What’s so special about Homo naledi?

Unless you live in a cave yourself, it would’ve been hard to miss the big news about a new kind of hominin recently unearthed from deep inside a nearly-inaccessible South African one: Homo naledi.

The fossilized bones of this newly-discovered cousin (possibly even ancestor!) of ours is fascinating paleoanthropologists & their fan clubs with its never-seen-before combination of human-like legs & feet, Lucy-sized brain & pelvis (but with a more human-like cranium structure), & shoulders & hands still adapted to climbing, but with a more human-like thumb & wrist which would have enhanced manipulation.

All of this mixing-&-matching is interesting enough, but not really all that surprising due to discoveries in recent years of other bipedal primates with a ‘mosaic’ of features who lived between 2-5 million years ago: in particular, Ardipithicus ramidus (‘Ardi‘ – discovered by a preeminent U.S. paleoanthropologist, Tim White…see ‘naysayer’, below) & Australopithicus sediba (discovered by Lee Berger & unearthed near the cave where Homo naledi was found).

No, what’s remarkable about this particular early human primate species is the way in which these initial fossils from the Homo naledi site were excavated & analyzed, and the way in which information about Homo naledi is being shared. In other words, the amazing news is not necessarily the what, it’s the how.

Because the really big news is that all of this discovery & research was & still is being conducted via open access, via public & social media information channels, & with the active participation of a diverse group of younger, less ‘senior’ scientists than any human Marina Elliott and Becca Peixotto work inside the South African cave where fossils of homo naledi, an ancient species of human relative, were discovered. (Garrreth Bird)fossil discovery before now. That, and, it’s all happening before scientists have been able to figure out the age of the bones! Unbelievable…I love it!

Open access is definitely not your standard paleoanthropology operating procedure, where, for example, it can be more than 15 years between an important fossil discovery & when information is finally published in science journals; even then, access to many of these journals is only via a paywall, & access to the fossils themselves is nearly impossible. Not surprisingly, some of the field’s prominent elders aren’t as enthusiastic about open access as Homo naledis lead scientists, Lee Berger & John Hawks (along with many others), but it seems to me the naysayer arguments are a bit thin; have been countered more than adequately; & are probably driven by not just a little bit of jealousy (…yes, scientists are human).

Because WOW! – there are also some other unusually phenomenal aspects of this discovery: the sheer number of fossil bones from various individuals, representing nearly all bones of the body, & all from a single hominin population deposited over time (- vs. some human ancestral species pronouncements Cross-section of a portion of the Rising Star cave system leading to the Dinaledi Chamberwhich have been based on analysis of a single finger bone or tooth); and the location of the bones deep in an underground chamber of the Rising Star cave, with no evidence of other animal/plant fossils or of geological disturbances nearby that might explain how the bones got there. Huh?! The working theory is that dead bodies were deposited there by the living – we don’t know (yet?) whether their intention was to keep predators away or otherwise, or how they managed to get all those bodies into the chamber. And while this isn’t the first evidence of early human ‘burial’ (e.g., there’s quite a bit of evidence that Neandertals intentionally buried some of their dead), this intriguing new mystery about our ancestors has even religious folks interested in human evolution, & that’s sayin’ something!

For now, exciting research & learning about our newest relatives continues – via 3D-printing of the fossils, making them readily available to educational institutions as well as the general public; open access to the original eLife publications & fossil metrics; future additional fossil retrieval; & collaborative efforts to determine a date range for the treasure trove.

The Homo naledi fossil fun is just beginning!

Thank you to Lee Berger, John Hawks, & all the scientists & cavers working on this project for your commitment to open access.


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Grandmothers & Other Newly Remarkable Hominins

Back in the studio after a summer hiatus, greedily chomping on multi-colored cows, tractors & bunnies, a (really only-slightly-satisfying) snack that ended up in the computer bag after rejection by the 6-year old grandson. Well, he at least demonstrated his own good taste, even if the primary rationale for an upturned nose was that farm-themed crackers are for ‘babies’.

My pathetic defense for consuming these completely unhealthy crunchy animals is that it resulted from doing my grandmotherly job of providing my daughter’s weaned child with food (- food which, for this particular post-menopausal primate, is usually responsibly locally-sourced, lovingly home-cooked, & thoroughly age-appropriate… but hey, even grandmas get lazy once in a while). It so happens that this ancient grandmotherly pastime of feeding the grandkids is now being held responsible for not only the greater longevity & shorter birth intervals of humans relative to other great apes, but as well for increased male competition for mates, male tendency toward ‘mate-guarding’, and human ‘pair-bonding’ (aka coupling).

Geez, that’s a lot to plop onto Grandma’s already-full plate.

The still-slightly-controversial grandmother hypothesis regarding the unique nature of human primate longevity has been reinforced in recent years by new research and data analysis, often with anthropologist Kristen Hawkes as the lead scientist. The general hypothesis goes like this:

Menopause occurs at about the same age in humans as it does in other great apes. Unlike our closest relatives, however, humans have the physiological capacity to live decades beyond the average age of female menopause.

At some point in our evolutionary past, probably in response to a changing, more stressful environment around 2-3 million years ago, some ancestral human* females beyond their child-bearing years started regularly sharing food (e.g., food that was difficult for young children to obtain on their own, such as tubers) with their daughters’ (or nieces’ et al) weaned children when their mother was otherwise occupied with caring for & nursing a new infant. Over time, this led to a proportionally higher likelihood of survival for the mother & her offspring, as well as more frequently-spaced human births, thereby ensuring greater survivability of the assisting grandmothers’ longevity genes.

Some scientists also theorize that the grandmother effect further stimulated the ‘sharing-economy’ already in affect with mothers and their children, fostering increased sociality, empathy & cooperation among human groups.

hmm, do ya think she’s his daughter??

New research is shedding light on the pair-bonding aspect of human culture as an extension of the grandmother hypothesis: over (more) time, more humans living longer led to a higher ratio of males to females in ancient populations. Unlike females however, male apes, including humans, retain their fertility as they age; ergo, with increasing longevity, more & more males were competing for the same number of fertile females. This led to “the male tendency to guard a female mate from the competition and form a ‘pair bond’ with her instead of mating with numerous partners – a strategy which would have increased male reproductive success. An excess of fertile males is also “a likely source of men’s preference for young women” (- in contrast with male chimpanzees’ apparent preference for older females…aren’t they the smart ones! – of course, these mature ladies were probably still fertile…).

In some quarters, this newest extension of the grandmother hypothesis stands in direct opposition to traditional theories – promulgated over a century ago by (primarily) male anthropologists – that human pair bonding resulted from males providing meat for females & their offspring. To me however, for reasons discussed in previous blogposts about digging tuberscooking meat & early humans’ most likely sources of digestible protein, the Grandmother angle on human evolution seems a much better fit with current science than a concept which relies on idealizing Man the Hunter.

Just sayin’.

(…with that still mouthy old feminist voice of mine. I swear that being a provisioning grandma myself has absolutely nothing to do with it!)



* “Human” refers to Homo habilis &/or Homo erectus, or another, as yet undiscovered early Homo species – or maybe even Australopithicus! We don’t know yet; the current estimated timeframe for this longevity transition is based on mathematical modeling.

& well now, we haven’t even made it yet to talking about the newly discovered hominin species, Homo naledi!  Watch for comments about this somewhat mysterious addition to our ever-more-branching family tree, and what’s so great about this latest discovery, coming soon to The Everyday Primate.


Posted in Cackling Crones, Humans Love Food!, Our Primate Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Burn8: Costume Season

Ahh – finally tuning into murmurs of fall – had already felt the slipped angle of the sun, but that favored burn & gold season is now unmistakably in the air as well.

During these recent burning hot summer days (& more planetary record-setting, I might add), only the faithful jack o lanterns 2were already in costuming mode – whether enthusiastically bouncing toward Burning Man or longing for dusk’s candles dripping in carved squash. I’ve never been to Burning Man (uh huh, please tell me you’re not surprised…) & although there’s a vicarious thrill via many family&friends (& MAH Glow), when you can offer me that sand-proof RV with bathroom, I’d love to joinburning man 2004 in wedding dress  you (more)free-spirited folks one of these years. But then, it was probably more – well, intimate – when it was a village rather than a city. Like many things in life.

Nor am I a Halloweenie (though it’s one of those holidays Santa Cruz is famous for) – we made a few attempts in pre-kiddie days (notably as a carrot & ear of corn during the early community gardens era) & once, for work, I dressed up as the Eastern Access Road (remember that controversy?) but disappointingly, no one could figure out what I was. OMG, it was so obvious. I guess I pretty much gave up after that.

But I recently enjoyed outfitting myself with the invitation’s suggested Gatsby look for my cousin’s 50th birthday bash – oh yeah, this is my kind of costuming (& not only because I love Downton Abbey). The fine gals at Closet Capers were masterful at assembling the perfect collection of color, kimono, bag & bangles from the far reaches of their abundantly chaotic costume rental shop. I’m a little wary of the headband & feathers they insisted is essential to the look, but I totally love their dedication to community-masking.

A couple of years ago I had to go to a masquerade ball – being on the board of the sponsoring organization & all that. In order to mentally balance this slightly-worrisome obligation, visions of a hand-crafted mask caught mask with glasseshold, embedded with silver beads & gold strands & an old-but-still-adequate pair of glasses. It was a project, for sure. I totally loved making this mask & took photos of each laborious step, thinking that someday I’d post a ‘how-to’ about masks with embedded glasses.

Ah well. Long story short: DIY documentation lost, debut disappointing, maybe time for lasik.

But hey, another little life lesson learned:

#1: if you wear glasses, don’t assume your mask needs to have glasses, because when everyone’s wearing masks, it’s probably best not to see very well; even though bits & pieces are concealed, much is not.

#2: glasses make masks look kinda creepy because they reflect light; this lends your character (i.e., you) an additional air of weirdness that can make others even more uncomfortable than they already are with this whole mask thing going on.

#3: when you tire of not ‘seeing’, just take the mask off & put on your glasses; if you only have the mask, you may have to wear it the whole evening – ugh! No one wears a mask during the entire party…well, some people do, but you already know who they are, right?

Well, mask or not, costuming for Halloween still isn’t a likely candidate for most-favored holiday activity. Its ancestral ritual just may be though – in fact, I believe it already is.


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Dig Those Roots

There’re so many amazing science stories in the daily news – it’s hard to keep up. Yeah yeah – now you know my pathetic excuse for another two-month post-lapse. Since we all know the topic I love most though, I just gotta share when some tidbit about my favorite primate has me humming Roots Rock Reggae (uh huh, from back in the day…).

This recent news story made me feel infinitely better about occasionally seeking solace in the bread box: “Study: Dietary carbohydrate essential for evolution of modern big-brained humans” (- the study, authored by Karen Hardy et al, is here). It’s one of those research papers that seems to tie a number of loose root-ish threads together: how early humans’ changing ability to digest edible roots (aka USOs – underground storage organisms) is correlated with human brain enlargement over the past 2 million years; the deep contribution women & grandmothers made (& continue to make) toward providing essential food for the tribe; & why the (overlooked & under-appreciated) sea & water environment is one of the keys to human evolution.

I know we love meat – there’s evidence of early humans scavenging meat as early as 2.5 million years ago. But more & more research is also pointing to shellfish, water plants, roots & tubers as the primary sources of digestible protein & carbohydrate energy that helped feed our ancestors’ ever-larger energy-sucking brains & ever-more-immature milk-sucking babies – even before the monumental evolutionary change of controlling fire.

The conclusions of this study address a number of problems with the long-held meat-made-our-brains-big scenario (loved by steak-wielding guys everywhere): #1 is that the earliest evidence of humans controlling fire is about 800,000 years ago. While scientists may find evidence of earlier use of fire (which has so far proven difficult because, well, the evidence was burned), we’ll need to surmise, in the meantime, that either our ancestors were eating uncooked meat (which was possible if they’d figured out a way to make steak tartare with flesh from a very young animal, but generally-speaking, raw meat isn’t easily digestible); &/or early humans (or at least those who survived to evolve into us) had figured out other ways to make the broader range of foods they were eating more palatable (maybe via drying, soaking, fermenting, & pickling), which in turn was more likely if they were thriving by living & eating along waterways, lakes & coastlines. Sadly, that evidence is also lost – either composted or hundreds of meters under water due to many periods of rapid climate and sea level change over the past 2 million years.

But we have genetics! This study analyzes the evolution of salivary & other digestive enzymes in early humans & correlates that analysis with evidence of cooking; reviews the body & brain’s need for energy produced by glucose; & describes how cooking starchy carbohydrates would have increased survival rates, in particular among infants & lactating women.

OK – I admit it: I especially dug this report because I love slow roasted USOs (also love ’em frittered or fried with salt…as in that favorite fast food). And sashimi – double yum. Probably that’s why this research resonates: the proof is in our genes.

In any event, I’m rooting for this narrative of how our (mostly useful) pre-frontal cortex mushroomed over the past 2M years: it was enriched by women’s work, fertile earth & muddy marshes.

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Flight Paths & Funerals

Sadly, our Live Oak home is no longer underneath the SFO flight path. For decades I would lie in bed, trying to fall asleep, when I’d hear the approaching muted, far off roar of a jet, presumably from Shanghai or Bangkok, or maybe just from LA, & if I looked up

through our bedroom skylight at just the right moment I’d see the far away flickering lights of that flying boat of humanity for a few precious seconds, leaving me to imagine their thoughts (& dreams, if they’d managed to fall asleep) at that moment too, & where they’d come from & where they thought they were going. Sometimes I tried to stay awake just to see those planes pass by, high up, with their cargo of spoken &, for some, unspeakable stories.

But alas, sky lights pass above our skylight no more. The SFO flight path has been reconfigured eastward & earthward. The earthlings under the new flight path aren’t happy & legislators are demanding answers: Who made this decision? Why do the planes now fly over us? What’s the rationale for such significantly lower altitudes? Why are they so loud? (- see previous question.) Why do we have to shoulder this burden of 21st century civilization? Why not move the flight path over someone else? Jeez FAA, at least please shift it higher up, further away from these vociferous primates.

Why us? Why them?

Which can be similar to the questions we ask at funerals of someone younger than we think they ought to have been when death arrived. We still sense their physical presence & can be overwhelmed by deep feelings of love for the uniquely-wonderful human they were. During a recent funeral though, I wanted to ask my pew-mates: what else runs through your mind during these somber community gatherings? Be honest. Do you look forward to seeing co-workers who are two decades older (as are you too) but with whom you can’t really talk (no, not there) about what’s happened in your respective lives during those wisdom-building years? Do you wonder what people might say about you at a gathering like this, & wish they would instead just say it to you (or not) next week, or sometime when you could actually appreciate (or maybe even learn from) it? (- granted, this thought doesn’t technically apply to me, because the MediCare cohort is probably considered “old enough” for our inevitable fate…). & finally, do you rail at the apathetic gods about why these particular unfalteringly fantastic folks were the ones who died too young of a stroke at 50, cancer at 35, mental illness at 19? What do we mean by too young, anyway?

Why them? Why us?

One longs to hear a coherent story; one tries to conceptualize a rational flight path. Most of us value cause & effect, sequential steps, logical outcomes. Sometimes we understandably become obsessed with the irrationality of unexpectedly tragic, or even just unexpectedly annoying, changes in the path. Sometimes we just happen to be sleeping on the wrong plane.

In my experience, life is pretty much the luck of the draw (n.b., I didn’t say ‘crap shoot’ because this is a family blog & people might misunderstand the c word in this context). I suspect that’s one reason why I love playing Mah Jongg: the ancient Chinese who crafted the game clearly embraced the concept of luck. Occasionally the tiles present a sure winning path, but (more often) there just doesn’t seem to be a fair distribution of jokers, or the timing of their appearance isn’t at all helpful. Another game of luck is not knowing which of our own unique collection of genes will fire (or not) along life’s path, & although we know that environment (in the broadest sense: air, food, family, stress, hugs/day, etc.) interacts with heredity, science is just now beginning to learn more about these interactions. 

So, I’m perseveringly adjusting to fewer late night flight dreams, & friends are sadly adjusting to daily life without cherished loved ones. Forgive me for coupling these incomparable losses in this random moment – just trying to make some sense of it all…

…as usual.


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Evolution for Everybody

I know polls say not even a majority of Americans accept that evolution is a result of natural processes, but this fact is nevertheless the #1 choice of a recent California central coast art cabal.

This admittedly-not-scientific poll over the past weekend was conducted as part of open studios at 17thAvenue Studios where my new writing workspace resides.  As the new kid (haha) on the block, & one of only a handful (if even) of non-visual-artists, I wanted to figure out some way to be part of the event. So, with the help of IMG_2641friends*, we concocted an easy Evolution Word Game: put a few stickers on a poster filled with (mostly) common words associated with evolution, or write in your own.

It was energizing to talk w friends & visitors about bonobos & books, asteroids & adaptation, primates & planets. &, exhausting! In honor of the MAH, it even seemed to ignite a few unexpected connections, & whew – no one argued with me about Highway 1 widening. I was especially relieved to be distracted from the 2nd-crash-in-2-weeks of my MS-for-MAC Outlook email program.  Hard to give up 20 years of that particular email habit, which is probably why it crashed – too many years of accumulated stuff!

Anyhow, here are the Evolution Word Game highlights:

  1. #1 word association: natural selection…followed closely by adaptation (#2). Yay Art Lovers! Natural selection & adaptation to changing natural environments are two key elements of IMG_2643the evolutionary process, & ones that Charles Darwin (#4) presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). In the 150 or so years since, scientific research in evolutionary biology & related fields (including Darwin’s own research & subsequent books) has broadened the list of evolution’s key mechanisms to include genetic drift, variation (#5), migration, & coevolution.
  2. #3 word: mutation.  Another yay for the creativity cabal! Genetic mutation is “the ultimate source of genetic variation“.  Mutations are random errors in DNA replication which occur commonly during the reproduction process. Mutations may be neutral, helpful, or unhelpful for an organism, & how these factors manifest during that organism’s life is partly dependent on it’s environment, & whether that environment is stable or changing (& ergo, more stressful).
  3. #6: survival of the fittest. I almost didn’t include this phrase on the list because it has a bad reputation, owing to its unfortunate appropriation into early 20th century ‘social darwinism’ philosophies. The concept of fitness however, is significant in our current understanding of evolutionary biology – the main idea being that fitness is relevant to reproductive success.  Fitness received only one vote in the Game.
  4. Language & Questions Still Abound tied for 7th place. Descent with modification (the current short definition of evolution) & extinction tied for 10th place.
  5. Biggest surprises: Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, came in at #8.  The Y-chromosome only got one vote (sorry guys). Alfred Russell Wallace garnered only 3 votes – a little sad as he came up with the unifying theory of evolution at about the same time Darwin was preparing to publish Origin. Wallace is pretty much an unknown to most folks: imho, it’s important to know about him because the fact that two naturalists of the era came up with key evolutionary principles makes it clear that science at that time was heading in the direction of figuring this out sooner or later. We love & ‘revere’ Charles Darwin (witness Darwin Day) & he was a meticulous, incredibly thoughtful & prolific scientist, but it could just as well have been Al Wallace…or someone else.
  6. & boo hoo – no one voted for one of my favorite words – tetrapod!

Well, what a fun weekend.  Kudos to 17thAve artists who work so hard to produce & present their fantastic works of art – your creativity inspires me.

& finally:

*A huge thank you to my artistic & otherwise advisors Elizabeth, Justin, Lisa, Zephyr, & to my friends who stopped by & shared happy & not-so-happy news amidst talk of randomness & survival. & congratulations to Megan who won the drawing for an autographed copy of The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow.  Come visit me again next year!

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The Drone Age

About a year ago, a nephew excitedly revealed his new electronic toy at an afternoon family BBQ at our home.  Since I had just that morning, while preparing the meal, dropped a pot of boiling water on my leg (which resulted in a trip to urgent care & a subsequent two month recovery process featuring gross blisters, countless rolls of gauze, & character-building scarring), I wasn’t up for a group walk to the next-door church parking lot for the flight demo.  Instead, I was quietly resting outside in the backyard, leg raised & thankful for tylenol, when an oddly-buzzing apparatus appeared overhead, hovered for a few moments & then darted off here & there like an imagined alien spaceship.

My profound sense of unease that day on the backyard chaise was pleasantly mitigated by modern medicine.  I now realize that it was only excellent pain management that allowed me to laugh companionably at immediately ensuing photos of the drone’s Live Oak Avenue excursion.

Recently, R & I were at Seabright Beach for a MAH Light Waves Beach Theater event which was totally eclectic & fun except for a red & green brightly-lit drone buzzing overhead the entire time (not part of the program, btw).  Personal drones are causing so many safety & security concerns on the Golden Gate Bridge that officials have appealed to US Senator Diane Feinstein for help in restricting their use.  & I’m sure you’ve heard by now about Google & Amazon plans for drone delivery of all that stuff we buy that we don’t really need.

Starting tomorrow, our very own Santa Cruz Kaiser Permanente Arena will host the Drones, Data X Conference.  The City’s Mayor & Economic Development Director will welcome the crowd of…dronads?? dronaholics? dronophiles?…it seems we don’t yet have a term for this new addiction (a new-as-of-this-month FB page is just called Drone Addict). The Drone (& Data X? – I guess this tag enhances tech appeal) conference is paired with an invitation-only ‘VIP weekend’ of mountain biking, surfing, survival skills, food, & of course, drones.  No doubt it will be a high-flying success for the long list of sponsors, investors, & new tech aficionados.

looks like NOAA & the National Marine Sanctuary folks figured this out earlier than the rest of us.

I’m not a Luddite.  I pack an iPhone (ok ok, it’s still a 4 but I’m gonna upgrade soon), I love Survivorman, & I’ll happily play for hours with paper airplanes (well, as long as grandson D plays along with me).  But, while I can kinda grasp the boyish appeal of these next-gen electronic playthings, my current sentiment about the nascent Drone Age is deepening dread.

& now, this drone conference buzz in our own little tech-&-enviro savvy burg. Their website conveniently includes a map showing where flying fun is allowed, or not.   —>

The unmanned aircraft system (or UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle – the current popular acronym) juggernaut is just taking off:  please consider this (semi-)private post my own paltry protest of the pernicious new air show.  These electronic imitations of giant Permian Age insects are going to irrevocably change many things about our lives – maybe some of the changes will be good for some people, but I’d wager most will land on the downside.

It seems to me this isn’t a buzz to ignore.


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