit that there are two competing sets of dates that in purely geochronological terms both seem pretty solid. To my mind, the most challenging data is the palaeomag (it is easier to interpret in some ways) and they do note the limited nature of the Renne sample in this regard. Basically they argue for more time to investigate this dating dichotomy, which isn't entirely unreasonable. I tend to side with Renne here, but I'm not ruling out a surprise yet.

In my mind, the debate should have kicked off only after people had read the evidence for the supposed footprints. After all, they are a pretty crucial issue here. It is not out of the realms of possibility that they are both footprints and 1.3 million years old. Renne et al dismiss the notion of footprints on the basis of age and this is simply not good science.

The stratigraphic evidence is also important and has a significant impact upon the validity of Renne's claims. Again, he should have waited to see this laid out, rather than desperately rushing to get a Nature paper published. I happen to believe that Nature should have refused his manuscript; they seem to have gone ahead simply because it is a big story (gasp!). Not acceptable.

Even if this ends in 'defeat' for Gonzalez et al, we should not lose sight that the paradigms surrounding the peopling of the America's require a healthy scepticism and rigorous testing. Just because this may not work out, don't be surprised if we eventually find irrefutible evidence of early occupation.

Anyway, here is the abstract:

Gonzalez, S. et al. (2006) Human footprints in Central Mexico older than 40,000 years. Quaternary Science Reviews, 25, 201-222.

The timing, route and origin of the first colonization to the Americas remains one of the most contentious topics in human evolution. A number of migration routes have been suggested and there are different views as to the antiquity of the earliest human occupation. Some believe that settlement happened as early as 30 ka BP, but most of the currently accepted early sites in North America date to the latest Pleistocene, related to the expansion of the Clovis culture, while the oldest directly radiocarbon dated human remains are 11.5 ka BP. In this context new evidence is presented in this paper, in the form of human footprints preserved in indurated volcanic ash, to suggest that Central Mexico was inhabited as early as over 40 ka BP.

Human and animal footprints have been found within the upper bedding surfaces of the Xalnene volcanic ash layer that outcrops in the Valsequillo Basin, south of Puebla, Mexico. This ash layer was produced by a subaqueous monogenetic volcano erupting within a palaeo-lake, dammed by lava within the Valsequillo Basin during the Pleistocene. The footprints were formed during low stands in lake level along the former shorelines and indicate the presence of humans, deer, canids, big felids, and probably camels and bovids. The footprints were buried by ash and lake sediments as lake levels rose and transgressed across the site. The ash has been dated to at least 40 ka BP by OSL dating of incorporated, baked lake sediments.

Modern human origins

Its a bit late, but I thought that for anyone who hasn't heard of the new study by Alan Templeton, I would make reference to it here. Basically, its something of a departure from the Out of Africa paradigm.

There has been a fair bit of comment in the blogosphere:

John Hawks (an evil multiregionalist for those who don't know!)


Carl Zimmer

The abstract is as follows:

Templeton, A.R. (2006) Haplotype Trees and Modern Human Origins. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 128, 33-59.

A haplotype is a multisite haploid genotype at two or more polymorphic sites on the same chromosome in a defined DNA region. An evolutionary tree of the haplotypes can be estimated if the DNA region had little to no recombination. Haplotype trees can be used to reconstruct past human gene-flow patterns and historical events, but any single tree captures only a small portion of evolutionary history, and is subject to error. A fuller view of human evolution requires multiple DNA regions, and errors can be minimized by cross-validating inferences across loci. An analysis of 25 DNA regions reveals an out-of-Africa expansion event at 1.9 million years ago. Gene flow with isolation by distance was established between African and Eurasian populations by about 1.5 million years ago, with no detectable interruptions since. A second out-of-Africa expansion occurred about 700,000 years ago, and involved interbreeding with at least some Eurasian populations. A third out-of-Africa event occurred around 100,000 years ago, and was also characterized by interbreeding, with the hypothesis of a total Eurasian replacement strongly rejected (P <>-17). This does not preclude the possibility that some Eurasian populations could have been replaced, and the status of Neanderthals is indecisive. Demographic inferences from haplotype trees have been inconsistent, so few definitive conclusions can be made at this time. Haplotype trees from human parasites offer additional insights into human evolution and raise the possibility of an Asian isolate of humanity, but once again not in a definitive fashion. Haplotype trees can also indicate which genes were subject to positive selection in the lineage leading to modern humans. Genetics provides many insights into human evolution, but those insights need to be integrated with fossil and archaeological data to yield a fuller picture of the origin of modern humans.

More sad news

Found out today that John Wymer, an influential figure in British Palaeolithic archaeology, has died at the age of 77. John produced a substantial body of work from outside of the university system which is a refreshing situation.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Darwin Day

Yes, the most important day of the year is here. Nope, not Christmas Day, Ede, Good Friday, the Fa Cup Final, but Darwin Day!

Check out the festivities for the great man.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Professor Sir Nicholas Shackleton 1937-2006

One of the great scientists of our field has passed away. His contribution to Quaternary Science and our understanding of the way the earth system works is incalcuable.

A tribute website at Cambridge:


His obituary in The Times:


A true great of Geology; his name will take its place alongside Lyell, Hutton and the rest.

The Wedge

For those who have nosed around the ID issue, The Wedge will be a familiar document. For those who haven't, in a nutshell it was a document formulated in the late '90s by what is now known as the Discovery Instiute which outlined the broad aims and methods of the ID movement.

It was leaked and has proven something of an embarassment; this is for a number of reasons, principally because it suggests (being kind here) that the ultimate goal of the movement is religious.

Anyway, here is a copy, just released, in its original form (and easier to read). Some useful background info from the recent star witness at the Dover trial can be found here.