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paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Pre-Clovis Gault Assemblage artifacts. Thomas Williams et al. (2018) CC-BY-NC

Notable paper: Rajabli F, Feliciano BE, Celis K, Hamilton-Nelson KL, Whitehead PL, Adams LD, et al. (2018) Ancestral origin of ApoE ε4 Alzheimer disease risk in Puerto Rican and African American populations. PLoS Genet 14(12): e1007791. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1007791

Synopsis: Rajabli and coworkers examined late-onset Alzheimer’s disease risk in a large sample (~5500) African-American cases and controls, and a smaller number (~400) Puerto Ricans. Their goal was to understand how the APOE ε4 allele contributes to disease risk in these samples. They found that the effect of the ε4 allele in individuals with a specifically African genetic background for that allele is reduced compared to other genetic backgrounds. The genome-wide proportion of African ancestry did not correlate with this effect. They infer that there are likely one or more protective mutations linked to the ε4 allele in Africans.

Interesting because: The APOE gene is the most well-known (and largest) risk locus for Alzheimer’s disease. The ε4 allele carries the risk, while alternative alleles are protective. The polymorphism among these alleles is quite ancient in humans; these different variants of APOE have been around for a long time. This raises the question of how this polymorphism has persisted, if one of the alleles has a strong disease risk. It has long been known that the disease risk of ε4 is lower in people of African descent, but exactly why the allele should have less of an effect in that group has not been clear. Some geneticists argued for a genetic background interaction, where one or more modifier genes might increase risk in non-African genetic backgrounds, or decrease risk in African genetic backgrounds. This new study shows it is not the overall genome that matters; it is specifically the haplotype of ε4. It remains to find the mutations on African ε4 haplotypes that modify disease risk.

Evolutionary connections: If I remember correctly, the ε4 allele is more like the ancestral condition for humans, but it does not characterize other great apes. That is, at some point in our evolutionary history, the ε4 allele arose. Today it carries an Alzheimer’s risk, but this may have been near insignificant in ancestral hominins with much shorter average lifespans. Some have speculated that APOE was under selection when hominins first became meat eaters. Exactly what is going on in this system is not obvious to me, but it is an interesting mystery.

Rising Star open science profile

Ars Technica has a very nice long profile of the Rising Star project by Lydia Pyne: “Rising Star found a new species—now it wants to find a new way for paleoanthropology”.

I very much appreciate this article for the number of voices involved in the project that it includes. The emphasis is on the way that the process of science is changing in human evolution. The discoveries are exciting, but to me what is more lasting will be the way that the mode of scientific work has become distributed across broad collaborations by using open access methodologies.

Open access isn’t free, as many champions as well as critics of Rising Star’s approach to data accessibility point out. The question of where data is stored, how it can be accessed, and who can use it depends on the scientists that generate it. But the success of open access also depends on the institutions and grants that fund research and whether journals require data openness and transparency with the publication of peer-reviewed research.
“The success of Rising Star’s policy of open access means that it will be harder for paleoanthropologists in the future to not be more open with their data,” Throckmorton said. “They might not be open to the same level as the naledi project, but they will be more open. There’s been a shift in expectations about publishing fossils.”

This is a thoughtful article and gives a lot to think about.

Quote: Wilfred Le Gros Clark on controversy

Wilfred Le Gros Clark, on controversy in human origins:

Every discovery of a fossil relic which appears to throw light on connecting links in man's ancestry always has, and always will, arouse controversy, and it is right that this should be so, for it is very true that the sparks of controversy often illuminate the way to truth.

from his lecture, “Bones of Contention”, 1958.

Did hominins associate with antelopes?

Last summer in the South African Journal of Science, faunal specialist Shaw Badenhorst published a short commentary with an interesting question for early hominin behavior: Did they associate with herbivores to avoid predators? His paper is available here: “Possible predator avoidance behaviour of hominins in South Africa.”

Baboons today provide a good example of a defensive strategy using groupings with other mammal species. Together with various antelopes, baboons form multispecies groupings that take advantage of the great vision of the primates and the better smell and hearing of ungulates.

Impalas are the perfect ungulates for primates such as the chacma baboon to associate themselves with during daytime. In addition to their acute ability to sense predators, impalas prefer woodland savanna, rarely wonder more than 2 km from permanent water, and are sedentary, in that they move less than 3 km per day within their home range. During Plio-Pleistocene times, it is possible that hominins such as Paranthropus robustus and Australopithecus africanus as well as other primates associated themselves with ungulates with similar characteristics. The extinct Gazella helmoedi is thought to be an ancestral local form of the extant impala Aepyceros melampus.

Multispecies communities have been studied in many other primates. Still, it is hard to think of ways to test hypotheses about hominin multispecies interactions with fossil evidence.

A key question is the extent to which hominins may themselves have been predators of antelopes and other ungulates. It seems unlikely for impala to have tolerated hominins that were going to eat them at the first hunger pangs.

Many anthropologists assume that hunting or confrontational scavenging became important around the same time that stone tools came into use. Some have emphasized the apparent traces of cutmarks and percussion marks on antelope and horse bones in early archaeological contexts, prior to 2 million years ago. Most assume what seems like a coincidence in time is a correlation: Early hominins started eating animal prey at the same time they started making stone tools.

But there’s an alternative: Maybe hominins were eating other mammals all along. Chimpanzees, after all, hunt a range of smaller mammals, mostly monkeys, but also including duikers and pigs. Whether hominins inherited this behavioral pattern from our common ancestors or not, they were surely capable of hunting in a chimpanzee-like manner.

If hominins were hunters from their origins, we would expect that cutting and percussing animal bones would be part of their behavior as soon as stone tools were invented. Which is what we see.

Still, as the evidence for the “first” stone tools has become earlier and earlier, some archaeologists have poked holes in the argument for early faunal exploitation. Early cutmarks and percussion marks may also be consistent with crocodile predation, as illustrated in a paper by Yonatan Sahle and coworkers (2017). Multiple lines of evidence show that hunting and meat-eating were practiced by hominins at Bed 1 Olduvai sites, after 1.9 million years ago. But that evidence is much weaker for the earliest stone tool and faunal assemblages.


Badenhorst, S. 2018. Possible predator avoidance behaviour of hominins in South Africa. South African Journal of Science 114:13-14. doi:10.17159/sajs.2018/a0274

Link: Three big insights into our African origins

Recently, I delivered a lecture to the American Society for Human Genetics, focusing on the African record of human origins. It was a great privilege to speak to more than 5000 members of this professional organization, together with other distinguished experts on African genetic variation and health.

I wrote up and edited the text of my remarks to share more broadly. I focused the talk on “Three big insights into our African origins”.

Here are my three insights in brief:

First, modern humans did not originate in a bottleneck after 200,000 years ago. Our origin was much deeper in time than this.
Second, our species originated in Africa from deeply structured ancestral populations. These were much more different from each other than any human populations are today. We do not know how they interacted or which gave rise to living peoples.
Third, some of these deeply divergent populations survived in Africa until recent times. During the time of human origins, “modern” humans were not alone.

I discuss the Neanderthal and Denisovan contibutions, and include a good amount of context for the overall human evolutionary record, from Sahelanthropus on forward through deep time.

But my focus throughout is Africa, and I argue strongly for a reorientation of archaeology and genetics to recognize the continued centrality of Africa in our evolutionary history.

The “out of Africa” slogan came from well-intentioned scientists. They thought that by emphasizing the idea of an African origin, they would send a clear message that Africa had an important place in evolutionary narratives. That much is true. Africa was the center of human origins. But “out of Africa” stories focused almost exclusively on dispersal, as if it were an exodus. Africa’s place in these stories was the place that people left.
We must recenter Africa in this story of humanity’s common origin.
Africa was going strong before the bottleneck that affected non-African peoples. Most African populations didn’t experience this bottleneck, and they continued going strong afterward. Discoveries of the last few years sketch a picture of great diversity and surprising survivals, of deep histories and interactions. Today’s Africans share a rich heritage that reflects their position at the center of the action.

Australopithecus prometheus: is it real?

Lee Berger and I have a new article out in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that looks at what may be the biggest issue in hominin taxonomy for the upcoming year: Australopithecus prometheus is a nomen nudum.”

Our paper concludes that this species was not properly defined back in 1948, and should not be used today for new fossils without a new formal definition.

It’s a short article and the topic is probably obscure for most people interested in reading it. We had to read very carefully through 70-year-old research papers to understand exactly how they relate to the evidence. Along the way, we developed a thorough understanding of the international convention on naming species, and its updates through the years.

So I’ve put together a short Q-and-A about our paper and the topic of Au. prometheus. I hope it helps to deepen people’s interest in a fascinating history.

Why does anybody care about Australopithecus prometheus today?

The short answer is that the name Au. prometheus has come to be associated with the Little Foot skeleton from Sterkfontein.

That skeleton has been in the news, and so prometheus is in the news. For example, last month the Daily Mail announced: “New ‘human ancestor’ discovered”. New Scientist added: “Exclusive: Controversial skeleton may be a new species of early human”.

You can imagine that a lot of folks who follow new developments in human evolution are probably scratching their heads. Prometheus?

“Little Foot” is a skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa, and its formal number is StW 573. Last year I wrote about this skeleton and the scientific opportunities it may provide for human origins research: “Will the ‘most complete skeleton ever’ transform human origins?”

Ron Clarke is the scientist who directed the excavation and study of the skeleton. Back in the 1980s, Clarke began to develop an idea that the hominin fossils from Member 4 of Sterkfontein might have belonged to two different species. One of these was Australopithecus africanus, which is familiar to most students of human origins. The other included Sterkfontein specimens with larger molar and premolar teeth, and with skulls and jaws that suggested larger jaw musculature.

Most scientists attributed such differences to sex, assuming that adult males are larger and more robust-looking that females. Clarke asserted that the differences in teeth and jaw musculature were correlated with facial and cranial features in a way that would not be expected between males and females of the same species. In his opinion, the larger-toothed Sterkfontein fossils were more closely connected to the robust australopithecines, such as those from nearby Swartkrans and Kromdraai.

Clarke assessed that the hypothetical robust-like species was different from Au. africanus. For this species, which in his opinion includes the StW 573 skeleton, he has used the name Au. prometheus.

Clarke’s new preprint with Kathy Kuman discusses the current status of these ideas, and it is available open access: “The skull of StW 573, a 3.67 Ma Australopithecus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa”. I recommend reading through it.

Is prometheus a new species?

Au. prometheus is far from new. In fact the name is a blast from the past.

Raymond Dart coined the name in 1948 to describe a fragment of hominin occipital bone from Makapansgat, South Africa. A few years later, Dart himself came to believe it was a mistake. Neither this bone nor any of the rest of the Makapansgat fossils described later were a different species from the Taung specimen, which he had named Australopithecus africanus back in 1925. Au. prometheus was soon forgotten.

For most old names in human evolution, that would have been the end of the story. Clarke’s interest in the name, and his attribution of the Little Foot skeleton to Au. prometheus has driven a few other scientists to use the name or cite it in their scientific work.

That makes for a potentially very confusing situation.

Confusion is not bad by itself, if the momentary confusion of scientists today helps to serve greater accuracy in the long run. But the situation with Au. prometheus is more difficult than most other shifting names. Most scientists who use the name are referring to Little Foot, and the broader uncertainty about the number of species represented at Sterkfontein. But the name belongs to MLD 1, a fragment from Makapansgat, which is a different hominin site.

Wait, MLD 1? Isn't that just a tiny fragment?

MLD 1 is a small piece of cranium that includes part of the occipital bone and small portions of the left and right parietal bones. Here’s the specimen:

The anatomy is not very informative.

In his description of the specimen, Dart noted several features. Many of them distinguish the fragment as a hominin as different from the non-hominin great apes. The informative features that were in Dart’s view different from other early hominin specimens were extremely limited.

MLD 1 specimen, lateral view.

In his comparisons, he emphasized three comparative samples. One was the set of remains that we today would call Homo erectus, and at the time were known as Sinanthropus from Zhoukoudian, China, and Pithecanthropus from Trinil and Sangiran, Java. The Zhoukoudian remains had been described in detail by Franz Weidenreich in a series of monographs that influenced Dart’s approach to the Makapansgat specimen. The second set of remains was from Sterkfontein, where Robert Broom had uncovered a number of fossil skull remains of a hominin he called Plesianthropus transvaalensis. Today we know most of these Sterkfontein fossils as Au. africanus.

The last comparative sample was the specimen Dart had described in 1925, the Taung specimen of Au. africanus This was the critical one, but unfortunately there was very little that could be compared between Taung and MLD 1 aside from their size: The Taung specimen does not preserve the portions of occipital or parietal bones that are present in MLD 1.

The Taung specimen. No overlap with the MLD 1 specimen...

In Dart’s view, the inion (highest central point of attachment of the nuchal muscles) was lower on the MLD 1 specimen than in Sinanthropus or Pithecanthropus. In Dart’s interpretation, the anatomy of Australopithecus was “diametrically opposed to the apes and is much closer to modern man than are Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus. In other words, he argued that the South African Australopithecus was more humanlike than the Asian fossils.

Yet the MLD 1 nuchal plane was longer than in the newly-discovered Plesianthropus skull from Sterkfontein, Sts 5. This would make Plesianthropus even more humanlike than Australopithecus, by Dart’s argument. He escaped this conclusion by arguing that the small brain size of Plesianthropus and more developed occipital torus gave its posterior cranium more of a Sinanthropus profile. Australopithecus was in Dart’s opinion the really humanlike form; the others were specializations that had no close connection to humans.

The lambdoidal suture of the MLD 1 specimen has a number of “Wormian bones”, which are independent centers of ossification within the suture boundary separating the occipital and parietal bones. This is not a unique feature – many humans and great apes have such complex sutures, and they do not distinguish species from each other. Dart recognized that Sinanthropus specimens had similar form, and suggested that this feature might reflect more variable ossification and delayed suture closure in the evolving brain of Australopithecus.

Finally, Dart suggested that the cranial capacity of the specimen had been fairly large compared to the Sterkfontein endocasts. He explicitly identified this large brain size as a similarity with the Taung specimen, writing:

The endocranial volume (520 cm3) of the 6-year old Taungs infant postulated an adult endocranial volume equivalent to that of the Makapansgat adult; the endocranial cast of this adult occiput confirms and corroborates the evidence of cerebral expansion and intellectual superiority furnished over 20 years ago by the Taungs eiidocranial cast.

(I note here that Dart’s estimates, both for MLD 1 and for Taung, were too large by a substantial extent. He discusses a similar overestimate of the brain size of Paranthropus robustus from Kromdraai in the paper. Basically, Dart seemed attached to any trait that would make Australopithecus look more humanlike than Plesianthropus.)

In anatomical terms, this is very little to go on. No traits that Dart observed could separate the MLD 1 fragment from the Taung specimen of Au. africanus.

But Dart believed that the Makapansgat site represented a very different context from Taung. At Taung, where he had identified Au. africanus, the other fossils were rich in monkeys and small mammals but poor in large mammals like antelopes. Makapansgat had a rich array of antelopes and other large mammals, and some of the bones were blackened in color. Dart came to believe that the bone bed at Makapansgat was a “kitchen midden”, with the broken-up bones of prey animals of hominins that had been cooked in fires.

Dart argued that his interpretation of behavior by these hominins justified the new species name, Au. prometheus.

Wait, really? The occipital bone fragment was supposed to have come from a different species because it ate animals and used fire?

Basically, yes. Dart became convinced that Makapansgat provided unique evidence of behavior by Australopithecus. He imagined the bones of antelopes and other large mammals at the site to be the prey of the hominins. In the 1948 paper, he wrote:

The special significance of the Makapansgat valley limeworks deposits in unravelling these early human mysteries lies in their being true hearths and thus providing information, that hitherto has been lacking elsewhere in South Africa, concerning man’s hunting skill, his probable weapons and his use of fire.

Dart developed this opinion long before any hominin fossils were known from Makapansgat. Wilfred Eitzman, a high school teacher, first sent Dart fragmented animal fossil bone from Makapansgat in 1925. Some of those bones were darkly stained, and Dart provided samples to chemists who suggested that the black particles were evidence of free carbon, which might have been produced by fire. Dart described this in a short 1925 paper.

Later in his life, Dart would write that in 1925, he had assumed that the bones had been fragmented by ancient humans, not anything as small as the Australopithecus he identified at Taung.

Twenty years later, starting in 1945, students from Dart’s anatomy department began to explore for fossils at Makapansgat and other nearby sites. Led by the young Phillip Tobias, the students conducted a series of field expeditions. In the course of this work they uncovered a number of fossil baboons, which Robert Broom confirmed to be of substantial antiquity. These baboon fossils convinced Dart that the fossil deposits were older than he had once assumed, and instead of prehistoric humans, he now hypothesized that Australopithecus might be found there.

In 1947, one of the students—James Kitching, who went on to a stellar career in paleontology—found a piece of hominin occipital bone. This first hominin discovery, numbered MLD 1, would become the type specimen of Au. prometheus when Dart described it in 1948.

But earlier, in 1946, an episode occurs that helps to show just how prometheus-minded Dart really was. Tobias told the story in his 1997 retrospective on Makapansgat:

We handed over to Dart and [Lawrence] Wells a number of primate crania, among other fossils from the Limeworks. One day, Dart came into the Medical B.Sc. Laboratory with a beatific expression on his face and, without saying a word, walked around the room shaking hands with each one of us who had been on the expedition. Then he stated simply, "Congratulations. You have discovered the Makapansgat apeman." He had identified one of our primate skulls as that of an australopithecine! As leader of the expedition I was privileged to be allowed into the technical laboratory two doors away, where, under powerful lights, the telltale specimen was being photographed. Dart had already sent a note to Nature in which he announced the discovery of the first hominid from Makapansgat. Mindful of the earlier finding of blackened bones there, which, following laboratory tests by Moir and Fox, he had interpreted as having been darkened by fire, he had even named the new hominid, Australopithecus prometheus (Dart & Craig 1959, p.51).
The name had been created, the paper had gone off, and it remained only for the photographs to be taken and sent to Nature. There, in the laboratory, the specimen was posed, the lights were adjusted, the camera was poised - when I saw Lawrie Wells, his head on one side, frowning slightly. He then turned his head the other way and frowned more deeply. In a small voice, he said, "Professor, if you look at it this way, it looks like the skull of a baboon." Indeed that is what it turned out to be! The note to Nature was withdrawn, feelings were doubtless bruised, the name was left hanging fire, as one might say, and Wells's powers of observation and his morphological skills had won the day. When two years later James Kitching recovered a genuine australopithecine at the Limeworks (Figure 8), Dart resurrected the same name (Dart 1948).

This is a remarkable story, even if Tobias embellished it. Dart had evidently convinced himself that the Makapansgat site would hold a new hominin species, before any fossils were found. He was ready to name it prometheus, no matter what it looked like.

Dart’s preconceptions about the Makapansgat site are not directly relevant to whether scientists should recognize the species he named. What matters is the article he wrote to describe MLD 1.

That article didn’t focus on anatomy that might distinguish MLD 1 from the Taung specimen. This story about the baboon fossils does help to explain some of the deficiencies of that later article. Dart was ready to go based upon his interpretation of the animal bones at the site. The anatomy of the specimen itself simply did not distinguish it from Au. africanus as Dart knew it.

Did Dart have in mind something like the "killer ape"?

The idea of Australopithecus prometheus had tremendous impact on scientists and society outside human origins research.

Over the next decade, Dart developed his idea of the “Osteodontokeratic culture”. In the broken animal bones from Makapansgat, Dart saw killing weapons. He embraced the idea that hunting made apes into humans by causing them to confront other animals. For example, in a paper titled, “The predatory transition from ape to man”, Dart wrote:

On this thesis man's predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because it inspired Stanley Kubrick’s image of violent, bone-shattering apemen at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dart had a vivid imagination for the behavior of prehistoric hominins. Most of his ideas about ancient behavior turned out to be wrong. It would take the development of the science of taphonomy to prove that Dart’s ideas don’t fit the facts. The animal bones from Makapansgat had been broken by natural processes. The hominins did not break up the bones or bash into them at this site. The blackened coloration was natural manganese deposition, common in the dolomite caves of South Africa.

The killer ape was pure imagination.

What is a nomen nudum?

The rules of naming animal species and other animal groups were set down by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, starting in 1895. Those rules constitute the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and the Code has been updated periodically over the years to formalize and standardize practices used in the taxonomy of various groups. Hominins are animals, and so the names of fossil hominins fall under the Code.

A nomen nudum is a name that was never provided with a valid diagnosis under the Code.

People make up fictional and imaginative species names all the time. Some of these are famous in the study of human evolution.

For example, the nineteenth-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel named the fictitious species, Pithecanthropus alalus to represent his hypothetical ancestor of humans, one “missing link” in the evolutionary chain. When Eugene Dubois later discovered the hominin fossil skullcap from Trinil, Java, he named it Pithecanthropus erectus. Dubois transformed Haeckel’s fantasy name into a real species.

Lee and I looked very carefully at the details of Dart’s description. Peer referees also helped us to see some aspects that had greater importance than we initially thought. At the end, after reviewing the history of Au. prometheus and Raymond Dart’s original definition from 1948, we are able to show that the species was never properly defined.

It can be hard to go back to older sources and figure out which parts of the text are relevant to the rules of taxonomy. But while the Code has changed somewhat over time, they have always guided the way scientists must interpret formal descriptions of papers. Dart’s definition had to follow the Code, and we can interpret it in terms of the Code today.

When looking at the original paper describing MLD 1, we saw that Dart never provided features that could distinguish Au. prometheus from Au. africanus. Dart was a world-recognized anatomist. But he faced an insoluble problem: Au. africanus to him was only represented by the Taung specimen. And Dart was convinced that the two specimens were the same form, with slight differences due to the sites they were from. He continually emphasized the similarities between these, but was left without any diagnostic differences.

Today most scientists recognize a large sample of fossils from Sterkfontein as Au. africanus. But by 1948, Broom had only uncovered a few of these fossils, and had formally assigned them to the species that Broom had diagnosed at the site: Plesianthropus transvaalensis. Dart describes a few differences between the MLD 1 specimen and Plesianthropus. None of these distinguish the fossil from the juvenile Taung skull. Dart emphasizes throughout his paper that the MLD 1 specimen is the adult form of Australopithecus, while the Taung skull is the juvenile. He uses the features by which MLD 1 differs from Plesianthropus as ammunition for his argument that Australopithecus is more humanlike.

All of this is interesting to the history of anthropology. But none of Dart’s accurate description of the specimen did what a formal taxonomic definition must do: scientifically distinguish Au. prometheus from Au. africanus.

Dart did recognize the “complex sutural system” of the MLD 1 specimen as a possible difference from Au. africanus. But he clearly notes that such a trait might not be enough to distinguish the species, and it is obvious that the Taung specimen doesn’t preserve enough evidence to make this comparison.

In the place of anatomical features, Dart based his definition of Au. prometheus upon his interpretation of the behavioral evidence from Makapansgat. He imagined the Makapangat australopithecine as a predator. Dart’s idea that Au. prometheus is different from Au. africanus was based upon his interpretation of the site, not the features of the specimen.

That definition simply does not satisfy the requirements of the Code. Finding that a skull fragment is associated with broken antelope bones is not a feature that distinguishes a species from any other fossil found in different circumstances. And so under the rules of the Code, we argue that Au. prometheus should be recognized as a nomen nudum.

A nomen nudum cannot be validly used in comparisons with other species. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story: There is a procedure to revive such a name. A scientist can provide a new scientific definition for a nomen nudum that satisfies the Code, and can petition the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to recognize a new holotype specimen.

Since Au. prometheus is based on a fragment, why is it not a nomen dubium?

Biologists also have named species based on specimens that are too fragmentary or incomplete to compare any other specimens. Such a name under the Code is known as a nomen dubium: a “doubtful name”.

In my opinion, the hominin fossil record is full of such nomina dubia. The holotype specimens of many hominin species are no more than fragments. They don’t give enough information to evaluate whether other, more complete specimens are the same or different. That makes any attribution of another specimen to such species untestable.

A good example of the problems caused by such nomina dubia is Homo heidelbergensis. The holotype of this species is a mandible recovered from Mauer, Germany in 1907. It is a beautiful specimen, and it is unusual in comparison to mandibles from other Middle Pleistocene European sites. For much of the twentieth century, it was forgotten. But starting in the 1990s, some specialists in human evolution began to revive Homo heidelbergensis. Some argued that skulls from Africa, even China, might be attributed to the species, as a common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. Others saw the species name as a catch-all for Middle Pleistocene remains from Europe, so-called “pre-Neanderthals”. The richest site in the human fossil record, Sima de los Huesos, was argued by many anthropologists to represent Homo heidelbergensis, despite some obvious differences between the Mauer specimen and any of the Sima de los Huesos mandibles.

In short, anthropologists pursued ideas of Homo heidelbergensis that were based their ideas of how hominin species evolved over time and space, not the anatomy of the holotype.

Anthropologists unfortunately sometimes become attached to a nomen dubium. But they cannot be scientifically tested. It would improve the science of human evolution to recognize that such names are nomina dubia and stop citing and using them.

On the surface, Au. prometheus seems to fit this definition. Scientists have known that the MLD 1 specimen is too fragmentary to provide valid comparisons with most other hominin fossils, ever since the specimen was discovered. The specimen includes only part of the occipital bone and small parts of the two parietal bones. A name attributed to such a fragment under the Code would often be called a nomen dubium.

But when Lee and I examined the situation of Au. prometheus, we came to a different conclusion. Dart’s definition of Au. prometheus never distinguished MLD 1 from Au. africanus in the first place. Without such a diagnosis, Au. prometheus is better understood to be a nomen nudum.

We recognize and discuss in our paper the alternative that many scientists will prefer to see Au. prometheus as a nomen dubium. Under the Code, a nomen dubium can never be revived by providing a new definition. Such names are dead to taxonomy.

Aren't all species names from that era mostly fluff, anyway?

The New Synthesis in evolutionary biology during the 1930s and 1940s had as one of its consequences a revolution in practices in systematics. Earlier practice had named many more species and genera in some animal families. The hominins in particular had become a morass of genus and species names.

In a famous contribution to the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology published in 1950, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr proposed a massive simplification of the classification of hominins. Instead of nigh-on a dozen genera and species, he suggested recognizing only three successive species. For all the australopithecines, he suggested lumping into the single species Homo transvaalensis.

This was the conversation among evolutionary biologists just as Dart was naming Au. prometheus. Dart’s Australopithecus would be completely wiped out if anthropologists had accepted Mayr’s idea. So you might imagine Dart was using an old-fashioned style of naming species, and the modern way would give rise to something else.

But it is too simple to see this as two different styles of naming species.

When you read Dart’s 1948 article on the MLD 1 occipital bone, you can see that he was working toward seeing the fossil hominins from these sites as biological species instead of mere names. His logic was based on behavior and geology, not on small details of anatomy of MLD 1. Reading through his paper, I get the impression of someone thinking about the whole organism, and what kind of variation should correspond to species and genus differences.

And Dart very quickly agreed with Robinson (1954) who proposed a simplification of the South African hominin classification. Robinson’s ideas were not as extreme as Mayr’s, and in fact what most anthropologists accept today is based largely on Robinson’s concepts of species. It was very easy for Dart to slightly modify his perspective on species by abandoning the name Au. prometheus and recognizing that the Makapansgat and Sterkfontein samples have “no more than racial differences.”

The problem with Au. prometheus, in other words, is not that Dart’s view of species was antiquated. It’s just that MLD 1 could not support a definition that distinguished it from Au. africanus.

What about the other hominin fossils from Makapansgat? Don't they help round out the anatomy Dart described?

Over fifteen years after 1948, teams working at Makapansgat found more hominin fossils. Initially, Dart attributed these to Au. prometheus, following his idea that “this locality, and the novel evidence it affords” were the important things for deciding to which hominin these fossils belonged.

Dart conceived of the difference between sites as the key difference justifying different species. In his interpretation, Taung and Makapansgat preserved different evidence of behavior, and so they must have been inhabited by different species.

Robinson’s 1954 taxonomic reinterpretation made it clear that no features reliably separated Makapansgat fossils from Sterkfontein fossils. Dart quickly came to agree with Robinson. Traits do not reliably separate the Makapansgat and Sterkfontein samples. Since the 1950s, nobody has thought that each of these two sites represents a different species, one from Sterkfontein and one from Makapansgat.

A few, including Clarke, have suggested that each site might by itself have two or more species; for example Ron Clarke has suggested that “robust” specimens at Makapansgat like MLD 2 were part of Au. prometheus but not more gracile ones like MLD 6.

But Clarke, like everyone else, accepts that no other Makapansgat specimen matters to the name that applies to this grouping. Only MLD 1 matters. And if the Makapansgat hominin sample is a heterogeneous collection of two (or more) different species, there is certainly no basis for saying that any of the other specimens are necessarily the same as MLD 1.

It is not valid to take traits from other specimens, such as the MLD 2 jaw, and assume those belong to Au. prometheus. The traits of MLD 1 do not support assigning it to either species over the other, if there were two of them.

Is it true that Dart abandoned Au. prometheus?

I cannot make this any clearer than these quotes from Dart himself:

The Makapansgat female skull is slightly wider and lower than the Sterkfontein female but because of their obvious similarities and their proximity in many respects, which will be demonstrated in a subsequent communication, I do not regard them as specifically distinct from one another zoologically any longer. (Dart, 1962a: 125, emphasis added)
While these differences appear to characterize the male as well as the female australopithecines at Makapansgat there seems to be no justification now for regarding them or any other known differences between the Sterkfontein and Makapansgat australopithecines as having more than variety value. (Dart, 1962a: 126, emphasis added)
There is therefore no good reason for separating the Makapansgat from the Sterkfontein australopithecine specifically; from the mandibular point of view they probably present no more than racial differences. (Dart, 1962b: 285)

Is there now a new definition for Au. prometheus?

Ron Clarke and Kathy Kuman extensively discuss Au. prometheus in their new preprint, just released last month. The preprint assigns the StW 573 skeleton to Au. prometheus. The preprint also provides a paragraph-long definition for both this species and Au. africanus, which differentiates these species from each other.

Sadly, the definition provided by Clarke and Kuman isn’t enough to correct the deficiencies of Dart’s original definition.

Dart’s definition applied the name Au. prometheus to a fossil specimen, MLD 1, that is different from Little Foot in the tiny handful of characters that can be compared between them.

For example, Clarke and Kuman suggest that Au. prometheus has an endocranial volume above 500 cc, and Au. africanus has an endocranial volume below 500 cc. This is the first element of their definition.

The idea comports with Dart’s original idea about the cranial capacity of MLD 1, which he thought was above 600 cc. Today few anthropologists would go so far, but Clarke has emphasized that the remaining parietal portions of MLD 1 suggest that the sides of the skull were more vertical and reflect a larger endocranial volume than in Au. africanus skulls like Sts 5.

But the Little Foot endocast is much smaller than this. The new paper describing the endocast by Amélie Beaudet and colleagues finds its volume to be only 408 cc, which the note plots “at the lower end of Australopithecus variation”. This is a minimum estimate that does not attempt to correct the distortion in the skull, but it is quite far from what Clarke and Kuman define as the minimum size of Au. prometheus. A reconstruction would have to inflate the endocast by 25% to fit Clarke and Kuman’s definition, and Beaudet and coworkers do not describe that degree of distortion. No matter what, this is a very clear difference that the StW 573 specimen shows from Clarke and Kuman’s definition of Au. prometheus.

I don’t know why Clarke and Kuman chose to make the first feature in their Au. prometheus definition one that clearly excludes Little Foot. They had 20 years to work on this, and yet they haven’t been able to come up with a definition of Au. prometheus that includes this nearly complete skeleton.

Another clear difference between Little Foot and MLD 1 is the form of the lambdoidal suture. This was the only anatomical trait that Dart listed as possibly differing between Au. prometheus and Au. africanus in his definition. This was not correct science, as the form of this suture is variable in hominin species and should not bear any weight in defining a species. But it is noteworthy that the Little Foot skull differs strongly from the type specimen of Au. prometheus in this trait. MLD 1 has a complicated suture with several Wormian bones. StW 573 has a simple suture.

In my opinion MLD 1 is a tiny fragment that doesn’t have enough information to validly compare to a complete skeleton. Relying upon such a fragmentary specimen is a very bad idea. No matter what is concluded from such a fragment, it will be subject to unending controversy.

But does Sterkfontein have two species?

Lee and I express no opinion about this in our new paper. Personally, I think this is a very challenging hypothesis to test in the Sterkfontein sample, and doing so will require a close comparison of all the specimens with variation in other hominin samples. That hasn’t been done.

Can Au. prometheus be revived?

If our opinion is accepted, and Au. prometheus is a nomen nudum that was never properly defined, then someone could revive it by following the rules. A future scientist could propose a new holotype specimen by formal application to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

That’s sure to be a difficult process, since the history of this species is complicated. The recent attempts to resuscitate it haven’t helped. And the dark history of the “killer ape” hypothesis provides a pretty good reason to come up with some other name instead. But it’s possible.

Instead of a nomen nudum, some scientists would probably argue that Au. prometheus is formally a nomen dubium. This is often used for species where the holotype specimen is too fragmentary to judge whether other specimens belong to the same species or not. Lee and I think this doesn’t fit because Dart failed to distinguish the species from Au. africanus in the first place. But I don’t think either of us would be surprised if other scientists favored the dubium idea.

If it were accepted that Au. prometheus is a nomen dubium, then there is no bringing it back. The name will always stick with the MLD 1 holotype, and that specimen will be forever doubtful.

The thing is, if Makapansgat, Sterkfontein, and Taung only have a single species between them, then that species is Au. africanus. If the Taung specimen stands apart, and Makapansgat and Sterkfontein represent a second species, then that species is Au. transvaalensis, because Plesianthropus transvaalensis was named before Au. prometheus. Only if Sterkfontein and Makapansgat have two or more species among them can Au. prometheus come into play. And if there are two species there, the MLD 1 specimen does not preserve enough anatomy to tell which it is.

That’s a nomen dubium scenario, and it’s one from which Au. prometheus will never resurface.


Beaudet, A., Clarke, R. J., de Jager, E. J., Bruxelles, L., Carlson, K. J., Crompton, R., ... & Jashashvili, T. (2019). The endocast of StW 573 (“Little Foot”) and hominin brain evolution. Journal of Human Evolution, 126, 112-123.

Clarke, R. J., & Kuman, K. (2018). The skull of StW 573, a 3.67 Ma Australopithecus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. bioRxiv, 483495. doi:10.1101/483495

Dart, R. A. (1948). The Makapansgat proto‐human Australopithecus prometheus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6(3), 259-284.

Dart, R. A. (1953). The predatory transition from ape to man. International Anthropological and Linguistic Review, 1, 201-218.

Robinson, J. T. (1954). The genera and species of the Australopithecinae. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 12(2), 181-200.

Tobias, P. V. (1997). Some little known chapters in the early history of the Makapansgat fossil hominid site. Paleontologica Africana, 33, 67-79.

Link: Profile of Tilly Edinger

Smithsonian has done a nice profile of Tilly Edinger, one of the most important paleontologists of the twentieth century: “The Woman Who Shaped the Study of Fossil Brains”.

Tilly Edinger was one of those rare people who knew exactly what she wanted to do. After reading Othenio Abel’s Principles of Vertebrate Paleontology, she had her calling: the study of ancient animals through their bones. She would go on to become one of the most significant paleontologists of the 20th century, and the first woman to be elected president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Not only that, but she would found an entirely new field of inquiry—paleoneurology, or the study of fossil brains.

The study of ancient endocasts in hominins is frustrating because of how little information is preserved on the outside surface of the brain. I’ve gotten a good introduction to the subject with the Homo naledi endocast material.

With some other lineages of vertebrates, there is a bit more to say, and Edinger made significant discoveries about the evolution of brain form in many of those lineages.

Why are biology classes ignoring insects?

A new content analysis of college biology textbooks finds that they have changed over the years to focus less and less on insects: A “College Textbooks Largely Overlook the Most Common Animals”.

From 1906-1920, introductory biology textbooks included an average of 32.6 pages devoted to insects, accounting for about 8.8 percent of the total pages. From 2000-2016, the textbooks devoted an average of 5.67 pages to insects, or only 0.59 percent of the total text.
“This is problematic because it puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how ecosystems work; they have very little background on key species,” Landin says. “And, in the long term, it means students may lack the information they need to identify population shifts that could have significant effects on ecosystems – including effects with ramifications for human health and well-being.”

Years ago, I did a seminar for graduate students in genetics. I asked them, “How many of you work with model organisms?” Everyone’s hands went up.

Then I asked, “How many of you can tell me three facts about your model organism’s natural habitat?” Not a single one of them volunteered.

The study of biology has shifted hugely away from naturalist knowledge and toward genetics and statistical knowledge. Within biology, students are learning more about molecular interactions than they are about ecology. It is still possible to learn about macroscale natural systems, of course, but the focus in introductory courses has shifted toward covering DNA, proteins, and cells, and away from systematics. More and more organismal biology content is focusing on humans and model organisms, of which Drosophila is just one.

Biology has grown enormously in popularity as a major, and careers in life sciences are growing markedly. Few of those careers are in evolution or ecology; most of them are in health sciences, agriculture, and natural resources. Insects are pretty important to the latter two, and remain important for health sciences also. So reducing students’ exposure to the breadth of insect life is not a good idea.

I would advocate for greater coverage of insects in anthropology textbooks also. Insects are hugely important to the human diet, both today and in the past. Not only insects themselves but their products, especially honey, have been essential to hunting and gathering populations, and remain important in Western food systems. Insects and insect products are also very important to living non-human primates.

Most human evolution textbooks and courses spend a huge amount of time and space on hunting large mammals. We’ve known for a long time that they have underemphasized plant foods relative to the importance of plants to ancient diets. Insects have been off the menu for these courses, and that’s wrong.

Lately I’ve been reading Julie Lesnik’s new book, Edible Insects and Human Evolution. The book does a great job of bringing light to this underappreciated part of human diet, and how anthropologists are studying it. I’ll be doing a review of the book when I have some time.

Besides their importance to the diet, insects are essential aspects of human ecology, especially notable in their impact on pathogen transmission–not only malaria and yellow fever, but Chagas’ disease, trypanosomiasis, plague, and countless others.

Just last week, we learned that plague struck European populations unexpectedly earlier than previously thought, implying a very different ecology for early Neolithic village life. More and more we are seeing stories of this kind, and they mean that our knowledge of human-insect interactions is getting much more intricate than anyone knew.

Is science nearing an end of practical progress?

An article in The Atlantic by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen asks why it seems like scientific progress is slowing down: “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck”.

The problem of diminishing returns is mentioned nowhere in the 2018 report of the National Science Foundation, which instead talks optimistically of “potentially transformative research that will generate pioneering discoveries and advance exciting new frontiers in science.” Of course, many scientific institutions—particularly new institutions—do aim to find improved ways of operating in their own fields. But that’s not the same as an organized institutional response to diminishing returns.
Perhaps this lack of response is in part because some scientists see acknowledging diminishing returns as betraying scientists’ collective self-interest. Most scientists strongly favor more research funding. They like to portray science in a positive light, emphasizing benefits and minimizing negatives. While understandable, the evidence is that science has slowed enormously per dollar or hour spent. That evidence demands a large-scale institutional response. It should be a major subject in public policy, and at grant agencies and universities. Better understanding the cause of this phenomenon is important, and identifying ways to reverse it is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our future.

The entire piece is an example of why fundamental physics is a bad model for the scientific enterprise as a whole. A small category of physicists may be spinning their wheels, but other areas of science are going strong.

I know that this is an objection that Collison and Nielsen discuss in their article. They specifically suggest that advances like CRISPR that are in the news today in biology are no more significant than past advances in biology.

In a sense, I cannot disagree. In genetics the basic observations of people like Mendel, Fisher, and Haldane formed a series of effective discoveries based on accessible mathematics and observations that might be made on any number of systems. A similar series of discoveries that could be achieved by monks and algebra is unlikely to be repeated in the future. Today’s theoretical population geneticists are exploring deeper and more complicated holes beyond the simplified models of evolution that to a first approximation may describe many small datasets.

But to be realistic, very complicated models have proven necessary to describe the inheritance of most human phenotypes, and we have not yet reached the point where we understand how to apply whole genome data to most questions. So these areas may be less “fundamental” but they are no less important to practical facts. If this starts to sound more like engineering than basic science, that is precisely what marks scientific progress, I would say.

More to the point, in my field of science we are still making many basic observations for the first time. I have been fortunate to be one of the first scientists to grapple with an entirely new fossil hominin discovery. We are still making those new discoveries, and they are still revealing new and unexpected things about human prehistory.

Someday we may face diminishing returns in human evolution research. But we are very, very far from that day. The last twenty years have seen an enormous increase in the fossil record. We keep finding unexpected things. We still have a lot of places to look with our current approaches.

What it will take for scientific discovery to continue at a high pace across scientific fields is for us to continue to find new ways of exploring the universe.


Brian Switek reports on a study that investigated bony features correlated with lung morphology in birds and crocodiles, to see how much dinosaur lungs resembled birds: “Dinosaurs Had Birdlike Lungs”. Birds have pretty efficient lungs, and while researchers already knew that many dinosaurs had air sacs similar to those of birds, that didn’t fully answer the question about the lung morphology.

The bottom line is that dinosaurs probably had lungs that were similar in morphology and function to those of living birds.

This doesn’t mean that all dinosaurs were just big birds. (Very non-bird like dinosaurs like Triceratops were part of this study, as well as those closely related to the origin of birds.) Rather, as the anatomists point out, the results indicate that the ancestral condition for dinosaurs was “a dorsally immobile lung, strongly partitioned into gas-exchanging and ventilatory regions.” Modifications from that basic setup - perhaps kept conservative in ornithischian dinosaurs and highly modified with air sac systems in saurischians - allowed for the respiratory diversity that paleontologists are now assessing and studying.

This is one of those anatomical observations that is very difficult to examine with the kind of evidence left from dinosaurs, and yet to most people it probably seems like it should be obvious.

I’m reading today about Neanderthal ribcage morphology, and that’s another issue that many people have written about in the past, but the evidence from most fossils just does not provide enough evidence to be sure about the overall shape and function of the anatomical structure.

It’s great when scientists can put together a more synthetic view that draws upon a broad spectrum of evidence.

'Where my house is, those trees were once growing'

The New York Times reports on a revival of the agricultural variety: “Finding Lost Apples and Reviving a Beloved Cider”.

Mr. Rosen, the former chief executive of a Manhattan advertising agency that promoted Svedka vodka and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, wants to reintroduce Newark cider, an 18th- and 19th-century alcoholic drink once famously compared to Champagne.
Newark cider was both a point of pride and big business for the region — requested by name, reportedly lauded by George Washington and produced by dozens of Newark-area cideries with acres of orchards. The secret wasn’t a recipe, but the blending of a quartet of superior apples born in the region: Campfield, Poveshon, Granniwinkle and Harrison, the most celebrated of the four.

I’m always inspired by these discoveries of lost varietals, which give us the potential of tasting the foods and drinks of the past, while recovering variation that might be useful or valuable again.

Richard Lee tells a story about the nuclear arms race

Richard Lee is best known to followers of anthropology as one of the co-organizers of the “Man the Hunter” conference in 1966. His fieldwork with the Dobe !Kung helped dispel some old anthropological myths about hunting and gathering peoples, and served as a nucleus for ideas about the evolution of human sociality.

He has written an article in this year’s Annual Review of Anthropology that examines both uses and misuses of hunter-gatherer ethnography in theory-building about human nature: “Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates.”

In the introduction to the article, he recounts a story involving his “Man the Hunter” co-editor, the late Irven DeVore:

Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, a brilliant US legislator in the 1960s and the founder of the scholarship program that bears his name, was just one public figure struggling to come to grips with the import of Lorenz’s theses. I vividly remember the late Irven DeVore coming into my office at Harvard University. “I just got off the phone with Senator William Fulbright calling from Washington,” Devore said. “He asked me ‘Professor DeVore, if Konrad Lorenz is right, how are we ever to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union?’”
DeVore reassured Fulbright that Lorenz’s views were far from universally accepted among anthropologists, that violence in human history was a variable not a constant, and that its causes and expressions were far more complex than could be explained simply by pure animal instinct.
DeVore’s disclaimers appeared to calm Senator Fulbright’s nerves, and in fact the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) went on to successfully negotiate a series of nuclear arms reduction treaties over the years. Nevertheless, the question of violence in human history continued to animate the debate within anthropology, fueled by Robert Ardrey’s “killer ape” hypothesis in his books African Genesis (Ardrey 1961) and The Territorial Imperative (Ardrey 1966). Interest was sustained by Napoleon Chagnon’s (1968) influential ethnography of the “fierce” Yanomamo and more recently by the writings of Wrangham & Peterson (1996), such as Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. I have labeled this persistent thread within anthropology and related disciplines as the “Bellicose School” (Lee 2014).

I am spending some time reading this review and taking notes, and it bears close reading. Lee’s theme is that many people who use “hunter-gatherers” as a category are actually lumping things that are quite different from each other. If you want to use ethnographic studies of today’s people to say anything about prehistoric people, you need to understand that any living group may be like ancient people in some ways, and very different from ancient people in other ways. Lumping across the entire category of “hunter-gatherers” doesn’t work if some of those living hunter-gatherers have economies, subsistence patterns, and social organization that is unlike anything that archaeology tells us about prehistoric groups.

Here’s a teaser from a box that discusses the work of Steven Pinker:

Despite the apparent magnitude of the Ju/’hoan/!Kung homicide rate, these still represent only 1.0–1.6% of overall deaths, compared to the 8–58% figure referenced in Pinker’s TED Talk.

I’ll hopefully be able to write a bit more about this as I read.


Lee, Richard B. 2018. Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates. Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (online early) doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041448

The fattest bear

I enjoyed the Washington Post account of the “annual fattest bear contest” in Katmai National Park: “America’s fattest bear has now been crowned”.

The science nugget that drives the outreach here is that grizzlies in Alaska lose a third of their body mass over their hibernation in the winter. They have to put on fat during the summer and early fall to survive, and the result is one of the largest cycles of annual weight gain and loss. The outcome is impressive (with photos at the article).

They were probably too busy on the small Brooks River, an upstream bottleneck for hundreds of thousands of the 62 million salmon that passed through Alaska’s Bristol Bay this year, LaValle said. There, the bears easily snatch the fish, then promptly massacre them for the fattiest parts — the skin, fat and brain — before nonchalantly discarding the flesh for which we humans might pay upward of $30 a pound.
LaValle compares this surgical approach to not filling up on bread at a restaurant — the fat is the good stuff, and there’s plenty more where it came from.

Lots to think about for students who are learning about optimal foraging.

Micro-museums, cabinets of curiosities

On the subject of natural history museums changing for the future, this update from the Simons Foundation is fascinating: “Science Sandbox: The changing face of science museums”.

MICRO, a nonprofit founded in 2016 by computational ecologist Amanda Schochet and media producer Charles Philipp, works with designers, artists and scientists to pack knowledge into cabinets of curiosity about the size of a vending machine. MICRO increases exposure to science learning by partnering with venues such as the Brooklyn Public Library, Ronald McDonald House and Rockefeller Center to install these tiny museums. The first museum in their ‘fleet,’ the Smallest Mollusk Museum, can go almost anywhere, from hospital waiting rooms to community centers and malls, reaching people where they already are.

This is such a cool idea. It’s like a tiny bookmobile for mollusc science.

I’m going to start planning a tiny cabinet that might work in public outreach for human origins. I think this has a lot of promise.

Some thoughts on museums, new species descriptions, and collections

What is the value of museum collections? One way of looking at this value is to watch people who newly describe species based upon specimens from collections taken long in the past. Today’s broader knowledge of biological diversity has created opportunities for scientists to recognize and describe specimens that don’t fit within recognized species.

Natural history museums are in a difficult place right now. Their budgets are tight and rely heavily upon their work in public education and engagement. The research side of these museums is having more and more trouble retaining talent in a landscape where universities and research institutes are better-funded. The age of genomics has brought new scientific interest to many collections, but the highest-profile results often benefiting highly-funded external researchers who snap up the low-hanging fruit.

Jake Buehler in Gizmodo tells the story of a new description of a parasitic plant species in Japan, and draws broader implications for the value of museum collections: “Mysterious New Plant Discovered in Museum Collection Is Probably Already Extinct”

This propensity to show up briefly only to vanish without a trace is likely a consequence of fairy lanterns’ strange life-cycle. Since they don’t need to photosynthesise, they can lay dormant underground for years, only sending miniscule flowers to the surface when they’re in a reproductive mood.
The discovery of the new fairy lantern highlights the crucial role museum collections play in our understanding of Earth’s biodiversity. Wurdack noted that in the in the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Herbarium alone, “we have hundreds of new species awaiting scientific description and further research.”

I don’t have a quarrel with this idea. There is a value to scientific description and understanding, as a way to alert people to the loss of biodiversity and the need to protect habitats.

But collection is also by its nature an act of destruction. Could this little fairy lantern have been the last of its kind? I’m interested that genetics was not a part of this story, although more and more it will be. We need to step up our means of noninvasive documentation of all kinds, from incidental genomic sampling to photo and photogrammetric documentation.

Future biological museums will mostly be data repositories. Natural history museums were established as repositories for physical collections. But the science in the future will rely upon vastly more data than physical specimens. We are not preparing museum supporters well for the coming era.

Another reaction: It’s indisputably true that museums possess many undescribed species within their collections. Important paleontological specimens keep emerging from the massive, incompletely-prepared collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That’s not a reason to praise these collections. All the undescribed specimens in these collections are the result of what today we would consider to have been near-indiscriminate destruction of sites.

In fortunate cases, the original collector recorded some contextual information, which is still associated with those specimens in the collections. Contextual information is often better for zoological and botanical specimens, mainly because living creatures were collected as complete bodies, skins, leaves, or skeletons, and the essential context is the collection location and time. The situation for paleontological and archaeological specimens is much worse, because excavation practices often did not result in any accurate idea of stratigraphic context. In many cases of both types, contextual information has been lost over time.

Sure, it’s a good thing that museums have stored these collections, often bringing them up to modern standards of curation that make such scientific description possible. Clever people can find some details of context even if original data are absent or poor. This scientific value is why we must maintain old physical collections and keep them as an intrinsic part of biology.

At the same time we must also redirect our scientific collections to integrate new models of data acquisition.

Obviously, a plot of forest that is about to be made into a parking lot is not the place to fret about leaving plant specimens in the field. My knowledge and concerns are more tuned toward paleontological cases, and as a paleoanthropologist I’m fortunate to work at sites that are either protected or have a strong potential to become protected because of their heritage value.

But that position gives us a broader responsibility. Paleoanthropologists should be at the leading edge of developing new and better ways of data collection, and finding ways to integrate those new approaches with old collections.