Ammonites, Dinosaurs, and Us

Today’s world is remarkable for a lack of dinosaurs. Big ones, anyway. Those critters would have been among the first things someone would notice here for upwards of 200,000,000 years.

Then, about 66,000,000 years back, something awful happened. The only dinosaurs left are those little tweeting, chirping, and cawing critters we call birds.

Ammonites had been around for even longer, but whatever finished the ‘thunder lizards’ wiped them out, too. We showed up much more recently, and are learning that there’s a very great deal of our past, and Earth’s, that we don’t know. Not yet.


Nomader, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Folks who look like me, more or less, have been around for about 200,000 years.

Everyone doesn’t look just like me, though. About half are women, for starters.

Differences between male and female humans aren’t as dramatic as we see in critters like orangutans, but they’re quite real. Most of us get very interested in them when we hit adolescence, and that’s another topic.

Groups of people aren’t exactly alike, either. Not if our ancestors have lived wherever we are for enough generations.

My ancestors, the ones I know of, spent a long time in northeastern Europe before moving to central North America. That left me with freckles and otherwise melanin-deficient skin, blue eyes, and a particular sort of facial features.

I’m also very close to average height for a human male: globally.

But most families where I grew up had immigrated from Scandinavia or Germany a few generations back. Although they’re not the tallest folks in the world, their height runs well above average. I still think of myself as short.

We’re not all alike. We’re not supposed to be.

Differences exist. We’re born needing others, grow and change in different ways so that our strengths can help others. Each of us benefits in some way from the strengths of folks who are not like us.

That’s the way it should work. Something went wrong, obviously, and that’s another yet topic. (April 16, 2017: March 5, 2017)

But we are still, each of us, made “in the divine image:” male and female, young and old, with equal dignity. Part of our job is working with each other, and correcting inequalities which do not reflect that dignity. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 18971917, 19281942, 2334)

We have a great deal left to learn about dignity and and dealing with differences.


I’ll be talking about two sorts of folks who aren’t around any more, which reminded me of dvergar.

I think that’d be twerga in Old High German. By the time “dvergar” reached today’s English, the word was “dwarf.”

Folks in my ancestral homelands didn’t start writing down our traditions until recently. The “Poetic Edda,” for example, isn’t much more than seven centuries old in its current form.

We figure it draws on much older traditions. Several different ones, most likely.

Dvergar were creatures of myth and folklore by then. “Völuspá” says they came from the blood of Brimir and bones of Bláinn. “Prose Edda” is less complementary, saying they were like maggots in Ymir’s flesh, before getting brains.

Whatever their local name, northwestern European tales are fairly consistent in describing dvergar. They’re short, ugly, and prone to antisocial behavior. But they’re wise and skilled in mining and crafting metal.

Mythic elements aside, that sounds like quite a few folks on my wife’s side of the family; and mine.

Not the ugly and antisocial part; but short, smart, and really good with our hands. I don’t think I’m descended from Ymir’s maggots or leftover bits of Brimir and Bláinn.

But I think it’s possible that folks who looked a bit like me and my kin made a living as miners and smiths.


Smelting and forging iron wasn’t invented in Scandinavia. That happened in the Near East, and maybe sub-Saharan Africa.

The current academic opinion is that the tech reached Africa through Carthage, but that could change.

Around the time disastrous success added Pyrrhic victory to our cultural heritage, folks in Scandinavia started mining and processing iron ore.1 Archeologists figure that teams of about ten men worked the mine at Heglesvollen, Levanger, two millennia back.

The operation’s scale makes sense only if they were exporting the iron. We’ve found quite a few similar installations in Norway. Denmark probably had iron mines, too, but that land has been repurposed for farming and cities, burying any evidence that’s left.

Fast-forward over about a thousand years of oral traditions and imagination, and I can imagine accounts of miners and smiths merging with tales of chthonic spirits. But I won’t insist on it.

Short People and Mountain Gorillas

Little people‘ may not feature in everyone’s folklore and mythology, but Nimerigar, goblins, and ebu gogo aren’t unique.

Some mythical people, like the Abatwa, aren’t entirely mythical. Stories about them are arguably imaginative, but Twa live in central Africa, trading game for agricultural products.

Some of them got the short end of the stick in 1992, when a well-meaning effort to save mountain gorillas left them with no place to live. What was left of their land was being taken for use by other folks.

Up to that time, they’d had an unwritten agreement with taller folks.

The powers that be recognized them as human, which is an improvement over some earlier eras. (August 26, 2016)

But since they’re not mountain gorillas, they were evicted from gorilla land. With no documents saying they owned their land, there was no legal reason to pay them. They were left to discover poverty and drug abuse in treeless regions.

The good news is that they’re occasionally allowed to make and sell pottery.

I’m not happy about that. But I can’t do much to resolve the situation, other than mention it here: and hope that someone who reads this can take action. Or at least remember that good intentions can have unexpected results.

My recent family history has been happier. The potato famine forced some of my more-or-less-recent ancestors out of Ireland. But we moved to an area where we understood the local language, and could sometimes find work.

We didn’t have something like a dozen millennia of cultural and technological catching up to accomplish in one generation, for which I’m duly grateful. I was going to ramble on about humans, height, and ethnicity, but that’ll wait for another day.2

1. Chicxulub Impact: Firestorm With Sulfur Fallout

(From Barcroft Productions/BBC, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: The impact hit with the energy equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs”
(BBC News))

Dinosaur asteroid hit ‘worst possible place’
BBC News (May 15, 2017)

Scientists who drilled into the impact crater associated with the demise of the dinosaurs summarise their findings so far in a BBC Two documentary on Monday.

“The researchers recovered rocks from under the Gulf of Mexico that were hit by an asteroid 66 million years ago.

“The nature of this material records the details of the event….

“…The shallow sea covering the target site meant colossal volumes of sulphur (from the mineral gypsum) were injected into the atmosphere, extending the ‘global winter’ period that followed the immediate firestorm….”

I don’t know what, if anything, Thomas Jefferson thought about dinosaurs; but he didn’t believe mammoths could have become extinct.

Evolution isn’t a new idea. Anaximander suggested that animals, humans included, developed from fish. But we’ve been on a steep learning curve since 1669, when Nicolas Steno helped launch paleontology as a science. (October 28, 2016; July 29, 2016)

Apparently even folks who made up “creation science” in the 1960s accept the reality that things change. It’s almost a step in the right direction. (March 31, 2017; January 13, 2017)

Georges Cuvier’s 1796 lecture discussing the notable lack of mammoths eventually got scientists wondering why we hadn’t found living equivalents of fossilized critters.

Time passed. Lamarck and Haeckel had theories about evolution that were wrong. Darwin is famous for being more nearly right, and Pope Leo XIII said that what we learn can’t interfere with faith. Not in the long run. (October 28, 2016; September 23, 2016)

By 1982, we’d uncovered a big enough sample of fossilized extinct critters for Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup to identify five major mass extinctions.

Don’t Panic

They figured those five were probably statistical oddities in a general trend of decreasing extinction rates over the last half-billion years.

They were right, but not entirely.

Extinction events happen. The earliest we know of was the Great Oxygenation Event, or GOE, about 2,400,000,000 years back.

The biggest was the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or Great Dying, roughly 252,000,000 years ago. That’s about halfway between the GOE and now.

Depending on who’s talking and what criteria they use, we’ve had between five and 20 major extinction events, and a whole mess of little ones.

Scientists figure around 99.9% of all species are now extinct.

Don’t panic. Even though we finally managed to drive the smallpox virus to extinction, many species are not extinct. We’ve named 64,788 chordates; and around 1,359,365 invertebrates, give or take, of an estimated 6,755,830.

We’re even less likely to run short of bacteria. We’re not sure about the exact number, but scientists figure Earth currently has between five and 10 million bacterial species.

Don’t get me wrong. I think avoiding another lapse in judgment like the one that ended passenger pigeons and nearly drove the American bison to extinction is a good idea.

I also think using our brains makes sense. Jumping on the latest ‘crisis’ bandwagon, not so much. (February 10, 2017; January 20, 2017)

Making it Worse: Deccan Traps

(From Christopher R. Scotese, Paleomap Project, used w/o permission.)
(Earth, when non-avian dinosaurs died.)

We’ve known that the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event happened for some time, but still aren’t entirely sure what killed off nearly every tetrapod weighing more than 25 kilograms, 55 pounds.

In 1980 Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father-son team, said that an asteroid impact was the probable cause.

It looks like they were right, at least partly. But massive volcanic eruptions had been forming the Deccan Traps before the Chicxulub impact.

Some scientists say they’ve found evidence that lava flow increased after the impact.

Shock waves from the impact could have felt like a magnitude 9 earthquake everywhere on Earth — possibly triggering more massive eruptions in the Deccan Traps, and in other volcanically active areas.

As we learn more about the dinosaurs’ last days, it looks the Chicxulub impact wasn’t their only problem. Effluvia from eruptions in the Deccan Traps were pushing Earth’s temperature down, which may or may not be connected with sea level falling.

Whatever blasted out the Chicxulub crater may not have been alone. There’s doubt about whether the Shiva formation west of Mumbai/Bombay, India, is an impact crater, but the Boltysh crater in Ukraine is definitely from an impact.

The Boltysh crater is only 24 kilometers, 15 miles, across: but whatever made it hit Earth within a thousand years or so of the Chicxulub event. Maybe less. We don’t know if these two impacts were a statistical fluke — or happened when a binary asteroid hit.

I don’t see a reason to think this was an ‘either-or’ situation. As someone pointed out a few years ago, the Chicxulub object hit at the wrong time.

Wrong for most big critters, that is. Scorpions and cockroaches endured and have been doing pretty well. So have mammals. But what with falling rocks, massive volcanic activity, and all, that was a bad time to live on Earth.3

One More Thing

It’s very unlikely that a Chicxulub-sized asteroid will hit in the next few years, decades, or centuries.

Cosmic debris big enough to trigger an extinction-level event come at (apparently) irregular intervals of much more than ten million years, on average.

Smaller bits and pieces, like the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk in 2013, come every century: more or less.

Bigger things, like whatever hit our planet about 800,000 years back, come less often. That impact sprayed tektites — gravel-size bits of molten glass — over much of Asia and Australia. I think it’s in our best interest to keep that from happening again.

We’re not quite ready to move an incoming asteroid into a harmless orbit: but we’re nearly there, and that’s yet again another topic. (November 4, 2016)

2. Recently-Discovered Branches on the Family Tree

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The male H. naledi specimen named ‘Neo’, after being freed from the surrounding matrix”
(BBC News))

Amazing haul of ancient human finds unveiled
Paul Rincon, BBC News (May 9, 2017)

A new haul of ancient human remains has been described from an important cave site in South Africa.

“The finds, including a well-preserved skull, bolster the idea that the Homo naledi people deliberately deposited their dead in the cave.

“Evidence of such complex behaviour is surprising for a human species with a brain that’s a third the size of ours.

“Despite showing some primitive traits it lived relatively recently, perhaps as little as 235,000 years ago.

“That would mean the naledi people could have overlapped with the earliest of our kind – Homo sapiens….”

I talked about these folks,4 and a new tool for studying humanity’s family story, two weeks ago. (May 5, 2017)

Remains of 15 individuals might have ‘randomly’ ended up in the Rising Star Cave’s “Dinaledi Chamber.” But I think scientists who studied the chamber and remains are right. This looks like deliberate internment. (May 5, 2017)

The first report was that Homo naledi might have been around anywhere from nearly three million years, based on how their heads looked; to a few hundred thousand, based on other factors.

Later reports say that these folks almost certainly lived quite recently, geologically speaking. They shared their part of the world with folks who looked like us.

That makes their internment custom less odd, since other folks had started burying their dead by then. It raises other questions, and I’ll get back to that.

Scientists are still wrapping their minds around evidence that we learned burial customs from Neanderthals. That doesn’t surprise me, but will admit having a well-defined perspective regarding “primitive” people.

I’ve discussed “low types,” family history, and ersatz science, before. (January 13, 2017; November 29, 2016; August 26, 2016)

Contact and Cultural Exchange: Maybe

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Lesedi chamber yielded the remains of two adults and a child”
(BBC News))

Finding more remains in another part of the same cave system may not prove that these folks interred their dead, but it’ll make the ‘it’s a wild coincidence’ argument harder to swallow. My opinion.

Contact between Homo naledi and Homo sapiens may explain how they picked up the habit of placing their dead underground.

My guess is that we learned that from Neanderthals, communicating with neighbors until the custom reached humanity’s African homeland. We’re chatty folks, given half a chance.

What’s less obvious is how folks like Homo naledi and others manage to survive while sharing territory with folks who look like us.

I see the difficulty. A common assumption is that folks with bigger brains and sharper rocks would “naturally” drive everyone else to extinction. I realize that conflict happens, sometimes with tragic consequences.

But I also realize that folks with European ancestry, myself included, have Neanderthal DNA in our genome. I may lack Denisovan DNA, but a great many folks in southeast Asia have Denisovan ancestors. (January 13, 2017)

I’ll leave assumptions about “nature, red in tooth and claw” for another post.

Intelligence, Flores Man, and More Questions

We found the first Homo floresiensis, the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, remains in 2003. More than a dozen years later, we are far from fully understanding who they were how they fit into our story.

Some scientists think maybe they’re a separate species, and some say they’re a really unusual variety of Homo sapiens.

Some figured they were normal folks with microcephaly, or maybe Laron syndrome.

That doesn’t seem at all likely, which leaves us wondering whether they made the Oldowan tools we found near their remains, and if so — how? They also had cooking fires, which is a distinctly “human” behavior.

Someone developed the first Oldowan tools at least 2,600,000 years ago, back in Africa. We’re still tracing migration and settlement patterns for the early parts of humanity’s story, and may never get a full picture of old trade routes.

I gather that some scientists still aren’t comfortable with thinking that “primitive” people did what we’ve been doing since the start of recorded history: swapping extra stuff for something we want or need whenever we can.

Homo floresiensis lived on Flores, islands in Indonesia. We’re not sure when they arrived. It may have been as early as 190,000 years back, well after Oldowan tech was available.

My guess is that their ancestors had the tech when they arrived, or that they learned about it from other folks who went through that part of the world on their way east and south.

Australians, the folks who were there long before England sent undesirables to Botany Bay, may have arrived 100,000 years ago.

Aboriginal Australian genes are a bit like folks from Asia, which should surprise nobody. What’s more interesting, I think, is that they may be significantly distinct from Asians and Polynesians. That’s another set of questions we’re working on, and still another topic.

Where was I? The ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, stone tools, Australians, Polynesians. Right.

A Reasonable Question

We’re not sure who worked the bugs out of Oldowan tech. Whoever it was, they looked like Australopithecus garhi, Homo habilis, or someone else living in eastern Africa.

Whoever they were, they didn’t look like us. But they and their ancestors started making and using tools like the ones in that picture about 2,600,000 years ago.

They didn’t look like us, quite; but they weren’t all that different, either. Homo habilis were on the short side, a bit over four feet tall; with brains about half our size or less.

Homo floresiensis stood about three and a half feet tall. Their brains were roughly the size of a chimp’s. That’s normal for a chimp, but way undersized for a human.

Wondering if Homo floresiensis could have used stone tools and fire isn’t the old “Anglo-Teutonic” attitude toward folks like many of my ancestors.

It’s a reasonable question.

What we’ve been learning about neural circuits and intelligence says that these folks should have been about as smart as chimps: which makes their tools and cooking fires hard to explain.

Part of the answer came after scientists found enough pieces to reconstruct the shape of their brains. The assumption, which I think is valid, was that their neural architecture would follow the pattern we see in today’s humans and other primates.

Relative to the rest of their brain, the Homo floresiensis Brodmann area 10, part of the prefrontal cortex, was huge: something like 10 times the size of ours.

We’re still learning how it works. It’s probably where we do much of our “thinking:” the information and task management that lets us develop and use stone tools, pottery wheels, and integrated circuits.5

My guess is that Homo floresiensis were as “human” as I am.

3. An Ammonite’s ‘Death Drag’

(From University of Manchester, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Ammonites are prehistoric cephalopods, closely related to modern-day squid, cuttlefish and octopuses”
(BBC News))

Rare ammonite ‘death drag’ fossil discovered
Helen Briggs, BBC News (May 8, 2017)

The ‘death drag’ of a prehistoric ‘squid’ – or ammonite – made 150-million-years-ago has been preserved as an incredible fossil.

“The animal’s shell made the 8.5m-long mark as it drifted along the seafloor after its death.

“Ammonites are one of the most common and popular fossils collected by amateur fossil hunters.

“This specimen (Subplanites rueppellianus) was found in a quarry in southern Germany.

“Its shell was preserved alongside the mark it made as it drifted along the floor of a tropical lagoon in a steady current….”

Subplanites rueppellianus are an index species for the most recent part of the Late Jurassic, the Tithonian. In other words, they’re a critter that lived then, was fairly common, and is easy to identify.

This particular sort of ammonite lived from about 152,100,000 to 145,000,000 years back, give or take about four million. “Gargoyle lizards,” gargoyleosaurs, lived where Wyoming is now. They may have been the first ankylosaurs.

Subplanites rueppellianus weren’t the first ammonites, and weren’t the last. We’re pretty sure that ammonites started with Bactritida. Those were cephalopods with roughly-conical shells, living from about 390,000,000 to 235,000,000 years ago.

First and Last Ammonites

That was when Dunkleosteus was the biggest predators around.

The biggest we know of, at any rate. I’ve mentioned those armored fish before. (October 28, 2016)

Dunkleosteus didn’t survive the Late Devonian extinction, but ammonites did.

That was roughly 360,000,000 years ago now. Ammonites survived the Great Dying, too.

The last ammonite died, along with about three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth, in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. But their descendants, Coleoidea like the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish, are doing quite well.6

Errors, Spelling and Otherwise

That picture sparked a lively discussion a few years back. The third, fifth, sixth, and seventh, comments reflected two all-too-common beliefs:

“Two errors in posted image:
1) The dates are significantly too long ago.
2) The Flood, which caused the immediate burial of dinosaurs, etc needed for good quality Fossilization, is absent.”

“Not sure if serious or trolling..”

“Please cite the Bible as your source, so that everyone can be keenly aware you have made no distinction between mythology and science, and thereby safely ignore you.”

“As a beliver in the one true God who created all things, who is over all things even science, and logic…..”
(Google Developers post, Google+ (October 11, 2013))

I saw two other ‘errors:’ the live ammonite in the pickup and the pterosaur. They’re anachronisms. Those critters have been extinct for about 66,000,000 years.

That doesn’t make the picture “wrong,” though. Sometimes a little playfulness makes an image more memorable.

I also do not see a need to believe either that God is rational and all-powerful, or that God’s creation follows rational laws.

Noticing the beauty and order surrounding us is one way we can learn about God. (Catechism, 32, 214217, 268, 302305)

That’s my viewpoint. I’m a Christian with a lively interest in God’s creation, and a willingness to take reality “as is.”

I’m also a Catholic who understands that truth cannot contradict truth, and that scientific discoveries are opportunities for “greater admiration” for God’s creation. (Catechism, 32, 159, 283, 294, 341)

Not everyone shares these views, obviously.

Pastafarians and the “Beliver” Bunch

The “Two errors” comment might be trolling.

But the seventh comment, where “believer” is misspelled, could easily be an honest expression of belief. So could the one that ends with “safely ignore you.”

My contribution, added much later, was “Next thing you know, someone will claim that the sky doesn’t keep the upper waters from flooding us.”

By then the discussion of “mythology and science” had gone down a well-worn path.

Followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster criticized the “wild and uncanny ignorance” of those who believe in the “god guy.”

The “beliver” bunch said they were right because —

“Genesis is the foundation for young Earth science like ‘On the origin of species’ is the foundation for Evolutionary science. However, because the Bible is God’s word and not the work of fallible people, we know it is correct.”

The conversation was fairly coherent, as such things go.

Emotions tend to run wild when folks who passionately believe that religion is nonsense argue with folks equally convinced that God agrees with a 17th century Calvinist.

Mesopotamian Cosmology

Oddly enough, folks who sincerely believe that Earth didn’t exist before 4004 B.C. don’t seem troubled by evidence that Earth is roughly spherical.

I knew a fellow who said that our sun goes around Earth, not the other way around: because the Bible says so. (Joshua 10:1213)

Even he didn’t seem to have trouble thinking that Earth isn’t flat. Maybe it helps that we’ve known Earth is roughly spherical for millennia.

If Biblical imagery was “true,” by Western literalist standards, we’d be living between “the waters beneath the earth” and “the flood waters stored on high.” (Genesis 1:7; Exodus 20:4; Psalms 33:7)

I take 1 Samuel 2:8; Job 9:67; Job 26:11; Psalms 75:4; and Sirach 43:10 seriously. That’s a requirement for Catholics. (Catechism, 101133)

But insisting that Earth and the sky stand on pillars isn’t. I am firmly convinced that the Bible is true, and wasn’t written by an American. (Catechism, 109114, 362, 390)

I don’t think Psalm 150:1 is ‘mere poetry.’

On the other hand, my faith wasn’t shattered when Voyager 1 didn’t crash into a celestial dome on its way to interstellar space.

Still Heading for the Horizon

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people have been acting like humans for a very long time.

Every few generations, some of us wonder what’s over the next hill, and head for the horizon.

Along the way, we’ve met descendants of folks who did pretty much the same thing; only earlier. Youngsters from both groups find each other interesting, and we get a new generation that’s a bit of both groups.

Even if my beliefs permitted it, I know too much of my family’s immediate history to think “racial purity” is anything other than a bad idea.

I see it as a reasonable alternative to repeating the Hapsburg disaster. Besides, that’s how some of my ancestors made me possible. (January 13, 2017; August 5, 2016)

Learning That There’s More to Learn

We didn’t know Homo naledi existed until a few years ago. There is a very great deal we don’t know about them.

They certainly don’t fit into what folks remember from Time-Life’s 1965 ‘march of progress’ illustration for “Early Man.”

“The Road to Homo Sapiens” inspired cover art for a Doors album and an Encino Man soundtrack, and helped sell surfboards.

I don’t mind that.

My problem with the picture is that a distressing number of folks apparently didn’t read the illustration’s text.

The authors carefully explained that “Road” was not an accurate picture of our development. At the time, scientists figured that the fourth figure from the left, Oreopithecus, wasn’t a direct ancestor.

They also thought the next one over, Ramapithecus, might “be the oldest of man’s ancestors in a direct line.”7 It was a reasonable idea in the 1960s, based on none-too-complete fossils.

We’ve learned more about biochemistry since then, and found more fossils in the 1970s. The odds are pretty good that Ramapithecus was an early version of today’s orangutans.

Paranthropus, number seven, was called “an evolutionary dead end” in 1965. We’re still pretty sure that’s right.

On the other hand, the Paranthropus hand had precision-grip features like ours. How bright they were, and whether or not they used fire, is something we haven’t learned.

Not yet.

More; mostly about Earth’s story, and ours:

1 Iron mining in Norway, in Roman times:

2 People, short and otherwise:

3 A bad time to be on Earth, 66,000,000 million years ago:

4 Homo naledi and fossils, A quick overview:

5 Thinking about brains:

6 More than you need, or maybe want, to know about:

7 Evolution and humans, mostly:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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2 Responses to Ammonites, Dinosaurs, and Us

  1. Howard says:

    Well, obviously, these primitive folks got their stone tool technology from Ancient Aliens! 😉

Thanks for taking time to comment!