New (old) Australopithecus anamensis cranium

The Fall semester here at Vassar kicks off next week, and so of course a new fossil discovery is published this week that threatens to upend my course plans and throw my syllabi into disarray. Haile-Selassie and colleagues report a very well-preserved hominin cranium, from the Woranso-Mille region of Ethiopia and dating to 3.8 million years ago. The new cranium shares features with Australopithecus anamensis, a species previously mainly known through jaws and teeth. The fossil is therefore really important since it puts a face to the species’ name, and it is the oldest relatively complete Australopithecus cranium known. When I showed a picture of the fossil to my wife, who is not a paleoanthropologist, all she said was that it looked like the face of a dog who got stung by a bee.

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The new A. anamensis fossil MRD-VP-1 (left), and a dog that lost a fight with a bee. Fossil photo from the Smithsonian‘s coverage.

The big buzz in many news stories about the fossil (for example, Nature, ScienceNews, etc.) is that it rewrites an evolutionary relationship early in human history, with Australopithecus anamensis no longer the ancestor of A. afarensis, but rather the two being contemporaries. That idea is based on a 3.9 million year old frontal bone attributed to A. afarensis from a site called Belohdelie, also in Ethiopia (Asfaw, 1987): basically, the new A. anamensis cranium reveals a hominin with a narrow frontal region of the brain, which lived 100,000 later than A. afarensis with a relatively expanded frontal region:

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Top views of the reconstructed A. anamensis cranium (left), and the Belohdelie frontal (center), and my crappy photoshopped overlay of Belohdelie on A. anamensis (right). Images not to scale.

The lede, “human evolutionary tree messier than thought,” is not terribly interesting or compelling since it seems to characterize most fossil discoveries over the past several years. And in this case I don’t know how well supported the argument is, since the trait in question (narrow frontal region of the braincase or “post-orbital constriction”) can vary dramatically within a single species. The image below is from the paper itself—compare the difference in “postorbital constriction index” (left graph) between the new A. anamensis cranium (MRD) and A. afarensis (in blue). Both sets of fossils fall within the range of chimpanzees (P. troglodytes), and note the great range of variation within gorillas (G. gorilla).

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Part of Figure 3 from the paper by Haile-Selassie and colleagues. On the top is a view from above of fossil humans: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Ardipithecus ramidus, the new A. anamensis, A. afarensis, and A. africanus. Below the graphs show how species differ in narrowing of the frontal (left) and length of the skull (right).

What I find most interesting about the new find is the great front-to-back length of the cranium—check out how long and narrow the brain-case is of the fossil compared with the later hominins to the right. This is an interesting similarity with the much earlier (6 million years ago) Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which is the left-most fossil in the figure. It makes me really curious to see the brain endocast of A. anamensis and the Sahelanthropus cranium—what was brain shape like for these ancient animals, and what does that mean for the earliest stages of human brain evolution? The Sahelanthropus endocast was presented at a conference six years ago but remains unpublished. Haile-Selassie and colleagues report that they made a virtual reconstruction of the A. anamensis endocast, so hopefully we’ll get to pick its brain soon.

 

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This is how we do it

It’s Friday night. Our description of the Homo naledi femora (thigh bones) from the Lesedi Chamber is hot off the press. This coincides with the publication of another study (with which I wasn’t involved) of the species’ proximal femur, so I guess you could say it’s a pretty hip time for Homo naledi fossils.

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An important task in our study was to estimate the diameter of the poorly preserved femur head (part of the hip joint), a variable which is useful for estimating body mass in extinct animals, which in turn is an important life history variable. One thing I’ve recently been griping about with my students is that while many general research methods are well published, the step-by-step processes usually are not. So, here I’ll detail exactly how we estimated femur head diameter (FHD) —it’s pretty simple, but it took a while to figure it out on my own. And now you won’t have to!

We used the simple yet brilliant approach that Ashley Hammond and colleagues (2013) developed for the acetabulum (the hip socket). In brief, if you have a 3D model or mesh of a bone, you can use various software packages to highlight an area and the software will find the best fit of a given shape to that surface. I used Amira/Avizo and Geomagic Design X, which are great but admittedly quite expensive.

1. Identify the preserved bony surface by making a curvature map
You can do this in Geomagic, but I figured it out in Amira first, so here we are. Also,  Amira gives you more control over the resulting colormap, which I think makes it easier to identify preserved vs. broken bone surfaces. The module-based workflow of Amira/Avizo takes some getting used to, but this step is quite simple, once you’ve imported the mesh (“UW 102a-001.stl” in the image below).

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Amira workflow (left). The red “Curvature” module is applied to the surface mesh (“UW102a-001.stl”), resulting in a new object (“MaxCurvatureInv”), whose surface view is depicted at right.

The surface is now color-coded, with areas of high curvature (i.e., broken bone and exposed trabecular bone) in blue and better-preserved surfaces in red. This allows you to see which portion(s) of the bone to use to define the sphere.

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The curvature map reveals three large patches (A-C) of decently-preserved hip joint surface.

2. Highlight the desired surface in Geomagic
Import the 3D mesh into Geomagic, and use the “Lasso selection mode” to highlight the area (or areas) you wish to fit a sphere to. Make sure that you’ve toggled “Visible only,” so that you don’t accidentally highlight other parts of the bone. You can select a single area, or many areas. In the following example, I’ve highlighted only the large patch (“A” in the previous figure).

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3. Go all Brexit on the highlighted region
That is, declare it as its own distinct region. Navigate to the “Region” tab and click the “Insert” icon. Magically, the highlighted region is now outlined and a shaded in a new color, and listed as “Region group 1” in the window on the left.

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4. Measure the region’s radius
Select the “Measure Radius” icon at the bottom of the window, and then when you scroll or hover the mouse over the region, the radius will appear within the patch. The value should be the same throughout the region which is now treated as a spherical surface.

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5. Visualize the fitted sphere
If your main goal is to obtain estimates of diameters, you can stop here (don’t forget that the diameter is radius x 2!). But it can be handy to know how the proximal femur would look with the complete head (not that these are perfectly spherical…). To do this, navigate to the “Model” tab and select the “Surface primitive” icon. In the grey menus that appear on the left, select the region and “Sphere” as the shape to be extracted.

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Three orthogonal circumferences will appear around the highlighted area, and if they look OK, click the right-pointing arrow at the top of the menus, and there you go!

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Wowzers.

I did this a few times on the Homo naledi femur from Lesedi, and got measurements within about 1-2 mm of one another, which is good. What’s more, we used this method on a sample of modern human and fossil hominin femur heads for which the actual diameters were known, to demonstrate the accuracy of the method.

Lesedi sphere vs FHD_No Krapina copy

Femur head diameter measured directly (y-axis) vs. sphere-based estimates using the method described here (x-axis). The Homo naledi estimate is indicated by the blue line.

This graph shows that the sphere-based estimates very closely approximate direct measurements, although there is some slight overestimation at larger sizes, i.e. not affecting the H. naledi value. So although the fossil is not perfectly preserved, we are fairly confident in our estimate of its femur head diameter.

The most complete Australopithecus skeleton

StW 573, a hominin skeleton more palatably nicknamed “Little Foot,” made its big debut last week:

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Ron Clarke showcases the lovingly-excavated skeleton (Photo credit: AP/Themba Hadebe)

The skeleton is remarkable in that it is the most complete australopithecine individual ever discovered, and is among the most complete in the entire hominin fossil record. Below I’ve compared it to the most complete Australopithecus afarensis (KSD-VP-1/1 and AL 288-1), A. africanus (StW 431 and Sts 14), and A. sediba (MH1-2); the Dikika infant would be a neat comparison, too, but I don’t know of any photos of its bones nicely laid out. The other skeletons are practically naked (or dismembered) compared to Little Foot.

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Little Foot (red) compared with other australopithecine skeletons. Images not to scale! (Photo credit: The Internet!)

Beyond it’s completeness, the other parts of story of Little Foot are equally fascinating – from its discovery based on already-known fragments to the possibility that it is older than “Lucy” (AL-288). Ron Clarke has painstakingly and I’d say very successfully removed the skeleton from the hard breccia in which the fossils were encased. Having spent the better part of the past two decades with the skeleton, he has argued that Little Foot represents a second hominin species at Sterkfontein, Australopithecus prometheus (Clarke 2013), the species to which hominin fossils at Makapansgat were originally attributed (Dart 1948). With the unveiling of the skeleton, I’d guess that in the coming years we’ll see renewed investigations into the number of species at Sterkfontein, and the general comparison between hominins from there and Makapansgat.

From pictures in the media releases, we can see a few things that weren’t known from previous publications. I’ll outline a few here, but emphasize that these are only  superficial observations and will need to be borne out by further research.

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“EXPELLIARMUS”

At the top of the trunk, the cervical vertebra seems to have a fairly wide spinal canal, a human-like ‘bulging’ which Meyer and Hausler (2015) suggest might reflect innervation of highly manipulative hominin hands.

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Close up of the skull and upper trunk of StW 573, highlighting the cervical vertebral canal (white arrow) and first rib (orange arrow). Original photo credit: AP//Themba Hadebe.

In addition, the first rib may be relatively long front-to-back (as opposed to wide side-to-side), possibly indicating a more barrel-like chest than in other early hominins; the angle of the photo and the clear break between the proximal and distal portions, however, makes this unclear.

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Hominin first ribs/bacon, with StW 573 on the far right. Not to scale! Modified from this post.

The distal forelimb (i.e., radius and ulna) are not as elongated as in apes, but the femur is not as elongated as in the genus Homo. From the pictures, the femur neck appears short like in humans, not as elongated as is characteristic for australopiths and early Homo.

Limb comparison Stw 573

Limb proportion comparison. Humerus (top row), radius & ulna (middle), and femur (bottom). Image modified from Asfaw et al. (1999). StW 573 scaled to same humerus length as the human. Note also that all bones are from the right except the StW 573 upper limb.

The apparently short femur neck, similar to humans, contrasts with the wide, flaring ilium of the pelvis. This appears fairly flat, short and wide (Australopithecus af) compared to modern humans’ more strongly curved ilium. But this inference is just from a picture and it’s likely that the fossil needs a bit of reconstruction to uncover the true anatomy.

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StW 573 pelvis (left) compared with Sts 14 (A. africanus, middle) and SH pelvis 1 (archaic Homo, right). Sts 14 modified from Berge & Goularis (2010) and SH pelvis 1 from Bonmati et al. (2010).

I’d like to emphasize that these are just first impressions based on press release photos, and actual analysis of the skeleton are necessary to tell if these impressions are correct. As could be expected, the skeleton as a whole looks typically australopithecine, although the short femur neck may be a bit different. As 2017 draws to a close, let’s hope 2018 sees the testing of these predictions.

References

Asfaw B. et al. 1999. Australopithecus garhi: a new species of early hominid from Ethiopia. Science 284: 629-635.

Berge C and Goularis D. 2010. A new reconstruction of Sts 14 pelvis (Australopithecus africanus) from computed tomography and three-dimensional modeling techniques. Journal of Human Evolution 58: 262-272.

Bonmati A. et al. 2010.Middle Pleistocene lower back and pelvis from an aged human individual from the Sima de los Huesos site, Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 18386-18391.

Clarke RJ. 2013. Australopithecus from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. In The Paleobiology of Australopithecus, Reed et al., eds. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business.

Dart R. 1948. The Makapansgat proto-human Australopithecus prometheusAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology 6: 259-284.

Meyer M. and Hausler M. 2015. Spinal cord evolution in early Homo. Journal of Human Evolution 88: 43-53.

New anthropology syllabi for 2017

This Fall I’m teaching three courses at Vassar, two in Anthropology and one in Environmental Studies. Syllabi are posted to my Teaching page in case anyone wants to use them – here are the highlights:

Anth 235: Central Asian Prehistory

Anth 235 site map

I taught this for the first time last Spring, so the Fall syllabus is updated based on how things went in the first go around. This time, students will get more more in depth with the fossil hominins and less on the lithics on the early side. On the more recent end, there are now readings expressly concerned with sites of the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex, as well as archaeology of both the Tarim and Pazyryk mummies.

Anth 305: Human Evolutionary Developmental Biology

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This is a seminar version of the first class I ever made on my own, previously taught at the University of Michigan and Nazarbayev University. There have been lots of new discoveries and I’ve published more on this topic since the last time I taught the class. I’m  also excited to see how this class goes as a seminar in which students contribute more to discussion, rather than me rambling on about osteoblasts, morphological integration, and the like.

Enst 187: A Prehistoric Perspective on Climate Change

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This is a 100% brand spankin new class, that uses the climate-denialist argument, “But climate has always been changing,” as a basis for comparing the past and the present. In this First-year Writing Seminar, we’ll compare arguments for defining the “Anthropocene,” examine how climate change may have impacted human evolution, and study archaeological evidence for how climate change has impacted different prehistoric societies.

Osteology Everywhere: Aerial Ossicles

Last month I was flying down to New Orleans for the AAPA conference. I was excited to try authentic beignets & sazeracs, present new research, and catch up with colleagues. Midway through the flight I glanced out the window, not expecting to see much. But lo!

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Thankfully there wasn’t something on the wing. But there was something strange out there in the sparkle of sprawling city lights:

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What’s that I spy outside the city center?

A bit outside of the main jumble of street lamps appears to be a concentration of light superficially similar to an incus, one of the three auditory ossicles of the middle ear:

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Left: An osteologist’s nightmare at 20,000 feet. Right: Ear ossicles from White et al. (2012).

As a good mammal, there are three small bones inside your middle ear. These are fully formed at birth, and help transfer and amplify sound vibrations from your eardrum to your inner ear. It’s nuts. What’s even more nuts is that paleontologists and anatomists have figured out that the tiny, internal incus and malleus of mammals evolved from larger, external pieces of the jaws of our pre-mammalian ancestors. INSANITY!

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Cross section of a right ear, viewed from the front. Image credit.

Being so tiny, it’s not surprising that auditory ossicles are not often recovered from skeletal remains, and are pretty rare in the human fossil record. Nevertheless, some are known and their comparison with humans’ ossicles is pretty interesting. The oldest inci I know of are from SK 848 and SKW 18Australopithecus robustus fossils from Swartkrans in South Africa (Rak and Clarke, 1979; Quam et al., 2013). SK 848 is on the left in the set of images below:

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Incus bones in three different views of SK 848, human chimpanzee, gorilla, sock puppet (left to right). Modified from Rak and Clarke, 1979.

SK 848 to differs from humans and African apes in looking more like a screaming sock puppet with a horn on the back of its head. Additional ossicles are known from South African australopithecines, including the older A. africanus from Sterkfontein (Quam et al., 2013). Interestingly, malleus of these hominins is very similar to that of humans, and Quam et al. (2013) think this ossicle may be one of the first bones in the entire skeleton to take on a human-like configuration during hominin evolution. Functionally, this may mean that the frequency range to which human ears are adapted may have appeared pretty early in our lineage as well (Quam et al., 2015).

Who’d’ve thunk we’d learn so much just from looking out an airplane window?

anthropology
ResearchBlogging.orgRead more!

Quam, R., de Ruiter, D., Masali, M., Arsuaga, J., Martinez, I., & Moggi-Cecchi, J. (2013). Early hominin auditory ossicles from South Africa Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (22), 8847-8851 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1303375110

Quam, R., Martinez, I., Rosa, M., Bonmati, A., Lorenzo, C., de Ruiter, D., Moggi-Cecchi, J., Conde Valverde, M., Jarabo, P., Menter, C., Thackeray, J., & Arsuaga, J. (2015). Early hominin auditory capacities Science Advances, 1 (8) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500355

Rak Y, & Clarke RJ (1979). Ear ossicle of australopithecus robustus. Nature, 279 (5708), 62-3 PMID: 377094

#AAPA2017 – Modularity & evolution of the human canine

I’m recently returned from this year’s AAPA Conference, hosted by Tulane University in New Orleans. What a trip!

Usually my presentations involve fossils and/or growth, but this year I wanted to try a different way of looking at the evolution & development – integration & modularity. In short, biological structures that share a common developmental background and/or function may comprise ‘modules’ that are highly ‘integrated’ with one another, but relatively less integrated with other structures or modules.

I hypothesized that canine reduction in hominins is a result of a shift in modularity of the dentition, such that the canine became more highly integrated with the incisors than with the premolars. I’d thought of this 5 years ago when creating the first rendition of my human evo-devo course (offering again next fall!), but never got to look into it. Interestingly, the results generally supported my predictions, except for one pesky sample…

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As my primatologist friends will tell you, male chimps are the worst.

Here’s a pdf version of the poster. It was fun to dabble with a new methodology, to see my far-flung friends, and to visit a fun historic place for the AAPA conference. Definitely looking forward to next year in Austin!

Scientific Racism

The site’s been quiet in 2017, with little time to blog on top of my regular professional responsibilities, and of course watching the fascist smoke rising from the garbage fire of our 45th presidential administration with horrified disbelief. At work, my two new classes are keeping me plenty busy, and their content is quite distinct – one is on the archaeological record of Central Asia, the other centers around Homo naledi to teach about fossils. But by complete accident, examples of scientific racism came up in the readings for each course last week.

scientific-racism

Scientific racism refers to using data or evidence from the biological and social sciences to support racist arguments, that one racial group is better or worse than another group; the groups of course, are culturally determined rather than empirically discrete biological entities. This evidence is often cherry-picked, misinterpreted, and/or outright weak. Nicolas’ Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance is a recent example of such a work. The book’s racial claims amount to nothing more than handwaving, and so egregious is the misrepresentation of genetic evidence that nearly 150 of the world’s top geneticists signed a letter to the editor rebuking Wade for “misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies.” Wade’s book has no place in scientific discourse, but then almost anyone can write a book as long as a publisher thinks it will sell.

In addition to the outright misrepresentation of scientific evidence to support racist arguments, another manifestation of scientific racism is the influence of cultural biases in the interpretation of empirical observations. This may be less malicious than the first example, but is equally dangerous as it more tacitly supports systemic and pervasive racism. And this brings us to my classes’ recent readings.

First was a reference to the “Movius Line” in a review of the Paleolithic record of Central Asia (Vishnyatsky 1999) for my prehistory class. Back in the 1940s Hallum Movius, archaeologist and amazing-name-haver, noticed a distinct geographic pattern in the distribution of early stone tool technology across the Old World: “hand-axes” could be found at sites across Africa and western Eurasia, while they were largely absent from East Asian sites, which were dominated by more basic stone tools.

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Movius’ illustration of the distribution of Early Paleolithic technologies. From Fig. 1 in Dennell (2015).

Robin Dennell (2016) provides a nice review of how Movius’ personal, culturally influenced perception of China colored his interpretation of this pattern. Movius read this archaeological evidence to mean that early East Asian humans were unable to create the more advanced technology of the west, a biological and cognitive deficiency resulting from cultural separation: “East Asia gives the impression of having acted (just as historical China and in sharp contrast with the Mediterranean world) as an isolated and self-sufficient area, closed to any major human migratory wave” (Movius 1941: 86, cited in Dennell 2015). Racial and cultural stereotypes about East Asia directly translated to his interpretation of an archaeological pattern.

This type of old school scientific racism also arose in a review of endocasts (Falk, 2014) for my Homo naledi class. Endocasts are negative impressions or casts of a space or cavity, and comprise the only direct evidence of what extinct animals’ brains looked like. So to see how the structure of the brain has changed over the course of human evolution, scientists can search for the impressions of important brain structures in fossil human endocasts. Falk (2014) reviews one of the most famous of these structures – the “lunate sulcus” – which was used as evidence for reorganization of the hominin brain for nearly 100 years. In the early 20th century, anatomist and anthropologist GE Smith (not GE Smith from the Saturday Night Live Band)  thought he’d identified the human homologue of a groove that in apes separates the parietal lobe from the visual cortex. In humans, however, this groove was positioned more toward the back of the brain, which Smith interpreted as an expansion of an area relating to advanced cognition.

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The back of the brain, viewed from the left, of a chimpanzee (left) and two humans, the red line illustrating the Affenspalte or lunate sulcus (Fig. 1 from Falk 2014, which was modified from Smith 1903). The middle one also might be a grumpy fish.

It turns out that the lunate sulcus does not actually exist in humans, as the grooves identified as such are not structurally or functionally the same as the lunate sulcus in apes (Allen et al., 2006). Nevertheless, given what Smith thought the lunate sulcus was, it’s tragic to read his interpretations of human variation: “resemblance to the Simian [ape] pattern… is not quite so obvious…. in European types of brain….” (Smith 1904: 437, quoted in Falk 2014). The human condition for this trait was for it to be located in the back, reflecting an expansion of the cognitive area in front of it, and this pattern was less pronounced, according to Smith, in non-European people’s brains. This interpretation reflects two traditions at the time: 1) to refer to racial ‘types,’ ignoring variation within and overlap between groups, as well as 2) the prevailing wisdom that Europeans were more intelligent or advanced than other geographical groups.

ResearchBlogging.orgAnecdotes such as these may seem like mere scientific and historical curios, but they should serve as important reminders both that science can be accidentally guided by cultural values, or intentionally used for malevolent ends. Misconceptions and errors of the past shouldn’t be erased, but rather touted so that we don’t repeat mistakes that can have major consequences in our not-so-post-racial society.

References

Allen JS, Bruss J, & Damasio H (2006). Looking for the lunate sulcus: a magnetic resonance imaging study in modern humans. The anatomical record. Part A, Discoveries in molecular, cellular, and evolutionary biology, 288 (8), 867-76 PMID: 16835937

Dennell, R. (2016). Life without the Movius Line: The structure of the East and Southeast Asian Early Palaeolithic Quaternary International, 400, 14-22 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.001

Falk D (2014). Interpreting sulci on hominin endocasts: old hypotheses and new findings. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24822043

Vishnyatsky L (1999). The Paleolithic of Central Asia. Journal of World Prehistory, 13, 69-122.