Lactase persistence in populations that drink milk: a classic story of human evolution re-evaluated

July 29, 2022 • 9:15 am

The classic tale of “gene-culture coevolution” in humans—the notion that cultural changes in behavior changed the selection pressures that impinged on us—is the evolution of “lactase persistence” (LP) over the past four thousand years.  LP is a trait that allows you to consume, as an adult, lots of milk or dairy products without suffering the side effects of indigestion, flatulence, or diarrhea.

Young children are able to tolerate milk while nursing, of course, but after weaning many of them no longer tolerate milk—they are lactose intolerant (LI). The ability to digest lactose goes away after weaning because the gene producing the necessary enzyme gets turned off.

The gain of LP, which enables you to drink milk and eat dairy products into adulthood without ill effect, rests on single mutations in the control region of the gene producing lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar lactose.  These mutations have arisen independently several times, but only after humans began “pastoral” activities: drinking milk from domesticated sheep, goats, and cows. And the mutations act to keep lactase turned on even after weaning. (Why humans turn off the gene after weaning isn’t known, but presumably involved the metabolic cost of producing an enzyme that wasn’t used in our ancestors, who didn’t drink milk after weaning until about about 10,000 years ago—when farming and animal domestication began.)

Based on analysis of fossil DNA, the LP mutations began spreading through Europe (starting from what is now Turkey) about 4000 years ago. And so the classic story—one that I taught my evolution classes—is that humans began drinking milk from captive herds, and that gave an advantage to retaining the ability to digest milk even after weaning. Ergo, natural selection for the nutritional benefits of milk led to the spread of LP mutations, as their carriers may have had better health (ergo more offspring) than individuals who turn off the enzyme at weaning).

This leads to the “coevolution” that is the classic evolutionary tale: a change in human behavior (raising animals for milk) led to selection for the persistence of the milk-digesting enzyme, and thus to genetic evolution. The “coevolution” part is the speculation that being able to digest milk without side effects would cause humans to raise even more dairy animals and drink even more milk, intensifying the selection for LP, and so the gene for LP would keep increasing in frequency.

A new paper in Nature, which is being touted all over social media, argues against this classic story, suggesting that it’s more complex than previously envisioned.  Although the new results are touted as overturning the earlier story, they really don’t. There is still human genetic evolution promoted by a change in culture, and there’s still a reproductive advantage in drinking milk.

The new part of the story is simply that that reproductive advantage comes not constantly (as previously envisioned), but only during times of famine and disease, when those who couldn’t digest lactose were at a severe disadvantage because the diarrhea caused by lactose intolerance would contribute to the death of diseased or malnourished individuals. This is a twist on the main story, but doesn’t overturn it completely. There’s still the connection between culture and human evolution, and there’s still a reproductive advantage to LP that leads to natural selection and genetic evolution of our species.  What’s different is how and when the selection acts (see “the upshot” at the bottom).

Click the title screenshot below to read, or you can download the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom, and Nature deemed this worthy of two News and Views pieces in the same issue: (here and here).

First, the authors show the spread of dairy use in the figure below (the redder the color, the more milk usage over time in Eurasia. This was estimated from looking at the frequency of pot shards that had milk residue (click to enlarge). By 1500 BC, milk use was widespread.

Caption (from Nature): Interpolated time slices of the frequency of dairy fat residues in potsherds (colour hue) and confidence in the estimate (colour saturation) using two-dimensional kernel density estimation. Bandwidth and saturation parameters were optimized using cross-validation. Circles indicate the observed frequencies at site-phase locations. The broad southeast to northeast cline of colour saturation at the beginning of the Neolithic period illustrates a sampling bias towards earliest evidence of milk use. Substantial heterogeneity in milk exploitation is evident across mainland Europe. By contrast, the British Isles and western France maintain a gradual decline across 7,000 years after first evidence of milk about 5500 BC. Note that interpolation can colour some areas (particularly islands) for which no data are present.

One reason the authors doubt the classical story is that while dairying and milk-drinking by adults began about 10,000 years ago, the gene for LP (determined from sequencing “fossil DNA”) didn’t spread widely until about 4,000 years ago.  Why is that? The mutation for LP is dominant, which means it could have spread widely very quickly, as even carriers of one copy would have a reproductive advantage. This temporal disparity is what led the authors to propose their alternative hypotheses for the spread of the LP alleles (there are several).

Further, when the authors tried to correlate the frequencies of the LP allele with the frequency of milk use (the classical explanation), they found no correlation—that pattern was indistinguishable from a general rise in frequency over Europe regardless of milk use.

One other set of data led to the new hypothesis. That is the observation that LI people in both Britain and China can still drink lots of milk without suffering any measurable health or reproductive effects (milk drinking has recently proliferated in China).  Of course, things are different now from 4000 years ago, but one of the differences led to the authors’ two hypotheses: the spread of the LP allele was promoted especially strongly in prehistoric times by the prevalence of famine and of disease—with the latter coming often from animals, either domesticated or those that hang around settlements. (As the authors note: “about 61% of known and about 75% of emerging human infectious disease today come from animals”).

So the authors erected two hypotheses, the crisis mechanism and the chronic mechanism. I’ll let them describe the hypotheses that they tested (my emphases)

Given the widespread prehistoric exploitation of milk shown here and its relatively benign effects in healthy LNP individuals today, we propose two related mechanisms for the evolution of LP. First, as postulated in ref. 24, the detrimental health consequences of high-lactose food consumption by LNP individuals would be acutely manifested during famines, leading to high but episodic selection favouring LP. This is because lactose-induced diarrhoea can shift from an inconvenient to a fatal condition in severely malnourished individuals and high-lactose (unfermented) milk products are more likely to be consumed when other food sources have been exhausted. This we name the ‘crisis mechanism’, which predicts that LP selection pressures would have been greater during times of subsistence instability. A second mechanism relates to the increased pathogen loads—especially zoonoses—associated with farming and increased population density and mobility. Mortality and morbidity due to pathogen exposure would have been amplified by the otherwise minor health effects of LNP in individuals consuming milk—particularly diarrhoea—due to fluid loss and other gut disturbances, leading to enhanced selection for LP We name this the ‘chronic mechanism’, which predicts that LP selection pressures would have increased with greater pathogen exposure.

In other words, the reproductive advantage of having the LP allele came from the reproductive disadvantage (through death) of lactose-intolerant people during times of famine and disease.

They tested the two hypotheses by correlating indices of famine and of disease deduced from archeological and paleontological evidence:

Crisis mechanism: “Subsistence instability”, or famine, was assessed by prehistoric fluctuations in population size, which, the authors say, is correlated with the likelihood of famine (they provide no evidence for the latter supposition). But the correlation gives a significantly better fit to the pattern of LP allele frequency than just assuming uniform selection over time and space.

Chronic mechanism:  The authors hypothesized that the frequency of disease would correlate with the likelihood of “zoonoses” (diseases caught from animals), which itself would correlate with temporal variation in settlement densities.  These data, which to me would be correlated with “prehistoric fluctuations in population size” above, also explained LP allele frequencies better than an assumption of uniform selection.

Of course, there’s no reason (and the authors say this) that both mechanisms couldn’t operate together. Curiously, though, indices of the density of domestic animals did not support the “chronic mechanism” though measurements of the proportion of wild animals around humans did.  This implies that, if the “chronic mechanism” is correct, people were getting sick not from their horses, dogs, cattle, or sheep, but from wild animals (perhaps from eating them).

Other hypotheses that the authors mention but didn’t test include “drinking milk as a relatively pathogen-free fluid”, allowing “earlier weaning and thus increased fertility.” I would add that if diseases are causal here, they could come not from being around animals, but having drunk contaminated water, giving an advantage to those who prefer milk. But there’s no way of assessing that from the archaeological record.

The upshot: On the last page of the paper the authors say that they’ve debunked the prevailing narrative:

The prevailing narrative for the coevolution of dairying and LP has been a virtuous circle mechanism in which LP frequency increased through the nutritional benefits and avoidance of negative health costs of milk consumption, facilitating an increasing reliance on milk that further drove LP selection. Our findings suggest a different picture. Milk consumption did not gradually grow throughout the European Neolithic period from initially low levels but rather was widespread at the outset in an almost entirely LNP population. We show that the scale of prehistoric milk use does not help to explain European LP allele frequency trajectories and thus it also cannot account for selection intensities. Furthermore, we show that LP status has little impact on modern milk consumption, mortality or fecundity and milk consumption has little or no detrimental health impact on contemporary healthy LNP individuals.

Instead, they say that they find support for the increase of LP alleles through both famine or pathogen exposure.

Well, the data are the data, and their indices comport better with those data than does the classical hypothesis—the “prevailing narrative.” I’m still not convinced that their proxies for famine or disease are actually correlated with famine and disease themselves, but other researchers will undoubtedly dig into that.

What I want to emphasize is that if the work of Evershed et al. is accurate, it still does not overturn the story of gene-culture “coevolution”.  The “coevolution” is still there, the fact that a change in human culture influenced our evolution is still there, and the fact that drinking milk conferred higher reproductive fitness is still there. What has changed is only the nature of selection. Granted, that’s a significant expansion in understanding the story, but to listen to the media—social or otherwise—you’d think that the “classical narrative” is completely wrong. It isn’t. It’s still correct in the main, but the way selection acted may be different from what we used to think. The media love “evolution scenarios are wrong” tales, and that seems to be the cast of at least some stuff I’ve seen in the news and on social media.


Reference: Evershed, R.P., Davey Smith, G., Roffet-Salque, M. et al. 2022. Dairying, diseases and the evolution of lactase persistence in Europe. Nature.

Tuesday felids

May 3, 2022 • 1:00 pm

We are now in Cadiz, Spain, at the location below that’s circled in red.

and visited a small underground archaeological dig from Phoenician times.  There I saw remains of a cat from the 8th century BC:

Here it is below. I believe the earliest evidence for cat domestication is about 10,000 years ago from Cyprus. This one is considerably younger, and these don’t look like cat bones to me, but I assume the experts know what they’re digging up.

Finally, I found a gorgeous stray tabby kitten on the streets of Rabat, Morocco, and couldn’t resist petting it. It promptly crawled into my lap and, purring, fell asleep. I was very sad that I couldn’t bring it home with me (“Rabat” would be a great name for a cat). And I couldn’t do what Muhammad was reputed to do: cut off the sleeve of his robe when the call to prayer came but his favorite cat, Muezza, was sleeping on it.

This afternoon we’re off to Jerez for a sherry tasting (most other folks are in Seville, but I’ve been there.)

Today’s readings

February 13, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Here are a couple of readings for your weekend delectation. Click on the screenshots to read them. I’ve quoted an excerpt from each, and Sullivan’s piece may be paywalled:

In The Guardian, Adam Rutherford asks us to see Darwin as a man of his time, complex and imperfect by today’s moral lights, but not to be erased or cast aside. I’ve written much of what’s in this column before, but it’s good to see Adam agree.

No one sensible is calling for the cancelling of Darwin, though that does not mean that he and his work are exempt from historical reassessment. His descriptions of differences between the sexes and various human populations are well documented and studied, and some of it now makes for uncomfortable reading. He was right about some of the most important ideas anyone ever had, and wrong about others. Unlike the work of Galton, his ideas did not generate policy implications, which, at least in Galton’s case, were enacted around the world for much of the 20th century with genocidal consequences. These distinctions require discussion, scholarship, context and nuance, and above all, they should be intellectually honest.

Who knows what we will be scalded for in 150 years’ time. This is the process of history. Modern debates framed along the spurious lines that we cannot change history, and therefore should cast our statues in aspic, fail to understand that history, by definition, is always changing. It is the past, not history, that is fixed, and the job of historians is to constantly reassess it with new discoveries and new analysis in our current culture.

This is ultimately why The Descent of Man is my favourite Darwin book, because even the greatest of us are merely people – complex and flawed. It is a deeply humanist book. Darwin casts aside the idea that “savage races” are distinct from the civilised, while using language that bears the indelible stamp of imperial dominance. Yet at the same time, he sees that humankind’s strength lies in cooperation, liberalism and kindness. . .

From John McWhorter’s Substack column; “It Bears Mentioning” (free, but you should subscribe):

McWhorter attacks several tropes implying that structural racism is alive, well, and operating today. A sample, with the tropes in italics:

The role of Black labor in building the Southern economic infrastructure has been routinely denied.

Okay, has been – but the use of the perfect here is subtle. Elvis has left the building – it implies that his leaving rings with import here in the present, unlike Elvis left the building. Just who, today, is denying black people’s role here? Which professionals? Which people anyone listens to? Or, if the denial was common coin in the past – which it was – then precisely what do we do with that in the today in which we live?

The contributions that Black scholars have made in the humanities, the life sciences and the natural sciences have been lost because of segregated workplaces.

Have been – okay. But which contributions of this kind are being “lost” today, anymore than, of course, those “lost” by pretty much all scholars, since none but a sliver of scholarship ever really sees the light of day? Would a trawl of the books covered by The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Atlantic and The New Yorker actually reveal a downplaying of important black work?

The work of Black creative artists has been disregarded since it became appropriated into the national cultural apparatus.

Can we really say this especially of America since last spring, when so very much welcome attention has been paid to black art of all kinds? Does the current situation really justify this acrid judgment?

Note that in certain circles, my very posing of these questions – just asking questions – is considered deeply obnoxious, arrogant, inappropriate. That feeling is so deep-seated that you can forget that it isn’t normal.

From Andrew Sullivan’s The Weekly Dish. The title speaks for itself:

. . . the violence was real and, in several cases, fatal. And no clownishness should distract us from the gravity of the event, or who was responsible for it. For four years, we had a president who expressed contempt for democratic procedures; who had long viewed every US election as rigged; who refused in 2016 and 2020 to respect the results in advance; who claimed millions of illegal aliens had voted for his opponent in 2016; who attempted to stop the counting of votes after election night; who tried to lean on state officials and legislators to reverse certification; who falsely claimed, without any credible evidence, that he had won in a landslide; who wouldn’t attend his successor’s inauguration; and who has refused even now to concede he lost at all.

There has never been a president who has done any of this: express contempt for the democracy he leads, refuse to accept the legitimate results of an election, and attempt to stay in power by marshaling violence in the streets. There are no parallels among any first-world modern democracies for this kind of behavior by a head of state or prime minister. No Western leader, after losing an election, has ever insisted he actually won it in a landslide — and refused to grant any legitimacy to his successor. It is such a grotesque violation of a president’s oath of office that, only a few years ago, it would have been deemed an impossibly far-fetched scenario.

Impeaching and convicting a president for this is therefore a no-brainer. It is the bare minimum we need to do to restore democratic stability. That any Senator is even considering acquitting Trump is a scandal, a sign that one major party has abandoned even the most basic rules of democratic life. That so many “constitutional” Republicans, like Mike Lee of Utah or Rand Paul of Kentucky, have managed to find some arcane way to justify this excrescent assault on our democracy reveals their moral depravity and intellectual incoherence. That so many ordinary Republicans can justify this in any way — and still insist that the election was stolen — is a sign that one party in our system has effectively ceased to be a democratic one at all.

From Wilfred Reilly, a black man, at Spiked. Stuff like this will undoubtedly get him labeled a “self-hating black”. Here he talks about several gaps between blacks and whites—inequities—that are universally ascribed to present racism. Reilly disagrees:

Thirty years ago, economist June O’Neill unpacked a well-known ratio of 82:100 for the earnings of black vs white men. Less technically put, black guys made about 80 cents for each dollar that white guys earned. This gap was – then as now – almost universally attributed to racism. But O’Neill pointed out that simply adjusting for variables like median age, where someone lives and years of education closed the gap substantially.

The most common age for a black person in the US is 27, while the most common age for a white person is 58, and blacks are far more likely than whites to live in the south – where wages are lower for everyone.

Adding tested IQ to the equation closed the ratio to 95.5:100, and adjusting for years of work experience (which is closely related to age) closed it to 99.1:100. O’Neill followed up this research in 2005, finding similar results. Controversial as it sounds in our hyper-politicised society, people of different races with the same qualifications succeed to roughly the same degree today. While few would deny that proportionately more black Americans are poor today because of past conflict and oppression, the effect of contemporary racism seems to be in the order of a few percentage points.

Note that he’s talking about contemporary racism, not past racism, whose reality he readily admits. But the solutions to past versus present racist practices may be very different.

And some archaeology. I didn’t know any of this, but geologists have long known that the stones of Stonehengs were quarried in Wales—a long way away. Now there’s increasing evidence, recounted in this article, that the big stones of Stonehenge were actually erected in a similar circular structure in Wales, and the dragged 175 miles (they didn’t have wheels).

You can read the original paper in the journal Antiquityand it all fits: stone positions, dates, and the same “function” of showing the solstice. Here’s the remnants of the original circle in Wales (I’ve put an arrow by the original circle, just recently undearthed).

As one archaeologist says about The Big Drag from Wales to the present site:

[Dr. Parker Pearson] favors a land route, over which the massive stones, each weighing up to four tons, could be hauled on rows of poles and wooden sledges by as many as 400 people. “This would have been like going to the moon,” he said, “but the Neolithic equivalent.”

Another Jesus relic goes down the drain

March 21, 2020 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Greg found the debunking paper from J. Archaeological Science Reports (Science got the name wrong), and a judicious inquiry will land you the paper.


I’m about to start reading the book below, which was published on March 1 and was kindly sent me by the author, Andrea Nicolotti, a professor at the University of Turin: specifically “Professor of History of Christianity and Churches”. That’s ironic because, according to Andrea, the Shroud of Turin is a bogus relic—something that most people acquainted with the evidence have realized for a while. As Andrea wrote me:

There is no evidence that the shroud comes from the time of Christ. On the other hand, there are three major contrary proofs: 1) the historical documents, which points to the 14th century (that was showed for the first time by a serious French historian more than 100 years ago); 2) the radiocarbon analysis, which points to the 14th century; 3) the study of the type of fabric, which points to the 14th century. Obviously these three arguments are ignored or manipulated by believers in authenticity. In my book you will find a detailed discussion of the historical matter (point 1) and the story of the C14 radiometric dating (point 2). I have also published an in-depth study about the type of fabric, but in another book (point 3)—unfortunately only in Italian. In the book you will receive I can’t go deeper into all the scientific aspects, because it remains a history book. In any case, I know all the literature about the argument, and if you will have any doubts on some issues I can provide you with the bibliography.

It’s a long book—524 pages—but I’m looking forward to finally seeing all the arguments collected in one place.

As the cover says, the Shroud is “the world’s most famous relic” (at least of Christianity), but another famous one has just bit the dust, at least according to Ann Gibbons’s new article in Science (click on screenshot). Her piece recounts a new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a journal I can’t access through my library.

It’s a short piece about what was thought to be the “Nazareth Inscription” a Greek inscription on a piece of marble acquired in 1878 by a curator at the Louvre, and left behind with a note that the stone “came from Nazareth”. The Greek inscription is an “Edict of Caesar” that threatens death to anyone who robs the grave that the marble presumably topped.

Naturally, Biblical scholars—often faithheads who want to prove the truth of the Bible rather than question it—took the curator’s note and the inscription to mean that, yes, Jesus himself was in that tomb. The article, says epigraphist (one who studies inscriptions) John Bodel of Brown University, was “considered by many Biblical scholars to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity.”

Well, rational people should abandon that view, according to the new article in the journal by Kyle Harper. Chemically analyzing the marble, Harper showed that it was a close match to the chemical composition of rock from a marble quarry on the Greek island of Kos. That doesn’t rule out that the marble was mined in Kos and transported to Nazareth, but Bodel considers that unlikely.

Further, says Gibbons, other epigraphists argue that the kind of Greek used on the inscription “was rare outside of Greece and Turkey.”

So what is this thing, if not a warning to leave the bones of Jesus alone? Gibbons summarizes the paper’s conclusions:

Based on the style of the inscription and the age of the quarry, Harper and colleagues propose the object was carved in the first century B.C.E. for a ruler on Kos known as Nikias the Tyrant. Sometime after his death in about 20 B.C.E., angry citizens of Kos pried open his tomb and dragged out his corpse, according to an ancient Greek poem.

Then-Emperor Augustus, who knew of Nikias, may have ordered the tablet to re-establish law and order in the region, Harper says, although that inference has not yet been proved. Harper’s team plans to use stable isotope analysis on other Roman and Greek marble artifacts, too, he says. “We want to apply this to other tales.”

And another beautiful idea destroyed by ugly facts.  It’s curious, but not surprising, that every time a bit of evidence offered to support Jesus’s existence is debunked, “Biblical scholars” and believers don’t reduce their belief in a Bayesian way. But when evidence is adduced in favor of Jesus (e.g., they once thought the Shroud of Turin was real because they said it contained pollen from spring-blooming flowers of the Holy Land), they strengthen their belief. This is no way to deal with evidence. But it’s Christianity, Jake!

h/t: Ken


Ilhan Omar about to introduce pro-boycott (read: pro-BDS) resolution in Congress

July 18, 2019 • 9:00 am

If you had any doubts about Ilhan Omar’s Islamist and anti-Israel agenda in Congress, have a look at her latest attempt at legislation: House Resolution 496 (see pdf here).

The two screenshots below, which link to the articles, are from the Al-Monitor and the Forward, respectively.

From the Forward:

The bill was prepared by Omar, her fellow Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, an African-American with a long history of civil rights activism. (This underscores the sad fact that the black community is becoming increasingly dismissive of Israel’s right to exist. The Black Muslims became explicit anti-Semites a long time ago.)

If you read the resolution, you’ll see that it’s clever, not mentioning BDS but instead describing boycotts that were harder to criticize; and also affirming Americans’ civil rights to boycott nations or companies—which doesn’t need affirming. But it also criticizes recent legislation created by several states to punish companies that cut ties with Israeli companies operating from the West Bank. (I happen to agree that states shouldn’t be regulating companies in this way.) That legislation has been declared unconstitutional several times, and so it’s up to state governments and then the courts to confect such legislation and then adjudicate its legality. Congress, as far as I know, can’t make a law that prohibits states from penalizing countries via boycotts.

To support the “social justice” of her resolution, Omar uses several examples of boycotts, of course leaving out BDS resolutions:

“(1) attempting to slow Japanese aggression in the Pacific by boycotting Imperial Japan in 1937 and 1938;

(2) boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust;

(3) the United States Olympic Committee boycotting the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the preceding year; and

(4) leading the campaign in the 1980s to boycott South African goods in opposition to apartheid in that country;”

How convenient of Omar to use boycotts of Nazi Germany as a way to leverage boycotts of Israel!

But the legislative proviso is largely irrelevant, for the real point of Omar et al.’s legislation is exactly what you’d think: to publicly punish Israel by affirming BDS and to give a Congressional imprimatur to that punishment.  In fact, Omar has made that explicit in interviews. From the Forward (my emphasis):

Representative Ilhan Omar introduced on Tuesday a Congressional resolution defending the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The resolution does not explicitly mention Israel, but does state that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad” and criticizes anti-boycott legislation that has been passed in more than half of the 50 states. (Some of those laws have been overturned for violating the First Amendment.)

“We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting,” the Democrat from Minnesota told Al-Monitor. “And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

The Al-Monitor quote is exact, and can be seen at the first link above.

Now this resolution doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, much less even making it to the House floor: as the Forward says, “Democratic leaders are reportedly planning to soon introduce their own resolution condemning the BDS movement. That resolution has 340 co-sponsors.”  If you want to say that Omar is indeed making legislation rather than tweeting and making speeches, here’s one example of that “legislation”.

And the 340-Democrat-sponsored condemnation is just: BDS is basically an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist movement, its leaders deeply infused with the desire to get rid of Israel as a nation. If you don’t already know that, I’ve already adduced lots of evidence in previous posts.

At any rate, let there be no mistake about Omar and Tlaib’s aims in Congress: to undermine and destroy Israel and, I think, to push an Islamist agenda. While I defend their right to do this, and condemn Trump’s racist remarks about the four Justice Democrat—who include Tlaib and Omar—I see these two as anti-Semites who will use their time in Congress to forward an agenda of Islamism.  (You could claim that, at least for Omar, this reflects the will of her constituents, but I don’t know what their will is, and of course their are non-Muslims in her district as well.)

Elder of Ziyon analyzes this call for boycotts and explains why it’s more anti-Jewish than anti-Israel:

Even if this resolution gets defeated, their underlying logic that implies that Israel is a violator of human rights on par with Nazi Germany will be debated in Congress and enshrined in the proceedings of Congress forever. As I have recently noted, the debate itself is what BDS is after, not the boycott – they want to normalize anti-Zionism and its antisemitic components as a mainstream opinion.

As I have noted in the past, BDS is explicitly antisemitic. The call to boycott “Israeli” goods does not extend to good created by Arab Israelis. The call to boycott “settlement” goods only applies to goods created by Israeli Jews, not Israeli Arabs. A look through the businesses in industrial parks in Mishor Adumim, Barkan, Atarot and other “settlements” show quite a few with Arab names, like Radwan Brothers Refrigeration and Air Conditioning or Khaled Ali Metals or the Shweiki Glass Factory.

None of them are on the lists of “Israeli” companies to boycott. Because they are not owned by Jews.

Note well that these companies are owned by Israeli Arabs, who are citizens of Israel and live behind the “Green Line”. But they’re not called “settlers”—only the Jews in that area are given that name. Regardless of what you think about Israelis in the West Bank—and I think that any two-state solution will have to displace some of them—the fact that the targets are Israeli Jewish but not Israeli Arab companies bespeaks not an attempt to undermine Israel, but to undermine Jews.

Just as I (and Omar) contend that Trump is racist, I also contend that Omar and Tlab are anti-Semitic, and have behaved in accordance with that view since taking office. It will be interesting to see how Ocasio-Cortez votes if this bill ever comes to the floor. One thing is sure: although she may vote in favor of it, or may abstain, she won’t vote against it. After all, that would cause fissures in “The Squad.” In the past, Ocasio-Cortez has avoided answering all questions about BDS, and has waffled on Israel, about which her knowledge seems sketchy, and has also waffled on a two-state solution, which she once approved but then babbled incoherently when asked if she still supported it.

The usual anti-Semitic organizations are of course in favor of Omar et al.’s bill: here’s the odious and ill named “Jewish Voice for Peace”, known for their anti-Semitic activities on college campuses.

National Geographic touts a 3-D film on the “tomb of Christ” (now with bonus comment by Alvin Plantinga)

April 25, 2018 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Note that an “Alvin Plantinga” has commented favorably on the National Geographic fiction (comment #14 below). I can’t be sure that it’s the Alvin Plantinga, known for convoluted Sophisticated Theology™, but I’m guessing it is. If you respond to him, be polite!


What the bloody hell is happening with National Geographic? Article after article is about religion—often Christianity—and all of these latter assume that Jesus was a real person (the implication is a divine person). Is this the way the Murdochs, who now have a controlling stake in the magazine, expect to turn a profit?

Reader Scott called my attention to a new exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Here, Ceiling Cat help me, is the announcement (click on screenshot to go to page):

At the bottom of the photo you can read this: “PLAN YOUR VISIT: Exhibition features a short 3-D film with active 3-D glasses. Exhibition not recommended for guests susceptible to motion sickness or dizziness.”

Not recommended for those susceptible to fairy tales, either!

The whole page and its accompanying pdf pamphlet cast no doubt on the claim that this is indeed the tomb of Christ, nor, indeed, on the existence of Christ himself. The only nod to skepticism is this brief statement in the pdf file:

EVERYONE, WHETHER DEVOUT OR NOT, can feel a spiritual power when visiting holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, home to what many Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

Can feel”? Or “will  feel”? (There’s a difference.) At any rate, the whole allure of this exhibit is the claim that it really is Jesus’s burial spot, something that couldn’t be verified unless there were some contemporary information inside the tomb.

But as we all know, and which Biblical scholars are loath to admit, there is no evidence for the existence of a Jesus person outside of Scripture—and if he existed, there should be. I’d love for National Geographic to publish a scrupulously honest article: “Jesus: Did he really exist?” Imagine how subscriptions would drop!

For example, in the first video below, produced by the magazine, it exhorts you at 40 seconds in to “Team up with conservation experts and historians as they race to restore the tomb of Christ.” Really? Is there no doubt about this? And get a load of the “science and faith” bit at the end, as if they are complementary ways to establish the provenance of this tomb.

In the second video, also by National Geographic, they open the sealed tomb! At 1:34, the caption appears: “This is the first time that anyone alive today has seen the holy bed.” That, of course, presumes it’s the holy bed. Do they expect to find an engraving that says “Jesus slept here”?

Of course there are no remains or other indications of what was in this spot, but that of course is just what the Bible predicts! In this case, the absence of evidence IS evidence.

At best the archaeologists might be able to date the cavity to around the time Jesus is supposed to have lived, but that will convince only the credulous. There’s a reason they’re called “sheep.”

When did National Geographic completely abandon its scientific bent to pander to the faithful? If you still subscribe, why?

National Geographic again osculates Christianity: touts possible discovery of Jesus’s tomb

November 28, 2017 • 10:30 am

For several years I’ve been pointing out National Geographic’s increasing descent into religious osculation, its lips placed firmly at the level of the Christian tuchas.  They love, for instance, to write articles about connecting Mary and Jesus to archaeology, which, though hardly conclusive, act as confirmation bias for Christians who aren’t comfortable accepting the Gospels based on faith alone. Those people need evidence and National Geographic gives it to them. If Christians didn’t want real empirical evidence, articles like this one wouldn’t be published.

Here, for instance, is one of those articles that gives succor to Christians who are encouraged to think that Jesus’s tomb has been located. Despite the site’s disclaimers (“purported tomb”), everything in the piece, including a video featuring an enthusiastic pro-Jesus professor, points toward the conclusion that yes, Jesus’s tomb has been found (sans bones, of course).

What, exactly was found? Well, a limestone tomb beneath Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre that was apparently discovered by the Romans and supposedly turned into a shrine around AD 326. The evidence for its site as Jesus’s burial place?? A marble slab (engraved with a cross) over the cave, which is taken for evidence of a shrine (e.g., Jesus), and the dating of the mortar affixing the slab to the limestone to about 345 AD.  That’s about it. Since this was either during Constantine’s reign (the Roman emperor who became a Christian) or shortly after he died, one can confect a story that Christian Romans were making memorial of Jesus’s tomb.

Against this conclusion are the facts that the “tomb” contained several niches for different bodies (this is a bit unclear), that there is no dating that it existed around 33 AD (when Jesus was supposedly crucified), the absence of any writing on the slab to indicate that Jesus was buried within, any evidence of the bones (and of course there wouldn’t be any since he was bodily resurrected), and the nonexistence of extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’s existence as a person.  Christians would argue, of course, that Jesus wouldn’t get a new tomb, but his body simply dumped with others, and of course would scoff at the paucity of evidence for a real-life Jesus.

Regardless, what’s clear here is that National Geographic has abandoned any journalistic objectivity or skepticism, assuming that Jesus really existed and was crucified, and and has failed to point out the weaknesses of its case. I wonder why any atheist or science-minded person would even subscribe to this rag any more.

Here’s the memorial over “Jesus’s tomb”; the article doesn’t show the “tomb” itself.


h/t: Graham

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 8, 2017 • 7:30 am

I have a comfortable backlog of photos, but please keep them coming in—I can never have too many. Today we have an unusual contribution documenting ancient human activity in Africa. The photos come from Richard Bond, and his notes are indented:

I have wavered for a couple of years over whether these photographs would interest you, but in view of the recent stir about possible humans beings in North America 130K years ago, I thought that I might as well submit them. The photographs are of an excavation site at Olorgesailie in the eastern Rift Valley in Kenya that has yielded a huge number of stone tools. The site was occupied for possibly as long as a million years until about 200K years ago, almost certainly by Homo erectus.

Entrance to the site is through a tiny but excellent museum. This has examples of stone tools that one may actually handle: photos #1 & #1b. The hand axe in #1 is dated at 780K years old.

Photo #2 shows the first humanoid fossil found at the site. The source of the rock for most of the tools was Mount Olorgesailie, a now-extinct volcano shown in photo #3.

The shallow depression in the foreground used to be a lake. (Sorry about the haze; this appears to be a feature of the Rift Valley during the burst of very hot weather just before the end of the dry season.) The area used to be very volcanically active. Photo #4 was taken a little south of Olorgesailie while flying on an earlier visit to the Masai Mara, and, despite the haze, shows clearly several extinct volcanos.

Photo #5 shows an igneous dyke: note the erosion of the softer sedimentary rock that covered and preserved the site.The tools were first discovered spewing from erosion channels.

Photos #6 & #7 show some of these tools, laid out more or less to represent them as they were discovered.

Photo #8 shows a current excavation; the darker bands across the middle are ash from two of the many eruptions that allow accurate dating of the finds.

Photo #9 gives an idea of the depth of the erosion that exposed the tools, and photo #9b is one example of the many animal fossils found on the site.

One curious aspect is that obsidian tools (now in the Nairobi National Museum) have been found, despite the nearest source of obsidian being 50 km away. This might imply some sort of trading structure based around Olorgesailie.

I have visited many historical sites from the mundane to the spectacular, but this is my favourite. I actually became quite emotional in a couple of places, most unlike me. When I visited in 2013, I was shown round by the curator, a charming, softly spoken man who would dearly like more visitors. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get there. For a start, few Kenyans know about it, and it took a most helpful porter at the Panafric (my favourite Nairobi hotel) about half an hour to find a taxi driver who would take me. Although it is just off the direct Nairobi-Magadi road, the bus takes an alternative route that passes through more villages. (I would not risk the dreaded matatus even though they are better than they used to be.) Taxi (not cheap for one person!) or hire car are the only real options. I did not begrudge the expense, because the drive itself is fascinating, not least for the spectacular views of the Rift Valley. My driver had never known about the place previously, and from his comments on our return drive he was considering the possibilities for lucrative future business, so perhaps by now the Panafric might lay on much cheaper trips by minvan. Incidentally, like most Kenyan taxi drivers, mine was excellent company, very informative, and spoke fluent English.

Nature paper suggests humans inhabited North America 130,000 years ago

April 27, 2017 • 5:43 pm

by Greg Mayer

As Jerry noted yesterday, in a new paper in Nature, Steven R. Holen and colleagues report finding the remains of a butchered 130,000 year old mastodon in San Diego. (If you haven’t already done so, do go take a look at Jerry’s post, which includes a video press release, and illustrations from the paper.)

The key words in the first sentence are ‘butchered’* and ‘San Diego’. The first word indicates that people had taken the bones of the 130,000 year old mastodon apart– which in itself would be a “neat, but what’s the fuss” result. It’s ‘San Diego’ that’s the cause of the fuss. The peopling of the Americas has been a contentious topic for some time, but virtually all the debate has concerned a relatively slim time interval– 12-30 kya (see here for a previous discussion at WEIT, and this news piece in Science about two recent papers with contrasting conclusions). The San Diego find is thus 100,000 + years earlier!

So what evidence do they have for this early arrival? First, they have the mastodon, whose bones were fractured in ways which they find inconsistent with damage by carnivores or the environment, but which appear consistent only with being struck with implements. They did a lot of breaking of elephant bones in order to try to simulate the damage to the mastodon, and concluded that tools alone could do the trick. The mastodon’s remains were radiometrically dated at 130.7 ± 9.4 kya. In addition to the mastodon, they also found stone tools, which they interpret as hammerstones and anvils.

These results would have many important implications for human evolutionary history; but first we must ask, are the results correct?

I must admit I’m dubious. The anvil and hammerstones are not the sorts of objects which are unquestionably manufactured– they are not like finely fluted spear points, whose human origin cannot be doubted. The breakage patterns in the bones do indicate that the breaks occurred perimortem, but I’m not sure the breaks could not be due to non-human causes. The dating is directly on the mastodon, which is good– they’ve not dated some possibly extraneous item which could have been redeposited from earlier strata. But, nonetheless, dating is subject to various artifacts.

As Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What makes the current claim extraordinary is that there’s no other evidence of human presence in the Americas for ca. 100+ K years after this find. And it’s not like the late Quaternary of America is an unstudied or poorly known stretch of time! I don’t regard fracture patterns and crude tools to be sufficiently extraordinary evidence to overcome, in a single go, the weight of that 100,000 year absence. It is much more reasonable to think that the new data can be reconciled with all the past data in a way that does not require us to discount the past data. And, thinking, “they must have made a mistake somewhere with the new data”, is a perfectly plausible way of reconciling the two. This conservatism in the face of anomalies is a key part of the method of science– it properly proportions belief to the evidence.

On the other hand, the new data do not threaten to overturn any fundamental principles, merely a seemingly well-attested fact of evolutionary history, and such facts have been overturned before. So, we must ask, but what if they’re right?

The most interesting implication, to me, is that if there were people here 130 kya, they went completely extinct.  It means that human habitation of an entire hemisphere is an iffy thing. The real first Americans got wiped out by something– disease, predators, climate, competitors, whatever. Who would these now extinct people have been? Well, if they got to America not too long before the radiometric date, they would probably be Neanderthaloid (by which I mean the varied archaic Eurasian subspecies of Homo sapiens with which anatomically modern humans interbred after their spread from Africa). If they came much earlier, they might have been Homo erectus (which would make Harry Turtledove’s A Different Flesh, in which the first European settlers of America encounter not Indians, but “sims“, prophetic!).

There would also be a possibility that these first Neanderthaloid Americans survived, and that the anatomically modern human colonizers of ca. 20 kya, interbred with them in the course of replacing them, just as their forebears did in Asia. However, because American Indians are not, as far as I know, enriched for Neanderthaloid alleles relative to other Eurasians (who are 1-4% Neanderthaloid; a bit higher in Melanesia), this seems unlikely. (There are claims out there that Indians are enriched for Neanderthaloid genes, but I don’t know how that got started; East Asians, from which, at least generally, American Indians descend, are Neanderthaloid enriched relative to Western Europeans, which seems to indicate more than one episode of interbreeding on the course of their migration from Africa.)

* I use “butchered” here in the sense of “processed for eating”, as the bones were presumed broken apart to get at the marrow. The paper uses “butcher” in the narrower sense of “cut with a knife or similar implement”. The paper does not say the mastodon was cut with a knife or other sharp tool.

Holen, S. R., T. A. Deméré, D. C. Fisher, R. Fullagar, J. B. Paces, G. T. Jefferson, J. M. Beeton, R. A. Cerutti, A. N. Rountrey, L. Vescera, and K. A. Holen. 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature 544:479-483.

Breaking science news: humans in North America 130,000 years ago?

April 26, 2017 • 2:15 pm

I’ll just put this up here without analysis, as I haven’t yet read the paper. But it’s big news if true. A new a new report Nature by Holen et al. (reference below; free access) claims to have found human tools associated with crushed and cracked mastodon bones at a site in southern California, with the date a full 130,000 years ago! 

Conventional wisdom puts the arrival of humans in North America about 15,000-20,000 years ago, coming from Siberia across the Bering Strait. These hominins are nearly ten times older, and well older than those individuals who left Africa about 60.000 years ago to colonize the globe.

Who were these hominins? Were they a species that went extinct? Or is it a mistake? If this is true, it’s a remarkable and game-changing discovery.  Have a look at the paper, below, but first here’s Nature’s video:

And here are some of the tools:

a–d, Anvil (CM-281). a, Upper surface. Boxes indicate images magnified in b–d; dashed rectangle, magnified in b, small dashed square, magnified in c and solid square, magnified in d. b, Cortex removal and impact marks (arrows). c, Striations (arrows) on the highest upper cortical surface ridge. d, Striations (diagonal arrows) and impact marks with step terminations characteristic of hammer blows (vertical arrows). e–i, Hammerstone (CM-383). e, Impact marks. The box indicates the magnified images in g and h. f, Upper smoothed surface. g, Deep cracks and impact scars (arrows). h, Impact scars from g, showing results of three discrete hammerstone blows on an anvil (arrows). The large flake scar (central arrow) has a clear point of impact with radiating fissures. The small scar (right arrow) has a negative impact cone and associated scars and fissures preserved beneath a layer of caliche. i, Striations (arrows) and abrasive polish on upper cortical surface (near black North arrow in f). Scale bars, 5 cm (a), 2 cm (b, g, h), 1 mm (c, i), 2 mm (d), 10 cm (e, f).


Holen, S. R., T. A. Deméré, D. C. Fisher, R. Fullagar, J. B. Paces, G. T. Jefferson, J. M. Beeton, R. A. Cerutti, A. N. Rountrey, L. Vescera, and K. A. Holen. 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature 544:479-483.