Author Archives: logarithmichistory

The bottomlands

There’s a book from back in 1954, now out of print, called Engineer’s Dreams by Willy Ley (who was most notable as a spaceflight advocate). The book lays out various grandiose engineering projects that people have proposed over the years. Some of these dreams have actually been realized: after centuries of people talking about it, there is now a tunnel under the English Channel.

Others … well …

One project the book discusses is damming the Congo River, creating a huge lake in the Congo basin, then sending the water north to create another huge lake in Chad. (There’s a small lake there now, almost dried out, which was a lot bigger 10,000 years ago when Africa was wetter.) From Lake Chad, the water would be sent further north to create a great river – a second Nile — running through Libya into the Mediterranean. All that fresh water is just running uselessly into the Atlantic now. Why not send it someplace where it’s needed?

Another engineer’s dream is to refurbish the Mediterranean Sea by building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar. This actually isn’t an impossible project. The strait is less than nine miles across at its narrowest, and about 3000 feet deep at its deepest. A dam across the strait would have some dramatic consequences. The Mediterranean loses more water from evaporation than it gains from the rivers running into it. The difference is made up by a flow of water from the Atlantic. Cut this off, and the sea will start shrinking. You could let the Mediterranean drop 330 feet before stabilizing it, run a huge hydroelectric plant at Gibraltar, and open up a whole lot of prime Mediterranean real estate.

Sadly, whenever people have dreamed great dreams, there have always been small-minded carpers and critics to raise objections. Okay, so maybe the mayors of every port on the Mediterranean would complain about their cities becoming landlocked. And maybe massively lowering the sea level in an earthquake-prone region would lead to a certain amount of tectonic readjustment before things settled down.

So probably the Gibraltar dam will never be built (although Spain and Morocco are considering a tunnel). But we’ve seen already that Mother Nature sometimes plays rough with her children, and it turns out (although Ley couldn’t have known this back in the 50s) that damming the Mediterranean has already been done. The story begins back in the Mesozoic (late March), when the Tethys Sea ran between the northern continent of Laurasia and the southern continent of Gondwanaland. The sea was still around 50 million years ago (April 11) when whales were learning to swim. But it has been gradually disappearing over time. When India crashed into Asia and raised the Himalayas, the eastern part of the sea closed off. And as Africa-Arabia moved north toward Eurasia, a whole chain of mountains was raised up, running from the Caucasus to the Balkans to the Alps. The Tethys Sea was scrunched between these: what’s left of it forms the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean seas.

Starting about 6 million years ago, the story takes a really dramatic turn. The continents were in roughly there present positions, but the northern movement of the African tectonic plate, plus a decline in sea levels due to growing ice caps, shut off the Strait of Gibraltar, sporadically at first. With water from the Atlantic cut off, the Mediterranean began drying out. By 5.6 million years ago, it had dried out almost completely – the Messinian Salinity Crisis. (The Messinian Age is the last part of the Miocene Period). There were just some hyper-saline lakes, similar to the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea in the Near East, at the bottom of an immense desert more than a mile below today’s sea level. The Nile and the Rhone cut deep channels, far below their current levels, to reach these lakes. This lasted until 5.3 million years ago, when the strait reopened and a dramatic flood from the Atlantic restored the Mediterranean.

All this was happening just around that time that hominins were committing to bipedalism. Did the cataclysmic events in the Mediterranean basin have some influence on hominin evolution in Africa? At this point we can’t say.

Harry Turtledove, prolific writer of alternative history, has a novella, Down in the Bottomlands, set on an alternative Earth in which the Mediterranean closed off, dried out, and never reflooded. In the novella, terrorists are plotting to use a nuclear weapon to reopen the Mediterranean desert to the Atlantic – sort of Engineer’s Dreams in reverse.

Grasses and gases for a cooling world

The standard sort of photosynthesis uses a so-called C-3 chemical pathway. But  maybe from 8-7 million years ago there’s an increasing proliferation of so-called C-4 plants. They use an alternative, more-efficient pathway to incorporate carbon from C02. C-4 plants evolved independently 45-60 times.

Tropical grasslands are mostly C-4. The profusion of grasses, herbivores, and carnivores on tropical savannahs will owe a lot to C-4 plants. This evolutionary transition is probably a sign that C02 levels are declining, and have reached a threshold where C-4 plants are favored.

Going back about 7 million years, C02 levels stood at maybe 1500 parts per million (ppm). (They were higher earlier in the Miocene.) Levels decline pretty steadily, leading to global cooling and eventual Ice Ages. But things never again reach the extremes of Snowball Earth 750 million years ago.

At the beginning of the Industrial Age C02 levels stood below 300 ppm. They went above 400 ppm last year.

Toumaï

7.04-6.65 million years ago

Sahelanthropus is a 7-6 million year old species whose remains have been found in Chad. “Toumaï” (“hope of life” in the Daza language) is the nickname for one individual, represented by a fairly complete skull. Otherwise Sahelanthropus is known from some jaws and teeth.

toumai

One of the things that distinguishes hominins (the human line) from great apes is that the front teeth – canines and incisors – are reduced. (Back teeth are another story. They stay big, or even get bigger, for a long time.) By this standard, Sahelanthropus looks like an early hominin. It’s got reduced incisors and canines and a short mid-face. And depending on who you talk to, it might or might not have been bipedal, although the foramen magnum (where the spine enters the skull) was maybe not positioned to balance the skull on top of the spine. Not that there was much brain inside the skull: the cranial capacity (maybe 360 cc) is at the low end for a chimp.

So Sahelanthropus could be one of the very first species related to us after the chimp/human split. Chad, where Sahelanthropus was found, is a long way from East Africa, where most other hominins have been found, which suggests there may have been a profusion of hominins across Africa, waiting to be discovered.

The face in the Logarithmic History banner for the month of May is a Sahelanthropus.

Apeman

Was our splitting off from the chimpanzee/bonobo line really such a good idea? If you’re nostalgic for life before the split … or just for 1970 … here are The Kinks. (Of course we’ve learned since 1970 that there’s sort of a biker/hippy split between chimpanzees and bonobos. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Two roads diverged

The TimeTree site, sponsored by Penn State, Arizona State, the National Science Foundation, and NASA, lets you enter any pair of species you want (common names or Latin) and find out the time since they split from a common ancestor. You get a range of estimates from the scientific literature, along with means and medians. The site lets you can track down sources if you want.

But be careful! There have been some big recalibrations of DNA dates lately that are especially important for human evolution. Human beings and chimpanzees differ at about 1.2% of their DNA sites. Humans and gorillas (and chimps and gorillas) at about 1.6%. Humans and orangutans (and chimps and orangutans, and gorillas and orangutans) at about 3.1%. DNA divergence accumulates a fairly steady rate, so this level of divergence has been used to estimate a chimp/human split around 7-6 million years ago.

But lately we’ve got direct estimates of DNA divergence rates, based on measuring mutation rates in living populations, instead of estimates based on calibrating genes with the fossil record. These suggest that the DNA “clock” is running more slowly than we thought. A report from just three years back based on the new estimates puts the chimp/human split around 13 million years. But there’s disagreement how reliable the new methods really are.

In a sense it may not be that big a deal knowing when the human lineage (the hominins) split from our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees (including bonobos). It’s possible that even after the split the two species looked similar for a long time before hominins started on a distinctive adaptive pathway – in particular, before they started being bipedal. Still, it would be interesting to know. The fossils put some kind of lower bound on the time of the split. – probably at least 6 million years ago. But the upper bound is now in dispute.

Stories of O

There were several interesting apes around 9 million years ago.

Ouranopithecus (sometimes called Graecopithecus) could fit almost anywhere on the great ape tree. Some people think it looks like an Asian great ape. Others think it looks more like the African great apes, maybe gorillas especially. This would be consistent with African great apes evolving outside Africa, then moving back. But maybe it only looks gorilla-like because it’s pretty big. In any case, we should expect that at this point different lineages of great ape will be hard to tell apart; they have only recently split.

But the award for weird goes to Oreopithecus. (If you think that sounds like a good species name for the Cookie Monster – you’re not the first person to have that thought.) From 9 to 6.5 million years ago, Tuscany and Sardinia were part of an island chain. Oreopithecus evolved there in relative isolation. It may be important that big predators weren’t abundant. Oreopithecus spent significant time arm-hanging. It’s when it was on the ground that things get strange. O’s big toe stuck out sideways at an extreme angle, so its foot was tripod-like, with a triangle formed by heel, little toes, and big toe. It’s possible that O was a biped, walking around on its two tripod feet when it was down on the ground. (Although measurements on the lower spine published in 2013 cast doubt on the biped theory.)

oreopithecus foot

There’s no reason to think Oreopithecus was close to the human line. If it’s true that it was a biped, this suggests that several versions of bipedalism evolved independently as solutions to the problem of how does an arm-hanger get around on the ground – knuckle-walking being another solution.

Biped or not, Oreopithecus was probably pretty awkward on the ground. When a land bridge reconnected O’s island chain with the mainland, predators arrived and Oreopithecus went extinct.

Rama’s ape

12.3-11.7 million years ago

Ramapithecus (Rama’s ape) is no more. Another Hindu god has taken over the franchise; Ramapithecus is now subsumed under Sivapithecus, an earlier discovery, and is no longer a valid taxon name.

The story is interesting from a history-of-science point of view. Ramapithecus used to be presented as the very first ape on the human line, postdating the split between humans and great apes, maybe even a biped. This was given in textbooks not so long ago as established fact. Then geneticists (Sarich and Wilson) came along, and declared that the genetic divergence between chimps and humans is so low that the split had to be way later than Ramapithecus. There was a lot of fuss over this. Paleoanthropologists didn’t like geneticists telling them their job. Eventually, though, the paleoanthropologists found some new fossils. These showed in particular that the line of Ramapithecus‘s jaw was not arch-shaped, like a human’s, but more U-shaped, like a non-human ape’s. So after thinking it over a while, paleoanthropologists decided that Ramapithecus (now part of Sivapithecus) looked more like an orangutan relative: likely ancestor of a great radiation of orangutan kin that left just one surviving species in the present.

rama jaw

There are plenty of examples of experts in different fields coming up with different answers. For example, paleontologists didn’t like physicists telling them why dinosaurs went extinct. And we’ll see other examples in days to come: geneticists, physical anthropologists, and archeologists arguing over modern human origins. And very recently geneticists coming in on the side of old-fashioned historical linguists, and against recent generations of archeologists, in the matter of Indo-European origins.

It would be nice if there were a simple rule of thumb to decide who’s right in these cases. Maybe experts know what they’re talking about (except that experts were telling us recently that low fat diets were the key to losing weight and eggs would kill us with cholesterol). Or maybe harder science experts know better than softer science experts (except that physicists like Kelvin were telling geologists that the Sun couldn’t possibly have produced enough energy to support life on Earth for hundreds of millions of years – then along came Einstein and E=mc2). So the best we can do maybe is realize people, scientists included, are prone to overconfidence and group think – and not just those other people, either, but you and me.