Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mammoth excitement

And, we are afraid, equally mammoth confusion.

Wednesday Tiempo carried a follow up article about the discovery of the tusk of a fossil proboscidean (ancestral members of the group represented today by the elephant).

The original story was reported in all the newspapers in Honduras over the weekend.

It caught our attention because the Institute of Anthropology and History has taken the leading role in the excavation of the fossil.

While archaeologists are used to being mistaken for palaeontologists, these are two separate disciplines, a distinction that seems to have escaped the current head of the Institute of Anthropology and History, Virgilio Paredes, who is quoted as saying "In all this zone apparently there are many bones of prehistoric animals, but there have never been archaeological studies".

The current find, a tusk from a proboscidean in a bulldozer cut in Tegucigalpa, comes from roughly the same area where, 12 years ago, a proboscidean rib bone was found.

The Institute of Anthropology and History previously took charge of a similar find in Olancho in 2008.

The original news stories proposed identification of the new tusk as that of a mastodon:
"For us, this tusk belonged to a mastodon because it is smaller and more straight than that of a mammoth, and it was the most common animal in these kinds of lands"

archaeologist Neil Cruz was quoted saying.

Actually, a review of the literature shows that mastodon finds are extremely rare south of Mexico (where 15 have been reported).

The only Central American mastodon reported in a 2010 review article was actually found in the San Pedro Sula area.

It is a second species-- the mammoth-- that is common in Central America.

Press reports suggest Paredes is, in general, somewhat ill-informed about megafauna. He was quoted as saying
“This is an important find for Honduras and Central America, because the mammoth and mastodons are almost always found in northern zones, in Alaska, Canada, and in Europe."

Um, no.

Actually, Honduras has a distinguished and long-established record as a prominent location for proboscidean fossils, especially for the earliest species.

Honduras is considered by scholars to have the most extensive Central American record of Miocene proboscidea and to a lesser extent, Pleistocene ones.

We are dealing with four separate species with a well-understood history.

The first ancestral elephants passed into the Americas from Asia across the Bering Strait about 16 million years ago. They first appeared in Central America about 7 million years ago and persisted until extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago.

Gomphotherium was the first proboscidean to inhabit North America, in the Miocene, from 16 million years ago to about 5 million years ago. It had a short trunk and small tusks and was widely distributed. It gave rise to Cuvieronius, which had a longer trunk and tusks and was found in the succeeding Pliocene and Pleistocene periods.

In all, some 74 locations in Central America have yielded fossils of ancient elephants recorded by scholars. Of those, five are in Honduras:
Gracias a Dios -- Gomphotherium
Comayagua -- Mammoth
San Pedro Sula -- Mastodon
Tambla -- Cuvieronius
Yeroconte -- Cuvieronius

Lucas and Alvarado (2010) write:
Gomphotherium fossils in the Gracias Formation are numerous, well dated ...and provide what we regard as the oldest reliably dated proboscidean records in Central America.

There are lots of anecdotal reports of proboscidean bones being found in Honduras as well, including specimens from Comayagua exhibited in Europe in the 1890s, others from Choloma (north of San Pedro Sula), and from Santa Barbara, Olancho, Gracias, and Siguatepeque.

It is important to note that to date, there are no demonstrable human-proboscidean associations anywhere in Central America.

The dating of the finds would be critical in evaluating whether Honduras could possibly be the first site to yield reliable evidence of human association. Personnel from the Honduran Institute are quoted as saying that the specimen could date between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago-- that is, the end of the Pleistocene.

In the Americas, those dates might overlap with human occupation, but there is nothing to suggest this in Honduras.

The oldest human occupation documented in Honduras is from the Cueva del Gigante, with the earliest radiocarbon dates approximately 9220-8750 BC, much later than the last mastodons or mammoths. There was no evidence for these megafauna species in levels assigned to the late Pleistocene on the basis of remains of extinct horses.

Honduras is especially noted for proboscid specimens dating before the Pleistocene, a point underlined by Spencer Lucas and Guillermo Alvarado in their 2010 review article.

None of this actual history of abundance of proboscid fossils across Honduras has stopped a bizarrely jingoistic argument based on the supposed unusual nature of this find from being advanced by the Tegucigalpa newspapers. In this vein, La Tribuna quotes Paredes saying “Tegucigalpa has something significant because it could be a scientific zone".

This gets further amplified by two strange suggestions by Paredes, the current occupant of the position of Director of the Institute of Anthropology and History, who himself possesses none of the academic credentials in archaeology, history, or anthropology expected for the position.

First, he laments the absence of a world-class museum where this find-- which historical precedent, we remind readers, suggests has nothing to do with human beings and their history-- could be exhibited:

“We will concentrate all this week in this zone because practically it is cultural patrimony of the world”...

“In Honduras there is no museum as international standards require and we have discovered much, but we cannot exhibit it, I think that it will be a management action that the central government will have to undertake so that we can present the riches that we have”.

It would have been nice if he found the actual archaeological and historical heritage of the country sufficient reason to seek support for museum development, but oh well, never mind, he has this one covered.

But what leaves us bemused is his second suggestion:

“Unfortunately we do not have the equipment, the human resources, nor the economic ones to carry out all the investigations, but for this we are going to call on the international community, beginning with the History Channel".

I guess from the perspective of a businessman, having the History Channel come and do palaeontological research might even make sense. We cannot avoid thinking about the many generations of academics who held the same position and worked hard to professionalize the Institute. What must they be thinking?


Lucas, Spencer and Guillermo Alvarado
2010 "Fossil Proboscidea from the upper Cenozoic of Central America: Taxonomy,
Evolutionary and Paleobiogeographic significance", Revista Geológica de América Central 42: 9-42.

Polaco, O. J., J. Arroyo-Cabrales, E. Corona-M., and J.G. Lopez-Oliva
2001 "The American Mastodon, Mammut Americanum in Mexico", in The World of Elephants -
International Congress, Rome, 2001.


Ardegas said...

That part about the History Channel was hilarious. Clearly Virgilio Paredes shouldn't be head of the IHAH, his ignorance is painful.

Government positions should be for professional people. But in Honduras this can be skipped, like when Manuel Zelaya had a journalist as head of the DEI (the Honduran IRS equivalent). He was related to the first lady to, so there was also nepotism.

RAJ said...

Fabulous instance of blurring differences here.

There is, as I assume you know, an enormous difference between the Micheletti regime appointing someone who has none of the requisite qualifications required by law (Paredes at IHAH), and the Zelaya administration appointing someone who is legally qualified, but who opponents can vilify.

The director of the Dirección Ejecutiva de Ingresos in the Zelaya administration was Armando Sarmiento. And yes, he was a relative of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya.

The question to ask, though, is whether he was legally appointed; and was he good at his job?

There were no legal qualifications for the director of DEI that were violated in appointing Sarmiento.

In August 2006 he was interviewed about the appointment that he accepted, including his own doubts about being inexperienced in the area of responsibilities. He noted there that several others had already rejected what is in fact a thankless position in Honduran government, and how he eventually said yes because he felt the experience he had as a journalist would help him.

During his term he removed corrupt employees, actions covered as positive, even by anti-Zelaya media, and even at the risk of having members of the DEI receive death threats.

Not the same thing. But go ahead-- continue to try to create some sort of false equivalence.