Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Teaching human evolution to the public

I convinced my friend and colleague Briana Pobiner to come down to Greensboro from Washington, D.C. to present on her education and outreach work with the Smithsonian. Briana's major research interests focus on the evolution of the human diet, but recently she's become deeply involved in public outreach and the teaching of evolution, particularly human evolution. Her presentation "Communicating Human Evolution" drew a good crowd (including a couple of university donors) and outlined the efforts of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian to explain human evolution to the public. A couple of salient points/observations:

  • Briana presented a bunch of data on public attitudes to science, scientists, evolution, and human evolution. Perhaps the most surprising number was 42. This is the percentage of Americans that do not accept organic evolution as an explanation for biological diversity. Even more troubling is the fact that this number has not really changed much since 1982! A sobering realization given how much time, effort, and money has been devoted to improving science education in the U.S. 
  • One of the most important points that Briana made was that convincing people of the fact of evolution requires open dialogue−brow beating simply causes people to dig in their heels. One of the things that the Smithsonian is doing is to make their scientists available to the public. 
If you have not seen the National Museum of Natural History's human evolution exhibit (it opened in 2010), go visit! It is top-notch.   

MABIG 2014

You may be wondering, "What does MABIG" stand for? Well, it is short for Mid-Atlantic Bioanthropology Interest Group, and I attended the first meeting a couple of weekends ago in Richmond, Virginia (Oct. 25). This event, which was deftly orchestrated by Amy Rector Verrelli at Virginia Commonwealth University and Kristi Lewton at Boston University. One of the major drawbacks to the big conferences like AAPA or SAA is that, while there are tons of folks and papers, there are, well, TONS of folks and papers, which makes it difficult to see everything and interact with colleagues. With this in mind, Amy and Kristi very generously organized this little get-together for people from the region to present their work to others close by with similar interests. I was surprised to see how many of "us" (biological anthropologists, that is), many of whose work I am familiar with but few of which I had actually seen and/or met, were to be found within such a small area. Some of the highlights for me:

  • Steffen Foerster from Duke presented some really interesting data on female chimpanzee associative behavior. It is well known that female chimps form weaker relationships than do males, who tend to be related to each because they typically remain in their natal group. However, this does not mean that females are always alone−they do hang out with other individuals (albeit infrequently) and, it turns out, that when they have male offspring they tend to associate more often with  females that also have male offspring. Foerster speculated that this may be because males have more need for socialization given the importance of male-male bonds in chimpanzee society.
  • Theodore Schurr of Penn spoke about his team's work on the genetic history of the Caribbean. This area is exceedingly complex in a demographic sense, with populations first arriving from the American mainland during prehistoric times and the influx of African and European populations during the colonial era and, indeed, into modern times. Schurr and his colleagues are studying mtDNA (passed down only through the maternal line) and Y-chromosome DNA (inherited only through the paternal line) to track the population history of the region. The most significant finding was the almost total lack of indigenous, and near dominance of European and African, Y-chromosome DNA in modern Caribbean populations. This is a sad reminder that many of the indigenous males were killed or otherwise prevented from reproducing in colonial times. 
  • Perhaps the most interesting talk in my view came from Callum Ross at Chicago. He and his team have strapped various primates into mechanisms that allow them to measure how forces are put on the mandible during feeding. What they found was that most of the variation in chewing forces exist within chewing episodes of the same food type (e.g., while chewing a fruit) and not between different food types (e.g., chewing a fruit vs. chewing a leaf). This is really important, since we've always thought that mandible shape should reflect the forces imposed by different food types: this is the basis for inferring diet from bone shape. Perhaps we're wrong....
These are the presentations that really stuck with me, but there were many others (I presented on our recent work at Olduvai Gorge). Amy and Kristi imposed a 10-minute limit on talks, which worked really well (in fact, there was also a "lightning round" of 5-minute talks, too...UNCG's department head Bob Anemone presented his work with drones in this session), and Richmond is a really cool town: pretty, good food, tons of history. There are already plans to organize a meeting for next year!   

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bookmarks Festival 2014

So, this past weekend (9/6) Noell and I went to Winston-Salem to check out the 2014 Bookmarks Festival. This is our second visit (I posted on last year's event here), and this year's events were housed in some shiny new buildings and very nice auditoriums. What drew us this time around was the presentation by Sam Kean, who talked about his newest book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, which presents stories of individuals suffering brain damage and what they can tell science about how the brain works. Kean is an insightful and witty writer, the perfect sort to present science to a popular audience. I was about 3/4 of the way through the book when we saw him speak (I've since finished it, and it was great). Some interesting points:
  • Kean said that what originally interested him in the topic was skepticism: he simply didn't believe some of the stories he had heard about. For example, neurologists reported that some people simply could not recognize plants, while others had no idea how to deal with animals. It turns out, however, that there are in fact particular areas of the brain that deal with different types of things, and damage to these areas can compromise our ability to recognize those objects, and only those objects
  • The main irony is that, in order to study how the brain actually works, neurologists, because it is in many cases unethical to operate on healthy brains (although this was not always the case), often had to wait for an accident or disease to knock out particular areas to determine their function. One example from the book is the case of S.M. (initials are used in the medical literature to protect patients' identities), who suffers (she is alive and well and living in Iowa) from a rare condition that leaves her with a non-functioning amygdala. This part of the brain, among other things, helps to process our fear response. Neurologists have been studying S.M. for many years now (with her informed consent), and she is not afraid of snakes, death threats, assaults, or robberies. (Actually, a recent paper suggests that she did experience the fear of suffocation, which suggests that while the amygdala controls our response to external fears, other pathways must process fear associated with internal threats like suffocation or heart attacks.)
  • Noell asked a question about amnesia and whether or not Kean ran across any examples of people who completely lost track of their own identity. He responded, in an echo of one of the book's major points, that it seems as if someone's identity or sense of self is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, aspect of the mind to wipe out completely. 
  • Kean also talked about his writing style, which is story-focused. He said that people seem to learn best when issues are presented as stories: a beginning, a middle, and an end, all populated with characters. Perhaps this can be a lesson for those of us trying to teach science.   
After lunch at one of the many food trucks, we went to see Karen Abbott talk about her new book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Abbott is a former journalist who contributes to the Smithsonian Magazine's history blog. The book is the story of four women, two from the North and two from the South, who lied, slept, seduced, and killed their way into spy networks. One of the most interesting points that Abbott made was that these (and other) women were able to exploit 19th century notions of femininity to conceal messages and contraband. Hoop skirts, for example, which most males would never search, were regularly used to smuggle items like guns. I have not yet read the book, but after her presentation I will definitely add it to my "to-read" list on Goodreads.


Kean, S (2014). The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons: the history of the human brain as revealed by true stories of trauma, madness, and recovery. Little, Brown and Company, New York.

Abbott, K (2014). Liar, temptress, soldier, spy: four women undercover in the Civil War. Harper, New York.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Field dispatch: Back from the gorge

We just got into Arusha this evening after breaking camp at Olduvai and having a great visit through Ngorongoro Crater. I am very happy to report that the 2014 University of North Carolina at Greensboro Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School was a fantastic success, and so was this year's campaign. The students, pictured below, were absolutely fantastic. I'll provide more specifics later once I get settled back in North Carolina...

The 2014 UNCG Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School. Top row (from left): Victoria Johnson (Teaching Assistant, NYU), Kathryn Dunn (Berea), Rachel Burroughs (Western Michigan), Meaghan Davey (Ohio State), Curran Fitzgerald (UNCG), Jim McClanahan (Miami-Ohio), Adam Darkow (Akron); Bottom row (from left): Andy Ritz (UConn), Cindy Teears (UNCG), Heather Easterbrook (South Florida), Alexa Uberseder (UNCG), Zach Pierce (Texas-San Antonio).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Field dispatch: Off to the gorge!

I am sitting in Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport waiting for my connection into Kiliminjaro International Airport so we can begin the 2014 field season at Olduvai Gorge. This will also be the inaugural year of the Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School, which I am directing through UNCG. We have 11 students from all over the U.S. participating, and we are looking forward to a productive work season over the next month.

Internet access is, of course, spotty at best out at the gorge, but I will try and post a couple updates over the course of the next month... 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kansas is, in fact, flatter than a pancake

I'm enrolled in a GIS course here at UNCG (faculty get three free credit hours a semester), and we were talking about vertical profiling today. One of the case studies, from the journal Annals of Improbable Research, actually compared the vertical profiles of the state of Kansas (using a DEM) with that of a cooked pancake (using, incredibly, a confocal laser microscope) to test whether or not said state is, in fact, "flatter than a pancake." One can quibble with their selection of pancake (all pancakes, after all, are probably not equally flat), but they found that Kansas is the flatter of the two.

A couple of great quotes from the study:
Barring the acquisition of either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas, mathematical techniques are needed to do a proper comparison.
The importance of this research dictated that we not be daunted by the 'No Food or Drink' sign posted in the microscopy room.
I am laughing out loud in my office as I write this...

Preliminary results from Bagratashen 1

I returned from Yerevan on Sunday night, having been forced to sprint to my last connection into Raleigh/Durham because Air France was unable to get the cargo hold open to release our baggage. This was my first experience with an Armenian spring, and there were some brisk days at ~3,000 feet (I'm usually there in the summer, when it can be broiling, particularly in the arid north where we work).

As I mentioned in my previous post, the goal of this trip was to conduct a preliminary analysis of the stone tools from Bagratashen 1 and, after having looked at them over the past two weeks, it appears as if they are going to be very interesting indeed. My colleague, Boris Gasparian, and I examined over 500 pieces from our excavations.

The Bagratashen 1 lithic material laid out for analysis.
While it's obviously going to take some time to sort out what's going on (not to mention additional excavations to recover a larger sample size−this stuff came from a small 6m2 excavation), I can relate some observations:
  • There's definitely (and unsurprisingly) Levallois technology represented. 
  • We've got quite a few points and point fragments in the assemblage (over ten). What's interesting is that we have both unretouched and retouched Levallois pieces and non-Levallois pieces. So, MP folks used different techniques to produce stone tools with the same characteristic; i.e., pointy ends. I took some measurements on tip cross sectional area, which can, according to John Shea (2006) and others, help determine whether a point could have been used as an effective projectile (note that this attribute cannot say that a point definitively was used as such). A couple of these points look, at least in a general morphological sense, very similar to the elongated retouched points found in Levels 1 and 2 at Djruchula Cave (Georgian Republic) and Lower E at Hayonim (Israel). This is potentially significant for us, since we have yet to successfully date the Bagratashen 1 sediments and Djruchula and Hayonim have been dated to between about 300,000 and 150,000 years ago. We have to be careful here, though: morphological similarity does not necessarily mean temporal similarity, since technology, especially lithic technology, is subject to independent development. 
  • Boris and I noticed that a number of the artifacts, most of which are dacite, display a "rotted" surface texture, and some even feel lighter, as if they've been leached somehow. Boris suspects that this may be related to thermal damage and, sure enough, another colleague of ours, Dmitri Arakelyan, told us that he has tossed dacite into fire before and it does indeed show this sort of modification. More systematic experiments are of course in order, but we may have some indirect evidence for fire at the site (whether its natural or anthropogenic is also another issue).
  • Nearly all the pieces were covered by carbonate crust, likely imparted well after the materials had been buried. We recorded what face of each artifact was facing skyward before it was pulled out of the ground and, because carbonates tend to form on the "downward" faces of clasts, we should therefore get an idea of whether or not they moved around in the sediment post-depostionally.
  • There also appears to be quite a bit of truncation going on. In essence, this means that after knocking off a flake, hominins chose to subsequently remove, either through a single, massive blow or finer retouch, one or both ends of the piece. Why one would bother to truncate a seemingly well-made flake is another question. One possibility is that this truncation provides a new platform for the removal of smaller flakes from the original piece. The knappers may have wanted to remove the old platform and/or the bulky bulb of percussion to artificially thin the piece, for instance. Whatever the reason, people were doing it at Bagratashen 1.
Alright, enough chatter, let's get to the analysis....


Shea, JD (2006). The origins of lithic projectile technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 823-846.