Isotopic clues to diet of early hominins

‘We are what we eat’ is certainly a truism, but it is neither a trope nor a cliché. The phrase is especially appropriate when scientists examine isotopes of a variety of elements in bones or teeth. For instance the relative proportions of two stable isotopes of the metal strontium – 87Sr and 86Sr – differ from place to place in soil because 87Sr is the daughter isotope of radioactive 87Rb. The older the rock from which a soil has formed the more of the radioactive rubidium isotope will have decayed. Not only does this increase the 87Sr/ 86Sr ratio in the rock and the soil derived from it, but vegetation inherits it too. So it gets into an animal’s diet and ultimately its teeth. A human who has migrated will carry the ratio of the geology of her early home geology in her adult teeth – fully developed by about 13 years-old – to wherever she dies. Likewise, the different oxygen isotopes in rainwater, which result from climate variation, end up in teeth thanks to what a person ate before adulthood. The two ‘signatures’ together allowed archaeologists to backtrack the famous ‘Amesbury Archer’, who may have brought Bronze Age culture to Britain, back to the Alps of Central Europe. Just what a human diet comprised can be roughly assessed from the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in collagen that fossil bone sometimes preserves: the proportion of seafood relative to the meat of land herbivores and the amount of terrestrial grains, nuts and fruits. The trouble is, collagen degrades with the age of human remains and another approach is needed to assess the diets of our distant forebears.

Calcium isotope data from early hominins and some modern primates. Increasingly negative values of δ44/42Ca signify lower values of the ratio compared with a standard. (Credit: Martin et al. 2020; Fig. 1)

It turns out that calcium isotopes in teeth, which do not degrade over extremely long time spans, offer clues to diet. In particular the dental 44Ca/42Ca ratio decreases as its hosts rise in the food chain; effectively as the meat content in their diet increases. This approach has been applied to the hominin and non-human primate fauna of the Turkana Basin in Kenya (Martin, J.E. et al. 2020. Calcium isotopic ecology of Turkana Basin hominins. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 3587; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17427-7). The shores of a large lake in the vicinity of modern Lake Turkana were occupied from 3.5 to about 2 Ma ago by early Homo, australopithecines, paranthropoids and baboons. Using dental Ca isotopes fails to distinguish Australopithecus anamensis and Kenyanthropus platyops, whereas carbon isotopes suggest that the first had a purely C3 plant diet – fruiting plants that thrive under cool, wet conditions, as beneath woodland canopies – whereas Kenyanthropus foraged on both these and the C4 plants – many grasses and sedges – that favour open, well-lit grassland. The 44Ca/42Ca ratios in Homo teeth span a wide range of values that point to omnivory and even a high dietary meat content: a similar isotopic pattern to those of fossil baboons and geladas. Paranthropus boisei is definitely the odd-one-out, among both ancient and modern primates, and even among paranthropoids as a whole. It most likely had a specialised diet. Its teeth show wear patterns that suggest soft plant material, which seems to rule out grasses which are abrasive. Perhaps it fed on succulent semi-aquatic plants of the lake shore. When Mary Leakey first discovered P. boisei in 1959, she and husband Louis considered that its huge molars with thick enamel indicated that it ate hard vegetable matter, hence its original nickname ‘Nutcracker Man’. It also had hands capable of precise manipulation, indeed the association of the first specimen with Oldowan-type stone tools led to speculation that it had made them. Some specimens are associated with long bones with worn ends, suggesting that they may have used them for digging.

Earliest Americans, and plenty of them

Who the first Americans were is barely known outside of the tools that they left in the archaeological record. For most of the late 20th century US researchers claimed that the first people to migrate into the Americas produced stone tools of the Clovis culture that first appear just before the Younger Dryas cold period, around 13.2 to 12.9 thousand years (ka) ago. The hallmark of Clovis culture is the finely-worked stone spear point, and its association with butchered large mammals: the Clovis people were apparently big-game hunters  Despite other, albeit less convincing, signs of earlier human habitation, this notion ossified for a seemingly irrefutable reason. To reach the Americas from NE Asia on foot, these people would have had to cross the Bering Straits via the Beringia land bridge exposed as sea level fell during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). That would have taken them to Alaska, but an exit to the south remained blocked by the huge Laurentian ice sheet until around 13 ka. Once an ice-free route had opened, the Clovis people migrated quickly to reach the site from which they take their name in New Mexico. But other archaeological sites discovered in the last couple of decades, extending as far south as Chile, have yielded ages that clearly predate the Clovis culture (see: Clovis First hypothesis dumped, May 2008). Beneath a Clovis-bearing layer at a site in Texas excavators unearthed thousands of totally different tools reliably dated to as far back as 15.5 ka (see: Clovis first hypothesis refuted, May 2011). This opened the realistic possibility that the earliest migrants had not necessarily walked from Asia, but may have followed a marine route along the Pacific coast and spread eastwards as opportunities presented themselves.

Now Mesoamerica has convincingly verified migration more than twice as long ago as that which littered North America with Clovis tools. It emerged from the Chiquihuite Cave 2.7 km high in the Astillero Mountains of northern Mexico. Almost 2000 stone artefacts were found throughout a 3 m thick layer of sediment beneath the cave floor that spans 27 to 13  ka, (Ardelean, C.F. and 27 others 2020. Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature, v. 584 p. 87–92; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2509-0). The technology revealed by the tools is more primitive than that of the Clovis culture. Artefacts occur throughout the layer, which extends back in time from the Younger Dryas, through the preceding period of warming and the LGM itself. Although colder than the present equitable climate of the high mountain valleys of Northern Mexico environmental data obtained from the layer show that it was viable for occupation through the LGM. Of the 42 highly precise and accurate radiocarbon dates those from some of the stratigraphically deepest part of the layer exceed 33 ka, which the authors suggest may establish the initial human occupation of the cave. Incidentally, although the paper was published online in July 2020 it was submitted to Nature in October 2018. That is a very long time in the editorial and review process. There is no indication as to why there was such a delay: maybe an indication of some continuing defence of the Clovis First hypothesis among the reviewers …

Dated pre-Clovis sites in Mexico and North America and possible expanding distribution of people from 31.3 to 14.2 ka (Credit; Becerra-Valdivia and Higham; Extended Data Fig. 4)

The radiocarbon dating in the paper was carried out at the state-of-the-art accelerator mass spectrometer unit at the University of Oxford, UK, by two of the co-authors (Lorena Becerra-Valdivia and Thomas Higham). They too published a Nature paper in late July 2020, which discusses their new dating of 42 archaeological sites in North America and Siberia (Becerra-Valdivia, L. & Higham, T. 2020. The timing and effect of the earliest human arrivals in North America. Nature, v. 584, p. 93-97; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2491-6). In Mesoamerica and North America (the Clovis heartland) their results suggest that, as in Chiquihuite Cave, ‘people were present in different settings before, during and immediately following the LGM’, their ranges increasing over time. These people would likely not have followed the same route suggested for the later Clovis people, i.e. across Beringia and then parallel to the topographic grain in the Western Cordillera, ice-cap melting permitting. An interesting suggestion by Becerra-Valdivia and Higham is that post-LGM expansion in numbers and range of these early American contributed to the famous extinction of the North American Pleistocene megafauna. Dating the extinctions of different genera suggests that disappearance of the megafauna may not have been a single event during the Younger Dryas, but seems to have been during at least two other episodes peaking at about 40 and 24 ka. Both the ecological devastation supposedly associated with the Clovis people and the impact theory for its cause depend on a single event.

See also:  Gruhn, R. 2020. Evidence grows for early peopling of the Americas. Nature, v. 584, p. 47-48; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-02137-3; Rincon, P. 2020. Earliest evidence for humans in the Americas (BBC News, 22 July 2020); Keys, D. 2020. Humans reached the Americas 11,000 years earlier than previously thought, archaeologists discover (Independent, 22 July 2020)

Submarine landslides and formation of the East African Rift System

The East African Rift System (Credit: P.C. Neupane, M.Sc thesis 2011; Fig. 1)

East Africa is traversed from the Afar Depression in the north to Malawi in southern Africa by several great depressions bounded by active normal fault systems: grabens in the old terminology. They are regions of active crustal extension and thinning decorated by chains of active volcanoes. The last 50 years has witnessed more than 3400 major earthquakes (magnitude 4 to 7); unsurprising for the Earth’s largest active continental rift system. In Afar, the East African Rift system links to two others that have extended sufficiently to create oceanic crust: the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden rifts. Afar is the site of the best documented tectonic triple junction. In Ethiopia, the rifting began after the whole of the Horn of Africa and Yemen had been smothered by continental flood basalts 30 Ma ago, during the Oligocene Epoch. The East African rifts are repositories for younger sediments that contain a continuous record of hominid evolution from about 5 Ma ago. This is no coincidence, for adjacent bulging of the continental crust resulted both from its unloading by thinning along the rifts and the buoyancy conferred by high heat flow in the mantle beneath. The uplifted areas have risen as high as 4 kilometres elevation (in Ethiopia), and present some of the world’s most spectacular land forms. This N-S barrier disrupted earlier climatic patterns that had much of tropical Africa blanketed by dense woodland and resulted in a strongly seasonal climate during the last few million years and the development of open savannah land. Put simply, open grassland with widely spaced trees was no place for diminutive forest apes to scamper on all-fours. Being able to leg-it nimbly on two gave the apes that developed such a gait a decisive evolutionary advantage: the rest, as they say, is human evolutionary history.

The extension and rapid uplift along the rift flanks to this day pose severe risk of landslides. Indeed, some are so large as to resemble fault blocks in their own right. Vast amounts of the upper crust have been stripped off by rapid erosion driven by the uplift. The debris has not only ended-up on the rift floors as sedimentary fill but far more has made its way eastward to be deposited on the Indian Ocean continental shelf. Until recently, piecing together the history of rifting and uplift has been restricted to the rifts themselves and their adjacent flanks. Such terrains have extremely complex and usually discontinuous geological sequences, so signs of the onset of extensional tectonics and uplift may differ from region to region. Agreement is limited to some time between 25 and 17 Ma. The whole tectonic process may, in fact, have begun at different times along the length of the rift. A clearer picture should emerge from studies of the post-30 Ma sedimentary pile along the Indian Ocean continent shelf. A sure-fire way of getting the needed data is from offshore areas that are prospective for oil and natural gas. Such is the case off the Tanzanian coastline at the southern limit of the rift system.

Seismic reflection profile parallel to the Tanzanian coastline with the Mafia mega-slide highlighted in green (Credit: Maselli et al. 2020; Fig. 5) Click to view full resolution

The Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation and Shell have conducted seismic reflection surveys and drilled some test wells to the SE of Zanzibar Island, an area of major deposition from the eastward flowing Ruaha–Rufiji and Rovuma Rivers. Vittorio Maselli of Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia and colleagues from the UK, Italy and the Netherlands analysed a wealth of data from these surveys, to discover one of the biggest landslides on Earth (Maselli, V. and 10 others 2020. Large-scale mass wasting in the western Indian Ocean constrains onset of East African rifting. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 3456; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17267-5). The Mafia mega-slide is represented in seismic profiles by a sedimentary unit, up to 300 m thick. It has a highly irregular base that cuts across strata in late-Oligocene to early-Miocene (25-23 Ma) sediments. It covers an area of more than 11,600 km2 and has a volume of at least 2500 km3. The unit’s upper surface is also irregular, suggesting that the unit’s thickness varies considerably. Younger sediments are draped across the irregular top of the slide body. In other, parallel sections the deposit is absent. Unlike the clearly bedded nature of sediments above and below it, the seismic response of the slide deposit is featureless, except for zones of chaotic stratification that reveal slump-folds. Nor is this the only sign of major submarine slides: there are others of lesser extent that predate the base of the Pliocene (5.3 Ma).

A mass movement of this magnitude would have generated a tsunami larger than that which possibly wiped out Mesolithic habitation on the east coast of Britain 8200 years ago due to the even larger Storegga Slide at the edge of the Norwegian continental shelf. The Mafia slide event would have flooded wide tracts of the East African coast. Its estimated age, between 22.9 to 19.8 Ma, is roughly coeval with the initiation of volcanism in the Tanzanian segment of the East African Rift and the onset of rifting and uplift of its flanks. It was probably launched by a major earthquake (>7 on the Richter scale). Such is the pace of current deposition and the thickness of sedimentary build-up since the Pliocene, there is a danger of future slides, albeit of lesser magnitude: the system continues to be seismically active, with recently recorded quakes offshore of Tanzania.

Can rock weathering halt global warming?

The Lockdown has hardly been a subject for celebration, but there have been two aspects that are, to some extent, a comfort: the trickle of road traffic and the absence of convection trails. As a result the air is less polluted and much clearer, and the quietness, even in cities, has been almost palpable. Wildlife seems to have benefitted and far less CO2 has been emitted. Apart from the universal tension of waiting for one of a host of potential Covid-19 symptoms to strike and the fact that the world economy is on the brink of the greatest collapse in a century, it is tempting to hope that somehow business-as-usual will remain this way. B*gger the gabardine rush to work and the Great Annual Exodus to ‘abroad’. The crisis in the fossil fuel industry can continue, as far as I am concerned, But then, of course, I am retired, lucky to have a decent pension and live rurally. Despite the health risks, however, global capital demands that business-as-it-was must return now. A planet left to that hegemonic force has little hope of staving off anthropogenic ecological decline. But is there a way for capital to ‘have its cake and eat it’? Some would argue that there are indeed technological fixes. Among them is sweeping excess of the main greenhouse gas ‘under the carpet’ by burying it. There are three main suggestions: physically extracting CO2 where it is emitted and pumping it underground into porous rocks; using engineered biological processes in the oceans to take carbon into planktonic carbohydrate or carbonate shells and disposing the dead remains in soil or ocean-floor sediments; enhancing and exploiting the natural weathering of rock. The last is the subject of a recent cost-benefit analysis (Beerling, D.J. and 20 others 2020. Potential for large-scale CO2 removal via enhanced rock weathering with croplands. Nature, v. 583, p. 242–248; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2448-9).

Carbon dioxide in the rock cycle (Credit: Skeptical Science, in Wikipedia)

Research into the climatic effects of rock weathering has a long history, for it represents one of the major components of the global carbon cycle, as well as the rock cycle. Natural chemical weathering is estimated to remove about a billion metric tons of atmospheric carbon annually. That is because the main agent of weathering is the slightly acid nature of rainwater, which contains dissolved CO2 in the form of carbonic acid (H2CO3). This weak acid comprises hydrogen ions (H+), which confer acidity, that are released by the dissolution of CO2 in water, together with HCO3ions (bicarbonate, now termed hydrogen carbonate). During weathering the hydrogen ions break down minerals in rock. This liberates metals that are abundant in the silicate minerals that make up igneous rocks – predominantly Na, Ca, K, and Mg – as their dissolved ions, leaving hydrated aluminium silicates (clay minerals) and iron oxides as the main residues, which are the inorganic basis of soils. The dissolved metals and bicarbonate ions may ultimately reach the oceans. However, calcium and magnesium ions in soil moisture readily combine with bicarbonate ions to precipitate carbonate minerals in the soil itself, a process that locks-in atmospheric carbon. Another important consequence of such sequestration is that it may make the important plant nutrient magnesium – at the heart of chlorophyll – more easily available and it neutralises any soil acidity built-up by continuous agriculture.  But carbon sequestration naturally achieved by weathering amounts to only about a thirtieth of that emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, and we know that is incapable of coping with the build-up of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere: it certainly has not since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

What could chemical weathering do if it was deliberately enhanced?  One of the most common rocks, basalt, is made up of calcium-rich feldspar and magnesium-rich pyroxene and olivine. In finely granulated form this mix is particularly prone to weathering, and the magnesium released would enrich existing soil as well as drawing down CO2. Hence the focus by David Beerling and his British, US and Belgian colleagues on systematic spreading of ground-up basalt on cropland soils, in much the same way as crushed limestone is currently applied to reverse soil acidification. It is almost as cheap as conventional liming, with the additional benefit of fertilising: it would boost to crop yields. The authors estimate that removal of a metric ton of CO2 from the atmosphere by this means would cost between US$ 55 to 190, depending on where it was done. One of their findings is that the three largest emitters of carbon dioxide – China, the US and India – happen to have the greatest potential for carbon sequestration by enhanced weathering. Incidentally, increased fertility also yields more organic waste that itself could be used to increase the actual carbon content of soils, if converted through pyrolysis to ‘biochar’ .

It all sounds promising, almost ‘too good to be true’. The logistics that would be needed and the carbon emissions that the sheer mass of rock to be finely ground and then distributed would entail, for as long as global capital continues to burn fossil fuels, are substantial, as the authors admit. The grinding would have to be far more extreme than the production of igneous-rock road aggregate. Basalt or related rock is commonly used for resurfacing motorways, not especially well known for degrading quickly to a clay-rich mush. It would probably have to be around the grain size achieved by milling to liberate ore minerals in metal mines, or to produce the feedstock for cement manufacture: small particles create a greater surface area for chemical reactions. But there remains the issue of how long this augmented weathering would take to do the job: its efficiency. Experimental weathering to test this great-escape hypothesis is being conducted by a former colleague of mine, using dust from an Irish basalt quarry to coat experimental plots of a variety of soil types. After two months Mg and Ca ions were indeed being released from the dust, and tiny fragments of olivine, feldspar and pyroxene do show signs of dissolution. Whether this stems from rainwater – the main objective – or from organic acids and bacteria in the soils is yet to be determined. No doubt NASA is doing much the same to see if dusts that coat much of Mars can be converted into soils  Beerling et al. acknowledge that the speed of weathering is a major uncertainty. Large-scale field trials seem some way off, and are likely to be plagued by cussedness! Will farmers willingly change their practices so dramatically?

See also: Lehmann, J & Possinger, A. 2020. Removal of atmospheric CO2 by rock weathering holds promise for mitigating climate change. Nature, v. 583, p. 204-205; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01965-7

Note (added 15 July 2020): Follower Walter Pohl has alerted me to an interesting paper on using ultramafic rocks in the same way (Kelemen, P.B. et al. 2020. Engineered carbon mineralization in ultramafic rocks for COremoval from air: Review and new insights. Chemical Geology, v.  550, Article 119628; DOI:10.1016/j.chemgeo.2020.119628). Walter’s own blog contains comments on the climatic efficacy of MgCO3 (magnesite) formed when olivine is weathered.

Turmoil in Roman Republic followed Alaskan volcanic eruption

That activities in the global political-economic system are now dramatically forcing change in natural systems is clear to all but the most obdurate. In turn, those changes increase the likelihood of a negative rebound on humanity from the natural world. In the first case, data from ice cores suggests that an anthropogenic influence on climate may have started with the spread of farming in Neolithic times. Metal pollution of soils had an even earlier start, first locally in Neanderthal hearths whose remains meet the present-day standards for contaminated soil, and more extensively once Bronze Age smelting of copper began. Global spread of anomalously high metal concentrations in atmospheric dusts shows up as ‘spikes’ in lead within Greenland ice cores during the period from 1100 BCE to 800 CE. This would have resulted mainly from ‘booms and busts’ in silver extraction from lead ores and the smelting of lead itself. In turn, that may reflect vagaries in the world economy of those times

Precise dating by counting annual ice layers reveals connections of Pb peaks and troughs with major historic events, beginning with the spread of Phoenician mining and then by Carthaginians and Romans, especially in the Iberian Peninsula. Lead reaches a sustained peak during the acme of the Roman Republic from 400 to 125 BC to collapse during widespread internal conflict during the Crisis of the Republic. That was resolved by the accession of Octavian/Augustus as Emperor in 31 BCE and his establishment of Pax Romana across an expanded empire. Lead levels rose to the highest of Classical Antiquity during the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE. Collapse following the devastating Antonine smallpox pandemic (165 to 193 CE) saw the ice-core records’ reflecting stagnation of coinage activity at low levels for some 400 years, during which the Empire contracted and changed focus from Rome to Constantinople. Only during the Early Medieval period did levels rise slowly to the previous peak.

The Okmok caldera on the Aleutian island of Umnak (Credit: Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada USA)

Earth-logs has previously summarised how natural events, mainly volcanic eruptions, had a profound influence in prehistory. The gigantic eruption of Toba in Sumatra (~73 ka ago) may have had a major influence on modern-humans migrating from Africa to Eurasia. The beginning of the end for Roman hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean was the Plague of Justinian (541–549 CE), during which between 25 to 50 million people died of bubonic plague across the Eastern Empire. This dreadful event followed the onset of famine from Ireland to China, which was preceded by signs of climatic cooling from tree-ring records, and also with a peak of volcanogenic sulfate ions in the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps around 534 CE. Regional weakening of the populace by cold winters and food shortages, also preceded the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the case of the Plague of Justinian, it seems massive volcanism resulted in global cooling over a protracted period, although the actual volcanoes have yet to be tracked down. Cooling marked the start of a century of further economic turmoil reflected by lead levels in ice cores (see above). Its historical context is the Early Medieval equivalent of world war between the Eastern Roman Empire, the Sassanid Empire of Persia and, eventually, the dramatic appearance on the scene of Islam and the Arabian, Syrian and Iraqi forces that it inspired (see: Holland, T. 2013. In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Abacus, London)

An equally instructive case of massive volcanism underlying social, political and economic turmoil has emerged from the geochemical records in five Greenlandic ice cores and one from the Siberian island of Severnaya Zemlya (McConnell, J.R. and 19 others 2020. Extreme climate after massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE and effects on the late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recent article (22 June 2020); DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2002722117). In this case the focus was on ice layers in all six cores that contain sulfate spikes and, more importantly, abundant volcanic dust, specifically shards of igneous glass. Using layer counting, all six show major volcanism in the years 45 to 43 BCE. The Ides (15th) of March 44 BCE famously marked the assassination of Julius Caesar, two years after the Roman Republic’s Senate appointed him Dictator, following four years of civil war. This was in the later stages of the period of economic decline signified by the fall in ice-core levels of Pb (see above). The Roman commentator Servius reported “…after Caesar had been killed in the Senate on the day before, the sun’s light failed from the sixth hour until nightfall.” Other sources report similar daytime dimming, and unusually cold weather and famine in 43 and 42 BCE.

As well as pinning down the date and duration of the volcanic dust layers precisely (to the nearest month using laser scanning of the ice cores’ opacity), Joseph McConnell and the team members from the US, UK, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark also chemically analysed the minute glass shards from one of the Greenlandic ice cores. This has enabled them to identify a single volcano from 6 possible candidates for the eruption responsible for the cold snap: Okmok, an active, 8 km wide caldera in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Previous data suggest that its last major eruption was 2050 years ago and blasted out between 10 to 100 km3 of debris, including ash. Okmok is an appropriate candidate for a natural contributor to profound historic change in the Roman hegemony. The authors also use their ice-core data to model Okmok’s potential for climate change: it had a global reach in terms of temperature and precipitation anomalies. Historians may yet find further correlations of Okmok with events in other polities that kept annual records, such as China.

See also: Eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano linked to period of extreme cold in ancient Rome (Science Daily, 22 June 2020); Kornei, K. 2020. Ancient Rome was teetering. Then a volcano erupted 6,000 miles away. (New York Times, 22 June 2020)

Did an impact affect hunter gatherers at the start of the Younger Dryas?

Whether or not the return to a glacial climate between 12.8 and 11.7 thousand years (ka) ago, known as the Younger Dryas (YD), was triggered by some kind of extraterrestrial impact has been a hot and sometimes fractious issue since 2007 (see: Whizz-bang view of Younger Dryas; Earth-logs, July 2007). Before then the most favoured causal mechanism was a shutdown of the Gulf Stream’s Arctic warming influence as a result of some kind of catastrophic flooding of fresh water into the North Atlantic. That would have lowered the density of surface waters, thereby preventing them from sinking to drive the deep circulation that draws surface water from the tropics into high northern latitudes (see: The Younger Dryas flood; May 2010). In 2008 the melt-water flood supporters were sufficiently piqued by the suggestion of a hitherto unsuspected impact event to mount a powerful rejoinder (see: Impact cause for Younger Dryas draws flak; May 2008), casting doubt on the validity of the data that had been presented. It seemed like a repeat of the initial furore over claims for a ‘mountain falling out of the sky’ wiping out the dinosaurs and much else. Yet, like the claims by Alvarez pere et fils for the K-T impact, accumulated weight of evidence published by its protagonists eventually has given the idea of an impact trigger for the YD a measure of respectability. This began with evidence of an impact crater beneath the Greenland icecap (see: Subglacial impact structure in Greenland: trigger for Younger Dryas?; November 2018), then signs of a 12.8 ka fire storm in Chile followed by geochemical evidence from South Carolina, USA for a coinciding impact (see: More on the Younger Dryas causal mechanism; November 2019).

Colour-coded subglacial topography from radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland, showing a possible impact crater (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

The YD played havoc with humans who had begun to repopulate northern Europe from their Ice Age refuges in the south and those who had first ventured into the Americas  across the Beringia land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. The climate decline was extremely rapid, spanning a mere decade or so, and many would have been trapped to perish in what again became frigid steppe land. There is now evidence that late-Palaeolithic to Mesolithic hunter gatherers living far south of the reglaciated zone also suffered devastation at the start of the YD (Moore, A.M.T. and 13 others 2020. Evidence of Cosmic Impact at Abu Hureyra, Syria at the Younger Dryas Onset (~12.8 ka): High-temperature melting at > 2,200 °C. Nature Science Reports, v. 10, p. 1-22; doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-60867-w). Abu Hureyra is a tell – a mound settlement – originally on the banks of the Euphrates in northern Syria. It now lies beneath Lake Assad, but was excavated in the early 1970s to reveal a charcoal-littered habitation surface with signs of a settlement and some cultivation. Charcoal from archived samples yielded a precise radiocarbon age of 12825 ± 55 ka, coinciding with the start of the YD. The sediment from the habitation floor also contained signs compatible with ejecta from a high-energy impact: tiny diamonds and glass spherules. Analyses of the glass by the authors suggests that it formed at a temperature up to 2200°C, far greater than that of magma associated with a volcanic eruption or in hearths used by the inhabitants. However, others have analysed the glass and suggest more mundane temperatures that could be explained more simply by accidental burning of thatched huts. That possibility might explain the lack of other impact indicators, such as shocked mineral grains and anomalous geochemistry, particularly the platinum-group metals that were the original ‘smoking gun’ for the K-T boundary event and other major impacts. Incidentally, these crucial indicators have been reported from other YD sites investigated by several members of the team behind this paper. My view is that what seems to be a remarkable coincidence will not settle the matter, but will probably draw the same kind of ‘flak’ as did others on this topic. It is hardly likely that new samples will be collected from the now submerged Abu Hureyra site.

See also: Cometary Debris may have destroyed Paleolithic settlement 12,800 years ago (Science News. 2 July 2020)

Fossil fuel, mercury and the end-Palaeozoic catastrophe

Siberian flood-basalt flows in the Putorana Plateau, Taymyr Peninsula, Russia. (Credit: Paul Wignall)

The end of the Permian Period (~252 Ma ago) saw the loss of 90% of marine fossil species and 70% of those known from terrestrial sediments: the greatest known extinction in Earth’s history. In their naming of newly discovered life forms, palaeontologists can become quite lyrical. Extinctions, however, really stretch their imagination. They call the Permo-Triassic boundary event ‘The Great Dying’. Why not ‘Permageddon’? Sadly, that was snaffled in the 1980s by an astonishingly short-haired heavy-metal tribute band. Enough bathos … The close of the Palaeozoic left a great many ecological niches to be filled by adaptive radiation during the Triassic and later Mesozoic times. Coinciding with the largest known flood-basalt outpouring – the three million cubic kilometres of Siberian Traps – the P-Tr event seemed to be ‘done and dusted’ after that possible connection was discovered in the mid 1990s. Notwithstanding, the quest for a gigantic, causative impact crater continues (see: Palaeobiology Earth-logs, May, September and October 2004), albeit among a dwindling circle of enthusiasts. The Siberian Traps are suitably vast to snuff the fossil record, for their eruption must have belched all manner of climate-changing gases and dusts into the atmosphere; CO2 to encourage global warming; SO2 and dusts as cooling agents. There is also evidence of a role for geochemical toxicity (see: Nickel, life and the end-Permian extinction, June 2014). The extinctions accompanied not only climate change but also a catastrophic fall in atmospheric oxygen content (see: Homing in on the great end-Permian extinction, April 2003; When rain kick-started evolution, December 2019). Recovery of the biosphere during the early Triassic was exceedingly slow.

Research focussed on the P-Tr boundary eventually uncovered an element of pure chance. Shales in Canada that span the boundary show major, negative δ13C excursions in the carbon-isotope record that coincide with fly ash in the analysed layers. This material is similar in all respects to that emitted from coal-fired power stations (see: Coal and the end-Permian mass extinction, March 2011). The part of Siberia onto which the flood basalts were erupted is rich in Permian coal measures and oil shales that lay close to the surface 252 Ma ago. The coal ash and massive emissions of CO2 may have resulted from their burning by the flood basalt event. Now evidence has emerged that this did indeed happen (Elkins-Tanton, L.T. et al. 2020. Field evidence for coal combustion links the 252 Ma Siberian Traps with global carbon disruption. Geology, v. 48, early publication; DOI: 10.1130/G47365.1).

The US, Canadian and Russian team found large quantities of burnt coal and woody material, and bituminous blobs in 600 m thick volcanic ashes at the base of the Siberian traps themselves. They concluded that the magma chamber from which the flood basalts emerged had incorporated sizeable volumes of the coal measures, leading to their combustion and distillation. This would have released CO2 enriched in light 12C due to isotopic fractionation by biological means, i.e. its δ13C would have been sufficiently negative to affect the carbon locked up in the Canadian P-Tr boundary-layer shales that show the sharp isotopic anomalies. The magnitude of the anomalies suggest that between six to ten thousand billion tons of carbon released as CO2 or methane by interaction of the Siberian Traps with sediments through which their magma passed could have created the global δ13C anomalies. That is about one tenth of the organic carbon originally locked in the Permian coal measures beneath the flood basalts

Another paper whose publication coincided with that by Elkins-Tanton et al. suggests that environmental mercury appears to have followed the same geochemical course as did carbon at the end of the Palaeozoic Era (Dal Corso, J. and 9 others 2020. Permo–Triassic boundary carbon and mercury cycling linked to terrestrial ecosystem collapse. Nature Communications, v. 11, paper 2962; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16725-4). This group, based at Leeds and Oxford Universities, UK and the University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China, base their findings on biogeochemical modelling of the global carbon and mercury cycles at the end of the Permian. Their view is that the coincidence in marine sediments at the P-Tr boundary of a short-lived spike in mercury and an anomaly in its isotopic composition with the depletion in 13C, described earlier, shows an intimate link between mercury and the biological carbon cycle in the oceans at the time. They suggest that this synergy marks ecosystem collapse and derives ‘from a massive oxidation of terrestrial biomass’; i.e. burning of organic material on the land surface. Their modelling hints at huge wildfires in equatorial peatlands but also a role for the Siberian flood-basalt volcanism and the incorporation of coal measures into the Siberian Trap magma chamber.

A protein clue to H. antecessor’s role in human evolution

Homo_antecessor child
Forensic reconstruction of the remains of a Homo antecessor child from Gran Dolina Cave in northern Spain (credit Élisabeth Daynès, Museo de la Evolución, Burgos, Spain)

The older a fossil, no matter how well preserved it is, the less chance it has to contain enough undegraded DNA for it to be extracted and sequenced using the most advanced techniques. At present the oldest fossil DNA not to have passed its ‘sell-by’date is that of a 560 to 780 thousand year-old horse’s legbone found in Canadian permafrost. For human remains the oldest mtDNA is that of a ~430 ka individual from the Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain (see: Mitochondrial DNA from 400 thousand year old humans; Earth-logs December 2013). But there is another route to establishing genetic relatedness from the amino-acid sequences of proteins recovered from ancient individuals (see: Ancient proteins: keys to early human evolution?). Fossil teeth have proved to be good repositories of ancient protein and are the most commonly found hominin fossils.

A key species for unravelling the origins of the three most recent human groups (ourselves, Neanderthals and Denisovans) is thought to be Homo antecessor who inhabited the Gran Dolina Cave in the Atapuerca Mountains in northern Spain between about 1.2 Ma and 800 ka ago (see: Human evolution: bush or basketwork? Earth-logs, January 2014). Palaeoanthropologists excavated 170 skeletal fragments from six individuals in the most productive layer at Gran Dolina. Incomplete facial bones suggest a ‘modern-like’ face, although the remains as a whole are insufficient to reconstruct the oldest Europeans with sufficient detail to place them in anatomical relation to the younger groups. But there are several teeth. One of them, a permanent molar, has yielded informative proteins (Welker, F. and 26 others 2020. The dental proteome of Homo antecessor. Nature, v. 580, p. 235-238; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2153-8) and has been dated to between 772 to 949 ka.

Amino acids in the dental proteins, sequenced using mass spectrometry, were compared with those of other hominins. Because protein sequences are coded by an animal’s genome they are a ‘proxy’ for DNA. The outcome is that the Gran Dolina proteins are roughly equally related to Denisovans, Neanderthals and ourselves, suggesting that, although the younger three groups are closely related, H. antecessor is an ‘outlier’. Being significantly older, it is likely to be the common ancestor of all three. Another species with close anatomical affinities is H. heidelbergensis (700 to 300 ka) found in Africa as well as in Europe. Its mtDNA (see: Mitochondrial DNA from 400 thousand year old humans; Earth-logs December 2013) matches that of Denisovans better than it does Neanderthals, yet without protein and full-genome analysis all that can be concluded is that it may be an intermediary between H. antecessor and the well known interbreeding triad of more recent times.

We are getting closer to a documented web of interrelationships between humans in general whose time span from 2 Ma ago is now well established. The remaining genetic link to be documented is that to H. erectus, the longest lived and most travelled of all ancient humans. Frido Welker and co-workers also had a shot at the proteomics of one of the first humans known to have migrated from Africa, using an isolated, presumably H. erectus, molar found at the 1.77 Ma site at Dmanisi in the Caucasus foothills of Georgia. Although inconclusive in placing that precociously intrepid group firmly in the human story, the fact that dental proteins were discovered is cause for optimism.

See also: Campbell, M. 2020. Protein analysis of 800,000-year-old human fossil clarifies dispute over ancestors (Technology Networks, 1 April 2020)

What controls the height of mountains?

‘Everybody knows’ that mountains grow: the question is, ‘How?’ There is a tale that farmers once believed that they grew from pebbles: ‘every year I try to rid my field of stones, but more are back the following year, so they must grow’… Geoscientists know better – or so they think[!] – and for 130 years have referred to ‘orogeny’, a classically-inspired term (from the Ancient Greek óros and geneia – high-ground creation’) adopted by the US geologist Grove Gilbert. It incorporates the concept of crustal thickening that results from lateral forces and horizontal compression. Another term, now rarely used, is ‘epeirogeny’ (coined too by G.K. Gilbert), wherein the continental surface rises or falls in response to underlying gravitational forces. That could include: changing mantle density over a hot, rising plume; detachment or delamination into the mantle of dense lower lithosphere; loading or unloading by ice during glacial cycles. Epeirogeny is bound up with isostasy, the maintenance of gravitational balance of mass in the outermost Earth.

A small part of the High Himalaya (credit: Access-Himalaya)

In 1990, Peter Molnar and Philip England pointed out that the incision of deep valleys into mountain ranges results in stupendous and rapid removal of mass from orogenic belts, which adds a major isostatic force to mountain building (Molnar, P. & England, P. 1990. Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg? Nature, v. 346, p. 29–34; DOI: 10.1038/346029a0). In their model, the remaining peaks are driven higher by isostasy. They, and others, coupled climate change with compressional tectonics in a positive feedback that drives peaks to elevations that they would otherwise never achieve. Molnar and England’s review saw complex interplays contributing to mountain building, accompanying chemical weathering even changing global climate by sequestering atmospheric CO2 into the minerals that it produces. As well as the height of peaks in active zones of crustal shortening and thickening, such as the Himalaya, Molnar and England’s theory explained the aberrant high peaks at the edge of high plateaus that are passively subject to erosion. Examples of the latter are the isolated peaks beyond the eastern edge of the Ethiopian Plateau that locally have the greatest elevation than the flood basalts that form the plateau: unloading around these peaks has caused them to rise isostatically.

Thirty years on, this paradigm is being questioned, at least as regards active orogens (Dielforder, A. et al. 2020. Megathrust shear force controls mountain height at convergent plate margins. Nature, v. 582, p. 225–229; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2340-7). Armin Dielforder and colleagues at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam and The University of Münster consider that overall mountain height is sustained by interactions between three forces. 1. They are prevented from falling apart under their own weight or being pushed up further against gravity by lateral tectonic force. 2. Climate controlled erosion limits mountain height by removing material from the highest elevations. 3. Isostasy keeps the mountains ‘afloat’ above the asthenosphere. The authors have attempted to assess and balance all three major forces that determine the overall elevation of mountain belts.

At a convergent plate margin where one plate is shoved beneath another, the megathrust above the subduction zone behaves in a brittle fashion, with associated friction, towards the surface. At depth this transitions to a zone of ductile deformation dominated by viscosity. A major assumption in this work is that stress in the crust below a mountain belt is neutral; i.e. horizontal, tectonic compression is equal to the weight of the mountains themselves and thus to their height. So, the greater the tectonic compressive force the higher the mountain range that it can support. The test is to compare the actual elevation with that predicted from plate-tectonic considerations. For 10 active orogenic belts there is a remarkable correspondence between the model and actuality. the authors conclude that variation over time of mountain height reflects log-term variations in the force balance, in which they find little sign of a climatic/erosional control. But that doesn’t resolve the issue satisfactorily, at least for me.

The study focuses on the mean elevation, and this leaves out the largest mountains; for instance, their maximum mean elevation for the Himalaya is about 5.46 km (in fact for a narrow  NE-SW swath that may not be representative of the whole range). Yet the Himalaya contains 10 of the world’s highest mountains, all over 8 km high and 50 peaks that top 7 km, adjacent to the Tibetan Plateau. The mean elevation of the whole Himalayan range is 6.1 km. Consequently, it seems to me, the range’s maximum mean elevation must be somewhat higher than that reported by Dielforder et al.  The difference suggests that non-tectonic forces do contribute significantly to Himalayan terrain

See also:  Wang, K. 2020. Mountain height may be controlled by tectonic force, rather than erosion. Nature, v. 582, p. 189-190; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01601-4

Geochemistry and the Ediacaran animals

Hopefully, readers will be fairly familiar with the sudden appearance of the Ediacaran fauna – the earliest abundant, large animals – at the start of the eponymous Period of the Neoproterozoic around 635 Ma. If not, use the Search Earth-logs box in the side bar to find extensive coverage since the start of the 21st century. A June 2019 Earth-logs review of the general geochemical background to the Ediacaran Period can be found here. Ten years ago I covered the possible role of the element phosphorus (P) – the main topic here – in the appearance of metazoans (see: Phosphorus, Snowball Earth and origin of metazoans – November 2010).

One of the major changes in marine sedimentation seen during the Ediacaran was a rapid increase in the deposition on the ocean floor of large bodies of P-rich rock (phosphorite), on which a recent paper focuses (Laakso, T.A. et al. 2020. Ediacaran reorganization of the marine phosphorus cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, p. 11961-11967; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1916738117). It has been estimated that on million-year time scales phosphorites remove only a tiny amount of the phosphorus carried into the oceans by rivers. So, conversely, an increase in deposition of marine P-rich sediment would have little effect on the overall availability of this essential nutrient from the oceans. The Ediacaran boost in phosphorites suggests a connection between them and the arrival of totally new ecosystems: the global P-cycle must somehow have changed. This isn’t the only change in Neoproterozoic biogeochemistry. Thomas Laakso and colleagues note signs of slightly increased ocean oxygenation from changes in sediment trace-element concentrations, a major increase in shallow-water evaporites dominated by calcium sulfate (gypsum) and changes in the relative proportions of different isotopes of sulfur.

Because all marine cycles, both geochemical and those involving life, are interwoven, the authors suggest that changes in the fate of dead organic matter may have created the phosphorus paradox. Phosphorus is the fifth most abundant element in all organisms after carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, followed by sulfur (CHNOPS), P being a major nutrient that limits the sheer bulk of marine life. Perhaps changes to dead organic matter beneath the ocean floor released its phosphorus content, roughly in the manner that composting garden waste releases nutrients back to the soil. Two chemical mechanisms can do this in the deep ocean: a greater supply of sinking organic matter – essentially electron donors – and of oxidants that are electron acceptors. In ocean-floor sediments organic matter can be altered to release phosphorus bonded in organic molecules into pore water and then to the body of the oceans to rise in upwellings to the near surface where photosynthesis operates to create the base of the ecological food chain.

Caption The Gondwana supercontinent that accumulated during the Neoproterozoic to dominate the Earth at the time of the Ediacaran (credit: Fama Clamosa, at Wikimedia Commons)

There is little sign of much increase in deep-ocean oxygen until hundreds of million years after the Ediacaran. It is likely, therefore, that increased availability of oxidant sulfate ions (SO42-) in ocean water and their reduction to sulfides in deep sediment chemically reconstituted the accumulating dead organic matter to release P far more rapidly than before. This is supported by the increase in CaSO4 evaporites in the Ediacaran shallows. So, where did the sulfate come from? Compressional tectonics during the Neoproterozoic Era were at a maximum, particularly in Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica, as drifting continental fragments derived from the break-up of the earlier Rodinia supercontinent began to collide. This culminated during the Ediacaran around 550 Ma ago with assembly of the Gondwana supercontinent. Huge tracts of it were new mountain belts whose rapid erosion and chemical weathering would have released plenty of sulfate from the breakdown of common sulfide minerals.

So the biological revolution and a more productive biosphere that are reflected in the Ediacaran fauna ultimately may have stemmed from inorganic tectonic changes on a global scale