Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

Lucy’s Great Mystery: How Could Australopithecus Survive and Evolve Into Us?

Part One:

She Should Have Been Caught and E A T E N !

Lucy evolved into us. Really, really (to quote “Shrek.”)

Her species, Australopithecus afarensis, or something extremely close, changed over three million years to become Homo sapiens – the species that includes you and me.

So we should treat Lucy with respect…….

….but wait.  There’s a problem. It shouldn’t have happened. Lucy and her whole species should have been gobbled up by a legion of voracious, bloodthirsty carnivores! She shouldn’t have had any time to evolve at all.

Darwin Makes Sense (usually)

Evolution should be logical – when we have enough data. Textbooks used to say that Lucy evolved from an ancestor who was built like a chimp. But Lucy’s knee and ankle and hip bones were NOT chimp-shaped. The design of Lucy’s joints is very close to what we have – so we know that Lucy walked upright, on just her hind legs, with left and right knees close together.

s-Parade-Blog-ColorFine.  Did leg evolution make Lucy better?  Faster? That’s what we’d expect. But it looks like evolution made Lucy  s l o w e r !  Chimps run very fast and can change direction in an instant. These apes zip around on all fours, running on their knuckles. A modern human has great difficulty catching a running chimp – I know, I used to be a zoo-keeper in charge of three boisterous chimps.

Lucy couldn’t match chimps in speed and maneuverability. Since she walked just on her hind legs, her arms were useless dead weight in running. Plus – she was very short in the legs. Her shins and thighs were far shorter than in modern humans. She was not nearly as fast as we are today.

Why would evolution make Lucy slower?

Lucy – Evolved for Holding Babies on the Open Plains?

The standard theory said that Lucy’s upright posture was fit for moving across savannah, open grassland with scattered trees. She could walk for hours and use her hands to hold her babies or an armful of fruit or a big Pliocene salad or whatever.  Meanwhile, her chimp ancestors stayed in the forest. Sounds good……except we have a huge problem. The savannahs were occupied by a whole host of predators  who would love to eat Lucy and her kind.

In fact, Lucy was evolving during the worst possible time. The australopithecine clan evolved between 5.8 to 1.8 million years ago. This interval produced the scariest variety of big feline meat-eaters the world has ever seen.  Here’s what was out there, ready to catch Lucy and her kin.

Leopards
s-Kitties-Blog-ColorLLeopards are stealth felines who lived with Lucy. They had short, wide paws, flexible legs and body. That’s a build excellent for climbing rocks, hiding in burrows, ascending trees – and sudden ambush! Body weights went from 50 lbs to 200 lbs.

Lions & Tigers
Lucy’s neighbors included lion-like cats, huge predators up to 500 lbs, with massive paws that could swat down a water buffalo. Legs were longer, straighter than a leopard’s and speed over level ground was higher. Because of the great weight, climbing was less agile than a leopard’s.

Dagger-Tooth Saber Cats – Homotheres
Lucy’s world was jam packed with saber-toothed cats. The biggest were the Dagger-Tooths, who were built like a cross between a cheetah and a leopard, with long legs, excellent for fast running with some climbing. Sizes ranged from up to 500 lbs. The jaws were like a rattlesnake’s. They opened so wide that the upper fangs were exposed and ready for action. The upper fangs were long, wide blades with very sharp, saw-toothed edges. Homotheres slashed and stabbed so deeply they could kill an elephant.

Long, muscular necks let saber-cats swing their head down like a battle-ax.

How could Lucy avoid these deadly cats?

Imagine that you are Lucy. You’re waking along the savannah, carrying a load of  melons. Then, without warning…..WHAM!  A leopard leaps on you, bites your neck, and you are leopard-kibbles. Or….you’re resting on a rock when…..WHAM!  A pride of lions jump you and tears you apart. Or….you’re plucking figs from a fig tree when…a Dagger-Tooth jumps up from the tall grass. You try to run as fast as you can….but in ten seconds…WHAM! Zip-Zap!  The cat slices you into bite-sized pieces.

Lucy Defended Herself With Spears?

An old theory says that Lucy’s kind used spears and rocks for defense. But that notion doesn’t work. We find no stone tools at all with Lucy’s bones, not a spear point or a stone knife.  How about a wooden spear? Chimps today make mini-spears from twigs and impale bugs and little furballs. Sure, Lucy might have picked up a branch and chewed the end to make a point.

But if Lucy poked a  Dagger-Tooth in the butt with her spear, she’d only make him mad.

No, wooden spears aren’t enough to drive away lions and leopard and saber-toothed cats.

Conclusion: Lucy and All Her Kind Should Have Been Massacred by The Big Cats.

We’re left with a big problem. How did Lucy get away?

Please! Help our Lucy!!!!!

Send in your suggestions about how to avoid predators!

Interested in learning more about Lucy? Check out my previous blog posts on Australopithecus afarensis migration.

Lucy’s Monstrous Misfits: The Moose-Giraffe

Dr. Bakker’s series on Lucy continues below. Check out Part 1: Lucy – Out of Africa. Not!

Our Lucy and her kin were surrounded by hairy monsters – there were more kinds of multi-ton mammals than at any other time in Darwinian history.

Lots looked “normal.” There were a half-dozen species that were elephant-shaped, more or less. And there were rhinos, both black and white, who would look perfectly acceptable today in the Bronx Zoo.

Then there were the Evolutionary Misfits.  These fellows seemed put together from the front half of one species and the rear from another – with odd legs and horns thrown in.

Perfect Misfit Example – The Moose Giraffe

Sivathere copyThis beast was first discovered in Pakistan and northern India where it was christened “Sivatherium” – for the Hindu God Shiva.  The Moose-Giraffe did look like something out of a mythological-theological  fantasy. Sivatheres were the tallest and fastest of the maxi-monsters, up to fifteen feet or more, hoof to eyeballs. Their body was bulky, in the elephant size-range.  Sivatheres were faster than elephants – they had long, strong legs that combined features of Cape Buffalo and a giant moose. If Lucy ever saw a bull sivathere charging downhill in a hurry, she’d have to get out of the way, fast.

Sivatheres had moose-muzzles. The upper lip and nostrils were carried in a bulbous, muscular schnoz that could grab branches or lift out water plants from ponds.

When Antlers are Not Antlers

At a distance, you’d think sivatheres carried moose-antlers, heavy bone growths that branched and re-branched.  One difference: both male and female sivatheres had them (only male moose today are antlered.) And…if you got close, you’d see something else that was un-moose-like. There was no drop-spot. Moose are deer, and all deer shed their antlers after the breeding season. The main antler falls off, leaving a stub attached to the skull. There’s a rough zone on the top of the stub where the main antler is shed and a new one will grow up next year.

Sivatheres had no drop-zone. Their “antlers” kept growing and growing, all through life.

Therefore – we can’t call the sivathere horny growths “antlers.” We have to call them “horns.”

Plus – Moose Giraffes have too many horns. There are the big, tall, branched things in the rear. And then smaller, sharper, pointier horns in front. Those front horns look like……giraffe horns.

Horns – Hard on the Inside, Soft on the Outside

Beautiful Giraffe
Creative Commons License photo credit: Rennett Stowe

That was the tell-tale clue. Details of teeth told the same story. Sivatheres were part of the giraffe family and NOT moose relatives. Giraffes today grow horns like a sivathere’s but smaller and less complicated. The giraffe family builds their horns in a unique way. Most horned beasts today – antelope, cows and buffalo – have an inner horn made out of bone and an outer horn made out of very hard, tough, dead skin. Giraffe horns are built differently: there’s an inner bone horn but on the outside is a layer of soft skin.

What kind of outer horn did sivatheres have? Skin rots before fossilization. Still, we can tell what kind of covering sivathere bone horns had. Sivathere fossil horns have the same texture on the outside that giraffe horns do – a pattern of small pits, for blood vessels. This texture proves that sivathere horns had soft-skin on the outside.

World MapColSiva copyNo Entry Into the New World

Sivatheres are a geographic puzzle. They spread all over India and Pakistan and Central Europe, then down through Africa. But they avoided northern Asia and Europe. And Moose-Giraffes were shut out of North America.

Why?

If we can figure out what stopped sivatheres, we’d have help figuring out Lucy’s travels.

In fide constans… Always loyal [Lucy's Legacy]

The model of Lucy created for
the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition.
Photo by reality photography

The Lucy’s Legacy exhibit was reviewed in early February by a representative of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes Creationism and Intelligent Design. In the following paragraphs, I would like to add my observations to the statements found in this review.

Let me start with a few general remarks. First, a favorite approach by Creationists is to cast doubt on the subject of evolution, particularly human evolution and to drive a wedge between faith and science. This policy, known as the Wedge Document, is publicly acknowledged by the Discovery Institute as being theirs. Second, a favorite approach of Creationist writers is to represent issues in stark black and white terms.

The 2000-word document is sprinkled with terms that drive the message home: the study of human evolution fails as a belief system; the evidence is scarce and the interpretations fast and loose and not widely accepted. Moreover, some of the evidence is misrepresented.

The writer of the document stated that there is a “paucity of actual hard evidence for human evolution.” An interesting statement, but one which considering the presence of an actual fossilized hominin fossil, fails itself to carry any water. What harder evidence can one want, but for an authentic fossil, I wonder. The same author also quotes a statement that “unless more fossils are recovered (…) there is likely to be a continuing debate on Lucy’s posture…”  Two thoughts come to mind here. It is always good to have more fossil evidence. In fact, for years paleoanthropologists have continued to find fossils every year. Our database of fossilized early humans continues to grow, courtesy of an ongoing scientific effort. This growing database has led to the formulation of answers to old questions while at the same time giving rise to new questions which we need to answer. That is the essence of scientific research; it is a never ending quest for better insights in what we can observe.

These statements, using the terms “paucity” and “until more fossils are recovered,” are misleading. One wonders if the author knows that the remains of 300 Australopithecus afarensis individuals are known to the scientific community, making Lucy and her kind the best known of all of early human ancestors.

Turkana Boy
Creative Commons License photo credit: ideonexus
Turkana Boy

Another lament found in the document is the “incompleteness” of her (i.e. Lucy’s) skeleton.” The author continues “only 40% was found” and “very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered.” I suppose one could say that everything is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, 50% or more would have been even better. However, another way of referring to Lucy and the preservation of her skeleton is that it is amazing that so much was preserved, considering she died more than 3 million years ago. 

Factually incorrect is a statement that “Lucy still represents the most complete known hominid skeleton to date.” There are currently older and better preserved fossils, including some of the same species as Lucy. Baby Selam for example, is much better preserved. More recent than Lucy, but better preserved is an early hominid known as Turkana Boy. Lucy is still the earliest known and most complete adult Australopithecus afarensis. Things were different in 1974, when scientists could say that she was the oldest known and best preserved skeleton of a distant human ancestor. The fact that this statement now has to be qualified to reflect more recent discoveries is a testimony to the dogged work carried out by teams of paleoanthropologists in Africa. It is also an insight that ought to have been included in the Discovery Institute document, as I am sure that this is something they are aware of.

Photo by reality photography

We also get to read that Lucy’s bones were found scattered across a hillside, a vague reference to an old creationist claim that Lucy’s bones do not all belong to the same individual. The fact that this claim has been debunked does not stop creationists from repeating it. The author – it seems – seems to prefer that Lucy’s bones would have been found together as a contiguous skeleton. Aside from the fact that intentional burial did not exist in Lucy’s time and that she did die more than 3 million years ago, it would have been a miracle (pardon the pun) if she had been preserved completely intact and as a contiguous skeleton. One should not, however, raise the reader’s hopes by presenting this a something that should have happened.

I would like to end by referring the author of the Discovery Institute piece as well as all the readers to this latest development: Lucy was scanned at the University of Texas, Austin campus, after the exhibit in Houston had ended. I have no doubt that scientists will be pouring over this new dataset and that this effort will result in improving our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

Loyalty to a cause is admirable; having the ability to see countless shades of grey instead of only black and white is even more desirable.