Saturday, February 25, 2012

John Hawks lecture at UCD, March 2: Paleogenomics and the Evolution of Neandertals and Denisovans

Back belatedly, but bearing great news! This coming week, John Hawks will be in Denver. On his blog, he's already mentioned the talk that he's giving at the DMNS, but I want to highlight the fact that he'll also be giving a talk at 2:30PM on Friday March 2 on the UC Denver campus, as part of our Anthropology Colloquium series. The event is open to all and free to attend. Here are the details.

"Paleogenomics and the Evolution of Neandertals and Denisovans"

John Hawks, Ph.D.
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin

John Hawks' lab is currently working with genomes of archaic humans to uncover the relationships of these ancient people to recent human populations. Most living people trace a fraction of their ancestry to Neandertals, and a smaller proportion trace their ancestry to a mysterious population called the "Denisovans", represented by a genome from an ancient specimen from the Altai mountains. They are uncovering the interactions among these ancient groups -- when and where did they encounter modern humans and exchange genes with them? They are also investigating the function of those ancient genomes, and what new facts their genes can tell us about Neandertal biology. He will talk about his ongoing work related to pigmentation, immune system, muscle physiology and the brain.

2:30 p.m. Friday, March 2, 2012
North Classroom 1535
UC Denver - Auraria Campus (Downtown)
Light Refreshments will be served

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

What's new on the Italian Middle Paleolithic?

I'm traveling this week, participating in the Roundtable of the Middle Palaeolithic of Italy hosted by the Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies(, which takes place in Florence this coming Thursday and Friday (Feb. 9-10, 2012). I'm really looking forward to it, and looking at the final program, it sounds like a good range of perspectives and regional records will be discussed, which should make for good discussion. This is important given that an underappreciated dimensions of the Italian MP is how varied it is, which really is not al that surprising when you consider the topographic and geographic variability of the peninsula (see e.g., Milliken 2007 for a summary). If possible, I'll try to live blog some of the conference, and I should mention that the organizers have said that the conference presentations should be streamable in real time... I'll update this post accordingly when I have the final details.

Friday, February 03, 2012

How to feed a pregnant Neanderthal

Shorter can be better: Case in point, Bryan Hockett has a short (five pages) paper in press in Quaternary International entitled "The consequences of Middle Paleolithic diets on pregnant Neanderthal women," and it is a ResearchBlogging.orgmust-read for anyone interested in prehistoric nutrition. In a nutshell, what he does here is consider what the hypothesized Neanderthals caloric requirements proposed by a number of recent studies (e.g., Froehle and Churchill 2009; Snodgrass and Leonard 2009) would have meant for a pregnant Neanderthal. In other words, are these estimates even realistic in concrete terms of the number and kinds of animals eaten?

The short answer is no. First, from a strictly caloric standpoint, the amount of food suggested by these estimates is huge, especially for a hunter-gatherer: "from the perspective of a modern fast food diet, a pregnant Neanderthal women would need to eat 10 large burgers per day (or three in the morning, three at mid-day, and four in the evening), or 17 orders of chicken nuggets per day (or five orders in the morning, six at mid-day, and another six in the evening" (Hockett 2012 2012: 2).

Second, and most importantly, the high amounts of meat suggested by the estimates would likely have been lethal for pregnant Neanderthal women. A nutritional ecology perspective emphasizes that humans need more than just calories to survive, especially on range of micronutrients (Hockett and Haws 2003, 2005). Here, using this approach, Hockett shows that the amount of meat currently generally assumed to have been eaten by Neanderthals would have yielded toxic amounts of protein (relative to fat), an unhealthy overconsumption of some mirconutrients (e.g., zinc, potassium - potentially damaging to internal organs), and a severe underconsumption of others (e.g., carbs, folate, calcium). In short, subsisting on a heavily meat-dominated diet given the energy requirements estimated in other published studies would have been impossible. This is all the more dramatic given that he emphasizes that terrestrial herbivores generally yield comparable ranges of essential nutrients. This means that no matter what land mammals they would have hunted, Neanderthals would still have not been able to get the micronutrients to stay alive, especially with the metabolic needs of a pregnant Neanderthal.

This ties in with recent literature that I have discussed on this blog that shows that Neanderthals routinely consumed other kinds of foods than terrestrial mammals, including plants, shellfish and sea mammals, all of which are rich in various essential nutrients often not found in terrestrial mammals. This paper goes a long way to show that hypothetical reconstructions of past diets need to be confronted both with their overall nutritional implications and with archaeological data, the latter of which clearly shows that Neanderthals readily exploited other resources where they were available. As Hockett emphasizes in his conclusion, this is not to say that Neanderthals and modern humans necessarily had comparably broad diets, or that the Neanderthal diet must have necessarily been 'modern' (think about it: is there anything inherently modern about a grizzly bear's diet, even though it sustains it and draws on many resources?). However, it does force people to start grappling with the question of how realistic some recent purported estimates of Neanderthal dietary needs and strategies actually are.


Froehle, A., & Churchill, S., 2009. Energetic competition between Neandertals and anatomicallymodern humans.PaleoAnthropology 2009, 96-116.

Hockett, B. (2011). The consequences of Middle Paleolithic diets on pregnant Neanderthal women Quaternary International DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2011.07.002

Hockett, B., & Haws, J. (2003). Nutritional ecology and diachronic trends in Paleolithic diet and health Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 12 (5), 211-216 DOI: 10.1002/evan.10116

Hockett, B., & Haws, J. (2005). Nutritional ecology and the human demography of Neandertal extinction Quaternary International, 137 (1), 21-34 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2004.11.017

Snodgrass, J., & Leonard, W., 2009. Neandertal energetics revisited: insights into populationdynamics and life history evolution. PaleoAnthropology 2009, 220-237.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Videos as visual aids in presenting experimental archaeology

For reasons that should become clear fairly soon, I've had experimental archaeology videos on my mind lately. In many cases, actually seeing segments of an experimental study play out can convey so much more of the experience itself than summary tables and graphs, which really take the human element out and often don't do justice to some of the phenomena observed as they unfold.

I saw a couple of good example of this last semester, during the student final project presentations in my Lithic Analysis seminar. In part because UC Denver doesn't have a lot of collections available for students to analyze and in part because of my hyping the approach, there was a groundswell of interest in experimental archaeology projects. Two of those resulted in presentations that used video to drive home key observations: The first was a really stark contrast between how groups of male and female knappers communicated during communal knapping sessions. In that one instance, the ladies talked quite a bit, while the men hardly spoke to one another. It's one thing to describe this, but showing the two videos back-to-back really underscored the deafening silence of the guy group - almost everyone in the class remarked upon it.

The other presentation, by one of our grad students, incorporated video of chert and flint nodules being exposed to heat in a replicated prehistoric kiln to study the mechanism of pot lid fractures. The study ended up yielding little usable data because the high heat of the kiln simply cause the nodules to shatter almost on exposure. Again, however, it was one thing to say this in the presentation, and quite another to actually show footage of the nodules literally exploding (complete with the camera holder ducking out of the way in one instance) to highlight just how dramatic the process actually was. It also quite strikingly drove home the point that kilns may not have been the best manner to heat-treat rock in the past!

Especially given how affordable and increasingly user-friendly movie-making software and equipment is becoming, I really can't imagine why an experimental archaeologist would not film given experiments. Even more, after these presentations, I can't imagine some of these videos not being incorporated in professional presentations of these studies, even though I have to say that I haven't seen much of them at, say, the Paleos or those sessions of the SAAs I usually attend.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is decreasing scholarly communication?

I love - I think it's a fantastic way for papers to reach the broadest possible audience, and it's made me aware of many studies I wouldn't have otherwise heard of. While I'm not necessarily the best Academia citizen myself (I really should start following some people), it's really been a tremendous help in tracking down some papers published in obscure sources that might have otherwise taken me an eternity - well, a few days/weeks, which might as well be an eternity in this internet era - to get my little paws on otherwise.

That said, the other day, I was reorganizing one of my filing cabinets and came to my offprint section. It was great to look at these things again, and seeing some of the personal notes written to me by the authors reminded me of how I first got in touch with some of them, in some cases even before pdfs had become the de facto offprint. What I thought was cool about it was that getting these documents required some kind of direct interaction with the author(s), which helped broaden the range of scholars who would have at least a faint idea of who I was. In some cases, these first contacts laid the groundwork for lasting friendships and even eventual collaborations. The personal nature of these contacts also was part of e-mailing folks for pdfs, once these had become well-established enough, in that you'd start a conversation.

But now, with, sometimes I wonder if the opportunity of these contacts has been lost (or at least decreased). If so, it would mean that something that was instrumental for my personal development as a scholar would be lost to people starting out now. I mean, sure, you can see who accesses certain papers, but that hardly counts as a meaningful interaction, no? Even if you do look at who downloaded a file, it's not like most people will remember this for very long, so that even if you do run into the downloader at some point down the line, the relationship will have to begin from scratch. Unless of course, the content of your paper has pleased or irked them enough to e-mail you as a result...