Dogs Join the Search for Amelia Earhart’s Remains

The quest to find Amelia Earhart’s final resting place just got a little more interesting, as four National Geographic-sponsored bone-sniffing border collies set sail for a remote Pacific island.

The famed aviatrix and her navigator were last seen on July 2, 1937, soaring into the sky above New Guinea. We know where they were headed—Howland Island, a mere speck in the ocean—but we don’t know where they went. There are plenty of theories, of course. Some people think Earhart was actually a spy who went into hiding after completing her final mission. Others think she was captured.

But some of the most compelling evidence comes from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll located about 1000 miles north of Fiji. The island is just 350 nautical miles southwest of Howland Island. At low tide, its exposed reef could have made a welcoming spot to land an ailing plane. Most importantly, we’ve found bones there before; the British government recovered 13 human bones there in 1940.

Lagoon on the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro.
Angela K. Kepler, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those bones have since been lost, as has the precise location of where they were discovered, but archaeologists believe they know where to find more.

So the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is sending a new mission to the island, bolstered with some very special experts. Berkeley, Piper, Marcy, and Kayle all trained as remains detection dogs by the Institute for Canine Forensics.

“No other technology is more sophisticated than the dogs,” expert Fred Hiebert told National Geographic News. “They have a higher rate of success identifying things than ground-penetrating radar.” Hiebert is archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, which sponsored the collies’ involvement.

The dogs’ job is to follow the scent of human bones, then alert their human counterparts, who will excavate in a wide circle around the targeted area. It probably won’t be an easy job. Heat, vegetation, and scavengers can all throw off the scent, and Nikumaroro is sweltering, dense with greenery, and crawling with bone-cracking coconut crabs.

That last thing might not be terrible. “The crabs are our friends,” Hiebert says. It’s possible that they found the remains themselves, then dragged them back to their burrows. The dark, underground holes could actually help preserve the remains and their scent.

Hiebert and his colleagues at TIGHAR know it’s a long shot. The scent trail likely went cold ages ago, if the bones are even still there, if they ever were there at all.

“But if the dogs are successful,” Hiebert says, “it will be the discovery of a lifetime.”

[h/t National Geographic News]

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

iStock
iStock

Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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