You’re probably thinking, “I thought zacharoo was dead,” because I’ve been completely MIA for the past few weeks. My apologies, but I was trying to wrap up this past semester, the terminus of my first year in grad school. And I must say I think I did a pretty good job, not to toot my own horn. This is as good a time as any to ask, “What the eff have I learned this year?”
1. Milford is awesome. Probably the past few decades have shown this, but I’ve only known the guy for less than a year. Given my more ‘arts’ educational background, Milford (and the Big Chief and the rest of the bios) have taught me how to do ‘science,’ formulating and testing a hypothesis. Though I’m certainly no Chung-I Wu, my mentors and colleagues have certainly gotten me started. Also, I was a bit unhappy with Milford last semester for pushing me and my peers to take a heavy course load. But I must say it was worth it, I’ve learned a lot this past year, and if I’d taken another (i.e. the non-bio) way I would not have learned nearly as much. He can also improvise a wicked country-twangy song (“I wish I grew up on a pig farm”). Great advisor, great man.
2. Steer clear of the hobbit. That situation is messier than the van-ride back from DC. I talked about LB 1 (the hobbit skull) in a few posts earlier this year. It’s clearly not a cretin, and at the AAPA meetings in Columbus a few weeks ago, Dean Falk defensively countered the Laron Syndrome hypothesis. Bill Jungers reported at the meetings that the foot of LB 1 was not that of a runner (I forget the specifics, but it was missing one or both of the plantar arches). It’s overall cranial shape based on various measurements show it has striking affinity with Homo habilis (in a broad sense) (Gordon et al. 2008). Chief, her husband Adam, Pappano, and I looked at UM’s collection of modern human ‘microcephalics’ (there are myriad ways to be microcephalic), and found that LB 1 is still more similar to the habilines (cf. Gordon et al 2008). This really suggests to me that maybe some early Homo or Australopithecus species made it out of Africa to Flores early in human prehistory; however, I don’t think we can say yet whether it’s a real case of insular dwarfing in a hominin or pathology or what. Still very messy.
3. Molding and casting is neat but difficult. One of the projects Milford got me started on a cranial reconstruction. Sounded simple enough at first, but it has required me to make molds and casts of the individual cranial bones: the two temporals, occipital and the paired parietals were not too difficult, but the face is really giving me grief. It was also difficult fitting my busy schedule to Bill Sanders’s lab schedule. So, long story short, I didn’t finish the project (should be done before June . . .), but Bill has taught me a ton about molding and casting, as well as proffered his wisdom. It has also reinforced my desire to be a paleontologist. Cool beans.
4. Genetics sucks. For decades now, paleoanthropology has come to be not just about fossils, but also about molecules. Today, genetic studies are incredibly influential in studies of human evolution, i.e. supporting models of migration and introgression. But I took a course this past semester in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and it seems to me that molecules are not really any less unequivocal than fossils. Really genetics is all comparing predictions of models with various parameters (i.e. effective population size, population expansion, etc.) with actual empirical data, and it’s all about probability. So you can say something like, “There is a high probability of seeing this type of data given that type of hypothesis/model.” But different sometimes data have the same probability given different parameters. So genetics can tell a lot, but you have to take what they say with a gram of coke, I mean granary of salt. And all the nucleotides in the world probably won’t help resolve robust australopithecine phylogeny.
Now I’m tired, so I’ll stop there for now. I’ll post more pearls (of wisdom) I learned this semester as I recall them. So that’s where I’ve been o’er the past few somethings. Weeks. Oh, and I just received a possible job offer working with crash-test dummies (or something, I’m not exactly sure) with the UM Transportation Research Institute, hopefully that works out.
Gordon AD, Nevell L, and Wood B. 2008. The Homo floresiensis cranium (LB1): Size, scaling, and early Homo affinities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:0710041105.