Monday, February 27, 2017


Alison S. Brooks

I wake up at 4AM and write for an hour or so while I’m still in close contact with my under-consciousness, the things that are not quite in words yet, but forming into patterns.  When I first open catfood cans and start the computer, I’m always aware of little dots of light in the bottom of my field of vision.  I take them to be individual retina neurons flashing and worry that they are signs of trouble, though this has happened for years.  An eye researcher who dealt with such things came to visit and he thought it had something to do with calcium.  Finally I read a medical report that the tiny stars result from the blood supply at the back of the neck, the arteries going into the skull at the back where ocular information is processed.  Vertebrobasilar arteries get pinched and diminished if a person sleeps with a crooked neck or too deep under the covers.  I didn’t even know there was a separate set of arteries back there.  The ones in front get all the publicity.

So the subject this morning is not just that, but all the tiny syndromes that are being found by science, dot by dot, molecule by molecule, isotope by isotope, but almost always a matter of process.  Like the management of mucus in the head which also affects my sight through dry eye syndrome and Sjostrom syndrome, which I wrote about earlier.  I still don’t quite understand what produces the fluid that cascades down through the interior of the face, the sinuses, the eyes, the throat and so on — constantly washing beneath the skin and through the bone and down the throat, always moving.  Existence is process, always moving.

Information of this sort comes from our incredible (hardly believable) knowledge, only perceived by instruments and interpretation of results at the atomic level but nevertheless controlling crucial bodily assemblage and function as humans.  It gives us access, not only to our own health, but also to the evolution of hominins at the atomic level.  Evolution is not just opposable thumbs, binocular eyes, and upright posture, but also — perhaps most crucially of all — molecular adaptation to the ecologies we inhabit, much of it about food.  What we eat leaves a record in that tooth sludge called plaque.  This is far distant in the past from “paleo-diets.”

I hope we are ready to accept that major breakthroughs can happen because of grandmotherly ladies like Brooks and Schoeninger who got to thinking about what Neanderthals ate.  They were thinking it takes calories and specialized metabolisms to support a big brain.  They found clues in the isotopes of plaque scraped off of fossil teeth — especially useful when they matched that information with the environmental data that told them what the actual food sources might be.  Here’s the link to the talk:

This is a more extended YouTube description.  The talk is part of a series to which one can subscribe, part of the great cyber-university available to all.
CARTA:The Evolution of Human Nutrition--Alison S. Brooks and Margaret Schoeninger:Neanderthal Diets  (Visit: Alison S. Brooks (George Washington Univ) and Margaret J. Schoeninger (UC San Diego) provide an overview of Neanderthal diets based on the physical evidence, archaeological data, and bone composition data. They conclude that Neanderthal subsistence strategies varied with their local environments and included various combinations of plant and animal foods throughout their range.

Margaret Schoeninger

The women figure that a Neanderthal provider had to bring home to the cave, where the nuclear family waited, a couple of antelope a week.  But then they think about what it meant that hominins were the only animals able to harvest just the high-nutrition SEEDS of plants, leaving behind the stems and leaves.  This wasn’t just about dexterity or eyesight: it showed that the creatures realized the high nutrition value of seeds, which is a matter of thinking.  Then, knowing that the starches would be even more nutritionally valuable if they were cooked, the scientists developed ways to understand whether the seeds were boiled in water or roasted.  They knew these people had fire, but the material culture that had been collected showed no traces of pots.  The most prevalent cooking strategy was boiling in water for a relatively long time, but how?

Blackfeet proceeded by heating rocks in a campfire which they then dropped into a pot-shaped hole in the ground lined with raw hide to make it waterproof.  A pot that is a hole is hard to collect or even detect.  I read about them being numerous around the base of a buffalo jump (piskun) where the carcasses were parted out and dried for preservation.  The boiling was to extract fat and marrow from bones.  (

A good buffalo jump, like Head-Smashed-in, just north of here in Canada, needs not only a cliff to run the animals over, but also a good grazing valley at the top so animals would collect there, and then at the foot of the cliff enough space and possibly a source of water for a camp to stay for the days or weeks necessary for processing.  This technique, which requires exploration and planning as well as enough “theory of mind” to understand what a buffalo would do, goes back to “mastodon jumps,” maybe in the same places.  

The point is that to understand our past we need to know everything from dental hygiene to the weather report in order to really grasp what was creating us.  Evolution is simple: it requires variation in the “creature machine” and then new outside stressing forces plus thought from inside about how to cope.  That means some of the creatures are more vulnerable or unsuitable than the others, so they get winnowed out.  It might be hard to predict what will create “fitness”, but it will leave records right down to atomic isotopes when we look at the past.  It might not be a matter of robustness in the physical sense, but instead might be a subtle mutation of genes that produces enzymes capable of extracting/catalyzing the food value of milk and honey, so that the husbandry of goats and beehives can feed people wherever goats and bees thrive after all the mastodons are gone.

But then there is the dynamic catalyst of human behavior to consider, like brushing teeth.  Some hominins scraped at their tooth plaque with twigs, maybe chewed on the end to make a sort of brush, which meant their teeth were not so prone to rot, and that gave them a little edge, a behavior meme conveying fitness.

Other meme-involved activities were whole-tribe practices, like jumps, which required maximum effort coordinated by everyone, not just the dramatic moment of a living avalanche, but the hard work of butchery and drying thin-sliced meat on racks over smoky fires, while cracking bones enough to boil the fat out.  Hominins who did this evolved social skills. 

In the future we will not evolve wheels instead of having feet as some have joked.  We will evolve social skills.  Fitness will consist of things like not killing each other with famine, which it is happening right now.  I'm not talking about global climate change.  Much of the starvation is caused by war or excessive taxation or export for profit that prevents food crops.  In Bengal in 1770 the price of grain was so high that the governor general estimated that a third of the population died.  Much more recently Stalin did much the same thing to Ukraine. Those who get their heads on straight and out from under the covers are more likely to see what to do.

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