If you've read any news in the past day, you've seen reports regarding cannibalism in colonial Jamestown. It was known prior that the colonists had undergone a number of starvation years where they were forced to eat foods that they wouldn't normally. The trash pits from the sites hold the remains of animals who aren't normally butchered, including horses, cats, dogs, rats and snakes.
On Thursday, 22 March, the then-Tertiary Education Minister of Australia, Chris Bowen, registered for my new, up-coming MOOC (that’s a Massive Online Open Classroom, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it). Apparently, he’ll be taking the course, ‘Becoming human: Anthropology,’ an introduction to human evolution. By the next morning, Bowen had resigned from the Prime Minister’s cabinet and moved to the government back bench, stepping down from his post overseeing tertiary education…
Paleoanthropologists have long looked to early hominids to answer questions about our own development and evolution. The most famous example is the Australopithecus Lucy, who roamed the African savannah more than 3 million years ago.
Recently, paleoanthropologists have uncovered a fossilized foot close to Lucy’s age but with details resembling an older species of proto-human, Ardi. The find provides scientists with new details and information on the evolution of bipedalism in humans. To learn more about the discovery, see the article in Scientific American.
Traditionally, skeletal analysis in search of answers about human lives has fallen into two camps: the study of populations is the purview of bioarchaeologists, who want to know more about life in the past, and the study of individuals is the purview of forensic anthropologists, who want to put a name with the set of bones they have in front of them. This line has started to blur over the last few years in that bioarchaeologists are realizing they can craft stories of individual lives from the vast array of methods and techniques available to the 21st century researcher. Pros and Cons of Osteobiography.
Scientists have recently mapped and published the genetic code of the Bonobo Chimpanzee (Pan paniscus); our closely related primate cousins. Bonobo Chimps, sometimes called pygmy or gracile chimpanzees, share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings (on par with the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes. The two species of chimpanzee share more than 99% of their genetic code, but have clearly distinct social constructions and inherent behaviors.
Common chimpanzees are characterized by not only their intelligence, but their often violent (sometimes inexplicably so) behavior. Whereas their primate “siblings,” Bonobos, are inherently peaceful, egalitarian, and matriarchal (the only group of great apes with a female-focal social construct).
Scientists hope that these new genetic revelations will help us to understand concepts of ‘inherently human’ behavior – specifically concepts of empathy, cooperation, and peaceful negotiation (all behaviors human beings can and do express).
“If you look at bonobos, chimpanzees and humans, what you can see is that there are some specific characteristics that we share with both of them.”
Scientists hope to study the genetic distinctions to help understand what is inherent versus learned social behavior that we may have genetically inherited from our distant, primate ancestors. To learn more about this research, see the articles: “‘Hippie Chimp’ DNA may shed light on our Dark Side” at MSNBC and Bonobo’s Genetic Code Laid Bare at the BBC.
Archaeologists from St. Alban’s are using CT Scanners to examine the contents of five Roman burial urns found in Hertfordshire.
“Two of the urns contained bones which could be human. An osteoarchaeologist will now examine the bones and help provide even more detail.” – Kelly Abbott
The completion of the examination will include removing the cremated remains, cleaning, and studying the bones for further conclusions – age, sex, and potentially cause of death.
To learn more about the archaeological inquiry into these burial urns, see the article at BBC News.
The grave contains more than 160 people (men and women) who were likely ritually sacrificed. The bones demonstrated markings of body modification ocular amongst the Ancient native inhabitants.
To learn more about this discovery, see the article at MSNBC.
This month’s Scientific American highlights the forensic lab of Dr. Ann Helen Ross, whose lab specializes in identifying the remains, cause of death, or obtaining evidence from murder cases that boggle typical investigations.
Using what, to the lay person, might appear gruesome techniques (including removing soft tissue with harsh chemicals), Dr. Ross and her time help to provide evidence to investigators pertaining to unsolved murder cases (a disturbing number involving children).
To read more about the how forensic anthropology helps solve real life crime, read the short article at Scientific American blog or the longer version in October’s issue (requires a subscription).
A wonderful assessment of the tragedy suffered by the Mayflower Pilgrims and their first winter in America. If you have not yet read “Bones Don’t Lie,” a great blog on osteology, archaeology, and anthropology, it’s a must! Even those with the most lay knowledge will gain a greater appreciation of mortuary analysis.
Jennifer Barber, a Masters student at the University of Dundee, is reconstructing the face of a young boy that lived in Norway more than 500 years ago. Using forensic arts, she is reconstructing the soft tissue and features of the boy’s face based on the original skeletal features using a series of skull x-rays.
“People are drawn to faces. The Viste Boy will probably attract attention in a future exhibition at the museum, bringing the story of Vistehola, the Viste Boy and the other people who lived there more alive for visitors.”
To learn more about this project, see the article in Science Daily.