Morbid tales to engage the student body

Greg Laden puts an interesting twist on the question of how many hominin fossils we have: the question should be, “how did they die?”. We seem to have evolved from a species that was primarily a prey item on predators’ grocery list, to one that succumbed most often to disease, to one where mortality was driven by violence (and now, at least in our prosperous corner of the world, where senescence exacerbated by sloth and gluttony is the common cause of death.)

He’s right. The cool questions our students ought to be getting excited about have nothing to do with the nonsense the Discovery Institute wants them to discuss.


  1. says

    Another important question: how did they come to be preserved? Why these individuals, why these precise points along the cladistic bush?

  2. octopod says

    Ah, Martin, now that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Obviously taphonomical processes preserve individuals differentially, but what are the criteria?

    Personally, all my interest in vertebrates is in this sort of taphonomic question (I’m a ceph person normally) — I’d love to have a chance to look into this question. There have been some studies on which bones are best preserved, starting with fresh cow skeletons and sending ’em down a flume, but not much beyond the simple “pelvises last longer than ribcages” type of thing. Good place to start though.

  3. afarensis says

    Octopod, you might look into Fossils in the Making: Vertebrate Taphonomy and Paleoecology by Anna K. Behrensmeyer and Andrew P. Hill, and Vertebrate Taphonomy by R. Lee Lyman if you want to know more about the taphonomical aspects of paleoanthropology and zooarchaeology.