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20 Posts tagged with the palaeontology tag
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The UK was for substantial periods in the past largely covered by glaciers that advanced and receded over the landscape as climate changed.  At various times when the ice had retreated - the inter-glacials - animals and plants moved back, colonising and flourishing in the new landscape.  What is now the coast of Norfolk was part of an ecosystem in the valley of a slow-flowing river, home to mammoths, rhino and bison, bears, wild dogs, hyenas, lions, deer, horses and waterfowl.  They lived across a low landscape with mixed woodland of oak, alder and birch.

 

Adrian Lister (Palaeontology) and former NHM researcher Tony Stuart have co-edited a special issue of the science journal Quaternary International that  brings together 18 papers on the geology, dating, floras and faunas of  the stratotype deposit of the Cromerian Interglacial of the Pleistocene (ca 700,000 years  BP).  These studies were presented at an earlier conference at the Castle Museum in Norwich.


This  major piece of work represents the culmination of 20 years of research,  beginning with the discovery and excavation in West Runton (Norfolk) of  a mammoth skeleton (Mammuthus trogontherii) in 1990.  This mammoth would have weighed around 9 tonnes, considerably larger than most modern African elephants, and died at over 40 years of age.

 

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Mammuthus trogontherii

 

The  volume includes contributions from past and present members of the  department, including Simon Parfitt, Mark Lewis, Marzia Breda, Nigel  Larkin, and John Stewart. The West Runton mammoth skeleton is the most  complete of the species, and it represents an important stage in the  evolution of the woolly mammoth. Its discovery stimulated a  comprehensive study of every aspect of the site, resulting in a new and  vivid picture of the environment of the time.


Lister,  A.M. & Stuart, A.J. (eds) 2010. The West Runton Freshwater Bed and  the West Runton Mammoth. Quaternary International 228, 1-248.


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The coastline of the English county  of Dorset is spectacular and beautiful. It exposes a long sequence of Jurassic age sedimentary rocks, which are world renowned for their wealth of fossils, ranging from huge marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaurs through to ammonites and minute invertebrates.

 

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Stair Hole, Dorset

 

Beginning with the pioneering work of early collectors like Mary Anning, the area has been a cradle of palaeontology, attracting collectors of widely varying levels of knowledge and interest, ranging from beginners through experienced, dedicated amateurs and professionals.

 

The Jurassic  Coast is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Museum is an active partner in public and scientific programmes along the coast. 

 

The Palaeontological Association has recently published a guide to the fossils from the lower Lias of this area, edited by Alan Lord and Paul Davis. Eleven of the twenty chapters plus appendix were authored or co-authored by current and former members of the Palaeontology Department and our Scientific Associates. These include, Sandra Chapman, Diana Clements, Joe Collins, Paul Davis, Tim Ewin, Peter Forey, Nicole Fraser, David Lewis, Alison Longbottom, Angela Milner, Martin Munt, Ellis Owen, Phil Palmer, Andy Ross, Jon Todd, Stig Walsh, and John Whittaker. This new field guide is an invaluable resource for amateur, student and professional.

 

Lord, A. R. and P. G. Davis (eds). 2010. Fossils from the Lower Lias of the Dorset Coast. Palaeontological Association Field Guides to Fossils No. 13. Palaeontological Association, London. 436pp.
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Museum Palaeontology scientists Silvia Bello and Chris Stringer—with Simon Parfitt from University College London—have produced a fascinating paper (Bello et al., 2011) on the post-mortem treatment of human bodies in the UK in the Magdalenian period, around 14,700 years ago.

Ancient human cannibalism and use of skulls as cups—it is an inherently fascinating view of the distant past and the unfamiliarity of cultural practice, and of the Museum science that makes this view possible.

 

The remains from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, were thoroughly cleaned of flesh soon after death, leaving characteristic scratches and marks, and the crowns of the skulls were skilfully isolated by cutting around the skull, breaking the bone along a horizontal line and tidying the broken edge to give a more even effect.

 

Given comparisons with the preparation of animal remains in the same site, it seems likely that the flesh was removed to be eaten—bone marrow was also extracted from human bones by breaking them in the same way as animal bones. But why the treatment of the skull in this way?

 

These practices are also known from other European sites of the same period, and human skulls have been prepared as vessels in a number of cultures to quite recent times—in some cultures it is not uncommon to prepare and use human tissue for particular purposes associated with funerals or other rituals.  In the case of Gough’s Cave, we can observe the behaviour but when it comes to explaining the reasons we can only speculate.

 

Removal of tissue in this way and preparation of the skull required complex use of tools and probably needed considerable practice.  Scientific examination of the remains of five people, ranging from an older adult to a three-year old child, required the use of advanced imaging equipment to define how the cuts were made, and radiocarbon dating.

 

Scientific research on human evolution is an essential part of the Museum’s work: our common human origins, relatives and ancestors; human variation; and the impacts of disease and life events are some of the major foci of interest.  A collection of almost 20,000 remains are cared for in the Museum from all parts of the world, with around 10,000 from the UK, and provides an essential resource for research.

 

The work overall casts light on the complexity of the human story and our origins, and the connections between modern and ancient groups of people—both genetic and cultural.  Humans have been a highly mobile species, adapting to many different environments and developing a wide range of cultural practices over time.

 

The work of Chris and Silvia in the collaborative Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project shows a pattern of successive groups of humans moving in and out of Britain over the past million years as climate and environment changed.  The people at Gough’s cave, at less than 15,000 years, are relatively recent in this context.

 

We might argue that part of the fascination and popular interest of this science is the connection with ourselves, pursuing the instruction to “know thyself” by Socrates.  Given the apparent consumption of humans by these people, one might also suggest an early and rather too literal enthusiasm captured in the aphorism of Brillat-Savarin “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”: tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are.

There is active scientific debate on human evolution and variation, human behaviour and the meaning of behaviour. The physical and behavioural similarities and contrasts between people in different places and times are compelling and often examined.

 

Part of the interest of this particular work is that the remains provide evidence on both physical form and behaviour, and this is where there is debate on whether the term “modern” is relevant or useful in understanding.  We think about physical modernity in terms of similarity to living people, but what of behaviour?

 

Although in simple terms these people would be described physically as modern humans—there is very little physical difference from living people—given the strangeness of the practices in Gough’s Cave to our culture, it might have been assumed in the past that these people were somehow different from modern-day humans in terms of their essential nature: possibly, in crude terms, more primitive in some way.

 

A paper just published by John Shea (2011) is a useful focus for the scientific debate, arguing that to think of certain behavioural characters as representing “modern” humans is problematic because it is based too much on evidence from European archaeology. He argues that we should not see the evolution of human behaviour in progressive terms, but instead as a process giving rise to a much more variable set of characteristics that cannot as such be used to define modern humans.

 

This paper is a focus of active debate in science, and the pattern of thinking, research and discussion in this area of science is constantly changing: was there a sudden evolutionary leap that made us what we are? Was there a cultural or linguistic revolution of some sort? Did our ancestors start to think in different ways at a particular time, and why? How can genetics inform our understanding? What does new archaeology suggest? What makes us what we are, and are we in essence the same as those people in Gough’s Cave?

 

Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026


Shea, JJ (2011) Homo sapiens Is as Homo sapiens Was Current Anthropology Vol. 52, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 1-35. DOI: 10.1086/658067

 

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Life in Cambrian seas, between 488 and 542 million years ago, was diverse and often very different from more recent organisms.  The rocks of the Burgess Shales in the Canadian Rockies have preserved incredible organisms, including the free-swimming Anomalocaris (see image below) 

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Research on this fauna has been active for many years, with public interest stimulated by the writing of Stephen Jay Gould in his 1989 book Wonderful Life.

Dr Greg Edgecombe from the Museum's Palaeontology Department will host Dr Allison Daley, who has been awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Swedish Research Council. Allison will join the museum for two years (2011-2012) to work with Greg on the evolution and ontogeny (development) of anomalocaridids.

Previously unstudied material of Anomalocaris and related taxa from the Burgess Shale housed at the Royal Ontario Museum will be a particular focus of this study, including a geometric description of shape changes in the more robust body parts through the course of development. New collections from the Cambrian of Australia will also be documented, and all material used to refine the evolutionary classification of anomalocaridids within the arthropod stem-group.

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Bryozoans are colonial invertebrates, commonly found attached to hard surfaces from the shallow subtidal zone to the deep sea. Bryozoan colonies increase in size by the budding of the numerous individuals (zooids) that make up the colony.

 

A collaborative team, including Professor Beth Okamura, Dr Tanya Knowles and Dr Paul Taylor from the NHM, explored how the size of zooids in fossil bryozoans varied as temperature changed.  This enabled them to use bryozoans to deduce the annual ranges of temperature during the Early Pliocene (around 4 million to 5.5 million years ago) in the Weddell Sea off the coast of  Antarctica.

 

Their results show that during this period the climate was warmer than that of the present day, suggesting an ice-free environment in that part of Antarctica.

 

The research shows the value of fossil bryozoans from shallow seas as a tool for reconstructing seasonal variation in climate in near-polar latitudes in past periods of the Earth's history.  This helps to understand how climates have changed naturally in the past - knowledge that in turn enables present-day changes in climate to be understood and predicted.

 

Clark, N., Williams, M., Okamura, B., Smellie, J., Nelson, A., Knowles, T., Taylor, P., Leng, M., Zalasiewicz, J. & Hayward, A. 2010. Early Pliocene Weddell Sea seasonality determined from bryozoans. Stratigraphy 7: 199-206.

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