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.

How mammals became mommies: Learn about the evolution of mothering over 200 million years in this Distinguished Lecture

My mom is a wonderful person. Most people think the same of their own mothers and, at least in my case, it’s true. She is always supportive, she let me win at board games (at least until I was an adult — now she shows no mercy), and she made sure I was able to visit museums and go watch Shakespeare plays.

When we think about mothering, certain preconceptions come to mind. We might think of an SUV full of kids being taken to and from different events. We might think of a working woman coming home from the office, or even a mother at home with a newborn. Would it surprise you to know that the idea of motherhood has changed over time?

via zooborns.comVia the cute-collectors over at

There are two stereotypes currently dominating the idea of the ideal mother: soccer moms and supermoms. Soccer (or hockey, basketball, or other hobby-supporting) moms have a large vehicle full of kids and equipment and they go from plays and practices to games and recitals. There is also the supermom, who works 60 hours a week and still has another 40 for her kids.

In the ’70s we were introduced to child-rearing experts. They gave us the latest and greatest that science had to offer. Dr. Spock was a predominate example. This came as a reaction to the mother-knows-best attitude of the early 20th century, which, in itself, was a response to patriarchal child raising, where the mother deferred to the father to make sure her “womanly disposition” didn’t damage the child.

In early centuries, a well-to-do woman would not lower herself to raise a child — such tasks were for the help while a lady went to dinner parties. And throughout the Dark Ages, a child was thought of as a little demon who had to be restrained until they were able to behave.

In ancient Rome, being a mother raised your social capital and marked a closer tie to your husband’s family and distancing of your own. (But if you could afford it, you’d have someone else raise the kid.)

The Greeks had a yearly celebration for mothers. It was a spring festival dedicated to the goddess Rhea. Mothers in Ancient Egypt were also well-regarded — several mothers of pharaoh were the real power behind the throne.

But is mothering confined to human culture? Do other animals do it? Chimpanzees have the longest childhood of the animal kingdom. A baby can stay with its mother for up to seven years. Elephants, which have the longest pregnancy at 22 months and some of the largest babies at 250 lbs, use the herd to help raise a baby, with the other females working together as babysitters.

And motherhood is not confined to mammals.The alligator is noted as a caring mother.  The temperature of the nest determines whether the babies will be boys or girls, so the alligator knows in advance what color onesies to get. After hatching, the mother will carry her babies around in her mouth and protect them from other animals.

A mother octopus will spend months hovering around her 50,000 to 2,000,000 eggs to protect them from predators and to make sure enough water goes by to provide enough oxygen. During that time, she’ll not leave the eggs even to get food and resorts to ingesting an arm or two. We should at least give her a hand.

Earwigs, one of my least favorite insects, are also caring mothers. Instead of just laying her eggs and leaving, she will hang around and keep her eggs warm and fungus-free. She will stay for months after they hatch and continue to provide safety and substance.

If mammals, reptiles, and even insects mother, what part of mothering is cultural? Is it a genetic need to make sure that our progeny survive? Which parts are nature and which nurture? Join us on April 2 at 6:30 p.m. and hear Dr. Robert Martin from The Field Museum talk about the evolution of mothering.

WHAT: HMNS Distinguished Lecture, “Evolution of Mothering: The Natural Heritage from our Deep Mammalian Past”
WHO: Robert Martin, Ph.D., Field Museum
WHEN: Tuesday, April 2, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: HMNS Main, 5555 Hermann Park Dr., Houston, TX 77030

Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation 

Mammals, whose name comes from the Latin “mamma” for teat, are defined by suckling. Mothering began 200 million years ago with the first mammals and developed to become a hallmark of ancestral primates. Taking evidence from anthropology, archaeology and genetics, this presentation reviews the long evolutionary trajectory of human mothering. Reconstructing that history throws light on the natural basis for our own maternal behavior and highlights sources of problems encountered by modern mothers.

via the Leakey Foundation

Dr. Robert Martin is curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. He has devoted his career to exploring the evolutionary tree of primates, as summarized in his 1990 textbook Primate Origins. Dr. Martin is particularly interested in reproductive biology and the brain, because these systems have been of special importance in primate evolution. His research is based on broad comparisons across primates, covering reproduction, anatomy, behavior, paleontology and molecular evolution. The Leakey Foundation Lecture Series is sponsored nationally by Wells Fargo Bank and locally by The Brown Foundation, Inc.

Watch Dr. Martin speak about his work and experience as a biological anthropologist below:

Deep Ancestry: Our Story

Anyone who is interested in family history, or anyone who has ever gone to a library or archive to undertake genealogical research knows that while the subject is an exciting one, the work can be tedious and the resulting picture often fuzzy.

This is where we stand with regards to family research writ large, that of modern humanity. To be sure, we have come a long way since we humans even became aware of the fact that we had a very long history, or a deep ancestry. Consider the day, now more than 180 years ago, when people went into a cave in Belgium and encountered remains later identified as belonging to a Neanderthal individual. Compare that against our current understanding of human evolution. How we got here is an interesting story and it is an interesting tale to relate,. Where we go from here is equally intriguing.

Here is part one: how did we get here?

Traditionally, we rely on three main sources of information when studying human origins, our origins. These sources are: the material remains of that past (including both fossil remains and man-made tools), genetics and comparative primatology. The latter refers to observation of current non-human primates and possible correlations between their habitat and behavior with the environment in which our ancestors once lived and their behavior. If there is one constant in the picture generated by these sources is that it is always being refined and updated. Such is the nature of scientific endeavor: it never stands still. Thankfully, our thirst for greater understanding is never slaked either. There is always more to investigate.

Material remains have been the backbone of paleoanthropological studies. After all, what could be a better illustration of human evolution than a fossil of an ancient ancestor, or a tool made by a distant relative of ours? By carefully plotting where these remains have been found, we can reconstruct a picture of human evolution, we can start to see where our earliest ancestors once arose, evolved and eventually migrated from. By studying their tools, we can see human inventiveness at work. At first this is a tediously slow process, but eventually we see it picking up pace to the point we are today: new gadgets developed on a daily basis.

For a while, as people were studying fossil human remains, others were investigating genetics. However, initially the practitioners of these two pursuits did not know of each other’s work, or, did not realize how their work could benefit from the other person’s insights. And so we see how Mendel and Darwin were contemporaries, but their respective scientific insights and breakthroughs did not cross over and inspire the other.

DNA rendering
Creative Commons License photo credit: ynse

Our genetic makeup is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we have learned a lot about our genetic makeup. Since then, the chimp genome, gorilla genome, and the orangutan genome have been finished; by the way, the latter was sequenced in our own backyard here in Houston. This provides a nice platform to start comparing our genetic makeup with that of our close primate relatives, and find out where we differ, and, more interestingly, how similar we are below the surface. It turns out we are quite similar.

The difference 1% makes.

Differences, no matter how ostensibly small, remain important. One can be in awe about the fact that we share around 99% of genes with chimps. One could also turn that around and say “See how much difference 1% makes?” That difference, in turn, may help us figure out when in time we started to go our own way, after the split from a common ancestor. This is where the notion of a molecular clock comes in. This concept has been used to “to investigate several important issues, including the origin of modern humans, the date of the human/chimpanzee divergence, and the date of the Cambrian explosion.”

Thus we see in the literature that orangutans, with whom we share around 97 % of our DNA, split from the family tree around 16 to 15 million years ago. Humans and chimps became their own branches on the family tree around 6 to 5 million years ago.

As one researcher recently put it: “There remain signals of the distant past in DNA, and our approach is to use such signals to study the genetics of our ancestors.”

The concept of the molecular clock continues to be refined as our understanding of its potential and limitations has grown. For better or worse, however, it provides us with a tool to help situate major branching events on the family tree. This brings us to our own immediate past, our place in history, when modern humans appeared on the scene.

Modern Humans

Discoveries made in East Africa date the emergence of modern human beings to about 200,000 years ago. Two skulls, found in 1967 in Ethiopia were recently identified as the earliest known modern humans. While that makes all of us Africans, it data from mitochondrial DNA have suggested that our ancestors did not make it out of Africa until 60,000 years ago. The archaeological record seems to disagree, however. Man-made tools twice that age have recently been found in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is at times like these, when dates provided by genetics and archaeology diverge, that we hear voices criticizing the invalidity of this approach. What we will see happen, however, is that this apparent disjunction between two sets of data, will spur on researchers to find where the source of this disparity lies and resolve it. Were that to be impossible then we would have to go back to the drawing board and rethink our ideas about human evolution and the timing of critical events related to it.

Now for part two: where do we go from here?

As people become more mobile, we are now finding our mates much further away than we did just a few generations ago. This means that it will become more difficult to check that box on the census form asking for our ethnicity. It also means that we are slowly becoming more homogenized. Indigenous cultures are disappearing and language follow suit.

To get an idea of how exhilarating and mind-boggling this pursuit of science can be, I would like to invite the reader to attend an upcoming lecture.

On March 7, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will host Dr. Spencer Wells, lead scientist of the Genographic Project.

His lecture, entitled “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genomic Project,” is brought to us by the Leakey Foundation. Dr. Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor at Cornell University. Dr. Wells will share with us how the Genographic Project, using data from hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the general public, the Genographic Project is deciphering the migratory routes followed by early humans as they populated the Earth.

I look forward to this lecture, and hope to see many of you at the museum that evening.

In the meantime, a pop quiz.

Q: What do the following individuals have in common?

Brazilian indian chiefs, Kaiapos tribe, during a collective interview.
Left to right: Raony (state of Mato Grosso), Kaye, Kadjor, Panara (Pará)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil (ABr). April 17, 2005
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian woman – Lalibela, Ethiopia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout
Lake Titicaca – Uros people
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout

A: They are us. We are them. This is us.

Your questions, answered: Do we know when chimaeras shifted to deep-water habitats?

Earlier this month we received a question on one of our past posts, The Ghost Sharks of the Jurassic, asking:

“Do we know when these chimaeras shifted to deep-water habitats? If predation and, in particular, the evolution and diversification of predatory species prompted their geographic transition, at what point would a sort of critical level have been reached to drive them into the deep? How many predators are too many?”

Why do “living fossils of the deep sea” so often represent lingering survivors of groups that long ago flourished in shallow water?


Examples: Rabbitfish (aka chimaeras), Coelacanths, Goblin Sharks, Giant Squid.

Excellent question – one that keeps evolutionary biologists awake at 2 a.m.

First thing: we never know when a clan of species invades deep water. This is why:

Sediments deposited on top of oceanic crust in deep-water – thousands of feet deep – rarely come to the surface where the layers can be seen by fossil-hunting paleontologists. Mud does form at the bottom of deep seas and fossils do form here. But such deep specimens have a low chance of being found by us.

Deep sea bottom mud is raised above sea level when continents collide and abyssal sediment is squeezed up and thrust across slabs of continental crust. There are narrow zones of such squeezed sediments – for example, in the Taconic Mountains of New York State. Here are slices of deep crust and sediment with deep-water trilobites. However, very few vertebrate and squid fossils are known from squeezed deposits.

Medium-deep sediment, up to 200 meters deep,  do form in the bottom of “epi-continental seas” like the famous  “Cretaceous Ocean of Kansas” that covered much of the central areas of North America. Such epi-continental seas  do drain away, and the bottom sediment becomes lifted hundreds or thousands of feet, so wind and water can erode valleys into the rock layers, exposing fossils. Epi-continental sea bottoms have given us 90% of our marine vertebrate and cephalopod fossils.

Coelacanth fossils are common in shallow-water and medium-deep sediments beginning in the Early Devonian, over 400 million years ago. From then on, coelacanths remain widespread and often common. Were they in deep water too? We don’t know – we don’t have enough deep sediment exposed for study.

Abruptly, coelacanths disappear from epi-continental sea deposits in the Late Cretaceous. Naturally, we thought they were extinct. But then the fish show up alive and well, hanging around at 130 meters to 700 meters.

Ditto for the Goblin Shark: common as a fossil along New Jersey in shallow sediment but now restricted to much deeper waters. Ditto for the giant squid, who left their shells in the Cretaceous epi-continental sea sediment but now prefer deeper water.

Goblin Shark

Is there a common explanation for all the survivors in deep waters?

The most popular theory is: 1) Most new types of fish and cephalopods first evolve in shallow water. 2) It takes time for evolution to modify a fish or cephalopod so the beast can survive at 200m + depths. So the early coelacanths couldn’t colonize the great depths for tens of millions of years. As more and more clans of fish evolved in shallow water, some began their adaptive descent too – but the coelacanth had a head start. Being fully adapted to great depth already may have protected the fish from predators and competitors who are behind in the degree of their transition.

There are holes in the theory. Coelacanths do have predators – they show up in shark stomachs. They must have competitors too – teleost fish with more complex jaws.

Deep Sea Refuges continue to irritate our neat little hypotheses.

WAnt more? See the past post on ghost sharks and full comment.