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

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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…

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

… and 3D printing.

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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 …

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Anatomy terminology hidden in 3D block letters,

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Hominin canines in Kazakhstani baursaki cakes,

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The Ardipithecus ramidus ilium in Almaty,

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Homo naledi juvenile femur head in nutmeg,

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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.

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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.

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Updated bioanthro syllabi

This term I’m teaching two of my favorite classes, and I’ve updated their syllabi on my Teaching page. First is a 200-level class about human biological variation and issues surrounding race.  Second is my baby, a 300-level on human evolutionary developmental biology. If you want to teach these kinds of classes but don’t want to reinvent the wheel, feel free to use these syllabi to develop your own!

Here are the course descriptions:

Ant 263: Humans and Race
This course examines the nature of human biological variation, in the contexts of genetics, anatomy, history, and society. Students will learn about why humans vary, what this variation does and does not tell us about people, and the ways in which social inequality becomes manifest in human biology. The course will begin by surveying biological variation, both adaptive and selectively neutral, in humans. We will then focus on what the term ‘race’ means biologically, and why this concept does not describe human variation. Moving from biology and genetics, we examine psychological and historical origins of racialist thinking in the United States. This historical overview segues into an analysis of how racial categories are used in biomedical research today. Through the framework of the developmental origins of health and disease, we review the biological mechanisms whereby social inequality results in health disparity.

Ant 364: Human Evolutionary Developmental Biology
What literally makes us human? This class will examine how growth and development were modified over the course of human evolution, to create the animals that we are today. Human anatomy is placed in an evolutionary context by comparison with living primates and the human fossil record. The first half of the course focuses on theory, namely evolution, genetics and life history. The second half examines evidence for the development and evolution of specific parts of the body, from head to toe.

A new year of bioanthro student blogging in Kazakhstan

A new year is upon us, our hair is a bit grayer and our telomeres a touch trimmer. Twenty effing fourteen.

It’s been a bit quiet here at Lawnchair, as I’ve been enjoying the holidays, but also writing a few things up for print. If I weren’t so old and wise, I’d make a New Year’s resolution to add to the blog more frequently. But I have a nascent career to attend to! So in the mean time, with the new year and semester, I’m adding two new courses to the Nazarbayev University bioanthro student blog that can hopefully keep you entertained & edumacated.

The wintry curtain rises for 2014 in Astana.

The wintry curtain rises for 2014 in Astana.

The first batch of student-written posts for the class “Bones, stones and genomes: Human Evolution” will go up on Monday. There will be a slight lull for a few weeks until this class, as well as “Monkey business: Primate behavior and ecology,” start posting in February. In addition to what’s already been posted by last year’s classes, the human evolution class will be adding posts focused on specific bones and fossils, while the primatology class will be adding article reviews/summaries.

So stay tuned to nazarbioanthro.blogspot.com in the coming months! (I should also have more fun new things to say here at Lawnchair, too)