Friday, May 29, 2015

Dogs, Stone Tools, and Newly-Discovered Ancestors

Australopithecus deyiremeda, a newly-discovered member of humanity's family, was in this week's news.

We're also learning more about when some wolves started becoming dogs, and have discovered really old stone tools.
  1. Newly-Discovered Ancestors
  2. Dogs, Wolves, and DNA
  3. Earliest Known Stone Tools: So Far

Musings of a "Naked Ape"

(From Yohannes Haile-Selassie, © Cleveland Museum of Natural History; used w/o permission.)
(Left half of the Australopithecus deyiremeda lower jaw found on March 4, 2011.)

(From Yohannes Haile-Selassie, © Cleveland Museum of Natural History; used w/o permission.)
(Left half of the lower jaw, seen from another angle.)

Those photos are from a Cleveland Museum of Natural History press release/news item, released Wednesday. Australopithecus deyiremeda is our name for a now-extinct hominin who lived near southern Aksum about 3,400,000 years ago. Aksum overlaps today's Ethiopia, and that's another topic.

Humanity's family history is nowhere near as simple as folks figured when Carl Linnaeus published "Systema Naturae" in 1735.

I learned about hominids when that term didn't mean quite what it does today, and didn't run into "hominin" until fairly recently.

Around the 1960s, when I was in high school, scientists were rethinking primate taxonomy: again.

Desmond Morris's "The Naked Ape" reflected some of that research. The book shocked and horrified some folks in 1967: and probably still does.

I wasn't surprised that we have so much in common with other primates: particularly the big ones with no tails. That's partly because I'd looked in a mirror, and had seen other primates.

If we ever meet folks whose ancestors are from other worlds, they may think the most obvious difference between us and chimps is that we're follicly challenged, except for parts of our heads. We're a whole lot smarter, of course, and much better at throwing things. (July 5, 2013)

I'm certainly not upset that we're made from the stuff of this world. Not that it would do much good if I were. Expecting the universe to rearrange itself to suit my preferences is nuts: apart from the sort of changes we effect with tech like stone choppers and plasma torches.

Like I've said before, I'm convinced that Adam and Eve weren't German; the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. (November 21, 2014)

Hominini: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" Through the Ages

(From Joseph Graham, William Newman, and John Stacy; via USGS and Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)

If anything, the immense scale of this universe enhances my appreciation for God's power: and patience. (July 4, 2014)

I see humanity's expanding knowledge as opportunities for greater admiration of God's greatness. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

Studying this wonder-filled world and using that knowledge is fine. Science and technology are part of being human. Whether we use them to help or hurt each other is where ethics comes it. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

Every time I see "Hominini," I'm reminded of "ninny," a word meaning "foolish person" that's been around for about four centuries. It's derived from "innocent" — or something else, and that's yet another topic.

Hominini is a tribe of the subfamily Homininae. "Tribe" in this context is a taxonomic group between genus and family, and I'll put a list including these terms farther down.

If you want to make someone's eyes glaze over — fast — recite this phrase: "Hominini ... comprises the subtribe Hominina and its genera, the genus Homo and other (extinct) genera of the human clade, plus the subtribe Panina and its one genus Pan, the chimpanzees."

Then explain that pan flutes are named after Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, flocks, and wild things: which reminds me of Maurice Sendak's book.

I'm not at all convinced that "extinct" genera of the human clade are really extinct: any more than Gauts are "extinct." Most of us have stopped worshiping Odin and Nodens, and my branch of the tribe has lived in North America for the last century or so: but we're still around.

My guess is that scientists will be re-thinking what "species" means, again, as we learn more about how life has been changing. I suspect that many, if not all, sorts of people we've given names like Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus are more like highly-distinct ethnic groups than distinct "species."

We're acutely aware of physical differences between humans: but under the skin, folks living today are about 99.5% identical. Awareness of our differences probably comes from our being very social critters — to the extent of including other species in our households.

That's not a uniquely human trait: giant morays and roving coralgroupers hunt cooperatively, some ants 'farm' aphids, and that's yet again another topic. Topics.

Folks are, genetically, all pretty much the same these days: whether our recent ancestors lived in Africa, Australia, eastern Asia, the Americas, or northwestern Europe. I think that's likely due at least in part to the very human habit of moving to new areas — and shocking the stay-at-homes by marrying into local families.

1. Newly-Discovered Ancestors

(From Yohannes Haile-Selassie, © Cleveland Museum of Natural History; used w/o permission.)
(The upper jaw of Australopithecus deyiremeda found on March 4, 2011.)
"Curator Discovers New Human Ancestor Species"
Cleveland Museum of Natural History (May 27, 2015)

"A new relative joins 'Lucy' on the human family tree. An international team of scientists, led by Curator of Physical Anthropology Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, has discovered a 3.3 to 3.5 million-year-old new human ancestor species. Upper and lower jaw fossils recovered from the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia have been assigned to the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda. This hominin lived alongside the famous 'Lucy's' species, Australopithecus afarensis. The species will be described in the May 28, 2015 issue of the international scientific journal Nature.

"Lucy's species lived from 2.9 million years ago to 3.8 million years ago, overlapping in time with the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda. The new species is the most conclusive evidence for the contemporaneous presence of more than one closely related early human ancestor species prior to 3 million years ago. The species name 'deyiremeda' (day-ihreme-dah) means 'close relative' in the language spoken by the Afar people.

"Australopithecus deyiremeda differs from Lucy’s species in terms of the shape and size of its thick-enameled teeth and the robust architecture of its lower jaws. The anterior teeth are also relatively small indicating that it probably had a different diet....

"...Scientists have long argued that there was only one pre-human species at any given time between 3 and 4 million years ago, subsequently giving rise to another new species through time. This was what the fossil record appeared to indicate until the end of the 20th century...."
This discovery started showing up in the news on Wednesday. There's more about the Woranso-Mille area on Wikipedia: but the page is on the service's German site. Mille is a district in Ethiopia's Afar Region.

Ethiopia managed to maintain its sovereignty during the 19th-century land grab by European powers. Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Curator and Head of the Physical Anthropology department, was born in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism issues one-year permits for the Woranso-Mille project's fieldwork research; and Ethiopian laboratory facilities provide support. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation, part of my country's government.

My guess is that Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie's name follows Ethiopian customs, where the 'family name' is the child's father and paternal grandfather's names.

If my native culture's names worked that way, I'd be Brian Bernard-Richard. But I live in an English-speaking country that's still locked into a surname system set up by Henry VIII. And that's still another topic.

Anaximander, Linnaeus, and Darwin: There's More to Learn

Carl Linnaeus set up a taxonomic system that's still in use — with considerable tweaking. Taxonomy is what we call classifying organisms: and by extension, anything else that'll sort out in a nested hierarchy.

Folks like Anaximander and Empedocles speculated that today's critters — humans included — had changed since the world's beginning. Folks like Pierre Louis Maupertuis and Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon wrote about more-or-less-systematic change in the 1700s.

Comte de Buffon also used experimental data to estimate Earth's age. He was wrong by several orders of magnitude: but in the 1700s it was a good educated guess. (September 19, 2014)

Charles Darwin didn't single-handedly start the idea that organisms change in a rational way: but his "On the Origin of Species" (1859) was an important contribution to evolutionary theory. It also dropped "evolution" into popular culture.

We've learned quite a bit since then, much of it in my lifetime: and there's a great deal left to learn.


2. Dogs, Wolves, and DNA

(From Carolyn A. McKeone/Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Best friends forever: dogs were the first domesticated animal. But how and when did they first emerge?"
(BBC News))
"DNA hints at earlier dog evolution"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (May 21, 2015)

"Swedish researchers say that dogs may have been domesticated much earlier than some other studies suggest.

"A genetic study indicates that dogs may have begun to split from wolves 27,000 years ago.

"The discovery, in Current Biology, challenges the view that dogs were domesticated much more recently, around 15,000 years ago as humans changed from being hunter-gatherers to farmers.

"The study might also explain the deep bond between dogs and humans...."
Pallab Ghosh's article says that other scientists think we domesticated dogs when we developed agriculture and formed settled communities.

If dingos arrived in Australia 6,000 to 10,000 years back — not 65,000 to 75,000 years ago, when folks reached Australia — agriculture and dogs might be part of the same burst of inventiveness. My guess is that we'll find evidence that dogs are much older.

My hat's off to scientists who realize that farm dogs are useful members of a farmstead. My guess is that it'd be a lot easier for folks who relied on hunting, not livestock, for food to see advantages to having a wolf on their team.

The Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm's Dr Love Dalen told BBC News that we might have caught and raised wolf cubs, or that wolves started following humans and joined our 'packs.'

Wolves to Dogs: Tracing the Genes

(From Bildagentur-Online/McPHoto-Schulz, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The transformation from wolf to dog may have been a slow one starting with subtle changes in behaviour"
(BBC News))
"...Peter Smith, chief executive of the Wildwood Trust in Kent, UK, and a former conservation biologist, says that this might have been the start of the relationship between dogs and humans that has developed and become closer over thousands of years.

" '[The study] is showing that the deep, deep connection has existed between man and wolves - now our dogs - for many tens of thousands of years and that is why we love dogs so much. They are part of our own evolution into a modern society'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
By now, some subspecies of Canis lupus, like the St. Bernard, Pomeranian, and Japanese Chin, don't look particularly wolf-like. Others, like the recently-developed German Shepherd, strike me as looking a lot like wolves.

The new study, showing a split between dogs and wolves roughly 30,000 years back, is probably closer to the mark than earlier research. These scientists used DNA of an ancient wolf as their baseline: which should give better results than comparing an early dog's DNA to that of today's wolves.

I'd be astonished if we've now learned all there is to know about dogs and people. My guess is that we'll discover that wolves became our companions a very long time ago: and that we gradually molded them into the strange-looking wolves we have today.

3. Earliest Known Stone Tools: So Far

(From MPK-WTAP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The tools includes sharp-edged flakes, hammers and anvils"
(BBC News))
"Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans"
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (May 20, 2015)

"The world's oldest stone tools have been discovered, scientists report.

"They were unearthed from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and date to 3.3 million years ago.

"They are 700,000 years older than any tools found before, even pre-dating the earliest humans in the Homo genus.

"The find, reported in Nature, suggests that more ancient species, such as Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, may have been more sophisticated than was thought.

" 'They are significantly earlier than anything that has been found previously,' said Dr Nick Taylor, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

" 'It's really quite astonishing to think what separates the previous oldest site and this site is 700,000 years of time. It's monumental.'..."
Finding 3,300,000-year-old stone tools is remarkable, and may be "monumental." However, we've found grooved, cut, and fractured fossilized animal bones — evidence that folks used stone tools 3,400,000 years back.

Those bones were found about 200 yards from the remains of a young Australopithecus afarensis girl who lived around 3,300,000 years ago: about 100,000 years after the stone-cut bones.

Oldowan tools were made later, starting around 2,600,000 years back, by folks who looked like the fellow in that picture.

They're the first tools made by "humans," in the sense that they were made by members of our genus, Homo.

I think that defining folks like Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo rhodesiensis, as being part of the same group helps us learn how humanity got to where we are today.

I'm also pretty sure that we'll find another way to parse what we are discovering.

Over the last hundred years or so, scientists have gotten over the notion that looking European and being intelligent were pretty much the same thing, and I've been over that before. (December 12, 2014)

'It Happened Earlier'

(From MPK-WTAP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("This stone tool is known as a core - flakes, used for cutting, are sheared away from its edges"
(BBC News))
"...The scientists do not know who made the tools discovered in Kenya.

"Until now, some thought that Homo habilis - known as 'handy man' - was the earliest of our ancestors in the Homo genus to use tools.

"But with Homo fossils dating back to only 2.4-2.3 million years ago, it now seems unlikely that this was the first toolmaker.

"Other finds, such as animal bones found in Ethiopia with cut marks that date to 3.39 million years ago, also suggest tool use began before H. habilis...."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
'It happened earlier' seems to be a recurring theme in paleontology. Over the last several centuries, we've learned that Earth is billions, not thousands, of years old; and that we didn't always look the way we do now.

I'm quite willing to accept that folks who don't look quite like me are people. The family photo albums show that I don't look quite like my recent ancestors. I've mentioned the Caimbeul before. (May 15, 2012)

My kids don't look quite like me, and I'm pretty sure that folks a thousand years from now won't look quite like today's model: not exactly.

That doesn't bother me, any more than I'm upset that today's typical American doesn't look exactly like folks who settled Jamestown. (July 5, 2013)

Some of what's happened recently in the 'look' of my country comes from folks from all over the world moving in: and shocking 'proper' families by marrying their sons and daughters. What we're learning of humanity's long story tells me that this is how we've lived for millions of years. (July 11, 2014)

As I keep saying, change happens: and change can be good. Even if — particularly if — we need to re-think our preconceptions.

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Australopithecus afarensis is a primitive species with both human and ape-like features"
(BBC News))

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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.