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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Paleogenomics is crushing it right now

It’s only Valentine’s Day, and already early 2014/late 2013 have provided several fascinating, high profile studies of ancient DNA (all been published in Nature). Forecasting this deluge, last year closed with the announcement of sequenced mtDNA from a ≥400,000 year old human fossil from Sima de los Huesos, Spain (Meyer et al., 2013). This is the oldest DNA obtained for any human fossil, and among the oldest of any animal.Meyer title copy 2

Shortly thereafter, Prüfer and pals (2014) published the complete genome of a Neandertal from the infamous Denisova cave. This study revealed extensive inbreeding in Siberian Neandertals; the fossil individual’s high level of homozygosity is consistent with their parents being half-siblings.  Furthermore, comparison of the genome of this inbred Neandertal with modern humans’ allowed researchers to identify many mutations that have become fixed (shared by all people) by natural selection since the divergence of our and Neandertals’ ancestors. Uncovering these human-specific variants can help us understand the genetic bases for many of humans’ remarkable traits.Prufer title

In January, Olalde y coautores published a genomic analysis of a 7,000 hunter-gatherer from Spain. This ancient genome contained ancestral variants for genes relating to skin pigmentation (SLC45A2, SLC45A5MC1R, TYR, and KILTG), meaning this Mesolithic European most probably had dark skin. This individual also had a derived variant of the HERC-OCA2 locus, associated with blue eye color in present day people. This suggests that the relatively novel phenotype of non-brown eyes may have increased in frequency more quickly than light skin color in ancient Europe. This guy also had many derived loci associated with immune function, indicating that the rise of agriculture is not solely responsible for the evolution of immune function in present day Europeans.

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Around the same time, Sankararamen and team published an analysis of the distribution of Neandertal genes in living people. Whereas previous studies had already shown that Neandertals contributed ≤4% on average to the genomes of living people, this study examined where in modern people’s genomes this Neandertal ancestry tends to be located. One of the most interesting findings is that Neandertal genes are not uniformly or randomly distributed across the modern human genome. Rather, some regions appear to be especially devoid of Neandertal ancestry, implying natural selection acted strongly against Neandertal genes. These Neander-nude areas are preferentially found on the the X chromosome and in genes expressed in the testes, a finding consistent with reduced fertility in hybrid males. Although the genetic contribution of Neandertals to modern humans means that the two belonged to the same species, Sankararaman et al’s findings suggest the two groups were on their way to becoming different species.sanakararaman

Finally, this past week Rasmussen and rascals have published an analysis of a 12,000 year old human from the Anzick site in Montana, associated with the Clovis stone tool culture. I don’t know much about this time period save for what I learned in a class on North American archaeology taught by Dr. John Speth, back when I was a young, bright-eyed graduate student. One thing I recall from this class, when we were going over Clovis, was that this tool industry was found all over the United States at the beginning of the Holocene, but I was always disappointed by the dearth of bones complementing the copious lithics. Turns out, the DNA analyzed by Rasmussen et al. comes from the only known burial from this time period. This lone burial provides compelling genetic evidence that indigenous Americans have descended largely from a single ancestral population that separated into the North and South American populations prior to the Clovis period. This ancestral population was definitely not from Europe, as a minority of researchers have argued. Check out the SEAC Underground blog for more on the archaeology and ethics of the Anzick analyses.rasmussen

So, paleogenomics is really crushing it right now. There have been many of recent advances in sampling and sequencing poorly-preserved ancient DNA, and as we’re seeing now, lots of ancient bones (and teeth) are bringing awesome new, genetic insights into recent human evolution. If this is how well we’re doing so early in 2014, you can bet that the rest of the year promises many more exciting discoveries.