Be Right Back.

Dear readers,

Anna’s Bones is bidding farewell to the blogosphere.

For now.

My real world pilgrimage (otherwise known as ‘PhD’) beckons me to hit the trails, as adventures worldwide (otherwise known as ‘data collection’) await me.

But fear not, my boney fans, Anna’s Bones will be back soon after her travels, and fill these pages once again with wondrous stories about bones, evolution… and all the worlds in between.

In the meantime, she’ll be active as ever on Facebook, so do follow for the latest news on paleoanthropology and evolution… !

See you soon,

Anna Bones

The Bone Room

Last week, my housemate’s friend, Yemisi Blake, asked if he could snap some photos of me in ‘my bone lab’. These would feature in his photography project entitled ‘Great British Youth’ which showcases British youth in their work environment.

Being neither of those things, I quickly acquiesced. The narcissist in me, only too pleased to play muse to a camera lens and unbothered by the small details, forgot to communicate my age and background until halfway through the shoot.

Since the photos will not be displayed in the exhibit, I’m showcasing them here instead, in my most self-indulgent blog post to date.

These photos are an homage to a 13 year-old girl, who once solemnly declared to her parents that she’d grow up to be a ‘paleoanthropologist’, and somehow, at 29, has managed to make a living out of playing with old bones.

This is my tribute to my love for bones, evolution… and all the worlds in between.

Thank you Yemisi!

[Photos by Yemisi Blake]

A Reason to Smile

Photo credit: Quim do Porto Photography 

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy” – The Dalai Lama

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twelve years of visiting Thailand, it’s this: when you report your lost suitcase to a member of Thai airways and she smiles reassuringly at you, be scared… Be very scared. Likely the smile means she has absolutely no idea where your suitcase has gone, even after an extensive exchange with her walkie-talkie, nor does she have any idea how to find it, so she smiles and nods reassuringly at you. It is also likely you will leave the airport with a care package comprising of socks and whitening cream. This smile also means you will most likely spend the next few days calling various customer service numbers, possibly even using high pitched sounds with the customer care representative, only to find out that really you should just calm down, lady, because in Frankfurt alone there are some 20,000 stranded suitcases, and you are mighty lucky to be in a country where the official farang dress code is a bikini and a coconut.

So smile. You are, after all, in the ‘Land of Smiles’.

The Thai language, in fact, recognises over a dozen different types of smiles. These range from the jovial “I’ve-just-won-the-lottery” smile (yim cheuat cheuan), to the defeated “my-situation-is-so-bad-I-might-as-well-smile” smile (yim soo), to the above-mentioned “sorry-we-lost-your-luggage-but-please-don’t-get-angry-with-me” smile (yim haring.) To the unacclimatised westerner, in whose culture a smile is most often synonym of happiness, arriving in a land where smiling is the Siamese equivalent of accessorizing, Thailand seems like a tropical utopia, a bubble of cerulean bliss, a sanctuary for the joyful, a celestial perch where friendly grins come to nest. Only after the painful realization that Thais can dispense equally as elegant smiles when greeting you for the first time as they do when giving you the proverbial finger, does the bubble burst forever.

But what’s in a smile?

In the western world, where social conventions do not necessarily require us to walk around with one hanging from our cheeks, smiles are essentially organised into a simple dichotomy: real or fake. Indeed, the modern study of human facial expressions, a field initiated by Darwin with his work on “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872), recognizes only two kinds of smiles: the truthful ‘Duchenne smile‘ – named after the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the physiology of facial expressions in the nineteenth century – and the fake ‘social smile‘ (also referred to as the ‘Say Cheese’ smile.)

Julia Roberts’ real and fake smiles. Can you spot the difference? Take the test here.

Nevermind trying to accurately identify the 13 Thai smiles, studies have shown that most people are completely incompetent at discriminating between a contrived and an authentic smile. For this reason, scientists have devised a coding system called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) in order to distinguish between the genuine and the fake. Results from various studies show that despite the differences between the two being too subtle for the average person to pick up on, there are significant life-long repercussions relating to life satisfaction, life quality and even marriage quality depending on whether or not you are an authentic smiler or a ‘say cheese’ smiler.

Although the facial outcome is very similar, a fake and a genuine smile actually result from the action of different muscles and even different brain areas. Fake smiles can be performed at will, because they are controlled by the conscious part of the brain and prompt the zygomaticus major muscles in the cheeks to contract – these are the muscles that pull the corners of the mouth outwards. Genuine Duchenne smiles, on the other hand, are generated by the unconscious brain, so are automatic. In this case, the muscles that raise the cheeks – the orbicularis oculi and the pars orbitalis – also contract, making the eyes crease up, and the eyebrows dip slightly. Perhaps then, the eyes are not ‘windows to the soul’, but rather decorative windowsills, bending to shape in consonance with our mood.

Furthermore, studies have shown that people with positive emotions are happier and have more stable personalities, more stable marriages, and better cognitive and interpersonal skills than those with negative emotions throughout their life. It has also been shown that happy people live on average 14% longer than persons who report that they are unhappy, they enjoy an increased longevity of between 7.5 and 10 years, they are also less likely to commit suicide, and are less often the victims of accidents. Duchenne smiling correlates so well with these variables, in fact, that studying smile intensity in childhood and college yearbook photos is enough to successfully predict lifespan!

A chimpanzee smile

But what is the use for this peculiar muscle contraction after all? If only authentic smiles are predictors of positive feelings, why go through the trouble of showing off our ivory beads when we are not genuinely happy?

Some research has shown that smiles can elicit cooperation among strangers in a one-shot interaction, because smiling evokes trustworthiness. Given that the smile is thought by some to have evolved from the submissive ‘show of teeth’ in primates, it doesn’t seem surprising then that a conscious lifting of the ends of our mouths may have been evolutionary advantageous since it can arouse positive reactions in others during social interactions. If this is true, it would explain why smiling seems to be an innate behaviour, and why children who are born blind show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people. Thus, adapted from the simian toothed open-mouth grin, the smile evolved somewhere along the line into its present form: a friendly string of pearls dangling ear to ear from our naked human faces.

I’m not sure what kind of facial expression I was wearing during the interchange with the Thai Airways official, but I’m guessing I gave her some sort of friendly open-mouth tooth display, for which no name in Thai or any other language exists. I had withstood 2010’s wrath, I had survived Heathrow’s chaotic vortex, and I had endured 12 hours of imprisonment in a flying capsule that barely made it out of London’s snow, so when I found myself just ten minutes away from all-you-can-take sun, heat, countless coconut trees and a million other reasons to smile, I accessorized accordingly. My lips stretched outwardly like a happy hammock into my receding cheeks that now bunched up like two blown-up cushions at the sides of my face… and I stepped, luggageless, onto the tarmac wearing my best Duchenne to date.

Anatomy of a Square

[Click here for the the first part of the story: Road to Rudabanya]

“In Euclidean plane geometry, a square is a regular quadrilateral. This means that it has four equal sides and four equal right angles. […]  In spherical geometry, a square is a polygon whose edges are great circle arcs of equal distance, which meet at equal angles. The angles of such a square are larger than a right angle. […] In hyperbolic geometry, squares with right angles do not exist. Rather, they have angles of less than right angles. Larger squares have smaller angles.”

“I can tell you’ve done this before. You take good care of your square,” said Big Dave. With his tobacco voice and worn eyes, there was something about Big Dave that imposed respect, like an oversized lobster thrown back at sea. Wrinkles grew across his face like a leafless willow tree, scabs and memories quietly sitting side by side on its branches. At 70, he wore them with pride. In the field he was a towering sight, a gentle giant with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, hammering away at the gray marl in meditative silence. I didn’t take his compliments lightly.

It took me some time to understand that there is more to excavating than digging oneself into a hole. I used to work too fast, like I couldn’t wait to get to the bottom. In previous excavations I had even broken a few Paleolithic stone artifacts and missed large prehistoric rhinoceros molars under the clumsy strokes of my hurried tool. This time I wanted to put five years of practiced patience to the test. Sentences like follow the slope, keep it even and clean your square, all too familiar to budding archaeologists, ran like mantras in my head while I hit the screwdriver against the solid clay.

The site lay under the Hungarian sky like an open wound, a dozen or so bodies picking at it with sharp objects, like a pack of tiny rodents gnawing away at a carcass. From the inside, the pit looked like a multilayered podium, slumped backs sitting at different heights, labouring busily over their squares. In this overcrowded hole, bodies contorted under the pressure of invading limbs and heads from neighbouring squares, unable to be contained inside their one-by-one meter space. In the field, days moved to the sound of this human jigsaw puzzle reshuffling itself again and again on the muddy Rudabánya floor.

Apart from the trees and a turquoise lake shimmering seductively in the distance, which our acclimatised eyes barely noticed anymore, the site was remarkably unspectacular. It was easy to forget we were knee-deep in one of the most important sites in the paleoanthropological world. We were standing on the birthplace (or rather deathplace) of ‘Rudi’ and ‘Gabi’ (Rudapithecus hungaricus), two famous 10 million-year-old creatures and the closest things to the proverbial missing link between African great apes and humans.

Kneeling inside my square, like an inmate in a Japanese prison cell, my hands made their way down the earth’s skin, while my mind slowly escaped into the tiny crevices of the floor beneath my feet. Fieldwork has a way of warping time, of bending it into strange shapes you never knew it could have. It has a way of telescopically zooming into parts of yourself there aren’t any names for, like some overly curious surgeon probing in unwelcome parts of your anatomy.

I was momentarily rescued from my thoughts by the find of a partial Rudapithecus humerus, which lay between my square and Arthur’s. Fossils somehow have this remarkable ability to burrow in the most inconvenient of places, either on a complicated corner, on an edge, on a slant between two squares, inside the wall that won’t be excavated until next year. At the end of the season, the eastern wall would be left a veritable mosaic of fossils, sandwiched between multicoloured layers of dirt, bones of all sizes poking from mother earth’s epidermis like toothpicks. Most will never be rescued from their deathbeds.

Surrounded by clumps of strange teenage bodies, my mind recoiled unto itself. Days in the field were lived in silent introspection, interrupted only by the sound of sediment being shoveled away, the sound of rubble hitting an empty bucket, a metal tool hitting a rock, a hand swiftly swatting away a mosquito, a gust of wind, a bird. Mornings were spent under the spell of the 6:30 am wake-up call, stuck in that twilight space between an unnursed hangover and a coffee craving. The first break is at noon. No point in wondering about the time, there is always a disappointing distance between now and a break.

When a fossil is found, the human cloth breaks into a dozen uncoordinated pieces. Like a family of prairie dogs, heads peer up from the ground, a dozen pairs of inquisitive eyes turning to the location from where ‘is this something?’ is being uttered. No, it’s nothing, most of the time it’s nothing. A heap of dirty overheated bodies with bizarre tan-lines return to their labour, their unquestioning hands working the ground beneath them. There is a pause here and there; a pair of traveling eyes considers the menacing puddle accumulating on the plastic tarp hanging from above.

At lunch, I studied the lake below me while biting into a pista-covered hardboiled egg. I eyed it suspiciously, that copper-filled lake with its false blue-green promises. Exploited for centuries for its various metals and lignite, Rudabánya is now an exhausted, troubled and poverty-stricken land that gets its name from bánya, Hungarian for ‘mine’ and ruda, Russian for ‘ore’. The lake smiled at me like a hypocrite, concealing its evil secrets under a blanket of opalescent temptation. It was a remnant of a man-exploited world, men who had dug a hole and left, leaving behind a fistula of poisonous liquid that now had nowhere to go. I threw my leftovers in the bushes and turned my back to the lake nonchalantly, leaving it to play its tricks on others.

I locked my body back in place on my quadrilateral island. Taking shelter from unbearable teenage conversations with my headphones, I was left with the loudness of my emotions battling each other to pieces inside my chest. Grief, anger, doubt, insecurity and self-pity claimed me as their home, like naked crustaceans searching for a shell on foreign sea floor. There too was an evil lake inside of me, with poison pooling without escape. Feelings of abandonment, betrayal and loss weaved their webs inside of me, sad thoughts spun around and around, pulling me down into an infinity loop of melancholy.

Oui, l’enfer ce sont les autres, mais l’enfer c’est moi aussi.

It hadn’t always been like this. An eternity ago, the landscape had once smiled and flourished in the absence of man. Is this something? Yes, it’s something. Sometimes there is something. An Agriotherium femur, a deciduous Anapithecus canine, a Rudapithecus phalanx, a turtle shell, date pits, micromammal long bones, Chalicotherium something, a beaver other, pig this, squirrel that. As days went by, a picture of a lost world, where we now stood in knee-deep. It had not been the darkest before our dawn.

Rudabánya belongs to a time when the Carpathian Basin was covered with a shallow sea that covered large areas of today’s Hungary, in the late Cenozoic. Its shores were bordered by swampy forests, at a time when the weather was milder and more humid than today. The layers we now explored belonged to the Miocene, spanning from 24 to 5 million years ago, a period that saw the end of the connection between Eurasia and Africa, which allowed the hominoids in each continent to separate and follow their own independent paths. On one side the pongids evolved in Asia, and on the other the panids and hominoids in Africa, leading eventually to mankind.

Today, there is disagreement about the break-up point between the ape lineages, some believe the separation to have happened in Africa, where others believe it to have taken place Eurasia. David Begun, a wrinkleless-yet-just-as-intimidating man who led the National Geographic funded field season, champions the theory that the ancestors of African apes evolved in Eurasia. Whatever the version of events, it was this now half-eaten land that our Hungarian hominoid once called home.

A mix of black and sepia-toned rubble piled inside my bucket. I had reached the bottom of the black and red clay, both fossil-dense layers. Ahead of me, the quasi-barren ocean of hard grey marl awaited. Some days I envied those in the clays, delicately picking tiny secrets out of the ground with their oddly shaped dental tools. Some squares were so rich they were given names like the rice crispy square (a compact block of micromammal remains), or the graveyard square (whose complicated conglomerate of large carnivoran bones looked like the site of a massacre.). The grey marl, however, was a different game. It was a game of persistence, perseverance and patience. Easily overcome by discouragement and frustration, those of us serving sentences in these squares were under daily reminders from the more experienced that some of the better preserved and most important fossils had come out of this very soil.

By the end of the day, after hours spent in introspective confinement, the physical and mental landscapes collapsed into one another, like cartoon figures in a children’s pop-up book. No matter how much you follow the slope, keep it even or clean you square, it’s never up to you what the ground decides to yield. It all felt like a colossal metaphor for my life. The ground below me was showing me my faults, like a jester’s mocking finger demanding I connect the dots. I worked like I felt, as if for fear of losing I didn’t give enough before, and in name of the same fear, I was now afraid of letting go.

Back at the house, a circle of mangled bodies huddled over a fire after dinner. I sat in silence dodging the giggles and friendly complicities being exchanged around me, falling deeper and deeper under the hypnotic spell of the flames now dancing like possessed tribesmen inside the fire-pit. I contemplated the starless sky while my guts digested an unpalatable lesson: accepting that sometimes the biggest find, is not finding anything at all. Big Dave sat to the side, his ghostly presence watching over the crowd like a shepherd. He handed me a beer.

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

Road to Rudabánya

[Click here for the continuation: Anatomy of a Square]

Train Tracks

“Dear Anna, although it is short notice, if you can make your way to Kazincbarcika someone can pick you up there and bring you to Rudabánya.” – Professor David Begun
The taxi door slammed shut behind me. The hot sticky city air hit me like a mischievous wave. Before me, there was Budapest and its yellowish landscape peeling under an impossibly humid breath, like dusty hundred-year-old melted candles forgotten on a sacred altar. As I shuffled up and down some unpronounceable avenue, a row of buildings seemed to mumble a slow and tired hello, like anaemic and slightly unfriendly elderly folk.

Hungary, I would soon discover, is more than a country; it’s a state of mind. It is that place of permanent disquietude that lies inside the human soul, like a stage where long drawn-out suspense scenes take place in succession, with no climax, no closure, no dénouement whatsoever. Over there, just like a song that is imperceptibly out of tune, there prevails a sense of not-quite-rightness at every instant. This land was as real as it was imaginary, like a page ripped straight from an evil fairytale. Here I found all my feelings of unwellness sculpted unto its geography, like barnacles on a giant humpback whale. Hungary was some sort of twisted Wonderland, and I was some sort of Alice.

Despite my best efforts I had been unable for the past four months to work on my research project. My post-traumatic-hangover state of mind kept me away from my desk at university and just the thought of having to see this academic endeavour to its conclusion filled me with a mix of profound and almost physical laziness, angst and abysmal fear. I was trapped inside some Munchean canvas, screaming frantically to be released, except I didn’t know who to or what from. I needed the fieldwork.

Inside the hostel, the air was even hotter and stickier than outside. Clive, a statuesque Australian I had befriended, had just taken his first real shower in weeks. Towel around his waist, he expertly packed his bags for the next leg of his trip, while I adjusted the position of two fans directly over our beds, making sure the radius of both their motions moved synchronously and at mathematical precision so as to maximize breeze effect. We shared stories. He told me he was halfway through a four-month long bike journey across Europe, which explained his giddiness at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed. In turn, I explained how I was on my way to Rudabánya to dig for Miocene apes. In the dark, under the steady buzzing of the fans, we sat on the edge of my bed inspecting a map, like two lost strangers in search of some grand treasure. Bright yellow lines marked a route, which his hands travelled smoothly across the paper landscape. His fingertips swept gently towards its final destination, the Black Sea, directly across from my belly button. We were both half awake and half naked, trying unsuccessfully to survive the staleness of this Budapest room. While he spoke, I wiped little dew-like pearls of sweat off my chest at regular intervals. I looked at him, flashlight on his forehead, I could barely see his aqueous blue eyes through the rays of light flying in my direction; his voice was soft and deep and very Australian sounding.

The scene truly belonged in some version of Wild Orchid: Hungarian nights, except the main actress had suddenly forgotten her lines. Just like vibrations dissipating from the tinkling of a triangle, a steady but imposing wave of numbness invaded my whole body from the inside out. My skin was burning hot but my insides were ice-cold. An invisible force had transported itself into that room and had turned the volume on whatever it was I was supposed to be feeling, all the way down to muted. I said something nice that invited Clive to leave my side. I lay down on the bed that I now had all to myself, feeling the cool airflow of the fans taking turns sweeping heat off my feverish flesh. A subdued yet definite sense of contentment took over and I picked up my reading of David Begun’s New catarrhine phalanges from Rudabánya (Northeastern Hungary) and the problem of parallelism and convergence in hominoid postcranial morphology.”

Yes, I had just chosen a dense scientific article over a man. Welcome to my experience in Hungary. If London was a coquettish and naughty middle-aged lady looking for trouble, Budapest was a wise-yet-slightly-broken young woman trying to make her way to some village in the mountains, except she’s tipsy and is carrying more baggage than she can handle.

Twelve pages into the article, and I was more confused than ever about the status of Rudapithecus among the Dryopithecines, about the ancestral locomotor repertoire of great apes, about my PhD research, my career choices, and also about myself. As my brainwaves fluttered between consciousness and pieces of a dream, disconnected thoughts played in random loops inside my head. Emerging from this noise, like an old recording from a 19th century gramophone, my friend Sara’s distorted voice asked unrelentingly: “What’s it like? What’s it like?” I imagined myself as an old yellowed peeling Budapest building on the side of a nameless avenue, frowning suspiciously at a tiny little Alice, and whispering in a slightly unfriendly tone: “You don’t find your way. You just learn to be ok with being lost all the time. You just accept it.”

PhD degrees often are as much about a personal voyage as they are about one’s academic maturing, and this trip, I knew from the beginning, was going to be as much about scientific inquiry, as it would be about an inner search. It was time for this lady to sober up and bury the excess baggage where it belonged, in a distant past, in a clay pit in Rudabánya, with its ten million year-old cousins. It was time to put away this dirt and dig up some fresh one. It was time to leave, to find this muted muddy fossil-ridden land of lost innocence and primordial beginnings.

On the morning of July 24th, I set forth to Keleti station, track number 13. In silence, I waved goodbye to the giant elderly folk now busy mumbling bitter insults at the hot Hungarian air. Down the rabbit hole I went. The destination was Kazinczbarcika via Miskolc. The road was to Rudabánya.

[Click here for the continuation: Anatomy of a Square]