Gotta shuffle before you walk

So, when is it really efficient to get up and move around on two feet? I know that’s what you’re thinking this morning — and your answer is probably, if someone would bring me a cup of coffee in bed, well, that might shift the whole equation. But a recent piece by Sylvester and Kramer asks this question of a model for the shift to bipedal locomotion in primates.

As most folks who do research on or teach about human evolution will tell you, we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about bipedalism. Because it emerges earlier in the fossil record than the really large brains of later hominids, bipedalism seems to be a key adaptation, a kind of evolutionary watershed that opened up environmental niches that weren’t available to other primates.

But it’s really hard to figure out when exactly it started or why; theories about the reasons for bipedalism include a wide range of explanations, from avoiding too much contact with the sun in open savanna to walking on branches while supporting the body overhead on other branches, from predator spotting to low-fruit foraging from the ground. While it’s clear bipedalism has created all sorts of opportunities, it’s not clear which one of them was necessarily the decisive one that sealed the deal and made bipedalism work for ancestors to modern humans.

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Hosting Four Stone Hearth

This coming Wednesday June 4th, Neuroanthropology will host the next Four Stone Hearth, the anthropology blog carnival that rounds up the best and the brightest of the anthro blogosphere. remote central hosted the last version, which was a most worthy edition.

If you’d like to contribute something, please either email the host site (just remove the spaces and change the at): submit at fourstonehearth.net or send something to Greg (greg.downey at mq.edu.au). We want to put together a wide-ranging edition, with both a four field and a neuroanth flavor. Perhaps a four field umami with a dash of neuroanth sweet & sour?

We look forward to seeing your submissions!

Daniel and Greg

The human ‘super-organism’

The New York Times has just run a story by Nicholas Wade, 6 Tribes of Bacteria Found to Be at Home in Inner Elbow. The piece discusses new views on commensal bacteria, types of bacteria that live benignly on the body of a host. As the article points out, DNA culturing has really expanded our ability to study these bacteria because they are so difficult to sample and culture normally (in part because they need their host to live very long). The research is part of the federally funded human microbiome project, an attempt to catalogue all of the bacterial DNA that makes up the human ‘microbiome’ or what some call the human ‘super-organism’ (not because it can leap tall buildings but because a human ‘being’ turns out to be a walking system with staggering numbers of bacterial ‘beings’ as part of it).

Usually, articles like this make the point that, ‘no matter how hard you wash, every square inch of you is still covered in millions of bacteria…’ This article is no exception. But the article is also working with a lot more interesting data. For example: ‘The project is in its early stages but has already established that the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome.’ Bacteria cells outnumber the cells of the body itself as they are often quite a bit smaller than human cells.

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The Legend of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes out later this week; it’s expected to make more than $300 million dollars, or roughly the entire salary of the 6000 or so members of the American Anthropological Association this year. The archaeologists don’t know quite whether to lament or to cheer, for Indiana Jones brings a spotlight to antiquities at the same time Dr. Jones highlights grave robbing and a romanticized view of a very patient science.

Lucky I’m not an archaeologist! So I get to talk about the fun stuff, like the crystal skulls. Hopefully I can get to whips and fedoras later.

Do Those Crystal Skulls Actually Exist?

Yes! The magazine Archaeology gives us the low-down. The crystal skulls first appeared in the 19th century, with claims about their Mesoamerican origins. But as the archaeologist Jane MacLaren Walsh reports, not one skull has come from a documented excavation and their overall style has little to do with traditional meso-American skull motifs (think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with skulls with a more rectangular style rather than the smooth, fairly accurate style of the crystal skulls).

Jane MacLaren Walsh does a stand-out job taking us through the social history of the crystal skulls, brought to some prominence by the Frenchman Eugene Boban, seller of antiquities first in Mexico, then Paris and finally New York.

But the legend really came to prominence with Mike Mitchell-Hedges, a British adventurer and author of Danger My Ally (that title says it all, doesn’t it?). As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “Take it for what it is—tall tales from an egomaniac.” The other one is more generous, obviously recognizing a kindred spirit: “Since childhood the kid showed signs of detesting the classroom and the office, he was obviously inclined to fulfill his life purpose through exploration of remote primeval places, as far as he could get from his native London, England.” Egomaniac or explorer, Mitchell-Hayes now has quite a fancy website to add to his legend.

The skull that Mitchell-Hedges allegedly found on one of his Central American adventures is one that generally gets people hot and bothered. As the Archaeology story relates, “Known as the Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and has reputedly crashed computer hard drives.”

The Local Connection

Mitchell-Hedges adopted daughter kept the Doom & Love Skull for sixty years, occasionally bringing it out for display. Being in northern Indiana, you don’t expect any tie-in to Indiana Jones and crystal skulls, but Anna, the daughter, passed away last year. Who ended up with the skull? Bill Homann, a man in Chesterton, Indiana, about an hour from where I live.

So, this infamous skull ends up, as the local television reporter puts it, “in Bill Homann’s living room in rural Chesterton.” Turns out, Bill and Anna knew each other: “She was my teacher and my best friend and we always had a great time; and she trusted me because she knows I believe what she believes.”

Homann of course believes the skull is the real deal, created between 17,000 and 50,000 years ago and used by the Mayans in ancient rituals (he might check those dates… not a lot of people in meso-America around that time). Its powers? “The crystal has a vibration and it does something to the human body.”

Are They Real?

Unfortunately for believers local and far away, the crystal skulls are fake. Studies done by Jane MacLaren Walsh, author of the Archaeology story, focused on the lapidary marks left over from skulls’ making. The grooves and perforations on the skull all indicate modern tools, for example, rotary tools to make the indent lines to mark the teeth. Still, I rather like how MacLaren Walsh’s adds some sound cultural reasoning on the topic, the Aztecs “displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims on racks.” It was about quantity, not quality—real victims, not crystal skulls.