Monday, January 25, 2016

Monday Miocene Primate:Orrorin tugenensis

Orrorin tugenensis is one of the earliest known hominins (the earliest being Sahelanthropus tchadensis). It comes from the late Miocene of Kenya, and has been dated to be somewhere between 6.1 and 5.7 million years old. O. tugenensis is known from about 20 fossil specimens which include the posterior part of a mandible in two pieces; a symphysis and several isolated teeth; three fragments of femora; a partial humerus; a proximal phalanx; and a distal thumb phalanx.

It is thought that O. tugenensis represents one of earliest ancestors (or earliest hominin side-branches) that arose after the divergence between the lineages which eventually led to humans and chimpanzees. The femur of O. tugenensis has a elongated neck with spherical head that is anteriorly rotated, while the lesser trochanter protrudes medially. These features have been used by some paleoanthropologists to suggest O. tugenensis was bipedal.

The rest of the postcranium, however, seems to indicate O. tugenensis may have also climbed trees, or at least inherited the traits typically associated with tree-climbing primates (curved proximal phalanges).

The paleoanthropologists who discovered O. tugenensis, Bridgette Senut and Martin Pickford, have argued that this species was more bipedally advanced later hominins like Ardipithecus and even Australopithecus. They suggest that O. tugenesis is our best known fossil ancestor and the Australopithecines constitute an evolutionary side branch not related to humans, This is not the opinion of most paleoanthropologists, as Australopithecines are typically viewed as being ancestral to the Homo genus.

Interestingly, one of the most famous paleoanthropologists of all time, Louis Leakey also had a similar opinion about Australopithecines. I sometimes wonder what his interpretation of O. tugenensis would have been. Would have thought it to be a direct human ancestor? Or would he have dismissed it as unimportant (because he didn't find it himself)? Personally, I'm more inclined to think that Australopithecines are ancestral to the Homo genus, but I'm also unsure as what to think about O. tugenensis and where it fits into the big picture of hominin evolution.

Again, we hear the sad refrain... We need more fossils.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Monday Miocene Primate: Homunculus patagonicus

Approximately 40 million years ago or so anthropoid primates expanded their range into the New World. This branch of the primate family tree, formally known as Platyrrhini and colloquially as New World Monkeys, is composed of five families: Atelidae, Aotidae, Callitrichidae, Cebidae, and Pitheciidae. Homunculus patagonicus is the earliest know member of the Pitheciidae family and lived during the early Miocene.

A composite of Homunculus patagonicus made from CT
scans of multiple fossils (Perry et al., 2010)
H. patagonicus was originally discovered in the late nineteenth century and first described by the Argentinean paleontologist Florentino Ameghino. It was given the genus name of Homunculus (meaning "little man" in Latin) because Ameghino believed it was an ancestor of modern humans. Today, we know that New World primates are very distant relatives to catarrhine primates (Old World monkeys, apes, and humans) separated by over 40 million years of evolutionary divergence. In the late nineteenth century, however, it wouldn't have been so absurd to suggest that humans involved in the new world.

H. patagonicus is linked to the Pitheciidae family on the basis of craniodental similarities. Modern pitheciines feed primarily upon seeds and sclerocarps and have very characteristic anterior dentition. The incisor-canine complex of H. patagonicus is very similar to modern pitheciines, which suggests the dietary preferences of piithecines evolved relatively early in their lineage.

The holotype (the fossil specimen used to initially formally describe the species) was lost at some point over the course of the twentieth century. In 2008 paleontologists Marcelo Tejedor and Alfred Rosenberger described a neotype for H. patagonicus (a fossil selected to serve as the type specimen when an original holotype has been lost or destroyed). Interestingly, the neotype came from Ameghino's collection and had been left undescribed for over a hundred years.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Monday Miocene Primate: Otavipithecus namibiensis

was discovered in the early 1990s by a team of paleontologists led by Glen Conroy (Conroy et al., 1992). Although the entire hypodigm of this species consists of a single mandible, it's still a pretty fascinating discovery for a variety of reasons. First of all it comes from the Otavi Mountains in Namibia, whereas the majority of African Miocene hominoids come from geological contexts associated with the great rift valley in East Africa. Secondly, it has been remarkably difficult for scientists to determine the phylogenetic position of this ape with any real degree of certainty. Thirdly, at an age of 12 million years old, Otavipithecus looks considerably modern when compared to other apes of the middle Miocene epoch. Thus, Otvapithecus is an ape that appears to be both out of place and out of time.

Conroy's (1994) initial phylogenetic assessment determined that Otavipithecus formed a sister taxa with East African hominids (Australopithecus). According to Conroy this would mean that Otavipithecus represents something akin to the common ancestor of humans and African apes. Subsequent analysis has not upheld this claim, and a more recent cladistic analysis by Singleton (2000) has instead suggested that Otavipithecus forms a sister taxa relationship with Afropithecus (an early Miocene ape from 18 million years ago). It seems more likely that Otavipithecus is a divergent side branch on the ape family tree, and ultimately an evolutionary dead end with no living descendents.

Although this second scenario does seem much more likely, given the rest of what we know about Miocene fossil apes, the scarcity of Otavipithecus fossils makes it difficult the determine the phylogenetic position of this species with any degree of certainity. Afterall, Singleton's (2000) analysis relies solely upon 22 mandibular and dental characteristics. If Otavipithecus tells us anything it's that paleontologists need to return to the Otavi Mountains and find some more fossils.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

ISIS vs. Neanderthals (and the Kurds)

Shanidar Cave is a well known archaeological site in the Bradost Mountains of Northern Iraq (also known Iraqi Kurdistan). The cave is best known for being the location at which a team of archaeologists led by Ralph Solecki excavated the remains of ten Neanderthal skeletons in the late 1950s. Most notably, one of these skeletons, known as Shanidar 4, is thought to demonstrate evidence of Neanderthal burial practices. Huge clumps of pollen were found in the soil directly associated with Shanidar 4. This led Solecki to suggest that this individual had been purposefully buried with flowers.

Almost immediately upon the publication of Solecki's findings, paleoanthropologists argued that the pollen associated with Shanidar 4 could have accumulated due to wind. Solecki replied that the fact pollen was found throughout the site, but only large clumps in the burial of Shanidar 4, was unlikely to be a coincide caused by a stochastic natural process like wind.

For years the debate over Shanidar 4 has continued in the academic literature. Most recently, archaeologist Paul Pettitt argued the pollen clumps were accumulated by a small rodent known as a Persian jird. Persian jirds are known to have also occupied Shanidar Cave and they are also known to collect and store large deposits of seeds and flowers. The fact that none of the other Neanderthals burials show any signs of ritual treatment has lead Pettitt to conclude that the pollen found associated with Shanidar 4 was not purposefully placed there by other Neanderthals.
And, as with many long-standing academic debates, the argument continues. Or at least it did until ISIS took control of the Bradost Mountains in the summer of 2014. Prior to their invasion "scientists with 45 foreign missions from 16 countries were conducting archaeological excavations and surveys in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq" (Live Science). As you can imagine, once the sexually repressed islamofacist zealots moved into the neighborhood any science in the vicinity came to a grinding halt.

Among the seemingly never ending list of shitty things ISIS likes to do (like killing and raping their fellow muslims) they also like to destroy history (and prehistory). Their narrow religious worldview doesn't allow them to imagine a world without the omnipotent child molester Allah at the helm. As such, blowing up ancient classical temples, statues of Buddha, and destroying numerous other culturally significant artifacts has become an important means for ISIS to demonstrate their religious ignorance on a global scale.

This time, however, ISIS wasn't able to destroy another of world's most cherish archaeological sites. A few months ago Kurdish resistance fighters (Peshmerga) reclaimed the Bradost Mountains and have since pushed ISIS almost completely out of Northern Iraq. Live Science reported earlier this week that archaeologists have now returned to Shanidar Cave and they are able to continue their research in peace.

Hopefully, more gains are made by the Kurds and ISIS is completely extinguished before they are able to destroy more of the world's heritage.  The return to Shanidar Cave is good thing for archaeology, paleoanthropology, and much more importantly, humanity. Now we can get back to the good stuff, like debating the archaeological significance of pollen clumps.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Miocene Monday Primate: Mesopithecus

This year I'm switching from featuring weekly Miocene mammals to focus exclusively upon Miocene primates. Although I'm probably going to feature a lot of apes I'd also like to get some monkeys, pliopithecoids, and other assorted Miocene primates in there too. To start things up I present you the first Miocene Monday Primate of 2016: Mesopithecus.

Mesopithecus (Kofous, 2009)
Mesopithecus was an old world monkey that inhabited parts of Europe and Asia during the late Miocene and early Pliocene. As such, it is the last known monkey to have been native to Europe. Paleoanthropologists have identified at least three distinct species: Mesopithecus pentelicus, Mesopithecus monspessulanus, and Mesopithecus delsoni.

Mesopithecus had a body length of approximately 40 centimetres making it about the size of modern macaque. Evolutionarily, it is thought that Mesopithecus is probably more closely related to Colobinae primates like snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus) and doucs (Pygathrix).

Mesopithecus pentelicus (Jesse Early Hyde Collection 1890-1930)
The dentition of Mesopithecus has been interpreted as demonstrating both signs of folivory and frugivory. Growing consensus now seems to favour the frugivore hypothesis. Various functional morphology studies of the fossilized remains of Mesopithecus have suggested that at the very least Mesopithecus was semi-terrestrial. This may have, however, varied between the various different species of Mesopithecus. M. monspessulanus is thought to have engaged in more frequent arboreal activity compared to other members of its genus.

Mesopithecus went extinct in the early Pliocene, most likely due to changes in the climate and forests of Europe that began to occur at the end of the Miocene. For some reason, however, Mesopithecus seems to have held out a bit longer than other European primates of the Miocene.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Last Year

One of the many Southern Ontario farmer fields I walked last summer looking for artifacts.
It's a new year and I'm not one for making lists, I'll leave that to the click-bait websites. Still, I feel obliged to provide some sort of year end review. So, here goes...

Personally, it was a pretty awesome year for me. I got married to the most awesome person on the planet. She came equipped with three equally awesome kids. So, that definitely takes the cake for the best moment of 2015. I also started my PhD at the University of Toronto this past fall. My plan is to use geometric morphometrics look at the phylogeny of pliopithecoids... or something like that. I worked for a small archaeology firm surveying and excavating sites around the Greater Toronto Area. We worked a few prehistoric sites, but the majority were 19th century homestead sites. Historical archaeology isn't my favorite, but it pays the bills, and the crew I worked with was great. Sometimes that matters a lot more.

I haven't had the chance to listen to the best albums of 2015. I was a bit consumed with reviewing the nearly 50 year recording career of a certain Canadian musician. I will, however, mention that I released an album with my band FUCKHAWK and it's pretty damn good (we're currently No. 1 in the Toronto punk charts and No. 4 in National punk charts). You can download it for free on bandcamp or Reverb Nation or stream it on YouTube.

I didn't get to see the best movies of 2015 either. Although I did see Mad Max: Fury Road and that was awesome. More importantly, however, I discovered an old movie theatre down the street called the Royal Cinema that plays old films and weird obscure movies. I was able to catch two Neil Young films there, Journey Through the Past and Greendale.

There were some really big paleoanthropological discoveries this past year. I didn't get much of chance to discuss them, but this isn't always such a bad thing. I like to take my time when it comes to new scientific announcements and see how they play out. I think my excitement for new research can sometimes lead me to be a bit less skeptical than I generally am otherwise. I refer you to a 2012 post I wrote about the Red Deer People. I'm no longer convinced that these bones represent an previously unknown hominin species. Upon further review of the research I saw that the measurements of these fossils fit within the normal range of Homo sapiens variation. That being said, I think Homo naledi is probably going to be accepted into the regular pantheon on hominids despite the currently unpublished objections that it's probably just Homo erectus.
Live Like Dirt pageviews, 2010-2016.
I did a bit more blogging in this 2015. I wrote 109 blog posts this past year compared to 59 in 2014 and 97 in 2013. I largely attribute this increase in volume to my long Neil Young project (only one album left at the moment). I'd like to see this trend continue in 2016, but as motivated as I can be there's this thing called time that often limits my ability to achieve such goals. I'm doubtful that I'll ever return to the prolific kind of blogging I did back in 2009, but I have no intentions of ending this blog anytime in the near future. After living with the constant nagging guilt that I should be writing a blog post for the past 8 years I don't know what I'd do if I had to give that up.

Happy New Year. Have a good one.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Neil Young - The Monsanto Years (2015)

Release date: June 29, 2015
Producers: Neil Young & John Hanlon
Track listing: A New Day For Love, Wolf Moon, People Want to Hear About Love, Big Box, A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, Workin' Man, Rules of Change, Monsanto Years, If I Don't Know
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Anthony Logerfo (drums), Corey McCormick (bass guitar, backing vocals), Tato Melgar (percussion), Lukas Nelson (guitar, backing vocals), Micah Nelson (electric guitar, electric charango, backing vocals)

A new year begins and my self-inflicted project to review all the Neil Young album continues. It's been a great journey, and as hard as may be to believe, I haven't grown tired of listening to Neil yet. I'm sure I'll continue listening to my favorite albums and songs long after this project comes to a close. But, alas, we're getting to the end of things. This past week I listened to Neil's latest studio album, The Monstanto Years.

On The Monsanto Years Neil plays alongside a new cast of musicians, Promise of the Real, a group lead by Lukas and Mich Nelson, the sons of Willie Nelson. This is the thirty-six studio record for Neil and the second for Promise of the Real. Produced by Neil and long time engineer John Hanlon, The Monsanto Years features nine songs about the agricultural biotech company Monsanto, the department store chain Wal-Mart, the coffee giant Starbucks, as well as Citizens United and various other oft despised enemies of the nouveau-left.

Musically, The Monsanto Years is one of the best records Neil has made in recent years. Crushing power chords, bright inventive and catchy guitar leads, new interesting instrumentation, and a steady back beat. Drummer Anthony Logerfo sounds like a young Ralph Molina at his prime and the Nelson brothers add some amazing backup vocals. At times the band is reminiscent of Crazy Horse, at their best way, and other moments Neil and Promise of the Real create a sound which truly unique; a hard feat given the long history of Neil. An amazing band and a great sounding album.

Lyrically, however, this album is a tribute to scientific ignorance, fear mongering, and internet based conspiracy theories. The idea is simple: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are bad and Monsanto is an evil multi-national corporation that travels around the world forcing farmers to grow GMOs against their will. Why? Because Monsanto is a greedy jerk. It reads like an ill-informed facebook post from your crazy hippy friend who is constantly trying to talk to you about auras and warn you about the evils of gluten.

It's sad to see, as I've always thought of Neil as one of the original smart, creative kinda hippies. He's previously championed well-informed scientific and environmental causes. He's been a strong advocate of Al Gore and educating people about global warming. He's worked with auto-mechanics to develop alternate fuel technology for old cars. But this time, Neil seems to have put reason and science aside in place of ideology.

I say this because there is no evidence which supports the claims made by Neil on this album that GMOs are bad. In fact, all the non-facebook based evidence (i.e. peer reviewed scientific journals) suggest otherwise. I could point to countless studies which support this position, but instead I'll point to just one. In a meta-analysis published in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, Nicolia et al., (2013) reviewed over 1,783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods. The were unable to find a single credible example of GMOs causing harm to humans or animals.

In reality, GMOs help make the world a better place. They allow people around the world, particularly in developing countries, to more nutritionally valuable disease resistant crops. Objection to GMOs is first world privilege, and a highly ill-informed one at that. As the evidence clearly shows, it's not based on science, it's based on ideology and some dumbass naturalistic fallacy. As such, the anti-GMO crowd are the global warming deniers of the left.

With this album Neil moves from being a protest singer in league with greats like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to becoming an anti-intellectual wack-a-loon in league with Jenny McCarthy. Think that's a bit far? I think it's kinda light considering the lyrics of "People Want to Hear About Love". The song is basically about how Neil wants to sing about the issues that matter, but they public doesn't want to hear about it. At one point he sings the following line:
"Don't say pesticides are causing autistic children, People want to hear about love."
Listen up, Neil, I'll say it and I'll say it very clearly. Pesticides do not cause autism. It's actually unclear what the cause of autism is, but current medical research suggests a strong genetic component (Frietag, 2006; Perisco and Bourgeron, 2006). You know what? There's something else that pisses me off about this too. It's the idea that autism is some sort of sickness from which people need to be cured. It's the idea that having autism means you're broken. It's a horrible message to send and it's completely untrue. Autistic people aren't sick or ill. They simply experience and interact with the world in a manner that is slightly different than people without autism. So, Neil, I love your music, but I have to say a curt "fuck you" for writing that bullshit line.

But we're not done yet. Neil's scientific ignorance makes him a complete hypocrite when it's comes to genetically modified organisms. From Forbes,
"Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child, Young’s life depends on daily insulin therapy. The medication, which keeps over a million Americans alive every day, is produced using none other than the very genetic engineering techniques Young’s album demonizes. Prior to the 1970s, insulin was harvested and purified from the pancreases of slaughtered pigs. Today there’s a better way. Genetically engineered microbes are used to “manufacture” synthetic insulin on a large scale; a far safer, more humane and more energy and cost-efficient form of the naturally-occurring hormone."
In the end Neil is wrong about nearly everything he sings about on this record. As both a scientist and a Neil fan this really sucks for me. I find his disregard for evidence offensive, perhaps even too offensive to continue calling myself a fan. I guess you could say I'm a fan of his music, but I'm no longer a fan of Neil as a person.

It's possible Neil could change his mind. It's not exactly likely, as doing so would mean publically admitting that he was wrong and that he made a concept album about bullshit. He'd also have to start working to undo the damage his miseducation campaign has already done. But, it is possible. Just two years ago, longtime anti-GMO Mark Lynas, took took at the evidence and changed his stance completely. It's time for Neil to sit down and take a serious look at the evidence with a truly open mind. Wasn't that what being hippy was supposed to be about? Having an open mind?


Neil Young & The Bluenotes - Bluenote Cafe (2015)