All That Death: the Reality of Studying Human Evolution

Dark and eerie tombstones at St Mary's graveyard

St. Mary’s graveyard, Whitby, England,

I have always been interested in ancient people. Who were they? What was life like? I’ve had obsessions with Vikings, bog bodies, and Ötzi (the Ice Man). For me it was a natural progression of interest into those species that lived before us, our human evolution. When I decided to go back to school in my more mature years, I started with Physical Anthropology 101 at the local community college. I loved it right away. Glass cases of famous hominin fossil casts, as well as real and cast skeletons of existing primates, lined the room where we sat at lab-style tables. I learned about bipedalism, its advantages and disadvantages, and the massive expansion of the evolution of our brain size. I ate it all up.

One day, the professor was discussing the famous Taung child. She described exciting new evidence discovered on the 2.5 million-year-old skull, of what is thought to be a 3- or 4-year-old Australopithecus africanus child. The evidence shows puncture marks at the bottom of the eye sockets, exactly like those made by eagles in monkey skulls in Africa today. In addition, eggshells and remains of other animals that a predatory bird would hunt were found with the skull. The professor described a scene in which the child became separated from its mother in an open field. A huge bird swooped down, snatched up the child and carried it off to its nest to feed on it. The mother, I immediately imagined, left screaming on the ground. The professor went on to say that for much of human evolution, we humans were prey. Even becoming hunters did not make us immune to animal attack. This was the day it began to dawn on me (duh!) that the study of human evolution involves the study of human death. And that death very often means the death of many babies and children. Yes, I know that should be obvious, but somehow it wasn’t to me, not at first. Or at least I didn’t realize how intimately I would study it, and what it would mean for me emotionally. I’m a mother too. My daughter is 7 years old now, but when I heard that lecture she was about 4, around the same age as the child that had become dinner for an eagle.

Taung child

Taung child, photo: Lee Berger

I was spooked by this imagery the rest of the day. And I thought to myself, come on, that happened 2.5 million years ago, and to a species that was still very different from us, especially cognitively. But I suspect that its mother still was horrified, and even mourned. I could hear her wail of anguish across the years. It sent a chill down my spine.

Fast forward past some algebra and statistics (I was a theatre undergrad, I had some catching up to do) to when I’m admitted to a master’s program at a university and sitting in osteology class, (the study of human bones). I can’t help feeling relieved to hear we are starting with casts of human bones, but soon we are using real ones, which my professor acquired from a medieval cemetery in France. I touch them and am surprised at how light and dry they feel. These are the bones of a person who lived, I thought. I mean, how can you not think that? And because I’m me, I can’t help wanting to know their story. I’m studying science now, not performing theatre, but the search for human stories continues for me. Those questions return: Who was this person? What was their life like? How did they feel about dying? I go to the lab to do my assignments, often when no one else is there. Just me and the bones. I can’t decide if it’s eerie or comforting, whether it’s disrespectful to study their bones, or a way of honoring them. Is it strange that seeing them as mere tools to be used as part of my job never crosses my mind?

One day we are learning about ways to determine the age of human remains at death. For immature remains, the sequence of dental tooth eruption is the best indicator. This means the degree to which baby teeth or permanent teeth are present and how much they’ve grown. This method is very accurate in modern human juveniles younger than about 15 years old, and can pinpoint a range of three months up to the first year of life, and after that to within a year. Then the professor produces a mandible (jaw bone) of a five-year-old child and passes it around the room. When it gets to me I can clearly see through the broken hole in the thin outer layer of the bone a permanent incisor getting ready to erupt above the gum. The baby tooth is gone. I breathe deeply. At that very moment, my own daughter is at home, being tucked in by her father, excited that her first front tooth had fallen out. I cannot stop myself from imagining the parents of that child, and their grief when they lost her or him. Was the child sick? Malnourished? What happened to its family? Was the child scared when it died? But this was medieval France, hundreds of years ago. Stop spinning tales, Vivian, it’s time to learn how to be a scientist.

The sad and profound truth is that the study of human evolution is founded on the study of human death. Not passing on a trait that is a disadvantage (for example in a new environment) means you don’t have “successful offspring,” which means your young don’t survive long enough to reproduce. The story of our evolution is littered with the bodies of the young. Because while the phrase “survival of the fittest” is so often misunderstood and misused as some bloody battle in the wild, understood in its original meaning it describes juveniles not surviving or never reproducing because their inherited traits were not “fit to the environment,” or put them at a disadvantage.


Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) 1493 by Michael Wolgemut

All that death. In years past, before I admitted to myself I wanted to go back to school, I spent late nights on the internet, reading everything I could about bog bodies, or curled up with a book about the Ice Man. But now I was facing the reality of the choice that I had made, that to really study these bodies and ask questions about their stories, and even to make a career out of it, meant living with ghosts in my mind. In my eagerness to hurl myself down the path of prehistory, grabbing hungrily at exciting and moving stories, I had somehow never stopped to notice the bodies strewn along the way. The lives cut short, the grief of that person’s community.

I don’t have any answers yet for how it feels, or whether it’s even right to dig up people’s graves. I’m struggling to find ways to manage the meeting of my storytelling, improvisational theatrical side with my curious, analytical science side. I know that I see both storytelling and science as asking the same essential questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? And even: What does it all mean? (Remember that scientists must interpret their findings and put them in a context, which creates meaning.) When I asked my osteology professor for more details about the medieval people whose bones we were studying, she said that she didn’t know much and that it was better that way. I wonder, is it? Maybe she’s right. I know that handling human remains is still not something I do casually. Maybe I would learn to if I got a job in a lab. It seems more practical that way, like a surgeon who doesn’t want to get to know their patient’s life story before operating. For now though, I’m excited about this new science-y way of exploring humanity. The stories will come when they come.

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What Happens When You Assume

(public domain)

Or “Progress” and “The Good Old Days” Were Neither

There are a lot of anthropological ideas among the general public that can range from wrong to outdated to an overly simplified understanding of something that is far more complex and nuanced. In this post I will tackle two of them in particular: our assumptions about progress, and the morality of “natural” ways of life.

Progress (better known as) Cultural Change

I’ve already talked about misunderstandings of biological and particularly human evolution. One of the common themes is an assumption that evolution is progressive; that it moves along a linear path from “primitive” to “advanced.” But evolution does not have an agenda or a goal. It doesn’t produce an organism that is perfectly adapted in the most efficient way possible. Instead, it simply adapts in the easiest way given the biological parts that it already has to work with. As an example, walking on two legs gave us many important advantages (like freeing up our hands for tool use), but we pay for it with back problems and the most difficult childbirth among mammals. Humans are the first dedicated bipedal animal. But evolution had a four-limb body map to work with. If you were designing the most efficient bipedal creature, you might come up with something quite different.


Not an ideal bipedal robot.

(I did a Google search to see if anyone has come up with a robot or computer model of a bipedal creature that is perfectly designed, without our human disadvantages, but I couldn’t find any! Why hasn’t someone done this yet? Get on that, engineers! I’m available for consulting. Here’s a link about why that might be. In fact a six-or even eight-limbed creature might have more advantages than a bipedal one, but evolution doesn’t just randomly start growing extra limbs. Each stage along the evolutionary path of a feature, like a limb, must also be adaptive for it to remain in the population and continue to evolve. Find out more in this video about robotics.)

Similar assumptions about cultural “evolution” abound. That human society has progressed in a linear fashion from simple to complex, from primitive tribes to advanced societies. There is an assumption that these cultural changes were always advantageous to the people affected by them. Let’s take the agricultural revolution (or Neolithic Revolution) as an example.

The Agricultural Revolution Disaster


San Bushmen (Photo by Ian Sewell

It seems logical to conclude that farming and a sedentary life is somehow easier, or at least more stable, with a reliable food supply and more security. It is easy to imagine “primitive tribes” eking out an existence, always in a desperate search for prey and edible plants, barely surviving and in constant danger. But this is not the reality. “Primitive tribes” are more accurately described as hunter-gatherers who live in small nomadic bands of 30 to 50 people. They follow seasonal hunting and food-gathering practices, returning to campsites on a cyclical basis, interacting with a network of other bands in culturally determined ways (like rituals, hunting parties, marriages, warfare). They have sophisticated knowledge about animal migration patterns, seasonal plants, weather patterns, navigation, not to mention the manufacture and use of specialized technology, as well as a host of other forms of knowledge mostly lost today. Many of these groups also cultivate wild plants to some degree, though this is not the same as farming. This can involve burning or cutting unwanted plants, and only harvesting certain plants in certain seasons to allow them to reseed. These forest “crops” are visited at intervals as bands make their seasonal rounds. As far as eking out a living and barely surviving, it has been accepted fact in anthropology for some time that hunter-gatherers actually spend less time working and have far more leisure time than modern urban people.

And while it may be true that their average life expectancy is lower than ours, this is mostly due to higher infant mortality. Once you pass age five, your chances to living into your 60s or 70s increases dramatically.

Homo sapiens lived like this for about 185,000 years, or 90% of our existence so far. And before that (and also concurrent with it – remember we shared the planet with other species early on), every hominin species lived like this for their entire existence. A recent discovery of the oldest stone tool found so far is 3.3 million years old, which predates genus Homo and was likely made and used by Australopithecus.

So it is safe to conclude that this strategy of survival was highly successful. This begs the question then: Why bother with agriculture at all? This is somewhat of a mystery to paleoanthropologists. Jared Diamond dramatically titled his 1987 article about the agricultural revolution, “The Worst Mistake in Human History”. It seems that once agriculture takes hold, it spreads quickly and transforms societies. Or at least, this is what most evidence seemed to suggest until recently. But new findings show that hunter-gatherers and farmers lived side by side in Paleolithic Europe for two thousand years.


(Photo by Scott Bauer

One thing agriculture always accomplishes, and that is a rapid increase in population. But more is not always better, and as crowded sedentary communities multiply in number, diseases spread unchecked. When a small band is infected with a deadly disease, the worst case scenario is that the entire band dies, but its spread to other bands is limited. In an agricultural society a disease can wipe out huge populations, as is evidenced by The Black Death in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, which killed millions. Agriculture means relying on a very limited number of crops and domestic animals. A bad growing season or a disease that wipes out a herd can mean famine. In a nomadic society, alternative food sources are easier to come by. But there’s more. Agriculture is also hard work, much harder and more time consuming than hunting and gathering, and this leads to greater inequality between groups of people. The legacy of agriculture is with us still. In today’s society, the environmental toll of farming to feed an overpopulated planet is a danger to our very survival as a species, and income inequality has created desperately impoverished people.

(If you’d like to know more about the transition to agriculture, this video is really good.)

The Good Old Days

Which brings us to the second common misunderstanding about ancient peoples. That everything was better in the olden days or that “primitive” people are more “pure,” untainted by the artificiality of modern civilization. But it would be a mistake to romanticize hunter-gatherers as morally superior because they are “closer to nature.” Just because that lifestyle has many advantages doesn’t mean that I think we should all give up our iPhones and hot showers to learn how to forage and track game. This just won’t happen, certainly not on a global scale with the population and technology we have. (Although in the face of global climate change we may find ourselves one day with some difficult choices. I believe that adapting some ancient practices and principles to a modern world could lead to solutions.)

This idea is known as an appeal to nature, which is the mistaken belief that things that are found in nature are morally good and right. But all that is found in nature is not beneficial. Deadly bacteria is “natural,” for example. I’ve seen this naturalist argument used to claim that it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from rape and not men who should be taught not to rape, using the claim that it’s “natural” for men who have a “natural biological need” to procreate. That it’s human nature. Ideas about what constitutes human nature is a very slippery slope.

The size of a hunter-gatherer band is deliberate. It corresponds to the sustainable resources available in a given geographical range. One of the factors contributing to a high infant and child mortality rate among such bands is sometimes infanticide. If you don’t have reliable birth control, or are not clear about which sex acts lead to reproduction, then, tragically, if more babies are born than can be supported by the group, they are sometimes left to die in the wild. This is done to ensure the survival of the group. I don’t think anyone can argue that this practice is natural and therefore morally superior to an artificial, “man-made” condom. In addition, practices like female genital mutilation, cannibalism, warfare, and slavery (which is absolutely not a modern invention) can be found in modern and ancient hunter-gatherer (and other) groups. But at the same time, it is important not to assume that all members of every society are in agreement with all current cultural practices. There are always dissenters, although resistance can be risky. We all need the support of social groups to survive, and losing social ties can mean social and even biological death. This is why some acts of resistance can be passive or subversive, which does not always show up in the archeological record.

But What Does It All Mean Then?

Our modern way of life is neither morally superior nor inferior to ancient ones, which were in any case not uniform. If you think about the fact that, since you wouldn’t expect someone living in another region or another time period to have the same culture as you, you’ll realize that we cannot expect there to be a uniform Paleolithic “culture.” There could have been significant differences between groups living practically next door to each other, or living only one hundred years apart, which in paleoanthropological terms is a tiny amount of time.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as progress or that we can’t make moral judgements on cultural practices. But we can ask some questions: Who defines progress? The people living at the time, or our perspective, stuck as we are in our own time period and culture? Who within the society does this “progress” benefit and is it sustainable over time? Instead of imagining a linear and uphill march of progress, we can think in terms of cultural change or renewal, which is constant and can be influenced by things like contact with new groups, and demographic or environmental shifts.

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Discovering Saint-Cesaire

A reconstruction of the Neandertal found at Saint-Cesaire

A reconstruction of the Neandertal found at Saint-Cesaire

The fall semester is just around the corner, and I have a doozy ahead of me. My advisor warned me that it would be a tough semester and told me to come to her if I have trouble. That scared me a little. Even more so when I told some other grad students which classes I was planning to take and I got responses like, “All in the same semester?” and “Um, good luck with that.” Okay then. By the way, grad students who don’t maintain a B+ average are kicked out of the program. So no pressure or anything.

As I write this I am on one last summer trip to visit family with my daughter, and before I switch to school mode, I thought I’d write a final post about my paleotrip to France this summer. Namely why Saint-Cesaire? What makes it so interesting? And what are the questions we are hoping to answer by excavating at this site?

First some history. In 1976, in the little village of Saint-Cesaire in western France, an old rock quarry was being leveled with backhoes in order to convert it to mushroom caves. A local amateur (but very experienced) archeologist named Bernard Dubigny spotted human-made flint tools and animal bones in a backhoe shovel. He knew immediately that this meant it was an archeological site, likely a prehistoric one, and called the Service Regional D’Archeologie. Francois Leveque was head of the department at the time, and arrived on the scene to see for himself. He recognized its significance right away, and happily so did the mayor and the landowner. Work was stopped immediately and a ten-year excavation began. Wouldn’t it be nice if archeological sites were always discovered this way and everyone was always this cooperative?

In 1979 all the hard work paid off when the remains of an adult Neandertal were discovered. Bernard Vandermeersch, a paleoanthropologist, was called in for analysis. The skeleton was nicknamed Pierette by researchers because it was thought to be a woman based on its size. However, as I learned in my osteology class last semester, sex determination without a pelvis is mainly guesswork, and we’re talking about our own species, Homo sapiens. Therefore, even more so with Neandertals. So without DNA we can’t really know. Interestingly, the right half of Pierette was preserved, but not the left. More or less right down the middle. Geologists surmise that the body had somehow wound up lying on its right side, with the left side exposed and possibly washed away by an ancient stream.paleosite01

This brings us to what is interesting and challenging about Saint-Cesaire. Pierette was found underground in a layer that had previously been only associated with modern humans. Archeologists use stratigraphy to make determinations about a site, especially its date of occupation. Things pile up on the ground over time, decompose, and are covered up by new piles of dirt and organic material. This can bee seen as layers of differently colored dirt or different types of rocks. The differences in layers can be caused by geological changes: sudden ones like a volcano erupting, or more gradual ones like a river drying up or the climate changing. You have seen stratigraphy, even if you might not have given it much thought. The Grand Canyon is an obvious example, but you can see also see it in a hill that has been cut to make way for a highway.

In prehistoric archeology, scientists have named different eras for different types of tools. Experts in lithics (stone tools) look at how they are made and name them a particular “tradition” or technology that was shared by a group of people. When the way stone tools are made and used changes, it is given a new name. These different tool-making traditions are also sometimes the indicators used to date a layer, and by association whatever is found in that layer, such as human remains. You can see how this might become a problem if we have made incorrect assumptions about what populations were making which tools, or if one population shared their technology with another. Neandertals have been associated with Mousterian tools for quite some time. Modern humans in Europe (where Neandertals also lived) are associated with Chatelperronian and later, Aurignacian tools.

So with this in mind, let’s return to Saint-Cesaire. You can see my photos of the exposed stratigraphy here. DSCN3374When Pierette was found, “she” broke the rules. There is no doubt she is Neandertal, yet she was found on top of the cave or shelter that had collapsed in prehistoric times, but after Neandertal occupation (at least 40,000 years ago). She was found associated with Chatelperronian artifacts, which remember were supposed to be the earliest modern human tools. When this discovery was announced, it caused people to stop asking questions about geological factors. The matter was now thought to be closed. Instead they started asking questions like, “Why did the Neandertals change their behavior? Were they influenced by modern humans?” There’s that modern human superiority complex again. Did anyone think to ask whether modern humans were influenced by Neandertals? We tend to think modern humans were more “advanced,” and maybe we were in certain or even significant ways, I’m not ruling that out. But when asking these questions, it’s a mistake to start from that assumption.

Today, new teams of archeologists are returning to Saint-Cesaire with new questions: How were these layers – Mousterian, Chatelperronian and Aurignacian – deposited? Is what we see a perfect picture of human occupation? Or did geological factors complicate the layers? Freezing and thawing can move sediment, like a river flow. So a more close examination of the lithics, to see whether they are “fresh” or have been worn by water and movement, for example, is underway. Geologists with new technology and modern training and theories are looking at the site to improve our understanding of its formation.

So far, in addition to Pierette, two perinatals have been found. Perinatal means a baby just before, at, or shortly after birth. (Sadly, the study of human evolution comes with lots of dead children and babies. I’ll come back to this in a future post.) They were found in layers different from Pierette’s, so not necessarily associated with her. These babies have been found piecemeal by different teams in different years, which I’m sure will make writing papers about them complicated. During this year’s excavation the only Neandertal remains we found was the finger bone of one of these babies. But hey, Neandertal remains are hard to come by, so we celebrated nonetheless. And actually, we did not even dig up the bone this summer, it was found in a bag of two-milimeter sieved sediment from the previous year that had not yet been sorted (see earlier post). Isabelle, our fearless leader, pointed out as she served the wine that this was the pay-off for sorting, the most brain-numbingly boring work of the dig. Can’t argue with results!

This is a blog, not an academic paper, so you won’t find bibliographies and citations here. However, I always do my best to include links to my sources or examples of general concepts I have learned in my studies. This post is a little different. Because so few scientists have studied Pierette, and what little information about Saint-Cesaire’s history exists is in French, my main source is an interview graciously granted by the head of our excavation, the lovely and talented Dr. Isabelle Crevecoeur. Isabelle croppedShe is a researcher out of Bordeaux University with the CNRS, which she says is French for the National Center of Scientific Research and is similar to the American National Science Foundation. She has read, among other things, Leveque’s book Context of a Late Neandertal, available on Google Books. And guess what else? She happens to also be an experienced improvisor, something I have devoted 20+ years of my life to studying and performing. How cool is that? I told a comedy improv friend about this coincidence, and I said, holy cow, what are the chances, what does that even mean? She said, it means you would have some killer sets together. Duh. Isabelle, if you are reading this, you are officially invited to throw down with me. We’ll play in French and English and Gibberish. Can I get a suggestion of a hominin species and a lithic tool tradition, please?


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Beautiful Bordeaux and Hardcore Software

I’ve been back home from my paleoanthropology journey for over a week now, okay two weeks when this goes up. Boy oh BOY did I miss my family. I spent 30 days in France without my partner and our six-year-old daughter, and let me tell you, I had not been that homesick since I was 15 at boarding school in Denmark, 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away from my family in the States. But it makes sense. I’ve been a single adult for a long time. I’ve had very close friends and even serious boyfriends I guess, but until I had a kid and settled down with my partner for real, there wasn’t really anything to miss. I mean sure I missed people and things, but not like this. Not this deep down heartache longing. I might have thought I did with a boyfriend who had moved away, but no, it was never ever like this. Anyway.

Tower and feet wetThe first three weeks of my stay was excavating in Saint-Cesaire. This last week in Bordeaux, though, is what paid for my plane tickets (thanks to two small grants to help with expenses associated with grad students’ theses). My master’s thesis is studying the three-dimensional scans of Neandertal teeth from Goyet, Belgium – one isolated incisor, one isolated premolar, and a portion of a maxilla with three additional teeth. So that means I won’t be studying the actual, physical teeth. I may never actually see them in real life. I will be studying these 3D scans using the very powerful Avizo software. So my fourth week in France was learning how to do this at Bordeaux University under Priscilla. Priscilla was also kind enough to put me up in her house in Bordeaux. And more than that, she fed me dinner and breakfast and took me all over Bordeaux on my one weekend off. Lucky me!

Bordeaux. A beautiful, charming city that I would just LOVE to return to for a longer visit. ActuaMe and seafood lower quality croppedlly, I immediately began fantasizing about ways my studies or new career could put me in Bordeaux for even longer. Hmmm, I need to work on that. That and learning more French. Some highlights for me were: walking the picturesque streets and hopping on and off the tram, sitting at an outdoor café with Priscilla eating quiche Lorraine and chatting, eating oysters and drinking chilled white wine at the market, and shopping for French lingerie. This last experience Priscilla talked me into, and I am now convinced that regularly wearing fancy underwear is an actual thing that French women do, not just a cliché. Ooo la la! Which, by the way, is an expression French people actually say, especially Priscilla to her five-month-old mischievous kitten, Bichou. Bichou kitchen floorKittens, with their tiny needle claws, are programmed to KILL anything that moves. So Priscilla’s house was equal parts charmingly comfortable and nerve-wracking.

So about those Neandertal teeth. Priscilla, as well as other students who had worked with the software before and happened to be working in the computer lab, helped me learn how to use Avizo 3D imaging software. The teeth have been 3D-scanned at another facility and I was given the file – really hundreds of stacks of files of virtual slices of the tooth in different angles – that I will be studying for the next two years or so. The process is a bit like Photoshop. Okay, actually I don’t know if that’s true, since I’ve never really used Photoshop. But I imagine that it is, since I’ve seen people use it and I’ve used more basic software like
The idea with 3D scanning, well of ancient teeth anyway, is to look at the internal structure. To measure and compare the different materials contained in the object. So in this case that is: enamel, dentine, and the pulp chamber (since the actual pulp – nerves and blood vessels – is soft tissue and does not survive). The software recognizes the various densities of the tooth, and assigns them to different materials. There is another step, sometimes two other steps, using other software before Avizo can start making these assignments, but let’s skip that part. Hey, this is a blog. So now you can look at a 3D image of your tooth. You can use the mouse to drag it around and look at it from every angle. Cool! Then you can look at individual virtual “slices” of your tooth. But then you’ll notice something. There are lots and lots of mistakes. This is a fossil tooth, so some dentine has fossilized, causing it to appear denser and be incorrectly labeled as enamel. Also the pulp chamber is full of sediment (dirt and tiny rocks), which may be assigned to dentine or enamel depending on their density. But the kicker: cracks. Tens of thousands of years’ worth of cracks. Do I just fill them in, in other words assign them to the surrounding material, I ask? No, I must delineate each crack and create two new materials: enamel cracks and dentine cracks. If you just blend them in it will distort the volume of the tooth, since cracks add space. And since ultimately I will be measuring dentine versus enamel volume (to compare with teeth studied by other people) it is important to note which material is cracked and how much. Usually one crack goes through both materials, complicating things further. Also the software misses some cracks that you can otherwise see on the scan, so you add those manually too.

Cropped Doing science lower qualityThis process of assigning materials to their proper label is called tooth segmentation and it is as time consuming as it sounds. Some of the students there had segmented hundreds of teeth and were pros at it. I spent a couple of days segmenting an incisor, and then somehow screwed it up so bad I had to start over. I chalk it up to learning how to use the program, but it still sucks to see all that work disappear. Note to self: learn how to save different versions of a tooth, so I can go back a day or half a day instead of a whole week. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this project. Priscilla says the next steps are easier. Rendering I think she said was next. Not sure what that entails. And then I have to look at the numbers – the point of the whole thing – and compare them to other teeth. I don’t know yet whether it will be to other Neandertal teeth or modern humans or more ancient species, or all three.

Lots of cool things can be learned from teeth. 3D scans cannot, however, show me fun things like pollen trapped in calculus (tartar) that give clues about what people ate. That is done with real teeth and microscopes in a lab. What I can learn are things about evolutionary changes in teeth over time, and about how teeth mature in an individual’s lifetime. I don’t really know what my focus will be or what my scientific question is yet, but I’m excited to find out. This semester I’m taking my first class that helps me get started on my thesis, so I’m well underway already.

If you’ve read this far, you must already think this is interesting stuff (you nerd!). But in case you don’t, or if you just have to have more, here is a video that shows the Wow Factor of 3D scans of teeth way better than I ever could. Check it out.

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Who Were the Neandertals?

So now that we know how and when the Neandertals evolved (from an earlier post), let’s talk about who they were and how they behaved. Physically, they were in very many ways similar to us. They were different too, but it’s easy to focus on differences and forget how similar we are. So I’ll describe some differences but keep in mind that you are starting with an image of the modern human body, and modifying from there. Someone once asked me whether Neandertals had extra or different bones than we do. The question surprised me, but since it was asked I’ll answer it here. No, we don’t. We share the same type and number of bones as the Neandertals, and essentially every other Hominin species. In fact, we share the same bones with non-human primates. To go even further, most of our bones are similar to all mammals. Some four-legged animals may have one bone that is basically two of our bones fused together, but otherwise the same. It’s part of evolution. We have the same “body map” as all living beings – head, torso, four limbs – because we all evolved from the same organism. But I digress. Anyway, the difference between our bones and Neandertals’ bones are in shape and size (actually in density and internal structure too, if you’re curious).

Neandertals were generally shorter and stockier than we are. They had a barrel shaped rib cage, making their torso much wider. They had shorter lower arms and leg bones, proportional to their upper arms and legs. Their fingers were wider and did not taper to the tips like ours do. The skull is where you can most easily see the most striking differences. Their nose is much bigger and wider than ours. They have a large, protruding brow ridge, and their cheek bones go straight back instead of out, which makes their face stick out much more than ours. This is called prognathism, your dog having the most extreme example – in animals, it’s called a snout.55-45894-skulls-1363198263 Their skull had a long, low, stretched out shape, like an American football, whereas ours is comparatively very round, like a basketball. And this skull had enough room in it for a brain that was as large as, or in fact slightly larger than our own. As for the rest, we can’t know from the fossil record. However, there is DNA evidence that leads us to believe that they had pale skin and even freckles and red hair.

Some scientists conclude that Neandertals’ shorter, stockier, more compact body was adapted for colder weather. They include the size and shape of their nose as part of this argument (but some disagree). The argument goes that it warmed cold air before it reached the brain. Other scientists argue that these adaptations were merely a result of reproductive isolation (see earlier post). This is a blog, not an academic paper, so I get to state my opinion that is not backed up by research. (Wooo! I’m drunk with power and freedom!) I favor the reproductive isolation explanation. One reason I think the cold-adapted theory falls short is that the climate fluctuated throughout Neandertals’ time on earth – it was not continuously freezing cold. But another reason is when I look at northern populations, I don’t see similar adaptations. You could make this claim about Eskimos, but explain Scandinavians then, who are tall and lanky. Danes even sometimes have a little upturned or pointy nose (I have a Scandinavian background myself, probably why the argument strikes me as inadequate). Yes, Scandinavians populated that region in only the last 15,000 years, so maybe not enough time for cold-weather body adaptation, but still… something about it seems off to me, and I just don’t buy it. But to be clear, this is my opinion not a research paper and I have no data to back me up. Maybe one day I will do some real research into it.

So what were the Neandertals like, then? Who were they? I get Google alerts for news on Neandertals/Neanderthals (can be spelled either way) and part of the time the article is about how some frat boys have behaved badly or someone has said something bigoted. Nothing to do with actual Neandertals. Type #neanderthal into Twitter and you are unlikely to see paleoanthropological posts. Actually, don’t do that search on Twitter. The last time I did, it was an absolute horror show of racist memes. Really chilling stuff. Sometimes becoming technologically sophisticated means learning what NOT to look up online. Anyway. Were Neandertals really big dumb cavemen who lived like animals and died out because we are smarter and just plain better? In a word: No. In two words: Absolutely not.

It’s surprising to me how pervasive this misperception of Neandertals still is in our culture. In the past, scientists did think of Neandertals as ape-men, but their perception changed in the 1950s, and there is now really no reason to think that the Neandertals were any less intelligent than we are. Neandertal brains were not smaller than ours, and in fact were often slightly bigger. Although we can never know what it sounded like or how it was constructed, there is really no doubt Neandertals had language. This image of Neandertals as unevolved ape-men is so frustratingly common among even highly educated people that it got me thinking, this kind of outdated or just misinformed thinking is probably common to many fields, if not all. Dear readers, what basic concept in your field does the public have completely wrong? I’d love to hear about it. Enlighten us in the comments below!


Actual stone blades I found while sieving at Saint-Cesaire. They are very sharp!

Let’s talk about the Stone Age and stone tools. Like the word “Neandertal,” the term “Stone Age” is often used in popular culture as shorthand for uninspired, primitive technology that is just slightly advanced from banging actual rocks together. Let me tell you, when you first hold a real stone blade or handaxe in your hands, you will be amazed at its beauty. The craftsmanship required is obvious to anyone, and I was quite surprised to pick one up and discover that still, after 20,000 or even 40,000 years, these tools can remain very sharp. Sharp enough to cut a modern archeologist. Making them required considerable planning – how will I go about accomplishing the task set out – and abstract thought – imagining a future object that will emerge from the stone. Making tools also meant teaching and learning– passing traditions down from one generation to the next. The stones used were chosen carefully, and sometimes gathered from far away. To say nothing of hunting itself. And it’s not just the tools themselves that give us these clues. Archeologists also study faunal remains (animal bones) and can discover how the animals were hunted. Scientists can learn about prehistoric people’s hunting strategies, from running herds of massive beasts like mammoths, woolly rhinos, and bison over cliffs (a very dangerous technique) to seasonal preferences based on the species, sex, or age of animal, to how blades and points were affixed to spears and arrows. So here’s the thing — stone tools and hunting strategies are all things we have learned, not just about Neandertals, but about nearly every other species previous to Homo sapiens. Yet another thing that makes us less than unique.


That’s me learning to throw spears with an atlatl at the Paleosite museum at Saint-Cesaire.


Evidence also exists that Neandertals ate plants that grew in different places and were ready for harvest at different times. This required knowledge of growing seasons and mental geographic and climatic maps. Not only was meat cooked, but plant food was also cooked and prepared in various ways. Neandertals also used herbs, most likely for flavor as well as medicinal purposes. We can’t know what their culture was like, meaning how their families and kin groups were arranged, what kind of rules and beliefs they had. But we learn amazing little tidbits through indirect evidence, like for example that men and women did different types of work. Still think calling a rude guy a Neandertal is an appropriate insult?

For a long time it was claimed (and still is by some) that Neandertals did not create art, that that was what separated us from them. This claim matters because, despite the awful ways in which our current Western society sends us the message that art is at best frivolous and at worst toxic and dangerous, art is important. Art means symbolic, abstract thought. It is an outward expression of an inner comp17TALON-blog427lex life that is not seen in any other animals. But recently some exciting new findings have emerged, like the discovery of an eagle talon necklace. This one is so groundbreaking, especially to a segment of scientists who believe firmly in Homo sapiens superiority, or at least important differences, that it is hotly debated. I even witnessed some of this debate at the Paleoanthropology Society meeting in San Francisco in April this year. I attended an interesting lecture and presentation of the latest findings connected with these eagle talons, and at its conclusion suddenly people were arguing passionately — dismissing the interpretation, interrupting each other, and getting a bit testy. Very exciting. Good times.

Why the hot tempers? Or at least the defensiveness?

Looked at in the big picture, the progress of science can be seen as a process of slowly diminishing our specialness in the universe. No longer the center of the heavens, with the sun revolving around us, our solar system is not only not the center of our galaxy, our galaxy is not even unique in any way. On a smaller scale, the development of the theory of biological evolution was threatening to most religions, because of its implication that God is no longer necessary for creation. So it should not be surprising, really, that even at the level of scientists who devote their careers to studying human evolution, there is reluctance to give up the notion that something special sets us Homo sapiens apart from all the other Hominid species. It becomes a deeply existential question: If we are not more intelligent or creative, not uniquely advantaged for survival, then how did we get here? Or maybe more fundamentally: Why us? Why here?

Seen in this light, is science really a rejection of religion, or is it possible that it is another way, a different tool, that humans use to ask what amounts to the same questions?

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A Day at the Dig Site

Well, I changed my mind, sorry. (Or sooorry as the Canadians on my dig would say, heh heh.) There’s less than a week left of the excavation (already!), so instead of talking about Neandertal behavior, I want to tell you what we actually do day to day here – while I’m still actually here. How, exactly, do archeologists do their work? I promise we’ll get to Neandertal behavior, probably next post.

This is my very first ever archeological dig. I have just finished my first year of grad school and it was not quite what I expected. Silly me, I assumed I would be learning, you know, excavation techniques: the proper use of trowels, where to start digging, stuff like that. Aside from my osteology class (the study of human bones), my first year has been lots and lots of theory. Reading way more than a human possibly can in the time given, and writing papers. So you can imagine how absolutely thrilled I am to finally be getting my hands dirty! Not metaphorically, either.

There are basically three jobs to be done during the excavation: digging, sieving, and sorting. For the most part, the students rotate between these three jobs and the specialists (like my professor) stick to one of these jobs to supervise.

DIGGING (fouilles in French)


That’s me in the pink shirt and the woman across from me is my professor. Oh, and hi Damien!

Aside from seeking the Ark of the Covenant and performing whiptricks, digging is what you expect archeologists to do. The funny thing is, of course, that it is such a small fraction of the actual work of archeology. But it is on these summer excavations that we finally get to do it. The amount of digging you do each day and the speed at which you go varies depending on the era you are excavating and your goals. In our case – prehistoric era and academic research – this means we go very, very, VERY slowly and deliberately. For this summer’s project, we are digging a one by one meter square. This square is sub-divided into four squares that are 50 by 50 centimeters. But since we are looking for Neandertal remains that are so rare and old, we are sub-dividing that even further, into sub-sub-squares of 25 by 25 centimeters. Each excavator digs one sub-sub-square only two centimeters deep, then stops. Any artifact – which means any bone or lithic – that is two centimeters or larger is left in situ (in place), and when all four sub-sub-squares have been dug two centimeters, they are photographed and each artifact’s size and orientation is measured very precisely. Every bit of dirt dug with these small tools is swept with a little brush into a little plastic cup, which is then emptied into a bucket. All the dirt and rocks are measured by volume and recorded. Crazy painstaking work, right? Obviously we intend to miss NOTHING. If there are any Neandertal remains at all – even the tiniest fragment, we will find it.

Artifacts are then bagged individually with their own identifying tag, and buckets of sediment and rocks are taken to the sieving station for the next step in the process. So far we have found a lot of animal bones and the layer we are in now includes LOTS of lithics, which is pretty exciting. Sorry, I should say that lithics are stone tools or stones that are the result of humans making stone tools – so flakes that are not used, but come off when a larger point or knife is made, or the hammer stones (stone tool used to make a stone tool) or cores (raw material from which stone tools are made). It is easy to recognize a lithic. They have very smooth surfaces, the edges can be very sharp, and they are always made of a very hard stone, like flint. Regular rocks are very different. Trust me, you don’t need any training to recognize lithics.

My first day of digging I thought I would die. The dirt was hard AS A ROCK, my hands hurt, I was uncomfortable, and it was hot. But it got a lot better after that. We had quite a bit of rain so the ground softened. And once we got down further it was a goldmine of exciting stuff, like a woolly rhino foot bone! I just spent the day digging on Saturday (we have a lot to do in only three weeks, so we only get Sundays off) and there were so many lithics and animal bones it was extra slow going, but of course cool too. I loved being the first one to uncover seDSCN3238veral human-made tools since they were left there over 30,000 years ago. (We haven’t dug up any human remains yet, but we have four days left, so it could still happen.) Hunched down uncomfortably next to my little square, carefully picking away at dirt around a piece of limestone, I imagined my square as a tiny landscape, with mountains and valleys and itty-bitty cities of lithics. I was the giant invisible god, erasing time by coaxing the loosened dirt down through the valley and into my plastic chalice.

SIEVING (tamisage in French)

Sieving has got to be one of the most fun jobs, but also the most exhausting. We have two sieves, one with four-millimeter openings and one with two. The four-millimeter goes on top of the two-millimeter and the bucket of dirt is poured in, first dry, so over a plastic garbage can that wobbles back and forth, and next wet. The wet sieving is the best! You are basically creating and playing in the softest, gooiest mud you could ever wish for. The two sieves are put on top of garbage cans and we spray water from a hose over them, washing away all the dirt until only rocks and bones are left. That’s what makes the wet sediment left behind so silky smooth. So next time you are making mud pies, I recommend sieving first!
What makes this work exhausting is that you are moving boxes, buckets and bags of rocks all day, including up and down a small hill. I am a muddy, filthy shell of my former self at the end of a day of sieving. Sure is a satisfying feeling though! Beats reading theory anyway. Besides sieving the buckets that come from the dig, we are also sieving bags of sediment dug up by Leveque and his team, the original excavator who found the first Neandertal here in the 19DSCN323070s, (more on this history in an upcoming post). These bags have been waiting on a shelf for over 30 years and it is all the sediment that comes from close to where the Neandertal was found. Unlike many of his day, Leveque did an excellent job keeping track of and labeling and KEEPING everything he excavated (in the past so much was just thrown out). So we are hopeful that we will have plenty of material to analyze. Sieving the Leveque stuff is the most fun, because it is full of beautiful, complete stone tools and large animal bones. Nowadays you would never have such large artifacts just sitting in a bag, since anything larger than two centimeters is measured and cataloged separately.

SORTING (trier in French)

Sorting is the last step in the excavation process (after that is the analysis and the scientific papers), and it means what it sounds like: sitting at a table with a tray what has been DSCN3334sieved and sorting everything into categories: limestone, flint, iron oxide, animal bone fragments, burned animal bone fragments (by humans either to cook the meat attached or as fuel – there are a lot these!), microfauna (tiny rodent bones and teeth – love finding them!) and “other” rocks. Small bits of limestone and tiny bone fragments look very similar, as you might imagine, and at first I was not convinced that I could ever learn the difference. But I did. Bone fragments have a regular structure. This means you can see patterns of lines or holes, whereas limestone is random. It can be harder to see when it’s very small or burned. One trick is to knock the piece against your teeth, and apparently bones and stones sound different. But that doesn’t work for me. I just can’t hear the difference. What works perfectly for me is the tongue test. Touch the unknown fragment to your tongue. If it sticks, it’s a bone. If it doesn’t, it’s a stone. Now sometimes limestone, which is porousDSCN3164, will kind of stick, but it’s not quite the same. Bone really grabs on, and sometimes you have to peel it off your tongue. When that happens sometimes I’ll say, with a lisp, “Okay I get it, you’re a bone!” We laugh. Archeology humor. Limestone, on the other hand, never grabs on that hard and leaves a gross powder on your tongue. Bone leaves your tongue “clean.” I’m pretty excited to have learned this.

So these are the jobs we do every day. Oftentimes they are tedious, exhausting, or mind-numbingly boring (sorting two-millimeter bags, hello?). Sometimes they feel very cool and sciencey. Sometimes they feel absolutely pointless. And sometimes you get to play in the mud, or pretend you are a giant uncovering a tiny landscape lost to time.

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Neandertal Evolution

I think a good place to start is with TIME. Oftentimes people are unclear on timescale. I know I was about a lot of things before I started really studying this stuff. I still sometimes need to check Wikipedia real quick when I read about a new finding. We might as well start at the beginning to put everything in perspective. The Very Beginning. I mean, why not?

Age of the universe 13.7 billion years
Age of Earth 4.5 billion years
First appearance of mammals 200 million years
Extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years
Beginning of evolution of proto-humans
(Our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos. Coincides with bipedality; see last post.)
5 to 7 million years
Beginning of evolution of Neandertals 250 thousand years
(to about 40 thousand years)
Beginning of evolution of Homo sapiens 200 thousand years
Agricultural revolution
(Update: future post about this)
10 to 15 thousand years
Great Pyramid of Giza built 4 thousand years

So now it should be easier to appreciate where the Neandertals land on this timescale. Notice anything about that time frame? Yup, the Neandertals lived at the same time as us. Oh right, let’s clear up a common misconception first. We did not evolve from Neandertals, we evolved separately. This is one of the reasons they are so fascinating to me. Another species evolving along a separate path simply cannot happen in the world we live in now for the simple fact that there are really no population groups that are separate enough for long enough – known as reproductive isolation – for that to happen. But it certainly could happen in the future – say when we populate other planets. That’s a recipe for speciation right there. But before we get too far off into sci-fi land, let’s get back to the Neandertals and us.

Anyway, I hope this timeline helps put things in perspective. It shows that yes, Neandertals lived “a long time ago,” but looked at in the larger scale of human evolution, it was not really that long ago.

Africa is where it all began, the cradle of all humanity, where the last common ancestor between us and chimpanzees/bonobos came from. While Homo sapiens were evolving in Africa from Homo heidelbergensis, some Homo heidelbergensis groups moved out of Africa and into the Near East and then into Europe (one perfectly reasonable speculation is that they were just following game). They Range_of_Homo_neanderthalensisbecame isolated – possibly by a glacier or other environmental factors – and reproductive isolation happened. (This map shows the Neandertal’s range.) Short term isolation happens all the time with small populations, and can be the reason certain population groups are prone to certain genetic diseases or share certain physical features. When a population is isolated for a long period (we’re talking about 100,000 years or so in this case) and especially when environmental pressures come into play, a new species can evolve.

So what makes Neandertals, or any animal for that matter, a different species? This is not always as clear-cut as you might think, and paleoanthropologists argue about how to categorize fossil humans quite a lot. One definition is that interbreeding between the two species is unsuccessful, either because it is physically impossible (the sexual organs just don’t fit together), or it is possible but does not result in successful offspring (the infant dies, is sterile as an adult, or the hybridized traits make it poorly adapted to its environment). Another definition is two species that are separated by a physical boundary (a mountain range) or by behavior. An example of separation by behavior would be a species that hunts during the day and sleeps at night, contrasted with another species that hunts at night and sleeps during the day. These two species would never interact, and therefore would never breed with each other. Speciation – the evolution of a new species – starts with reproductive isolation, resulting in genetic drift. Environmental pressure often contributes to speciation, but it doesn’t have to. Genetic drift is an interesting concept. It is known in statistics as a sampling error. You have a bowl of jelly beans, let’s say. There are 20 green, 20 red and 10 yellow jelly beans. You randomly choose a handful of ten. You should havneanderthalensis_JG_Recon_Head_CC_3qtr_lt_sqe twice as many green and red as yellow, right? But instead of you have 4 yellow, 4 green and only 2 red, because you grabbed them at random. That is sampling error. And when there is reproductive isolation, there is going to be sampling error. That means certain traits will become exaggerated and others will diminish over time. Another way genetic drift can happen is a population bottleneck. This happens when a catastrophe causes the population to crash to a small percentage of its previous size, say through a sudden or prolonged catastrophic event – disease, drought, disappearance of a food source, conflict with another group. In other words, it is also reproductive isolation, except the separation from other members of the original group is through death. Yeah I know, a lot of this stuff is pretty tragic when you stop and think about it, which I’ve done. Soul-searching posts about that are upcoming. But for now let’s continue with this group evolving in the Near East and Europe, who are becoming the Neandertals.

Oh wait – let’s not. This post is already plenty long! A blog is not a term paper, thank god, so it looks like there will be more than one post introducing you to the Neandertals. Well why shouldn’t there be? They certainly deserve our consideration for more than a few paragraphs. Coming up: now that we know the where, when and how of their evolution, who were they exactly? What were they like? There’s a lot we don’t know. But there’s also quite a bit we DO know, and I can’t wait to share that with you next time!

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Human evolution 101

This is not a blog for Paleoanthropologists to talk to each other. We have scientific journals and conferences for that. And although I hope they stop by and share their feedback on ways to make this blog better, this is a blog for anyone who is curious about human evolution, ancient human species, and especially my favorite – Neandertals. I am a graduate student, earning my master’s degree in paleoanthropology from California State University, Northridge (see the About page for more on my background). I’m not an expert – yet – but I’m excited to share what I’ve learned already. So I thought that while I’m on my very first excavation here in Saint-Cesaire, France, I’d spend a few blog posts clearing up some confusion and misunderstandings I’ve come across when it comes to Neandertals and human evolution. Let’s start with some basics.

Vocabulary Terms

Paleoanthropology – the study of ancient humans and human evolution.
paleo = ancient / anthro = humans / ology = study of

Hominin — the name that refers to all the species that make up the branches of our family tree, or more accurately our crazy family bush covered with creeping vines and sprawling roots, and even some weird flowers and fruit, and includes Homo sapiens (you and me!) as well as the bipedal but small-brained Ardipithecus, and the modern and ancient great apes.

Homo – a sub-group of hominins, that includes the species with Homo in their name. These species look more like us and does not include the great apes. Let’s say these are our first cousins, while Hominins include our immediate family, our first cousins, second cousins, and even our third and fourth cousins three times removed.

One of the most common and recognizable memes in our times is the evolution one – you can see it here, and I promise you it is the only time it will appear in this blog. This line of ape-like to human-like fihuman-evolution-david-giffordgures walking across the page from left to right, gradually standing up straighter and walking upright –paleoanthropologists and evolutionary biologists hate this meme. There are so many things wrong with it, I’m not even sure where to start. Evolution is not a straight line, it is not gradual, and it is not naturally “progressive” (meaning increasingly more complex or sophisticated). Should I even bother to mention that it is also culturally bound? It betrays its Western origins by reading from left to right, and it is unambiguously male (always depicted with males, and sometimes even including stereotypically male weapons or tools), and often, like this one, it even goes from black to brown to white. Ugh, really? (UPDATE: My friend James Dignan pointed me to Carl Sagan’s wonderful video about human evolution that ends with a human woman. Of course! Because Carl Sagan is awesome! Who doesn’t love him? If you don’t, well then, I don’t know what to say besides go watch all of Cosmos right now. Just go do it.) Besides all of the problems with this meme, this over-simplification is not just scientifically inaccurate, it’s BORING! Evolution in general and human evolution in particular is way, way more interesting than that. It is full of surprises, “mistakes” and dead ends. It is a huge, complicated, messy jumble, and scientists can spend their whole careers trying to untangle just one thread of it. So can we get rid of this awful meme please? I mean I get it, it is visually appealing, memorable, and clearly conveys a concept – all things memes are supposed to do. But can we try and come up with something more representative of reality? Post your ideas in the comments, please! Maybe we can create something better.

So what does evolution mean then? Well actually evolution only means change over time. In that sense of the word, your iPhone evolves. But most people mean natural selection when they talk about evolution. Natural selection is a concept made famous by Charles Darwin (although several thinkers had already been moving in this direction when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and another “naturalist,” as they were called at the time, Alfred Russel Wallace had written basically the same book at the same time. Darwin just published his first. History is a bitch sometimes.) Here is the definition, are you ready?

Natural selection is the process by which biological traits that are passed down from one generation to the next become either more or less common as a result of whether these traits increase or decrease the individual’s reproductive success. So for example, if a bird with a differently shaped beak is better able to eat hard Darwin's_finches_by_Gouldseeds when other food becomes unavailable during a drought, then this bird will live long enough to produce offspring that inherit that shape of beak and can in turn have a better chance of surviving future droughts. The phrase “survival of the fittest” is one that frequently frustrates paleoanthropologists and evolutionary biologists. Because although it is completely correct and accurate, it is terribly misunderstood and misused, so many avoid using it altogether. Modern usage of “fit” and “fitness” as meaning able-bodied, strong and powerful is partly to blame, I think. (I don’t have the space or desire to get into the troublesome social Darwinism or creationism and their contributions to the misunderstanding in this post.) But “fitness” in this sense means “fitness” to the environment. So quite contrary to images of meanest and strongest, the fittest animal could be the smallest or quietest or brownest (less obvious to predators). It could mean the animal who is most cooperative with its social group, making it better able to find food and defend itself. While images of a ruthless uncaring nature may make some people uneasy about the concept of natural selection, the success of a species can mean the most successful members are those who are most compassionate and patient. Raising a helpless infant (human infants are particularly so) requires both of these qualities. And showing compassion to members of the social group, who are also kin, not only perpetuates your own genes, but also earns you help and compassion when you are hurt or sick. When there is no way to preserve food, giving away meat you kill (no one person or immediate family can eat an entire animal at once) is insurance that you will get meat in the future when you are not successful in the hunt. Food sharing is a very important part of our evolution as humans. In fact I’d say that after bipedality, it was probably the next most important step in our evolution.

Speaking of bipedality, that is one important thing that irritating meme gets wrong. Bipedality, the ability to walk upright on two legs, is not exclusive to humans. Just take a look at birds (who evolved from dinosaurs), kangaroos, and even some lizards when they run. We humans are primates — along with apes, monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans — and primates possess various degrees of bipedality. Some primates are knuckle-walkers (you can guess what that means) and some walk on two legs for short distances. Look closely, though, at how non-human primates walk, and you can see a clear difference. Put simply, modern humans are expert walkers. Our bodies are designed for long distance walking and running. Our spine, pelvis, knees, and feet have all evolved to make standing and walking our particular “thing.”

Hominins were mostly bipedal by 6 million years ago, and full-time bipeds by about 2 million years ago. (One of my favorite pieces of evidence of bipedality is the Laetoli footprints, which are 3.7 million years old. I love these footprints so much sometimes I daydream about the Hominins who made them.) Bipedality afforded many evolutionary advantages. We have evolved to become a very visual species (compared to dogs, for example, who get much more information with their noses). Standing up meant we could see much further, to find food and watch for predators. It also freed up our hands for many things, not the least of which was tool making, although that came a bit later (but according to an exciting new finding, apparently not all that much later). Losing our body hair and growing our brains (Ardi, as clever as the species undoubtedly was, had a very small brain) came much later.

So who were the Neandertals, exactly, and why should we care? Well, I couldn’t help spending this entire post on human evolution in general (we needed to get that out of the way first), so I’ll save Neandertals for my next post. But what makes them so interesting to me, why I am here at Saint-Cesaire helping to look for more clues about them, is that they are the most recent extinct species of Homo. They are so close to us, yet they are not us. They evolved separately, in isolation, so what can that tell us? That evolution always follows similar paths? Maybe, maybe not. But we can’t help asking because, well, that’s what humans do.

You may ask yourself – well, how did I get here?

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Je suis arrivé

Wow. I’m here and it’s amazing! Despite getting to the airport a little later than I should have (note to self: add an extra HOUR on to travel time to airport – it’s better to be early!), I made the flight and a big TWO THUMBS UP to KLM Airlines. Professional and attentive staff, excellent food, and comfortable seats. I even had plenty of legroom on my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Bordeaux. Why can’t American airlines (in general, not the company with that name) live up to these standards? They are clearly attainable. I won’t waste blog-space with a rant on airlines, but c’mon people, can’t we try a little harder? While in flight I read a novella about Neandertals and early Homo sapiens called Raven’s Choice by Harper Swan  (@harperswan1). Thoroughly enjoyable read with interesting characters, and, I’m happy to report, scientifically plausible. I recommend it. It’s quite short, so I’m glad a sequel will be out soon. In fact it’s so short that I also had time to watch Birdman (two thumbs up), and then could not resist watching The Big Lebowski again. The Dude abides.

From Bordeaux airport I had to take a bus and a train to Saintes. I have lots of experience traveling, but it’s been a long time since I’ve travelled in a place where I basically don’t speak the language (although I’ve of course studied it this past year), but international communication techniques came back to me. It’s all about body language, eye contact, good humor, and lots of patience and humility. I eventually made it to where we are staying, a cluster of comfy little cabins in the completely adorable and so-picturesque-you’d-think-you-were-in-one-of-those-quirky-French-rom-com-movies tiny village of Saint-Cesaire. Besides the nearby 13th century Abby and the 17th and 18th century farmhouses, the first thing that struck me was how incredibly green and lush it is here. Wildflowers, vines covering every tree, thousands of birds and insects in nonstop chorus. Wow, I thought, France is so full of nature. Then later I realized it’s not really a French thing, it’s that I’m coming from southern California, where we are deep into a long drought with no end in sight. It really brought home how completely dead and brown and empty everything is these days, and how birds and insects have probably died, moved away, or retreated underground. Please send rain.


I arrived Thursday evening and work didn’t start until Friday. So after meeting most of the team, we went to dinner. The person organizing this excavation, Isabelle Crevecoeur, has arranged with a nearby restaurant, Auberge des Bujoliers, to feed us a family-style dinner every night. For lunch, the Paleosite museum feeds us a FOUR-COURSE meal every day. Holy crap!!! The dinner restaurant, besides being completely romantic (how many times can I use the word “picturesque”?), serves excellent food. We are waited on by a woman, who I can only assume is the owner or one of them. Her 4-year-old son rides his bike with training wheels around us, or just stares and laughs, then runs away. We have had burgers, couscous with chicken and sausage, and pizza. It is basic fare, but it is high quality, fresh and made by hand. As much as I adore the atmosphere of the dinner resDSCN3219taurant, I have to say I think lunch at the museum restaurant (pictured here) is even better. Appetizer, main course, cheese and fruit plate, and finishing off with dessert and espresso. We have had things like fish and pork pate, duck, a cold tomatoe-y dish called Greek mushrooms, and seafood paella. I am now known in the team for going aDSCN3220 bit crazy over the French cheese. J’aime le fromage! I love mild and creamy cheese, strong stinky cheese, tangy goat cheese, and everything I haven’t tried yet. Every meal here is served with several long baguettes slapped right onto the table with no plate. Everyone just breaks off pieces and uDSCN3221ses it to mop up sauces or spread for spreading pates and cheese. My French colleagues insist that the four-course lunch is absolutely NOT the norm, and that these kinds of feasts are reserved for Christmastime. The Canadians and I will just have to take their word for it. Meanwhile, how can I resist teasing my American archeology colleagues who likely roast weenies and open cans of baked beans, or choke down soggy sandwiches from a cooler. Haha suckers!!

My first evening sitting there with the excavation team at our outdoor dinner table (see below), listening to the birds and sharing good food and wine, well it almost makes up for feeling left out of pretty much all the conversation. Everyone, of course, speaks French. Their English capabilities vary (my professor of course being the most fluent), plus there are two English-speaking Canadians, one of whom speaks fluent French and the other knows about as much as me (which is some words and phrases, but not enough for any kind of conversation, even a simple one). So obviously because we are outnumbered, pretty much all conversation is in French. I listen and often can understand the subject of a conversation, but that’s about it. I want to learn more, and of course I’m sure I will just by being here, but meanwhile I hate feeling like a passive observer of animated conversation and laughter. It’s like there’s a party going on and I’m not invited. And worse, I’m stuck in the middle of it. I’m a pretty social person too, adding to my frustration. I know I will pick up more and more French, in fact I’ve noticed I already have. But meanwhile I can sometimes feel alone in a large group of friendly people with whom, ironically, I would otherwise have plenty to talk about.


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Au revoir!

My first blog, my first post. Manohman. Blogging, amirite? What am I even doing? I know these template-thingies are supposed to make it all simple and obvious, but I still manage to struggle with it. I won’t let that stop me, but please excuse the mess while we are under construction, and, you know, learning the ropes. To be clear, this is a blog about Paleoanthropology, most often focusing on Neandertals. I will NOT be talking about the “paleo diet,” which, from what I can tell has absolutely zero to do with how ancient peoples actually ate and seems to be a misunderstanding of human evolution (that we “finished” evolving at some point in the past).

I started this blog now because in just three days I get on a plane to go to France to dig up Neandertals!! I will be away from my precious family for ONE WHOLE MONTH. Although I was quite an adventurous traveler in my younger days, and have even lived in several countries, this will be my first time away from my six-year-old daughter and my partner/her daddy. They will be fine, of course, but being apart will be so so so hard. We are a small and very tight-knit little family. Thinking about being away from them, especially my little girl, feels like reaching inside my chest and ripping out my heart. And doing it VOLUNTARILY. Geez, what am I doing? Never mind the blogging thing, what am I freaking doing with my LIFE??? Sometimes I wonder. I try to just roll with it. I try always to Yes-And everything that comes my way (once an improvisor, always an improvisor). But it can be a scary tightrope-walking way to live.

IMG_20150531_144236179Meanwhile, I have a million things to do before I leave, both getting myself ready and getting my family ready. As you can see, I’m a list-maker, always have been. When I’m anxious I make lists of big picture things, smaller goals, things to do just today, things to buy, people to call, things to pack, etc. I think it comforts me, but it is also possible that it makes me crazier. I do know that crossing things off of lists feels amazing. Will I get all these things done? No. But I hope to get the important things done, at least. And make sure to get some sleep, get rid of this cold once and for all (finals did it to me again), and spend some quality time with my two loves before I’m gone.

I am heading first to Saint-Cesaire where, for three weeks, I will participate in excavating the site there. My professor, Dr. Helene Rougier, and her colleagues have worked here before. It is a rich site where Neandertals, Paleolithic Homo sapiens, and even medieval people have been found. We are of course looking for more Neandertals. Professor Rougier recently presented a paper in which she presented evidence that the Neandertals there engaged in cannibalism. Why? Well that’s an interesting question, one that we may or may not be able to answer but of course will try. In any case, I’m sure I will discover many exciting rocks, tree roots, and deer bones. I’m told we will rotate between excavating and lab work. There is an interpretive center there as well, also known as a museum, where what we know about how Neandertals lived is on display. Unfortunately, the website for it is in French only (I plan on bugging people there about getting an English version up), but definitely check it out anyway, as there are lots of pictures and some crazy video of a “Neandertal” running around to Benny Hill music. I’m not kidding. See for yourself.

The fourth week I will be at Bordeaux University to be trained in how to read microscans of Neandertal teeth. My Master’s thesis is a study of the microscans of three Neandertal molars. It is “original material,” meaning they have never been studied before. Microscans of teeth are Super Duper cool, just trust me on this. More on that in a later post.

So back to getting ready to leave in OHMYGOD THREE DAYS. Okay, breathe Vivian. So how did I do on my first time out into the Blogosphere?

PS – I haven’t yet figured out how to insert non-English language characters, so apologies for missing accents and such.

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