Neanderthals and the Great Climate Change Swindle

In a recently conducted study, a multidisciplinary French-American research team with expertise in archaeology, past climates, and ecology reported that Neanderthal extinction was principally a result of competition with Cro-Magnon populations, rather than the consequences of climate change.

The study, reported in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE on December 24, figures in the ongoing debate on the reasons behind the eventual disappearance of Neanderthal populations, which occupied Europe prior to the arrival of human populations like us around 40,000 years ago. Led by Dr William E. Banks, the authors, who belong to the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, l’Ecole Pratique d’Hautes Etudes, and the University of Kansas, reached their conclusion by reconstructing climatic conditions during this period and analyzing the distribution of archaeological sites associated with the last Neanderthals and the first modern human populations with an approach typically used to study the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

This method uses geographic locations of archaeological sites dated by radiocarbon, in conjunction with high-resolution simulations of past climates for specific periods, and employs an algorithm to analyze relationships between the two datasets to reconstruct potential areas occupied by each human population and to determine if and how climatic conditions played a role in shaping these areas. In other words, by integrating archaeological and paleoenvironmental datasets, this predictive method can reconstruct the regions that a past population could potentially have occupied. By repeating the modeling process hundreds of times and evaluating where the errors occur, this machine-learning algorithm is able to provide robust predictions of regions that could have been occupied by specific human cultures.

This modeling approach also allows the projection of the ecological footprint of one culture onto the environmental conditions of a later climatic phase―by comparing this projected prediction to the known archaeological sites dated to this later period, it is possible to determine if the ecological niche exploited by this human population remained the same, or if it contracted or expanded during that period of time.

Comparing these reconstructed areas for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans during each of the climatic phases concerned, and by projecting each niche onto the subsequent climatic phases, Banks and colleagues determined that Neanderthals had the possibility to maintain their range across Europe during a period of less severe climatic conditions called Greenland Interstadial 8 (GI8).

However, the archaeological record shows that this did not occur, and Neanderthal disappearance occurs at a point when we see the geographic expansion of the ecological niche occupied by modern humans during GI8. The researchers’ models predict the southern limit of the modern human territory to be near the Ebro River Valley in northern Spain during the preceding cold period called Heinrich Event 4 (H4), and that this southern boundary moved to the south during the more temperate phase GI8.

The researchers conclude that the Neanderthal populations that occupied what is now southern Spain were the last to survive because they were able to avoid direct competition with modern humans since the two populations exploited distinct territories during the cold climatic conditions of H4. They also point out that during this population event contact between Neanderthals and modern humans may have permitted cultural and genetic exchanges.

Source: Public Library of Science


This is news?  It’s absurd to think that climate change was the determinate factor in the fall of the Neanderthals, especially considering Neanderthals were living “side by side” with Homo sapiens.  The evidence has always leaned strongly to towards the idea that Neanderthals were out competed for resources.  No doubt climate change can make times difficult, but to label it the smoking gun in the extinction of a species is just ridiculous.

Now, publish some literature on Neanderthal speech, interbreeding with modern humans, or Neanerthals in North America (yeah, right!) and we’ll talk!

As a side note, I’d like this for my birthday.

The Death of VHS and the Archaeology of Media

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Pop culture is finally hitting the eject button on the VHS tape, the once-ubiquitous home-video format that will finish this month as a creaky ghost of Christmas past.

After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home-entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.

“It’s dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt,” said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. “I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I’m done. Anything left in warehouse we’ll just give away or throw away.”


Do you remember your first VHS tape?  More importantly do you still own it?  I’d have to answer yes to both questions.  My family’s first VHS tape was one containing two Queen music videos that my father used to run at his bar, Studio I.  According to him, when he’d purchased the tape (possibly in 79-80) it had cost him a couple hundred dollars.  Back then VHS was  the hot new thing.  The tape still resides under the entertainment center at my family home, along with a few other veterans of the Home Video War.

The first VHS tape I clearly remember handling was a bootleg copy of Star Wars (Not Star Wars: A New Hope, STAR WARS), which I’m pretty sure predated Return of the Jedi.  It didn’t have a box, or even a title on the tape, just a small piece of aged masking tape stuck on the top that red ‘Star Wars’ in pencil.  As a child I watched it HUNDREDS of times, in fact the little plastic rectangle had been played, rewound and ejected so many times that the tape itself was in pretty deplorable shape.  But it still survives to this day.

Lastly, from the bizarro realm, I recall a copy of the original Halloween, also a bootleg.  Interestingly though, when the film had been copied, the settings had been all wonky and the tape copied in black and white.  For the longest time, I thought that’s how the movie had been shot.  In fact, it was only at the end of the 90s that I learned otherwise.  I’m not sure if that tape survives to this day, but if you ever can find a way to view the original Halloween in black and white, do it… its a totally different movie. 

The archaeologist in me begs to ask: why?  Why does my family still cling to these artifacts?  Clearly we never plan to use them again.

I guess in one case, its value.  The Queen music video cost a lot of money and despite the fact that nowadays you can’t even give away VHS, the fact remains that it was a costly purchase.  Its inherent value to my father has never decreased.  Because the price paid for it will never be reclaimed, its initial value will always be ascribed.

In the case of Star Wars, I have an artifact with irreplaceable nostalgic value.  My *first* copy of Star Wars.  Before ROTJ, before the first trilogy collection, the second, the third, the laserdisc, the Special Edition, the Ultimate Editions, and the DVDS.

My copy of Star Wars represents a point in time.  It is an artifact of my childhood, like a toy or a photograph.  It is an artifact that through hundreds of viewings shaped my character and drove my imagination.

The VHS also represents a form of exposure to a piece of cinematography that 80% of the world has seen.  The way we experience something is just as important as the experience itself.  The tracking lines, poor audio quality and playback speed all added to my initial viewing experience as a child.

Lastly, it represents an accomplishment.  How many people nowadays can say they own the first copy of Star Wars they ever watched?

Males dominated ‘out-of-Africa’ migration 60,000 years ago

Men significantly outnumbered women in the “out-of-Africa” migration some 60,000 years ago that eventually populated the rest of the world, according to a new study.

Africa is known to be the cradle of human evolution, and recent studies show that the peoples today inhabiting other continents originate from a relatively small band of Homo sapiens sapiens who moved through the Near East, into Europe and beyond some 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

But until now no one had figured out a way to determine what the sex-ratio of this so-called founding population might have been.

A quartet of researchers led by Alon Keinan at the Harvard Medical School thought that the secret might be locked inside differences in genetic code across distinct geographic regions.

They knew that the percentage of X chromosomes in a given population varies depending on the proportion of men.

The “X” and “Y” chromosomes determine sex — men have one of each, while women have two X chromosomes. The other 22 chromosome pairings in the human genome are all the same.

It was also known that this ratio affects the rate at which mutations randomly spread through the X chromosome over dozens or hundreds of generations as compared to the mutation rate in other, non-sex, chromosomes.

Keinan and colleagues reasoned that if X-chromosomes changed more quickly than expected, then it almost certainly meant that our common ancestors who wandered out of Africa were predominantly male.

To test their theory, they compared the genetic makeup of Africans first with northern Europeans, and then again with Asians.

“The results point to a period of accelerated drift on chromosome X that largely occurred after the split of West Africa and non-Africans, but before the separation of North Europeans and East Asian,” the conclude.

Genetic drift is a term that refers to random mutations in genes, as opposed to changes that occur through natural selection.

Keinan acknowledged that if a small fraction of the women in the migratory exodus from Africa had given birth to all of the children, there might still have been parity in the number of males and females.

But this seemed highly unlikely, he said, adding that his findings were “in line with what anthropologists have taught us about hunter-gatherer populations in which short distance migration is primarily by women and long distance migration primarily by men.”

The study was published in Nature Publishing Group’s journal Nature Genetics.

This article was taken from

Obama Announces Members of His Science and Technology Team

On Decmeber 20, President Elect Barack Obama announced the four members of his Science and Technology Team.  These four individuals will guide Mr. Obama on all matters regarding science and technology.

These members include:

Dr. John Holdren who will serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  He is a professor and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

Dr. Holdren has received numerous honors and awards for his work on climate and enerhy and has been one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change.

Dr. Holdren will also serve as a Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – or PCAST – as will Dr. Harold Varmus and Dr. Eric Lander.

Dr. Varmus won a Nobel Prize in 1989 for his research on the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.

Dr. Eric Lander is the Founding Director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and was one of the driving forces behind mapping the human genome – one of the greatest scientific achievements in history.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco has will serve as the Administrator of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is devoted to conserving marine and coastal resources and monitoring the Earth’s weather.

New species of extinct animals found in Sahara

British and Moroccan scientists said Tuesday they had found the remains of two new species of extinct animals in the Saharan desert, describing the find as one of the most important of the past 50 years.

The team of paleontologists said they had unearthed a new species of pterosaur, a flying reptile from the Mesozoic era, and a new type of sauropod, a giant four-legged herbivore from the Jurassic period.

The two animals, which were found in southeast Morroco near the Algerian border, date back around 100 million years, Portsmouth University said in a statement.

Paleontologists from the southern English university made the find with others from University College Dublin in Ireland (UCD), and the Universite Hassan II in Casablanca in Morocco.

Researchers found what they described as a large fragment of a beak from a giant flying reptile, along with bone from a sauropod measuring more than a metre (3.3 feet) in length.

The bone from the sauropod — which is classed as a dinosaur unlike the pterosaur — indicates that it was around 20 metres (65 feet) in length.

“Finding two specimens in one expedition is remarkable, especially as both might well represent completely new species,” said Nizar Ibrahim, a UCD expert on North African dinosaurs who led the expedition.

The discoveries will be return to Morocco and put on display after they are studied in Dublin.

Homo floresiensis fossils represent a new species


University of Minnesota anthropology professor Kieran McNulty (along with colleague Karen Baab of Stony Brook University in New York) has made an important contribution toward solving one of the greatest paleoanthropological mysteries in recent history — that fossilized skeletons resembling a mythical “hobbit” creature represent an entirely new species in humanity’s evolutionary chain.

Discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, controversy has surrounded the fossilized hominid skeletons of the so-called “hobbit people,” or Homo floresiensis ever since. Experts are still debating whether the 18,000-year-old remains merely belong to a diminutive population of modern-day humans (with one individual exhibiting “microcephaly,” an abnormally small head) or represent a previously unrecognized branch in humanity’s family tree.

Using 3D modeling methods, McNulty and his fellow researchers compared the cranial features of this real-life “hobbit” to those of a simulated fossil human (of similar stature) to determine whether or not such a species was distinct from modern humans.

“[Homo floresiensis] is the most exciting discovery in probably the last 50 years,” said McNulty. “The specimens have skulls that resemble something that died a million years earlier, and other body parts reminiscent of our three-million-year-old human ancestors, yet they lived until very recently — contemporaries with modern humans.”

Comparing the simulation to the original Flores skull discovered in 2003, McNulty and Baab were able to demonstrate conclusively that the original “hobbit” skull fits the expectations for a small fossil hominin species and not a modern human. Their study was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The cranial structure of the fossilized skull, says the study, clearly places it in humanity’s genus Homo, even though it would be smaller in both body and brain size than any other member. The results of the study suggest that the theorized “hobbit” species may have undergone a process of size reduction after branching off from Homo erectus (one of modern day humanity’s distant ancestors) or even something more primitive.

“We have shown with this study that the process of size reduction applied to fossil hominins accounts for many features seen in the fossil skull from Flores,” McNulty said. “It becomes much more difficult, therefore, to defend the hypothesis that the preserved skull is a modern human who simply suffered from an extremely rare disorder.

Public interest in the discovery, analysis and implications of Flores “hobbits” has been high ever since 2003, inspiring several television specials (including a recent episode of “NOVA” entitled “Alien From Earth”) and other media attention.

While the debate over Homo floresiensis will continue, McNulty believes this comprehensive analysis of the relationship between size and shape in human evolution is a critical step toward eventually understanding the place of the Flores “hobbits” in human evolutionary history.

“I think the majority of researchers favor recognizing this as a new species,” McNulty said about the categorization of Homo floresiensis. “The evidence is becoming overwhelming, and this study helps confirm that view.”

Source: University of Minnesota


I was on this article like Pliocene on Miocene!  Homo floresiensis has been a hot topic in the archaeology world since 2003, sort of like the Britney Spears of fossils- you never knew what was going to happen next in the saga!  Now things are taking a turn for the deeply interesting and I find myself with the obsessive desire to get my hands on the next edition of the Journal of Human Evolution.  Adding a new species to the Homo genus is big news  and if the scientific evidence supports doing so then add floresiensis to my spell checker!

Now up until very recently, the popular hypothesis used to explain H. floresiensis is that they were individuals born without a functioning thyroid, resulting from a type of endemic cretinism (a condition that develops from a diet deficient in iodine).  This new research indicates that H. floresiensis is in fact not a modern human with a rare health condition, but a seperate species that branched off from Homo erectus, or another more distant relative, some time ago.

I invite you to head over to ScienceDirect and read the article for yourself.  As always, comments and debate are welcome.