More LB1 stuffs, but no real news

New analyses of the Flores “hobbit” material have been published recently, including a geometric morphometric (GM) study of the LB1 cranium (Baab and McNulty, in press). Readers will recall that this particular small-brained specimen has fueled the controversy over whether the Flores material is a unique, small-bodied hominin species, or whether this and other specimens were pathological (humans). At this stage in the game, I still do not know what we can say exactly is going on until we get more fossils. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read the recent analyses of the postcranial material. Maybe they will change my mind. So, I’d like to keep this more descriptive and comparative, than speculative on phylogeny versus pathology. Some neat things from the study:

Coordinates of landmarks were recorded off a “stereolithographic model” of LB1. This is a neat technology in which a plastic 3D model is ‘printed out’ based on data from a CT scan. While this might not give the same resolution as the real thing (or a good cast of the real thing), it’s a great way to make physical models of delicate fossils. Additionally, measuring/collecting landmark data from fossils can always potentially damage specimens, and stereolithography is a way to circumvent this problem. However, I don’t know that it would have been any more difficult to digitize landmarks from the actual CT scan (i.e. with a computer software package), and it almost certainly would have been cheaper. Oh well, smoke them if you’ve got them, right?

The study used GM to compare the shape of LB1 cranium to the shapes of apes, fossil hominins and modern humans. I like that the study included the analysis in Procrustes shape space (with nuances of location, rotation and scaling omitted) and in form space (omits only location and rotation, leaving size/scaling in the analysis). By examining the specimens in form space, the authors were able to study the relationship between shape and size, i.e. the effects of allometry: what cranial shape would “an LB 1-sized individual” of each taxon have? The results of the form space analyses are kind of neat, although I can’t interpret them too readily since I’m not sure what exactly the first two PC scores indicate, other than size. In a nutshell, though, LB1 appears most similar to what would be expected of a small-bodied fossil Homo individual. Of course, this is nothing new: Gordon et al (2008) came to the same conclusion last year, but using inter-landmark distances as variables (as opposed to landmarks as variables). Additionally, last year we found that the microcephalics in our lab appear more similar in shape to modern than fossil humans (I wonder if we should have tried to publish that…).

The authors also examined asymmetry as a way to address the allegation of pathology in LB1 (left-right asymmetry is believed to be indicative of developmental disruptions arising from environmental or genetic stress). LB 1 is more asymmetrical than the human mean (but within the range of variation), and roughly in the middle of the range of variation for fossil hominins. This suggests to the authors that LB1 is not pathologically asymmetrical, and that asymmetry in the fossil is rather likely due to effects of fossilization. Unfortunately, however, the issue of pathology-related asymmetry is not wholly adequately addressed, so this result must be taken with a grain of salt (fluctuating asymmetry is generally believed to indicate developmental disruptions, and there are two other types of asymmetry that must be factored out…). It is at this point that some GM qualms I have come to the fore. Really there’s one issue specifically: homology and measurement error.

As mentioned above, GM statistically analyzes shapes using landmark coordinates as variables. Of course when comparing things, you want to make sure you’re actually comparing equivalent things (“homologous” structures). So on a cranium there are a few, which Bookstein identified as “Type I,” and are often the intersections of bony sutures, such as the point where your two nasal bones contact your frontal bone. But beyond that, many landmarks are extrema (“Types II-III), i.e. points of widest breadth, which are not necessarily (ever?) homologous structures. The trouble, then, is a large risk of comparing non-homologous structures, which can render biological analyses nearly meaningless. Additionally, many of these such points must be found fairly arbitrarily, which means that even if given landmarks are homologous (i.e. biologically meaningful), there is a good chance of measurement error confounding the study–this is especially true in fluctuating asymmetry studies.

Use of these Type II-III landmarks is not terrible, it’s just a reason to be wary. One must ask, based on how arbitrarily a landmark was found, and the likelihood of measurement error, how meaningful will the results be? One landmark that comes to mind from this study is alare, “the most lateral point on the margin of the nasal aperture.” How significant is ‘lateral-most’ as a criterion–is there something functionally important about this point, and is it very variable within a given taxon (I really do not know, but now I’m interested…)? Moreover, the margins of the nasal aperture (“nose hole”) are not always sharply delineated, but can be rounded, making the margin itself difficult to identify: for example, OH 5 has very rounded margins, but KNM-ER 406 seems to have sharp margins–both specimens are Australopithecus boisei. In this study, alare contributed second most to individual asymmetry in all taxa. Is this because of measurement error, or the fact that this is not a biologically significant point, or both/neither? Other fun landmarks include “malar root origin,” and “Frontomalare temporale… The point where the frontozygomatic suture crosses the temporal line (or outer orbital rim)” (my emphasis). So throughout the study, you took either one intersection or the other?! When did you use which one, and why? Homology FAIL. Maybe I (or someone else) will come up with a new (hopefully better) way to study asymmetry… Now I’ve lost my train of thought.

Baab K and McNulty K. Size, shape and asymmetry in fossil hominins: The status of the LB1 cranium based on 3D morphometric analyses. J Hum Evol, in press.

Gordon A, Nevell L, and Wood B. 2008. The Homo floresiensis cranium (LB1): Size, scaling, and early Homo affinities. Proc Nat Acad Sci 105: 4650-4655.

Cretins and Omomyids

What’s new in the world of Paleoanthropology?

The first bit of news is older than dirt: Christopher Beard reports in the 11 March issue of PNAS on new evidence of the earliest primates in North America around the time of the Paleocene, some 60-55 Ma. Fossil teeth discovered in Mississippi have been allocated to a new species, Teilhardina magnoliana, arguably the most primitive Teilhardina in North America or Europe. Beard argues this suggests that, contrary to current understanding of euprimate dispersal, early omomyids colonized North America around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum via a Bering Strait land bridge. Possibly, these early critters thence colonized Europe. Pretty neat stuff: early primate forebears disperse from Asia to N. America, and some 55 Ma later modern humans follow their tiny footsteps. I don’t know very much about primate origins (my interests like some 50 Ma after this event), but it’s always nice to have a reason to say “omomyid” or “omomyiform.”

Next, one of the most sensational paleoanthropological news bits, the famed hobbit, is back in the spotlight, in a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy B. Recall that when the Flores hominin material was first reported about five years ago, it was argued to be a new species of an insular-dwarfed erectus-like hominin: Homo floresiensis. Others later argued that the Liang Bua material was pathological (i.e. microcephalic dwarf) H. sapiens. Most recently, Hershkovitz et al. made a pretty convincing case that the LB 1 was a modern human with Laron Syndrome, a pituitary disease. Their case is pretty strong, but the most troubling evidence, in my mind, against a pathological human is the fact that the diminutive Liang Bua specimens are very small and span a period of thousands of years. I look forward to Falk et al.’s presentation at the AAPAs in April (“LB1 did not have Laron Syndrome”).

But the new Obendorf et al. paper gives the hobbit a new diagnosis: “myxoedematous cretinism.” Thus, the diminutive stature and small brain of LB1, Obendorf and team hypothesize, is due to a non-functioning thyroid. Support for their hypothesis comes from, among other things, the enlarged pituitary fossa of the LB1 sphenoid and the morphology of the LB1 trapezoid. I must admit now that I have not yet read the entire paper (I have to teach in 10 minutes) but the paper looks interesting, and I am interested in how they propose to explain how only the “cretins” were preserved in Liang Bua cave, while non-pathological humans were not. The paper also reminds me of Dobson’s (1998) paper that suggested that the thyroid and iodine deficiency were responsible for the anatomical differences between humans (as we generally know them today) and neandertals. I guess the evolutionary significance of the thyroid is really beginning to be appreciated by anthropologists…

Given this new diagnosis for LB1 and others, what might be interesting is a Bayesian approach to testing these hypotheses. Which hypothesis (diagnosis) is most likely given the data–new species, microcephalic or microcephalic dwarf H. sapiens, human with Laron Syndrome, or human cretin? Or, under which hypothesis(-es) are the observed data the most likely? The new diagnosis for the Liang Bua material is interesting and certainly provides good research questions. But, as is usually the case with fossil hominins, what would be really nice are more specimens against which to test our hypotheses.

Beard C. 2008. The oldest North American primate and mammalian biogeography during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Proc Nat Acad Sci 105: 3815-3818.

Obendorf PJ, Oxnard CE and Kefford BJ, in press. Are the small human-like found on Flores human endemic cretins? Proc R Soc B xx: 1-10.