Omnivorous Neanderthals

The most recent missed Brian Thomas article was called Neandertals Apparently Knew Medicinal Plants. The primary subject was a Naturwissenschaften paper from August called Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus (available open-access, at least for the rest of the month), which examined hardened dental plaque (calculus) from Sidrón Cave Neanderthals and the microfossils and molecules embedded within it:

Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual.

The first conclusion that Thomas draws is the same as Jeff Tomkins did a couple of weeks ago, namely that Neanderthals were human. As such, the same response can be made as then: while it’s true that any reasonable definition of ‘human’ not arbitrarily restricted to what we currently call Homo sapiens would need to include Neanderthals, and even that a case can be made for the idea that the distinction between H. sapiens and Neanderthals in fact lies at the subspecies level, there are still differences (primarily morphological) between the two groups. The creationist narrative being pushed is that Neanderthals are just another group descended from Adam, and their claims that they were “fully human” and “identical” to modern humans – both true if you use certain definitions both of ‘human’ and ‘identical’ – are not so much contrary to the current scientific view as an attempt to undermine it. The appeal of saying ‘we’re right, the scientists were wrong’ to the creationists, no matter how accurate that really is, cannot be understated. Continue reading

Evolutionary Back Pain

The human vertebral columnOur first catchup post is the most recent That’s a Fact video, Back Trouble. The vertebrate spine originally appeared in aquatic animals, and has had a number of different roles aside from being the central supporting column in the human skeleton. The story runs that due to the processes that evolution follows – that it can do little more than modify what already exists rather than completely redesign an organism from the ground up – the human spine is not quite the structure that would have been created had it been designed specifically for that purpose. This narrative, which I’m sure you’ve all heard, at least partially blames human back pain on this effect.

I can’t tell you to what extent that’s true or not. It’s probably true that a good portion of the back troubles experienced by modern humans comes not from the fact that the spine is not designed for bipedalism, but that it isn’t designed for bipeds with lousy posture. However, an upright orientation for the spine just gives it a whole plethora of new ways to get injured. The ICR video, of course, argues against the evolutionary explanation – one thing I can tell you is that they did a poor job of it: Continue reading

The Schöningen Spears

The lignite mine in Google mapsThere seems to be an interesting side effect of the distaste that young Earth creationists seem to have for “historical science”: they’re no good at it. Believe it or not, there are some events in history that the Bible says absolutely nothing about, and creationists seem to be unable to build a coherent picture from the available evidence. Take this latest Brian Thomas article, Eight Spears found in German Coal Mine, as an example.

First, though, there are a few things that need to be noted. The obvious conclusion that would be drawn from such a title in a young Earth creationist publication is that the story is of the “petrified hammer” variety. Not so. I can’t get explicit confirmation from anything I’ve read, but it seems that while it’s literally true to say that the Schöningen Spears were indeed ‘found in a German coal mine‘ they weren’t actually in the lignite being extracted. Instead the spears themselves are dated to ~300,000 years ago, and are believed to have been wielded by Homo heidelbergensis.

Researchers discovered eight well-manufactured throwing spears in an Ice Age coal deposit near Schöningen, Germany. They are calling these the oldest human tools. What can forensic science reveal about the people who made them?

As I said I don’t think the spears were actually found in the deposit, but it’s a fairly moot point as that aspect isn’t relevant to the rest of the article.

Who’s “calling these the oldest human tools”? I’m struggling to find anyone but Brian doing so – they’re calling the spears the oldest hunting weapons, which is quite a difference. Continue reading

Methylomes

DNA methylation is the term for a modification to certain DNA bases that involves the addition of a methyl group. This slows down gene expression, which may or may not be advantageous in context – though if you remove it entirely in mice you kill them outright. To cut to the chase, in late August a paper – Divergent Whole-Genome Methylation Maps of Human and Chimpanzee Brains Reveal Epigenetic Basis of Human Regulatory Evolution (pdf, supplemental data) – came out comparing levels of methylation, concentrating on the brain, between humans and chimpanzees. They found differences, particularly in regions apparently associated with diseases that we suffer from more than chimps do. Here’s a figure stolen from their supplemental information:

"The mean fractional methylation levels (± S.E.) of different genomic regions." (From page two)

“NS” stands for “not significant,” but the ones with stars are. Something to note with that graph is that there is a hidden 20% below the axis, so the differences are not quite as large as they would appear. Continue reading