Osteology Everywhere: Cakes or canines?

I’ve been looking at so many teeth lately, I’m starting to feel like a sadist but with newer magazines.

Between putting together a talk about dental development in Homo naledi and teaching teeth in my human evo-devo class last week . . .

After these drawings, my students were fully trained and ready to tackle the odontological world.

After these drawings, my students are now fully trained and ready to tackle the odontological world.

. . . I’ve got dentition on the brain. WHICH IS NOT THEIR ANATOMICAL POSITION.

So last weekend some friends and I hit a local pub,  a life jacket for my dental inundation. Surely, a pint and a snack will expunge enamel, dissolve dentine, exhume zuby from my brain! We ordered some beer and baursaki, delicious fried bread made out here in Kazakhstan, the perfect snack to go with beer and chechil. Tearing into the pastry, I started to feel at peace, but then was horrified to look down and find myself hoist with my own petard:

Baursak or bite?

Baursak with a bite taken out? Our a hominin canine?

Seeing the snack, I saw the very thing I’d been fleeing – a hominin canine tooth. Inadvertently, I’d almost exactly replicated Sts 50, a lower left canine crown and broken root from the South African site of Sterkfontein.

Left: Sts 50, lower left canine. Right: bitten fried bread. Images not to scale.

Left: Sts 50, lower left canine. Right: bitten fried bread. Images not to scale. ANTIMERES?

They’re nearly identical but from opposite sides (the fancy word for which is “antimeres”). Note the tall-shouldered, sharp apex of the crown, and the little distal tubercle, the little ‘bump’ at the far left in the left picture above. The mesial, or front, crown shoulder is notably taller than the distal tubercle. At probably around 3 million years ago, Sts 50 likely belongs to Australopithecus africanus, and retains an ape-like asymmetrical crown shape compared to the more incisor-shaped canines we humans have today.

Left to right: Homo baursaki, three South African canines, and a modern human (from White et al. 2012). Images not to scale.

Hominin canines and definitely no cakes. Left to right: Homo baursaki, three canines from early Pleistocene South Africa, and a modern human (from White et al. 2011). Images not to scale. Note how much less asymmetrical the modern human canine crown (far right) is compared to the fossil hominins. Teeth 1, 2, 4, and 5 are from the right side while the center, Sts 50, is from the left.

 

Apparently all you need to go back in time is some beer and baursaki.

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Kazakhstan on #EarthCapture

BBC Earth – one of the greatest inventions of all time – has a “Big Earth” series, showcasing our planet’s awesome sights as captured by BBC readers and viewers. I submitted some pics from my recent trip to West Kazakhstan, and two are featured on the website:

Kazakhstan is an amazing place poorly known to most, and there is lots of great stuff to see in both the cities and the vast, open wilderness. You should come out and see it!

Til you make it out here, here are some more shots of the fun stuff I’ve seen here since I got a decent camera a few months ago.

Spilt milk.

Spilt milk over Mangystau, Kazakhstan.

The stream-severed spine

I recently returned from Mangystau, a geologically captivating former seabed in West Kazakhstan. Places like this, or the Tien Shan mountains in the South and Altai mountains in the East, always make me wonder why anyone would decide to build a capital city in the wastes of Aqmola. Astana sprouts up from a sterile steppe, sparingly sprinkled with streams and lakes. Out west, though, are breathtaking landscapes and landforms, such as the giant rocky spheres of Torysh:

Traversing the

Traversing the “Valley of Balls.” It is not yet known what caused these rock formations.

Sherqala (“Lion City”), a rocky uplift that centuries ago hosted a defensive acropolis:

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A flooded salt flat vertiginously reflecting an alternate reality:

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A pile of earth that’s really an octopus waiting in ambush:

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The perfect place to set up camp.

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As I’d pointed out the first time I came out here last year, this rocky terrain is littered with lifeless remnants of the animals that used to call this place home. So many bones reflecting such biodiversity, just lying on the surface. This year, though, I found a subsurface skeleton, teaching an important lesson in taphonomy. Taphonomy (“burial law” from Ancient Greek) is the study of what happens to an animal’s remains from the moment it dies to when it is discovered eons later. This field examines geological and ecological processes that determine whether fossils are found intact or smashed to smithereens.

Walking down into a small gully by our campsite, I noticed some giant lumbar vertebrae eroding out of one side:

Waist-deep in mud. One vertebra is clearly visible, and to its right, beneath a rock, are the spinous processes of two more vertebrae.

Waist-deep in mud. One vertebra is clearly visible, and to its right, beneath a rock, are the spinous processes of two more vertebrae. Notice the differently colored stripes of soil – these are different layers (“strata”), reflecting different periods that soil was laid down on the earth.

I was elated to espy this spinous surprise, but I wasn’t expecting to see what was on the opposite side of the gully:

Died doing a misguided impression of an ostrich.

Died doing a misguided impression of an ostrich. On the left you can see the back of the skull and the first cervical vertebra, then the spine submerges and reemerges to the right.

Sure enough, this once complete carcass was drawn and quartered, pulled apart by the liberal application of time and life-saving water.

Digging out the skull on the west bank, right across from the lumber spine on the east face. The different soil layers (

Digging out the skull on the west bank, right across from the lumber spine on the east face (circled).

Getting our hands a little dirty, we found the face of a camel. It is hard to say how long ago it lived, how long it took to get buried by a few inches of dirt, but I would guess at most only a few decades (but I’m not a geologist, so who knows). It’s also unclear how this animal was bifurcated: Did the camel die and get covered over with soil, and then later a newly forming stream carried away the soil harboring its torso? Or did the carcass lie on the ground unburied for a while, its torso slowly picked apart or trampled, and then the stream formed? I would guess the first scenario is more likely, since the bones seem to run through several strata. But again I’m not an expert in taphonomy so I could be wrong.

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People often wonder why the fossil record isn’t more complete, and why we get so excited about the discovery of even partially complete skeletons. This camel demonstrates one of myriad taphonomic processes, one of the many ways that earth, water and time conspire tear the past asunder.

Osteology everywhere: Graffiti

Astana, the wedding-cake capital of Kazakhstan, is notably bereft of graffiti and street art, at least in my somewhat limited exposure to the city. The larval metropolis is all about commercial appearance, so I’d guess that aspiring street artists likely face much more than the Marge Simpson treatment for turning around to brag about their work.

Dire consequences await those who graffito tag public property.

Dire consequences await those who graffito tag public property.

Once, I did see a pretty badass street mural,

But it was in München.

but it was in München, a mere 2,620 miles from Astana.

No, there is not much in the way of secretly donated street art here in Astana, and there’s generally little hope to see graffiti-grafted Osteology Everywhere. But this weekend, I noticed these four magical letters, quickly quietly scrawled on the side of my apartment building:

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DAKA.

Two disconcerting thoughts immediately come to mind reading this. First, why the hell is “DAKA” written in Latin instead of Cyrillic script characteristic of the FSU? Second, what does “DAKA” mean out here? Nothing in Russian so far as I know, but Google Translate claims it could mean “Dakar” in Kazakh, which if true raises even more questions.

No, the safest assumption is that this tagger, my streetwise and marker-wielding dopplegänger, was referring to the ~1 million year old Homo erectus partial skull from Ethiopia, dubbed “Daka” after the Dakanihylo site of its discovery.

The Daka calvaria (Figure 2. of Asfaw et al., 2002). Counterclockwise from the top left: view from the back, view from the top (front is to the left), view from the left, a mosquito net, view from the bottom (front is at the top), viewed from the front.

BOU-VP-2/66, the Daka calvaria* (Figure 2. of Asfaw et al., 2002). Counterclockwise from the top left: view from the back, view from the top (front is to the left), view from the left, a mosquito net, view from the bottom (front is at the top), and view from the front. *Calvaria is the fancy word for ‘bony skull without a face.’

Daka isn’t the first hominin fossil to be embraced outside of anthropology. A few years ago I noticed the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus ramidus skeleton strutting across the label of a Dogfish Head beer bottle:

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GOODGRIEF, this was almost 5 years ago.

In downtown Tbilisi, Georgia I recently spotted a Dmanisi-based duo whose tech savvy belies the fact they’re based on 1.8 million year old fossils:

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(Let’s not forget this one, from before they got smartphones)

We’ll have to do some serious fossil-finding here in Kazakhstan before they’ll let anyone put up something this awesome on the side of anything here in Astana. (Or wait…)

Kazakhstan’s killer cats

I’m reading up on previous paleontological research that’s taken place here in Kazakhstan, planning for future work. There aren’t any human fossils known from here (at least, none to my knowledge). But, I did stumble upon this badass, sabre-toothed cat from the Late Miocene (over 5 million years ago):

From Sotnikova, 1992. Original caption: Fig. 2. Machairodus kurteni, Kalmakpai (PIN-2433/287), skull, ventral and lateral view.

From Sotnikova, 1992 (mandible not shown). Original caption: Fig. 2. Machairodus kurteni, Kalmakpai (PIN-2433/287), skull, ventral and lateral view.

The skull was described by MV Sotnikova in 1992, and comes from a site called Kalmakpai in the Zaysan Basin in East Kazakhstan. For perspective, Sotnikova says the skull is about the same size as an adult African lion. This is much larger than the wildlife I’ve seen lately in snow-soaked Astana (I trailed a large white rabbit in Presidential Park by the river on my run today. Not as badass).

This is a reminder that the Big Cats once had a much larger geographical distribution than they do today. The skull above belongs to the genus Machairodus, which is also known from Africa, Europe and North America. Machairodus is closely related to Homotherium, another large, geographically dispersed genus of sabre-toothed cat from the Pliocene (including at Dmanisi).

Of course, extinction isn’t exclusive to the deep past: the Caspian Tiger used to roam parts of southern Kazakhstan and other areas of Central Asia, going extinct only in the past few decades.

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.