The ascent of man

Kevin Lewis

May 22, 2016

Metabolic acceleration and the evolution of human brain size and life history

Herman Pontzer et al.

Nature, 19 May 2016, Pages 390–392

Humans are distinguished from the other living apes in having larger brains and an unusual life history that combines high reproductive output with slow childhood growth and exceptional longevity. This suite of derived traits suggests major changes in energy expenditure and allocation in the human lineage, but direct measures of human and ape metabolism are needed to compare evolved energy strategies among hominoids. Here we used doubly labelled water measurements of total energy expenditure (TEE; kcal day−1) in humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans to test the hypothesis that the human lineage has experienced an acceleration in metabolic rate, providing energy for larger brains and faster reproduction without sacrificing maintenance and longevity. In multivariate regressions including body size and physical activity, human TEE exceeded that of chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas and orangutans by approximately 400, 635 and 820 kcal day−1, respectively, readily accommodating the cost of humans’ greater brain size and reproductive output. Much of the increase in TEE is attributable to humans’ greater basal metabolic rate (kcal day−1), indicating increased organ metabolic activity. Humans also had the greatest body fat percentage. An increased metabolic rate, along with changes in energy allocation, was crucial in the evolution of human brain size and life history.


Reproductive trade-offs in extant hunter-gatherers suggest adaptive mechanism for the Neolithic expansion

Abigail Page et al.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 April 2016, Pages 4694–4699

The Neolithic demographic transition remains a paradox, because it is associated with both higher rates of population growth and increased morbidity and mortality rates. Here we reconcile the conflicting evidence by proposing that the spread of agriculture involved a life history quality–quantity trade-off whereby mothers traded offspring survival for increased fertility, achieving greater reproductive success despite deteriorating health. We test this hypothesis by investigating fertility, mortality, health, and overall reproductive success in Agta hunter-gatherers whose camps exhibit variable levels of sedentarization, mobility, and involvement in agricultural activities. We conducted blood composition tests in 345 Agta and found that viral and helminthic infections as well as child mortality rates were significantly increased with sedentarization. Nonetheless, both age-controlled fertility and overall reproductive success were positively affected by sedentarization and participation in cultivation. Thus, we provide the first empirical evidence, to our knowledge, of an adaptive mechanism in foragers that reconciles the decline in health and child survival with the observed demographic expansion during the Neolithic.


Technological Analysis of the World’s Earliest Shamanic Costume: A Multi-Scalar, Experimental Study of a Red Deer Headdress from the Early Holocene Site of Star Carr, North Yorkshire, UK

Aimée Little et al.

PLoS ONE, April 2016

Shamanic belief systems represent the first form of religious practice visible within the global archaeological record. Here we report on the earliest known evidence of shamanic costume: modified red deer crania headdresses from the Early Holocene site of Star Carr (c. 11 kya). More than 90% of the examples from prehistoric Europe come from this one site, establishing it as a place of outstanding shamanistic/cosmological significance. Our work, involving a programme of experimental replication, analysis of macroscopic traces, organic residue analysis and 3D image acquisition, metrology and visualisation, represents the first attempt to understand the manufacturing processes used to create these artefacts. The results produced were unexpected — rather than being carefully crafted objects, elements of their production can only be described as expedient.


The genetic history of Ice Age Europe

Qiaomei Fu et al.

Nature, forthcoming

Modern humans arrived in Europe ~45,000 years ago, but little is known about their genetic composition before the start of farming ~8,500 years ago. Here we analyse genome-wide data from 51 Eurasians from ~45,000–7,000 years ago. Over this time, the proportion of Neanderthal DNA decreased from 3–6% to around 2%, consistent with natural selection against Neanderthal variants in modern humans. Whereas there is no evidence of the earliest modern humans in Europe contributing to the genetic composition of present-day Europeans, all individuals between ~37,000 and ~14,000 years ago descended from a single founder population which forms part of the ancestry of present-day Europeans. An ~35,000-year-old individual from northwest Europe represents an early branch of this founder population which was then displaced across a broad region, before reappearing in southwest Europe at the height of the last Ice Age ~19,000 years ago. During the major warming period after ~14,000 years ago, a genetic component related to present-day Near Easterners became widespread in Europe. These results document how population turnover and migration have been recurring themes of European prehistory.


Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to Primeval Villages in the Ancient Iranian Lands of Ashkenaz

Ranajit Das et al.

Genome Biology and Evolution, April 2016, Pages 1132-1149

The Yiddish language is over 1,000 years old and incorporates German, Slavic, and Hebrew elements. The prevalent view claims Yiddish has a German origin, whereas the opposing view posits a Slavic origin with strong Iranian and weak Turkic substrata. One of the major difficulties in deciding between these hypotheses is the unknown geographical origin of Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews (AJs). An analysis of 393 Ashkenazic, Iranian, and mountain Jews and over 600 non-Jewish genomes demonstrated that Greeks, Romans, Iranians, and Turks exhibit the highest genetic similarity with AJs. The Geographic Population Structure analysis localized most AJs along major primeval trade routes in northeastern Turkey adjacent to primeval villages with names that may be derived from “Ashkenaz.” Iranian and mountain Jews were localized along trade routes on the Turkey’s eastern border. Loss of maternal haplogroups was evident in non-Yiddish speaking AJs. Our results suggest that AJs originated from a Slavo-Iranian confederation, which the Jews call “Ashkenazic” (i.e., “Scythian”), though these Jews probably spoke Persian and/or Ossete. This is compatible with linguistic evidence suggesting that Yiddish is a Slavic language created by Irano-Turko-Slavic Jewish merchants along the Silk Roads as a cryptic trade language, spoken only by its originators to gain an advantage in trade. Later, in the 9th century, Yiddish underwent relexification by adopting a new vocabulary that consists of a minority of German and Hebrew and a majority of newly coined Germanoid and Hebroid elements that replaced most of the original Eastern Slavic and Sorbian vocabularies, while keeping the original grammars intact.


Pre-Clovis occupation 14,550 years ago at the Page-Ladson site, Florida, and the peopling of the Americas

Jessi Halligan et al.

Science Advances, May 2016

Stone tools and mastodon bones occur in an undisturbed geological context at the Page-Ladson site, Florida. Seventy-one radiocarbon ages show that ~14,550 calendar years ago (cal yr B.P.), people butchered or scavenged a mastodon next to a pond in a bedrock sinkhole within the Aucilla River. This occupation surface was buried by ~4 m of sediment during the late Pleistocene marine transgression, which also left the site submerged. Sporormiella and other proxy evidence from the sediments indicate that hunter-gatherers along the Gulf Coastal Plain coexisted with and utilized megafauna for ~2000 years before these animals became extinct at ~12,600 cal yr B.P. Page-Ladson expands our understanding of the earliest colonizers of the Americas and human-megafauna interaction before extinction.


Post-invasion demography of prehistoric humans in South America

Amy Goldberg, Alexis Mychajliw & Elizabeth Hadly

Nature, 14 April 2016, Pages 232–235

As the last habitable continent colonized by humans, the site of multiple domestication hotspots, and the location of the largest Pleistocene megafaunal extinction, South America is central to human prehistory. Yet remarkably little is known about human population dynamics during colonization, subsequent expansions, and domestication. Here we reconstruct the spatiotemporal patterns of human population growth in South America using a newly aggregated database of 1,147 archaeological sites and 5,464 calibrated radiocarbon dates spanning fourteen thousand to two thousand years ago (ka). We demonstrate that, rather than a steady exponential expansion, the demographic history of South Americans is characterized by two distinct phases. First, humans spread rapidly throughout the continent, but remained at low population sizes for 8,000 years, including a 4,000-year period of ‘boom-and-bust’ oscillations with no net growth. Supplementation of hunting with domesticated crops and animals had a minimal impact on population carrying capacity. Only with widespread sedentism, beginning ~5 ka, did a second demographic phase begin, with evidence for exponential population growth in cultural hotspots, characteristic of the Neolithic transition worldwide. The unique extent of humanity’s ability to modify its environment to markedly increase carrying capacity in South America is therefore an unexpectedly recent phenomenon.


Disease dynamics and costly punishment can foster socially imposed monogamy

Chris Bauch & Richard McElreath

Nature Communications, April 2016

Socially imposed monogamy in humans is an evolutionary puzzle because it requires costly punishment by those who impose the norm. Moreover, most societies were — and are — polygynous; yet many larger human societies transitioned from polygyny to socially imposed monogamy beginning with the advent of agriculture and larger residential groups. We use a simulation model to explore how interactions between group size, sexually transmitted infection (STI) dynamics and social norms can explain the timing and emergence of socially imposed monogamy. Polygyny dominates when groups are too small to sustain STIs. However, in larger groups, STIs become endemic (especially in concurrent polygynist networks) and have an impact on fertility, thereby mediating multilevel selection. Punishment of polygynists improves monogamist fitness within groups by reducing their STI exposure, and between groups by enabling punishing monogamist groups to outcompete polygynists. This suggests pathways for the emergence of socially imposed monogamy, and enriches our understanding of costly punishment evolution.


Neandertal versus Modern Human Dietary Responses to Climatic Fluctuations

Sireen El Zaatari et al.

PLoS ONE, April 2016

The Neandertal lineage developed successfully throughout western Eurasia and effectively survived the harsh and severely changing environments of the alternating glacial/interglacial cycles from the middle of the Pleistocene until Marine Isotope Stage 3. Yet, towards the end of this stage, at the time of deteriorating climatic conditions that eventually led to the Last Glacial Maximum, and soon after modern humans entered western Eurasia, the Neandertals disappeared. Western Eurasia was by then exclusively occupied by modern humans. We use occlusal molar microwear texture analysis to examine aspects of diet in western Eurasian Paleolithic hominins in relation to fluctuations in food supplies that resulted from the oscillating climatic conditions of the Pleistocene. There is demonstrable evidence for differences in behavior that distinguish Upper Paleolithic humans from members of the Neandertal lineage. Specifically, whereas the Neandertals altered their diets in response to changing paleoecological conditions, the diets of Upper Paleolithic humans seem to have been less affected by slight changes in vegetation/climatic conditions but were linked to changes in their technological complexes. The results of this study also indicate differences in resource exploitation strategies between these two hominin groups. We argue that these differences in subsistence strategies, if they had already been established at the time of the first contact between these two hominin taxa, may have given modern humans an advantage over the Neandertals, and may have contributed to the persistence of our species despite habitat-related changes in food availabilities associated with climate fluctuations.


Evidence for Quantity-Quality Trade-Offs, Sex-Specific Parental Investment, and Variance Compensation in Colonized Agta Foragers Undergoing Demographic Transition

Cody Ross et al.

Evolution and Human Behavior, forthcoming

Evolutionary ecological models of human fertility predict that (1) parents will bias investment toward the sex with the highest fitness prospects in a particular socio-ecological context; (2) fertility is subject to quantity-quality trade-offs; and (3) fertility decisions will be sensitive to both predictable and stochastic mortality risk and the relative fitness value of differently sized sib-sets (the variance compensation hypothesis). We test these predictions using demographic records from the Agta, an indigenous population from the Philippines, who, as a result of disruption by loggers, miners, and settlers, are undergoing a demographic and social/ecological transition from foragers to peasant laborers. Leveraging the spatial and temporal variation in the Agta Demographic Database, we conduct a Bayesian analysis of Agta life-history traits across this transition. Specifically, we compare the Casiguran Agta (CA) with the more isolated peninsular San Ildefonso Agta (SIA) sub-population from before (phase 1) and after (phase 2) encroachment. We find: (1) evidence of a decline in overall survival from phase 1 to phase 2, coupled with increased parental investment in first-born daughters compared to first-born sons in the CA population, and increased parental investment in sons versus daughters in the SIA population; (2) evidence of a moderate quantity-quality trade-off in CA and SIA fertility in phase 1; and (3) support for predictions of the variance compensation hypothesis as a driver of the lowered relative fertility in the CA. Our customized methods, comparative framework, and simultaneous focus on fertility and mortality allow us to show how heterogeneity in mortality and fertility are linked to life history trade-offs and environmental context in a manner consistent with the predictions of evolutionary ecological models.


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