ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology


Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct
Tetrapod Zoology Home

The amazing swimming Proboscis monkey (part I)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



I am perpetually interested in monkeys. One of the most remarkable and interesting of them all has to be the uniquely Bornean Proboscis monkey Nasalis larvatus, also sometimes called the Long-nosed monkey or Bekantan.

Proboscis monkeys are famously named for the enormous, pendant, tongue-shaped noses of adult males; those of juveniles and females are shorter and upturned. While there have been suggestions that the nose plays a role in heat dissipation or in improving the loud, resonant ‘honk’ calls made by males, it seems most likely that it’s a sexually selected visual signal, its size presumably conveying information on a male’s maturity and genetic quality. It’s that enormous nose, and apparently the monkey’s pink face and rotund belly, that led people in the Indonesian half of Borneo to call them ‘Dutchman monkeys’. If you’re wondering, the adjacent illustration is explained below.

The penis is permanently erect (why, and how, this permanent tumescence is present remains unanswered, so far as I know. I assume it’s an aspect of sexual display). The pelt is greyish-white ventrally and reddish dorsally. Sexual dimorphism is pronounced in body size as well as nose shape. Males can have a head and body length of 76 cm and weigh as much as 22 kg while females rarely exceed 60 cm and 11 kg. Babies are dark-furred with a bluish face. Social groups tend to be male-led harems of 6-16 individuals, though there are all-male groups as well. Neighbouring groups sometimes meet and feed together, and some researchers have drawn parallels between Proboscis monkey society and that of Geladas Theropithecus gelada.

Male Proboscis monkey in the wild; photo by David Dennis, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

As you’ll know if you’ve ever seen the species in books, on TV, or in life, the Proboscis monkey is associated with waterside forests, including coastal mangroves and palm swamps [adjacent photo by David Dennis]. However, the idea that the species is limited to coastal regions (as thought or stated by many primate workers during the 1980s and 90s) is inaccurate: they were reported from inland, ‘upstream’ areas between the 1920s and 50s, and in fact still occur in some of these places today, in some areas being as far as 750 km inland (Meijaard & Nijman 2000).

Proboscis monkeys are strongly arboreal, typically clambering about branches when foraging for leaves. As seems sensible for an animal that spends a lot of time over water, Proboscis monkeys are good divers and swimmers: they both leap into water when threatened, and swim across channels and rivers when needing to move to new areas. Their fingers and toes are partially webbed. More on the swimming in a moment.

Proboscis monkeys in trouble

Another male Proboscis monkey, as seen from an unusual angle. Photo by Erwin Bolwidt, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A 2008 study found that Proboscis monkeys were more widespread and more abundant than previously thought, with a minimum population estimate of about 5900 (Sha et al. 2008). Previous estimates were around the 2000-3000 mark. However, the majority of the regions the monkeys inhabit are endangered by encroachment and destruction, and hunting is also a major problem. Stone-like bezoars are sometimes found in the guts of these monkeys (this isn’t unique to Proboscis monkeys: bezoars are found in other Asian colobines as well) and are highly prized in (surprise surprise) traditional Chinese medicine.

A significant amount of Bornean waterside forest used by Proboscis monkeys was lost during the El Niño event of 1997-1998, and loss of habitat due to burning continues to represent a major cause of habitat loss, as does the conversion of forest to oil palm (and other crop) plantations. These and other causes of habitat loss mean that populations are becoming increasingly fragmented; the extinction of some populations has been documented (e.g., Meijaard & Nijman 1999) but it’s thought that others have gone without their loss being officially recognised (Sha et al. 2008).

It is hoped that ecotourism of the sort that has aided orangutan conservation on Borneo might assist in the preservation of the Proboscis monkey. The conversion of tropical Asian forest to oil palm plantation is a terrifying, escalating problem. We can help to do something about this by choosing not to buy products that contain palm oil, and by spreading awareness of its origin and environmental impact.

Proboscis monkeys in the water

Proboscis monkeys are amazing divers and swimmers. An entire group was once seen to leap into the water from a height of 16 m (Nowak 1999, p. 595). If you’re wondering what they need to leap from, clouded leopards are documented arboreal predators of Proboscis monkeys, even attacking and killing them during daylight hours (Matsuda et al. 2008).

Once in the water, Proboscis monkeys swim with a powerful and confident dog-paddle, but they can also dive and propel themselves for distance beneath the surface: underwater swims of up to 20 m have been recorded (Redmond 2008, p. 142). A lone male was once captured while swimming across the mouth of the Sabagaya River (where the river is about 400 m wide). The animal dived to avoid the boat that drew up alongside “and remained submerged so long that the occupants of the boat began to fear for its welfare” (Brandon-Jones 1996, p. 329).

In a frequently mentioned case from 1950, another lone male was seen far out in the South China Sea. He was misidentified by cruise ship passengers as a human, and a boat was lowered for assistance. The monkey climbed aboard the boat, rested for a while, but then jumped back into the sea and carried on its journey, destination unknown. This individual was photographed (two of those photos are shown above, from Michell & Rickard (1983)), and artistic reconstructions of the incident have occasionally featured in children’s books. The illustration at the top of this article is from the 1983 Mysteries & Marvels of the Animal World (Goaman & Amery 1983). In the illustration below from Maurice Burton’s Animal Oddities (Burton 1971), the animal in the water was clearly copied from one of those photos from 1950.

I know that the Proboscis monkey is hardly an ‘ordinary’ primate when we come to aquatic abilities, but it’s worth noting that the old idea that non-human primates are poor or incapable swimmers is proving increasingly inaccurate the more we learn. Swimming has now been reported in lemurs, macaques, mangabeys, guenons, baboons, swamp monkeys, gibbons, and orangutans. Chimps, bonobos and gorillas have all been photographed or filmed while wading. Feel free to add to this list if you know of other groups I’ve missed.

Bipedal wading Proboscis monkey, from Niemitz (2010).

Proboscis monkeys will also wade when in shallow water, holding their arms up and above the water, out to the sides. Slow bipedal walking on land has also been observed. If you know the literature on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis you may recall the suggestion that hominin bipedality may have originated via wading, a hypothesis resurrected by Niemitz (2010) within the context of the ‘Amphibian Generalist Theory’. It has also been intimated that the similarity between the projecting hominin nose and that of the Proboscis monkey may not be coincidental. It probably is coincidental. Firstly, it doesn’t seem that the Proboscis monkey’s nose is anything specifically to do with its use of mangroves and other waterside habitats – rather, the nose is a secondary sexual characteristic, and merely one among several unusual ‘display’ noses that evolved (in a terrestrial context) within the clade that the Proboscis monkey belongs to. We’ll come back to that issue in the next article. Secondly, we don’t have good evidence showing that early hominins went through the sort of ‘aquarboreal’ lifestyle that would be needed to explain convergent evolution with Proboscis monkeys.

More next – this time focusing on evolutionary history. You have been warned.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on primates, do check out…

Refs – -

Brandon-Jones, D. 1996. The Asian Colobinae (Mammalia: Cercopithecidae) as indicators of Quaternary climatic change. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 59, 327-350.

Burton, M. 1971. Animal Oddities: the Strangest Living Creatures. Odhams Books, London.

Goaman, K. & Amery, H. 1983. Mysteries & Marvels of the Animal World. Usborne, London.

Matsuda, I., Tuuga, A. & Higashi, S. 2008. Clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) predation on proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) in Sabah, Malaysia. Primates 49, 227-231.

Meijaard, E. & Nijman, V. 1999. The local extinction of the proboscis monkey Nasalis larvatus in Pulau Kaget Nature Reserve, Indonesia. Oryx 34, 66-70.

- . & Nijman, V. 2000. Distribution and conservation of the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Biological Conservation 92, 15-24.

Michell, J. & Rickard, R. J. M. 1983. Living Wonders: Mysteries and Curiosities of the Animal World. Thames & Hudson, London.

Niemitz, C. 2010. The evolution of the upright posture and gait—a review and a new synthesis. Naturwissenschaften 97, 241-263.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Redmond, I. 2008. The Primate Family Tree. Firefly Books, Buffalo.

Sha, J. C. M., Bernard, H. & Nathan, S. 2008. Status and conservation of Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) in Sabah, East Malaysia. Primate Conservation 23, 107-120.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 63 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Heteromeles 11:17 pm 11/29/2012

    Cool article! So are proboscis monkeys swimmers more by inclination than by anatomy? Aside from partially webbed hands, they don’t seem particularly adapted to the water.

    Link to this
  2. 2. vdinets 1:02 am 11/30/2012

    I had a chance to observe them and crab-eating macaques in the same habitat (Tajung Puting Nat’l Park), and was amazed to see that both species were excellent swimmers. But I never saw any of them dive for more than a few seconds, and it looked like they had difficulty remaining submerged.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Dartian 2:35 am 11/30/2012

    Darren:
    The penis is permanently erect

    Say what?!?

    Isn’t a permanently erect penis quite vulnerable to injury?

    If you’re wondering what they need to leap from, clouded leopards are documented arboreal predators of Proboscis monkeys

    On the other hand, it’s not always safe in the water either: the false gharial Tomistoma schlegelii is on record as a predator of male proboscis monkeys (Galdikas, 1985).

    Swimming has now been reported in lemurs, macaques, mangabeys, guenons, baboons, swamp monkeys, gibbons, and orangutans. Chimps, bonobos and gorillas have all been photographed or filmed while wading. Feel free to add to this list if you know of other groups I’ve missed.

    According to Chaves & Stoner (2010), spider monkeys certainly, and howler monkeys probably, sometimes swim across fairly large rivers.

    References:
    Chaves, Ó.M. & Stoner, K.E. 2010. River crossings by Ateles geoffroyi and Alouatta pigra in southern Mexico: a preliminary report. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 83, 435-442.

    Galdikas, B.M.F. 1985. Crocodile predation on a proboscis monkey in Borneo. Primates 26, 495-496.

    Link to this
  4. 4. naishd 4:16 am 11/30/2012

    Excellent comments, thanks indeed. Heteromeles – the Proboscis monkey is a really interesting enigma, in that it seems to be one of those animals where “anatomy is not destiny”. Obviously, it can swim and climb well, but it’s debatable as to whether it’s anatomically specialised for either habit. This issue forms the focus of the next article.

    Dartian: yes, a permanently erect penis is presumably a liability. Yet there it is. I haven’t checked, but I wonder if the monkey (or, rather, parts of it) is/are used as pretend aphrodisiacs by superstitious people. I was aware of false gharial predation – there is also a report of Saltwater croc predation on Proboscis monkeys, so it’s been proposed that they try and spend as little time in the water as possible (another point against AAH).

    And many thanks for the swimming spider and howler monkey reference – I had a look for swimming platyrrhine references and failed to find any.

    Darren

    Link to this
  5. 5. naishd 4:20 am 11/30/2012

    Incidentally, there are supposed to be some ethnic groups of our own species – I’m thinking of the San – where the penis is permanently at least semi-erect. However, I’ve only read about this in arcane sources and am unsure if it’s correct. Internet sources provide conflicting data.

    Darren

    Link to this
  6. 6. Dartian 4:28 am 11/30/2012

    Darren:
    I had a look for swimming platyrrhine references and failed to find any

    Here’s another one, this one confirming that howler monkeys do indeed swim sometimes:

    Gonzalez-Socoloske, D. & Snarr, K.A. 2010. An incident of swimming in a large river by a mantled howling
    monkey (Alouatta palliata) on the north coast of Honduras. Neotropical Primates 17, 28-31.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:25 am 11/30/2012

    I also read an account of a pet howler monkey (dunno species, owned by Swedish traveller Rolf Blomberg?) which often travelled by a boat with his owner and if motivated, swam to his companion. Maybe dislike of swimming among New World monkeys is more a fear of crocodiles than inability to do so?

    Link to this
  8. 8. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:32 am 11/30/2012

    BTW, note that the upper illustration is based on a living monkey or a photo of it. The lower, 1971 illustration is likely based on a museum specimen. It has matted, curled hair on the head and the tail is rather artificially wrapped around the branch. Just a small observation :)

    Link to this
  9. 9. farandfew 6:50 am 11/30/2012

    Darren:
    “The penis is permanently erect”
    Dartian:
    “Say what?!?”

    Yeah I didn’t know this either and, now I think about it, it seemed amazing that I didn’t. I did 10 weeks of masters research in Bornean forest; it was outside proboscis monkey habitat and I never saw one but still – other people did and talked about them. And the other week I saw a photo of a male proboscis monkey and thought ‘I have seen an awful lot of them with erections.’
    It’s hard to believe that this ignorance isn’t due to some prudishness – the penis of the monkey in that top illustration seems to have been blacked out – but then it does come from a black and white photo and maybe the illustrator didn’t know either.
    I did a google image search for proboscis monkey and douc langur and actually, it’s no easier to tell from those pics that doucs don’t always have erect penises than it is to tell that proboscis monkeys do – just because of the way the animals are sitting and the way people compose their photographs.
    Still, more of the douc pictures are of females, for obvious reasons…

    Link to this
  10. 10. Basandere 10:19 am 11/30/2012

    Okay, I’m not sure what this says about me, but… as interesting as *all* of this was, the thing I first had to go check was about the permanent erection.
    I’m pretty sure I located a picture of a non-erection: http://www.molon.de/galleries/Malaysia/Sabah/Labuk/img.php?pic=25
    The animal looks male, adult and healthy to me (non-biologist that I am). Any comments/ideas on this?

    Link to this
  11. 11. Hastley 10:24 am 11/30/2012

    With regards to the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, I’d actually suggest that the diversity of aquatic primates and the apparent frequency of their swimming and diving presents a serious difficulty for the idea.

    If plenty of primates engage in fairly frequent aquatic antics without the major morphological modifications AAH suggests, then aquatic adaptation probably only occurs in species swimming substantial more.

    IMHO, it ‘raises the bar’ – even (hypothetically) demonstrating that hominin ancestors swam occasionally clearly wouldn’t be enough to justify the supposed aquatic adaptations, or other primates would have the same traits. AAH proponents would need to demonstrate that hominin ancestors spent a large or even the majority of their time swimming to justify such morphological changes.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Heteromeles 10:31 am 11/30/2012

    On the side subject of aquatic primates, I wanted to throw in this little study of sea gypsy eye adaptations to underwater vision. The point here is that at least one primate with relatively few evolutionary/genetic aquatic adaptations to can still show adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle.

    As for the erect penis, one can also theorize that ancient Greeks generally had erect penises, based on many images on ancient vases. A sampling of images isn’t always good biology. Might I suggest that proboscis monkey erections are a sign of aggression, possibly due to the presence of humans taking pictures of them?

    Link to this
  13. 13. vdinets 9:02 pm 11/30/2012

    Darren: I’ve seen a few naked San males, and none had an erect penis.

    Hastley: the diversity of “aquatic” primates is, in fact, very limited. Proboscis and swamp monkeys feed in trees and spend only a tiny fraction of their time in the water. The closest thing to “aquatic” are some coastal populations of crab-eating macaque and some small-island populations of Japanese macaque (most, if not all, of the latter are recent introductions). It can be argued that both are too recent to show any morphological adaptations.

    Link to this
  14. 14. vdinets 9:15 pm 11/30/2012

    BTW, from watching crab-eating macaques I got an impression that they became more “aquatic” as they colonized the Sunda Archipelago. I had only a small number of observations, so it might be completely wrong. But those in eastern Java and Nusa Tenggara sometimes spend hours hunting for marine invertebrates at low tide; I’ve never seen those in Sumatra or Malaysia do that.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Hydrarchos 3:09 pm 12/1/2012

    There is an intriguing similarity between Nasalis and some Northern European depictions of trolls and similar folkloric creatures; google image search “Norwegian troll” to see some examples. I think some of these folkloric beings are, like Greek satyrs, depicted in earlier (pre-Christianisation) myths as having perpetually erect penises also.

    Way far out and probably ridiculous theory: could the proboscis of the proboscis monkey be some kind of protective mimicry of (presumably much more dangerous to potential predators due to tool use, pack hunting, intelligence, etc.) erectus/floresiensis type hominids?

    Link to this
  16. 16. Heteromeles 4:36 pm 12/1/2012

    Or, contrariwise, could the noses of certain human populations be the result of sexual selection among that populations?

    Although it is likely to get someone in all sorts of trouble, it should be possible to study sexual selection of secondary sexual traits in both human sexes. Male pattern baldness would be probably the least objectionable of most of those studies…

    Link to this
  17. 17. vdinets 8:52 pm 12/1/2012

    Hydrarchos: is there any evidence of early hominid presence on Borneo?

    I have a far more plausible theory: perhaps Nasalis once had a range similar to that of Rafetus softshells, with a second species found in the riparian woodlands of Mesopotamia (later destroyed by the Babylonians). The ancestral Indoeuropean tribes were familiar with this second species, having seen it during trade or military incursions south from their Anatolian homeland, and that memory persists in legends of trolls and other big-nosed monsters.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Ausktribosphenos 12:53 pm 12/2/2012

    It’s so angering to see the dark shadow of Chinese traditional “medicine” cast over so many amazing species. If only you could take away modern medical techniques from China, people would quickly see how “effective” this collective sugar pill is.

    Anyway, back to the proboscis monkeys, my question is how can false ghavials prey on them considering their snouts do not appear to be fashioned to devour large bodied animals?

    Link to this
  19. 19. Hydrarchos 3:58 pm 12/2/2012

    “Or, contrariwise, could the noses of certain human populations be the result of sexual selection among that populations?”

    Now that’s actually an idea worth taking seriously. Although… a lot of old popular illustrations of Neanderthals (in children’s books, newspaper cartoons and so on) showed them with a huge, [i]Nasalis[/i]-like nose, which is interesting in light of the theory that legends of trolls and the like are based on “folk memory” of modern humans’ encounters with extinct hominids. And the modern humans with the longest and pointiest noses come from the areas (Europe and the Middle East) where modern humans are known to have coexisted with Neanderthals…

    [i]Nasalis[/i] having lived in Mesopotamia could make some sense too. It’s just a really interesting coincidence that it looks so much like a human-drawn caricature of “extreme” human features…

    Link to this
  20. 20. vdinets 4:17 pm 12/2/2012

    Ausktribosphenos: the snouts of false gharials are less slender than those of true gharials. Recently, a tourist (a large Caucasian male, as far as I know) was killed by a false gharial in Kalimantan. Of course, saltwater crocs are much more dangerous for humans and likely for monkeys.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Heteromeles 9:39 pm 12/2/2012

    @Hydrarchos: Ummm, no. Japanese and Koreans, who generally have very short noses, have about as much neanderthal DNA as europeans. Moreover, one could more readily find veiled antisemitism in the description of trolls. There’s no reason to invoke hypothetical neanderthals.

    This is fascinating: biologists can’t talk bout boobs, or even contemplate the idea that female humans may be under sexual selection by male humans for increased mammary size as a signal of reproductive fitness. No matter that breast enhancement is one of the most common cosmetic procedures on the planet, we persist in arguing about the functional properties of human breasts.

    Let’s see, a sexual selection argument. How about three?
    –Breast size correlates with reproductive fitness in human females, because breast size correlates with hormonal and nutritional status.
    –Breast size served as a direct fitness signal when humans were endurance hunters (yes, I’m pushing you’re buttons). Today, women runners routinely complain about how much bouncing breasts hurt and how inadequate bras are even today. Back in the day, the big-breasted woman who could run down rabbits (or antelope!) would have been a mighty hunter indeed. Perhaps big breasts only evolved when humans started using traps and ranged weapons?
    –Or one could be more devious, and posit that big breasted women have a proportional advantage into getting males to provision them with additional food, thereby increasing their reproductive fitness in proportion to their busts. This is a form of sexual selection as well, as it both advertises and promotes reproductive fitness.

    Alas, even talking about human sexual selection violates all sorts of unspoken taboos amongst biologists. We’re perfectly comfortably talking about how monkeys may have permanent erections, but bring up the idea that something as blatant as a breast is under sexual selection and, wow, we’re not going to touch that one, thank you very much. Leave that for the gossip rags and Dr. Ruth. Yeah.

    Perhaps biology isn’t as free of old-fashioned social norms as one might assume?

    Link to this
  22. 22. Dartian 3:25 am 12/3/2012

    Hydrarchos:
    could the proboscis of the proboscis monkey be some kind of protective mimicry

    Do big cats and other predators even pay attention to such things as the size of the nose of their prey? For intimidating predators, enlarged canine teeth would presumably be a far more effective solution.

    And if you successfully want to physically mimic a human or an early hominin, you should probably first and foremost mimic the most obvious human/hominin physical characteristics: an upright posture and bipedal locomotion. Which, AFAIK, proboscis monkeys don’t do, at least not to any significantly greater extent than other colobine monkeys do.

    the theory that legends of trolls and the like are based on “folk memory” of modern humans’ encounters with extinct hominids

    It’s not really a theory. It’s hardly even a hypothesis. It’s more accurate to call it speculation, as it’s unfalsifiable. We simply have no way of independently testing if information of this kind really can be passed on for tens of thousands of years.

    the modern humans with the longest and pointiest noses come from the areas (Europe and the Middle East) where modern humans are known to have coexisted with Neanderthals

    But, as Heteromeles pointed out, East Asians (and, indeed, all non-sub-Saharan Africans) have ‘Neanderthal genes’ too.

    [i]Nasalis[/i] having lived in Mesopotamia could make some sense too

    From a bio- or a phylogeographical point of view, no, not really. In the Holocene, there have been no suitable habitats in that region for such an extreme tropical rainforest specialist as Nasalis.

    Heteromeles:
    We’re perfectly comfortably talking about how monkeys may have permanent erections

    In the present company, perhaps, but as Farandfew’s comment #9 suggested, that curious little detail about their penises is rather downplayed (and frequently not mentioned at all) in most biological texts on proboscis monkeys. A certain prudishness on matters relating to sexual behaviour certainly seems to extend to non-human species too. ;)

    Link to this
  23. 23. naishd 4:58 am 12/3/2012

    Breast size and sexual selection: I’m no expert, but I thought that there was quite a bit of appropriate scholarly interest in this area (am recalling several discussions I’ve had with biologists on this subject). Google reveals the following relevant studies for starters…

    Dixson, B. J., Grimshaw, G. M., Linklater, W. L., Dixson, A. F. 2011. Eye tracking of men’s preferences for female breast size and areola pigmentation. Archives of Sexual Behavior 40, 51-58.

    Moller, A. P., Soler, M. & Thornhill, R. 1995. Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success. Ethology and Sociobiology 16, 207-219.

    … with lots more out there if you’re interested. We are weird, but I’m not sure we’re >that< weird compared to other primates.

    Darren

    Link to this
  24. 24. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:02 am 12/3/2012

    I think pictures of trolls with big noses are only a trend in modern illustrations.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Hydrarchos 9:10 am 12/3/2012

    Hey, I’m totally cool with every idea I throw out here turning out to be nonsense… and yes, I was grossly misusing the word “theory”. I’m a sociologist with a side interest in matters Fortean/cryptozoological/speculatvely anthropological, and actually got here via SV-POW!, which I found by looking for stuff about open-access publishing, and coincidentlly managed to reawaken m childhood paleontology geekery… so that’s a really long-winded way of saying “totally not a biologist”. I’m interested in whether these kind of evolutionary folk-myth type ideas are scientifically plausible or not, without having much of a clue whether they actually are scientifically plausible…

    (Whether there is anything to the idea that caricatures of Jews have anything to do with long-nosed depictions of trolls depends on their recency. I have eastern European Jewish ancestry, and AFAIK the Jewish diaspora hardly reached the Nordic countries at all until well after they were Christianised, and is still pretty small there. But, as Jerzy says, long-nosed trolls might be something going back only to modern attempts to “revive” Nordic myth, in which case that is a plausible theory, especially given Wagner…)

    Apologies for being massively off-topic…

    Link to this
  26. 26. David Marjanović 10:47 am 12/3/2012

    why, and how, this permanent tumescence is present remains unanswered, so far as I know

    The “how” should be much easier and much less unhealthy than in humans, given the penis bone. They do have one, don’t they?

    This is fascinating: biologists can’t talk bout boobs, or even contemplate the idea that female humans may be under sexual selection by male humans for increased mammary size as a signal of reproductive fitness.

    Huh. I thought it was general consensus that human boobs are unusually, and indeed dysfunctionally*, large because of sexual selection.

    Whether that selection is still directional or has changed to stabilizing is a different question, and one where we get into issues of culture and fashion.

    * Apart from running, they’re too bulbous for easy suckling; many mothers, I read, have to press theirs down with two fingers to make the nipples fully accessible.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Heteromeles 11:30 am 12/3/2012

    Cool! I’m glad that I’ve been in a backwater and missed the discussion about breasts being under sexual selection. That restores my faith in other schools, actually. Since different cultures have different preferences for breast size and shape, it’s an excellent signal, and one that (until very recently) was under divergent selection.

    Out of my abysmal ignorance, how many cases in other species are out there of male sexual selection on female morphology? It doesn’t strike me as being that common.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Halbred 8:03 pm 12/3/2012

    Hell, I love theorizing about breasts. I wrote a series of posts about them WAY back in the day on my old (now basically dead) blog. But the breast question brings up another issue for me: there ARE taboo subjects in science regarding humans. For example, is it possible that, back when different populations of H. sapiens were more geographically isolated, that the familiar soft-tissue differences between “races” (sorry to use that loaded term)–which doubtlessly evolved quickly and in relative isolation–resulted in genetic differences large enough to suggest taxonomic separation at the subspecies level?
    I mean, look at bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are different subspecies of the same species, and their only real difference is size and location. There are over a dozen subspecies of American black bears based on size, location, and (to some extent) proportions.
    Given our species’ unfortunate loaded past regarding racial tension and discrimination, I can see why anybody would be nervous about bringing up modern human taxonomy (and maybe I’ve just missed it) but it’s a perfectly valid area of research. Right?

    Link to this
  29. 29. vdinets 6:40 am 12/4/2012

    Halbred: yes, you are right. That’s why information on those differences is so difficult to find, and so many rumors circulate. Even on this blog, my attempt to discuss the subject of human subspecies a few months ago has instantly lead to personal attacks. Political correctness has eaten its way into the brains of many scientists…

    Link to this
  30. 30. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:47 am 12/4/2012

    “Out of my abysmal ignorance, how many cases in other species are out there of male sexual selection on female morphology?”

    Pretty common for a female to signal her receptive status. Think swollen butts of chimps etc. The body of human female is unusual in that it appears permanently receptive but hides real fertile phase (probably to solicit constant care from males).

    Link to this
  31. 31. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:07 am 12/4/2012

    This leads to the most interesting creature undescribed by science, the Darwinian Blonde-eating Crocodile.

    In scientific (actually poor scientific) discussion, one often hears that certain traits in humans give increased reproductive success to individuals having them. Often named examples include higher intelligence, male’s large musculature, female’s large breasts or blond hair. However, quick calculation shows that if the constant difference in reproductive success objectively existed (or at least would be high enough to be visible in one generation) such a human trait would rise in frequency to almost 100% in just a few centuries. Because blondies are more attractive as partners, but brunettes still exist, there must be something counteracting the natural selection: the unknown Darwinian Blonde-eating Crocodile.

    If one of you is now teaching a biology course, you can give it to students to discover where is a flaw in this reasoning. There are several. ;)

    Link to this
  32. 32. vdinets 8:18 am 12/4/2012

    Jerzy: the blond gene is supposedly a recent mutation, and it is rapidly spreading from Scandinavian point of origin. In northern Russia, Slavic population has changed from being dark-haired to almost 100% blond in just 800 years (900 to 1700).

    Link to this
  33. 33. efulwood@utk.edu 11:56 am 12/4/2012

    The hypothesis that large human breasts are a result of sexual selection is certainly intuitively appealing, and I wouldn’t suggest it’s definitely incorrect. However, ethnographically, in most cultures breasts aren’t explicitly sexualized, they aren’t fondled during sex, and men don’t report them to be especially sexually attractive. Think about any traditional society in tropical climates where women generally go bare-breasted. The men aren’t going around sexually stimulated all day because in most of those cultures they don’t see female breasts as sexual objects. Presumably that’s how our early African ancestors would have lived, so it presents a real problem for any model that proposes that breast size was increasing in Homo primarily due to male judgement.

    Might I propose another explanation, also linked to reproduction? Breasts are a convenient area for fat storage. Humans are distinguished generally by their generous subcutaneous fat deposits, and women more than men, probably related to the energy requirements of pregnancy and lactation. Women with larger breasts could store more fat more efficiently, and thus were more fecund. If men keyed into this and selectively reproduced with larger breasted women, that’s a secondary effect. The primary selection mechanism is simply the impact of improved fat storage on fecundity.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Heteromeles 3:10 pm 12/4/2012

    @Jerzy: My understanding of sexual selection is that a) another sex selects it, and b) it’s non-functional for the individual carrying it, even detrimental (think peacock’s tail). Therefore, the possession of a sexually selected structure is a demonstration of the fitness of that individual, and presumably its reproductive fitness.

    Under these criteria, it’s not clear that secondary sexual swellings are sexually selected (at least to me–are they a movement impediment?). They signal sexual readiness, but are they as extravagant and useless as a peacock’s tail, or are they simply a signal of sexual readiness?

    Conversely, I’ve heard complaints from enough large-breasted women that I can believe they are impediments (permanent back aches and inability to run fast can be real problems). That’s why I suggest breasts are sexually selected.

    However, humans being the communication-freaks that we are, breasts as signals are complicated and culturally influenced. Breasts are wonderful signals in this regard, because they change shape radically over the course of a woman’s reproductive lifespan. There is also the potential for divergent selection: The men of some groups who prefer virginal breasts, perhaps because men who mate with such women are not going to be cuckolded or support another man’s progeny. In other cultures, men reportedly prefer floppy breasts, because they want to partner with women who have nursed a child, especially in areas with high child and maternal mortality. In other groups, breasts don’t matter. Thing is, breasts are such an extravagant, changeable, and potentially expensive structure that it’s reasonable to suggest they are under sexual selection in Darwin’s original sense. I don’t think they are under *unified* selection, and that’s one issue that may support a diversity of human appearances across the world.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Margaret Pye 7:53 pm 12/4/2012

    “However, ethnographically, in most cultures breasts aren’t explicitly sexualized, they aren’t fondled during sex, and men don’t report them to be especially sexually attractive. Think about any traditional society in tropical climates where women generally go bare-breasted. The men aren’t going around sexually stimulated all day because in most of those cultures they don’t see female breasts as sexual objects.”

    Does that necessarily imply that they’re not objects of sexual selection, though? Practically nobody thinks of a human face as an explicitly sexual object, bothers to cover it, or is constantly sexually stimulated by the sight of attractive ones, but facial variations make enough difference to mating success that they must be under huge sexual selection – and while there’s a lot of cultural and individual preference variation, I understand there’s a few things appreciated by most people in all cultures (large eyes, strong jawlines for men…)

    I confess, I’ve never had much to do with any culture where women habitually walk round topless. But in theses cultures, are the men actually /ignoring/ all the bare breasts? Or are they taking a quick glance, thinking “yeah, pretty” in the same way they’d appreciate the woman’s eyes or hair, and then not paying much attention because while it’s a nice view, they can see it any time they want to?

    And I don’t think the fat storage explanation works (not unless you yoke it to the sexual display explanation, as in “breasts evolved as an obvious display that the woman has spare adipose tissue.”) First, a healthy woman is 15-30% fat by weight, and her breasts are a tiny proportion of that. Second – why would fat be better stored in two annoying wobbly lumps, than smoothly distributed over the body (as it mostly is) or, if that caused thermoregulation issues, stored mostly on the hips and thighs where it won’t flop about?

    Re the inconvenience of breasts: I’ve always had the impression that back pain due to excessive breast size is mostly a First World issue, related to lack of exercise, weak back muscles, and usually to excessive adipose tissue in general (I’ve helped out with a few breast reductions, and while there were a few normal-weight women who’d just been unlucky, most of the patients were overweight). I could be wrong there, though.

    Link to this
  36. 36. Halbred 8:04 pm 12/4/2012

    It would actually be informative to do some kind of study figuring out the average breast size of women in various countries and, separately, asking men (and women, why not?) what physical features they found most sexually desirable in women. Although there are probably lots of variables, I’d guess that if large breasts occur in areas where large breasts are a highly desirable trait, that’s pretty correlative.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Halbred 8:06 pm 12/4/2012

    In terms of sexually selected, that is.

    Link to this
  38. 38. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:57 am 12/5/2012

    Heteromeles:
    I think genital swellings in monkeys and apes are at least an impediment when moving in dense vegetation.

    You pretty much nailed all problems with finding evolution/selection in modern humans: chaacters chaning on non-hederitary basis, rapidly changing cultural preferences between times and cultures, the last thing is alternative strategies (different men find different women attractive).

    It is possible that in humans we find double sexual selection where each sex selects another basing on different characteristics.

    BTW, I wonder if skeletons of hominids allow to find where in human ancestry appeared enlarged breasts of females and other soft-tissue characteristics.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Heteromeles 11:08 am 12/5/2012

    @Jerzy: This is another place it gets weird, because there’s no particular reason culture shouldn’t play a huge role in selection.

    Divergent selection isn’t a particular problem, either. For example, males of different lion populations have very different manes, but that doesn’t mean that lion manes as a whole aren’t under sexual selection.

    That said, proving human breasts were under sexual selection would be tricky, except in the trivial case of polling modern women to find out if big-breasted women get more dates in modern America or the UK (with all those terms defined in some scientifically defensible way). Translating that into demonstrating that big-breasted American or British women having more children is another issue (and controlling for things like income level, religion, and diet is a non-trivial challenge), while demonstrating that breast size is heritable is an even bigger challenge. The best evidence we conceivably have is photographs, and those only go back to the 1860s in a few places.

    The bigger problem is that any sexual selection signal is dwarfed by things like social norms, societal decrees (for example, China’s one child policy), religion, and various reproductive technologies. Doing the study is even more awkward, especially for a male researcher.

    Now that the thread is totally derailed off of proboscis monkeys, the basic point is that humans were no more or less likely to be subject to sexual selection than other primate species. Demonstrating that may be difficult to impossible, but that doesn’t make it any less possible.

    Link to this
  40. 40. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:11 pm 12/5/2012

    ” This is another place it gets weird, because there’s no particular reason culture shouldn’t play a huge role in selection. ”

    Of course pays a role. I meant that human culture is changing quickly, so any cultural ideal will not get fixed in biology. Think today’s anorectic supermodels vs. Rubens fat models. So-called primitive cultures also change rapidly.

    More interesting question is why would human culture ever evolve strongly against human biology? For example, non-controversial case of human behavior which is biologically based and instinctive is our fear of darkness. So humans occasionally work or party at night, but no human society anywhere is more active at night than at daytime.

    Link to this
  41. 41. David Marjanović 8:25 pm 12/5/2012

    For example, is it possible that, back when different populations of H. sapiens were more geographically isolated

    Was that ever the case? All research suggests it wasn’t.

    Then add to this the fact that, because of the Toba bottleneck some 70,000 years ago, all 7 billion humans together have less genetic diversity than one gang of 55 chimpanzees.

    This leads to the most interesting creature undescribed by science, the Darwinian Blonde-eating Crocodile.

    Thread won.

    In northern Russia, Slavic population has changed from being dark-haired to almost 100% blond in just 800 years (900 to 1700).

    Wow. What’s the evidence for this? (How well is it known what people in northern Russia looked like in 900?)

    And if it’s true, how much of it is in fact due to sexual selection* and how much just goes with reduced melanin production –> lighter skin –> more vitamin D3?

    * Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t seem to have a preference for any hair colour. But then, I’m definitely not a gentleman. :-þ

    Link to this
  42. 42. vdinets 9:05 pm 12/5/2012

    David: there are travellers’ reports and old icons. Besides, ancestral Slavs were dark-haired (and still are in the southern part of Slavic range). It appears that blond gene was introduced to Northern Russia by Norse traders. In Ukraine, dark hair was the norm until the 19th century, and still is in remote villages in the southwest, but in northern and eastern parts blondes are now the majority. I suspect, however, that the spread of blond gene in Ukraine has now somewhat slowed down as blondes are more successful in getting foreigners to pay for their emigration.

    Margaret: You are right. Once I was lucky to live for a couple weeks in a tribal area of Peru where people were mostly walking around naked. Local women still had sensitive breasts, enjoyed having them fondled and expected men to do that in appropriate situations. Linguistic barrier prevented me from complex conversations with male members of the tribe, but I know than in parts of Africa where women prefer to go topless, men still find female breasts attractive and discuss them a lot. They are just less obsessed with breasts than, say, men of certain social strata in the US.

    Link to this
  43. 43. Andreas Johansson 2:31 am 12/6/2012

    Re blondes, is there a single “blond gene”? There’s a seemingly continuous variation of hair colours from really dark to the lightest blond, doesn’t that suggest multiple genes are involved?

    Also, vdinets, when you say blond people are the majority in parts of the Ukraine, how much of that continuum do you count as blond? I’d say blondes are a minority among Scandinavian women, but then I’m aware many southern Europeans’ definitions of “blonde” overlaps with mine of “dark brunette”.

    Link to this
  44. 44. vdinets 7:51 am 12/6/2012

    Andreas: apparently, there are two mutations resulting in blond hair, one European, one in the Solomon Islands. Wiki has some info on both (sorry, can’t provide any links due to slow internet – look up “human hair color” and “blond”). There are said to be two genes, both with incomplete dominance.

    Link to this
  45. 45. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:36 pm 12/6/2012

    @vdinets
    Quick look at Wikipedia – blonde people are found worldwide, not only in N Europe and Solomons. Origin of hair color mutations elsewhere in the world is apparently not investigated.

    Link to this
  46. 46. Dartian 6:23 am 12/7/2012

    can’t provide any links due to slow internet

    Is this a 21st century version of ‘The dog ate my homework’?

    As for ancestral distribution of blond hair in Europe/Eurasia, ancient DNA studies have shown that there were light-haired, blue-eyed people living in southern Siberia already 2,000 years ago (Keyser et al., 2009). Thus, there were people with blond hair living in present-day Russia long before any Viking/Norsemen intrusions.

    And, of course, not all Scandinavians are blond-haired anyway. In Iceland, which population-phenotypics-wise might be the closest thing we have today to the ‘ancestral’ Scandinavians, the percentage of blond-haired people is less than 80%; that’s high, but it’s not 100%. (For example Björk, who is probably the internationally most famous native Icelander, has brown eyes and very dark hair.)

    Reference:
    Keyser, C., Bouakaze, C., Crubézy E., Nikolaev, V.G., Montagnon, D., Reis, T. & Ludes, B. 2009. Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people. Human Genetics 126, 395-410.

    Link to this
  47. 47. Andreas Johansson 7:49 am 12/7/2012

    In Iceland, which population-phenotypics-wise might be the closest thing we have today to the ‘ancestral’ Scandinavians

    Isn’t early Iceland supposed to have had a big Irish influx?

    Link to this
  48. 48. Dartian 12:22 pm 12/7/2012

    Andreas:
    Isn’t early Iceland supposed to have had a big Irish influx?

    Apparently, yes, but note that I did say “phenotypics-wise” (as opposed to “genetically”) and “might”.

    Link to this
  49. 49. vdinets 5:55 pm 12/7/2012

    Jerzy: that’s from a quick look. Keep reading :-)

    Dartian: I provided the titles for Wiki articles. Is it really that difficult to find them yourself? I am in the field 4 days a week, and the internet there is really slow sometimes.

    Yes, there were blond people is S Siberia 2000 years ago; it is believed that they could be the ancestors of light-haired people reported by early travelers in the valleys of the extreme NE of the Tibetan Plateau. I think the latest reports were from the 19th century. But that phenotype apparently didn’t survive anywhere in the region to our time.

    And, of course, that area of S Siberia has nothing to do with ethnic Russians, who didn’t colonize it until the 18th century.

    Link to this
  50. 50. Dartian 2:15 am 12/8/2012

    I provided the titles for Wiki articles.

    Strictly speaking you didn’t do that, but what’s more relevant here is that: 1) this is a science blog, 2) we are discussing scientific matters, and 3) specific scientific claims should be backed up by references to primary sources whenever possible. Meaning, in this case, that instead of referring to the Wikipedia article on blond hair colour distribution you should cite directly the research papers that the Wikipedia article is based on. At the end of the day, we would all here (I hope!) rather deal with verifiable facts than with unsupported claims or personal opinions.

    Is it really that difficult to find them yourself?

    Is that how you reply to referees when you submit manuscripts for peer review and they ask you to back up your claims with literature citations? By telling them to do the work for you? The burden of proof is always on the one who is making the claim! That applies on this blog too.

    I am in the field 4 days a week, and the internet there is really slow sometimes.

    The one that I’m currently writing included, this Tet Zoo thread has 50 comments. 10 of them are by you. That’s 1 in 5. And that’s not taking into account that there are several other recently/currently active Tet Zoo threads that you’ve participated in. To outside observers, your internet connection would seem to be working just fine.

    that area of S Siberia has nothing to do with ethnic Russians, who didn’t colonize it until the 18th century

    And how do you know that colonisation didn’t happen in the other direction? That the so-called ‘blond gene’ didn’t enter the Slavic/Russian population from the east (rather than from the west, with Scandinavians)?

    Link to this
  51. 51. vdinets 5:08 pm 12/10/2012

    Dartian,

    There is a difference between a scientific blog and a scientific paper. A Wikipedia article is often a nice overview of a subject, and an excellent way to familiarize oneself with a topic before diving into primary literature. Thus, I personally think that referring people to Wiki articles is often preferable to providing links to primary sources (many of which might not be immediately available, written in technical lingo, and/or lengthy). After using Wiki article as an introduction, people can then decide for themselves whether they want to follow the links to primary sources, or be content with the Wiki article. Of course, this is only true when the person you provide links to is not already familiar with the subject, so, for example, I wouldn’t recommend the Dinosaur article in Wiki to anyone here :-)

    More importantly, this is Darren’s blog, and it’s up to him to decide on the standards. Since other people have mentioned Wiki articles before and he didn’t say anything (at least in public), I assumed that he didn’t mind.

    I wouldn’t call typing a word into Wiki search field and clicking Enter key a burden, but, of course, that’s also a matter of personal criteria.

    The thing is, I often make a comment here while in the city, and then have to follow the discussion while in the field. Sorry about that.

    As for the direction of blond gene spreading, it is pretty obvious, because the proportion of blondes grows from SE to NW, not the other way around. Slavic population in villages near Lake Onega and along the border with Estonia is almost totally blond, which is not the case elsewhere (even in areas like SW Ukraine and Kama Valley which were not under Mongol or Turk influence).

    Link to this
  52. 52. David Marjanović 10:16 pm 12/10/2012

    David: there are travellers’ reports and old icons. Besides, ancestral Slavs were dark-haired (and still are in the southern part of Slavic range). It appears that blond gene was introduced to Northern Russia by Norse traders.

    Icons are definitely not representative. I have no idea how you know the hair color(s) of the ancestral Slavs; the population of most of the Slavic range, including northern Russia (indeed including Novgorod and Moscow), is in a large part descended from the populations that lived there before the influx of Slavic peoples and languages; and I’d be surprised if the genes for being blond managed to stay confined to Scandinavia for millennia: the Romans reported blond Celts, they reported “white-haired” Germanic children from what is now western Germany – and given the fact that the blond people of southern Siberia are thought to have spoken an ancestor of Tokharian (a member of Indo-European), they probably shared blond ancestors with blond western Europeans.

    How common are blond people in the Caucasus?

    Wikipedia articles usually have intuitive addresses, so you don’t even need to search, you can just type the putative address into the address bar of your browser. Many articles have several addresses, all except one of which are redirects.

    Link to this
  53. 53. vdinets 12:00 am 12/11/2012

    David: I don’t know that for sure, of course, but the ancestral range of Slavic people was in Danube River basin; that’s also where most of their linguistic diversity is concentrated. People there are virtually never blond.

    If the Tokharian people shared blond ancestors with western Europeans, than most Indoeuropeans would be blond, which is clearly not the case. Note that the Romans and the Greeks described Germans, Celts and Scythians as often being often light-haired; however, they probably didn’t mean “blond” in today’s sense, because the Ossetians, who are the living descendants of the Scythians, often have reddish hair but virtually never blond.

    Except for Ossetians, Talysh people (who are also sometimes red-haired) and recent Slavic immigrants, people in the Caucasus are virtually always dark-haired. Russian racists usually call immigrants from the Caucasus “black” for that very reason.

    Link to this
  54. 54. Dartian 5:32 am 12/11/2012

    Vladimir:
    There is a difference between a scientific blog and a scientific paper.

    Note that we are actually not having this discussion on a blog – we are rather having it on the blog’s comments thread. The reason why the commenting option exists in the first place is that people can make comments and, ideally, discuss. Having a discussion, in turn, obviously implies that information is exchanged between those participating in it; it’s basic discussion etiquette. Like this:

    Person A: X originally came from Y.
    Person B: Really? I thought X came from Z. What do you base your claim on?
    A: On a recent study that showed that X do indeed come from Y. Here’s a link to the reference.
    B: Cool, thanks!

    Not like this:

    A: X originally came from Y.
    B: Really? I thought X came from Z. What do you base your claim on?
    A: I don’t have the time to tell you that. Go look it up yourself in Wikipedia or something. Gotta run! Bye!
    B: [Shakes head and/or rolls eyes]

    See the difference? It doesn’t matter that this is ‘just’ a blog. You still can’t make bold statements and then refuse to properly back them up when someone asks you to. Or, you can, but then you also have nobody but yourself to blame if people get frustrated or even annoyed at you.

    other people have mentioned Wiki articles before and he didn’t say anything (at least in public), I assumed that he didn’t mind

    I have occasionally cited Wikipedia articles, too. Wikipedia is a fine resource for getting information about general subjects. But it’s much less good for obtaining more specific information. You very often make claims here on Tet Zoo upon which Wikipedia sheds little light, or no light at all. For example, just to take two examples, you have here claimed matter-of-factly that 1) ancestral Slavs were dark-haired (comment #42), and that 2) people in “northern Russia” are “almost 100% blond” (comment #32). Wikipedia is not very helpful if one wants to assess the correctness of those two statements. So, what is the evidence that they are based on? Regarding 1), when David asked you earlier about it you said something about old travellers’ tales and icons. Why should we think that these are demographically representative? As for 2), you need to be a lot more precise regarding what you mean by “northern Russia” (All of it? Or just some tiny isolated parts of NR?), “almost 100%”, and “blond”.

    If the Tokharian people shared blond ancestors with western Europeans, than most Indoeuropeans would be blond

    Is that how human hair colour genetic inheritance works?

    Link to this
  55. 55. vdinets 9:53 am 12/11/2012

    Dartian: In this particular case we are talking about a scientific area that is not part of zoology; besides, from Andreas’ comments it seemed to me that he was not familiar with it. So it was reasonable for me to recommend a couple of Wiki articles as an introduction to the subject. If we were two researchers working in human genetics trying to argue about something, your point would be applicable. In this situation, there was no argument and the area was outside our expertize; I just wanted to share something I have read and Andreas apparently hasn’t. I am not an anthropologist and I am not trying to defend my own point of view here because I don’t have one. I am just trying to explain the logic behind a theory I’ve read about. There was no point trying to impress Andreas with links to primary sources that would take ten times longer to wade through. Note that Andreas didn’t complain; you did.

    Old travelers’ reports and icons might or might not be demographically representative, but they are the only evidence we have; besides, there is no reason to suspect that they are biased. As for the prevalence of blondes in NW Russia today, it is very obvious to any visitor to the area; even people from Central Russia (myself included) find it really striking. I have no idea if there are any scientific papers on that. I don’t know if you can find primary sources for the fact that most people in Kenya are dark-skinned, either.

    I agree, I should have been more precise about “northern Russia”. When people in Russia talk about “Russian North”, they usually mean the northern part of the area that had been settled by Russians in pre-Mongol times. So “Russian North” includes the lands around the White Sea and Lake Onega; sometimes it is used in broader sense and includes Vologda, Pskov and Novgorod. Sorry about not explaining that.

    Tokharians were at the far eastern end of Indoeuropean range; Scandinavians were at the far NW end. If we postulate that ancestral IEs were blond, it would suggest that all IEs except those on the opposite sides of the range have undergone a reversion back to dark hair. This doesn’t seem very parsimonious to me. Note that Armenians, who linguistically are one of the earliest splits from IE tree and live close to the IE point of origin (currently believed to be in modern-day Turkey, if I am not mistaken) are dark-haired. If you look at IE range today, you find a few pockets where red hair occurs (Ossetia, Talysh, Pamir Mountains, a few places in Northern Pakistan, etc.) but no blondes except in NW Europe.

    Link to this
  56. 56. David Marjanović 4:13 pm 12/11/2012

    (Do I have to log in anew every day now?)

    the ancestral range of Slavic people was in Danube River basin

    I thought the Pripyat swamps in west-central Ukraine???

    (And with the Baltic and the Slavic languages being sister-groups, successively more northwestern areas may be assumed for where successively older ancestors of Proto-Slavic were spoken.)

    If the Tokharian people shared blond ancestors with western Europeans, than most Indoeuropeans would be blond

    No, this would just mean that the trait existed in that population.

    Aren’t various Greek heroes described as blond?

    people in the Caucasus are virtually always dark-haired. Russian racists usually call immigrants from the Caucasus “black” for that very reason.

    Thanks, I didn’t know that was the reason.

    the IE point of origin (currently believed to be in modern-day Turkey, if I am not mistaken)

    That’s what 2 out of 3 hypotheses say; but the third, which puts it north of the Caucasus in the steppe, is still the one with the most supporters – at least outside of Russia; one of the hypotheses that put it south of the Caucasus was pioneered by a Russian and a Georgian.

    As far as I can tell, which isn’t terribly far, the evidence is equivocal, and different people may mean different things by “Proto-Indo-European” – it’s possible, AFAIK, that the last common ancestor of most or all extant IE languages was spoken north of the Caucasus/Black Sea while the last common ancestor of all IE languages including the Tokharian and Anatolian ones was spoken on the south side.

    no blondes except in NW Europe

    If you include at a minimum Austria and northern Italy in “NW Europe”. Blondes are rare there, but by no means absent.

    (Now, red hair is really rare in those places; mine comes from southern Serbia or thereabouts.)

    Link to this
  57. 57. vdinets 6:32 pm 12/11/2012

    David,

    I’ve never heard the Pripyat theory :-) Some people point to the area between the N part of Danube Basin and the lower Dnepr as having the largest concentration of Slavic river names; Pripyat is a bit outside this area (see map at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Slavic_distribution_origin.png; sorry for another Wiki reference).

    I don’t think they were spreading from N to S, because at the N fringe there was little linguistic diversity (just Polish and Russian). Also, Slavic languages have a lot in common with languages of N India. But that’s all highly speculative and likely oversimplistic. There were probably dozens of migration events that we don’t have any evidence of.

    Interestingly, the Russian Primary Chronicle puts the point of origin of Russian people into the area of Dnepr headwaters (Valdai Highlands, apparently), indicating that everything N and E from there was colonized later.

    Are Greek heroes described as blond? Brad Pitt in Troy and Gabriele in Xena the Warrior Princess are the only ones I can remember. But I never had classic education :-(

    OK, there are blondes in Central Europe today, but the “recent Scandinavian or Baltic origin theory” I’m talking about claims that this is a recent thing. There are a few blondes in Italian Renaissance art, including the most famous blonde ever painted. I guess it could be a result of Germanic invasions.

    I don’t think this theory has been proven beyond reasonable doubt, but I find it plausible, and haven’t seen any good evidence to the contrary.

    Link to this
  58. 58. Dartian 4:36 am 12/12/2012

    Vladimir:
    primary sources that would take ten times longer to wade through

    Pfft. “Wading through” primary sources is what scientists are supposed to do.

    As for the prevalence of blondes in NW Russia today, it is very obvious to any visitor to the area

    I know that there are many blond people in northern Russia; I have seen a great number of them myself. But now you are trying to shift the goalposts: you didn’t speak of mere “prevalence” of blondes before – you said that the proportion of blond people in northern Russia is “almost 100%”. Taken at face value, that implies that there is an actual quantitative study on the distribution of different hair colour frequencies within Russia that this number comes from. Your later comments, however, suggest that you just made it up based on your own subjective impressions. Which is it?

    I have no idea if there are any scientific papers on that.

    Admittedly there do not seem to be many (at least not AFAIK). But there is at least Frost (2006), who is citing Beals & Hoijer’s (1965) An Introduction to Anthropology, III ed. (which I haven’t seen, unfortunately). According to him, the highest concentration of blond-haired people in Russia is indeed in the northwest. But the porportion of blondes there is significantly lower than the 100% that you suggested: it’s between 50-79%. The only parts of Europe where the proportion of blond-haired people is 80% or greater are the central parts of Norway and Sweden, the western and southern parts of Finland, and the westernmost part of Latvia. Interestingly, in Finland the proportion of blond-haired people actually decreases significantly to the east (and also to the north), i.e., the closer one gets to Russia.

    David:
    Aren’t various Greek heroes described as blond?

    According to both Aelian and Plutarch, Alexander the Great is supposed to have had fair/blond hair (Aelian even says it was “yellow”). Of course, such descriptions need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when they are by non-contemporaries. (And then there’s also the question of Alexander’s ‘real’ ethnicity – but let’s not open the Greek/Macedonian can of worms here!)

    Reference:
    Frost, P. 2006. European hair and eye color: a case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior 27, 85-103.

    Link to this
  59. 59. vdinets 12:56 pm 12/12/2012

    Dartian: thanks for the info. Yes, scientists are supposed to deal with primary data. But, as far as I know, we don’t have any anthropologists here, so in this discussion we can be considered amateurs rather than scientists :-)

    The reason I said it’s close to 100% is because in two somewhat remote areas I am most familiar with (Pinega River near Arkhangelsk and the western shore of Lake Onega) villagers are, indeed, almost uniformly blond. I remember visiting a village council meeting where all ~40 people were blond; it looked like a screening session for a Nazi propaganda movie. Once you move to towns, the percentage gets much lower, but in towns there are plenty of recent migrants from Central Russia (directly or via St. Petersburg).

    This is a bit complicated because not all villagers there are ethnic Russians (some are Karels or Vepsians), but it’s pretty much impossible to tell them apart by phenotype.

    Link to this
  60. 60. anthrosciguy 5:37 am 12/16/2012

    @12: “The point here is that at least one primate with relatively few evolutionary/genetic aquatic adaptations to can still show adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle.”

    Sorry about the very late comment (haven’t been looking around online lately) but I wanted to correct this point. The researchers who did the study you linked to about Moken (“sea gypsy”) eyesight in children did a study later of European children and found they could do the same thing with a little practice. (Gislen has now said: “What I do know is that we have [more recently] trained European children to become as good at underwater tasks as the Moken children. So training seems to do the trick.”) So it isn’t a special adaptation due to water use at all but rather something it seems everyone can do. This isn’t actually surprising since it’s just done via “accommodation and concurrent pupil constriction” and this is of course something we all do: it’s how we adjust our eyesight for distance and for light/dark. The trick is learning to do it for better underwater vision (which is still, BTW, far worse than animals which typically use eyesight underwater to any great degree).

    Link to this
  61. 61. Heteromeles 12:45 am 12/17/2012

    Thanks anthrosciguy. I’m glad to find out it’s not that hard for kids to adapt to the water. In comment #12, I phrased it badly, but the point was that a species structurally adapted for sweaty jogging can condition itself to a moderately successful life as an aquatic predator.

    Link to this
  62. 62. David Marjanović 2:43 pm 12/27/2012

    I’ve never heard the Pripyat theory :-)

    Huh.

    Well, I do agree it was awfully precise for that kind of hypothesis…

    Some people point to the area between the N part of Danube Basin and the lower Dnepr as having the largest concentration of Slavic river names

    Oh. The red area in that Wikipedia picture barely reaches the Carpathians. The Pannonian basin, which is apparently what you mean by “Danube basin”, is on the other side of that mountain range. That’s what confused me.

    Slavic languages have a lot in common with languages of N India

    Slavic and Baltic are clearly sister-groups; Indic/Indo-Aryan, Iranian, Dardic and the Nuristani languages also form a clade. These two larger clades are likely sister-groups. (…Among those branches of IE that are known well enough; Dacian, Thracian and ancient Macedonian may or may not be somewhere in there. Albanian, however, isn’t.)

    According to both Aelian and Plutarch, Alexander the Great is supposed to have had fair/blond hair (Aelian even says it was “yellow”). Of course, such descriptions need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when they are by non-contemporaries.

    Extreme example: I was once told that Genghis Khan had red hair and green eyes (like me). That was obviously based on an attempt to make him as unusual as possible. Red hair (at least) has also been ascribed to Attila…

    Link to this
  63. 63. marcverhaegen 2:32 pm 06/21/2013

    Most discussions of the so-called “aquatic ape theory” are outdated & don’t consider the recent literature on the subject.
    Humans didn’t descend from “aquatic apes”, of course, although our Pleistocene ancestors were too slow & heavy for regular running over open plains as some anthropologists still believe.
    Homo populations during the Ice Ages (with sea-levels often 100 m lower than today) simply followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia (and even reached Flores >18 km overseas >800 ka). This “littoral theory” of Pleistocene Homo has nothing to do with the “aquarboreal theory” of Mio-Pliocene ancestral apes & australopiths etc.
    Some recent information:
    - google “econiche Homo”
    - google “aquarboreal”
    - eBook “Was Man more aquatic in the past?” introduction Phillip Tobias http://www.benthamscience.com/ebooks/9781608052448/index.htm
    - guest post at Greg Laden’s blog http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/30/common-misconceptions-and-unproven-assumptions-about-the-aquatic-ape-theory
    - http://greencomet.org/2013/05/26/aquatic-ape-the-theory-evolves/
    - Human Evolution conference London 8–10 May 2013 with David Attenborough, Don Johanson etc. http://www.royalmarsden.nhs.uk/education/education-conference-centre/study-days-conferences/pages/2013-evolution.aspx
    - M.Verhaegen & S.Munro 2011 “Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods” J.compar.hum.Biol.62:237-247
    - M.Vaneechoutte, S.Munro & M.Verhaegen 2012 “Reply to John Langdon’s review of the eBook: Was Man more aquatic in the past?” J.compar.hum.Biol.63:496-503

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X