I’m talking about the Neanderthal dental calculus chemical characterization undertaken by Stephen Buckley, and which was published under the title of ‘Neanderthal Medics?’ [catchy title] by Hardy et al. 2012. Certain organic compounds led the authors to infer that cooked vegetables were the source. Neanderthal chefs?
Stephen was kind enough, and a responsible enough scientist [are you listening, all who’re guilty of avoiding the Subversive Archaeologist?], to confront my suggestion that he and his colleagues may have overlooked some alternative sources for the organic compounds they found adhering to the El Sidrón Neanderthals’ teeth [in the form of calculus–hardened plaque]. His comments on my previous attempts, here, here, and here, are to be found by clicking here, here, and here. [It’s all enormously edifying and entertaining. You should go.]
Today Stephen responded to what was to have been my last word, and in his characteristically mild and amicable way, he acknowledged that insects do indeed produce hydrocarbons. Then he said something odd. Even after I quoted from a scholarly paper that mentioned finding ‘a homologous series of n-alkanes (n-C21 to n-C31) [graphically cited below],
Would I Lie to You? Click here for web access.
Stephen, maven of mass-gas chromato-stratigraphic-oscopy [or something equally unpronounceable and technically so far beyond my abilities as to be completely embarrassing ], states that insects are capable of producing hydrocarbons [well known to everyone else, it would seem, besides me], however
‘…[insects] are usually accompanied by branched alkanes and alkenes too – you actually quote these in your piece. Plant wax esters, on the other hand, produce n-alkanes (and n-alkenes – these are often absent in archaeological samples, where they have undergone decay)…’ [comment on Buzz Off!]
‘Bummer,’ I said to myself. Another beautiful theory bapped in the face by a brutal fact. I was just about ready to slink off and back into the intertubes where I belong, when it hit me. Not the fact; the anomaly. Stephen was writing as if the species of parasitic wasp about which my article was talking contained only ‘branching’ alkanes. ]The anomaly, by the way, is that Stephen seemed to be making a rare slip.] ‘What’s up with that,’ I asked myself. [Such protracted conversations with myself are occurring with frightening regularity, nowadays. Maybe I’m spending too much time alone. Ya think, Rob?]
So, I went to check. There they were. Branching alkanes. [Who’d’ve thought this archaeologist would one day find himself talking about branching organic molecules?] Undaunted [or so I’d want Stephen Buckley to believe] I soldiered on. And, my perseverance paid off. I wasn’t imagining it! That pesky wasp was making n-alkanes, too. ‘What a trooper,’ I thought to myself [more concerned, this time, that I was personifying a wasp than that I was talking to myself again]. I have the proof right here. And, it’s even more exciting than I thought it was the first time!
Immediately below I’m reproducing the table showing the actual values, by weight, of each of the compounds that were found in the wasps’ Dufour glands. BEFORE you go all weird about the size of the type, chill. The table is just for show. I’ll extract the important data for you. But don’t be surprised by the miniscule quantities reported. Wasps are small, mind you. So their little Dufour glands don’t hold much of anything–according to this table, ~332 nanograms of organic compounds [that’s billionths of a gram to the SI-challenged among you]. The truly gloatable bit from this table is that ~30% of the stuff in each gland comprises…you should be sitting down, Stephen…n-alkanes. They run the gamut from n-C21 through n-C31. 30% by weight! Wriggle out of that one, Mr. biochemically savvy El Sidrón dental calculus man!
Not bad, eh? Perhaps those El Sidrón Neanderthals weren’t eating cooked plants after all. [crickets chirping]
Moving on. Even if the vegetable-cooking inference of Hardy et al. falls flat on its face when
faced confronted by the alternative, my efforts haven’t made so much as a dent in their other major conclusion–that the Neanderthals were inhaling a lot of wood smoke. Gimme a break! I’m workin’ on it. Let’s see… Those Neanderthals prolly expired from smoke inhalation while huddling in their cave until the palaeo-firestorm was over, only the cave just concentrated the smoke and bits of it got stuck to the teeth of the Neanderthals, who were by think time gasping, mouths agape, for the last nanogram of breatheable air… [Hey, I’m allowed to make up stuff, too! Ain’t I?]
I’d like to acknowledge the patience and persistence that you’re demonstrating, Stephen, in this protracted conversation with a total know-nothing-about-organic-chemistry type. Thanks. As for the other stuff–philosophy and absent evidence and all that–maybe some day soon we can sit down over a pint No! a Pimms No. 1 Cup in the back garden at the Wheat Sheaf in Oxford. That’d be perfect. Later.