Liveblog of ScienceNOW on Neandertals, Dikika

5 minute read

Now watching the NOVA ScienceNOW about “What makes us human”.

9:06: “The idea of another species of humans sharing our cities isn’t that far-fetched. 30,000 years ago, there were at least four different kinds of humans sharing the earth, including the Neandertals”

The introduction to Neandertals isn’t bad, although I really don’t like it when people say “the ones who stayed in Africa became us” – that minimizes the contribution of other people, and glosses over the possibility that some ancient Africans didn’t become “us”, or were among the ancestors of some Africans but not all.

9:08: “Daniel Lieberman from Harvard looks for answers in the way human heads evolved” – Lieberman: “What makes you different from Neandertals is basically above the neck.”

9:09: Now Pogue is showing himself in a makeup studio being made into a Neandertal character. Back to Lieberman explaining how the Neandertal head is different from ours. It’s really interesting to hear him describe this, because the description is completely typological – there’s no conception here of variation within Neandertals or within humans.

9:11: OK, the makeup transformation is complete. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the artists, but the result doesn’t compete with the makeup jobs on Face/Off.

Pogue goes walking down a city street. I don’t see anybody noticing..but of course there’s a cameraman following him around.

9:13: Differences in the shape of the brain. Lieberman “wouldn’t bet his mortgage” on human brains being better than Neandertals.

Now Pogue is presenting several just-so stories about why we were superior to Neandertals. He dismisses these as “speculation” and starts talking about the Neandertal genome. We see a Max Planck scientist grinding up some bone with a Dremel tool.

9:15: Yay, Ed Green!

Green: “They had sex, they had descendants, we find this trace in our DNA today. Amazing.”

9:18: This is the fourth show I know of where they have a presenter get their DNA sampled to find the Neandertal fraction. It’s really cool that they are getting this news out there.

Green shows Pogue a part of chromosome 12 where he has a Neandertal nucleotide. They’re showing a laptop screen with a slot machine-like display of nucleotides. I suppose it was really a blank screen and they did it in post-production. Either that, or I have to get the slot machine DNA typing program!

9:20: “We may not see Neandertals among us, but they are still here, within us.”

Still walking down the street. An older lady seems to have decided Pogue is some kind of freak.

Oh, no! An animated Neandertal in drag! She/he is putting on makeup (this is about the shells and pigments associated with Neandertals). I have only this to say: Through the Wormhole has way better short animations than ScienceNOW.

Whew, that was over quick. Now he’s on to the origin of language.

9:22: It’s Dave Frayer! He’s got a suitcase with skulls inside. Man, it would be cool if it were like the one in Pulp Fiction!

OK, well, it’s cooler to have one with skulls inside, I guess.

Going through Homo erectus brain size. A symmetrical stone tool becomes a way to look into the cognitive abilities of early Homo.

9:26: On to Dietrich Stout, who is discussing the pathways in the brain used for stone tools. He works with Bruce Bradley, expert stone knapper, who is giving Pogue a lesson in toolmaking.

With toolmaking we’re looking at complex, sequential thought. Bradley: “Because what are we looking at with language, it’s complex sequential thought”

9:29: Now Cynthia Thompson, who is looking at people with brain injuries that lead to aphasia. “Agrammatic aphasia patients share a common characteristic: damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, which contains an area called Broca’s area…does Broca’s area have anything to do with stone toolmaking?”

9:31: Going into a scanner, where people are watching stone toolmaking via a projector, on the argument that watching an activity and doing the activity involve the same brain area. “Watching the video of simple choppers resulted in mild activity in Broca’s area, but watching the video of making a handaxe caused four times as much activity”

9:34: A short interlude on babies learning language.

9:35: Looking at babies learning to laugh. Gina Mireault is studying babies smiling and laughing. “What we found with these very young babies, is that when we tell parents to make their babies laugh, they do some very outrageous things. Laughter is irresistible”

9:37: Now at the Cincinnati Zoo to see if animals laugh. Pogue tickles a penguin – “he’s laughing” – “no, that’s the noise they make when they want to breed”

Pogue is really talented at this part, he totally commits himself to being silly in the name of science.

Marina Davila-Ross is studying primate laughter. They are at the Stuttgart Zoo with gorillas. She collected sounds from all the great apes being tickled. Super cool audiogram images of the laughter sounds going from most distant – orangutans – to humans across the phylogenetic tree. Gorillas always use the same kind of panting laughter, as a part of horseplay.

9:42: Now with psychologist Michael Owren, looking at acoustic models of laughter sounds in people.

9:43: Pogue asks a great question: “How did that make me have more babies?” The program gives an answer (for laughter and social relationships) but it’s great that they edited it to emphasize this question.

9:44: Zeray Alemseged in Ethiopia: “I went to start the first Ethiopian-led project in paleoanthropology ever, but it wasn’t easy”. The show gives a great short biography of Alemseged. This is an awesome segment.

9:48: Now at Dikika. They do a great job illustrating the discovery of the skeleton.

9:50: Don Johanson discussing how we “did not instantly become human”.

9:51: “Day after day, for six years, Zeray chipped away at the piece of stone.” They’re comparing the Selam teeth to apes and humans, inferring its age and pattern of development. The show has him at a computer with Fred Spoor examining CT data.

9:53: Describing the hoopla that arose upon the publication of the Dikika skeleton. This has been a great 12-minute segment on Alemseged.

9:55: And that’s the program. Very well done, a range of segments that go together very naturally. They really did save the best for last, but really everyone in the program did a great job.