Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lesbian Ants and Seafaring, Makeup-Wearing Cavemen

It's been a big week in science, and we at the Egg are happy to note a few highlights.

First off, we know that our header has you asking, "How does he even know about my dad's sister Gertrude? Nobody in the family ever talked about it, except that one New Year's when Uncle Charlie had too much egg nog."  

But, sadly, the header is just a tease -- one more pathetic bid to attract more traffic off the search engines.  In fact, the ants in question, called Mycocephorus smithii, are exclusively female, but their reproduction is asexual.  This is less titillating, to be sure, but still fascinating.  Think about it:  a species without any males at all.  We think immediately, as you do to, of some justly overlooked 50s movies.  But then we get serious, and, remembering the dubious claims of mid-70s feminism, await word on whether these ants engage in warfare like the other breeds, or live a pacifist existence on their organic farm in Vermont.

As to the cavemen, we're talking first about Homo erectus, who apparently, after leaving Africa, became a long-distance sailor.  This, at least, is the conclusion drawn by some scientists who have discovered hand-axes on the island of Crete.  The tools date to roughly 130,000 years ago and are made (from local materials) in the style associated with H. erectus.  

It's a big story.  Homo erectus is know primarily from digs in Asia, and previous speculation had centered on the use of rafts in Indonesia.  As to Crete, H. sapiens apparently arrived there about 7000 BC.  So this find may well re-write the history of human (or anyway, hominid) development.

In other cavemen-related news, it seems that (as scientists had first suspected in 1985), H. neanderthalensis -- Neantherthal man --  wore body paint as well as jewelry made from carefully selected and decorated seashells.  According to the team that made these discoveries at a dig in Spain, the evidence dates to about 50,000 years ago, or 10,000 years before our own species arrived in Europe.  (And, obviously, a long, long time after the Homo erectus bunch had vacationed on Crete.)

This news doesn't solve the riddle of the Neanderthals' ultimate fate.  Three answers are usually offered, all of which serve to make H. sapiens seem awfully macho:  we killed 'em, we outcompeted 'em, or we -- ahem -- mated with 'em.  Recent budget cuts have eliminated the Egg's Anthropological Opinion department, so we have no idea which, if any, proposition is correct.  

But we are fascinated by the emerging image of an archaic world, including archaic Europe, in which modern human beings were not a revolutionary presence, with big brains, more culture, and better tools.  Instead, we were one of at least three large-bodied, intelligent, tool-using and culture-bearing species, all existing in more or less the same places and more or less the same times.

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