Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!


Charles Darwin by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1881

by H. Gregory

When I was young and first learned about Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species, I was immediately enamored with him and his story. Of course these early lessons were quite simplified. Pictures of historical people were often painted in broad strokes. In Darwin’s case, I learned that a grandfatherly scientist went to the Galapagos Islands, figured out how evolution works, and then published a famous book about it.

For most of us, the gaps in the story have been filled, yet I still find myself a big fan. His is a rather romantic story, and honestly I like it that way. This is one of those moments when the details of what really happened don’t get in the way of the message. The story of Darwin has certainly not gone way of Columbus.

Last week I decided to pick up his autobiography to get a sense of how Darwin thought about himself and the world in which he lived, and this book, compiled from Darwin’s journals and meant for his children, renewed a sense of nostalgia in me.

The book is short, and the language is modern enough to make it an easy read. As expected, this is no rags to riches story, no guy from the wrong side of the track makes it big. Darwin was privileged, and he understood that. In fact, at one point he admits that he had the ability to do what he did because he did not have to work. He describes a well educated, cultured man with the freedom to explore the world around him however he saw fit.

Yes, he was ill. I was somewhat surprised to read how often and how young he was when this began. And yes, he loved the natural sciences. He was obsessed! If it wasn’t beetles, it was geology or orchids. I was amused to realize that after the seminal On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, he wrote about none other than climbing plants. Like I said, he explored the world around him however he wanted.


You can get The Autobiography of Charles Darwin for free on Kindle. This version was edited by his wife and son.

Darwin had great reverence for the highly successful, older men with whom he was “intimately acquainted.” However, he also mentions he might have been superior to the “common run of youths” for being welcomed by such notable men. He knew he was special, and it seems he was told so often, except by his detractors of course.

What struck me most was that in the final pages, he reflects on his mind and how it had changed over the years. He worried about having lost the “higher aesthetic.” He no longer enjoyed music or poetry as he had when he was young, and he blamed himself for not having kept this part of his brain active. In his opinion, he had turned his mind into a machine that could grind “general laws out of large collections of facts.” However, he did not think of himself as ever having been that witty or especially brainy. In this self exploration it seems as if he had just realized he had done something amazing and was trying to figure out how the heck he had accomplished it! He probably didn’t realize how amazing it had actually been and how we’d be celebrating his birthday over a century later.

Reading more about Darwin makes me so happy to have gotten to work in the sciences, and I feel lucky to now work for The Leakey Foundation, which has its own sense of nostalgia. I am surrounded by scientists who have so many of these unique traits. They are passionate, inquisitive, and driven. They travel to far off places and return to share their ideas with others. It is hard to not see a little bit of Darwin in each and every one of them.

On behalf of The Leakey Foundation, I would like to wish you a happy day on Charles Darwin’s birthday.

Ring in the Lunar New Year with Monkey Cuvée


In case you haven’t heard, our friends at Iron Horse Vineyards have created a special, limited edition “Year of the Monkey” cuvée, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this sparkling wine benefits The Leakey Foundation! Here we have guest blogger Tarin Teno sharing some fun information about Chinese New Year celebrations as well as a few ways to compliment this special wine.

ironhorsethumbChinese New Year, the Year of the Monkey, starts February 8. The festivities continue for 15 days. San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade, the biggest and oldest in the U.S., is February 20. Delicious food is the centerpiece of Chinese celebrations, so we were especially happy to get to chat with our special chef friend Ming Tsai, who gifted us with a recipe for his delicious and very lucky pot stickers. (See below.)

The Monkey is the ninth animal in the 12 year cycle. People born in the Year of the Monkey are characterised as lively, quick-witted, curious, innovative and mischievous. In addition, their gentleness and honesty bring them an everlasting love.

ScreenShot2016-02-07at7.28.22PMTo celebrate, Iron Horse has created a special production of Year of the Monkey Cuvée. $5 a bottle goes to the Leakey Foundation to help protect the natural habitats of primates like the Golden Snub Nosed Monkey featured on the label.

It is a perfect birthday present year long for people born in the Year of the Monkey and as a good luck gift for parents expecting babies this year.

And here to help us understand more about the time honored Chinese New Year celebrations is Chef Ming Tsai, famed restaurateur and culinary visionary born in the Year of the Dragon. Read on for our complete interview.







You’re a very special chef friend for Iron Horse. We’re very proud that our Year of the Dragon was featured on your February 2014 menu for the State Department lunch with the former VP Xi of China. Can you recount any specific memories about the toast that day and what it meant for you to be part of it?

ChinaStateLuncheonToastIt was an amazing day. To be able to cook for the now President Xi and Vice President Biden was a great honor. My father was there along with my wife and he was tickled pink that cooking could bring a man so far. Biden and Hillary Clinton thanked me personally for the meal, Hillary believed that negotiations went better because of the thoughtful menu and the bonding ritual of coming together over a delicious meal. It was this positive experience which provided the impetus to create the now famous “Chef’s Core” at the State Department, Hillary saw the merit in leveraging American chefs as diplomatic aids.

mingphotoI was able to meet all three leaders at the end of the meal. Because I speak Chinese, I greeted President Xi in his language. My 3-4 minute conversation had to be translated for Hillary and Biden and touched on my philosophy as a chef. I was humbled and amazed that he took time with me.

So, in addition to a career highlight, you could call this the unofficial kick off of the Chef Core!

Yes, and I’m proud to have been at the forefront of the ongoing program. The State Department recruits chefs who understand the culture of the visiting diplomats. For my part in this first dinner, I brought my understanding of Chinese preferences. Protein like duck along with hot soups are a favorite, so I took the opportunity to weave in those elements. I also served an interpretation of my signature butter fish using soy marinated butter instead of miso which is a Japanese ingredient.

Tell me a little bit about your background and what inspired you to dive into this business as a restaurateur and renowned chef.

I’ve cooked my whole life. I had a natural love for food which grew during summers in Paris while I was in college. I immersed myself in French cuisine & pastry and immediately decided I had to merge French with Chinese food. For me, these are the two master cuisines of the world which have been around for the longest time. From then on, I explored a blend of these two top techniques.

This appreciation of French production techniques is a natural point of intersection with Iron Horse!

That’s true. It’s part of why I appreciate the Iron Horse bubbles, they’re made in the US but with a French style.

You have a TV show called “Simply Ming” which airs in Boston, do you have any other interesting projects that you’re currently working on?

One cool project I’m working on is called FoodyDirect. It is a web based food delivery service offering regional favorites from over 100 different restaurants, delis, and bakeries. You literally get Blue Ginger food sent to your home with simple instructions on how to finish it off. I’m excited because FoodyDirect is now offering my signature butter fish dish which goes out goes out authentically from my hands in my kitchen. We’re also serving our pot stickers especially for the Chinese New Year, they bring good luck.

Chinese New Year is fast approaching. How do the menus that you concept reflect Chinese New Year celebrations at your restaurants?

We’ll prepare a couple special dishes and always include dumplings. The proper dumpling has a crescent shape and is said to bring prosperity. Some families hide a coin in a dumpling, the lucky bite promises an exceptionally great year. We’ll have a “whole fish” dish at Blue Dragon. Wholeness is a major theme at this holiday, it signifies completeness into the New Year. Especially with fish, have to keep a good head and tail, it suggests a great beginning and end.

How integral are bubbles in marking calendar milestones? How do your guests react to the popping of a cork in your dining rooms?

Chinese are just learning how to drink wine and I think they’ll learn as I did – that champagne is great for everything – breakfast lunch and dinner! It’s unfortunate that many think it’s only appropriate at special occasions, it should be enjoyed every day. It seamlessly cuts through fat like french fries or tempura on my menu. And the well made Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs hold up against some serious food very well.

It’s clear that you’re passionate about wine as a perfect compliment to the food portion of a celebratory meal, what will you be drinking tonight at your Chinese New Year celebration?

Iron Horse is a staple, they don’t make a bad champagne. I’ll be popping the special production Year of the Monkey Cuvee. After cooking all day at Super Bowl 50, it will be the perfect way to unwind with family and lots of dumplings.

potstickersCan you provide some guidance on a Chinese New Year inspired recipe that Iron Horse readers can create in their own home with Year of the Monkey Cuvee?

Pork and Apple Pot Stickers with Dim Sum Dipper
Makes 20 to 25 pot stickers

½ pound ground pork, (not too lean)
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 green apple, peeled, finely diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 ½ tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
2 tablespoon naturally brewed soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Purchased Pot-Sticker Wrappers
2 tablespoons canola oil

1. To make the filling, combine the pork and the butter in a large bowl.  Knead the butter into the pork until it is fully incorporated.  Add the apple, ginger, garlic, sambal, soy sauce, sesame oil, egg and salt to the pork and mix.
2. To fill the pot stickers, place about ½ tablespoon of the filling in the center of each wrapper.  Avoid getting filling on the edges of the wrapper, which would prevent proper sealing.  Fold each wrapper in half to form a half-moon shape.  Seal the top center of each dumpling by pressing between the fingers and, starting at the center, make 3 pleats, working toward the bottom right.  Repeat, working toward the bottom left corner.  Press the dumplings down gently on the work surface to flatten the bottoms.
3. Heat a large non-stick skillet over high heat.  Add the oil and swirl to coat.  When the oil shimmers, add the pot stickers, flattened bottoms down, in rows of five and cook in batches without disturbing until brown, about 6 minutes.  Add about ½ cup of water and immediately cover to avoid splattering.  Lift the cover and make sure about 1/8 inch of water remains in the pan; if not, add a bit more.  Steam until the pot stickers are puffy, yet firm and the water has evaporated, 8-10 minutes.  If the water evaporates before the pot stickers are done, add more in ¼ cup increments.  If the pot stickers seem done but water remains in the pan, drain it and return the pan to the stove top.
4. Continue to cook over high heat to allow the pot stickers to recrisp on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes.  Transfer the pot stickers to a platter and serve with the dipping sauce.

*Dim Sum Dipper
Makes about 1 cup
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup scallions, green parts only, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
In a medium bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, scallions, sesame oil and sambal oelek.  Stir to blend and use or store.
chinesezodiacAre you curious about your birth year in the Chinese zodiac?

The Chinese animal zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 years, each year is represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. In order, the 12 animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

The Iron Horse family wishes you a great Year of the Monkey filled with with happiness, bright colors, beautiful blossoms, the excitement of fireworks and, of course, delicious food and wine. Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Grantee Spotlight: Jamie Clark


Jamie Clark works on fauna from Mughr el-Hamamah (Jordan) in the Zooarchaeology Lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Jamie Clark (University of Alaska Fairbanks) was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2015 cycle for her project entitled “Early Upper Paleolithic hunting strategies at Mughr el-Hamamah, Jordan.”

Understanding the reasons behind the success and spread of our species (Homo sapiens sapiens) relative to archaic humans such as the Neanderthals is a major focus of research within paleoanthropology.  A significant amount of research has centered on the Levant due to its potential as a corridor for population expansion out of Africa. Not only does the region preserve a number of sites associated with the Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP; presumably produced by modern humans), but it also preserves a rich record of Neanderthal occupation. The site of Mughr el-Hamamah (MHM, Jordan) is one of only a few sites in the southern Levant that both dates to the initial stages of the Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP; 45-39 ka cal BP) and has extensive faunal preservation. The site thus offers a unique opportunity to explore questions relating to human subsistence and landscape use during a critical period in the later expansion of our species from Africa into Eurasia.

Serial sampling a gazelle molar for stable isotope analysis. Photo courtesy Gideon Hartman.

Our project has two primary components: zooarchaeological analysis (to be conducted by Jamie Clark) and isotopic analysis (to be conducted by Gideon Hartman, co-PI). Zooarchaeological work will focus on the analysis of the large assemblage of identifiable bones (~11,000 specimens). Stable isotope work will focus on the analysis of carbon and oxygen isotopic data deriving from the tooth enamel from two key prey species: gazelle and fallow deer. We will combine these datasets in order to address three distinct issues: First, to explore the hypothesis that EUP populations had a wider diet breadth than their Middle Paleolithic (MP) counterparts. Second, to reconstruct environmental conditions in the eastern Jordan Valley. Finally, we will develop a model of landscape use and subsistence strategies that will provide a baseline for comparison with site that pre- and post-date the EUP, allowing for new insights into variation in the adaptive strategies of MP and UP populations in the region.


Photograph of the Early Upper Paleolithic site of Mughr el-Hamamah (the site is the second cave from the left). Photo courtesy of Aaron Stutz.

From the Field: Alia Gurtov

Alia Gurtov, MNI analysis, National Museum of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Alia Gurtov, MNI analysis, National Museum of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Here we have another update from fall 2014 grantee Aliz Gurtov. To read a summary of her work, please click here, and to read her first update from the field, click here

With the start of 2016, it is time for a progress update. As I write, I am sitting in a pleasantly overheated café while Madison, WI, withers in 5° F temperatures. This couldn’t feel more different from the conditions in which I first wrote about my research.

This disconnect is not simply climatic. As I’ve been told by many wise academics, the research road is bumpy. I left off the previous update with great excitement to scan my dental casts in Nashville, TN, in August 2015. When I finally placed my first cast under the confocal microscope, however, I could see that something was wrong. There were microscopic bubbles in the surface that I could not account for by any natural process. I rapidly scanned a dozen teeth, finding only a few casts of sufficient quality. What a disaster. I continued to scan teeth for the next few days, confirming that a good portion of my sample had some kind of molding or casting error that was not present in the casts I’d analyzed back in February, or those I’d analyzed for my pilot study.

Upon returning to Madison, I set about recasting my molds using several different curing methods and epoxy component ratios. I called several epoxy manufacturing companies, dental microwear experts, and students with extensive casting experience, but gained little insight into the source of my particular bubbly blight. Because all of the original teeth are housed in the National Museum of Tanzania, I was unable to try remolding them, though this is the next logical step. I then sent a sample of re-casted teeth to my collaborator, Professor DeSantis at Vanderbilt University, to check before I scheduled another week with the confocal. But after two weeks it became apparent that while the parcel was recorded as delivered, it had never reached the department office. With no alternative, and only one week when the confocal would be available, I booked another flight to Nashville.

And once again, most of my casts were unusable. I don’t think my heart has ever plunged so rapidly into my stomach before. Nevertheless, I stuck with the microscopy for the next few days and managed to find a sufficient number of usable teeth from which to draw pristine microwear surfaces. I am still devastated by the number of worthless casts in my sample, but I have learned to compartmentalize!

Now, while I drink this cappuccino, I am looking at a modest but sufficiently populated spreadsheet of dental microwear analyses from such extinct bovid species as Parmularius altidens and Antidorcas recki. Being the most abundant bovids at my primary sites of FLK North and FLK Zinj, I am grateful to have them. As my pilot study suggests, some of these microwear variables distinguish between wet and dry season deaths and, by extension, seasons of hominin and carnivore meat-foraging activity. By comparing the bovid microwear values between anthropogenic FLK Zinj and carnivore-generated FLK North, I will be able to determine if hominins were meat-foraging during seasons of peak or low carnivore activity around watering holes, or employing no seasonal meat-foraging strategy at all. Thus far, there appears to be almost perfect overlap in the foraging season of Antidorcas recki, a small gazelle about the size of a modern Thomson’s and likely prey of ancient leopards. I now turn to Parmularius altidens to see what this larger bovid says about hominin foraging seasonality at Olduvai Gorge.

To hear about my final results, please join me for my podium session on Saturday afternoon, April 16th, at the AAPA meetings in Atlanta.

We look forward to seeing Alia at AAPA, and we hope to report on her findings!


Grantee Spotlight: Timothy Campbell

Fig 1

Timothy Campbell, PhD candidate at Texas A&M, was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2015 cycle for his project entitled “Paleoenvironmental reconstruction of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans using rodent postcrania.”

Fig 1

Simon Mataro (left) and Tim Campbell (right) after finding modern micromammal remains under an active owl roost in Laetoli, Tanzania

Many theories of hominin behavioral and morphological evolution have focused on the environments occupied by early members of our lineage in order to provide an adaptive context for major evolutionary events. One way in which past environments are inferred is through analyses of the fossilized fauna found at sites. In many of these studies researchers will either study recovered fossilized cranial and dental remains in order to reconstruct past faunal community composition or study the postcranial remains of larger taxa within an ecological functional framework. While studies of craniodental remains from smaller taxa, such as rodents, have also contributed to our understanding of the past, analyses of their postcrania have lagged behind those of other groups such as African antelopes.

Fig 2

Simon Mataro (left) and Tim Campbell (right) recovering modern micromammal remains under an active owl roost in Laetoli, Tanzania

As such, my study will assess whether analyses of African rodent postcrania can provide useful data for paleoecological and paleoenvironmental reconstructions. First, I will test if modern rodent postcrania can be used to identify what genus and species are present, and if they can be used to reconstruct past rodent faunal community composition. Second, I will test if modern rodent postcrania can be analyzed within an ecological functional framework to reconstruct past environmental conditions. The correspondence in environmental signals obtained between these two approaches will then be assessed. After compiling a modern comparative dataset I will then analyze the rodent fossilized rodent postcrania from the hominin-bearing sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans in duel taxonomic and ecological functional based analyses in order to test previously proposed signals utilizing other proxy data, including rodent craniodental remains. In conclusion this study will improve our ability to reconstruct past environments associated with early hominin remains through analyses of a currently underutilized source of data, rodent postcrania, and will help clarify the environmental context at two sites important to our understanding of human evolution.

Modern Gerbilliscus leucogaster (USNM-295430) postcrania from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History