Flame brightly and flame out

Reading Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes for New Scientist, 19 August 2020

How we began to unpick our species’ ancient past in the late 19th century is an astounding story, but not always a pretty one. As well as attaining tremendous insights into the age of Earth and how life evolved, scholars also entertained astonishingly bad ideas about superiority.

Some of these continue today. Why do we assume that Neanderthals, who flourished for 400,000 years, were somehow inferior to Homo sapiens or less fit to survive?

In Kindred, a history of our understanding of Neanderthals, Rebecca Wragg Sykes separates perfectly valid and reasonable questions – for example, “why aren’t Neanderthals around any more?” – from the thinking that casts our ancient relatives as “dullard losers on a withered branch of the family tree”.

An expert in palaeolithic archaeology, with a special interest in the cognitive aspects of stone tool technologies, Sykes provides an fascinating and detailed picture of a field transformed almost out of recognition over the past thirty years. New technologies involve everything from gene sequencing, isotopes and lasers to powerful volumetric algorithms. Well-preserved sites are now not merely dug and brushed: they are scanned and sniffed. High-powered optical microscopes pick out slice and chop marks, electron beams trace the cross-sections of scratches at the nano-scale, and rapid collagen identification techniques determine the type of animal from even tiny bone fragments.

The risk with any new forensic tool is that, in our excitement, we over-interpret the results it throws up. As Sykes wisely says, “A balance must be struck between caution and not ignoring singular artefacts simply because they’re rare or wondrous.”

Many gushing media stories about our ancient ancestor don’t last beyond the first news cycle: though Neanderthals may have performed some funerary activity, they didn’t throw flowers on their loved ones’ graves, or decorate their remains in any way. Other stories, though, continue to accumulate a weight of circumstantial evidence. We’ve known for some years that some Neanderthals actually tanned leather; now it seems they may also have spun thread.

An exciting aspect of this book is the way it refreshes our ideas about our own place in hominin evolution. Rather than congratulating other species when they behave “like us”, Sykes shows that it is much more fruitful to see how human talents may have evolved from behaviours exhibited by other species. Take the example of art. We may ask whether the circular stone assemblies, discovered in a cave near Bruniquel in southern France in 2016, were meant by their Neaderthal creators as monuments? We may wonder, what is the significance of the Neanderthal handprints and ladder designs painted on the walls of three caves in Spain? In both cases, we’d be asking the wrong questions, Sykes says: While undoubtedly striking, Neanderthal art “might not be a massive cognitive leap for hominins who probably already understood the idea of representation.” Animal footprints are effectively symbols already, and even simple tracking “requires an ‘idealised’ form to be kept in mind.”
Captive chimpanzees, given painting materials, enjoy colouring and marking surfaces, though they’re not in the least bit invested in the end result of their labours. So the significance and symbolism of Neanderthal art may simply be that Neanderthals had fun making it.

The Neanderthals of Kindred are not cadet versions of ourselves. They don’t perform “primitive burials”, and they don’t make “proto-art”. They had their own needs, urges, enjoyments, and strategies for survival.

They were not alone and, best of all, they have not quite vanished. Neanderthal nuclear DNA contains glimmers of very ancient encounters between them and other hominin species. Recent research suggests that interbreeding between Neaderthals and Denisovans, and Neanderthals and and Homo sapiens, was effectively the norm. “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us,” Sykes explains. Like modern cattle and yaks, we were closely related species that varied in bodies and behaviours, yet could also reproduce.

Neanderthals were never very many. “”At any point in time,” Sykes says, “there may have been fewer Neanderthals walking about than commuters passing each day through Clapham Common, London’s busiest train station.” With dietary demands that took a monstrous toll on their environment, they were destined to flame brightly and flame out. That doesn’t make them less than thus. It simply makes them earlier.

They were part of our family, and though we carry some part of them inside us, we will never see their like again. This, for my money, is Sykes’s finest achievement. Seeing Neanderthals through her eyes, we cannot but mourn their passing.

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

More than human

 

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For New Scientist: a review of Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, and other cautionary tales from human evolution

THE odd leg bones and prominent brow ridges of a fossil hominid found in Belgium in 1830 clearly belong to an ancient relative of Homo sapiens. But palaeontologist August Mayer wasn’t having that: what he saw were the remains of a man who had spent his life on horseback despite a severe case of rickets, furrowing his brow in agony as a consequence, who hid himself away to die under 2 metres of fossil-laden sediment.

The “Cossack” in Ian Tattersall’s new book, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, exemplifies the risk of relying too much on the opinion of authorities and not enough on systematic analysis. Before they were bureaucratised and (where possible) automated, several sciences fell down that particular well.

Palaeoanthropology made repeated descents, creating a lot of entertaining clatter in the process. For example, Richard Leakey’s televised live spat with Donald Johanson over human origins in 1981 would be unimaginable today. I think Tattersall, emeritus curator at the American Museum of Natural History, secretly misses this heroic age of simmering feuds and monstrous egos.

The human fossil record ends with us. There are many kinds of lemur but, as he writes, only one kind of human, “intolerant of competition and uniquely able to eliminate it”. As a result, there is an immense temptation to see humans as the acme of an epic evolutionary project, and to downplay the diversity our genus once displayed.

Matters of theory rarely disturbed the 20th-century palaeontologists; they assigned species names to practically every fossil they found until biologist Ernst Mayr, wielding insights from genetics, stunned them into embarrassed silence. Today, however, our severely pruned evolutionary tree grows bushier with every molecular, genetic and epigenetic discovery.

Some claim the group of five quite distinct fossil individuals discovered in 1991 in Dmanisi, east of the Black Sea, belong to one species. Use your eyes, says Tattersall; around 2 million years ago, four different kinds of hominid shared that region.

Tattersall explains how epigenetic effects on key genes cascade to produce radical morphological changes in an eye blink, and why our unusual thinking style, far from being the perfected product of long-term selective pressures, was bootstrapped out of existing abilities barely 100,000 years ago.

He performs a difficult balancing act with aplomb, telling the story of human evolution through an accurate and unsparing narrative of what scientists actually thought and did. His humility and generosity are exemplary.