Dry bones tell stories

Will these dry bones live?

John Hawks  (photo credit: Courtesy)
John Hawks
(photo credit: Courtesy)
John Hawks is up to his neck in bones. He isn’t a physician who treats patients with osteoporosis, and he doesn’t x-ray fractures. The professor from the University of Wisconsin at Madison is, however, one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists who looks for and examines bones more than 250,000 years old in caves and elsewhere around the world.
In November 2013, Hawks and a team of scientists and diggers from around the world set up camp outside the Rising Star Cave about 65 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, and excavated and analyzed remains of Homo naledi, an ancestor of Homo sapiens – a link between Neanderthals and modern man. The discovery was announced officially in 2015. A UW-Madison professor played a leading role in excavating and analyzing more than 130 new Homo naledi fossils from the Rising Star cave in South. The expedition was led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. The prehistoric humans lived between 226,000 and 335,000 years ago.
The Homo naledi skeleton with a more complete skull, collarbone and thigh bone was named Neo, whose brain is the size of an orange; it is about as complete as the famous Australopithecus skeleton named Lucy that was dug up in 1974. Homo naledi is a still-mysterious evolutionary cousin of early humans who may have shared the southern African savanna with them 250,000 years ago.
While their brain is considerably smaller than that of Homo sapiens, they were not dumb. It appears that they deliberately buried their dead in the dark, hidden caves so the remains would not be eaten by animals. Altogether, Hawks’s interracial male-and-female team uncovered some 2,000 hominin specimens in several chambers.
“I’ve worked on almost every part of our evolutionary story, from the very origin of our lineage among the apes up to the last 10,000 years of our history.”
Of the 206 bones in the human body, only about 20 are not represented in the cave.
“It’s an enormously complete sample in terms of representing different parts of the anatomy of humans.” The team knew that they found at least 18 individuals because they found the same type of tooth that many times. Hawks is one of the foremost scholars in human evolution who became well known for his work in relating human genetics to these archaic humans who became extinct about 40,000 years ago.
ON FEBRUARY 5, Hawks will be one of the speakers at the annual multidisciplinary meeting of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. This year’s topic is “Time.” The varied nature of topics discussed and the local and international experts in the field participating will make it a unique gathering, open to the public. Other speakers will be Prof. Christos Papadimitriou of the University of Berkeley, who will talk about mathematical time; Tel Aviv University Prof. Nava Zisapel on the effect of jetlag and body clocks; and TAU and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center’s Prof. Nir Giladi about the time course of brain and cognitive deterioration in the elderly. Other lectures by internationally renowned experts will offer reflections on time and art, archeological time, whether time is active or passive and why we don’t understand history from the perspective of time.
Prof. Yadin Dudai, a brain and memory researcher from the Weizmann Institute of Science and chairman of the organizing committee, called the all-day event a rare gathering, both in terms of the variety of perspectives on time and the presentation of new findings in cutting-edge scientific and cultural disciplines, presented in language that is accessible to the general public.
IN AN interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hawks said he was the first academic in his family. He earned BA degrees in anthropology, French and English at Kansas State University in 1994 and master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology at the University of Michigan.
“I was born and grew up in Kansas. My father was a mailman and my mother a secretary. My brother is a high school teacher and football coach. I came from a town where there were no scientists, no role models from me. But somehow I was always interested in science.”
He added that his wife Gretchen is a homemaker, and “we have four children aged 13 to 17. I’d be glad if one goes into a scientific field, but I want them to be happy with what they choose. Anthropology can be very hard and competitive. But my family loves to travel with me to Africa and other places and visit the excavations.”
He travels 14,000 kilometers to personally spend about four months a year in South Africa for the digs. He also teaches courses in human evolution, biological anthropology and hominid paleoecology at his university.
His trip to Israel for the Academy lecture will be his second. He was here in 2013 to visit the Tabun cave, along with the, Jamal, el-Wad and Skhul caves on the Western slopes of Mount Carmel that became a World Heritage Site. The remains found there represent more than 500,000 years of human evolution, demonstrating the unique existence of both Neanderthals and early anatomically modern humans within the same middle Paleolithic cultural framework.
“We collected bones of very young babies and of relatively old people. We think their life expectancy was around 35 to 40 years. Their teeth, by the way, were very healthy, but when man started to produce domesticated crops, such as grains, they ate junk food and their teeth decayed.”
He is interested in “uncovering the patterns of relationships that connect people, and the subtle changes by which we adapted to ancient environments. I’m an expert in population dynamics and the process of natural selection on both genes and morphological traits. I’ve used my work in genetics and skeletal biology to form rich collaborations with colleagues in a dozen countries. I have numerous colleagues in anthropology and archeology at the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv Universities and hope to see them during this visit,” he said. “Israel is very open to archeology, as its people see the importance of connecting Jewish history and archeological finds,” he said.
“My work has taken me to Africa, Asia and Europe, where I have measured thousands of bones and investigated dozens of archeological sites. In my lab, we use bioinformatics methods to work with whole genome sequences from thousands of living people and a few ancient ones. We’re interested in uncovering the patterns of relationships that connect people and the subtle changes by which we adapted to ancient environments.”
A year after Neo’s discovery, he convened a workshop of 30 young scientists from 15 countries to carry out the first description and analysis of the fossils. Hawks believes there is a cornucopia of bones still in the cave, probably thousands of specimens.
As Hawks is very interested in spreading the word about paleoanthropology and archeology among laymen, he established a regularly updated science communication weblog and is also interviewed by journalists from the print and electronic media. His popular writing spread his reputation for being able to translate scientific findings so researchers of varied backgrounds could use them. As a result, he came to the attention of Prof. Lee Berger, the noted paleoanthropologist at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who runs the Rising Star Cave project who has been named South Africa’s “most visible scientist.” Hawks became second in command at the digs, coordinating the work of 150 scientists at the site and around the world.
Hawks believes that human evolution has actually sped up in recent history, in opposition to the common assumption that biological evolution has been made insignificant by cultural evolution.
“The mere fact that we now have Neanderthal ancestors is transformative, extending our very concept of humanity. By doing so, ancient DNA has given us new tools to understand our own nature as cultural beings. At the same time, ancient genomics has illuminated the dynamism of ancient populations. We now know of ancient populations that archeologists had never previously suspected and has shown the large-scale movements and mixtures among them,” he said.
“We know so little about the way the world was a million years ago. There are many inaccessible areas, such as in Angola, where there must be specimens in the ground, but we haven’t gotten to them. And there are western climates that became dry and shrank. We have no fossils from them at all.
“At the Rising Star Cave, there are two kilometers of underground passages. They are very narrow, twisted and deep. Two members of our team – Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker from Johannesburg – who are very thin, went into a hole 18 centimeters wide and 12 meters down and looked for bones. They encountered bats and creepy crawlies, but this didn’t deter them. We use technology, including lasers, to map the caves, but the best way is to go into the caves and look. So far, there haven’t been any serious injuries.”
He is almost certain that Africa was the center of our evolution.
“Different branches spread and some contributed their genetics to living people. Where Israel is located, at the crossroads of three continents, has always been a meeting point. Even migratory birds show this today. The environment was good for people, and they flourished.”
Although no dinosaur bones have been found in this area, there is one famous dinosaur print – in Beit Zayit near Jerusalem.
“That doesn’t mean they didn’t set foot on the land. The prints don’t last. They get washed away. And dinosaur and human bones may have been torn apart by wild animals.”
As the continents were believed to have been fused together, it was relatively easy for dinosaurs to wander from place to place. When hominids made their appearance, the continents had already separated and drifted away, so they had a much more difficult time getting around, Hawks said.
“Ancient people arrived in the New World over 15 million years ago. They walked and took boats. We don’t have any evidence of people reaching the Arctic area until 150 years ago, when the first evidence of human relatives from 45,000 years ago was discovered. They never reached Antarctica or Australia.”
HAWKS ENCOUNTERS evangelists and other creationists who believe that the world is only thousands of years old.
“Science is not in conflict with religious beliefs. The Earth is like a book with information on what happened in the past. If the Earth were so young, it couldn’t explain the layered radioactive elements that have been found. There is wisdom in religious books, but no science. The Bible tells a story of the world in religious terms. The Islamic world has been very resistant to evolution; they may think scientists are trying to overturn their beliefs.”
He is well aware of the fact that since the sun and moon were created only on the fourth day in Genesis; the first three “days” could have been millions or billions of years long – before there was a 24-hour day.
“I meet theologians, and we talk about our differences, but one of the most important messages of my work is that all humans are related. It is especially important in South Africa, where there has been racial tension for so long, and in the Middle East, where there have been so many wars. I try to dispel wrong ideas about what we are doing and to show the connections among races, not their separateness,” Hawks declared.
There are only some 2,000 biological anthropologists in the US, plus anthropologists that study contemporary human civilizations like Margaret Mead did. There are 6,000 or 7,000 archeologists there, but not all are academic. Archeology in America, he explained, has had a focus on proving when people came to the US, about showing that Native Americans have been there only a short time, so everybody is an immigrant. Native Americans actually came from Siberia.”
Asked about the recent disparaging statements attributed to President Donald Trump about non-white immigrants and illegal migrants to the US, Hawks said, “Things in the US are so polarized. His statements have caused a tremendous problem. African countries are full of wonderful people engaged in science. We have such an opportunity to work with them and help them attain a higher place in the world, but when you hear political leaders speak badly, it can cause resentment. I am worried, but there still is a tremendous opportunity for cooperation and leadership, and I hope it will continue. At least science foundation budgets have not yet been cut, but scientists are alert to the danger.”