Saturday, July 30, 2016

New Ancestor Of Man And Other Rants About Media Reports

I am ashamed to admit this, but these days I just shrug away the various instances of poor science reporting I notice in the Indian media. But enough outrage has been building up over a couple of  particularly bad misrepresentations of scientific findings to prompt this rant.

 1) Indian Scientists Find New Ancestor Of Man

One shudders with embarrassment at this jingoistic hyperbole. The study is an international collaboration. Why the chest beating?

The article in Deccan Herald on July 26 by Kalyan Ray completely misrepresents the evolutionary story of Homo sapiens. Here are the sentences which go badly wrong -

"Andaman’s Jarawas and Onges are descendants of a completely new family of early men unknown to science so far"..

"The discovery has the potential to open up a new window in the history of human evolution by suggesting that Homo heidelbergensis—the first group of men who came out of Africa—had given rise to multiple lineages and not just the Neanderthal and the Denisovan—the two known branches from which all modern human beings have evolved".

The writer is suggesting the modern humans evolved entirely from Neanderthals and Denisovans outside Africa and that this new research is showing that the Andamanese are descendants of a yet third branch of humans based outside Africa.

This picture given by Kalyan Ray is false. Take a look at the hominin family tree presented in the research paper.

Source: Genomic analysis of Andamanese provides insights into ancient human migration into Asia and adaptation

It presents our current understanding of human evolution and migration and admixing events between different branches of hominins. Modern humans migrating out of Africa about 60 thousand years ago met and admixed with the Neanderthals and Denisovans who were branches of an earlier wave of human migration out of Africa. This earlier wave of migration may have taken place about half a million years ago. This admixture between archaic and modern humans resulted in all living non -Africans having  2%-4% Neanderthal ancestry with additional Denisovan ancestry more common in Melanesians.  Now, this study is proposing that another unknown extinct hominid, a possible third diverged population from those earlier migrations, contributed a small amount of ancestry to south Asians. The Andamanese may be taken as an approximate proxy of the original modern humans who entered the Indian subcontinent from Africa since after diverging from a common South Asian population they have admixed less with other modern humans.

Another quibble is the sentence "Hominids are ancestors of the great apes and humans". Well, hominids is a grouping that includes both extinct and living great apes and humans. So yes, some extinct hominid would have been our ancestor, but modern humans are hominids too. As an aside, to confuse matters further, Hominin are the group that includes the extinct and living members of only the human family, excluding the chimpanzee, gorilla and orang-utans.

2) Before The Pharoah: Fresh Evidence Should Make Us Question Earlier Views Of Indus Valley Civilization

This piece which appeared in the Times of India on June 6 is referring to a paper about the link between Holocene monsoon record and the evolution of Harappan civilization. The authors also suggest a revision of the chronology of the various Harappan cultural stages.  Here is their proposed chronology.This is based mainly on the chronology proposed earlier by G.L Possehl. The authors of this study augment  that with new dates from two samples.

"The successive cultural levels at Bhirrana, as deciphered from archeological artefacts along with these 14C ages, are Pre-Harappan Hakra phase (~9.5–8 ka BP), Early Harappan (~8–6.5 ka BP), Early mature Harappan (~6.5–5 ka BP) and mature Harappan (~5–2.8 ka BP)"

And here is the conventional chronology

"Conventionally the Harappan cultural levels have been classified into 1) an Early Ravi Phase (~5.7–4.8 ka BP), 2) Transitional Kot Diji phase (~4.8–4.6 ka BP), 3) Mature phase (~4.6–3.9 ka BP) and 4) Late declining (painted Grey Ware) phase (3.9–3.3 ka BP). This chronology is based on more than 100 14C dates from the site of Harappa and nearby localities".

Here is the chronology Mr. Mehta presents:

The first line in the introduction section of the research paper makes it clear that all dates are presented in BP (Before Present). Yet Nalin Mehta in his article bungles up and without applying the necessary correction presents the chronology as representing dates in BC. The difference is 2000 years! For example, 5000 BP is 3000 BC.

Another big error he makes is lumping all the Harappan cultural stages into one mature phase spanning 8000 -2000 BC ! This gives an erroneous view of the evolution of Harappan society. The mature phase represents urbanization. The earlier cultural stages were rural antecedents represented by farming and pastoral communities and even earlier human settlements in this area. By terming the entire time span of Harappan culture as belonging to the mature phase, Mr Mehta gives an impression that Harappan cities were as old as 8000 BC. This is certainly not the case. This new study revises the mature phase of the Harappan culture from the accepted ~2600 BC-2700 BC (4700 BP) to ~ 3000 BC (5000 BP). This proposed revision at one cultural site should not be taken to mean that dates for cities like Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Dholavira will suddenly be changed to 3000 BC. Their chronology needs to be ascertained independently. As of now, large number of C14 and thermoluminescence dates have secured the age of these cities to be around 2700 BC or so.

One has to be careful with terminology. Mr Mehta uses dates as old as 8000 BP (wrongly presenting them as 8000 BC) to imply that the Harappan civilization is older than the Paraoahs of Egypt. Such a comparison is meaningless. These earlier dates represent a rural society. No doubt there was population and cultural continuity of these earlier people with the later urban phase, but you can say the same thing about pre-urban Egyptian and Sumerian cultures evolving into a full fledged urban civilization. There was a long pre-urban phase from 5-6 millenium BC in Eygpt and Sumer (synchronous to the Indus region) with central political consolidation and urbanism by around 3100 BC in Egypt when the first dynastic kings known as the Pharaohs seized power. In Sumer, the transition from rural to urban took place even earlier with cities like Uruk gaining prominence well before 3500 BC.

The differently named cultural stages of the Indus valley carry a specific meaning  in terms of societal complexity and cultural changes. You can't just call everything mature Harappan and then claim that the finding requires some kind of a fundamental rethink of Harappan society. 

As it happens, the dates presented in the paper that Mehta is ga-ga about are not new. Archaeologists have been aware of the alternate chronology presented by G.L Possehl for about 15 years now! In that sense there is nothing revolutionary about the chronology presented in this paper.

..rant over.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Conversations: Tempo Of Deccan Traps Eruptions

My friend V.V Robin who is an evolutionary biologist and researches the genetics of bird species along the Western Ghats also takes a keen interest in geology. He pointed me to this new work on the tempo of Deccan Volcanism;

Tempo of the Deccan Traps eruptions in relation to events at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary - Renne, Paul et al 2016; Presented at the meeting of the EGU General Assembly 2016, held 17-22 April, 2016 in Vienna Austria

Robin wrote- I found this quite cool - that all the volcanism was possibly within one million time frame! Must have also had a huge impact on the organisms living then.

But it was not clear from this where the epicentre was - "Poladpur or uppermost Bushe Fm., near the base of the laterally extensive Wai Subgroup"

Right and this is very important... this refers to when the style of magmatism changed in relation to the K-Pg boundary event. Within the enormous pile of lava, in the upper parts of the section subdivided based of geochemical signatures into the Bushe (older), Poladpur and Ambenali (youngest) formations lies the K-Pg boundary. See figure to the left (Source: Earth Magazine; credit K. Cantner AGI) which shows the chemical stratigraphy of the Deccan Basalts as defined primarily by sampling the Western Ghat sections. The change in magmatism style is somewhere near the top of the Bushe Formation. Lava of the entire Wai Subgroup may have erupted in just a few hundred thousand years.  It is key to know at what stratigraphic level the K-Pg boundary is. If the boundary lies say near the base of Bushe, then this would strengthen the hypothesis that the Chicxulub impact triggered a more effusive phase of Deccan volcanism. In this scenario, since it would have taken hundreds to thousands of years before volcanic rates increased, the more effusive phase of volcanism may not have caused the mass extinction, but played a role in stifling recovery of ecosystems for hundreds of thousands of years after. On the other hand if the boundary lies higher up, say somewhere in upper part of Poladpur or Ambenali, then the implication would be that the more effusive phase of volcansim started before the impact and that would mean a more direct causal link between volcanism and mass extinction.

Robin though had read the abstract a little differently and he answered back -

So, they dont really say much about WHERE the epicentre was, as suggested in the initial part of the abstract. Maybe that's ongoing research. Very exciting stuff! This would certainly be interesting to folks studying older taxa - centipedes, frogs etc

He wanted to know where the volcanic epicentre was geographically. He was referring to these sentences from the abstract -

 40Ar/39Ar geochronologic study is providing the first indications of variable time-averaged eruption rates in the important Western Ghats region, in addition to providing the first precise location of the KPB within the Deccan pile

" radioisotope geochronology has failed to clarify the tempo of the eruptions or to delineate where the KPB age-equivalent horizon occurs within the eruptive sequence"

 Well, in the language of stratigraphy the authors are not referring to a geographic place but where in the stratigraphic sequence.  They are referring to its temporal position .

Geographically, the K-PG age equivalent horizon, meaning a lava flow which erupted 66.04 million years ago (coincident with the Chixculub impact) could be preserved anywhere. Near Lonvala, near Mahabaleshwar, in southern Konkan or Goa or all of these places. We haven't found it yet, but it could be a matter of time, with better radiometric resolution now allowing finer and finer sampling.

Off course it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask if there was an geographic epicenter of Deccan volcanism. Here is a cross section of the Western Ghat with formation boundaries and structural features.

Source: M Widdowson  and K.G Cox 1996

Note that there is a large vertical exaggeration (40X) to the profile which is about 650 km in length. The long wavelength fold and dips are not apparent at outcrop scale and have been revealed through accurate measurements of topographic levels of formation boundaries. What you do see is that the older formations (Kalsubai Subgroup)  are to the north and the younger to the south (Wai Subgroup). Is this due to a southerly migration of volcanism or is this due to deeper erosion of the lava pile to the north which has stripped away younger lavas and exposed the older section of the lava pile?
Likely there was not one epicentre of volcanism in the Deccan volcanic province. Rather, there would have been many many eruptive centers spread out along the N-S oriented western rifted margin and the E-W oriented Narmada Tapi rift zone and more in the central parts of the plateau too. Within the Western Ghat section there have been some suggestions that the lava thickness and laterite geochemistry might be consistent with the idea of a south moving focus of volcanism during the eruption of the Wai Subgroup. But on a larger scale, taking into account the entirety of the province it is hard to make a case of any one epicentre.

Take a look at this map with plotted ages of Deccan basalts. Younger and older basalt ages are scattered all over.

Source: Hethu Sheth - The Deccan Beyond The Plume Hypothesis

The Western Ghats have been the most intensely studied and sampled region of the province and hence its age distribution is now better constrained. But the volcanic province is spread over large areas in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, eastern Maharashtra and importantly a large area under the Arabian sea covered by hundreds of feet of Cenozoic sediment.

Here is a map which shows the distribution of selected Deccan lava sections beyond the Western Ghats. Many sections to the north, northeast and the east contain the Bushe, Poladpur and Ambenali Formation lavas which are thought to span the K-Pg boundary. Geochemical work has identified dykes feeding these lavas, and they are distributed over wide regions. A few have been identified in the Narmada rift region which may have erupted upper formation lavas present in the north and northeast of the province. There is also a cluster between Nasik and Pune and between the coast to Sangamner on the plateau to the east of the Western Ghats also. Some of these feeder dykes likely gave rise to the bulk of the Western Ghat upper formations. So, eruptive centers of lavas spanning the mass extinction was occurring in regions well away from the Western Ghat region too, suggesting there wasn't any one epicenter of volcanism during this time.

 Source: The Feeder System of the Deccan Traps (India): Insights from Dike Geochemistry be continued as more questions come in!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Neoproterozoic Atmospheric Oxygen

Captured from air bubbles trapped in 815 million year old Halite crystals:

We present a new and innovative way of determining the oxygen level of Earth's past atmosphere by directly measuring inclusion gases trapped in halite. After intensive screening using multiple depositional, textural/fabric, and geochemical parameters, we determined that tectonically undisturbed cumulate, chevron, and cornet halite inclusions may retain atmospheric gas during crystallization from shallow saline, lagoonal, and/or saltpan brine. These are the first measurements of inclusion gas for the Neoproterozoic obtained from 815 ± 15–m.y.–old Browne Formation chevron halite of the Officer Basin, southwest Australia. The 31 gas measurements afford us a direct glimpse of the composition of the mid- to late Neoproterozoic atmosphere and register an average oxygen content of 10.9%. The measured pO2 puts oxygenation of Earth's paleoatmosphere ∼100–200 m.y. ahead of current models and proxy studies. It also puts oxygenation of the Neoproterozoic atmosphere in agreement with time of diversification of eukaryotes and in advance of the emergence of marine animal life

Oxygen is tied to the evolution of complex life on earth. Early earth contained little free oxygen in the atmosphere and the oceans. Life was made up of two divisions of prokaryote cell types, the Archaea and the Bacteria. The activities of one type of aerobic bacteria, Cyanobacterial photosynthesis, eventually triggered the Great Oxygenation Event by 2.5 to 2 billion years ago and began raising the levels of free oxygen in the atmosphere and the oceans. Cyanobacteria are cells capable of burning fuel in this free oxygen.  Between 2 billion and 1.5 billion years ago this type of oxygen utilizing cell merged with an Archaea cell to form a large complex cell type known as the eukaryote cell. The oxygen utilizing cell evolved into the mitochondria. The other partner evolved into the larger host which contains our genome and undertakes other physiological functions.  All complex multicellular life forms are descendants of this symbiotic cell type.

Another boost to oxygen levels was needed to ratchet up the evolution of more diverse and large life forms. That happened by the Neoproterozoic beginning about 1000 million  years ago. This study pins down the oxygen content of the atmosphere to about 10%-11% by 815 million years ago, about 200 million years before fossil evidence of multicellular animals (Ediacaran biota) first appears.

Still, there may not be a simple and direct causal link between enhanced oxygen levels and the evolution of multicellular animals.  Two good reviews, on the Neoproterozoic by Nicholas Butterfield and on the Cambrian Explosion by Derek Briggs make a case that the transformation of the biosphere from the Cryogenic to the Cambrian, from simpler eukaryote to the diversification of multicellular marine animal life, was engineered partly by life itself. For example, pumping of sea water due to filter feeding action of sponges would have dispersed oxygen more efficiently through the water column, ventilating the marine shelf environment where physiologically demanding predator prey evolutionary arms races began to be played out. The evolution of grazing invertebrates destroyed the microbial mats that covered large areas of the shallow sea floor. This gave access to the sediment column to the burrowing activity of the earliest bilaterans which would have likewise allowed oxygen to reach deeper into the sediment pile, thus opening up new ecosystems where an infaunal biota evolved. The activities of animals thus created new ecological opportunities for other creatures.

This finding though aligns well with the thinking that threshold levels of oxygen required for multicellular animal life were already present in the atmosphere and the oceans. With the right climatic (ending of the Cryogenic Period and the warming of the earth) and tectonic (breakup of Rodinia resulting in formation of wide shallow shelf areas) triggers, evolutionary opportunism took over.

Open Access

Monday, July 4, 2016

Quote: Alfred Wallace On Human Driven Extinction

He writes in The Malay Archipelago (1869):

It seems sad that on one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild, inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands,  and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. 

Via - The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography In An Age Of Extinction.

This was apparently a refutation of the argument made by the Duke of Argyll, that beauty in nature is evidence of God's handiwork. Wallace though was also clearly worried that European expansion and demand for natural resources would put these ecosystems at grave risk.

You can read The Malay Archipelago at Wallace Online.