Salt and Earth’s atmosphere

It is widely known that glacial ice contains a record of Earth’s changing atmospheric composition in the form of bubbles trapped when the ice formed. That is fine for investigations going back about a million years, in particular those that deal with past climate change. Obviously going back to the composition of air tens or hundreds of million years ago cannot use such a handy, direct source of data, but has relied on a range of indirect proxies. These include the number of pores or stomata on fossil plant leaves for CO2, variations in sulfur isotopes for oxygen content and so on. Variation over time of the atmosphere’s content of oxygen has vexed geoscientists a great deal, partly because it has probably been tied to biological evolution: forming by some kind of oxygenic photosynthesis and being essential for the rise to dominance of eukaryotic animals such as ourselves. Its presence or absence also has had a large bearing on weathering and the associated dissolution or precipitation of a variety of elements, predominantly iron. Despite progressively more clever proxies to indicate the presence of oxygen, and intricate geochemical theory through which its former concentration can be modelled, the lack of an opportunity to calibrate any of the models has been a source of deep frustration and acrimony among researchers.

Yet as is often said, there are more ways of getting rid of cats than drowning them in butter. The search has been on for materials that trap air in much the same way as does ice, and one popular, if elusive target has been the bubbles in crystals of evaporite minerals. The trouble is that most halite deposits formed by precipitation of NaCl from highly concentrated brines in evaporating lakes or restricted marine inlets. As a result the bubbles contain liquids that do a grand job of preserving aqueous geochemistry but leave a lot of doubt as regards the provenance of gases trapped within them. For that to be a sample of air rather than gases once dissolved in trapped liquid, the salt needs to have crystallized above the water surface. That may be possible if salt forms from brines so dense that crystals are able to float, or perhaps where minerals such as gypsum form as soil moisture is drawn upwards by capillary action to form ‘desert roses’. A multinational team, led by Nigel Blamey of Brock University in Canada, has published results from Neoproterozoic halite whose chevron-like crystals suggest subaerial formation (Blamey, N.J.F. and 7 others, 2016. Paradigm shift in determining Neoproterozoic atmospheric oxygen. Geology, v. 44, p. 651-654). Multiple analyses of five halite samples from an ~815 Ma-old horizon in a drill core from the Neoproterozoic Canning Basin of Western Australia contained about 11% by volume of oxygen, compared with 25% from Cretaceous salt from China, 20% of late-Miocene age from Italy, and 19 to 22% from samples modern salt of the same type.

Salar de Atacama salt flat in the Chilean puna

Evaporite salts in the Salar de Atacama Chile (credit: Wikipedia)

Although the Neoproterozoic result is only about half that present in modern air, it contradicts results that stem from proxy approaches, which suggest a significant rise in atmospheric oxygenation from 2 to about 18% during the younger Cryogenian and Ediacaran Periods of the Neoproterozoic, when marine animal life made explosive developments at the time of repeated Snowball Earth events. Whether or not this approach can be extended back to the Great Oxygenation Event at around 2.3 Ga ago and before depends on finding evaporite minerals that fit stringent criteria for having formed at the surface: older deposits are known even from the Archaean.

Stepping Stones relaunch on-line

In 2000 I was approached by Ian Francis, then a commissioning editor at Blackwell Science if I would like to write a series of news items on advances in Earth Science for the publishers’ new website Earth-Pages. The invitation stemmed from his having read my recently published book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World, which threaded a similar path through developments in the science that I helped to teach through the Open University. Ian’s initiative led to my learning a great deal by sifting through leading scientific journals, which became a weekly discipline. Much of what I commented on covered the eclectic spread of Stepping Stones, but I did not think of authoring a revised edition of the book until just a few years before I retired from the Open University in 2011. As they say; ‘what with one thing or another’ it took me another 7 or 8 years to galvanise myself for such a task. If you would like to have a look at the revised edition, it is now on-line at https://earthstep.wordpress.com/.

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

Deciding to produce it in electronic form it occurred to me to make it a possible means of geoscience self-teaching by various devices, such as suggesting key words and phrases to find more in-depth material through a web browser and, equally important, to find useful images. Fifteen years of working on over 800 posts for Earth-Pages and the publications that they were about made revising Stepping Stones a quicker task than I had anticipated. Then it dawned on me that I had written a lot more on various topics for Earth-Pages than I had in the new project. So the Earth-Pages archive is a possibly valuable learning resource, if you can navigate through it, which is not always easy. Being the source for most of the new additions to the book’s Further Reading in, inserting links from each reference to the appropriate post in the Earth-Pages archive was easy.

Oh, and another thing, so few published science authors gain satisfaction from royalties, I decided Stepping Stones v.2.0 should be free!

Impact factors: cat out of bag?

Two articles in the 14 July issue of Nature make interesting reading for those concerned about many universities’  and education ministries’ enthusiasm for bibliometrics as proxies for research excellence (E-P, January 2015) and their place in the academic equivalent of the Guides Michelin’s star system. Such institutions have become increasingly obsessed by ‘impact factors’. These are a metric applied to individual science journals, and are really quite simple: the average number of citations that articles published by a journal in the previous two years have received in the current year. So, it is supposed, if you get a paper published in a journal with a high impact factor, that can be deemed to be a ‘good thing’; it must it be more excellent than one published in a journal with a lower impact factor. That is a statistically very naive view. Indeed the first article by Nature regular Ewen Callaway (Callaway, E., 2016. Publishing elite turns against impact factor. Nature, v. 535, p. 210-211) implies that it is downright stupid. Citations do not follow a normal distribution; the majority of papers receive far fewer entries in reference lists than the mean of all those published, and that stats have a long tail towards papers with very large numbers of citations. The impact factor is strongly biassed by the much smaller number of papers the ‘go viral’, generally because they excite interest and often point many researchers in new directions. Take the top two science journals, Nature and Science: respectively their impact factors this year are 38.1 and 34.7, but in both 75% of all papers that they published cited less times than the mean. Indeed, a fair number got no citations at all. PLoS Genetics, an on-line, open-access journal of the Public Library of Science, whose throughput of papers is far higher than those of both Nature and Science has a much lower impact value (6.7) but only 65% receive fewer that number citations.

But there seems to be something a bit more sinister going on, to do with massaging the citations for individual papers to give the impression of ‘high impact’ and a long ‘shelf life’ for their influence. The sort of ‘gaming’ that goes on is covered by Mario Biagioli, of the University of California, Davis (Biagioli, M., 2016. Watch out for cheats in the citation game. Nature, v. 535, p. 203). Would you believe that some authors supply journal editors with e-mail addresses for ‘sock-puppet’ peer reviewers to get into print in the first place, and suggest additional references to other work by the authors? There’s more, with rings that effectively trade fake reviews in exchange for citations of the reviewers papers; a lot worse than the familiar practice of self citation. It isn’t necessarily the case that such papers are themselves fraudulent in some way, but to milk the citations cow and tart-up CVs. Biagioli believes that this tendency emerges partly from the drive towards collaborative papers with huge numbers of authors, which again institutions demand in order to be able to say that its research output is international in scope and ‘world-leading’, without being transparently hyperbolic. But skillful individuals can build up bloated reputations with relatively little effort; it’s also possible to guess who they might be. Properly unmasking what Biagioli terms ‘post-production misconduct’ is possible, but only by mining journal databases for evidence, which takes a lot of time. Some of this data analysis is done by journals themselves, pour encourager les autres I suppose, but rarely reported. Biagioli mentions new watchdog groups, Retraction Watch and PubPeer, the latter fostering post-production peer review. But such groups may themselves be gamed, because the ‘pursuit of excellence’ has a competitive side too: overweeningly ambitious academics have tended, until recently, to do the ‘proper thing’ by stabbing one another in the chest in plain view …

Here is the plate tectonic forecast

As computing power and speed have grown ever more sophisticated models of dynamic phenomena have emerged, particularly those that focus on meteorology and climatology. Weather and climate models apply to the thin spherical shell that constitutes Earth’s atmosphere. They consider incoming solar radiation and longer wavelength thermal radiation emitted by the surface sources and sinks of available power, linked to the convective circulation of energy and matter, most importantly water as gas, aerosols, liquid and ice in atmosphere and oceans. Such general circulation models depend on immensely complex equations that relate to the motions of viscous media on a rotating sphere, modulated by other aspects of the outermost Earth: the absorptive and reflective properties of the materials from which it is composed – air, rocks, soils, vegetation, water in liquid, solid and gaseous forms; different means whereby energy is shifted – speeds of currents and wind, adiabatic heating and cooling, latent heat, specific heat capacity of materials and more still. The models also have to take into account the complex forms taken by circulation on account of Coriolis’ Effect, density variations in air and oceans, and the topography of land and ocean floor. The phrase ‘and much more besides’ isn’t really adequate for such an enormous turmoil, for the whole caboodle has chaotic tendencies in time as well as 3-D space. The fact that such modelling does enable weather forecasting that we can believe together with meaningful forward and backward ‘snapshots’ of overall climate depends on increasing amounts of empirical data about what is happening, where and when. Models of this kind are also increasingly able to address issues of why such and such outcomes occur, an important example being the teleconnections between major weather events around the globe and phenomena such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation – the periodic fluctuation of ocean movements, winds and sea-surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean.

The key principle of plate tectonics is that t...

The Earth’s 15 largest tectonic plates. (credit: Wikipedia)

The Earth’s lithosphere and deeper mantle in essence present much the same challenge to modellers. Silicate materials circulate convectively in a thick spherical shell so that radiogenic heat and some from core formation can escape to keep the planet in thermal balance.  There are differences, the obvious ones being sheer scale and a vastly more sluggish pace, but most important are the interactions between materials with very different viscosities; the ability of the deep mantle to move by plastic deformation while the lithosphere moves as rigid, brittle plates. For geophysicists interested in modelling there are other differences; information that bears on the system is orders of magnitude less, its precision is much poorer and all of it is based on measurement of proxies. For instance, information on temperature comes from variations in seismic wave speed given by analysis of arrival times at surface observatories of different kinds of wave emitted by individual earthquakes. That is, from seismic tomography, itself a product of immensely complex computation. Temptation by computing power and the basic equations of fluid dynamics, however, has proved hard to resist and the first results of a general circulation model for the solid Earth have emerged (Mallard, C. et al. 2016. Subduction controls the distribution and fragmentation of Earth’s tectonic plates. Nature, v. 535, p. 140-143).

As the title suggests, the authors’ main objective was understanding what controls the variety of lithospheric tectonic plates, particularly how strain becomes localised at plate boundaries. They used a circulation model for an idealised planet and examined several levels of a plastic limit at which the rigidity of the lithosphere drops to localise strain. At low levels the lithosphere develops many plate boundaries, and as the plastic limit increases so the lithosphere ends up with increasingly fewer plates and eventually a rigid ‘lid’. The modelling also identified divergent and convergent margins, i.e. mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones. The splitting in two of a single plate must form two triple junctions, whose type is defined by the kinds of plate boundary that meet: ridges; subduction zones; transform faults. Both the Earth and the models show significantly more triple junctions associated with subduction than with extension, despite the fact that ridges extend further than do subduction zones. And these trench-associated triple junctions are mainly those dividing smaller plates. This suggests that it is subduction that focuses fragmentation of the lithosphere, and the degree of fragmentation is controlled by the lithosphere’s strength. There is probably a feedback between mantle convection and lithosphere strength, suggesting that an earlier, hotter Earth had more plates but operated with fewer, larger plates as it cooled to the present. But that idea is not new at all, although the modelling gives support to what was once mere conjecture.

Bury the beast in basalt

Global warming cannot simply be reversed by turning off the tap of fossil fuel burning. Two centuries’ worth of accumulated anthropogenic carbon dioxide would continue to trap solar energy, even supposing that an immediate shutdown of emissions was feasible; a pure fantasy for any kind of society hooked on coal, oil and gas. It takes too long for natural processes to download CO2 from the atmosphere into oceans, living organic matter or, ultimately, back once more into geological storage. In the carbon cycle, it has been estimated that an individual molecule of the gas returns to one of these ‘sinks’ in about 30 to 95 years. But that is going on all the time for both natural and anthropogenic emissions. Despite the fact that annual human emissions are at present only about 4.5 % of the amount emitted by natural processes, clearly the drawdown processes in the carbon cycle are incapable of balancing them, at present. Currently the anthropogenic excess of CO2 over that in the pre-industrial atmosphere is more than 100 parts per million achieved in only 250 years or so. The record of natural CO2 levels measured in cores through polar ice caps suggests that natural processes would take between 5 to 20 thousand years to achieve a reduction of that amount.
Whatever happens as regards international pledges to reduce emissions, such as those reported by the Paris Agreement, so called ‘net-zero emissions’ leave the planet still a lot warmer than it would be in the ‘natural course of things’. This is why actively attempting to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide may be the most important thing on the real agenda. The means of carbon sequestration that is most widely touted is pumping emissions from fossil fuel burning into deep geological storage (carbon capture and storage or CCS), but oddly that did not figure in the Paris Agreement, as I mentioned in EPN December 2015. In that post I noted that CCS promised by the actual emitters was not making much progress: a cost of US$50 to 100 per tonne sequestered makes most fossil fuel power stations unprofitable. Last week CCS hit the worlds headlines through reports that an Icelandic initiative to explore a permanent, leak-proof approach had made what appears to be a major breakthrough (Matter, J.M. and 17 others, 2016. Rapid carbon mineralization for permanent disposal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Science, v. 352, p. 1312-1314). EPN January 2009 discussed the method that has now been tested in Iceland. It stems from the common observation that some of the minerals in mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks tend to breakdown in the presence of carbon dioxide dissolved in slightly acid water. The minerals are olivine ([Fe,Mg]2SiO4)] and pyroxene ([Fe,Mg]CaSi2O6), from whose breakdown the elements calcium and magnesium combine with CO2 to form carbonates.
Iceland is not short of basalts, being on the axial ridge of the North Atlantic. Surprisingly for a country that uses geothermal power to generate electricity it is not short of carbon dioxide either, as the hot steam contains large quantities of it. In 2012 the CarbFix experiment began to inject a 2 km deep basalt flow with 220 t of geothermal CO2 ‘spiked’ with 14C to check where the gas had ended up This was in two phases, each about 3 months long. After 18 months the pump that extracted groundwater directly from the lave flow for continuous monitoring of changes in the tracer and pH broke down. The fault was due to a build up of carbonate – a cause for astonishment and rapid evaluation of the data gathered. In just 18 months 95% of the 14C in the injected CO2 had been taken up by carbonation reactions. A similar injection experiment into the Snake River flood basalts in Washington State, USA, is said to have achieved similar results (not yet published). A test would be to drill core from the target flow to see if any carbonates containing the radioactive tracer filled either vesicles of cracks in the rock – some press reports have shown Icelandic basalt cores that contain carbonates, but no evidence that they contain the tracer .
Although this seems a much more beneficial use of well-injection than fracking, the problem is essentially the same as reinjection of carbon dioxide into old oil and gas fields; the high cost. Alternatives might be to spread basaltic or ultramafic gravel over large areas so that it reacts with CO2 dissolved in rainwater or to lay bear fresh rocks of that kind by removal of soil cover.

Kintisch, E., 2016. Underground injections turn carbon dioxide to stone. Science, v. 352, p. 1262-1263.

In a first, Iceland power plant turns carbon emissions to stone. Phys.org

Hobbit time

A few months after the diminutive hominin fossil Homo floresiensis, which because of its relatively large feet was quickly dubbed the ‘Hobbit’, turned out to be considerably older than previously thought it hit has the headlines again because its ancestors may have colonized the Indonesian island of Flores far earlier still. A pair of articles in the 9 June 2016 issue of Nature consider evidence from another site on the island where fluvial sediments offer more easily interpreted stratigraphy than the complex Liang Bua cave assemblage where the original skeletal remains were unearthed. The site in the So’a Basin became an important target for excavation following the discovery there in the 1950’s of stone artefacts, east of Wallace’s Line – a fundamental faunal and floral divide once thought to be due to the difficulty of crossing a deep, current-plagued channel in the Indonesian archipelago. The unexpected presence of artefacts drew palaeoanthropologists from far afield, but it was almost 50 years later before their exploration yielded hominin remains.

English: homo from flores

Homo floresiensis (credit: Wikipedia)

One of the papers reports sparse new finds of hominin material from the So’a Basin, a fragment of mandible and 6 isolated teeth thought to be from at least three individuals (van den Bergh, G.D. et al., 2016. Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores. Nature, v.  534, p. 245-248). The other covers newly discovered artefacts, the stratigraphic and palaeoecological setting, and radiometric dates of the finds (Brumm, A. and 22 others, 2016. Age and context of the oldest known hominin fossils from Flores. Nature, v.  534, p. 249-253). The jaw fragment shows signs of having once held a wisdom tooth, showing that it belonged to an adult. Yet although it resembles the dentition of the younger Liang Bua specimens, it seems more primitive and is even smaller. The other dental finds are most likely to be deciduous teeth of juveniles. Fission-track, uranium-series and 40Ar/39Ar dating indicates that the fossils entered the sediments about 700 ka ago. But tools and remains of prey animals in deeper sedimentary layers here and at other Flores sites indicate the presence of hominins back as far as about 1 Ma, before which there are no such signs.

So, at least a million years ago Flores was colonised by hominins. Either the original immigrants were uniquely small compared with other hominins of that vintage in Asia and Africa, or within 300 ka they had decreased in size through the evolutionary influence of limited resources on Flores and the process of island dwarfism. The second may also have been influenced by an initially small population of migrants or a later population ‘bottleneck’ that added a loss of genetic variability – a founder effect.   These two alternatives may point respectively to either the even earlier migration out of Africa and across most of Asia of perhaps H. habilis, or the dwarfing of a limited population of H. erectus who made their way there from their known occupation of Java. The authors painstaking analysis of the meagre remains suggest a closer dental resemblance to Asian Homo erectus than to earlier African hominins, so the second alternative seems more likely. However, even that scenario poses palaeoanthropology with a major problem; yet another evolutionary process that helps cryptify the links among our earlier relatives. (See also: Gomez-Robles, A., 2016. The dawn of Homo floresiensis. Nature, v.  534, p. 188-189.)

Breaking news: Cave structures made by Neanderthals

Neanderthals were well equipped and undoubtedly wore clothing, made shelters, hunted, used fire and famously lived in caves. Deliberate burial of their dead, in some cases arguably with remains of flowers, indicates some form of ritual and belief system. Those in Spain wore necklaces and pendants of bivalve shells, some of which retain evidence of having been painted. Excavators there even found a paint container and painting tools made of small bones from a horse’s foot. The container and tools retain traces of the common iron colorants goethite, jarosite and hematite. One large, perforated scallop shell, perhaps used as a pectoral pendant, shows that its white interior was painted to match its reddish exterior. Given the evidence for adornment by earlier hominins, to find that Neanderthals created art should not be surprising. In May 2016 it emerged that about 177 thousand years ago and earlier, they had broken stalagmites off the cave roof to create curious semi-circular structures in Bruniquel Cave near Montauban in southern France (Jaubert, J. and 19 others, 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature, v. 533,  online publication, doi:10.1038/nature18291). Each of the structures contains incontrovertible evidence that fires were made within them. Rather than being near the well-lit cave entrance the structures are more than 300 m deep within the cave system surrounded by spectacular stalagmites and stalactites that are still in place. Were the structures younger than 42 ka they would probably have been attributed to the earliest anatomically modern Europeans and to some ritual function. Instead they were made during the climatic decline to the last but one glacial maximum.

Related article

Neanderthals built mystery underground circles 175,000 years ago

 

Tungsten isotopes provide a ‘vestige of a beginning’

Apart from ancient detrital zircons no dated materials from the Earth’s crust come anywhere near the age when our home world formed, which incidentally was derived by indirect means. Hutton’s famous saying towards the close of the 18th century, ‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, – no prospect of an end’ seems irrefutable. Hardly surprising, you might think, considering the frantic pace of events that have reworked the geological record for four billion years and convincing evidence that not long after accretion the Moon-forming collision may have melted most of the early mantle. But there is a way of peering beyond even that definitive catastrophe. The metal tungsten, as anyone from the steel town of Rotherham will tell you, alloys very nicely with iron and makes it harder, stronger and more temperature resistant. Most of the Earth’s original complement of tungsten probably ended up in the core; it is a siderophile element. But traces can be detected in virtually any rock and, of course, in W-rich ore bodies. Its interest to modern-day geochemists lies in its naturally occurring isotopes, particularly 182W, a proportion of which forms by decay of a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf). Or rather it did, for 182Hf has a half-life of about 9 million years. Only a vanishingly small amount from a nearby supernova that may have triggered  formation of the solar system remains undecayed.

Artistic impression of the early Earth before Moon formation. (Source: Creative Commons)

Artistic impression of the early Earth before Moon formation. (Source: Creative Commons)

A sign of the former presence of 182Hf in the early Earth comes from higher amounts of its daughter isotope 182W in some Archaean rocks (3.96 Ga) than in younger rocks. That excess is probably from undecayed  182Hf  in asteroidal masses that bombarded the Earth between 4.1 and 3.8 Ga. Now it turns out that some much younger flood basalts from the Ontong Java Plateau on the floor of the West Pacific Ocean (~120 Ma) and Baffin Island in northern Canada (~60 Ma) also contain anomalously high 182W/184W ratios (Rizo, H. et al. 2016. Preservation of Earth-forming events in the tungsten isotopic composition of modern flood basalts. Science, v. 352, p. 809-812; see also: Dahl, T.W. 2016. Identifying remnants of early Earth. Science, v. 352, p. 768-769). A different explanation is required for these occurrences. The flood basalts must have melted from chemically anomalous mantle, which originally contained undecayed 182Hf. The researchers have worked out that this heterogeneity stems from a silicate-rich planetesimal that had formed in the first 50 Ma of the solar system’s history, and was accreted to the Earth before the Moon-forming event – lunar rocks formed after 182Hf became extinct. That catastrophe and the succeeding 4.51 Ga of mantle convection failed to mix the ancient anomaly with the rest of the Earth.

Hunting down the Tully Monster

The word ‘monster’ has its origin in the Latin monere ‘to warn’ but has broadened out in its usage.  It has even reverted to its origins as a verb: a highly critical, verbal attack. But I prefer ‘something about which one needs to be warned’, and the Tully Monster encapsulates that meaning. It once lived in Illinois, specifically at just a single location, Mazon Creek, where thousands of them have been seen. But should you be especially fearful of Tullimonstrum gregarium? Well, at first sight, no; it’s only about 10 cm long and apparently has no proper bones and it’s dead. The first was spotted in a coal-mine waste heap by Francis Tully in 1958, a pipefitter with an interest in Carboniferous fossils. Two years after his death in 1987, he and his monster were honoured by a bill that the Illinois State Legislature passed to make it the official State Fossil.

Artist's impression of the Carboniferous Tully Monster (

Artist’s impression of the Carboniferous Tully Monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium) (credit: Sean McMahon, Yale University)

It seems to have become a ‘monster’ by stumping all previous attempts to categorise it; so much so that it long served as a warning to eager palaeontologists not to tangle with its taxonomy. That’s not surprising, because as well as bearing a passing resemblance to Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s 20 000 leagues Under the Sea, it has some truly astonishing features.  Portholes down its sides are not the weirdest – actually they are gill openings. It has a biting apparatus at the end of an absurdly lengthy forward protuberance, that would not be unexpected if it were one of those fish from the Amazon that, you know, men really ought to be warned about. Most of us would not share a bath with it if we had been. And then, there are the eyes on the ends of a dorsal bar which would give Tullimonstrum gregarium superb stereoscopic vision to guide it unerringly to its target, lashing its efficient-looking caudal fin. The fact that it has only a single nostril is merely puzzling by comparison.

Six decades on, Victoria McCoy of Yale University (now at Leicester University, UK) and 15 undeterred colleagues have pored over more than 1200 Tully Monster fossils and seem to have cracked its affinities (McCoy, V.E. et al. 2016. The ‘Tully monster’ is a vertebrate. Nature, v. 532, p. 496-499). In fact, it’s surprising that it has remained an enigma for so long, because McCoy and colleagues have documented almost every aspect of its anatomy, available from a huge number of superbly preserved specimens – teeth, fin, muscle traces, gills, nostril, notochord, gut and so on. As well as being a vertebrate, its dreadful proboscis is very like that of the Cambrian oddity Opabinia from the Burgess Shale. A  separate study by four British palaeontologists and a Texan concentrated on the eyes using electron microscopy and found ‘ultrastructural details’, including pigment cells (Clements, T. et al. 2016. The eyes of Tullimonstrum reveal a vertebrate affinity. Nature, v. 532, p. 500-503) which unequivocally confirm that it is a vertebrate. It has all the hallmarks of being related to lampreys and hagfishs. They devour rotting, drowned corpses.

Homo floresiensis, aka the ‘Hobbit’, is somewhat older

In 2004 a newly discovered hominin fossil from the Indonesian island of Flores made headlines worldwide. Although an adult, it was tiny – about a metre tall, had a commensurately small brain (the size of a grapefruit), had made tools and hunted small elephants and giant rats. Dates from the cave floor sediments that had entombed it gave ages as young as 13 to 11 thousand years and as far back as 850 ka. So H. floresiensis was regarded as being the last human to share the Earth with us; that is, if it was a different species rather than a product of evolutionary shrinkage of anatomically modern humans stranded and isolated on the island for a very long time. Then there was talk among locals of the legendary Ebo Go-Go, with whom their ancestors had shared the island – they had arrived between 35 to 55 thousand years ago.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit")

Homo floresiensis (the “Hobbit”) ( credit: Wikipedia)

Unsurprisingly, a major controversy raged in palaeoanthropology circles, between those who demanded either island dwarfism or congenital deformity of modern humans, and the other camp focused on many anatomical differences that pointed to a bona fide companion to later immigrants who perhaps survived into modern times. The ‘Hobbit’ became a cause celebre, but many of the original protagonists are now left with the proverbial egg on their faces. The cave sediments turn out to have a much more complex stratigraphy than previously thought, following further excavations led by the original discoverer Thomas Sutikna of the Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional in Jakarta Indonesia (Sutikna, T. and 19 others 2016. Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature, v. 532, p. 366-369.

English: Cave where the remainings of ' where ...

Liang Bua cave on Flores island, Indonesia, where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003. (credit: Wikipedia)

The delayed appearance of the revision is hardly surprising, given the lengthy political squabbles surrounding access to the site. And neither are the outcomes, for cave sediments are notoriously tricky because of their episodic reworking by cave floods and roof falls, together with the difficulty in finding materials suited to dating in tropical settings. The original charcoal used in radiocarbon dating and sand grains subject to the thermoluminescence method were in fact from a  unit that lies unconformably against the stratum that hosted the fossils. More sophisticated luminescence dating of the actual fossil-hosting sediments yield ages between 100 to 60 ka, tool-bearing units range from 190 to 50 ka. The origins of H. floresiensis are thus pushed back beyond the date of supposed colonisation by H. sapiens, and remain an open question.