Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paleontological Nicknames

Is nicknaming more prevalent in paleontology than in other scientific or non-scientific academic fields, in different cultures, or in different environments, such as elementary school playgrounds, locker rooms, the cinematic fantasy world of beautiful and clever thieves (see, for example, The Italian Job), or the nether world of rap? I’m beginning to think that it might be. Maybe, though, it’s only that the nicknames and stories are more interesting.

Multiple names, formal and not so formal, are part of the paleontological (and for that matter, biological) world. Certainly the development of Linnaean scientific classification leaves plant and animal species with a couple of names, their scientific names and their common names. Still, that’s not truly nicknaming since the common names for nearly all plant and animal species presumably preceded the coining of the more formal scientific names. Actually, what I’m really interested in is the nicknaming in paleontology of specific individuals or specimens.

Hominid Nicknames

I have to admit that my view of all of this is prejudiced by a fair amount of recent reading on human evolution. With great frequency, it would appear, a newly discovered hominid skeletal fragment or collection of fragments is not only given a scientific name, which often stakes a claim to a new species, if not a new genus, but the individual specimen is graced with a new nickname. Perhaps the best known is Lucy, the nickname given a specimen of Australopithecus afarensis with a remarkably complete skeleton (40 percent of a skeleton is remarkable among ancient hominid fossils – the nickname comes from the repeated playing of the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in camp the night of her discovery). Recently, those who pay attention to these things have been enveloped by the nickname Ardi for a specimen of what’s been identified by her discoverers as Ardipithecus ramidus (derivation of the nickname is obvious), and, then, there’s the hobbit, the nickname for a specimen of the recently discovered so-called Homo floresiensis, a diminutive creature with a mixture of Homo, ape, and australopithecine traits. Tolkien’s the source of the latter nickname, and I guess, at this stage, all members of the species of H. floresiensis are being called hobbits. [I wrote an earlier post on Lucy and Ardi, and discovery in general.]

But, these names only scratch the surface of the nicknaming in paleontology. A few nicknames might suffice to paint the rich picture. For instance, there’s the specimen known as Dear Boy and also as Zinj. Why Dear Boy? I don’t know but that’s apparently what Louis and Mary Leakey called it after its discovery. Its original scientific name, Zinjanthropus boisei, accounts for its second nickname. Among my favorites is the Black Skull, a partial skull from a specimen of Australopithecus aethiopicus found in West Turkana (Kenya).

Its nickname derives from the coloring of the skull and is much more dramatic a name than WT 17000, its curated, formal identification. [See Ian Tattersall’s book The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution, 1995, and Extinct Humans by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, 2000.]

The paleontological nicknames that most intrigue me are those that, over time, have become totally and completely wrong; whatever plausibly generated the nickname in the first place no longer applies. But, still, the nickname lives on.

For example, take Mrs. Ples (see image below). She lived some 2.5 million years ago and is in the Australopithecus genus, possibly an ancestor of Homo. When first discovered, the nickname bestowed on her made some sense – she was, after all, initially set in the genus Plesianthropus. But, not only has the genus designation shifted, but so perhaps has her gender. She may well have been male. Still, he remains Mrs. Ples. [See, Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgimage to the Dawn of Evolution, 2004]

Then there’s the marvelous Red Lady of Paviland. In 1823, Oxford University geologist William Buckland explored the Paviland Cave, in South Wales, which the year before had yielded fossils from animals, including mammoths. He described discovering a human skeleton covered with a red iron ore dye. At its thigh were periwinkle shells and beside its chest were ivory rods and pieces of ivory rings. Stephen Aldhouse-Green, Professor of Human Origins, University of Wales, describes the derivation of its nickname:
In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender had changed with a new and better story. . . . The ochre-stained skeleton had become a 'painted lady' who serviced the needs of the Roman soldiers garrisoned in the camp on the hill above the cave. It was a good story.

In fact, the reality is much better than the “good story” Buckland came up with. The Red Lady is a young Homo sapiens male who, based on recent research, lived about 26,000 ago, in a period of advancing ice sheets that were nearing the place where his skeleton was found. As Aldhouse-Green puts it, at this Upper Paleolithic site, “The ceremonial burial of the 'Red Lady' involved the interplay of art and consciousness which combine in an act that is simultaneously creative and symbolic.” The burial apparently is similar to others in the same period. Its elements included placing the body next to the cave wall, positioning animal remains by the grave, marking the head and feet with stone slabs, coloring and decorating the body, and, possibly, removing its head (none has been found at the site). Further, he speculates that the site may have had a special meaning for these Stone Age people who, even as humans were abandoning Britain in the face of the deteriorating climate, returned to the cave in order to bury the body there. Finally, Aldhouse-Green notes, “At the time when the 'Red Lady' was unearthed she - or rather he - was not only the first such burial to be found but also the first human fossil ever to have been recovered anywhere in the world.” [Stephen Aldhouse-Green, Great Sites: Paviland, British Archaeology, October, 2001, link here]

Some 85 years later, he’s still known as the Red Lady of Paviland. Johann Georg Von Zimmermann, 18th century Swiss physician and philosopher, certainly had it right when he asserted that “a nickname lasts forever.”

An Etymological Aside

The etymology of the word nickname is fascinating in its own right. In Middle English, the additional name given to a person was known as an eke name. Eke was Old English; apparently as a noun it meant “additional” and as a verb it meant “to augment” or “to supplement” (e.g., eke out a living). The phrase an eke name at some point was misdivided into a nekename.

One type of nickname is a sobriquet which is a friendly or funny nickname. Its etymology is charming – sobriquet comes from the Old French meaning a “chuck under the chin.”

[Among useful sources on etymology are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition, 1996; and Word Origins . . . And How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman, 2005, link here]

Sources of Images

The image of the Black Skull is from the Smithsonian Institution (Human Origins Program), link here.

The image of Mrs. Ples is from the Sterkfontein Exhibition Guide, published by the South African Maropeng and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, link here.

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