Tag Archives: Miocene

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.

Toumaï

6.80-6.44 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) would be 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.

Two roads diverged

7.61-7.20 million years ago

There was a lot of hullabaloo a few years back over claims that a jaw assigned to the 7.2 million year old Graecopithecus freygbergi represents the earliest known human relative after the hominin/chimp split. The jaw was found in Greece, which suggests that the split happened around the Mediterranean, rather than in Africa. (This doesn’t take anything way from the claim that Africa is the main center of later human evolution, up to 2 million years ago, which would have taken place when Graecopithecus’ descendants migrated to Africa).

All this needs to be taken fairly skeptically: a mandible with one tooth isn’t overwhelming evidence.

The date for Graeccopithecus is at the upper end of dates given for the chimp-human split. 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 track down sources if you want. Entering Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes gives you a median estimate of  the time of the split of 6.4 million years, a mean estimate of 6.7, and a whopping confidence interval of 5.1 to 11.8 million years, based on 79 studies.

Stories of O

9.00 – 8.52 million years ago

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

Oreopithecus is just one find showing that apes early in the Late Miocene, well before our ancestors parted ways with chimpanzees, were experimenting with a lot of different types of locomotion, possibly including versions of bipedalism. Many of these experiments were taking place in Europe. (A few more examples: Danuvius guggnemosi and  Rudpithecus hungaricus.)

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, perhaps in consequence, Oreopithecus went extinct.

Rama’s ape

12.6 – 12.0 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 genus, Pongo, 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.

* Memories of the fallout from 1990s nutrition expert wisdom

  • SnackWell’s cookies, low fat, loads of sugar
  • Jelly beans prominently labelled “No fat.”
  • A fellow grad student laughing about an older relative who said bread and pasta make you fat, and confidently declaring “Fat makes you fat.”
  • Me in Brazil talking with my landlord, who was planning to lose weight by sticking with sausage, and cutting starch. I told him modern science had shown this was precisely the wrong approach. He politely (Brazilians can be pretty good-natured) disagreed, stuck with his plans, and lost weight.

Oak ape

13.3-12.7 million years ago

We’ve known about Dryopithecus (“Oak ape”) for a while. The first specimen was found in France in 1856. They’ve since been found all over Europe, from Spain to Hungary. There are about 4 species of Dryopithecus, roughly chimp-sized.

The various Dryopithecuses are interesting because they look like good candidates for being somewhere in the ancestry of the great apes, Asian and/or African. (They could just as easily be on a side branch though. As any good cladist will tell you, it’s easier to say whether something is a close or distant relative than to figure out whether it’s an ancestor or a collateral.) Dryopithecus had made the move to suspensory brachiation – hanging from branches – and had the freely-rotating shoulders, long arms, and strong hands you need for that. But it wasn’t specialized for knuckle walking like a gorilla or a chimpanzee. This could mean it spent almost all its time in trees. Later on (10 million years ago) at Rudabanya, Hungary, we find Dryopithecus living in a moist subtropical forest, among fauna including Miocene versions of pigs, horses, rhinos, and elephants. The fauna also included predators: the lynx-like Sansanosmilus, weighing about 170 lbs, and “bear-dogs” up to five feet long. So maybe up in the trees all day was the safest place to be.

The evolutionary position of Dryopithecus matters for one of the big unsettled questions in human evolution: did bipedal human ancestors evolved directly from a tree-dweller like Dryopithecus, or were human ancestors chimp-like semi-terrestrial knuckle walkers before they started standing upright? Many scenarios for human evolution start with something that looked like a chimp, and maybe lived in chimp-style social groups (dominated by gangs of males ready to rumble with neighboring gangs) consistent with reconstructions of ancestral multi-male/multi-female groups among monkeys and apes. But there’s a lot of guesswork in this.

David Begum has recently written a book, The Real Planet of the Apes, covering this period in the evolution of human ancestors and collaterals. Begum argues that Dryopithecus was not just a great ape (now generally accepted) but close to the ancestry of present-day African great apes (i.e. gorillas, chimps (genus Pan), and humans, as opposed to Asian great apes – orangutans (genus Pongo)). This implies that African great apes may have originally evolved in Eurasia, and migrated back to Africa. Here’s one possible evolutionary tree, from Begum’s book:

dryopithecus tree

Apes, on the road to great

15.7-14.9 million years ago

Teeth are tough, and survive better than most bones. We can recognize apes by their teeth: ape and human molars have 5 cusps that form a distinctive Y pattern. Early Miocene apes like Proconsul already had this pattern. They had also already lost their tails. But in other respects they were more like monkeys than living great apes. They walked on their palms like monkeys, meaning they mostly walked on top of branches, instead of hanging underneath them.

How we get to modern great apes is somewhat mysterious. Apes may have left Africa for Europe and Asia as early as 16 million years ago, or maybe more like 14 Mya. A variety of great apes develop in Asia, although orangutans are now the only survivors. But we’re not sure whether the ancestors of African great apes are apes that stayed in Africa, or whether they’re apes that developed more modern features in Eurasia and then migrated back to Africa.

The various genera of great apes all make some kind of compromise between walking and hanging from branches. When orangutans are on the ground (which is not very often), they walk on the edges of their hands. Chimpanzees and gorillas walk on the knuckles of their hands. And of course humans walk on their hind legs. These are all pretty unusual ways to get around.

It would be nice to know whether human ancestors went through a knuckle walking phase. African fossils are skimpy for this period, and likely to remain so. Maybe genetics will have something to tell us about whether chimp ancestors took to knuckle walking before or after they spit from human ancestors.