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  • July 1, 2010
  • 12:08 PM

What's eating you? - Bugs, bacteria, and zombies

by Laelaps in Laelaps

The trailer for Shaun of the Dead.

Not all zombies are created equal. The most popular zombie archetype is a shambling, brain-eating member of the recently deceased, but, in recent films from 28 Days Later to Zombieland, the definition of what a zombie is or isn't has become more complicated. Does a zombie have to be a cannibal corpse, or can a zombie be someone infected with a virus which turns them into a blood-crazed, fast-running monster?

For my own part, I have always preferred the classic George Romero zombies from the original Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead films (as well as my most favorite of zombie films, Shaun of the Dead). The shuffling, groaning masses not only deliver social commentary in spades - i.e. our transformation into mindless consumers inextricably drawn to shopping malls - but the prospect of slowly being closed in by a seemingly unstoppable horde is far more frightening than any sprinting zombie. Nevertheless, there is one thing that bugs me about zombie movies in the classic vein - where are all the flesh-eating insects? Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • June 29, 2010
  • 05:44 PM

Social Networks Help World Cup Spectators Cope With Chance

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Given the reduced volume of World Cup related posts in my Twitter and Facebook streams, it appears that soccer fever is abating the in US. The reach of the World Cup has been far this year, thanks in part to the role of social media outlets in encouraging discussion and raising awareness about the sport. For a few weeks, Twitter and Facebook were inundated with World Cup related posts, with

... Read more »

  • June 27, 2010
  • 01:15 PM

How did the victims of the Plinean Eruption of Vesuvius die?

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

Even at the most extreme edges of the flow of stuff out of the volcano Pompeii, at the far edge of the mud and ash that came from the volcano's explosion, the heat was sufficient to instantly kill everyone, even those inside their homes.

And that is how the people at Pompeii, who's remains were found trapped and partly preserved within ghostly body-shaped tombs within that pyroclastic flow, died. They did not suffocate. They did not get blown apart by force. They did not die of gas poisoning. They simply cooked. Instantly. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • June 23, 2010
  • 07:11 PM

Kadanuumuu: All about the torso!

by zinjanthropus in A Primate of Modern Aspect

A new fossil discovered by Yohannes Haile-Selassie has been announced this week in the PNAS. The partial skeleton, nick-named Kadanuumuu, or “Big Man,” is taxonomically consistent with other postcranial fossils belonging to Australopithecus afarensis. But, there are a few interesting and notable bones represented in this fossil which amend our understanding of how early Australopithecus [...]... Read more »

Haile-Selassie, Y., Latimer, B., Alene, M., Deino, A., Gibert, L., Melillo, S., Saylor, B., Scott, G., & Lovejoy, C. (2010) An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1004527107  

  • June 23, 2010
  • 05:37 PM

Ancient "Big Man" Confirms That Humans Stood Tall Early

by Laelaps in Laelaps

The skeletons of Lucy (left) and Kadanuumuu (right). Both belong to the early human species Australopithecus afarensis. (Images not to scale.)

I never fully appreciated how small Lucy was until I saw her bones for myself. Photographs and restorations of her and her kin within the species Australopithecus afarensis had never really given me a proper sense of scale, and when I looked over her incomplete skeleton - formally known as specimen A.L. 288-1 - I was struck by her diminutive proportions. In life she would have only been about three and a half feet tall. Her physical stature seemed to be inversely proportional to the influence her bones have had on our understanding of our origins.

As it turns out, Lucy was small even compared to members of her own species. Although it is unlikely to diminish her notoriety, this week a team of paleoanthropologists led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie have released the description of another, older partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis discovered by Alemayehu Asfaw in the famous Afar region of Ethiopia. The discovery of this skeleton marks only the second time that parts of the forelimbs and hindlimbs of one individual A. afarensis have been found together, and it provides some new insights insights into how early humans moved. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Haile-Selassie, Y., Latimer, B., Alene, M., Deino, A., Gibert, L., Melillo, S., Saylor, B., Scott, G., & Lovejoy, C. (2010) An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1004527107  

  • June 22, 2010
  • 11:50 AM

Homo sapiens can bite hard, after all

by Laelaps in Laelaps

Three-dimensional models of hominoid skulls used in the study - (a) Hylobates lar; (b) Pongo pygmaeus; (c) Pan troglodytes; (d) Gorilla gorilla; (e) Australopithecus africanus; (f ) Paranthropus boisei; (g) Homo sapiens. They have been scaled to the same surface area, and the colors denote areas of stress (blue = minimal stress, pink = high stress). From Wroe et al, 2010.

It is all too easy to think of human evolution in linear terms. From our 21st century vantage point we can look back through Deep Time for the first glimmerings of the traits we see in ourselves, and despite what we have come to know about the undirected, branching pattern of evolution, the origin of our species is often portrayed as a slow rise from the ape in which brains eventually overtook brute strength. One of the most prominent examples of this was modifications made to our jaws. It has been widely assumed that, compared to apes and our extinct hominin relatives, we have relatively weak jaws - why should we need to exert heavy bite forces if our lineage developed tools to process food before it entered our mouths? It was our relatives among the robust australopithecines - namely Paranthropus - which obviously developed the strongest jaws, but a new study just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B questions these long-held assumptions.

As outlined in the introduction of the paper by Stephen Wroe, Toni Ferrara, Colin McHenry, Darren Curnoe, and Uphar Chamoli, the hypothesis that our species has a diminished bite force has primarily been based upon the study of other, obviously heavier-jawed hominins. On the surface this would seem to make sense - our jaws are nowhere near as robust as those of those of the multiple species of Paranthropus - yet our teeth seem well-suited to withstanding heavy bite forces. Among living apes, for example, we have the thickest amount of enamel, one of several features we posses which are consistent with the ability of teeth to withstand strong bites. Some have argued that these features are holdovers from when our prehistoric ancestors required stronger bites to process tough foods, but the team behind the new paper decided to create a detailed test which compared the bite mechanics of our species to some of our close hominin and hominid relatives, both living and extinct. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Wroe, S., Ferrara, T., McHenry, C., Curnoe, D., & Chamoli, U. (2010) The craniomandibular mechanics of being human. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0509  

  • June 22, 2010
  • 11:05 AM

Standardized Time and Power Relations

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Whose Time do we live in? Time zones have set standards in keeping with longitudinal boundaries so that we share a clock experience that is often managed by an urban center. I am not the first to note, however, that these standards of Time overlook local, social definitions of Time. Though these local definitions persist, they are not generally the norm adhered to when individuals interact both

... Read more »

  • June 22, 2010
  • 08:19 AM

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology in Switzerland – where we stand now

by M. Cornelissen in hazelnut_relations

As usual, the 2010 Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz vol. 93 includes a list of newly discovered and excavated sites. It is no surprise that the number of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites discovered or investigated in 2009 is relatively low in comparison to the number of sites from most later prehistoric, roman and medieval periods. The figure [...]... Read more »

Huber, R. . (2010) Neue Territorien in Sicht! Wildbeutergesellschaften der Alt- und Mittelsteinzeit. Archäologie Schweiz, 33(2), 15-21. info:/

  • June 22, 2010
  • 12:39 AM

Wetherill Day

by teofilo in Gambler's House

One hundred years ago today, Richard Wetherill was shot and killed by Chischilly Begay near the western end of Chaco Canyon.  That much is clear, but the circumstances surrounding Wetherill’s death are otherwise murky.  The same could be said for his life and legacy. Wetherill was an enormously important figure to the history of archaeological [...]... Read more »

  • June 20, 2010
  • 10:02 AM

The paternity myth: the rarity of cuckoldry

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

An urban myth, often asserted with a wink & a nod in some circles, is that a very high proportion of children in Western countries are not raised by their biological father, and in fact are not aware that their putative biological father is not their real biological father. The numbers I see and hear [...]... Read more »

  • June 18, 2010
  • 07:00 PM

Heat treating stone for tools: Ethnoarchaeological insights

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

I'm rereading a terrific paper by Kathryn W. Arthur (2010), in which she describes the acquisition and development of stone tool manufacture and maintenance among a group of Konso women in SW Ethiopia (the stone tools they produce they subsequently use in hideworking) . While I'll have much more to say about it in its own right, since I've been doing a bit of thinking about prehistoric heat treating of lithic raw material these past few days, I was struck by this passage:The majority of hideworkers using chalcedony and milkyquartz begin production by heat treating the raw material tomake it more brittle for reduction. The hideworker placesthe raw material on top of a broken piece of pottery withan insulator such as leaves, domesticated animal hair, wool,cotton, or additional pottery sherds in a pit under her hearth.There she leaves the stone for as little as 12 hours and up to three months. Once she “cooks” the stone, she then letsit cool for at least one day. Konso women knappers usedifferent heat-treating methods based on the size, type, andquality of the raw material to increase the flakeability of thestone. (Arthur 2010: 234, emphasis added)If this account is at all a reflection of what went on in prehistory, this is a huge span of time during which material is exposed to heat. And this observation got me to thinking about the recent study by Brown et al. (2009), where they determined that Middle Stone Age hominins in southenr Africa by 72,000 years BP at the site of Pinnacle Point 5-6 (and maybe as far back as 164ky BP in the area as a whole), used 'pyrotechnology' to alter the properties of locally obtained silcrete to make it easier to work, notably to produce fine bifacial points. Brown et al.'s study is especially noteworthy in that they propose what are, to my knowledge, the first set of objective criteria that can be used to both identify heat treatment as well as to quantitatively assess how much more 'flakable' stone becomes after heat treatment. These include thermoluminescence, archaeomagnetism, and gloss/reflectance. This in itself is a big step forward for future studies of heat treatment as they set a new level of analytical rigor that now has to be matched by future studies interested in demonstrating that heat treating took place in the past. It also establishes the need for experimental protocols in such efforts.Going back to the Arthur (2010) paper, though, I was struck by this section of the supplementary material provided for their study by Brown et al. (2009), in which they discuss their experimental protocol to replicate the effect of heat treating on silcrete:Two methods were employed to heat treat experimental silcrete samples. In the first, we placed raw material and a thermocouple probe (type K) within a sand bath approximately 2-3 cm below the surface. A fire was then built over the sand containing the silcrete. The temperature of the silcrete was slowly built up to ~350º C over a period of approximately 5 hours and then gradually cooled to ~40º C (usually overnight) before the blanks were removed from the sand. Temperature was monitored and recorded using a J-Kem HHM-40 handheld temperature meter and data logger. Fires required approximately 20 kg of dried hardwood per 3 kg of stone. In the second method, we heated samples in a Gallenkamp muffle furnace fitted with an external J-Kem programmable temperature controller (Model 360/Timer-K). The controller was programmed to slowly ramp the temperature of the furnace to 350º C over 5 hours. This temperature was held constant for 12 hours and then dropped slowly to 40º C before removal of the blanks. (Brown et al. 2010: S2-3)Now, this is clearly a different setting under which to heat material. Further, Arthur's ethnoarchaeological observations don't indicate how hot is the fire that lithic nodules are exposed to, not whether or not the 12 hours is more frequent than the three months she mentions as one extreme of the spectrum of heating duration. She also doesn't describe how much better the stone was after heating, or after different lengths of exposure to heat, and the raw materials being heated in both studies are also very different. These factors mean that it's not possible to directly assess the comparability of the Konso observations to those from the MSA at Pinnacle Point. However, if they are at all comparable, it does suggest that the lengths of time employed in Brown et al.'s replicative work woulf fall at the lower end of the durations for which lithic raw material must be heated to acquire better properties.Why does this matter? It matters because it has important implications for how long fires must have kept going in the past for heat treating to be effective. This, in turn, has implications for how much fuel must have been available for heat treatment to be a feasible undertaking. Perhaps most importantly, it also has implications about the labor that must have gone into tending these fires to make sure they didn't go out. If stone was heated continuously for, say, 24 or 48 hours, it implies that someone must have remained relatively close to that hearth for that duration, which imposes some limitations about how mobile that person (or those persons) might have been. If, as Arthur (2010) argues, women may have been in charge of some aspects of lithic production such as heat treating, it implies that males and females may have had different economic roles going back quite a ways in the Late Pleistocene, a topic we've discussed at AVRPI before.References:Arthur, Kathryn Weedman (2010). Feminine Knowledge and Skill Reconsidered: Women and Flaked Stone Tools American Anthropologist, 112 (2), 228-243 : 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01222.xBrown, K., Marean, C., Herries, A., Jacobs, Z., Tribolo, C., Braun, D., Roberts, D., Meyer, M., & Bernatchez, J. (2009). Fire As an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans Science, 325 (5942), 859-862 DOI: 10.1126/science.1175028... Read more »

Arthur, Kathryn Weedman. (2010) Feminine Knowledge and Skill Reconsidered: Women and Flaked Stone Tools. American Anthropologist, 112(2), 228-243. info:/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01222.x

Brown, K., Marean, C., Herries, A., Jacobs, Z., Tribolo, C., Braun, D., Roberts, D., Meyer, M., & Bernatchez, J. (2009) Fire As an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans. Science, 325(5942), 859-862. DOI: 10.1126/science.1175028  

  • June 17, 2010
  • 06:25 PM

Faith and Science at the World Science Festival - 2010

by Kristopher Hite in Tom Paine's Ghost

Before the event took place there was much consternation abuzz on the blogosphere over the cast of characters chosen to speak at the Faith and Science event held as part of the 2010 World Science Festival.  Sean Carrol of Cosmic Variance being the first vocal critic with Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne re-posting Carroll's critique on their respective homepages. Other discussions of the event can be seen at Thoughts from Kansas, Uncertain Principles, and evolutionblog. The panel included evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, cosmologist and physicist Paul Davies, biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa.

Dr. Brian Greene - festival founder - kicked off the panel by getting in front of the audience and thanking his mother, brother, and two sisters - all in attendance -  for their shared life of cosmic discussions.  From this familial focal point he explained the purpose of the event - open discussion.  He described the array of religious viewpoints in his own family and how, despite their differences, they are able to discuss big questions with open ears. Dr. Greene also took time to thank the foundations that made the festival possible. 

This was my first time attending the World Science Festival as I signed up to volunteer months ago, otherwise I have no affiliation with WSF or any of the funding foundations. My thoughts are my own and I feel I am in a position to judge this event without bias. I have kept my finger on the pulse of the "new-atheist" vs. "religious apologist" debate for years and always come to the same conclusion. Talking about something controversial, whether it be  cold fusion, God, or intrinsically disordered proteins, is better than not talking about it. I am a biochemist and not religious but I do see great value in discussion, even among those diametrically opposed. One of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Bernard Rollin said in thanking his colleagues at the front of his book Science and Ethics "Plato is right; thought is dialogue, people in lively discussion, not Rodin's isolated Cartesian." Though I understand the criticism flung at this event, I feel an event whose mission is to bring science into the public sphere must include such a discussion, as religion plays such a prominent role in the lives of so many around the globe.

Bill Blakemore, decorated journalist of ABC News, moderated the panel. He began by asking each panelist to give an image and a musical composition they felt best displayed the intersection between science and faith.

As a full disclosure, the two scientists on the panel - Dr. Ayala and Dr. Davies are Templeton prize winners. This fact is given as reason for the preemptive criticisms from the blogosphere as the Templeton prize awards a scientist each year that takes "remarkable steps affirming life's spiritual dimensions." The new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne have taken to boycotting anything receiving funds from said foundation which puts their blogging minions in a stir.  Despite the boycott the event did happen and there were some worthy morsels of dialogue though there were no fireworks. 

What follows is my transcription of the dialogue. I attempt to type out exactly what was said while inserting some thoughts of my own.

 Blakemore was quick to fire some poignant questions beginning with Dr. Fransisco Ayala. He asked "What are your feelings towards religion... are you religious?"

Alaya replied by saying "Whether I am religious or not it is very important for my family. But, for my public image I am not prepared to declare my position on religion."

Ayala chose El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla as his musical piece. The image he chose was painted in "a fit of manic energy" in protest by Pablo Picasso. Titled "Guernica" after the town in Spain. Guernica was a spiritual center for the Basques where the Biscayne assembly had historically met under a sacred oak tree.  Under command of dictator Francisco Franco, Nazi planes attacked the city of Guernica on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The day of the bombing 1,700 people out of a population of 7,000 were killed. Ayala used this painting to illustrate what science can and cannot do for human understanding. Science can tell us the physical descriptions of what Guernica is. We can know the pigments used, the coordinates of the brush strokes, but this austere description does not tell the story of Guernica. There is no meaning, no purpose in this dry description.

He reasoned that science simply deals with the composition of matter whereas religion gives things purpose and meaning. He described his view as science and religion as two different windows looking into the SAME world. Blakemore reiterated TWO WINDOWS. He neglected to reiterate SAME WORLD. This is a twist on the old NOMA philosophy, or Non-overlapping magisteria approach to the science and religion discussion promoted by prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The difference being, in NOMA, science and faith are mutually exclusive. Ayala described his personal academic journey from the study of physics to biology, specifically focusing on human evolution. Though Ayala was not forthcoming with his personal convictions on faith and God he was very clear about his feelings toward creationism. He took the opportunity to slam creationism as a fallacy comparing its teaching in public schools with teaching alchemy and witchcraft.

"There is no place for creationism in science classrooms."

I was glad to see Dr. Ayala take such a strong stance on at least one issue.  The fear many non-compatibilist atheists have is the old "give 'em an inch, and they'll take a mile" mentality.  Granted, when the lives of children are involved I can see where this fear is warranted.  If faith in God is considered higher than any human form of medical help and "faith healing" is given equal merit to proven medical procedures then we have a problem.  Watching Ayala put his foot down on creationism gives me hope that reason can rule the day in such instances.

Blakemore then asked "Does science give us hope?"

Ayala answered "I don't think so. Not 'hope' as we understand it in a religious context."

Next Blakemore moved on to Paul Davies who chose "Jupit... Read more »

  • June 16, 2010
  • 03:13 PM

The Evolution of Hip Hop (by Natural Selection)

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

When most people think of evolutionary biology the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't lyrical poetry. However one of the earliest proponents of evolution, none other than Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, presented his vision for the origin of life in the form of an epic poem in 1803. In his critically acclaimed work The Temple of Nature Darwin mused on the natural history of human beings:

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

Now, two hundred years later, the poetic vision of evolution has been updated for the 21st century. In the July issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution (subscription required), nestled in between their review of A Philosophical View of Biology and an editorial on "Linking the Emergence of Fungal Plant Diseases with Ecological Speciation," biologist Paul Craze reviews what, in all likelihood, is the first review of a hip hop album to ever grace this esteemed journal's pages. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Craze, P. (2010) The hip-hop Richard Dawkins?. Trends in Ecology , 25(7), 385-386. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.04.008  

  • June 16, 2010
  • 08:49 AM

Were The Americas Settled Twice?

by in

A team of paleoanthropologists report in PLoS One analyzed the skulls of several dozen 11,000 year old Paleoamericans and compared them to the skulls of more than 300 1,000 year old Amerindians. They concluded that based on the morphology, there were two distinct waves of colonizers from Asia. While we know from a couple genetic [...]... Read more »

  • June 16, 2010
  • 07:45 AM

How Specific Are The Social Skills of Dogs?

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

Dogs are particularly good at tasks that involve communicating or cooperating with humans, which has led some researchers to speculate that they are really good at solving social tasks, more generally. For example, dogs can figure out where a human's attention is, are really good at picking up on eye-gaze and finger pointing cues, distinguish among different individual humans (by contrast, humans are really bad at distinguishing among different individual monkeys, for example), and at least in one outstanding case, are capable of "fast mapping."

Relative to non-human primates, domestic dogs indeed seem to have exceptional social skills. For example, previous research has demonstrated that dogs are able to use human social cues to find hidden food while non-human primates do not. Furthermore, cross-sectional studies of dogs and puppies of different ages, as well as longitudinal studies which track the development of individual puppies, have indicated that dogs do not require extensive exposure to humans to skillfully use those cues (though training enhances their skill). By contrast, wolf pups do require extensive exposure to humans to be able to extract meaning from human social cues such as eye-gaze and finger-pointing. So, while both dogs and wolves are able to understand human social cues, the domestication of dogs seems to have selected for this trait and allowed it to emerge early in development without much experience.

Figure 1: Gratuitous picture of my dog? Sure, why not?

But these studies of social cognition in dogs have had one common theme, which is that they all tested social cognition in the context of a communicative-cooperative task. But do dogs' social skills extend beyond this narrow context? In non-communicative or non-cooperative social tasks, are dogs' social skills otherwise unremarkable? The distinction is not trivial; social information comes in various forms beyond explicit communication. For example, various non-human primate species are known to alter their behavior when trying to steal food from a human, according to whether or not that human is watching them. This is surely a social problem, but one devoid of explicit communication or cooperation.

Two researchers with whom the regular reader of this blog should now be familiar, Victoria Wobber (who ran the bonobo testosterone study I mentioned in the review of Bonobo Handshake) and Brian Hare, wonder to what extent dogs can reason about the social world more broadly. Specifically, would their impressive social skills persist in a task that did not involve cooperative communication? They compared dogs and chimpanzees in two versions of a reversal learning task: non-social and social. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • June 15, 2010
  • 11:34 AM

Anthropology, Primatology, and the Definition of Culture: Reply to Sperber

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Chimpanzees have culture (or not) depending on your definition.Image: Irish Wildcat / Creative Commons

Author's Note: The following is an expansion on my reply to anthropologist Dan Sperber on the PLoS ONE article "Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees."

Culture is like art or pornography, it's hard for people to define but everyone knows it when they see it. Cultural anthropologists have long struggled to develop a consistent definition of the very thing that they study, a problem that has resulted in bitter arguments between scholars that, to an outsider, may seem as esoteric as church doctrinal disputes over how many angels can sit upon the point of a needle.

In his 1959 book The Evolution of Culture anthropologist Leslie White famously defined culture as "the extra-somatic means of adaptation for the human organism." His goal was to bring some consistency to a field that had 164 separate definitions of "culture" being used interchangeably in the anthropological literature (which, predictably, made cross-cultural comparisons challenging at best). Today, this view has expanded beyond the human animal and a widely accepted definition is from Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd's celebrated work Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution:

Culture is information capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.

By information, we mean any kind of mental state, conscious or not, that is
acquired or modified by social learning, and affects behavior.

Earlier I reported on a new study in PLoS ONE by Victoria Horner, Darby Proctor, Kristin E. Bonnie, Andrew Whiten, and Frans de Waal that found chimpanzees will adopt novel behaviors after watching them performed by high-ranking members of their group. The authors concluded that these findings demonstrate "prestige-based cultural transmission" for the first time in nonhuman animals. Their results were consistent with Richerson and Boyd's definition of culture as well as their argument that:

[N]atural selection has shaped the psychology of social learning so that we are predisposed to imitate people with prestige and material well-being. . . [M]any phenomena, ranging from maladaptive fads and fashions to group-functional religious beliefs to symbolically marked boundaries between groups, might result from the properties of prestige bias.

However, French anthropologist Dan Sperber (Research Director at the Jean Nicod Institute, CNRS and 2009 recipient of the Claude Levi-Strauss Prize in Social Science) has recently challenged these findings in chimpanzees and insists that it does not represent cultural transmission at all. In a critique, following from his work in linguistic anthropology, he suggests that humans alone are capable of culture. However, just like in anthropology's past, his conclusions rest on the definition that he prefers to use. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

Horner, V., Proctor, D., Bonnie, K., Whiten, A., & de Waal, F. (2010) Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees. PLoS ONE, 5(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010625  

  • June 14, 2010
  • 06:58 AM

Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania

by Wintz in A Replicated Typo

Here is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes [...]... Read more »

Kline MA, & Boyd R. (2010) Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society. PMID: 20392733  

  • June 14, 2010
  • 04:13 AM

The return of ex situ

by Jeremy in Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Although some have emphasized the need to breed crops for future climatic conditions, much of the world’s farming population relies on landrace populations, not formal breeding networks.
Undeniable, of course, and a good reason to not forget landraces, or farmers’ local varieties, when thinking about how agriculture will (or will not) adapt to climate change. And [...]... Read more »

  • June 11, 2010
  • 12:55 PM

Humans in the Philippines 67,000 years ago

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

So say Mijares and colleagues (2010), reporting the discovery of a small human third metatarsal from Callao Cave in the northern Philippines. The paper present a brief overview of fieldwork conducted at Callao since 2003 that exposed Pleistocene deposits at the site. The age of the layer in which the metatarsal was recovered was obtained through Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Uranium Series (U-Series) on two cervid teeth, one of which yielded an age of 66 +11/-9 kya.From Mijares et al. (2010: 7, Fig. 8, Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd). The Callao specimen (A) is compared to H. sapiens (B) and H. habilis (C), and three non-human primates to the right. The really interesting part of the paper comes when the author discuss the taxonomic attribution of the metatarsal. They compare it to various extant primates and show that it is a convincing Homo bone, aligning itself most closely with small-bodied populations, such as H. habilis or contemporary Philippine Negritos, the latter of which stand out as likely potential analogs of the hominin to whom the metatarsal belonged. That said, "the dimensions of the base of the bone and the section of the shaft are smaller, indicating peculiar proportions for the Callao metatarsal. At the mid-shaft, the shaft appears to be considerably smaller in the dorso-plantar direction than in the Negrito comparative sample. As shown by the reduced dimensions obtained for the dorso-plantar height and medio-lateral breadth of the proximal facet for the lateral cuneiform, the base is very small. It is the smallest of our sample, confirming the particular shape and proportions of the bone as seen from lateral and superior views" (Mijares et al. 2010: 8).The authors emphasize that the peculiarities of the Callao metatarsal are unique in the panorama of known foot bones attributed to various Pleistocene Homo. Provocatively, they point out that the dimensions of the H. floresiensis third metatarsal from Liang Bua (LB 1) are very close to those of the Callao specimen (Mijares et al. 2010: 9). While they present this comparison as speculative, the implications of the exercise are clear: they're asking whether something like H. floresiensis could have been present at Callao ca. 67 kya, although they do cover their bases by emphasizing that the closest analog small-bodied humans known in the region today are Negritos.What's a bit puzzling is their repeated discussion that the Philippines are east of Wallace's line. While I know there's a bit of debate over this, I've always understood the Philippines as being located west of Wallace's line, on the Asian side of things. Mijares et al.'s argument that the Philippines are "beyond Wallace's Line in Island Southeast Asia" appear to be a further manner of potentially linking the Callao specimen to those from Flores.In any case, as the authors conclude, the Callao third metatarsal "documents the presence of a hominin species on the island of Luzon as early as 67 ka, and is testimony to a capability to colonize new territories across open sea gaps. The Philippine specimen also indicates that Flores was not the only island in Wallacea to be occupied by hominins more than 50,000 years ago" (Mijares et al. 2010: 9). Regardless of the precise taxonomic affiliation of that bone, it indicates a great time depth for human presence in that part of the Old World, and provides some thought-provoking evidence that seafaring must have been part of the hominin behavioral range by that time, something that seems to potentially have been the case in other parts of East Asia at that time.Reference:Mijares, A., Détroit, F., Piper, P., Grün, R., Bellwood, P., Aubert, M., Champion, G., Cuevas, N., De Leon, A., & Dizon, E. (2010). New evidence for a 67,000-year-old human presence at Callao Cave, Luzon, Philippines Journal of Human Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.04.008... Read more »

Mijares, A., Détroit, F., Piper, P., Grün, R., Bellwood, P., Aubert, M., Champion, G., Cuevas, N., De Leon, A., & Dizon, E. (2010) New evidence for a 67,000-year-old human presence at Callao Cave, Luzon, Philippines. Journal of Human Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.04.008  

  • June 11, 2010
  • 08:26 AM

A Bonobo in the Hand or Two Chimps in the Bush?

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

Bonobo Week continues! I'm donating whatever proceeds I receive from my blogging shenanigans for the entire month of June to help the bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo.

Imagine that you're wandering in the desert and you come across two magic lamps. One lamp grants three wishes. It's your standard sort of magic lamp with a genie in it. (No wishing for extra wishes, of course.) The second magic lamp is, well, a moody magic lamp. It's inconsistent. Sometimes it grants one wish, and sometimes it grants seven wishes. But the thing is, you don't know for sure whether, when you rub the lamp and genie pops out, if he's going to grant you just one or the full seven. But let's make things more interesting. You only get to use one of the lamps. As soon as you rub one of the lamps and the genie comes out, the other lamp disappears. And you might be in the Desert of Infrequent Lamps. Tomorrow you could chance upon two more lamps, with the same rules. But you might not come across any more lamps for many days. So which lamp will you decide to use?

Figure 1: If you're lucky, the genie will have the voice of Robin Williams and will sing to you.

Decades of studies indicated that, as humans, we tend to avoid risk. When it comes to potential gains, we prefer the safe option over the risky option. Most people would choose the sure thing, and summon the three-wish genie, especially since they don't know when they'd be lucky enough to stumble upon their next lamp. Resources (in the shape of magical wish-granting lamps) are scarce. After all, you're wandering through the Desert of Infrequent Lamps. Sucks to be you.

Animals face similar risks on a daily basis, though in the context of things like food acquisition and predator avoidance. So it makes sense that natural selection would, over generations, favor certain cognitive decision-making mechanisms that most effectively addressed those risks. Risk preference patterns in animals are variable though. That variability in risk preference has been observed, at least under experimental conditions, suggests that animals can adjust their strategies given the parameters of the immediate environment. For example, when the riskier option may not be very costly, or when plenty of food is available in the environment, the animal may opt for the riskier choice, and under those circumstances that may actually be the optimal decision.
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