Bringing hominin fossils back to life: interview with paleoartist John Bavaro

Art and science. Paleoart is the scientific reconstruction of extinct life. Complementing the study of the fossil record, paleoart has become a major contribution of deep scientific knowledge combined with the author’s artistic insight. It was a great pleasure for me to meet John Bavaro, who has great knowledge and passion in the Human Evolution field. I hope you will enjoy this interview with John for Nutcracker Man, including several examples of his very up-to-date work…

Can you describe the process to reconstruct the appearance of hominins? In particular, how do you combine the fossil evidence together with other sources to provide them movement and life?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Turkana Boy

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figure 1. Turkana Boy

I try to apply my own understanding to the anatomy to the model before I look at other artists so then I have a fresh perspective. But my niche is in digital art which I teach at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

I look at Kennis Brothers, John Gurche, Elisabeth Daynès, Viktor Deak, giants in the field who do reconstructions and I’m in awe.

We are a visual species. And I for one want to explore the possibilities. Perhaps that’s what sets us apart. Art follows science and vice versa. For instance, the Lucy skeleton or the Turkana boy skeleton totally “rewrote” history. In the case of Lucy we now know that she was hybrid tree climber AND a walker. In the case of Turkana Boy there’s clues about gait and the posture etc.  It’s a puzzle that constantly revealing itself. So art follows science in the tendency for equivocation and I’m not being insulting to science when I say that. In fact, every discovery that comes out now days “rewrites” the understanding of the “mythical textbooks”.  Now with the internet we’re getting more impatient. I for one, think that’s lazy clickbait. A teaser, hubristic or both If I read something that says that “new discovery which changes the way we look at things” I say, “Yeah, until the next time which is probably at this pace, a month away.” I know that science is continuingly changing, which is counter to the current understanding (in popular culture) of it which that it is static. Those in the field know about this, but modern society holds it up as basically like religion. “Well, Science says…….” But scientists know that it is ever-changing process. In this era, changes happen at dizzying pace that I can’t keep up with them quickly enough.  It’s like same way that T-Rex was pictured just 50 or 60 years ago with the tail down instead of up.

 

Your work is very up to date with all recent finds in human evolution. Let’s discuss three examples: Jebel Irhoud, Homo naledi and Denisovans.

Jebel Irhoud

You have created an illustration of the human from Jebel Irhoud, dated to 300 Ka and recently proposed as the earliest Homo sapiens known so far. However this has been contested because of the primitive traits of this specimens which are different from other skulls like Omo or Herto dated to 200 Ka. To what extend did you consider the Jebel Irhoud as ‘modern’ in your illustration?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Jebel Irhoud

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figures 2, 3, 4, 5. Jebel Irhoud

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A Moroccan cradle for Homo sapiens?

By Chris Stringer, The Natural History Museum London. 

Many scientists accept that the human fossils from Omo Kibish and Herto in Ethiopia, dated between about 150-200,000 years ago represent the earliest known members of our species Homo sapiens. However, I now accept that evidence is building from both fossils and DNA that the modern human and Neanderthal lineages separated at least 500,000 years ago. In my view, the date of this divergence should mark the origin of these two groups, with the implication that there should fossils in Africa and Eurasia older than 200,000 years that lie on the respective lineages of modern humans and Neanderthals.

There is good evidence that this is true for the Neanderthals in Europe, since the Sima de los Huesos (‘Pit of the Bones’) fossils from Atapuerca can now be firmly placed on the Neanderthal lineage from both their anatomy and their DNA at around 430,000 years. Although we don’t yet have good ancient DNA evidence from Africa, I have suggested that fossils such as Florisbad (South Africa), Eliye Springs (Kenya) and Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) might well represent early or “archaic” Homo sapiens that existed before the full suite of modern human characteristics had evolved. Moreover, it is possible that earlier and neglected fossils from sites such as Salé and Thomas Quarries (Morocco), and Ndutu (Tanzania) could be even more ancient members of our species, Homo sapiens.

I used to argue that “anatomically modern humans” (including fossils that essentially look like us today) are the only group that should be called Homo sapiens. Now, I think that anatomically modern humans are only a sub-group within the species Homo sapiens, and that we should recognise the diversity of forms within early Homo sapiens, some of which probably went extinct.

When I set out on my PhD trip in 1971 to study and measure as many as possible of the early modern and Neanderthal skulls curated in European museums, there was one fossil that particularly intrigued me. This was the enigmatic cranium from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, found a decade earlier, and described as an ‘African Neanderthal’, dated at about 40,000 years old. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived in a Paris museum and was told by an anthropologist that the specimen had just been returned to Morocco. Seeing my crestfallen face over coffee, another worker told me that the fossil was, in fact, locked in a cupboard in the first anthropologist’s room, but he would give me clandestine access to it for a short time the next morning. It was well worth the chicanery and the wait, for as soon as I saw the large but modern-looking face of Jebel Irhoud 1, I knew it was no Neanderthal – it completely lacked their puffed-out cheek bones, midfacial prominence, and enormous nose. But I couldn’t make much sense of Jebel Irhoud in my PhD conclusions as it was apparently too recent and therefore too close in age to actual early modern fossils from Israel and Europe to represent a potential ancestor for modern humans.

Jebel Irhoud 1

Jebel Irhoud 1 skull. Photo credit: Chris Stringer

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A new Homo naledi… and very recent!

Since Homo naledi was presented in 2015 [see related article], a global project has been carried out with 150+ scientists involved in the analysis of the anatomy, behavior, diet, geology and chronology, but also a massive exploration project in the field, inside the Rising Star cave system and other cave systems in the area.

The result is astonishing: this project has yielded more hominin fossils in the last 3 years than in the rest of history in Africa. And the exploration is far from finished: this will surely be followed by a number of further projects and discoveries in the following years.

Back in 2015, it was announced the Dinaledi chamber of the Rising Star cave, containing 1500+ hominin remains corresponding to 15 individuals of Homo naledi, which became one of the most famous species. But thousands of other remains were there still to be discovered and analysed.

Reconstruction of Homo naledi. Photo: Lee R. Berger

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3 años de Nutcracker Man | 3 years of Nutcracker Man

Nutcracker Man

Nutcracker Man vs. Roberto Sáez

[ESP]   Hoy 5/5/17 este blog ¡está de cumpleaños! En el último año ha crecido enormemente el número de interacciones por distintos canales con muchos de vosotros, y he tenido el placer de conocer a grandes investigadores y divulgadores. Sabéis que os agradezco sinceramente todas vuestras lecturas y comentarios. Para completar el momento nostálgico, he querido recuperar aquí los enlaces a mis primeros artículos en español y en inglés, espero que os gusten. Un fuerte abrazo.

La cuna de la humanidad (Español)   |   Were neandertals as smart as sapiens? (English)

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[ENG]   Today 5/5/17 is the birthday of this blog! In this year the number of interactions with many of you has greatly increased through different channels, and I had the pleasure to meet several great researches and communicators. You know well that I sincerely thank you for all your readings and comments. To complete the nostalgic moment, I wanted to rescue here the links to my first posts in Spanish and English. I hope you enjoy them. All the best.

Were neandertals as smart as sapiens? (English)   |   La cuna de la humanidad (Español)

 

 

The supraorbital torus in hominins

The supraorbital torus (or brow ridge) is a very distinctive morphological trait in most of our hominin ancestors. What purpose does this feature serve? A few theories around this topic are:

  • Dissipation of heavy chewing forces, produced by the jaw muscles and transmitted around the nose and the eye sockets.
  • Reinforcement of the frontal bone which was weaker in all the hominin species before Homo sapiens. This is a similar idea to explain the development of the chin in modern humans, as a reinforcement of a weaker jaw.
  • Protection of the skull and the eyes against blows.
  • A signaling effect, accentuating aggressive stares, thus its large size could have been sexually selected through generations.

However, many huge supraorbital tori are hollowed inside with large sinuses (for example: Petralona), suggesting that they did not bear or transmit physical forces from blows to the head or heavy chewing. I like the idea to think about a combination of several factors which made evolution work for a few million years. This post describes the supraorbital tori of 22 iconic hominins:

Australopitecines

Al 444-2: The largest Australopithecus afarensis skull yet discovered has an expansive supraorbital torus, thickened laterally and continuous superiorly-posteriorly with no interruption.

Sts 5 (Mrs. Ples) has a relatively small supraorbital torus, double arched in the front and projecting glabella. Another Au. africanus skull with many similarities is Sts 71, with a less broad torus in comparison to Sts 5, but with a similar expanded glabella.

Supraorbital torus Australopitecines

Supraorbital torus: Sts 5 (centre)-credit Wikipedia, AL 444-2 (left) and Sts 71 (right)-credit Roberto Sáez

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Aroeira 3: the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium of Europe

Why is it important?

  • Firmly dated to 390–436 ka, this new hominin fossil found in Portugal is the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium of Europe.
  • It is one of the earliest fossils associated with Acheulean tools in Western Europe.
  • Together with the tools, there is also a direct association with a large amount of faunal remains: mainly cervids and equids, also some rhinos and bears, a large bovid, a caprid and a tortoise.
  • The presence of burnt bones suggests a controlled use of fire.
Aroeira 3 cranium

Aroeira 3 cranium. Credit: Daura et al, New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal)

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Interview with Chris Stringer

In this interview for Nutcracker Man, Chris Stringer addresses some key recent discussions in the human evolution field, such as:

  1. The origin of the anatomically modern humans. The frontier between ‘archaic’ and ‘modern’ Homo sapiens.
  2. Reassessment of the Homo heidelbergensis species.
  3. Early and late dispersals of modern humans outside Africa.
  4. Behavioural modernity vs. Anatomical modernity.

Finally, he talks about a new book he is working on.

Chris Stringer is one of the most important researchers in the field of human evolution. He is Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum and previously director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project. His work is searchable on the Museum’s website and you can follow him on twitter.

Interview Chris Stringer

Interview with Chris Stringer. Photo: Roberto Sáez

 

1. The origin of the so-called anatomically modern humans is not so clear now in the post-Neanderthal genome era. In 2016, you argued a new paradigm by setting the origin of our species Homo sapiens back to 500 K years ago rather than 200 K. What is the rationale for that? What is for you an ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens? And what is the frontier between ‘archaic’ and ‘modern’ Homo sapiens

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Zinj and the mastication

This is a nice and rare illustration by Bonnie Miljou of Zinjanthropus boisei (‘Zinj’), the species defined by Louis Leakey for the iconic fossil OH 5 – later assigned to Paranthropus boisei. Due to the hyper-robust morphology of its dentition, OH 5 was nicknamed ‘Nutcracker Man’, which gives the name to this blog.

The morphology of this cranium is clearly associated with the masticatory function. In particular, the illustration highlights 5 features:

Zinjanthropus boisei

Zinjanthropus boisei. Illustration by Bonnie Miljou

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My top 10 favorite #FossilFriday tweets of 2016

Finally! The 3rd edition of my little tradition, a particular ‘annual report’: the list of my favorite hominin #FossilFriday tweets in 2016, from number 10 to 1.

For those who do not know what “FossilFriday” means… Every Friday on twitter, people share pics of their favorite fossils, related scientific papers or blog posts, by using the hashtag #FossilFriday. This is a great manner to show famous or rare pieces of museum collections, and to share research works. I join every Friday and tweet about a different hominin fossil. Now, let’s start!

10. Look into the 1.8 Ma eyes of the impressive OH 24  |  MNCN Colecciones 

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Quick summary of the new hominin footprints at Laetoli

Background

  • Since the 1970s several prints and trails of mammal, bird and insect have been identified in 18 sites (labelled from A to R) out of 33 total palaeontological localities in the Laetoli area, Tanzania.
  • In 1978 a 27-meter footprint trail was found at Site G, with about 70 footprints corresponding to 3 hominins.  They were bipedal, had big toes in line with the rest of their foot, and their gait was “heel-strike” followed by “toe-off”, that is, the same way modern humans walk.
  • The footprints were ascribed to Australopithecus afarensis, as suggested by the dating (3.66 Ma) and the fossils found nearby in the same sediment layer.

The new find

  • Site S is located only 150 m away from Site G. In October 2014 some excavation works were executed to assess the impact of building a museum including a protective covering for the Site G tracks. This yielded 14 hominin tracks plus other 529 tracks left by other animals including bovids, equids, girafs, rhinos…
Laetoli footprints

Figure 7 from Masao et al. 2016. Original caption: Southern part of the hominin trackway in test-pit L8. Footprints L8/S1-1, L8/S1-2, L8/S1-3 and L8/S1-4 are visible from left to right. The heel drag mark is well visible posteriorly to L8/S1-3.

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