Friday, December 12, 2014

Homo Erectus Engraving, Long-Lost Relatives

A researcher with a digital camera noticed faint marks on a half-million-old shell. It's the earliest known abstract mark: made by Homo erectus.

Scientists discovered genetic traces of a previously-unknown group of people, Denisovans, in a Neanderthal's DNA a year ago.

Detailed analysis of the Neanderthal DNA reveals details of that Neanderthal family's history: and a few genes from another previously-unknown group.
  1. An Engraved Shell: Half a Million Years Old
  2. Modern Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans: and — Someone Else
The woman we know as KNM ER 3733 lived about 1,700,000 years ago: 1,659,000 years before a Neanderthal family used Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains. That facial reconstruction of her may not be entirely accurate, but it's pretty close.

She's not directly connected to either of this week's news items: but she could be one of my very, very, distant great-to-the-nth grandmothers, and an ancestor of Denisovans, Neanderthals, and us.

The human family has changed a bit since her time: most of us have shorter arms and legs now; our foreheads are smoother and more nearly vertical; and we're probably better at singing opera. I'll get back to that.

"Little Less than a God"

Thinking is not a sin.

I've been over that before. (November 21, 2014; March 28, 2014)

It isn't faith or reason: it's faith and reason. ("Fides et Ratio," John Paul II (September 14, 1998); Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35)

God created a good, beautiful, and ordered world: and gave us brains. We are rational creatures, and expected to use our brains. (Catechism, 32, 154-159, 299)

Humanity is made in the image of God: matter and spirit; the stuff of this world and the breath of God. We're stewards of this world, with the power and responsibility that goes with the job. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7; Catechism, 355-373)

As it says in Psalms, we're "little less than a god:"
"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:6)
Trouble starts, though, when someone forgets that "little less than a god" doesn't make us God.

Friedrich Nietzsche's the one who wrote "Beyond Good and Evil," by the way. He wasn't a scientist, had an impressive mustache, and a talent for making pithy one-liners. I don't agree entirely with his view of Christianity: but experiences in his youth, and living during the late 19th century, helped shape his philosophy.

From what I've read, Nietzsche thought that Jesus didn't judge people, but Christians constantly did. He's got a point. The malignant virtue of radio preachers helped me love rock 'n roll, indirectly led to my becoming a Catholic, and that's another topic.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin" may sound corny: but that's how it works.
"...judging others leads us to hypocrisy ... a person who judges gets it wrong...because he takes the place of God, who is the only judge: taking that place is taking the wrong place!..."
(Francis I)

"...although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God."
(Catechism, 1861)

"Stop judging, that you may not be judged."
(Jesus, in Matthew 7:1)

Mad Scientists, Imagined and Real

Hubris, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason, makes dialog like this possible:
"Dr. James Xavier: I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

"Dr. Sam Brant: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

"Dr. James Xavier: My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods."
("X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1963), via
"X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" is fiction: but now and then, some scientists have acted as if they were "beyond good and evil." Some even come close to the Hollywood 'mad scientist' profile.

Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov tried to breed a human-ape hybrid in the 1920s, and Johann Conrad Dippel wrote that he'd invented an elixir that'd keep him alive until he was 135 years old. Dippel died a few months short of this 61st birthday, and Ivanov's plans were foiled when his orangutang died.

The lesson of Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook isn't that science is Satanic. It's that ethics apply to science, just like anything else we do. (Catechism, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

As I said last week, learning about the universe and using that knowledge to develop new tools, is part of being human. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 3071730)

Facing Our Desires and Responsibilities

Science won't solve all our problems: but I don't yearn for the 'good old days.'

I remember the days when polio vaccine was new. The way I walk led someone to think I'd had polio before vaccination programs reached my area, and that's yet another topic.

Science won't answer all our questions, but fearing science makes no sense.
"...The history of science in the twentieth century is one of undoubted achievement and major advances. Unfortunately, the popular image of twentieth-century science is sometimes characterized otherwise, in two extreme ways. On the one hand, science is posited by some as a panacea, proven by its notable achievements in the last century. Its innumerable advances were in fact so encompassing and so rapid that they seemed to confirm the point of view that science might answer all the questions of man's existence, and even of his highest aspirations. On the other hand, there are those who fear science and who distance themselves from it, because of sobering developments such as the construction and terrifying use of nuclear weapons...."
("Plenary Session of the Pontifical Council of Sciences, Benedict XVI, 28 October 2010," Benedict XVI (October 28, 2010)) [emphasis mine]
I remember when many Americans stopped thinking that "science might answer all the questions of man's existence, and even of his highest aspirations."

I think the currently-fashionable notion that science will kill us all is as silly as expecting science to give all the answers: or assuming that it is a Satanic snare. I'll get back to that.

Then there's nostalgic yearning for a 'simpler time,' an imagined golden age, before we didn't have tech like the McCormick Reaper and general anesthesia. Me? I don't mind being deprived of experiences like gathering crops by hand — and staying awake through surgical procedures.

As St. John Paul II said, science and technology show "the human capacity for understanding and perseverance:" and prod us into facing our desires and responsibilities.
"...The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience...."
("Veritatis splendor," John Paul II (August 6, 1993))
Despite what some loudly-pious folks seem to believe, science does not force Christians into choosing between objective reality or faith.  (November 21, 2014)

However, as scientists learn more about the universe — we've had to rearrange our assumptions, or cling to increasingly outdated notions. That's been happening a lot in recent generations

Homo Erectus, and Not Missing the 'Good Old Days'

The woman we know as KNM ER 3733 may not have looked exactly like John Gurche's reconstruction. He used another individual's jaw, KNM ER 992, to complete the model.

She lived in what we call Kenya, about 1,700,000 years ago.

Scientists call this early version of human Homo erectus. These folks lived from about 1,900,000 to 143,000 years ago.

There's evidence that their social structures were like ours. That doesn't mean they had parliaments and chat rooms: just that they probably lived in band societies: extended families or clans, one step down from tribes.

In the course of 1,757,000 years, they got as far as Georgia, India, Sri Lanka, China and Java.

That's something else they have in common with today's humans: we travel, a lot.

Every so often, part of a community gets fed up, driven out, or simply curious: and heads for the horizon. Over the last couple million years we've settled on every continent except Antarctica: and now we've got permanent bases there, plus one in low Earth orbit.

I'm willing to think of KNM ER 3733 and KNM ER 992 as people: partly because of the way folks like them acted, partly because I know my family history and my faith.

One of my ancestors, describing another ancestor, said "he doesn't have family, he's Irish." The daughter of a decent family married the Irishman, anyway.

"Irish Iberians" were among the folks regarded as inferior to "Anglo-Teutonic" people, as that Harpers (1899) illustration shows.

That was then, this is now. Most Americans got used to having Irish neighbors, an Irishman was elected president, and scientists are getting over the assumption that looking European and being intelligent are pretty much the same thing. (September 5, 2014)

As a Catholic, I must believe that we're all part of a huge — and sadly dysfunctional — family. New discoveries about our remote ancestors should invite "even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator." (Catechism, 282-289, 360; 404, 781-791, 2568)

Today's world isn't perfect, I don't yearn for the 'good old days,' and that's yet again another topic.

'The Kids are Okay'

(From Steward Finlayson, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("Our cave," "turn right," or something else.)

Maybe a 'would you want one marrying your daughter' attitude explains durable assumptions about "primitive" people and evolution. (October 31, 2014)

I suspect it's connected to the reticence some folks have about learning their family's history: the real history, not carefully-maintained facades they've been living behind.

Bad enough, from that viewpoint, that a great-grandfather embezzled, or whatever the family skeletons are. Now scientists are saying that KNM ER 3733 and KNM ER 992 might be our distant ancestors.

What we're learning about humanity's story doesn't bother me: I've seen old family photos, and families change.

I'm descended, partly, from the clan Campbell. The wry mouth, Caimbeul, that gave our clan its name faded a few generations back.

Two of my kids have a close approximation of the 'Hovde forehead' I inherited from my Norwegian ancestors: but that feature seems to be on the way out, too.

That's okay: change happens. It's how this world works. As I've said before, the universe is in a "state of journeying" toward perfection. (Catechism, 302)

1. An Engraved Shell: Half a Million Years Old

(From Stephen Munro, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The markings were more clear in the digital photos than they had been to the naked eye"
(BBC News))
"Indonesian shell has 'earliest human engraving' "
BBC News (December 4, 2014)

"Zig-zag patterns found on a fossilised shell in Indonesia may be the earliest engraving by a human ancestor, a study has claimed.

"The engraving is at least 430,000 years old, meaning it was done by the long-extinct Homo erectus, said the study.

"The oldest man-made markings previously found were about 130,000 years old.

"If confirmed, experts say the findings published in the journal Nature may force a rethink of how human culture developed.

"One of the report's authors, Stephen Munro, told the BBC it could 'rewrite human history'.

" 'This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus behaving this way,' said the researcher, from Australian National University...."
The pattern could be someone's checkoff list, not decoration: but it's more than 430,000 years too late to ask whoever made the marks.

Either way: it looks like abstract thought, reducing some aspect of reality to a simpler pattern, happened really early. So, apparently, did the human habit of recording our thoughts in somewhat permanent form.

The last I heard, scientists are still unsure whether Homo erectus could speak. Their brains were big enough, and apparently had the Broca's area we use to handle speech.

On the other hand, their thoracic vertebrae, the backbone supporting our ribs, were narrower than ours. That'd give then less control over breathing, so some scientists say they couldn't speak.

I think it's likely that someone from a Homo erectus family could probably learn enough of a current language to get by. Singing opera, though: that might not be an option.

"We Simply Don't Know"

(From Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
("A shell found on Java in the late 1800s was recently found to bear markings that seem to have been carved intentionally half a million years ago. The photograph is about 15 millimetres wide."
"Homo erectus made world's oldest doodle 500,000 years ago"
"Shell markings are the oldest abstract signs ever discovered."
Ewen Callaway, Nature (December 3, 2014)

"A zigzag engraving on a shell from Indonesia is the oldest abstract marking ever found. But what is most surprising about the half-a-million-year-old doodle is its likely creator — the human ancestor Homo erectus.

" 'This is a truly spectacular find and has the potential to overturn the way we look at early Homo,' says Nick Barton, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who was not involved in the discovery, which is described in a paper published online in Nature on 3 December.

"By 40,000 years ago, and probably much earlier, anatomically modern humans — Homo sapiens — were painting on cave walls in places as far apart as Europe and Indonesia. Simpler ochre engravings found in South Africa date to 100,000 years ago. Earlier this year, researchers reported a 'hashtag' engraving in a Gibraltar cave once inhabited by Neanderthals. That was the first evidence for drawing in any extinct species...."
Maybe modern humans, Neanderthals, and Homo Erectus, really are different "species" in the old Linnaean sense. My guess is that Neanderthals, Denisovans, Germans, Polynesians, and all the rest of us are a single species: and that ethnicity has been sifting over the generations. (July 11, 2014; December 13, 2013)

Getting back to that engraved shell — In the 1890s, Dutch palaeontologist Eugène Dubois collected it in eastern Java: along with dozens of other shells. He also found "Java Man" there: the first Homo erectus fossil discovered.

The shells were examined in the 1930s: then packed and stored in a Leiden, Netherlands, museum.

Leiden University biologist Josephine Joordens had been studying how Homo erectus used marine resources: 80 kilometers inland. The shells were all from freshwater species: but some had small holes, a few millimeters wide, made with a sharp object. A college of Joordens photographed the shells: and noticed a faint zigzag pattern on one.

Sand grains embedded in the shell gave its age: about 500,000 years. The shell, and engraved marks, "show signs of significant ageing," as Ewen Callaway's article put it. But when it was fresh, the pattern would have been white lines on the dark shell.

A half-million years later, we're still able to engrave shells: but it's not easy. The pattern is definitely artificial, carefully made, and meant — something.
"...'We've looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement,' says Joordens. Her team tried replicating the pattern on fresh and fossilized shells, 'and that made us realize how difficult it really was', she says.

"Saying much more about the engraving is tricky. 'If you don't know the intention of the person who made it, it's impossible to call it art,' says Joordens.

" 'But on the other hand, it is an ancient drawing. It is a way of expressing yourself. What was meant by the person who did this, we simply don't know,' she adds. 'It could have been to impress his girlfriend, or to doodle a bit, or to mark the shell as his own property.'..."
(Ewen Callaway, Nature)
A half-million years from now, someone may discover a brass disk, about as big as the palm of my hand, buried in North America.

Eventually, folks might notice markings on the now-corroded metal disk.

It's possible that whoever found the disk would know about the Latin alphabet. But I'd be astounded if folks bothered to keep records describing survey markers all that time.

From today's discussions of Indus script and Vinča symbols, my guess is that some would say the symbols were part of a ritual offering to the sun — or earth. Others would realize that "we simply don't know."

The more we learn, the more we find that we have to learn. I like living in a world where we're not likely to run out of surprises.

2. Modern Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans: and — Someone Else

(From Kay Prüfer et al., via, used w/o permission.)
("Family tree of the four groups of early humans living in Eurasia 50,000 years ago and the gene flow between the groups due to interbreeding.")
"Neanderthal Genome Reveals Fourth, Mysterious Human Lineage" ( December 18, 2013)

"A comparison of the high-quality genome sequence of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal woman with those of modern humans and Denisovans reveals a long history of interbreeding among at least 4 species of early humans.

"The comparison, conducted by a large group of genetic scientists, shows that Neanderthals and Denisovans are very closely related, and that their common ancestor split off from the ancestors of modern humans about 400,000 years ago.

"Neanderthals and Denisovans split about 300,000 years ago.

"Though Denisovans and Neanderthals eventually died out, they left behind bits of their genetic heritage because they occasionally interbred with modern humans.

"The authors estimated that between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the genomes of modern non-Africans can be traced to Neanderthals.

"Denisovans also left genetic traces in modern humans, though only in some Oceanic and Asian populations....."
I'll grant that 'interbreeding' probably isn't as pejorative as 'miscegenation:' but the term still bothers me a little, when applied to people.

The idea of folks who don't look like clones of each other having kids doesn't bother me, it's the veterinary associations I have with the word 'interbreed.'

I probably don't have Denisovan DNA in my genes, but it's nearly certain that I've got Neanderthals in my family tree. My ancestors are the folks who chased receding glaciers into northwestern Europe.

Scientists studying this woman's DNA learned that she had something in common with a European royal family: the Hapsburgs.

The Hapsburgs, Options - - -

"...The study also indicates that the Neanderthal woman was highly inbred. She was the daughter of a very closely related mother and father who either were half-siblings who shared the same mother, an uncle and niece or aunt and nephew, a grandparent and grandchild, or double first-cousins...."
The Hapsburgs' habit of marrying cousins — and, two times, an uncle and niece — kept political power in the family. But it also led to Charles II of Spain: who, mercifully, died childless. (December 13, 2013; Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 19, 2009))

The Hapsburg family chose to marry family members. It looks like there weren't many folks living in the Altai Mountains 50,000 years back. Those families may have had few options other than having children with close relatives.

Small wonder, perhaps, that they welcomed 'fresh blood' into the family: even if the newcomer's appearance was odd.

- - - and Being Human

A few sequences in this woman's DNA weren't from Neanderthal, Denisovan, or our version of humanity.

Maybe the 'none of the above' DNA is from previously-unknown descendants of Homo erectus: or from folks we didn't know about before this.

One article I saw called what we're learning about humanity's family history "confusing." I think "complicated" is more accurate.

It's becoming obvious that when people who looked like us left Africa, between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago, they met folks who had emigrated earlier: much earlier in some cases.

Then, we did what people have been doing for millions of years: horrifying a few in the older generation by settling down with someone who's "Irish."

More of my take on:
About Neanderthals, Denisovans, and an "unknown human lineage:"

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.