Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Showing posts with label Palaeontology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Palaeontology. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Countdown to Hallowe'en 2017: The Famine of Memory

This is an early incarnation of the villain, Sauron, when he was known as Mairon. Image Source: The Land of Shadow.

One of the premises of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is that the characters live in a perilous time when real history has been lost. Thus, mortal danger arises not from the arch-villain, exactly, but from the abandoned vigilance of memory.

A later incarnation of Sauron, when he was known as Annatar. Image Source © Angel Falto/Tolkien Gateway.

Another conception of Annatar, who deceived the elves in the Second Age. Image Source © Alaïs/deviantART/Tolkien Gateway.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Names of the Prehuman World

Hypothetical image of earth during its earliest Precambrian Hadean eon. Image Source: pinterest.

Palaeontologists describe the prehuman world, a desolate and unrecognizable planet. Our beloved and enslaved earth had a secret, prehuman life. Not only did we not exist, but neither did our countries, continents or oceans. The territorial bases of humans and their nations and identities, geopolitics and religions, which we take so seriously now, were either primordial or absent. Modern humans are so self-involved that they forget that the planet once belonged to itself, a place we would find frightening, an antecessor that pre-existed everything our exploits might control.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Paleo Diet

"The idea that eating like our Stone Age ancestors is good for you is growing in popularity, and it has become the latest health fad from Hollywood to Berlin. Shown, a museum diorama of hunter gatherers." Image Source: Der Spiegel.

The fashionable interest in prehistoric humans includes replicating their presumed Paleolithic Diet:
The paleolithic diet (abbreviated paleo diet or paleodiet), also popularly referred to as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet and hunter-gatherer diet, is a modern nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various hominid species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years which ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and grain-based diets.  ... Centered on commonly available modern foods, the contemporary "Paleolithic diet" consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.
The Paleo Diet does not actually date to 2.5 million years ago, but rather originated in 1975, when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet: Based on In-depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. This diet has become increasingly popular through the 2000s, especially in light of anti-bread movements. Curiously, the last time there was a widespread popular rejection of bread (Amylophobia - fear of starch) was during another boom and subsequent economic downturn during the 1920s and Great Depression.

Image Source: GEICO ad via OpenTable.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cells That Reverse the Arrow of Evolutionary Time

Fission yeast aka Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Image Source: University of Tübingen.
Catastrophic failure or progressive decline? These are alternatives in cellular degeneration. For example, some cells, such as cancer cells, do not age. One commenter at Naked Science Forum notes: "some mutations which cause cancer are not actually causing excessive cell division but a mutation upon the gene which controls programmed cell death... so they don't die when they should and you thus end up with accumulation."

Similarly, researchers have found a type of yeast that does not age (that is, it does not show cellular damage and wear as cells divide over time), but rather, it gets younger as its cells divide. These particular yeast cells do die, but as a result of sudden, catastrophic failure at any given moment, rather than through a progressive decline.
Under favorable conditions, the microbe, a species of yeast called S. pombe, does not age the way other microbes do, the researchers said.

Typically, when single-celled organisms divide in half, one half acquires the majority of older, often damaged cell material, while the other half acquires mostly new cell material.

But in the new study, researchers found that under favorable, nonstressful growing conditions, S. pombe (a single-celled organism) divided in such a way that both halves acquired about equal parts of old cell material. "As both cells get only half of the damaged material, they are both younger than before," study researcher Iva Tolic-Nørrelykke, of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany, said in a statement.

What's more, previous research has shown that when cells divide and continuously pass on old cell material, the cells that get the old material start to divide more slowly — a sign of aging. This has been seen in microorganisms such E. coli and the yeast S. cerevisiae.

But in the new study, S. pombe cells showed no increase in the time it took for them to divide, the researchers said.

That's not to say that S. pombe cells don't die. Some cells did die in the study, but the deaths occurred suddenly, as a result of a catastrophic failure of a cellular process, rather than aging, the researchers said.

The researchers said they are not arguing that any given component of S. pombe cells are immortal. If a particular component of a cell is followed for a long enough time, the researchers believe the cell that harbors this component will eventually die. But "the probability of this death will be constant rather than increasing over time," the researchers wrote in the Sept. 12 issue of the journal Current Biology.

During unfavorable, stressful conditions, S. pombe cells distribute old cell material unevenly, and the cells that inherited the old material eventually died, the study found. Also, during stressful conditions, S. pombe showed an increase in division time.

Although there's no way to know for sure why the researchers did not detect aging in S. pombe under favorable conditions, one likely explanation is that the cellular damage is being repaired at the same rate that it's being formed, said Eric Stewart, a microbiologist at Northeastern University in Boston, who was not involved in the study.

But just because the study researchers did not detect aging in favorable conditions doesn't meant that it's not occurring. "They're trying to show the absence of something," in this case, aging, Stewart said. "Showing the absence of something is a nearly impossible challenge," he said.

S. pombe growth under favorable conditions could potentially serve as a model of nonaging cell types, such as cancer cells, the researchers said.
On the logic of non-ageing cancer cells, I have seen reports that cancer cells are resistant to radiation. Researchers ask: did this condition arise in reaction to radioactive treatments? Or does cancer's radioresistance precede radiation treatments? The conventional wisdom is that cancer involves a genetic predisposition that is triggered by an external factor. Is cancer a body's misguided reaction against radiation, other pollutants in the environment, or viruses? I have seen reports that cancer cells burn sugar, unlike normal cells, which burn oxygen - which is an argument to stop eating sugar if I ever saw one. Is the way cancer works - or the way other non-ageing cells work - the grim key to immortality?

Researcher Paul Davies - author of The Goldilocks Enigma - wrote a 2012 report for The Guardian to ask if cancer is actually a way that a multi-cellular organism can regress to the single-celled organism model, where cells do not seem to age. Thus, he postulates, cancer essentially reverses the normal course of evolution from single cell to multicellular organism, even as the disease reverses the clock on cell death processes. But the question remains: why does cancer do this? What purpose is an evolutionary reversal trying to serve? Davies and an Australian physicist, Charles Lineweaver, maintain that cancer de-evolves a sufferer of the disease at the cellular level. The disease serves to activate increasingly archaic genes in a body as it spreads. Lineweaver claims that cancer is a "default cellular safe mode." From The Guardian report:
In the frantic search for an elusive "cure", few researchers stand back and ask a very basic question: why does cancer exist? What is its place in the grand story of life? Astonishingly, in spite of decades of research, there is no agreed theory of cancer, no explanation for why, inside almost all healthy cells, there lurks a highly efficient cancer subroutine that can be activated by a variety of agents – radiation, chemicals, inflammation and infection.
Cancer, it seems, is embedded in the basic machinery of life, a type of default state that can be triggered by some kind of insult. That suggests it is not a modern aberration but has deep evolutionary roots, a suspicion confirmed by the fact that it is not confined to humans but is widespread among mammals, fish, reptiles and even plants. Scientists have identified genes implicated in cancer that are thought to be hundreds of millions of years old. Clearly, we will fully understand cancer only in the context of biological history.
Two relevant evolutionary transitions stand out. The first occurred over 2 billion years ago, when large, complex cells emerged containing mitochondria – tiny factories that supply energy to the cell. Biologists think mitochondria are the remnants of ancient bacteria. Tellingly, they undergo systematic changes as cancer develops, profoundly altering their chemical and physical properties.
For most of Earth's history, life was confined to single-celled organisms. Over time, however, a new possibility arose. Earth's atmosphere became polluted by a highly toxic and reactive chemical – oxygen – created as a waste product of photosynthesis. Cells evolved ingenious strategies to either avoid the accumulating oxygen or to combat oxidative damage in their innards. But some organisms turned a vice into a virtue and found a way to exploit oxygen as a potent new source of energy. In modern organisms, it is mitochondria that harness this dangerous substance to power the cell.
With the appearance of energised oxygen-guzzling cells, the way lay open for the second major transition relevant to cancer – the emergence of multicellular organisms. This required a drastic change in the basic logic of life. Single cells have one imperative – to go on replicating. In that sense, they are immortal. But in multicelled organisms, ordinary cells have outsourced their immortality to specialised germ cells – sperm and eggs – whose job is to carry genes into future generations. The price that the ordinary cells pay for this contract is death; most replicate for a while, but all are programmed to commit suicide when their use-by date is up, a process known as apoptosis. And apoptosis is also managed by mitochondria.
Cancer involves a breakdown of the covenant between germ cells and the rest. Malignant cells disable apoptosis and make a bid for their own immortality, forming tumours as they start to overpopulate their niches. In this sense, cancer has long been recognised as a throwback to a "selfish cell" era. But recent advances in research permit us to embellish this picture. For example, cancer cells thrive in low-oxygen (even zero-oxygen) conditions, reverting to an earlier, albeit less efficient, form of metabolism known as fermentation.
Biologists are familiar with the fact that organisms may harbour ancient traits that reflect their ancestral past, such as the atavistic tails or supernumerary nipples some people are born with. Evolution necessarily builds on earlier genomes. Sometimes older genetic pathways are not discarded, just silenced. Atavisms result when something disrupts the silencing mechanism.
Charles Lineweaver, of the Australian National University, and I have proposed a theory of cancer based on its ancient evolutionary roots. We think that as cancer progresses in the body it reverses, in a speeded-up manner, the arrow of evolutionary time. Increasing deregulation prompts cancer cells to revert to ever earlier genetic pathways that recapitulate successively earlier ancestral life styles. We predict that the various hallmarks of cancer progression will systematically correlate with the activation of progressively older ancestral genes. The most advanced and malignant cancers recreate aspects of life on Earth before a billion years ago.
Ancient genes remain functional only if they continue to fulfill a biological purpose. In early-stage embryo development, when the basic body plan is laid down (also in low-oxygen conditions, incidentally) ancestral genes help guide developmental processes before being switched off. Every human, for example, possesses tails and gills for a time in the womb. Significantly, researchers have recently identified examples of early-stage embryonic genes being reawakened in cancer.
The deep links between evolutionary biology, developmental biology and cancer have huge implications for therapy, and also provide an unexpected reason to study cancer. By unravelling the details of cancer initiation and progression, scientists can open a window on the past through which we can gain tantalising glimpses of life in a bygone age.
You can see a further article for online from Lineweaver in Physics World at http://www.physicsworld.com/cws/download/jul2013. This is a special issue made free to the public, which deals with the physics of cancer.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Genes, Food and Physiology: A Millennial History of the Physical and Metaphysical

Earlier this month, an online lecture series - Marc David's Eating Psychology -  presented an interview with alternative health author, Sayer Ji. Ji commented on the ancient, connected history of plants and humans and the corresponding impact on human evolution. Ji regards the essential interaction between humans and food as a physical history that runs back thousands of years; in addition, he feels that this interaction is so fundamentally tied to the essence of human (and plant and animal) life that it contains a spiritual or metaphysical dimension, which is reflected in our minds and cultures.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Destiny in the Palm of Your Hand

Pontius Pilate washes his hands of guilt in the judgement of Christ. Image Source: Daily Bible Plan.

The hand is the most potent symbolic indicator of human ability, tool use and technology. Several cultures over thousands of years associate the hand with 'what you can control,' or 'what you can do' in a given set of circumstances. Hence, the hand is deeply associated with many concepts of fate and destiny.

Recent research from 2011 found that people unconsciously wash their hands when they believe they face bad luck. Similarly, they sense that washing their hands after a streak of good luck will make them lose their good luck. From Machines Like Us:
Do people believe good and bad luck can be washed away?

Yes, according to an advanced online publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that was co-authored by Rami Zwick, a University of California, Riverside marketing professor in the School of Business Administration.

Zwick, working with Alison Jing Xu of the University of Toronto, and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, designed two experiments that showed risk taking depends on whether participants recalled a past episode of good or bad luck and whether they washed their hands before engaging in a risky decision making task. ...

[P]articipants were given a managerial decision task. Taking the role of a chief executive officer, they had to adopt or reject a product improvement recommendation based on two consequences of action.

Under the first option, if they stayed with the existing product profits would remain at the current level, about $20 million per year.

Under the second option, the product was modified, but profits would depend on acceptance by consumers. Marketing research indicated there was a 75 percent chance of strong acceptance, which would result in an increase in profits to $24 million, but there was a 25 percent chance of weak acceptance, resulting in a drop in profits to $12 million.

The researchers found those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands and those that recalled a lucky incident and didn't clean their hands were more likely to select the riskier option.

Of those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands, 73 percent selected the riskier option, while only 36 percent who recalled an unlucky incident and didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option.

Of those who recalled a lucky incident, 77 percent who didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option, while only 35 percent who cleaned their hands selected the riskier option.

In the second experiment, students and staff from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where Zwick formerly taught, were given HK $100 (US$1 = HK$7.8) to gamble with. They were told this was "for real" money that they would keep at the end. Indeed, they were paid based on their decisions and luck.

The experimenters showed participants a pink ball and a green ball and placed them in a bag. Participants selected one of the colors as their "winning" color and blindly picked a ball from the bag. If they picked the winning color they won HK$50. If not, they lost HK$50. They repeated the task until they lost their HK$100, won an additional HK$100 or completed four rounds.

Next, an ostensibly unrelated product evaluation study served as a cover story for the hand-washing manipulation. Participants evaluated organic soap. Half were told to wash their hands with the soap. The other half were told not to use the soap.

Finally, participants did a second round of gambling. They received HK$50 and were told they could bet any amount from nothing to HK$50.It was the same game as last time, but with only one round.

Researchers found participants who had good luck in the initial round bet more money in the second round than participants who had bad luck.

However, participants who had bad luck in the first round bet more money in the second round if they washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$31.15 versus HK$17.47.

In contrast, those who had good luck in the first round bet less money in the second round if they had washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$28.08 versus HK$37.75.
Then there is the superstitious art of palmistry, where your future fate is literally drawn in the lines in your hands. The practice arose from the arcane idea that the larger workings of the universe are literally imprinted into our bodies. Prevalent in ancient cultures from Tibet to the Mediterranean, palmistry is one of the oldest forms of attempting to see the future, or divination. Palmistry in China dates in the written record back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), although it extends through oral tradition back at least one thousand years before that.

"From left, before and after photos of a patient who underwent palm surgery to engrave an 'emperor’s line,' heralding great success and good fortune." Image Source: Shonan Beauty Clinic via The Daily Beast.

The emperor's line (覇王線) is a three-pronged fork on the palm. Image Source: Creatorz.

Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is alive and well today. Daily Kos compared the palmistry of Obama's and McCain's hands during the 2008 American election. There are plenty of palmistry analyses of Obama's hands online, one of which notes he has a double life line. Palmistry experts have analyzed celebrities' photos in cases where stars' palms are exposed. See: Albert Einstein; Marilyn Monroe; Osama bin Laden; Prince Charles; Vladimir Putin; Kim Jong Un; Pope Francis; and Angela Merkel.

Several MSM news outlets carried a story this week from Japan, where people are getting plastic surgery to change the fate lines on their hands. From The Daily Beast:
In Japan, where palm reading remains one of the most popular means of fortune-telling, some people have figured out a way to change their fate. It’s a simple idea: change your palm, change the reading, and change your future. ...

Need some good fortune? Add a money-luck line and you might win the lottery or be promoted to vice president in your firm. For the smart shopper—one willing to undergo palm plastic surgery—the future isn’t what it used to be.

“Doctor, I want you to change my fate. Please change my palm.

Even in Japan, where odd surgery requests are not unknown—like the man who had his penis removed and served it as a special dinner—Takaaki Matsuoka, a plastic surgeon at the Shonan Beauty Clinic’s Shinjuku branch, was taken aback. It was January 2011, and a female patient wanted her palm reformatted to bring her better luck. Matsuoka wasn’t sure he could do it.

He scoured medical journals until he found examples of such surgery being done in Korea, studied the methods, then confirmed with the patient what she wanted done, and performed the surgery for ¥100,00 ($1,000). It went well.

The surgery had to be performed with an electric scalpel—which burns the flesh, creating the scent of burnt hot dogs, and leaves a semipermanent scar.

“If you try to create a palm line with a laser, it heals, and it won’t leave a clear mark. You have to use the electric scalpel and make a shaky incision on purpose, because palm lines are never completely straight. If you don’t burn the skin and just use a plain scalpel, the lines don’t form. It’s not a difficult surgery, but it has to be done right.”

From January 2011 to May 2013, 37 palm plastic surgeries have been performed at the Shonan Beauty Clinic alone, 20 of them by Matsuoka. Several other clinics in Japan offer the surgery, but almost none of them advertise it. Word-of-mouth is more than enough. Shonan Beauty Clinic did advertise the service briefly, but couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: imgfave.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Nail Palmistry. Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: Life via We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Times Outside of History 10: De-Extinctioning at Pleistocene Park

Omission: The Fossil Record (1991) © by Alexis Rockman.

The news was recently full of the discovery of the best-ever preserved woolly mammoth, which raised cloning hopes. CNN:
Researchers from the Northeast Federal University in Yakutsk found the 10,000-year-old female mammoth buried in ice on the Lyakhovsky Islands off the coast of northeast Russia.

Scientists say they poked the frozen creature with a pick and dark liquid blood flowed out.

"The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice," said Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the expedition and of the university's Mammoth Museum, in a statement on the university's website. ...

Grigoriev told The Siberian Times newspaper it was the first time mammoth blood had been discovered and called it "the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology."

"We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well," he said.

Grigoriev called the liquid blood "priceless material" for the university's joint project with South Korean scientists who are hoping to clone a woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for thousands of years.

The controversial Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is headed up by Hwang Woo-suk -- the disgraced former Seoul National University scientist who claimed in 2004 that he had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells before admitting he had faked his findings.

Typically, researchers contemplating revival of an extinct species do not think about the species but about human motivations. We are 'atoning for past sins,' or 'proving what we can do' if the money is right.

Is seems less challenging, morally speaking, to resurrect relatively recently extinct species, such as the aurochs, the baiji dolphin, the Japanese sea lion, the Caribbean monk seal, the thylacine, the passenger pigeon, or the dodo bird. In 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex died. In 2009, a clone brought the species back from extinction for the seven minutes that it remained alive.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Prehistory's Mysteries: Ice Age Portrait?

Stuck with you in the cave. Again. 26,000 year old portrait of a woman. Image Source: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute / Short Sharp Science.

Time capsules go both ways. In light of this post, where experts are puzzling over the invention of spear heads well before their common appearance, I wondered whether an exceptional mind appears every few centuries or even every millennia. Perhaps this mind invents something almost in a vacuum, way before the commonly-dated arrival of the innovation. For example, daVinci designed a helicopter in the 16th century. But we don't date the invention of the helicopter to the date of his design. We date it to 1936, with the appearance of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61.

We are aware of the first cave paintings dating to about 100,000 years ago (see my posts on cave paintings here, here and here). But the creation of the oldest portrait is another matter. Above, a 26,000 year old mammoth ivory carving billed as the oldest known portrait. It is included in the upcoming exhibition Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum, London, from 7 February to 26 May.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Prehistory's Mysteries: The World's First Known Portrait?

Stuck with you in the cave. Again. 26,000 year old portrait of a woman. Image Source: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute / Short Sharp Science.

Time capsules go both ways. In light of this post, where experts are puzzling over the invention of spear heads well before their common appearance, I wondered whether an exceptional mind appears every few centuries or even every millennia. Perhaps this mind invents something almost in a vacuum, way before the commonly-dated arrival of the innovation. For example, daVinci designed a helicopter in the 16th century. But we don't date the invention of the helicopter to the date of his design. We date it to 1936, with the appearance of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61.

We are aware of the first cave paintings dating to about 100,000 years ago (see my posts on cave paintings here, here and here). But the creation of the first portrait is another matter. Above, a 26,000 year old mammoth ivory carving billed as the first portrait. It is included in the upcoming exhibition Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum, London, from 7 February to 26 May.

Prehistory's Mysteries: Like iPods in Ancient Rome

Image Source: National Geographic.

National Geographic reports that prehistoric stone spear tips were found in South Africa at a Homo heidelbergensis site in 2012. The catch is that the spear tips date to 500,000 years ago, which is 100,000 to 250,000 years earlier than the accepted date for the invention of spear tips. Paleoanthropologist John Shea, who was not part of the study, told NatGeo that if the dating is accurate, it would be "like finding an iPod in a Roman Empire site." The find implies that this primitive hominid used complex language and complex tools. But researchers wonder why related complex artifacts are not evident alongside these sophisticated weapons:
Some of our early human ancestors may have been smarter, and deadlier, than we thought, according to a new study of what may be Earth's oldest stone spear points. If the dating is correct, it suggests our evolutionary forebears mastered the art of the stone-tipped spear half a million years ago—some 250,000 years earlier than previously thought. ... Until now ... there's been no evidence H. heidelbergensis had the know-how to put the two together.

To fasten a handle to a blade—a technique called hafting—a prehistoric hunter likely would have had to procure a stone blade, a wooden shaft, twine woven from plants or animal sinew, and glue made from tree resin. The glue itself may have required a mastery of fire, to liquefy the resin, said Shea, of New York's Stony Brook University. ...

Hafting would have been worth the work, because once you add a stone blade, a spear is "going to cause a lot more damage, create more bleeding, and cause the animal to die quicker," said University of Toronto anthropologist Jayne Wilkins, lead author of the new spear-tip study, released Thursday by the journal Science.

By allowing more efficient hunting, Wilkins explained, the spear "means more reliable and regular access to meat." And scientists agree that more meat in the diet meant increased human brain size. That's not just an increase in brain tissue, she added. The increase in size hints at intellectual expansion. The hafting process requires forethought. "You have to plan days in advance before actually being able to use your weapons to hunt," she said. And you'd want to teach your comrades to do the same, presumably by talking.

For Stony Brook's Shea, there's "no question" that hafting involved speech. "It would probably not be something that could be taught by imitation. This is a technology that is so complex that it absolutely, positively requires language."

The idea that H. heidelbergensis may have had language may not be especially shocking, given that the species is theorized to be the last known common ancestor of both Neanderthals and our species, Homo sapiens.

"We have language, and Neanderthals likely had language ... so it stands to reason that our last common ancestor had linguistic abilities too," Shea said. (See "Neanderthals Had Same 'Language Gene' as Modern Humans.") ...

he age of the spear points remains a matter of debate. If they are really a half million years old, why haven't we found them at later sites? The gap—between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago, is richly represented by archaeology, Shea said. But we haven't found stone spear tips. Why not?

It's possible, Shea said, that the technology was simply lost, only to be invented all over again thousands of years later. But "I don't think it's likely this is something that people invented and then abandoned," he said. "You wouldn't expect that kind of complexity to vanish completely."

There's another mystery, Shea explained. It's not just stone spear points that seem to be missing from other H. heidelbergensis sites. "If they could make glue, they should have been able to make other complex substances and artifacts, even ceramics," he said. But there aren't any. And, he added, if H. heidelbergensis could put stone tips on handles, you ought to see other tools, like axes, with stone tips and handles.
Homo heidelbergensis. Image Source: John Gurche, artist / Chip Clark, photographer / Smithsonian.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Curios: Dinosaur Auction Update

This fossilized ankylosaurid skull is one of the items under investigation by authorities. Image Source: Live Science.

Curios is my series of blog posts on oddities that turn up at auction houses. Remember this post from May 2012, about a bunch of fossils that went on the block in New York City? It turns out that this collection was part of the black market trade in fossil smuggling, according to the Mongolian government, and now the courts. Live Science (28 December 2012; Hat tip: Graham Hancock's Alternative Newsdesk):
A fossil dealer's guilty plea has set the stage for what is most likely the largest dinosaur fossil repatriation in history, according to an attorney representing the President of Mongolia, the country that will receive most of the fossils that federal officials are seizing from fossil dealer and preparer Eric Prokopi. On Thursday (Dec. 27) Prokopi pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to smuggling fossils and agreed to forfeit a small menagerie of dinosaurs to federal officials. All but one of the dinosaurs in question came from Mongolia, where law makes fossils state property, and among them is a high-profile skeleton that received a $1.05 million bid at auction. "We have looked into this, and we can't find any instance anywhere when one country has returned to another a lot of dinosaurs this large and this significant that have been looted or smuggled," said Robert Painter, attorney for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia. ...  
On June 18, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced a civil suit claiming the federal government had the right to seize the Tarbosaurus because those who imported it did so knowing it was stolen, and the customs forms accompanying it contained false information. Federal agents then got a warrant to pick up the bones and take them into protective custody until the case is resolved.
The auction house made the following comment:
Heritage Auctions has not identified the seller or the buyer, citing a need to protect confidentiality. "Somebody doesn't put something like this in a major auction that is broadcast and promoted worldwide if they have got something to hide. If there is a title problem, you go and sell it secretly to someone in a backroom for a suit case full of cash," Rohan said. "That is something we have nothing to do with."
Image Source: Eric Prokopi via Live Science.

The fossil seller, who later pleaded guilty, initially insisted that he was completely innocent:
Eric Prokopi, the Florida fossil dealer, who restored the Tarbosaurus and was attempting to sell it at the public auction, released a statement dated June 22 saying “I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler.” Prokopi denied paleontologists’ assertions that the skeleton must have come from Mongolia and the U.S. Attorney’s claim he made false statements on customs documents. The disruption of the sale as been financially devastating to him, Prokopi wrote. “All I can do now is hope and pray the American legal system will uphold American laws and not sacrifice my rights and freedoms to please a foreign government out for a political trophy.”  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Crowdsourcing the World's Oldest Translation

Image Source: BBC.

BBC reports that the world's oldest known written language, Proto-Elamite, will soon be deciphered by Oxford University academics. University researchers are using a special machine to photograph the writing from all angles. In order to speed up the process, they are also opening up the project to public input, in the hope that crowdsourcing may shed more light on translations:
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.

It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.

These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.

... [Oxford professor Jacob Dahl] says it's misleading to think that codebreaking is about some lonely genius suddenly understanding the meaning of a word. What works more often is patient teamwork and the sharing of theories. Putting the images online should accelerate this process.
You can see the main project site here, which includes many images of the tablets with samples of this language. The site describes the language as follows:
Proto-Elamite is the last un-deciphered writing system from the Ancient Near East with a substantial number of sources (more than 1600 published texts). It was used for a relatively short period around 3000 BC across what is today Iran. Proto-Elamite is a derived writing system originating from the Uruk invention of writing in southern Mesopotamia during the middle of the 4th millennium BC. Scribes in Susa in southwestern Iran took over a majority of the numerical signs as well as many of the numerical systems from the older proto-cuneiform system.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 1: Nature's Gods

Image Source: Nightmare Kingdom.

Hallowe'en is a reminder that the modern age swept aside beliefs in whole pantheons of natural deities, including some very frightening demons. One of the latter is the Kushtaka. This evil spirit, profiled on Brad Meltzer's Decoded episode about Alaska's mysteries, is so troubling to local native peoples that the site of television interview was purified after Meltzer's crew departed.

Kushtaka, or 'land otter man': "Canoe prow ornament representing Land-Otter-Man, Tlingit, from Sitka, Alaska, USA. Found at Nass River, British Columbia, Canada, in 1918." Image Source: Werner Forman via Heritage Images.

The Kushtaka is a soul-stealer, shape-shifter and otter-spectre feared by the Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples. These days, otters are viewed as people-friendly creatures. Perhaps it is their human expression that made them the subject of shape-shifting mythology. The Kushtaka is rather like the equally malevolent Native American monster, the Wendigo. Kushtakas are also sometimes likened to sasquatches.

It is believed that the Kushtaka lures people away to their deaths in deep waters. It usually takes the form of a person known to its victim, such as a kindly grandmother beckoning to her ill-fated grandchild from the edge of the forest. It will imitate the cries of a drowning woman or baby in waterways to lure would-be rescuers into treacherous rivers. It is also known to call sailors along Pacific American coasts to their deaths. Kushtakas are said to whistle in a telltale, low-high-low tone.

There are some Kushtaka stories online. Kushtakas make war on humans by spreading a plague amongst them in this legend from the Tlingit people. In this story, they take possession of women in a community and incite a bloody conflict. And in this story, a helpful but still spectral Kushtaka haunts a bereaved couple by appearing to them as their dead son and bringing them fish to eat. Those whom the Kushtakas help or harm run the risk of becoming Kushtakas themselves.

"Tlingit Native American, Land otter man, Clan: Ganaaxteidi. Place: Haines." Image Source: De Peper Muntjes Knipper.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 19: Return of the Dead

Image Source: Byte Size Biology.

For this month's Countdown to Hallowe'en blogathon, I am writing horror posts which relate to themes on this blog. However, some Millennial Bad Ideas I cover are so horrific in their own right that they are a horror story or film waiting to happen. No one has fictionalized them yet.

Some archaeologists and Prehistory theorists imagine that the history of advanced humans runs back tens of thousands of years earlier than thought, with environmental disasters such as Ice Ages and Atlantean flood events periodically wiping humankind's collective memory of what came before. (See my regular posts on Prehistory here.)

Others, however, look to a future in which the secrets of the deep past may simply be brought back to life and studied. I09 recently dismissed the cloning of Woolly Mammoths, but with new specimens turning up in Russian permafrost, that possibility persists. The horrific Millennial reality for today is the debate on the DNA research on, and potential cloning of, the Neanderthal. Apparently, the feat could be accomplished for about $30 million. By contrast, sending astronauts to Mars would cost somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.

This is a Millennial take on already popular zombies and immortality of the resurrected: a separate human species became extinct, but could be revived by modern science. While there is nothing wrong with the work to decode the Neanderthal genome, the misapplication of that knowledge would be another matter.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Times Outside History 9: Modern Human Civilization 44,000 Years Old - and Likely Older

Early German flutes, 43,000 years old, excavated "from the site of Geißenklösterle made from mammoth ivory. (Credit: Image courtesy of Tübingen University)." Image Source: Science Daily.

The latest finds in Palaeontology, based on new technologies, keep changing the dates of Prehistory for early hominids and archaic and modern humans. It is hard for the public to keep track. The Stone Age began about 2.7 million years ago. According to current findings, Homo erectus may have begun seafaring a staggering one million years ago; and the use of fire has also recently been dated at about one million years ago (much earlier than previously believed). Archaic Homo sapiens date back to about 600,000 years ago (these are: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and may also include an earlier species, Homo antecessor). It is no wonder that some palaeontologists believe that human species are evolving in 100,000 year cycles. Researchers are currently studying DNA and computer models to simulate 500,000 years of population dynamics in order that they may better understand early hominids and humans.

The earliest sophisticated seafaring is currently theorized to have been conducted by Neanderthals around 100,000 years ago.

Now, BBC reports that modern human civilization is 44,000 years old (Hat tips: It's Okay to be Smart; Brain Picker). This date for modern human culture is older than previously expected, by about 20,000 years:
The earliest unambiguous evidence for modern human behaviour has been discovered by an international team of researchers in a South African cave.

The finds provide early evidence for the origin of modern human behaviour 44,000 years ago, over 20,000 years before other findings. The artefacts are near identical to modern-day tools of the indigenous African San bush people. The research was published yesterday in PNAS.
The artifacts include poisoned arrowheads (the development of poison is signficant), beads and beeswax.

Even so, modern human civilization may well be older than than 44,000 years old. BBC qualifies its report, noting that other, modern-styled cultural objects have been found that are 75,000 years old. But BBC takes the 44,000 year old findings as "unambiguous."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

From Aurochs to Ūruz to U

A cave painting of an Auroch, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Heraclitian Fire.

The core of civilization hinges on the domestication of animals, above all, the cow. According to geneticists, the source of all domestic cattle boils down to one prehistoric herd of 80 head of cattle in what is now Iran. In March 2012, DNA research from scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK traced the domestication of this herd back to a period 10,500 years ago (Hat tip: i09). That herd engendered the total number of cows in the world today, approximately 1.3 billion, or roughly one bovine for every seven humans on earth.

Cave paintings of Aurochs, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Prof saxx via Wiki.

These cows were not the cows we know, but an ancestor of modern cows (Bos taurus and Bos indicus - the Zebu), called the Auroch (Bos primigenius, also known as "urus" and "wisent"). Evolving some 2 million years ago in India, they were much bigger, more aggressive and generally tougher animals than our modern cows; we would find their stature similar to that of the American Bison. There are some die hard nostalgics who believe that Aurochs still survive, tucked away in secluded Eastern European valleys (a Romanian video purportedly of modern Aurochs, also known as the Zimbru, here, admittedly shows massive animals on dainty legs, which look an awful lot like the cave paintings). The author of that video refers to yet another Millennial popular study which peculiarly brings prehistory right into the 21st century and states:
You’ll find a lot of things very different than what you’ve been taught. Two animals of the bovine family are claimed to be in existence in Romania; one is called BOUR and the other is ZIMBRU (alias AUROCH). The BOUR is the ancestor of cattle, not the AUROCH. The bour is a smaller animal, but has big horns and that’s where the confusion is. Etymologically, the word BOUR fits with BOS—meaning oxen in Greek and Latin. In addition, AUROCH does fit with TAURUS (meaning bull in Greek and Latin) but that word came about because bour (wild cattle) bulls were much bigger than the cow. Hence, TAUROS. The literal translation from Latin is “like a TAURO”, TAURO being the name of the Auroch. The confusion comes from the fact that Western scientists talk about only one animal, when in fact there are two.
Despite these popular musings, researchers insist that Aurochs are extinct. They claim that the last Auroch, a cow, died in Poland in 1627. These animals lived especially in northern climes, but generally covered Europe, Russia, North Africa, the Near and Middle East, Central Asia, India and Asia.

A cave painting of an Auroch, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Heraclitian Fire.

Palaeontologists view cave paintings as contemporary Stone Age historical records of Aurochs and hence know how they appeared. The DNA sequence of the Auroch was determined in 2010. Perhaps the current boom in genetic research explains why Ice Age creatures have lately enjoyed a vogue in Millennial culture.

Given the tremendous importance of the Auroch, it is not surprising that early writing systems incorporated bovinely-inspired letters and pictograms. In northern Europe's Proto-Germanic and Old Norse languages, the rune which depicted an Auroch was Ūruz or Ur. In Old English, it was indicated by Ur or Yr. This letter became a predecessor of U or Y. The rune also means 'water' or 'rain.'

Friday, June 1, 2012

Prometheus Evolution

"Rock art in Wonderwerk cave 40 km from Kuruman Northern Cape South Africa: Ash found in a layer dated at a million years old hints that inhabitants of the cave were using fire a million years ago." Image Source: Daily Mail.

Gurus, theorists and scholars of the turn-of-the-Millennium keep revisiting the deep past, and discovering that Prehistoric human civilization runs back many more thousand years than previously believed. Daily Mail (sourced from a U of Toronto report) reports on research findings from April 2012, which confirm that human species used fire one million years ago, 300,000 years earlier than previously assumed:
Traces of ash mixed with million-year-old bones and tools have been uncovered in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. Burned plants and bones were found in the cave, suggesting that its inhabitants cooked and perhaps even socialised around camp fires.

The huge cave near the edge of the Kalahari Desert has been the scene of previous excavations which have uncovered an extensive record of human occupation.

A team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University of Jerusalem has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors.

Microscopic traces of wood ash alongside animal bones and stone tools were found in a layer dated to one million years ago. ... University of Toronto anthropologist Michael Chazan said: "The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life.

The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution. The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society. Socialising around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human."

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The PNAS article's authors state: "To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context."

Journal reference: Francesco Berna, Paul Goldberg, Liora Kolska Horwitz, James Brink, Sharon Holt, Marion Bamford, and Michael Chazan. Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1117620109

See all my posts on Prehistory.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Curios: Pre-History for Sale

Curios is my blog series on strange things that pop up at auction houses, in this case, fossils. On May 20, the Natural History Signature auction will take place at Center 548 at 548 West 22nd Street, between 10th Avenue and West 22nd Street, in New York City. The star of the auction is a Tyrannosaurus bataar (above), a smaller Asian counterpart to North America's Tyrannosaurus Rex. This Tarbosaurus is expected to fetch over $1 million. More fossils on the block below the jump. Descriptions and images are taken from the linked pages at the Heritage Auctions site. There are some much more recent pre-historic artifacts as well, such as Paleolithic and Neolithic axes for sale. And one lot of Wooly Mammoth wool (below).