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Well, I feel somewhat vindicated. Remember the post where I criticized hominin cut marks from over 3 million years ago? Others have also had an eye of suspicion and have published their concerns in PNAS this week.

I was wrong in considering the croc marking differential to the cut marks. But I was not wrong in thinking they author of the original paper made the wrong conclusions. The authors of this new paper raise up an even more logical explanation, and carried out a more thorough analysis. Here’s part of their argument from the abstract,

“The Dikika research group focused its analysis on the morphology of the marks in question but failed to demonstrate, through recovery of similarly marked in situ fossils, the exact provenience of the published fossils, and failed to note occurrences of random striae on the cortices of the published fossils (incurred through incidental movement of the defleshed specimens across and/or within their abrasive encasing sediments). The occurrence of such random striae (sometimes called collectively “trampling” damage) on the two fossils provide the configurational context for rejection of the claimed butchery marks. The earliest best evidence for hominin butchery thus remains at 2.6 to 2.5 Ma, presumably associated with more derived species than Aafarensis.”

Trampling vs. Cut Marks

Trampling vs. Cut Marks (The image in A is courtesy of R. Blasco and J. Rosell. The images in B, D, and F are modified from McPherron et al.)

Looking back at the comment thread, I got a lot of flak. Aside from being wrong about the croc markings, I won’t deny that my post was inflammatory and incited a lot of the response. But many who know just a bit about the fossil and archaeological record, may find it extraordinary to believe australopithecines were using stone tools to extract food from flesh and bone from ‘indirect’ evidence. Of more concern was the lack of exhaustive exploration into other possibilities.

I remember as an anthropology undergrad one of my professors designed a hands-on experiment for us. If memory serves me correctly, this was for a zooarchaeology class. She acquired some beef bones from the local butcher and gave us stone tools. We were instructed to extract the marrow from the bones. We hammered the afternoon away.

Part of our assignment was to use different techniques and tools. We could cut, saw, abrade, chisel, etc. After the mess was done we compared our extractions from prehistoric samples. This comparative approach allowed use to systematically compare how we modified the bone to how possibly prehistoric individuals modified bone.

The authors of the current PNAS paper did something similar. The hypothesized that trampling could have created similar modifications as seen on the 3.39 million year old Dikika bones. And what did they do? Well they got some bone and experimentally setup some trampling experiments. As one would expect, cut marks would have a \/ shaped incision. Incidentally, the bones from Dikika show a \_/ flat bottom morphology. The authors write,

“Ninety-six percent of experimental trampling grooves display a broad-based, open cross-section with the aforementioned shape, versus just 4% of experimental grooves inflicted by simple (i.e., unmodified) stone flakes used to cut meat from bones. In addition, curvy and sinuous groove trajectories characterize nearly 70% of experimental trampling marks,compared with just 10% of experimental cut marks created with simple flakes (11). Together, these experimental results provide a robust actualistic context to evaluate illustrated marks F, G, H2,and I on DK-55–3 as high-probability trampling damage and not stone tool cut or percussion marks…”

I wonder what happened to good science?

What happened to the scientific method?

Did we not learn how to set up experiments and carry out analysis?

How can a paper make all the way into Nature and not exhaust all the possibilities?

These are not rhetorical questions. I am seriously asking it. I honestly feel that there is something rife in paleoanthropological studies lately. I must sound like a broken record to say yet again, too often are papers published in haste and for fortune and glory… All which compromise the validity & ethical responsibility of the science.

    Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, & Bunn HT (2010). Configurational approach to identifying the earliest hominin butchers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 21078985