Chimp culture

I think it's really cool that we may have to go back and try to distinguish the human tools from the chimp ones. Probably because I love watching the pedestal crumble.

The Chimpanzee Stone Age

By Ann Gibbons
ScienceNOW Daily News
12 February 2007
Paleoanthropologists once considered making tools to be one of the defining characteristics of being human--along with a big brain, language, and upright walking. But they had to rethink the concept of "man the toolmaker" in recent decades as they spotted wild chimpanzees pounding nuts open with stone hammers, fishing for termites and ants with sticks, and extracting honey with brushes made of sticks. Skeptics countered that tool-wielding chimpanzees were just imitating humans living in the same forests.

A new study bolsters the idea that chimps came up with the tools themselves. Researchers working in Africa's Côte D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) have discovered stone hammers made 4300 years ago that appear to be the handiwork of chimpanzees, not humans. The ancient age of the tools shows that they were made by chimpanzees because "we know this was happening when no farmers were around--it predates farming in the area by 2000 years," says lead author Julio Mercader, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Calgary in Canada.

In excavations in the Taï rainforest, researchers have uncovered a trail of stone tools that are the first prehistoric evidence of a chimpanzee tool-kit, according to a report published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Earlier, Mercader and primatologist Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, had documented how chimpanzees had systematically transported specific types of stone to use as hammers to smash open nuts in the Taï forest. They also had proposed that chimpanzees might have an archaeological record similar to the Oldowan stone tools made by early human ancestors (Science, 24 May 2002, p. 1452). Last year, they systematically dug test trenches at ancient chimpanzee sites in the forest, leading to the discovery of stone tools from three areas.

Next, they had to prove that the stone hammers were actually tools and that they were chimp-made, not man-made. They found that the stones were too large for humans to use (but just right for chimpanzees); had starchy residue from nuts that chimpanzees eat, but living humans don't; were made form granitoid stone that chimpanzees use for tools today, but humans don't; and were unlikely to be the result of natural erosion.

The antiquity of the tools suggests that chimpanzee tool-making has been passed form chimpanzee to chimpanzee for more than 200 generations, the authors write. It raises the specter that some of the simple stone tools attributed to modern human ancestors at archaeological sties in Africa might also be the handiwork of chimpanzees, says Mercader. And it prompts questions about how early--and how often--stone tool-making arose in the human and chimpanzee lineages. "We now have evidence ... that there is a chimpanzee archaeological record--a Chimpanzee Stone Age," says primatologist William McGrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

(no subject)

So I already wrote this entry for the New Year, but the LJ gremlins ate my homework. In a nutshell, I just said that I and mine had some rough times this past year, for reasons I wish I could understand, and hope that things go a bit smoother this year. And that, true to the cliche, the rough spots did serve to illustrate what awesome family and friends I have. I hope I do as well by them as they do by me.

I think the first post was better.

Have a happy.
fossil, critter, dromeosaur

Another step off the pedestal

CNN featured a nice story yesterday ( about scientists finding spindle cells, a special kind of neuron, in the brains of humpback whales. These cells, thought to play an important role in cognition, had previously been known only from great apes (including humans). In a really fun twist, these cells must have evolved in cetaceans at least 15 million years before they arose in our own lineage. And, given the distribution of this trait among mammalian lineages, it's pretty clear that the cells themselves, and whatever cognitive function they provide, must have evolved at least twice (one in cetaceans and once in primates).

When you think about it, given all the evidence we have of language, culture, and tool use in cetaceans, this really isn't surprising. But it's pretty cool to have another piece of evidence demonstrating our fundamental similarity to all those other critters out there.

Links to live by

Here's a neat article from the Washington Post magazine about an intentional community in North Carolina where, if life is not really even close to sustainable, at least people make awareness of their energy use front and center. Not saying I'm ready to go there yet, mind you . . .

(no subject)

The card would make an awesome tattoo. Otherwise, I'm not at all sure about this (but thanks to brni for the link):

You are The Wheel of Fortune

Good fortune and happiness but sometimes a species of
intoxication with success

The Wheel of Fortune is all about big things, luck, change, fortune. Almost always good fortune. You are lucky in all things that you do and happy with the things that come to you. Be careful that success does not go to your head however. Sometimes luck can change.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.


Just like in the books . . .

I voted yesterday and woke up this morning to find that my vote might actually have helped make a difference -- just like in those books about the civics and all that. It was a very odd event for a left-wing commie treehugger feminazi in rural southeastern Virginia, where my usual choices are the right-wing, conservative Christian Republican or a write-in. But Webb may actually have beat Allen, or, if he didn't, at least Allen's margin will be so narrow that his pretensions as a mover and shaker in the 2008 elections will be even more seriously dampened than they were when the Democrat beat the Republican in the gubernatorial race.

Of course, the right-wing conservative Christian Republican is going back to the House, but hey, in at least one small way the earth wobbled on its axis.

Today's science news - resurrecting retroviruses

OK, not an exciting subject line, but cool subject nonetheless. Seems that a team of researchers have resurrected a complete retrovirus from its hiding place within the human genome, the first time such a thing has been done. I can't begin to contemplate the implications.

To provide a little background and context . . . Retroviruses are viruses (duh) whose genetic material is in the form of RNA rather than DNA. HIV is one such. Upon invading the host cell, they cleverly trick the host into turning over its cellular machinery, which is then used first to sort of back-copy the viral RNA into DNA. The DNA slips into the host nucleus and gets inserted into a chunk of host DNA (i.e., into a chromosome). Sometimes the insertion is just right, and the host's own genetic machinery will now proceed to copy out the virus's DNA and use it to make more viruses. Hurray for the virus; not so hurray for the host.

Lots of times, though, the insertion isn't done just right and, for reasons you'd need a molecular biologist to explain, the viral DNA can't be copied out. It just sits around on the host's chromosome accumulating random mutations. If that chromosome happens to be hanging out in a sperm cell or ovum, the viral DNA can be passed along to an embryo -- only now it will be present in all the cells of the body.

It turns out that something like 8% of our DNA is made up of these viral remnants (they go by the fancy name of Human Endogenous Retroviruses, or HERV's). One has been implicated in the development of multiple sclerosis; others are implicated in tumor formation. So it's a no-brainer that people want to try to isolate and study them.

But this thing that these researchers did is new. They actually took this mutated-away-from-its-original-form virus, used some fancy techniques to figure out a gene sequence as close to the original as they could, and used it to build functional viruses that can infect human cells. Not very well, mind you, but still . . . (and they did this under Biohazard 3 conditions instead of 4, but that's a whole 'nother issue).

So how weird is this? It's not quite recreating dinosaurs from blood in fossil mosquitoes -- but it's still resurrecting a fossil of sorts. It's not quite creating new life, but it's something.

I don't know whether to be excited or perplexed or worried.
fossil, critter, dromeosaur

Elephants -r- us

In a study published in this week's on-line issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report evidence of self-recognition (a tangible pre-requisite for self-awareness, which is tough to measure objectively) in elephants. No surprise, in a sense, given their complex social systems and regular demonstrations of apparent self-awareness and empathy toward others, but it's always cool to have stuff like this confirmed. Biologically, it's an interesting finding because (as the researchers point out) elephants are evolutionarily quite distant from apes and dolphins -- the other groups in which this ability has been demonstrated -- so it's a great example of convergent evolution. I just love how, the more we learn about other animals, the less unique we are (except, perhaps, in our capacity for destruction). Gotta love it.