Sandcastles, trivialising science?

Most scientists agree that we have an image problem. This is serious at a time when research is at a premium to inform decision-making as argued so beautifully by Mark Henderson in The Geek Manifesto. We have a new generation of skilled science communicators on television today like Brian Cox, Jim Al Kalil, Alice Roberts and Iain Stewart to name but four and the quality and availability of science reporting has increased dramatically with the digital age. But the focus remains on discovery, the easy or sexy headline and therefore often on the trivial. Complex more nuanced, incremental stories are more often than not ignored. Every publically funded researcher is under pressure to engage the public and to increasingly justify what they do as part of the social contract with the public which funds them. For example, almost all funding in the UK requires statements now about pathways to engagement, but with this focus there is an ever present risk of simply pandering to the trivial and the easy as researchers seek publicity. It is something that I have been accused of myself.

The month of June is here which means for me the inevitable phone call to write something about building the perfect sandcastle. Professor Sandcastle, or the Sandcastle Boffin, was born in the summer of 2004 when I innocently became involved in a bit of summer ‘fluff’ for a holiday company. They wanted a formula for the perfect sandcastle. I obliged and the result caused a small unexpected media frenzy. The formula made it into the tabloids, was reported across the broadsheets and was a perfect regional story for radio and local television that summer. Much to my embarrassment I found myself portrayed as the Sandcastle Boffin. All was light hearted except for a barbed comment in the Independent, my newspaper of choice at the time, which cut deep: ‘haven’t they got anything better to do?’ ‘Yes of course I have, but you’re not interested in what I normally do’ I might have replied. The barb of triviality stuck fast.

The thing about the sandcastle story is that it would not die, despite the fact that the original research was never worthy in my view at least of publication. The following May I started to receive messages ‘we were so impressed by what you did for sandcastles last year can you . . .’ I was asked to create equations for love, happiness and luck. I turned most of them down but the idea of the ‘science equation as a’ tool was firmly embedded in a new generation of PR consultants. An appearance on the BBC Coasts programme with a linked session at the Cheltenham Science Festival helped cement the sandcastle connection, along with a slow but steady request for articles and radio interviews over the years. Most summers don’t pass without a request of some sort.

I have always delivered something when requested, seeing it as part of my remit as a modern academic to engage with the public slipping in messages about geology and earth history at every turn. I have resisted feelings of rancour when my real research has got less publicity remaining for the most part philosophical; if the public want fluff let them have it, better something than nothing, right? In truth it has done me no harm. The original interest gave me media training like no other and BU likes to remind people of its golden sands. It helped me as an academic appreciate the power and pitfalls of the media and the need for the sound bite and money shot in presenting more serious and challenging stories.

Despite this the barb still twists; I am not just trivialising my academic discipline of sedimentology that I care deeply about? Is this not an ever present risk as we strive as academics for more public engagement? It is easy for us to write into funding pitches that we will do school events, give popular talks, create websites, attend and run festivals but does this really engage the public in the value and power of research? Are we not just feeding the media-machine with yet more trivia in lip-service to our funding aims?

I have no idea whether my work on the perfect sandcastle over the years has made any real difference, it is impossible to quantify in terms of output. The truth is that measuring the consequences of engagement is hard and often undertaken post hoc. I am left without the answers but a gut feeling that is it better to show that science is all around us even in the humble sandcastle however trivial this may seem, than simply sit aloof concerned only about the more serious science stories that we may occasionally have to peddle.

New Forensics textbook published by BU academics

Profs Matthew Bennett and Marcin Budka have just published the textbook Digital Technology for Forensic Footwear Analysis and Vertebrate Ichnology with Springer.

“There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps.” Sherlock Holmes, Study of Scarlet.

Despite the fictional nature of Sherlock Holmes this statement rings true today. The study of footwear is neglected in modern forensic practice and does have much to offer. What it needs is an injection of technology and associated modern analytical tools. These tools are emerging from the digital revolution currently transforming vertebrate ichnology. Ichnology is the discipline of earth science which focuses on the study of trace fossils such as footprints. This book draws upon both disciplines (geology [ichnology] and forensic science) to show how the two have much to learn from each other especially with regard to the digital capture and analysis of footprints and footwear evidence.

This innovative book which is the culmination of research/innovation funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and HEIF provides the practitioner with field and laboratory methods necessary for the collection, analysis and presentation of three-dimensional tracks (footprints) whether from a crime scene or a geological/archaeological excavation. It shows students, researchers and practitioners how to collect and analyse 3D data and take advantage of the digital revolution transforming ichnology. The book forms a natural methods focused complement to the successful text Fossilised Locomotion published by Springer 2014 and written by Professor Bennett.

The book is an illustration of Fusion in action combining professional practice, research and teaching. The team’s work is supported by the Home Office and National Crime Agency as well as several police forces and forensic units throughout the UK. Some of the contents have been co-created with students at BU and the volume will be used in teaching on a range of forensic science programmes at BU.
9783319085715

Sloths and Sauropods: what a strange combination!

Here is a link to a piece written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution community. It gives some of the background to the sloth hunting story release in April 2018. Also since the publication of the Science Advances paper we have had another piece appear in Quaternary Science Reviews about the use of geophysics in detecting tracks.

In July of 2018 I was also involved in the rescue of some sauropod tracks on the Isle of Purbeck. It is a nice story and there is more on this to come in time. You can find out a bit about this ongoing work here.

Newly discovered 6m-year-old Cretan footprints stolen – finder writes about how we must protect precious sites

Newly discovered 6m-year-old Cretan footprints stolen – finder writes about how we must protect precious sites

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Vandalised site, showing fresh sand along the edges of the slab where it has been lifted and the holes left by the removal of two blocks in the centre.
Babis Fassoulas, Author provided

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University

There has been a lot of interest in our discovery of nearly-6m-year-old footprints on Crete, first reported by the The Conversation – suggesting that human ancestors could have roamed Europe at the same time as they were evolving in East Africa.

Sadly the site was vandalised in the last week, with four or five of the 29 tracks stolen. We are fortunate that many of the best tracks remain – the people who did it clearly didn’t know what they were looking for. Our guess is that they were simply intending to sell them.

The theft occurred despite the site being afforded protection under Greek heritage law and being in the care of local officials. Police, we are told, have made an arrest in connection with the incident, and it is hoped that the missing material will be returned soon. The damage, however, is irreparable.

The site has now been buried.
Babis Fassoulas, Author provided

The Cretan authorities moved swiftly to bury the site temporarily while a more permanent conservation solution, such as moving the entire surface, is sought. We are lucky that the whole area has been 3D-scanned with an optical laser scanner in high resolution as part of the original study. In due course this data will be made available via the Natural History Museum of Crete and the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden. So there will fortunately not be much of an impact on the research.

Yet the event is devastating. To understand the significance to someone who studies ancient tracks like these, consider it equivalent to an attempt to steal part of the Sphinx at Giza or vandals dislodging one of lintel blocks at Stonehenge.

Unfortunately, the theft and vandalism of tracks is nothing new. For example, there was a recent case on the Isle of Skye in Scotland of vandalised dinosaur tracks dating from around 165m year ago that lead to a police probe. The ethics around the collection and sale of fossils and artefacts is complex, and many of the great scientific collections today are based on collection and sales by amateurs in the past. Ultimately, it seems wrong to collect and sell artefacts that there’s only a limited number of.

Conversation challenges

But how can you conserve what is essentially a slab of soft rock, close to the sea and open to the elements? Oddly, erosion at such sites is to be encouraged because it often helps reveal new surfaces which may contain additional prints.

It’s tricky – a problem I first faced following my discovery of the Ileret hominin footprints, the second oldest such tracks in the world at the time, and preserved in nothing but packed silt.

The site has been buried in haste to avoid further thefts.
Babis Fassoulas, Author provided

I did some research on this with colleagues and concluded that the only option is to excavate and digitally record them in 3D. This can be done either with a laser scanner or just with a digital camera in the field. Some 20 pictures of a track from different angles is enough to create a 3D image. These days 3D printers can easily create models for museums and for collectors.

Digital preservation is probably the key for the Cretan tracks as well. This worked well for the 2,100-year-old human footprints of Acahualinca
in Managua (Nicaragua), where the originals are perfectly preserved under a roof built over the site, and in an adjacent museum.

The 120,000-year-old human footprints at Nahoon Point in South Africa are marked by a footprint-shaped visitors’ centre that looks great from Google Earth. There are also a number of excellent examples of dinosaur track sites preserved in museums and under shelters, such as those at Las Cerradicas in Spain.

Perhaps the most controversial of conservation solutions has been to bury the world’s oldest confirmed hominin footprints – from Laetoli in Tanzania – which were first documented in the late 1970s. These tracks were buried as a way of protecting them from weathering and natural-decay.

There has been extensive debate about what should happen at this site and many scientists are unhappy about the lack of access. Plans for the site over the years have varied from an on-site museum to the removal of the whole slab to another site. The debate continues, but ultimately it is money that precludes a solution that would allow access to the public and scientists alike.

The footprints pictured in the research paper are still intact.
Author provided

Indeed, the challenge is always money. It is expensive to erect and maintain protective structures, and to gain funds you need publicity to ensure that all the stakeholders involved are aware of the scientific, social and emotional value of a site.

One of the reasons for publicising the Trachilos tracks was not only to get the discovery debated in open scientific circles, but also to raise its public profile – thereby seeking better protection and ultimately its preservation in a local museum. That would bring visitors and fuel local revenue.

The trouble is the very publicity aimed to assist the site’s protection may have led to an enhanced perception of its monetary value. After all, the site had been known locally for years. Publicity though, is a double-edged sword and we have been lucky on this occasion to avoid the full length of its blade.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What ancient footprints can tell us about what it was like to be a child in prehistoric times

What ancient footprints can tell us about what it was like to be a child in prehistoric times

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Footprint from 700,000 years ago.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University and Sally Christine Reynolds, Bournemouth University

Western society has a rather specific view of what a good childhood should be like; protecting, sheltering and legislating to ensure compliance with it. However, perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. What was it like to be a child in prehistoric times, for example – in the absence of toys, tablets and television?

In our new paper, published in Scientific Reports, we outline the discovery of children’s footprints in Ethiopia which show how children spent their time 700,000 years ago.

We first came across the question of what footprints can tell us about past childhood experiences a few years back while studying some astonishingly beautiful children’s footprints in Namibia, just south of Walvis Bay. In archaeological terms the tracks were young, dating only from around 1,500 years ago. They were made by a small group of children walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats. Some of these tracks were made by children as young as three-years-old in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents.

Namibian footprints.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

The detail in these tracks, preserved beneath the shifting sands of the Namibian Sand Sea, is amazing, and the pattern of footfall – with the occasional skip, hop and jump – shows they were being playful. The site also showed that children were trusted with the family flock of animals from an early age and, one assumes, they learnt from that experience how to function as adults were expected to within that culture.

No helicopter parents

But what about the childhood of our earlier ancestors – those that came before anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens)? Children’s tracks by Homo antecessor (1.2m to 800,000 years ago) were found at Happisburgh in East Anglia, a site dating to a million years ago. Sadly though, these tracks leave no insight into what these children were doing.

Reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis.
Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

But the footprints described in our recent study – from a remarkable site in the Upper Awash Valley of Southern Ethiopia that was excavated by researchers from the Università di Roma “La Sapienza” – reveal a bit more. The children’s tracks were probably made by the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis(600,000 to 200,000 years ago), occurring next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool. Stone tools and the butchered remains of a hippo were also found at the site, called Melka Kunture.

This assemblage of tracks is capped by an ash flow from a nearby volcano which has been dated to 700,000 years ago. The ash flow was deposited shortly after the tracks were left, although we don’t know precisely how soon after. The tracks are not as anatomically distinct as those from Namibia but they are smaller and may have been made by children as young as one or two, standing in the mud while their parents and older siblings got on with their activities. This included knapping the stone tools with which they butchered the carcass of the hippo.

The findings create a unique and momentary insight into the world of a child long ago. They clearly were not left at home with a babysitter when the parents were hunting. In the harsh savannah plains of the East African Rift Valley, it was natural to bring your children to such daily tasks, perhaps so they could observe and learn.

This is not surprising, when one considers the wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies. Babies and children are most often seen as the lowliest members of their social and family groups. They are often expected to contribute to activities that support the mother, and the wider family group, according to their abilities. In many societies, small boys tend to help with herding, while young girls are preferred as babysitters. Interestingly, adult tools – like axes, knives, machetes, even guns – are often freely available to children as a way of learning.

Artistic impression of scene at Melka Kunture.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

So, if we picture the scene at Melka Kunture, the children observing the butchery were probably allowed to handle stone tools and practice their skills on discarded pieces of carcass while staying out of the way of the fully-occupied adults. This was their school room, and the curriculum was the acquisition of survival skills. There was little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise today.

This was likely the case for a very long time. The Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina (roughly 7,000-years-old) contains predominantly small tracks (of children and women) preserved in coastal sediments and it has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the tracks in the Tuc d’Audoubert Cave in France (15,000-years-old) are those of children and the art there is striking. Perhaps they were present when it was carved and painted?

However, these observations contrasts to the story that emerged last year based on tracks from the older Homo Homo erectus (1.5m-year-old) at Ileret, located further south in the Rift Valley, just within the northern border of Kenya. Here the tracks have been interpreted as the product of adult hunting groups moving along a lake shore, rather than a domestic scene such as that at Melka Kunture. However, these scenes aren’t mutually exclusive and both show the power of footprints to provide a snapshot into past hominin behaviour.

But it does seem like the overwhelming parenting lesson from the distant past is that children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision and certainly no indulgence from their parents. It is a picture of a childhood very different from our own, at least from the privileged perspective of life in Western society.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Sally Christine Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Hominin Palaeoecology, Bournemouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From dinosaurs to crime scenes – how our new footprint software can bring the past to life

From dinosaurs to crime scenes – how our new footprint software can bring the past to life

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New software could help to reveal the story behind the imprint.
Shutetrstock

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University and Marcin Budka, Bournemouth University

A fossil footprint is one of the most evocative insights into the past. It can tell you not only about presence, but also about the biomechanics of the track-maker. We have studied ancient footprints from around the world for more than a decade – and perhaps most notably we were part of the team that discovered the second oldest human footprints at Ileret in northern Kenya in 2009. They date back 1.5m years and were likely made by Homo erectus.

Over the past ten years, we have witnessed unparalleled technological advances. We used to take a large, expensive and delicate optical laser scanner into the field, encased in a shroud specially made by a sail maker. I remember with horror how it exploded on the first day of one particular field trip.

The world’s second oldest human footprint.
Author provided

It had been flown at great expense first to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and then on a small plane which landed on a dirt strip. But then, on its first day out, it was connected to a generator supposedly that had been repaired in a back street Nairobi shop – and the sparks flew. My colleagues had to infill the excavation and it was another six months before I was back out with a repaired scanner and a new generator.

These days, thankfully, we need nothing more than a digital camera in the field. We take 20 pictures from different angles and I have a 3D model to rival those I once created by physically scanning the footprint. And with far fewer headaches. In fact, in October, Microsoft demonstrated a 3D scanner that works on a smart phone – technology is changing fast.

Great leaps forward

Despite this, 3D models have yet to make an impact in some areas. One of these is in the analysis of footwear evidence at crime scenes. Here, traditional methods of photography and casting still prevail and footwear evidence is no longer routinely collected at many crime scenes. Yet it has real power, especially when brought into 3D – and the 21st century.

Footwear impressions provide an important source of evidence from crime scenes. They can help to determine the sequence of events and – if distinctive due to the wear patterns – can link a suspect to multiple crime scenes. The value is not only as a tool in prosecution, but crucially in intelligence gathering often around petty crime. Unfortunately, it isn’t being routinely used – at least until now.

Footprint: modelled digitally.
Author provided

Working with a talented team of software developers, we have now translated academic know-how and software developed for research into a freeware package that puts 3D tools into the hands of everyone. Over the past year, with funding from a Natural Environment Research Council Innovation Award and with the help of the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, we have developed DigTrace a bespoke software tool for footprint analysis. This tool is now freely available to police forces and forensic services both in the UK and overseas.

DigTrace is the first integrated freeware product that allows crime scene officers to capture 3D images of footwear impressions with nothing more than a digital camera and then to visualise, analyse and compare these traces digitally. It integrates fully with existing databases and approaches and we hope it will change the cost benefit equation of footwear analysis.

From the extraordinary to the everyday

The use of 3D modelling of this kind need not only be used in high capital crimes but can also be used to tackle the petty crime that often plagues society. Take, for example, a series of grass verges on the edges of car parks of ill repute. Using this tool, you can easily scan footprints in these areas. And if you can link the same piece of footwear to several of these disreputable areas, you know you are looking for one individual or group rather than several. The power lies in improving intelligence.

We’ve been developing the software for the better part of a decade. What started as a collection of tools for addressing specific research tasks, built using a variety of technologies, has now been consolidated with the help of NERC into a standalone software suite. There is some neat mathematics that underlies the various 3D transformations required. Keeping things simple, however, has been the key to building trust with end-users who are not computer scientists.

At the heart of the approach is the idea of digital photogrammetry – take a series of images, identify common pixels in each and triangulate the pixels to define their location in 3D space. The result is a 3D pixel cloud that can be scaled, transformed and surfaced. We are actively researching the enabling technology here at Bournemouth University to develop new tools from this basic premise. Creating 3D models from video and even CCTV footage is in our sights. Our aim is to provide tools that make society safer, not just from high profile-crime, but that which affects everyday lives.

While DigTrace may help fight crime, it is also there for geologists and archaeologists to help them study dinosaur or ancient human tracks. The use of 3D data is a brave new world from printing in 3D to developing tools that visualise and analyse such data – and it is helping to bring the recent, and most distant, past to life.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Marcin Budka, Principal Academic in Data Science, Bournemouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How prehistoric water pit stops may have driven human evolution

How prehistoric water pit stops may have driven human evolution

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Lake Nakuru.
Brian Rutere

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University and Mark O Cuthbert, Cardiff University

Our ancient ancestors seem to have survived some pretty harsh arid spells in East Africa’s Rift Valley over five million years. Quite how they kept going has long been a mystery, given the lack of water to drink. Now, new research shows that they may have been able to survive on a small networks of springs.

The study from our inter-disciplinary research team, published in Nature Communications, illustrates that groundwater springs may have been far more important as a driver of human evolution in Africa than previously thought.

Great rift valley.
Redgeographics, CC BY-SA

The study focuses on water in the Rift Valley. This area – a continuous geographic trench that runs from Ethiopia to Mozambique – is also known as the “cradle of humanity”.

Here, our ancestors evolved over a period of about five million years. Throughout this time, rainfall was affected by the African monsoon, which strengthened and weakened on a 23,000-year cycle. During intense periods of aridity, monsoon rains would have been light and drinking water in short supply. So how did our ancestors survive such extremes?

Previously, scientists had assumed that the evolution and dispersal of our ancestors in the region was solely dependent on climate shifts changing patterns of vegetation (food) and water (rivers and lakes). However, the details are blurry – especially when it comes to the role of groundwater (springs).

We decided to find out just how important springs were. Our starting point was to identify springs in the region to map how groundwater distribution varies with climate. We are not talking about small, babbling springs here, but large outflows of groundwater. These are buffered against climate change as their distribution is controlled by geology – the underlying rocks can store rainwater and transfer it slowly to the springs.

The lakes of the African Rift Valley.
SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

We figured that our ancestors could have stayed close to such groundwater in dry times – playing a greater part in their survival than previously thought. When the climate got increasingly wet, groundwater levels would have risen and made springs more plentiful – feeding smaller rivers and leading to lakes becoming less saline. At this point, our ancestors would have roamed across the landscape free of concerns about water.

Life and death decisions

To test this idea, we embarked on a computer experiment. If the springs and water bodies are thought of as the rest stops, or service stations, then the linkages between can be modelled by computers. Our model was based on what decisions individuals would have taken to survive – and what collective behaviours could have emerged from thousands of such decisions.

Individuals were give a simple task: to find a new source of water within three days of travel. Three days is the time that a modern human and, by inference, our ancestors could go without drinking water. The harder and rougher the terrain, the shorter the distance one can travel in those vital three days.

We used the present landscape and existing water springs to map potential routes. The detailed location of springs may have changed over time but the principles hold. If our agent failed to find water within three days, he or she would die. In this way we could map out the migration pathways between different water sources as they varied through 23,000-year climate cycles. The map shows that there were indeed small networks of springs available even during the driest of intervals. These would have been vital for the survival or our ancestors.

The model also reveals movement patterns that are somewhat counter-intuitive. One would assume that the easiest route would be along the north to south axis of the rift valley. In this way, hominins could stay at the bottom of the valley rather than crossing the high rift walls. But the model suggests that in intermediate states between wet and dry, groups of people may have preferred to go from east to west across the rift valley. This is because springs on the rift floor and sides link to large rivers on the rift flanks. This is important as it helps explain how our ancestors spread away from the rift valley. Indeed, what we are beginning to see is a network of walking highways that develop as our ancestors moved across Africa.

Mapping human migration.

Human movement allows the flow of gossip, know-how and genes. Even in modern times, the water-cooler is often the fount of all knowledge and the start of many budding friendships. The same may have been true in ancient Africa and the patterns of mobility and their variability through a climate cycle will have had a profound impact on breeding and technology.

This suggests that population growth, genetics, implications for survival and dispersal of human life across Africa can all potentially be predicted and modelled using water as the key – helping us to uncover human history. The next step will be to compare our model of human movement with real archaeological evidence of how humans actually moved when the climate changed.

So next time you complain about not finding your favourite brand of bottled spring water in the shop, spare a thought for our ancestors who may died in their quest to find a rare, secluded spring in the arid African landscape.

This research was carried out in partnership with our colleagues Tom Gleeson, Sally Reynolds, Adrian Newton, Cormac McCormack and Gail Ashley.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Mark O Cuthbert, Research Fellow in Groundwater Science, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our controversial footprint discovery suggests human-like creatures may have roamed Crete nearly 6 million years ago

Our controversial footprint discovery suggests human-like creatures may have roamed Crete nearly 6m years ago

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Foot for thought.

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University and Per Ahlberg, Uppsala University

The human foot is distinctive. Our five toes lack claws, we normally present the sole of our foot flat to the ground, and our first and second toes are longer than the smaller ones. In comparison to our fellow primates, our big toes are in line with the long axis of the foot – they don’t stick out to one side.

In fact, some would argue that one of the defining characteristics of being part of the human clade is the shape of our foot. So imagine our surprise when we discovered fossil footprints with remarkable, human-like characteristics at Trachilos, Crete, that are 5.7m years old. This research, published in the Proceedings of the Geologist Association, is controversial as it suggests that the earliest human ancestors may have wandered around southern Europe as well as East Africa.

The period corresponds to a geological time interval known as the Miocene. The footprints are small tracks made by someone walking upright on two legs – there are 29 of them in total. They range in size from 94mm to 223mm, and have a shape and form very similar to human tracks. Non-human ape footprints look very different; the foot is shaped more like a human hand, with the big toe attached low on the side of the sole and sticking out sideways.

The footprints were dated using a combination of fossilised marine microorganisms called foraminifera and the character of the local sedimentary rocks. Foraminifera evolve very rapidly and marine sedimentary rocks can be dated quite precisely on the basis of the foraminifera they contain. These indicated an age somewhere in the span 8.5m to 3.5m years. However, at the very end of the Miocene, about 5.6m years ago, an extraordinary thing happened: the entire Mediterranean sea dried out for some time. This event left a clear signature in the sediments of the surrounding areas. The sediments that contain the footprints suggest they probably date to the period immediately before this, at about 5.7m years.

Cradle of humanity

The “cradle of humanity” has long been thought to lie in Africa, with most researchers suggesting that Ethiopia was where the human lineage originated. The earliest known body fossils that are accepted as hominins (members of the human lineage) by most researchers are Sahelanthropus tchadensis from Chad (about 7m years old), Orrorin tugenensis from Kenya (about 6m years old) and Ardipithecus kadabba from Ethiopia (about 5.8-5.2m years old).

Laetoli footprints.
Tim Evanson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The oldest known footprints, however, were found at Laetoli in Tanzania and come from the next geological time interval, the Pliocene. These are some 3.66m years old and even more human-like than those of Trachilos. The second oldest tracks are those at Ileret made by Homo erectus (1.5m years old), and are little different from the tracks that we ourselves might make today.

If – and for many it is a big if – the tracks of Trachilos were indeed made by an early human ancestor, then the biogeographical range of our early ancestors would increase to encompass the eastern Mediterranean. Crete was not an island at this time but attached to the Greek mainland, and the environment of the Mediterranean region was very different from now.

Oldest known footpints.

The discovery comes just months after another study reported the discovery of 7m-year-old Greek and Bulgarian fossil teeth from a hominin ape dubbed “El Graeco”. This is the oldest fossil of a human-like ape, which has led some to suggest that humans started to evolve in Europe hundreds of thousands of years before they started to evolve in Africa. But many scientists have remained sceptical about this claim – as are we. The presence of Miocene hominids in Europe and Africa simply shows that both continents are possible “homelands” for the group. In theory, El Graeco could be responsible for the Trachilos foorprints but without any limb or foot bones it is impossible to tell.

Alternative solutions

But there are other ways to interpret the findings. Some might suggest that the distinctive anatomy of a human-like foot could have evolved more than once. The tracks could have been made by a hitherto unknown Miocene primate that had a foot anatomy and locomotive style not unlike our own.

There are examples throughout the fossil record of what is called “convergent evolution” – two unrelated animals developing similar anatomical features as adaptations to a particular lifestyle. However, there is nothing about the Trachilos footprints themselves that suggests such convergence.

Convergence rarely produces perfect duplicates; rather, you tend to get an odd mix of similarities and differences, like you see when you compare a shark and a dolphin for example. Now, imagine if the Trachilos footprints combined human-like characters with a few other characters that simply didn’t “fit”: for example, that the toes looked human-like but carried big claws. This would be a reason to suspect that the human-like features could be convergent. But the Trachilos footprints don’t show any such discordant characters, they simply look like primitive hominin footprints as far as we can tell.

The footprints.
Author provided

For those unable to see beyond Africa as the “human cradle”, these tracks present a considerable challenge, and it has not been easy to get the discovery published. Some have even questioned whether the observed features are footprints at all. However, collectively, the researchers behind this study have published over 400 papers on tracks, so we are pretty confidence we know what they are.

Although the results are controversial, suggesting that the rich East African evidence for early hominids may not be telling the whole story, it’s important that we take the findings seriously. The Trachilos tracksite deserves to be protected and the evidence should be debated by scientists.

It is now for the researchers in the field to embark on finding more tracks or, better still, body fossils that will help us to better understand this interesting period of primate diversity, which ultimately led to our own evolution irrespective of where this first happened. The very essence of this type of science is prospection, discovery, evidence-based inference and debate. We are sure that this paper will stimulate debate; let us hope that it also stimulates further discoveries.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Per Ahlberg, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Uppsala University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Engaged: to be or not to be? Or why bother with lecture notes?

There is nothing more dispiriting as a tutor than to look out at a sea of blank or vacant faces.  These days many hide behind expensive laptops, doing who knows what!  Attendance can be variable especially after the first flush of a new term is over.  As staff we are required to post our lectures and now under pressure to record our lectures.  The idea behind this by the way is that a student can return to key sections in the future.  In truth at least from my perspective if you are going to do this why run formal lectures at all?  Units might be better packaged as YouTube videos?  From a tutor’s perspective the equation is often simple, the more you give the less your students need to engage and attend.  May be this is not very fair but it is borne out by my own experience.

Whether it is with rose tinted glasses or not I believe I used to have stronger student engagement when I set out lecturing in the 1990s.  In those days (as in mine the decade before) a student needed to write notes or leave with nothing.  Attendance was much better and I believe so was student performance.  The introduction of a succession of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs; currently Bightspace at BU) killed this to some extent.  Slides had to be posted.  Despite what others argue I believe strongly that the VLE weakens student engagement.  In the old days you had to write notes, you had to engage while these days you simply have to download the slides.  Or so the theory goes, until you encounter someone like me who’s slides are simply a pile of graphs, diagrams and pictures.  The narrative that goes with them is the bit you get by attending and engaging with the lecture.

I am a realist about such matters knowing that the competition between a cold lecture hall and a warm student bed is tough especially on a cold Monday morning in winter!  So from a student’s perspective let’s explore the question of engagement with lectures.  Why does it matter and what does engagement actually mean?

Well you go to university – rather than college or the like – to learn from those that are creating new knowledge.  To learn from the people active in your discipline area and driving research forward.  That is the theory at least and how it should be, especially if you are paying £9,000 plus for the privilege each year.  Your tutors should have pedigree either in professional practice or as academic researchers and if they don’t you have in my view the right to question this.  The difference between a textbook and real researcher is that you gain from their experience, from their perspective and ultimately from their knowledge and research which unlike a textbook is evolving all the time.  You gain this through lectures and in the case of geography/geology through fieldwork.  A lecture should be different every time, should refer to new literature and emerging debates.  It is by its nature unpredictable, if it is predicable then it has lost its relevance and has become simply an audio/video file and something that is static.  I am not here to teach, but to share my knowledge and to join with you in debating the latest ideas and to develop them together.  So the very best lectures should be unpredictable in a good way that is and that is why you need to attend and accept that they will divert from script and posted material from time to time and so they should.  If you don’t attend then you a missing out one of the key facets of a university education at least in my view, that and learning to think critically and communicate those thoughts.

So let us take as read that attendance is essential if at all possible, why else would we bother to schedule classes otherwise?  So the next question and one many students ask is should you listen or write notes?  Well if your lecturer is talking and talking fast as they do then verbatim notes are a waste of time, but capturing key points is not.  I am not talking about listening to them read PowerPoint slides; heaven help you if that is the experience you get.  In fact you have my sympathies and I would encourage you to push back if that is the case.

Some students seek to record lectures as a way around the problem – they talk to fast!  I am guilty of talking to fast and I am personally not opposed to having my lectures recorded, but unless there is a specific reason for doing so my advice is not to.  Why sit through the same talk twice?  Engage the first time.  If you don’t understand something when you review your notes then find a time to ask a question and seek help even if the cohort is large and the tutor is scary!  This is also part of the learning process.

Now our learning styles are all different so we are told frequently, and they may be, but there is a key step here that is true to most elements of life (and to the lecture) and we use every day in conversation – listen, think/reflect and respond through action.  It is the process of active listening and is evidenced by action.  In conversation it is the act of responding to what is said rather than just talking.  It is a skill that often needs to be learnt even by those who talk and gossip continuously. Whatever you’re learning style find a way to listen, distil/reflect and to record those thoughts.

Writing can be a challenge for some but writing/noting for oneself is a key way of engaging.  You just need to work out here what works best for you through some experimentation.  May be pictures, abbreviations, bullet-points or thought maps, there are loads of things to try.

Call me traditional but I would say that it is always a good idea (and an excellent habit to form) to write notes fast and legibly by hand for your own use.  They don’t have to look pretty!  There is certainly no point making them pretty after the event as long as you can read them, to do so is to waste time. The note writing skill is like any other and needs to be practiced and mastering it will serve you well in professional practice and later life.  Lectures allow you to practice this skill.  Writing fast is a useful skill for exams now and in the future for meetings, taking statements, receiving instructions and jotting down ideas and decisions.  Annotating printed PowerPoint slides is a common solution, but is not as good as listening and noting in your own words what is actually being said.  A slide is the lecturer’s summary not yours and yours is the one that counts, the one you will digest, understand and own.

Whatever you do find a way to engage in lectures and value them for what they are; a key part of your university educations and always remember there are good lectures and there bad lectures just as there are good days and bad days.

Academic writing I: Lots of opinions no right answers or dealing with uncertainty

In a previous post I wrote about the concept of ‘rhetoric’ and the interplay between the audience, the writer and the context (Fig. 1).  This helps explain why there is no right or wrong way to set about a piece of academic writing or coursework.  Ultimately the audience is always right and is often fickle.

writingret

Figure 1: The use of rhetoric.

There are lots of reasons for this, different disciplines have their own way of doing things and everyone has their own personal ‘writing experience’.  Essentially they ‘do unto you, what was done (rightly or wrongly) unto them’.  Different bosses like things done in different ways and in truth most of your tutors at University will have different opinions.  These will depend on their academic history, how much they publish and where they publish.  As the phrase says ‘what is breed in the bone will out in the flesh’.

In the case of your boss you may be able to slowly challenge them and educate them into your (hopefully better) way of writing, but in most cases you will need to confirm to your audiences expectations.  Just because all your tutors are from the same faculty don’t assume that they all write in the same way or expect the same output.  Your audience will always have different perspectives, experiences and values.  Your tutors are all different and hurray for individuality!  In most cases therefore you are appealing to the likes and dislikes of your audience and to ‘like-minded’ readers, but it is always good to remember that if you always conform you cannot change minds and opinions.  Ultimately it is about the way you go about this.

The lack of certainty about what is required can be a nightmare for students.   You are not going to solve this however much you wish or demand conformity, so best to embrace it and work within the constraints that you do have.

balls and control2

Figure 2: Your tutors are individuals each with their own perspective of how things should be done.

Figure 2 tries to crystallise this.  The known constraints are the assignment brief, the style guide to which you are working and your aim is to land the assignment in the ball-park remembering that each ball (i.e. tutor) is different.  They are kept broadly (and I mean broadly) by external examiners and professional benchmarks.  A good illustration of this is the use of the first person.  When I was a student and a young lecture the first person was a big no, for some academics it remains a no, but in the last 30 years this has changed and many journals now encourage the use of the first person.  In my own writing practice I embrace it.  There are people in my own faculty, however, who still think it is a huge sin.  This is an example of the uncertainty around how to land an assignment.  Well in this example the simple answer is to ask the tutor for whom you are writing and/or check out what the style is in the journals specific to their subject area or in which they write.  A bit of simple audience research can really help.  If a tutor tells you to never use the first person, take it with a ‘pinch of salt.’

This level of uncertainty is not just specific to Universities; you will find a similar set of uncertainties in professional practice to (Fig. 3).  And academics work with uncertainty in the form of the opinions of peer reviewers and their audiences all the time (Fig. 4).

balls and controls3

Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.

balls and controls2

Figure 4: Landing an academic paper (publication) in the right space. 

So the first thing to remember is to know your audience and write for them within the formal and informal constraints that are set.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of just writing any old rubbish to conform and flatter your audience.  Some messages are easier however:

  • ‘I found the same as them!’
  • ‘We are doing a wonderful job.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your case.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your site model.’

It is much harder to challenge:

  • ‘We have to change the way we are doing things, and now!’
  • ‘The evidence doesn’t support the Boss’s view.’
  • ‘Your prime suspect couldn’t have done it!’

Conforming to your audiences views does not mean ‘rolling over’ but you need to tread carefully and build a strong evidence case when challenging the status quo.  The so called ‘tempered radical’ usually wins the day, if slowly.  The second lesson is to always evidence your claim and build a reasoned argument which considers alternatives and provides context.  You can conform to audience expectations while also punching them in the face!  Gently!

Uncertainty can extend to definitions of different types of written work.  Take the humble essay for example much loved as an assessment.  Personally I think that the use of sub-heading is appropriate to help provide some structure, but others argue that there should be none at all.  The dictionary is of little help:

‘Short piece of writing on a particular subject’

‘A short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.’

Generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper or an article.  Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay has a more personal element.   Nowhere is the any guidance about the use of subheadings!  Now an essay is not a report.  A report is a more factual and any argument is confined to the discussion or conclusion once the data/evidence has been presented.  Here are some definitions but they are mine, not necessarily everyone’s!

  • Essay – a continuous piece of prose which explores/evaluates one or more concepts and/or develops an argument (a thesis or claim). The word thesis is not to be confused with a PhD or Master Thesis, but refers to a central claim or idea which is then argued.  Generally an essay may have broad headings to act as a guide and has a clear logical development of ideas normally around a single thesis.  It can contain general illustrations but is usually free from data.
  • Report – a factual description of a set of results (field and/or laboratory) followed by analysis and discussion of those results. Usually sub-divided into sub-headings following AIMRaD structure (Fig. 5): aims, introduction, methods, results and discussion. It normally contains data, graphs and analysis
  • Dissertation/thesis – an extended piece of work based on original research and/or a systematic review of secondary sources/literature.
  • Literature review – a structured summary and synthesis of previous work on a subject. Note this may be a component of a report, essay or dissertation.
  • Paper – in academic circles this normally refers to a peer reviewed and published paper/article. In some countries especially the USA it is synonymous with ‘essay/report’.

Again the key to dealing with uncertainty is to find out what your audience expects and wants and to give it to them.

AAFS Study Skills_Session#14_15_16

Figure 5: The classic AIMRad structure.

One of the hardest things to do is to write, especially when you are working with uncertainty, but writing is part of the creative scientific process.  It provides a way of working through your arguments and making your case.  Unfortunately there is only one solution and that is to practice and to never forget your audience.