After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.
It was us.
Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.
What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?
In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.
Courtesy Arthur Lake Library, Colorado School of MinesArthur Lakes, pioneer dinosaur hunter, and chronicler of early American paleontology, was born this day in 1844 in Martock Summerset, England. Educated at Queens College in Oxford, Lakes eventually immigrated to the United States (via Canada) where he worked as a geologist, teacher, artist, and itinerant Episcopalian minister in the area around Golden, Colorado.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionOn March 27, 1877, while out measuring rock units in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver, Lakes and a companion, Captain Henry Beckwith, discovered large exposures of dinosaur remains. Hoping to stir up some interest, money, and perhaps some employment, Lakes sent some of the fossil bones eastward to both Othniel Marsh, and Edward Cope, unintentionally firing up the feud between the two pioneer paleontologists that would soon escalate into the famous Bone Wars of the latter 19th century. Marsh, at Yale’s Peabody Museum, eventually hired Lakes as a field worker, and used the fossils he found to describe a number of new dinosaurs species taken from several productive quarries around the Morrison, Colorado area. These new discoveries all came from the Late Jurassic-aged rocks (named the Morrison formation after the nearby town) and included the first discoveries of the now well known Stegosaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus).
When the Colorado quarries were exhausted, Marsh sent Lakes north to Como Bluff in Wyoming Territory. Dinosaur bones had been found there not long after the Colorado discoveries. Arthur Lakes spent the 1879-80 season digging out tons of bones from of the Jurassic-aged sediments around Como Bluff, along with William Reed, a railroad worker who had brought the area’s rich fossil cache to Marsh’s attention. It must have been a strange pairing since the Oxford-trained Lakes was the polar opposite of the self-taught frontiersman Reed.
Como was one of the prime battlegrounds in the Fossil Feud between Marsh and Cope. The strata there was far richer than that at Morrison, and produced fossils that eventually filled the display halls at many of the world’s great natural history museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C., the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Courtesy Mark RyanLakes kept journals and wrote many letters of his activities at both Morrison and Como Bluff describing his explorations and the natural history of both areas (the journals were published in a book in 1997 by the Smithsonian Institute). These, along with his initial discoveries around Morrison, would probably have been enough to keep his name in the annals of paleontology, but his most important contributions to the science were the many sketches and watercolors he made at both locations. These depictions not only preserve a wonderful pictorial record of seminal events in the history of early American paleontology, but have also aided modern researchers in locating historical quarry sites at both locations. Many of Lakes’ original paintings are reposited at the Peabody Museum at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.
Lakes’ original dinosaur quarry (#1) is preserved today as a historic landmark on the west side of Dinosaur Ridge along Alameda Parkway, overlooking the town of Morrison and the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Some bones, still intact in blocks of hard sandstone, can be seen there, as well as lateral views of some later discovered dinosaur footprints.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe location of Quarry 10, where the remains of several sauropod species were discovered, was long lost until recently. The quarry was re-discovered and re-opened in 2002 by researchers from the nearby Morrison Natural History Museum. Artifacts of Arthur Lakes’ original diggings, such as nails and campfire charcoal have been recovered from the site. The nails would have come from support beams built to hold up the massive sandstone ledge that capped the softer clay layer from where many of the fossil bones were extracted. Lakes’ journal reported a couple collapses at this quarry in his journal. Luckily no one was working the quarry at the time, otherwise they would no doubt have been crushed to death by several tons of sandstone.
Courtesy Mark RyanRe-examination of Lakes' quarries has revealed some new secrets, such as the first footprints from a baby Stegosaurus. Yale has also loaned some of Lakes' original finds back to the museum in Morrison, including a toe bone from a baby Apatosaurus, and the articulated leg bones from the Apatosaurus ajax discovered at Quarry 10 in 1877.
Lakes eventually left the fossil trade, and turned his attention to the geology of Colorado, working for the US Geological Survey, and teaching courses in earth science and mining at what is today the Colorado School of Mines. The library at the school is named in his honor. Lakes continued to write, producing books and several articles about mining in Colorado. He and his sons also consulted for mining companies after he retired from teaching, and later moved to British Columbia to live out his days near his family. He died there in 1917.
If you'd like to learn more about Lakes and his life, there's a new book titled The Legacy of Arthur Lakes by Beth Simmons and Katherine Honda, recently published by The Friends of Dinosaur Ridge.
Courtesy TmkeeseyMove over Lucy, there is a new hominid in town. Her name is Ardi. One could say Ardipithecus ramidus to be formal. She is a 4.4 million year old ancestor of ours and nearly a million years older than Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis). She is by far the most complete of all the older hominids. Researchers have recovered feet, a leg and pelvis, hands and lower arm, along with the majority of a skull and its teeth. As an added bonus, parts of nearly three dozen more specimens were recovered during the work in the Western Afar Rift of northeastern Ethiopia. This is the same region that gave us Lucy and some early Homo species.
Ardi and her kin walked upright, although their gait was debatably awkward. She retained an opposable toe which could still be used to grasp tree branches, but the remainder of the foot was built for the ground. Like later hominids, the teeth reveal a modern structure and lack enlarged canines. Her pelvis is a mosaic between chimps and Lucy. The Ilium developed short and broad more like a human, while the lower pelvis remains similar to a chimp. Ardi’s skull shows that her brain was still the size of a chimp, being smaller than Lucy’s. Its shape, however was more hominid and had begun evolve more advanced functions.
Unlike Lucy in her savannah habitat, Ardi roamed lush but temperate woodlands. More than 150,000 plant and animal fossils were recovered from the sites. Included are 20 new species of small mammals along with monkeys, antelope, elephants, and multitudes of birds. This was a much different environment than that of the savannah. Theories of the development of bipedalism on the open grasslands will be challenged now because of Ardi and her habitat.
This isn’t a recent find. The original excavations of the search teams started in 1992. But years of field work followed by more than a decade of lab time have really unearthed a mass of data about this time and place in history. 47 diverse researchers from all over the world have included excerpts of their findings about Ardi and her environment. The October 2009 special issue of the publication Science details the discovery and ongoing analysis of this latest find in the continuing quest to uncover the origins of man. With debate well underway, I’m positive we’ll all continue to learn more about our past.
more on Hominid evolution
Courtesy PKmousiePoop. Poop. Poop. Poop. There. Have I got your attention? Of course, who can resist a story on poop? It is such a widely discussed topic with a vast array of monikers. Probably not a decent topic of conversation for invited guests or the dinner table, but it does get its chat time. Despite the disgust that it truly is, there is a curious fascination with the whole matter. It can tell you about your health, especially if you have the runs. It can tell you if you’ve been chewing your food well, or if you need to lay off the cheese. If you are a proper biologist, you’ve probably bent down and touched it or even broke it up to examine what passed. Certain scientists, such as Scatologists pursue the study of scat (poop) as a means to tell us more about a certain animal’s habits. If by the Fates, a poo survives intact and becomes old enough to fossilize, then we would call it a coprolite. Coprolites have been recovered from dinosaurs, ancient whales, fish, and prehistoric mammals to name a few.
Recent news from BBC detailed a story about scientists studying the ancient droppings from mammoths. Well sort of. The researchers were examining mud deposits from a lake for fungal spores that are produced in large herbivore dung (mammoth poo). Their research concludes that the extra large mammals of the recent past experienced a slow and steady decline starting about 15,000 years ago. This flies in the face of the current prevailing theory, that an asteroid impact about 12,900 years ago caused global upheaval, world spread wildfire, and then abrupt extinction of the mega mammals. The asteroid theory had already been under assault by lack of evidence in soil samples. Samples taken all over the continent in soil cores extracted from peat bogs and lake bottoms.
Courtesy ecstaticist Was early man really responsible for the start of the downfall of the mammoth? I think undoubtedly we had a hand in their fate, but the answer is most likely multifaceted. Taking a closer look at the dung heaps of the past may well continue to give us a better picture of paleohistory. Just watch where you step!
Nice story on a recent find of a baby mammoth"
Phil Jones, the director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, is stepping down from his post pending an investigation. Jones is at the center of a controversy over the CRU’s activity. E-mails released on the web seem to indicate a variety of improper behavior, including manipulating data, destroying data, refusing to share data with other researchers, and trying to prevent researchers with other theories from getting their results published. Jones has not been officially charged with any wrong doing at this point. But until the controversy is settled, he will relinquish his position as director of the unit.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State University has launched a review of Michael Mann, a University scientist also involved in the controversy and author of several of the e-mails.
We discussed the controversy in more detail in this post, with updated information in the comments.
Courtesy wikipedia imageDuring the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in the field doing actual scientific investigation. From mid-June until mid-July, I was a participant in the University of Minnesota's archeology summer field school run by Professor Kat Hayes. The mission of the field school was to attempt to confirm the presence of a European footprint in this remote part of what would become a young Minnesota territory.
The site of Little Round Hill is located in Wadena County, Minnesota, part way between the towns of Staples and Wadena. Currently, it is part of a county park system. Located at the confluence of the Crow Wing River and the Partridge River, Little Round Hill is believed to be a historical site from the early French fur trading days.
The story goes something like this. In the mid- 1800's, William Warren wrote an account of Ojibwe life in a growing Minnesota territory. In his work, Warren interviewed an elderly Ojibwe man. This elderly man recounted days spent at a fur trading encampment while he was just a young boy. The encampment centered around the dwelling of a French fur trader and his handful or so of Coureur-des-bois . Staying with this trader were around ten Ojibwe hunters and their families. According to the account, Little Round Hill became the focus of contention between rival bands of Ojibwe and Lakota hunters. By oral recollection, there was an incident of more than 200 Lakota warriors approaching and attacking the outpost. The Frenchmen and Ojibwe held the attackers at bay with guns while barricading themselves into the main encampment. The attackers, with only a few guns and armed mainly with bow and arrow for projectiles, were unable to overcome the defenses and eventually retreated.
The site itself had been recognized for its historical implications for quite some time. For years, local residents have pondered that possible remains may lie buried at the Little Round Hill location. In 1992, Douglas Birk conducted an initial survey of the site. While artifact remains spanning several centuries were recovered in his explorations, they didn’t produce evidence of any of the structures described in the oral account.
The summer of 2009 excavations started out with a whimper. Rain and uncooperative weather hampered our beginning efforts. As the clouds passed, the field crew opened a handful of excavation pits and began searching for artifacts. The results were productive and encouraging. Items of distinct European influence started to appear in most of the test areas including musket balls, cut pieces of finished copper, small trade beads, a couple pieces of worked metal (still of undetermined nature), a few pottery shards and even a small ring (possibly silver).
Additional materials such as a stone arrowhead, lithic debris, and animal bones both broken and charred were recovered. After a month of work and close to a dozen open explorations, much more habitation evidence was revealed. While no sign was uncovered of the fortifications mentioned in the oral account, at least three of the excavation points did expose strong support for likely hearth locations. These may have been centered near the possible dwellings of the occupants.
Alas, the season of excavation is a short one in Minnesota. After a month of work, the crew retreated home with bags of evidence in hand. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the materials are being analyzed and cataloged at the University of Minnesota. A full report on the findings is expected this coming spring. While the preliminary data does not show conclusive evidence of the mentioned encampment, enough material was recovered to warrant further investigation. Plans are to return to the site next summer to resume excavations and expand exploration of the area. I, for one, can not wait and hope to have my hand in the dirt once again come summer 2010.
A controversy is brewing in the world of climate science. On Thursday, November 19, a Russian website posted over 1,000 e-mails and almost 3,000 data files from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The CRU is one of the major centers of climate research in the world, and provided much of the data for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
The e-mails, written by some of the leading climate scientists in Britain and America, seem to suggest some very disturbing behavior:
* manipulating climate data to fit pre-existing theory
* refusing to share data with peers to check for accuracy
* circumventing legal requirements to release information, and even deleting some of it
* pressuring journals to reject papers that don’t fit the theory, and even pushing editors out of their posts
The story has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. You can find a good summary of how the story broke on Pajamas Media. Blogger Bishop Hill is keeping a running list of the most controversial e-mails. And, if you just want a quick summary, there’s “Three Things You Absolutely Must Know About Climategate.”
The University has acknowledged that its system was illegally hacked, but cannot vouch for the authenticity of every item. (There is also some suggestion that the information may have been leaked by an insider.) Several authors and recipients have verified some of the e-mails as genuine; as of this writing, none of the messages have been refuted. The sheer amount of data – over 170 megabytes – suggests this is not a hoax, though many authors have cautioned that it would be easy for a prankster to slip a few bogus e-mails in with all the legitimate ones.
But, assuming the e-mails are genuine, what do they tell us?
The alleged non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is a legal matter. We can say nothing about it, other than no charges have been filed, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The e-mails which seem to describe fudging the facts to fit the theory have received the most attention. It would be disturbing indeed if scientists at a major research institute were falsifying data. Though only a handful of papers have so far been implicated, if the allegations are borne out it would cast a pall over these scientists’ other work, their collaborations, and even work done by other scientists which was based on the disputed data.
These particular e-mails have also received the strongest defense. The authors, and even some third-party observers, maintain that the messages are being quoted out of context and misinterpreted, and that some phrases which appear damning actually have innocent explanations. (To date, there has been little reporting on the much larger, much more complex data files, which may shed light on this issue.)
Perhaps most disturbing, from a science standpoint, are the withholding of data from outside researchers, and the pressure put on journals to not publish dissenting views. Science absolutely relies on vigorous, evidence-based debate. If the evidence is not made available, the debate cannot take place. Furthermore, proponents of human-caused global warming have long criticized dissenters for not publishing their papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, if it turns out that those journals were controlled by proponents who actively kept dissenters out, then the argument loses merit.
On this last point, global warming proponents and dissenters agree. Writers such as Megan McArdle and George Monbiot argue that the case for human-caused global warming remains strong, but that subverting the peer-review process blocks scientific progress and is a major blow to credibility.
So, what next? Politicians in Britain, Australia and America are calling for investigations. Climate studies are funded with taxpayer dollars, and lawmakers pass legislation based on the information the studies provide. Governments have an obligation to make sure it is accurate. And, as noted earlier, the easy work of reading the e-mails has largely been done. The more difficult task of sifting through the data files will take longer. Already, some programmers are questioning the computer models CRU developed to predict climate. If there are more updates, we’ll be sure to post them here.
Looooooong time passing....
Seems like some of them were never here to begin with. Over the years, scientists have named about 700 different species of dinosaurs. But a recent study indicates that perhaps as many as a third of these were phantoms—specimens that were given distinct names despite actually belonging to another, well-known species.
For example, Torosaurus is now thought to be just a fully mature version of Triceratops. At the other end of the age scale, Nanotyrannus is considered by some to be just a juvenile form of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.
Why the changes? Well, identifying species is hard, even under the best of circumstances. With fossils, it’s especially tricky. You often only have one specimen to study, not dozens or hundreds as with living creatures. You can only see the fossil’s bones, not the full creature. And, most important, you only have the dead body—you can’t watch the living creature to see how it changes as it grows. (Dinosaur bones, it seems, are extremely malleable and prone to change shape as the creature matures.)
But don’t be too hard on the poor paleontologists. Other scientists have this same problem. Last year, it was reported that over 30% of all living marine creatures had been misidentified, and for the same reasons. An individual (or small group) was slightly larger than normal, or slightly smaller, or a slightly different color, or came from a different location—enough to lead the scientist to classify it as a new species, when in fact it was already a member of an established species. If taxonomists can make that many mistakes with living creatures, we shouldn’t be surprised that the dinosaur family tree will need a little pruning.
Yes, how the Maya knew what they knew remains a mystery to the arrogant forces of modern “science,” but we know that what they knew was totally awesome and sinister. Because, like, they carved it in stone and painted it on walls, and we all know that anything carved or painted on a wall is pretty much a sure thing. That’s how I know that for a good time I will call 555-5646, and why I’m certain that one day this will surely come to pass. And it’s why I’m sure that the world will end in 2012.
I mean, sure, there are people who still follow many of the traditions of their Mayan ancestors, and they say that 2012 doomsday predictions are nonsense, and that they’re based on the willful misinterpretations of another culture’s beliefs and calendar system, but… those people are obviously ignoring the wisdom of the ancients. You know, the wisdom of the ancients?
Recently excavated murals at the Mayan site of Calakmul are further enhancing our vision of these ancient, mystical people. The colorful murals, preserved on the covered wall of a built-over structure (the Maya sometimes added layers to older pyramids, creating a larger structure with a new face) apparently depict scenes of everyday Mayan life. It’s a unique discovery, because most of the imagery archaeologists uncover shows much grander stuff—royalty, and scenes from mythology. But this one just seems to show normal Mayan people doing normal stuff.
Of course, the above statement has to be understood within the context of the popular understanding of the Maya. I mean, “normal stuff”? What’s normal for people who flew around in spaceships, predicting the end of the world?
Let’s take a look, hmm?
This part of the mural, at first glance, seems to show a man in a wide, sombrero-like hat dishing out ul, a traditional maize gruel, to another man, who is drinking it. Obviously things aren’t so simple as this. The wide hat? It’s no hat. That man is wearing a satellite dish, so that he can stay in contact with teams of Mayan astronaut-priests, as they divine the future from high orbit. And the drinking guy—yes, he’s drinking, but it’s not corn gruel. He’s drinking magic potion. The mural does have a hieroglyphic caption that says “maize-gruel person,” but that must be a type. The lords of destiny don’t eat. And they especially don’t eat corn.
Here, we see the color version of the above image, as well as several other scenes of ancient Mayan life, including a man labeled “tobacco person,” who is holding a vessel full of what may be tobacco, or possibly Tobacco-brand ancient Mayan rocket fuel. There’s also the woman labeled “clay vessel person,” who may be holding a stack of clay vessels, or perhaps a stack of crystal balls, still in their brown paper wrappers. The murals also seem to show a woman making tamales, and a man eating them. But that’s just one interpretation. Another way to look at it might be, like, she’s making little pieces of the future. And he’s eating them. He could be eating the 2012 piece right there. The expression on his face may hold key information for us.
It just shows to go you. Some people are going to look at this and think, “Hey, look, normal ancient Maya people doing normal stuff and wearing normal clothes. What a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a seldom-depicted portion of a long-passed society.” And they’re free to think this way, but they’ll have no excuse for acting all surprised in three years.