Thursday, May 4, 2017

Thoughts on the paper "Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from Pleistocene sediments"

Marnie Dunsmore

Last week the paper "Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from Pleistocene sediments" was published in Science.  The paper describes DNA that was sampled and sequenced from four "Pleistocene" dated caves, including from Denisova Cave.

Many journalists writing about this paper, including Lizzie Wade writing for Science Magazine, and Kate Wong, writing for Scientific American, suggested that this method could be applied to investigate another archaeological announcement last week, that of the Cerutti San Diego mastodon site which was published in Nature.

It should be mentioned that Denisova Cave today has a mean annual temperature of about 1 degree C.  It is also a cave site, with relatively stable temperature compared to an exposed open environment.  Do I really need to say it?  The San Diego site is in, well, San Diego, California. It does not, and probably has not for the last 100,000 years, had a stable annual mean temperature close 0 degrees C.  So it is very unlikely that the DNA sampling method used at Denisova Cave could be used at the Cerutti mastodon site.

That is not to say that revelatory archaeology won't happen with this method.  There are at least twenty anthropologically significant cave sites in areas with cold mean annual temperatures outside the already highly sampled areas in Europe, Denisova Cave, Iran, Armenia, and Afghanistan.  Sampling at these sites could quickly advance our understanding of human origins.

Here's my wish list, in no particular order, for colder temperatures sites similar to Denisova Cave that I would like to see sampled:

On Your Knees Cave, Alaska
Dyuktai Cave, Aldan River, Siberia
Fugoppe Cave, Hokkaido, Japan
Temiya Cave, Hokkaido, Japan
Zhoukoudian Cave System, China
Bluefish Cave, Yukon
January Cave, Alberta
Eagle Cave, Alberta
Ma'anshan Cave, China
Chiquihuite Cave, Mexico
Tennessee Rock Art Caves, USA
Pictograph, Middle and Ghost Caves, Montana
Chertovy Vorota Cave, Primorsky Krai, Russia
Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia
Kundodo Caves, Ethiopia
Caves of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Jeommal Cave, South Korea
Turubong Caves, South Korea
Cheongwon and the Chommal Cave, South Korea
Chongokni (Jeongokni) Acheulean type site, South Korea
Cave of Hearths, Makapansgat, Northern Transvaal, South Africa

It would be good to find some cold temperature sites in South East Asia as well.  Perhaps there are some sites in the highlands of New Guinea.

It remains to be seen as to whether there is the leadership, will, funding and objectivity on the part of ancient DNA researchers and paleoanthropologists to pursue detailed efforts to sample, sequence and study these sites into timeframes that would be meaningful to the study of recent human origins: that of the period between 200,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Having been to a few human origins, archaeology, paleoanthropology and physical anthropology conferences, I myself have become quite reticent about the leadership of the study of human origins.  A lot of the work seems to be motivated by personal pet theories.  Shall I name them:

The Recent Out of Africa (within the last 65,000 years) Eve Hypothesis

The Recent Out of South Africa Eve Hypothesis

The Multi-Regional Hypothesis

The Out of America Hypothesis

The Out of China Hypothesis

The Out of India Hypothesis

The Out of Australia Hypothesis

The Out of Italy Hypothesis

The Humans are Becoming Less Violent due to "Domestication" Hypothesis
         (we can thank Steven Pinker at Harvard for that one)

The Southern European Farmers out of the Levant Hypothesis

The Clovis First Hypothesis

The Beringia Standstill Hypothesis

The Mass Migration from the Steppe was the Source for Indo-European Languages Hypothesis

The Horse Riding Warriors on Chariots Rode in and Killed All the Men and Raped the Women Hypothesis

The Men Made All the Tools and Women Only Made Babies and Watched the Children Hypothesis (and therefore that Men are Smart and Women are Stupid Hypothesis)

Man the Hunter (Need I say more?)

The Only White Skinned People are Civilized and Modern Hypothesis

and its evil twin:  The Solutrean Hypothesis for the "Peopling" of the Americas

The Theory that Cultural Modernity Developed with Farming

The Mammals Suck Milk Hypothesis and therefore If You Don't Breast Feed Your Babies, They Will Be One Eyed and Impaired For Life Hypothesis

The Neandertals were Stupid Hypothesis

The Neandertals were Smart Hypothesis

The Neandertals Buried their Dead Hypothesis

The Neandertals Never Wore Eagle Claw Jewelry And If You Say So I Will Have a Temper Tantrum Hypothesis

And that's just the beginning.

It's quite the trick to come up with all this stuff, but hey, it's a pretty good gig if you can get it.  Five or six all expenses paid conferences a year in five star hotels, lots of press attention and all expenses paid extended vacations to places like South Africa.  Hey why not?  Why would you want to worry about whether or not your theories are inaccurate and even harm people?

Maybe we won't look back at this in the way we now look back at Aleš Hrdlička.  I do hope that there is soon a more objective effort to investigate human origins.  Perhaps we could start with an objective effort to test cave sediments.

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