In The Field

AAPA: Anthropology, genetics and more.

In the heart of the United States’ historically-rich southwest, three anthropological organizations met this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to share studies of humans, primates and associated lifestyles.

The main session (14-17 April) was the 79th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology (AAPA), in conjunction with the 35th annual Human Biology Association and the 37th annual Paleopathology Association. It was announced at the meeting that the Paleopathology Association now will have an official publication, the International Journal of Paleopathology, to be published by Elsevier. The first edition is slated for later this year.

At the AAPA meeting, there was a strong theme of genetics in the program organized by this years’ program chair, Lorena Madrigal of the University of South Florida in Tampa. In a time when hardly a month goes by without another release of genetics studies linking ancient peoples with those of today, the theme isn’t a surprise. But the extent to which human genome probing is altering the anthropological field appears unmatched. AAPA President Dennis O’Rourke, a geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, put this in perspective with a talk noting how three recent instances of ancient DNA analysis adds an unprecedented perspective on anthropological field work. Those cases were the first complete ancient human genome from a 4,000-year-old hair specimen of a Saqqaq in Greenland, whose lineage was traced to Siberia; analysis of DNA in feces from Paisley Caves in Oregon, reflecting Pre-Clovis peoples at 14,000 years ago; and DNA recovered from bone of a 9,300-year-old male from On Your Knees Cave on an island off southeastern Alaska. Interestingly, the On Your Knees Cave specimen has already been repatriated to the local Native American tribes – a process made quicker by the ready availability of DNA analysis.

For anthropologists interested in the paleo record, the big disappointment was the withdrawal on 15 April of a talk by University of Michigan at Ann Arbor researchers and colleagues on a new primate fossil from Saudi Arabia dated to 28-29 million years ago. The team that also includes researchers from Saudi Geological Survey decided not to discuss the research before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. A general description of the study is included in the AAPA abstract book. Based on that abstract, the details are as follows:

Not much is known about the timing and origin of old world monkeys and hominoids, our ancestors. Lead author Iyad Zalmout of Michigan reports the discovery of a partial cranium from the Shumaysi Formation in western Saudi Arabia. The features of the specimen are interpreted as “an advanced stem catarrhine close to the ancestry of apes and old world monkeys.” This fossil is allowing the authors to test hypotheses about the ancestral characteristics of old world monkeys and apes. Such analyses indicate that the old world monkey/ape split “could have occurred as early as the beginning of the late Oligocene, but likely not earlier.” Stay tuned for the full description likely in the coming weeks.

There also was more on early primates from Lauren Gonzales of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and colleagues – who reported on the brain of Victoriapithecus macinnesi, from the 15 million year old Maboko formation in Kenya. The report is based on the most complete and minimally distorted skull of a eucatarrhine known prior to 6 million years ago. The skull was discovered [Nature 388, 368-371 (24 July 1997)] by Gonzales co-authors. The V. macinnesi brain analysis was in a poster. CT scans showed the large male had a smaller brain than anticipated. But the brain had a particularly large olfactory lobe, indicating keen sense of smell and sight. This has prompted the authors to hypothesis that such vision acuity may have driven the subsequent development of the frontal lobe – which is associated with advanced social intelligence in higher primates. And thus the resulting evolutionary decrease in olfactory lobe size in later anthropoids.

Posted on behalf of Rex Dalton


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