Possibly an Act of Desperation. We’ll See… Rule #1 Applies Here

It had been a brutally hot summer, and the earth looked as if it had been scorched even before dry lightning ignited the wilderness. The devastation covered over a million hectares. The same gray landscape stretched beyond the horizon in every direction. Blackened, leafless trees stood silent watch over nothing. No birds. No ground dwellers. Not a plant. Not a single living thing, save for the three bipedal creatures making their way up the dry valley. 
     There had never been much water in this region, where streams suddenly disappeared beneath ground, and elsewhere emerged from gaping holes in the rock. The three were stumbling up the steep hillside. Their breath was rasping, and they frequently coughed. One was spitting blood after each paroxysm of coughing. The smoke had been thick in the air for weeks as the world around them was slowly and inexorably consumed by the fire. Now they were debilitated by it, and they needed to stop often to catch their breath. 

Photo source

     They had survived the summer before the fire because there’d been many drought deaths amongst the animals in their range, and having a decent olfactory sense the three knew where to look for a feed. Precious water was available in the dead one’s gut. But now even the carcasses were inedible, and whatever water their tissues once had held was either too meagre or so befouled as to make it worse than unpalatable. They seemed to be the only things moving on the landscape. And in truth they were. They alone had survived the fire because they knew the location of many holes in the rock, and had sheltered in one while the fire had burned outside. There had been a small seep in the wall of the fissure in which they’d huddled, and it had been enough to sustain them until it was possible to move about outside the hole.
     At first they could find grass seed and nuts, survivors only because of the their hardened outer coverings. Day after day they combed the ground for the insubstantial rewards. Their saving grace was no doubt that they expended little energy and never moved very far from their den. As they depopulated one area after another of the seeds and nuts, they moved further away from the hole in their search.  
     Now, at the top of a ridge the three stopped, then stooped and began scraping at the dirt with the stones that each carried. Here and there they could see the charred tops of edible tubers that had been growing just beneath the surface. The three ate ravenously whatever was left of the acrid, starchy roots, as they had now done for more than a month since the ground had cooled enough to make walking possible. They would need to return to the hole each day, since it was the only place they could get water. Without water the end would come swiftly.
     Instead the end would come slowly for the three, and in all likelihood they would die in the hole that had given them a reprieve from the inevitable. 
     
I know that the foregoing could easily be construed as a desperate act, considering that I’ve failed in my efforts to discover alternative natural sources for the organic compounds found in the dental calculus of the El Sidrón hominids. This left me wondering as to the possible natural circumstances under which those Neanderthals could have inhaled sufficient wood smoke for it to be recorded in the calculus adhering to their teeth, and have ingested quantities of cooked, starchy vegetables with the same effect. 
     I believe that the word picture I’ve painted here, rather than being the desperate act of a beaten skeptic, is not just possible or plausible, but must have been experienced by hominids throughout history. The degree to which they could survive such devastation would’ve been determined to a large degree by the areal coverage of the wildfire. Too widespread and the bipeds couldn’t have weathered the vicissitudes of the natural world.
     Remember Rule #1: Rule out the natural before imputing your observations to the actions of bipedal apes.

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Buzz Off! Can’t You See I’m Up to My Ears in the Organic Chemistry of El Sidrón’s Dental Calculus???

Hmmm. I’ve been struggling with Stephen Bradley’s comments on my recent post about Neanderthal oral hygiene at El Sidrón. Throughout he has maintained that the most likely source for the chemical constituents revealed by sophisticated mass spectrometry is wood smoke and cooked food. I have tried to suggest alternative natural sources of some of the compounds that he and his co-authors have identified.
     I would be dead in the water after his protracted comments on my earlier efforts were it not for my determination both to overcome my substantial ignorance of organic chemistry and to extend my argument beyond Stephen’s assertions and, indeed, his conclusions. I’m having some success, I think. Take, for example, his insistence that alkenes and alkanes are plant waxes: 

The thermal desorption-GC-MS (TIC) (Fig. 1 inset) is dominated by a series of n-alkanes (carbon numbers C22 to C35), suggesting a higher plant source (Eglinton et al. 1962), most probably derived from plant waxes in the original food consumed.

I’ll ask Stephen or some other organic chemist to adjudicate whether or not I’ve discovered another natural source of these chemicals–insects. Here is a snippet regarding the Dufour gland of a wasp, Habrobracon hebetor (Say) (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). 

The hydrocarbons consist of a homologous series of n-alkanes (n-C21 to n-C31), a trace amount of 3-methyl C23, a homologous series of internally methyl-branched alkanes (11-methyl C23 to 13-methyl C35), one dimethylalkane (13,17-dimethyl C33), a homologous series of monoenes (C(25:1) to C(37:1)) with the double bonds located at Delta9, Delta13 and Delta15 for alkenes of carbon number 25 to 31 and at Delta13 and Delta15 for carbon numbers 33 to 37 and three homologous dienes in very low amounts with carbon numbers of 31, 32, and 33. [emphasis added]*

I realize that eating insects isn’t as sexy as eating cooked plants, specially not wasps. But it’s not just wasps. A quick check suggests that hydrocarbons of all kinds are naturally occurring substances in insects. And it wouldn’t be the first time that a primate was ‘caught’ eating insects. I’ve eaten crickets many times at sushi bars.
     I don’t think I’ll continue in this vein, trying to ferret out alternatives to Hardy et al.’s inferences. At this point I’d just like to chill on my veranda with a cold one.
     But not quite yet. This business with the El Sidrón Neanderthals’ dental calculus has made me think about the assumptions that Stephen Bradley owned up to–that as far as he knows the Neanderthals made fires and cooked food and did numerous other things that you and I might do. I think otherwise.

     I don’t know which is worse: me, having lived with the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record for going-on 30 years and spending all my time trying to pierce the inferential balloons that my colleagues set free to ascend to the scholarly firmament, or earnest peers like Stephen Buckley having taken breath from those same balloons as a matter of course in their intellectual upbringing, spending all their time inadvertently adding to the cloud of colourful spheres floating above our heads. Whadda you think? I know what I think. I think this calls for me to touch on a subject near and dear to my heart in the near future–the context of discovery versus the context of justification (or verification). I’ve often been accused of being ‘unscientific’ because I start from the assumption that the Neanderthals were dummkopfs. So, stay tuned.

Arch Insect Biochem Physiol. 2003 Nov;54(3):95-109. Novel diterpenoids and hydrocarbons in the Dufour gland of the ectoparasitoid Habrobracon hebetor (Say) (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). Howard RW, Baker JE, Morgan ED.

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