Worst year in review

As we’re wrapping up what may be the worst year in recent global memory, especially geopolitically, let’s take a moment to review some more positive things that came up at Lawnchair in 2016.

Headed home


Alternate subtitle: Go West
This was a quiet year on the blog, with only 18 posts compared with the roughly thirty per year in 2014-2015. The major reason for the silence was that I moved from Kazakhstan back to the US to join the Anthropology Department at Vassar College in New York. With all the movement there was  less time to blog. Much of the second half of 2016 was spent setting up the Biological Anthropology Lab at Vassar, which will focus on “virtual” anthropology, including 3D surface scanning…


Cast of early Homo cranium KNM-ER 1470 and 3D surface scan made in the lab using an Artec Spider.

… and 3D printing.


gibbon endocast, created from a CT scan using Avizo software and printed on a Zortrax M200.

This first semester stateside I reworked my ‘Intro to Bio Anthro’ and ‘Race’ courses, which I think went pretty well being presented to an American audience for the first time. The latter class examines human biological variation, situating empirical observations in modern and historical social contexts. This is an especially important class today as 2016 saw a rise in nationalist and racist movements across the globe. Just yesterday Sarah Zhang published an essay in The Atlantic titled, “Will the Alt-right peddle a new kind of racist genetics?” It’s a great read, and I’m pleased to say that in the Race class this semester, we addressed all of the various social and scientific issues that came up in that piece. Admittedly though, I’m dismayed that this scary question has to be raised at this point in time, but it’s important for scholars to address and publicize given our society’s tragically short and selective memory.

So the first semester went well, and next semester I’ll be teaching a seminar focused on Homo naledi and a mid-level course on the prehistory of Central Asia. The Homo naledi class will be lots of fun, as we’ll used 3D printouts of H. naledi and other hominin species to address questions in human evolution. The Central Asia class will be good prep for when I return to Kazakhstan next summer to continue the hunt for human fossils in the country.

Osteology is still everywhere

A recurring segment over the years has been “Osteology Everywhere,” in which I recount how something I’ve seen out and about reminds me of a certain bone or fossil. Five of the blog 18 posts this year were OAs, and four of these were fossiliferous: I saw …

2016-02-09 16.26.31

Anatomy terminology hidden in 3D block letters,


Hominin canines in Kazakhstani baursaki cakes,


The Ardipithecus ramidus ilium in Almaty,


Homo naledi juvenile femur head in nutmeg,


And a Homo erectus cranium on a Bangkok sidewalk. As I’m teaching a fossil-focused seminar next semester, OA will probably become increasingly about fossils, and I’ll probably get my students involved in the fun as well.

New discoveries and enduring questions

The most-read post on the blog this year was about the recovery of the oldest human Nuclear DNA, from the 450,000 year old Sima de los Huesos fossils. My 2013 prediction that nuclear DNA would conflict with mtDNA by showing these hominins to be closer to Neandertals than Denisovans was shown to be correct.


These results are significant in part because they demonstrate one way that new insights can be gained from fossils that have been known for years. But more intriguingly, the ability of researchers to extract DNA from exceedingly old fossils suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The other major discoveries I covered this year were the capuchin monkeys who made stone tools and the possibility that living humans and extinct Neandertals share a common pattern of brain development.

Pride & Predator

An unrelated image from 2016 that makes me laugh.

The comparison between monkey-made and anthropogenic stone tools drives home the now dated fact that humans aren’t the only rock-modifiers. But the significance for the evolution of human tool use is less clear cut – what are the parallels (if any) in the motivation and modification of rocks between hominins and capuchins, who haven’t shared a common ancestor for tens of millions of years? I’m sure we’ll hear more on that in the coming years.

In the case of whether Neandertal brain development is like that of humans, I pointed out that new study’s results differ from previous research probably because of differences samples and methods. The only way to reconcile this issue is for the two teams of researchers, one based in Zurich and the other in Leipzig, to come together or for a third party to try their hand at the analysis. Maybe we’ll see this in 2017, maybe not.

There were other cool things in 2016 that I just didn’t get around to writing about, such as the publication of new Laetoli footprints with accompanying free 3D scans, new papers on Homo naledi that are in press in the Journal of Human Evolution, and new analysis of old Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) fossils suggesting that she spent a lifetime climbing trees but may have sucked at it. But here’s hoping that 2017 tops 2016, on the blog, in the fossil record, and basically on Earth in general.


Kazakhstan Paleolithic fieldwork: Valikhanova

Last week, I left my home in Astana for southern Kazakhstan, to rendezvous with researchers based in Kazakhstan, the United States and Germany. This is the beginning of a collaborative effort to understand the underappreciated importance of Kazakhstan in hominin evolution.

Post-fieldwork meal. From foreground clockwise: Zhaken Taimagambetov (1), Tyler (2), Saya (1), Jason (2), Adam (3), Radu (4), Mica (2), Kat (5), Katie (2), and Rinato (1). Not pictured: Me (6) and Jean-Marc (1). Numbers indicate school affiliations, at the end of the post.

We just returned from a brief stint of soil sampling at, and site surveying around, the Paleolithic site of Valikhanova, near the town of Zhanatas. This site was excavated decades ago, and has yielded a number of stone tools interpreted as transitional between Middle and Upper Paleolithic industries. This is a fascinating period for ‘modern’ human origins, but unfortunately the site has not yielded any human fossils to the best of my knowledge.

Valikhanova. The excavation site is the layered earth exposure on the right, our camp site on the left.

But there are other important questions that can be asked about the nature of the site and its inhabitants. First, the geological layers (“strata”) of the site have not been reliably dated, so soil samples were collected to be analyzed by a dating technique called optically stimulated luminescence (this is the work of Dr. Kat Fitzsimmons). Second, aspects of climate and ecology can be inferred from soil chemistry, which is the focus of team members from Colorado State University. Combining this information, we can begin to understand when and why humans (Neandertal and/or more ‘modern’ looking) inhabited the area – e.g., was it only between major glacial periods, how much time does the site span, etc?

And it’s a pretty amazing area. The site is nestled in a depression, creating an ecosystem somewhat protected from harsh winds and temperatures blowing around surrounding the mountains. That said, the night we arrived we were welcomed by extremely high-speed winds and heavy rains. My tent was the only casualty of the storm, forcing me to flee to the comforting confines of our sturdy truck and cups of vodka. The storm was short lived, and soon the sky opened up to a panoramic harlequin sunset.

Palette after the storm. Left to right covers from West to East. The excavation and North are at the center.

Also there was a rainbow.

My main activity here was survey, the search for other places that could potentially yield fossil and additional cultural materials. Survey basically involves a fairly targeted scouring of a landscape, searching for specific features. Our survey took us over and across gorgeous landscapes. We found a number of possible fossil/artifact accumulations and possible caves/rock shelters for future investigation, but no human fossils turned up (this was not terribly surprising, as human fossils are quite rare).

Atop one big hill, Drs. Jason LaBelle and Adam Van Arsdale discuss one of many stone tools we found littering the area around Valikhanova.

One neat surprise did come when scanning the ground above a rocky outcrop over a filled-in cave. At first glance, I seem to be holding some kind of a jaw bone fragmentwith two teeth. Close inspection shows this just to be a rock with a coincidentally-molar-like calcification. Bummer. However, we were able to trick one expert into thinking for a minute that we found some kind of pig or other mammal fossil.

Fossil bovid, equid or suid? Meganthropus?! Just a rock? Osteology students & paleontologists, beware faux-ssils…

We’re briefly back in Almaty to recharge, and on Tuesday we’ll head out to explore Charyn Canyon for a few days. Stay tuned for more about our adventures!

*Affiliations from Fig. 1 above:
1. Kazakh National University, 2. Colorado State University, 3. Wellesley College, 4. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, 5. Max Planck Institute. 6. Nazarbayev University.

Gamarjoba from Dmanisi!

It’s been a bit harder to keep things updated as I journey across latitudes this summer. My last post was from Nairobi, and a few days later I arrived in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia (lamazi Sakartvelo). I’ve been involved with the 2nd annual Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School, which has been going on for about a week now. Things have been going fast and we’ve been having a lot of fun, so it’s a bit too difficult to recap everything so far. But we’ve had a series of lectures from great people in various fields. Here are some highlights:

Our first lecture was by Dr. Bernard Wood, at the site of Dmanisi itself. He discussed some of the progress and pitfalls in the field of Paleoanthropology. Next was Dr. G. Philip Rightmire, who discussed some aspects of hominid morphology and taxonomy. Then Dr. Reid Ferring discussed the geology of the site. As someone who focuses more on the fossils themselves, Ferring’s lecture was refreshingly fascinating for me. In brief, Argon-Argon dating was used to establish that the Mashavera basalt underlying the hominid (and other!) fossils is around 1.85 million years old. Then there were a series of ash falls that led to the soil formation of the site. A little (stratigraphically) above the fossil deposits is a layer dated by paleomagnetism to correspond to the Olduvai polarity reversal, around 1.76(?) million years ago. So the hominid fossils themselves are pretty well constrained to somewhere between 1.85-1.75 million years ago.

Then Dr. Martha Tappan gave a lecture about the taphonomy (site formation and burial processes) of the site; the neighbors invited me in for some delicious ch’ach’a shortly before the lecture, so I’m afraid my memory of this one is a bit foggy. 😦

Last night Dr. Jordi Agusti lectured about the micromammals at Dmanisi, and at some Spanish Pleistocene sites. Micromammals have large litters and short generation times, so they are good indicators for relative dating. Tonight Dr. Adam Van Arsdale will be lecturing about early Homo from Dmanisi and other sites. It’s been a great lecture series so far, and there are sure to be many great more lectures in the next few fast-paced, fun-filled weeks.

We’ve also been excavating the site, working mostly so far on taking down some of the layers stratigraphically above the hominids to hopefully more fossiliferous layers. I injured my hand on some monkeybars at the park yesterday (they seriously ripped off a big layer of skin, so I’m partially mummified), so I was down for the count today, doing lab work in lieu of excavating. I should be ready to go by tomorrow though.

I know I owe the world a few Effing Fossil Friday posts, so I’ll hopefully have those up soon, too. Nakhvamdis!

Where and when the eff am I in time and space?

I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa yesterday, and after a jet-laggy day and a half or so, I’m now at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History (nee Transvaal Museum) in Pretoria. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, and when I’d landed yesterday, Joburg was in the midst of the kind of mists no one misses (left, Joburg from my hotel). It was seriously super gray and cold, it was like being back in Michigan. The hotel was pretty nice. Here’s a view of sunrise this morning (which I saw since I’m still not adjusted to the time change).

I just finished my first day back with Australopithecus robustus fossils (pic below). It’s nice to be working on fossils again, but I’ve been awake since 2:30 am so as much as I love fossils it was a bit of a struggle some of the time. I’d love to say more but my eyes are about to go on strike and pop out of my head, probably to face something upsetting to punish me for not letting them rest. I’ll do my best to keep the world up to date as to my progress and travels. Good night!

Dmanisi Field School: Success

I just got back to the States from the Republic of Georgia two nights ago; I’d thought I wasn’t really feeling the effects of the 8-hour time difference, but here I am at 6:00 a.m. feeling as fresh and sprightly as an antelope. Well, almost as much as an antelope. I didn’t have the chance to update the blog while I was in Georgia, so I’ll jot down some thoughts about my experience overall.

I had the good fortune to be able to assist a colleague in executing the first (annual) Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School. We had a brief field season (1 month) excavating the site of Dmanisi where the skulls and partial skeletons of several Homo erectus individuals have been found. In my previous post, I’d mentioned the site dated to around 1.77 million years ago. After being well-educated on the geology of the site by Reid Ferring, I can now say that the hominids are found between two basalts (lava flows) dating to 1.85 and 1.76 million years ago. Within these two basalt layers are A and B ashfall sediments. The A sediments are older, of normal magnetic polarity, indicating an age of 1.85-1.78 million years ago. The B sediments are reverse polarity, and were deposited between 1.78 – 1.76 million years ago. Stone tools are found through out the sequence, though Homo erectus is only known from B sediments. Enough about the geology.

Georgia itself is an amazing country. I really only spent time in the capital city of Tbilisi and the small town of Dmanisi [namely Patara (“little”) Dmanisi], and I’m sure that if I had the opportunity to see more I’d think the place is even more amazing. There is a very rich and ancient cultural heritage, and the country seems to be doing well for itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s an enduring Soviet influence, which for a simpleton like me means that there are amazing statues sprinkled about the place. Here’s a picture of the giant statue of Kartlis Deda (“Mother Georgia”), which overlooks the center of downtown Tbilisi. For a 20-meter tall woman, she was fairly difficult for me to find. Women…

The people I met and got to work with were great. The Georgians were super friendly and awesome. Here’s a picture of a lot of them (and me!) during the Paleolithic Games. This year it was only one game, using an atl-atl to hurl a spear at various targets. The top 3 winners were all named Giorgi; I only scored 2 points. Better luck next year. Anyway, I really like my newfound Georgian friends. In addition, I’m really glad to have met the other researchers and field school students. Everyone was super friendly and helpful and knowledgeable, and I think David Lordkipanidze, now head of the Georgian National Museums, has done a great job of integrating local Georgian and international researchers in the Dmanisi excavations. All in all, we really had a great crew.

It was a fossiliferous year, as it has been in the past, and will probably be in the future. Though we excavated for only a month, we uncovered a number of great fossils, including a complete hominid humerus that made the news (if I can find a non-facebook link again I’ll post the news coverage). Here’s a picture of the press interviewing Abesolam Vekua (left) and David Lordkipanidze at the site the last day I was there. Right where they are standing is where a number of hominid remains have come from. The humerus is from right behind where Vekua stands. He’s facing squares where we spent lots of time excavating, and that yielded some pretty interesting stuff; note the jumble of fossils to his left. I don’t know what I am and ain’t allowed to say, but suffice it to say that a number of cool things came out, many of which I’m sure you’ll be hearing about in the near future.
All in all, it was a great way to end this summer. I hope I have the opportunity to go back!