Friday, June 5, 2015

Human Nature, Change, and Dinosaur Names

Human remains in Sima de los Huesos/Pit of Bones show evidence of a lethal attack — 430,000 years ago. On the 'up' side, evidence of human compassion goes back 1,800,000 years.

The sauropod we've called "Brontosaurus" has that name again, probably, which gave me an excuse to mention Gertie the Dinosaur and Anne Elk's Theory on Brontosauruses.
  1. CSI, Sima de los Huesos
  2. "Welcome Back, Brontosaurus?"

Acknowledging Change

This universe got started about 13,798,000,000 years ago, give or take 37,000,000. Earth's a lot younger: 4,540,000,000 years, plus or minus 50,000,000. The earliest life we know of started 3,500,000,000 to 3,700,000,000 years back.

We've learned a lot since Psalms 8:4-6 and Psalms 139:17-18 were written. I see scientific discoveries as opportunities for "greater admiration" of God's work. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

We live in a world of order and beauty. Studying it and using what we learn are part of being human. I've been over this before. A lot. (March 6, 2015; February 27, 2015; February 13, 2015; February 6, 2015)

Our world is basically good: but it isn't perfect. That's one of my recurring topics, too. (September 5, 2014; November 21, 2014; October 31, 2014)

We're not what's wrong with the universe, by the way. Humanity is good, too: basically. That's hard to remember, sometimes, when someone takes 'your' parking space, or murders someone for being different.

But God makes us, and God doesn't make junk. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism, 31, 299, 355)

We're made of spirit and the stuff of this world, rational creatures who decide what we do. (Catechism, 311, 325-348, 1704, 1730-1731)

Made "in the image of God," the first of us decided that being like God wasn't good enough: we wanted top billing. That was a very long time ago, and we're still dealing with the disastrous results. (Genesis 1:26-27; Catechism, 396-412)

We've changed a bit over the last couple million years. Our faces have gotten smaller and our foreheads bigger, and we've been getting better at communication. We're slowly learning how to reunite humanity's huge and sadly-dysfunctional family, and that's another topic. Topics. (April 26, 2015December 12, 2014; September 7, 2014; July 5, 2013)

We've learned a great deal about humanity's backstory since 1859, which horrifies some folks — and convinces others that because some Christians don't like change, God can't exist. Knowing more about the "clay" God used doesn't bother me. (June 20, 2014)

Anyway, I'm a Catholic, so acknowledging that the universe is in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection is mandatory. (Catechism, 282-308)

Dinosaurs, Imagined and Real

(From Winsor McCay, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Winsor McCay's comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. (May 25, 1913))

Interestingly, Winsor McCay's tree-munching sauropod was on land, not partly submerged as scientists once thought.

I'll be talking about brontosaurs a bit later, but figured this would be a good place to give an overview of Earth when these famous dinosaurs lived.

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, used w/o permission.)
(North America during the Late Jurassic, about 150,000,000 years ago.)

Brontosaurus lived in what's now Wyoming, south of an inland sea in North America. The Atlantic was forming between North America and Eurasia, but hadn't separated Africa and South America yet.

We know about several sorts of sauropods that lived in North America at the time, plus some in Europe and Africa. North American sauropods shared their continent with ankylosaurs like Gargoyleosaurus and Mymoorapelta: herbivorous tanks, sort of. Think a scaled-up, hornless, rhinoceros.

Archaeopteryx was flying where Bavaria is now, and the Ceratosaurus lived in the same part of North America as brontosaurs. Ceratosaurus was probably about half the size of Allosaurus, another North American predator of the era.

Ammonites swam where the western Sierra Nevada is today. Various species of those spiral molluscs would endure until the big mass extinction some 66,000,000 years back. (April 24, 2015; January 16, 2015)

Knowing that won't help me predict what the weekend's weather will be like, but I find this sort of thing fascinating. Your experience may vary.

1. CSI, Sima de los Huesos

(From PLOS ONE, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("A detailed CT scan of the skull showed that the two fractures were almost indistinguishable"
(BBC News))
"Evidence of 430,000-year-old human violence found" Victoria Gill, BBC News (May 28, 2015)

"Human remains from a cave in northern Spain show evidence of a lethal attack 430,000 years ago, a study has shown.

"Researchers examined one skull from a site called the Pit of Bones, which contains the remains of at least 28 people.

"They concluded that two fractures on that skull were likely to have been caused by 'multiple blows' and imply 'an intention to kill'...."

"...The forensic investigation of this ancient death provides a piece in the puzzle of how these people came to be in the cave...."
Cranium 17 is from a young adult, one of 28 people whose remains were in Sima de los Huesos, Spanish for "Pit of Bones," in the Atapuerca Mountains.

A Wikipedia page, citing Stanley Greenspan's work, says they were Homo heidelbergensis, folks whose descendants include Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo Sapiens.

Hats off to BBC News for calling them "people." That's a big step forward from the previous century's attitudes about 'cavemen.' (October 31, 2014)

Scientists studying the "two clear perimortem depression fractures on the frontal bone" say they were most likely made "with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict." (PLOS ONE)

Sima de los Huesos/pit of bones is a 13-meter/43-foot-deep shaft used, probably off and on, for some 130,000 years as a repository for bodies.

One of them, a child we call Cranium 14, was born with severe Craniosynostosis. Someone took care of this child for at least five years.

A deformed and mentally crippled child would be accepted in some cultures today, killed before birth in others. I think of everyone in humanity's family as "human," anyway: and that's yet another topic.

"We Have Not Changed Much"

(From Arsuaga et al., Javier Trueba (Madrid Scientific Films); via PLOS-ONE; used w/o permission.)
(Diagram (left) of deposits at the bottom of Sima de los Huesos/Pit of Bones; photo of Cranium 17, taken by Javier Trueba (Madrid Scientific Films).)
"...And while this study does not tackle that scientific debate, it suggests that the long vertical shaft of this cave was a place where these ancient people deliberately 'deposited deceased members of their social groups'."

"The researchers conclude in their paper that this may have been 'a social practice among this group', and may even be 'the earliest funerary behaviour in the human fossil record'.

" 'Intentional interpersonal violence is a behaviour that accompanies humans since at least 430,000 years ago,' commented Dr Sala, 'but so does the care of sick or even the care of the dead.

" 'We have not changed much in the last half million years.'..."
(Victoria Gill, BBC News)
I agree, that "we have not changed much in the last half million years:" and see mounting evidence that folks have been acting like humans for much longer.

We don't know much about KNM-ER 1808, who lived roughly 1,500,000 years back in what's now Kenya: apart from how she died.
"...An abnormal outer layer of bone on her thigh shows evidence of bleeding just before death. After consulting doctors and accounts of wilderness explorers, researchers concluded that an overdose of vitamin A—perhaps from eating a carnivore's liver, which concentrates vitamin A—caused the bleeding and her death."
Before that, she'd have suffered weeks or months of abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, lethargy, trouble thinking.

Without help — someone to fend off predators and get water, at least — someone weighing around 59 kilograms/130 pounds, in that condition, wouldn't last long in the African savannah

Folks still get Hypervitaminosis A occasionally. Eating a carnivore's liver, or some sorts of honey, chugging cod liver oil, or overdosing on some supplements or vitamins will do it. KNM-ER 1808 might have suffered from yaws, in which case the bone and soft tissue damage would have taken years to kill her. (PLOS-ONE/NCBI) And that's almost another topic.

Then there's Dmanisi skull 4 and mandible D3900, the remains of an elderly man: one of five Homo erectus skulls found in Dmanisi Gorge, Georgia.

These folks, who lived about 1,800,000 years ago, were a diverse lot — but no more so than folks living today. I gather that thinking they're all the same species is still debated. As I said last week, I think scientists are going to be re-thinking what "species" actually means. (May 29, 2015)

The point is that Dmanisi skull 4/mandible D3900 only had one tooth left when he died. He almost certainly had someone finding and preparing soft food for him in his last years. Or maybe he was really good at finding gummable plant products.

My guess is that we've been taking care of folks who can't care for themselves, and occasionally acting in less ethical ways, for a very long time.


1. "Welcome Back, Brontosaurus?"

(From Davide Bonadonna, CC- BY NC SA, via Smithsomian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
("Welcome back, Brontosaurus?"
(Smithsonian Magazine))
"Back to Brontosaurus? The Dinosaur Might Deserve Its Own Genus After All" Brian Switek, Smithsonian Magazine (April 7, 2015)

"It may be one of the most famous dinosaurs of all time. The trouble is that shortly after being discovered, the Jurassic creature fell into an identity crisis. The name for the long-necked, heavy-bodied herbivore Brontosaurus excelsus—the great 'thunder lizard'—was tossed into the scientific wastebasket when it was discovered that the dinosaur wasn't different enough from other specimens to deserve its own distinct genus.

"But now, in a paleontological twist, Brontosaurus just might be back. A new analysis of dinosaur skeletons across multiple related species suggests that the original thunder lizard is actually unique enough to resurrect the beloved moniker, according to researchers in the U.K. and Portugal.

" 'We didn’t expect this at all at the beginning,' says study co-author Emmanuel Tschopp of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. At first, Tschopp had been working only with Octávio Mateus of the Museu da Lourinhã to update the family tree of diplodocid dinosaurs.'..."
This particular sort of long-necked dinosaur has been around, either as living critters or fossils, since the Late Jurassic. That's about 155,000,000 years now.

What's been changing for the last 136 years is the critter's basionym, which is a name for the names of taxa — which is a name for groups of organisms we think of as a unit. The last I heard, philosophers still aren't sure exactly what names are and how they work, and that's yet again another topic.

The more we learn about life's long story, the more we need to re-think what we learned earlier. Until 1993, for example, scientists thought dogs were related to the dhole, or maybe golden jackal. Mitochondrial DNA showed that dogs are a subspecies of wolf. I talked about dogs and wolves last week. (May 29, 2015)

Re-classifying this particular sort of sauropod is important for scientists studying sauropods in the Kimmeridgian age of the Late Jurassic. It's made headlines — probably because brontosaurus has been a major cultural landmark for more than a century.

Brontosaurs have been an iconic dinosaur, from Gertie the Dinosaur to Anne Elk's Theory on Brontosauruses: and on Sinclair Oil Corporation's logo. There's one of those little green sauropods on a gas station sign downtown, here in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

Charles R. Knight did a fine job in that 1897 painting of sauropods. At the time, quite a few scientists thought brontosaurs lived in water, and that diplodocus dragged its tail.

These days, it's more of a 'what's wrong with this picture?' situation. Apatosaurs may have cracked their whip-like tails, making a sound of over 200 decibels. And that's still another topic.

More, mostly about humanity's past:

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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.