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.

Osteology Everywhere: Head for the hills

Last week I was exploring central England with the brilliant Jess Beck, an archaeology PhD student at the University of Michigan. Both of us avid (nay, rabid) connoisseurs of everything skeletal, we espied the likes of a specific human bone in the scenic landscape of the the Cotswolds. Check out JB’s blog, Bone Broke, for her take on this geographical/geological/skeletal formation (as well as for lots of killer osteology and bioarchaeology tips and tricks). Do it now! NOW!

After you’ve checked out her site, behold this sight – what bone is lurking in the landscape?

osteourrywhere Cotswolds

As with Rorschach inkblots, probably lots of bones could be seen in this image. But what Jess & I saw was a hamate, the greener hue hewn into the hills, whose sizeable hamulus runs from the bottom right to join the rest of the carpal around the center of the image. Here’s what a real hamate looks like:


Top: Human hamate from Human Osteology (White, Black & Folkens, 2012). Bottom: rough anatomical position of the hamate in the human wrist.

The hamulus of the hamate is an attachment point for the flexor retinaculum, the band of fascia stretching across your wrist to hold your extrinsic digital flexor muscles (or rather, their tendons) in place; you could think of it as the bridge covering the carpal tunnel. Now, comparing the grassy hamulus with an actual human one, you’ll spot two important differences: first, the grassy one isn’t blunt like the humans’, but ends in a long point. Oops! Just pretend it’s rounded off. Second, the grassy hamulus is huge relative to the overall size of the bone (or valley) compared with the human form. The size of the hamulus partially reflects the size of the carpal tunnel: chimpanzees, with powerful wrists and forearms, have long hamuli.

A huge nerd, I didn’t just see any hamate in this Cotswold vale. I also immediately thought of KNM-WT 22944, an Australopithecus afarensis hamate from the 3.5 million year old site of South Turkwel in Kenya (Ward et al., 1997):

WT 22944-Ward &al 1997

From Ward et al., 1999. Sorry it’s not in the same orientation as the above image. Hamulus is the projection pointing to the bottom left corner of the “medial” image.

An absolutely and relatively massive hamulus in WT 22944 suggests whoever this bone belonged to had some powerful gripping capabilities, while a geologically younger A. afarensis hamate from Hadar (AL 333-50) had a smaller, more human-like hamulus. Maybe (some) A. afarensis were still using their arms a lot for tree-climbing, in spite of being more than capable bipeds (I’ve talked about this before here)….

One final thought: People do like the way she says, “hamate.”

Ward et al., 1999. South Turkwel: a new pliocene hominid site in Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution 36: 69-95. link

White et al., 2012. Human Osteology 3rd Edition. link