Announcing the Malapa Soft Tissue Project

I am pleased to announce a new open science initiative, focused on a discovery that is unique in paleoanthropology. Together we are going to find out if the Malapa site has preserved evidence of soft tissue from an ancient hominin species.

If you've arrived at this page from outside the site, here's a link to the main project headquarters.

In the August, 2011 issue, National Geographic reported on the Malapa fossils, including a teaser that the site may preserve skin from two hominin individuals. (I pointed to the article last month.)

The suggestion is obviously surprising. Many readers will remember how much controversy surrounded claims about soft tissue preservation from dinosaurs several years ago. Yet extraordinary preservation contexts do exist in the fossil record. Indeed, a few years ago Lee Berger's team, including several of the people now working on the Malapa hominins, identified hair preserved inside hyena coprolites from Gladysvale cave, more than 200,000 years old and only a short distance from Malapa Backwell:hair:2009.

Could Malapa present the first evidence of soft tissue from a fossil hominin? If so, what can it tell us about human evolution?

The day the National Geographic article was published online, I was standing with Lee in his lab looking at what might be australopithecine skin. I'm not talking about an imprint of skin, like a skin cast. These appear to be thinly layered, possibly mineralized tissue.

Suppose it's really skin, or some other soft tissue, I thought. How would you go about testing the hypothesis? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Even if you could demonstrate it to your own satisfaction, what would it take to convince the doubters? How many distinct observations would be possible from these objects? What instruments would you use, and what comparative samples would you need?

Lee said this was his problem as well. He has access to some of the most sophisticated technology in the world. Some kinds of observations are obvious. He can micro-CT the apparent soft tissue evidence, look within the rock at its structure. He can sample the chemical content, and use scanning and confocal microscopes to examine it. He could sacrifice a small sample to be microscopically dissected. At the end, he would have an answer involving all these comparisons. But would it be convincing?

Lee then made an inspired proposal: What if the process itself were an experiment?

Much of the criticism of other surprising fossil discoveries has been fueled by their secrecy. Science done by a closed process means fewer eyes looking at data, and too many chances for errors to pass unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, until publication. Then, a firestorm of controversy may erupt as the scientific community at last examines the methods and results closely. In anthropology, the most critical errors are often missed comparisons -- sometimes simple things that a research team could have looked at, if they had only thought of it.

An open process has the chance of improving research by broadening it. We want stronger, clearer results, and we want to anticipate every important criticism. If a significant comparison can be added by people who have the right tools, why not get those people involved? If we stand a chance of finding those people by making the process more open, why not do it?

Lee suggested that this soft tissue evidence could be the basis of a true experiment in whether paleoanthropology could be done as open science. I've been agitating about open science for years, and I volunteered right away to host the experiment and work to make it a success. We went immediately to Rachelle Keeling, the graduate student who will be coordinating the project, and described how we thought it could work. She was enthusiastic about the idea of a truly new kind of scientific project, one that had the potential to involve so many people in the process of discovery.

And so, after a month of putting things into order, here we are. How can you participate in the project, or at least follow its progress?

I have set up a home page for the project, here as a special category page on the blog. This page is the online headquarters of the work, and includes a feed that will have all project updates. As the project proceeds, it will generate suggestions, results, and press. I'll be tracking all of these and updating as we learn more.

The project has an official e-mail address hosted here: skin@johnhawks.net. We want to hear from anyone with the expertise or ideas to solve this problem. Rachelle and I will be reading through the e-mails, discussing them with other project members, and following up on them.

We don't know what to expect but I hope we get hundreds of responses. We can't promise replies to anyone, but everyone will receive an automatic acknowledgement that we've received their messages, and we will follow up personally with those that have suggestions or proposals we can take action on. We're going to ask people to participate in the project, perform research, and coauthor the scientific work: this is real open science.

Members of the Malapa team are biologists who know comparative skin and hair biology. I'll be posting quite a lot about these biological topics for people following the project.

We know that there are many researchers who have been working with methods that would be useful on these unique samples of possible soft tissue. People working with the trace chemistry of organic compounds in mineral samples, people working with the microscopic structure of other ancient soft tissue samples, people who study preservation of organic materials in forensic contexts. There are many others that I don't even know I should be listing.

If you know a person with the right expertise to help, please share this information and encourage her to write.

Most important to the success of the project is showing that we can produce top quality science by this open process. That means we need journals to acknowledge the value of open science instead of penalizing it for not being secret and embargoed. If you're a journal editor reading this, I'm calling you out. And if you're a reviewer or editorial board member, you can support this project and encourage more like it by encouraging the submission of open manuscripts.

And if you don't have a suggestion right now, keep watching. This project will develop and I expect it to become more interesting as it becomes broader. I can't predict how it will end, and that's pretty exciting!