Porotic Hyperostosis, or, How to FlimFlam Your Way to Fame and Fortune

I’ve about had it up to here with nothing buttery! The idea that you can simply choose the explanation you want for the observations you make. I’m done. I’m through. I’m pissed off. I don’t know whether to thank Iain Davidson for this gem, or throw something at him for raising my ire when I should be moping by myself at World Headquarters. But, who am I to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Ripped from the pages of [you guessed it] PLONK ONE, comes this. 

‘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.

Source

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.

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Finlayson et al. on Corvids and Raptors and Neanderthal Use of Birds

I’m left stunned by Finlayson et al.‘s article in the ever-preposterous PlosOne. I’m stunned for several reasons, and I think that I shall forego a fine-toothed critical approach in favour of a few well-chosen questions of the team that published this terrible piece of scholarship [and I’m being charitable here, in case you weren’t aware].
     The article, if you haven’t seen it, is a wonderful example of what [I think] Clyde Kluckhohn termed ‘wallowing in minutiae.’ The authors say that they’re investigating ‘the existence of universal patterns of early use of feathers for ornamental and symbolic purposes’ among the Neanderthals.’ They claim to have found that ‘the relationship involves active processing of raptors and corvids by Neanderthals for the purpose of wing feather removal. ‘Splain somthin’ to me, Lucy:

Question One: Why would a burly Neanderthal need a stone tool to extricate feathers from [even a largish] bird? For those of you who haven’t been brought up in the time of the rural to urban population transformation in North America, I’ll inform you that modern human females of all ages and physical characteristics have been, historically, and still are, theoretically, capable of PLUCKING a gawd-dammed bird without the need for a GD knife–stone or otherwise. But we’re supposed to accept that the Gibraltarian Neanderthals left seriously minute scratches on tiny bird bones because they were removing the feathers for use as ornaments and fashion accessories.
Excuse the upper case: HOW LAME CAN YOU BE? Finlayson et al. are clearly so infatuated with the idea of symbolic behaviour among their beloved Neanderthals that they’ve lost all touch with reality! If you don’t believe me, assemble for me a small bibliography on archaeological bird butchery. I double-dog dare ya.

Question Two: Where do the authors get the idea that you need to butcher a bird? I have to think it’s by analogy to making an elephant carcass useful! But, if you’ve ever spent more than a little time in the kitchen, you’ll know that raw bird meat is relatively easy to remove from the bone with just your bare hands. Imagining that a Neanderthal needed to dismember a bird carcass in order to eat it is LUDICROUS! Raw or cooked, they’re small enough to carry around without the need to butcher them to make individual packages that are easy for one person to carry! Furthermore, cooked bird meat is DEAD EASY to remove from the carcass with your bare teeth! Where do these ideas come from?????

Question Three: Who said that a 50-micron-wide linear scratch on a piece of bird bone is unequivocally evidence of butchery?? The authors looked at the corvids and raptors from the Gibraltar sites and found vanishingly few with such marks on them. What, one wonders, would they have found if they’d examined the skeletal remains of the non-corvid, non-raptor bones in the same sites. Doh!

As I said above. I decline to look further into the data and the data manipulations that Finlayson et al. present in this paper. Without even breaking a sweat I can see that their presence/absence data from 1699 palaearctic palaeontological and archaeological sites is statistically incapable of yielding useful results, especially since they ignore the presence of other kinds of birds at all the sites they employ.

Their premises are preposterous, and so are their results. Someone, please, prove me wrong, and I promise I’ll stop slagging PlosOne.

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