‘Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania,’ Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Fernando Diez-Martín, Audax Mabulla, Charles Musiba, Gonzalo Trancho, Enrique Baquedano, Henry T. Bunn, Doris Barboni, Manuel Santonja, David Uribelarrea, Gail M. Ashley, María del Sol Martínez-Ávila, Rebeca Barba, Agness Gidna, José Yravedra, Carmen Arriaza. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414
It’s a benign enough title. Not the sort of thing that would normally attract the media’s attention. It might have been better phrased: ‘Pleistocene parents unable to provide enough meat for their progeny.’ That, at least, might explain this article at Phys.Org. This is another example of what’s known in philosophical circles as argument from want of evident alternatives. It’s well known among charlatans, and I like to call it ‘nothing buttery.’ Such and such a phenomenon can ONLY be the result of such and such a cause. Too bad there are about thirty others that come to mind!
Domínguez-Rodrigo et al. are reporting on a diagnosis of porotic hyperostosis. Wouldn’t be a big deal in the grand scheme of things. However, this pathological condition [and the bony lesions that present themselves in the skeletal remains of sufferers] is a rarity for Plio-Pleistocene bipedal apes. Shown below is a photo of the inner and outer tables of the specimen and a cross-section through the cranium of the 1.5 Myr old genus species indet.
I don’t dispute their diagnosis. I do, however, question their explanation of the observations. At last count there were about 47 squillion conditions that are capable of producing porotic hyperostosis. The main one is anemia, which has many causes. Yet, the authors fasten on one cause of anemia, that of dietary deficiency, specifically of meat. But that’s a HUGE leap from the evidence, and the authors optimistically rule out the alternatives in a bald statement that has ABSOLUTELY no support. They say
The relationship between porotic hyperostosis and hemolytic anemias, like sicklemia and thalassemia, has also been stressed, suggesting its linkage to malaria …. Given that porotic hyperostosis is often documented in human infants of roughly the same estimated age as OH 81 from regions free of malaria … , we thus conclude that serious nutritional stress at a key phase in the development of the OH 81 individual was the most likely cause of the porotic hyperostosis observed on the fossil.
I’m gonna let that one sink in for a minute.
Hold on a minute! Porotic hyperostosis occurs in places where malaria doesn’t. So, in those places something else is causing porotic hyperostosis. But, that doesn’t mean that OH 81 couldn’t have had sickelemia or thalassemia! It only means that elsewhere malaria doesn’t cause anemia. Doh! Moreover, even though there are a squillion other possible causes of porotic hyperostosis, the authors fasten on only one–meat deficiency, or meat deficiency in the lactating female parent.
Can anyone tell me why the authors’ position makes any sense? Sure, dietary deficiency is one possibility. But wishing it away doesn’t privilege that interpretation–which, in this case, is way sexier than sickle-cell anemia, ’cause it lets the authors blather on about how the OH 81 hominid/n and it’s conspecifics were already obligate carnivores [itself an odd choice for a preferred interpretation–after all, that would mean that we moderns would need to have devolved from carnivory to omnivory, a concept I find preposterous, along with the rest of this putative scholarly contribution]. So. I ask you. How can one take this article seriously?
Oh, and by the way, PlosOne, if you’re trying to convince people that you’re a legitimate and authoritative source of up-to-the-minute information you should probably spend a bit more time copy-editing [or, perish the thought, reviewing] the manuscripts submitted for publication. The title of Domínguez-Rodrigo et al.’s contribution [the charitable epithet under the circumstances] includes the term ‘hominin,’ which is de rigueur these days as a way of distinguishing us from the African and Asian Great Apes. YET, in the paper itself the authors revert to the historical nomenclature [which, by the way, hasn’t as yet been dumped by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature], Hominidae. Furthermore, there are numerous terms and phrases that are not grammatical or even colloquial English. I know that we’re all warm and fuzzy for inclusion these days, but I’m pretty sure your contributors wouldn’t like to be accused of publishing ‘broken English.’ Get it right, or get out of the way.