March 19, 2012
Hominid Hunting went on an unexpected hiatus in January. I’m finally back. For my first post, I thought I’d share what I’ve been thinking about for the past couple months: my fantasy fossil finds, or the hominid discoveries I’d most like to see. In no particular order:
1. The skeleton of Sahelanthropus: In 2002, anthropologists announced the discovery of a new hominid (PDF): Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Unearthed in Chad, the find was exciting because it was the first—and still only—hominid found west of Africa’s Rift Valley. And at six million to seven million years old, it was the earliest known hominid. But the species’ place in the hominid family tree is not secure. The original discovery consisted of a skull, jaw and a few isolated teeth. (Since then, researchers have found (PDF) a few additional jaws and teeth.) The position of the skull’s foramen magnum—the hole near the base of the skull where the spinal cord exits—is like that of a hominid, more forward under the skull, indicating an erect posture and upright walking. But to confirm Sahelanthropus‘ hominid status, and convince the skeptics that it’s not a non-hominid ape, scientists need to find the species’ post-cranial bones.
2. The skull of Orrorin: Around the same time that Sahelanthropus was discovered, researchers dug up another new hominid species, Orrorin tugenensis, in Kenya. Like Sahelanthropus, the hominid was very ancient, about six million years old. The discovery consisted of 13 fossils, including thigh bones, finger bones and isolated teeth and jaw fragments. The thigh bones show the telltale signs of walking upright while the rest of the known body looks more apelike, which is expected for a very early hominid. But to get a fuller picture of the species it would be nice to have a complete skull.
3. Hobbit DNA: Almost ten years after Homo floresiensis was discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia, anthropologists still disagree about whether the hobbit was a distinct species of Homo or a diminutive modern human with a genetic growth disorder, perhaps microcephaly. Extracting DNA from one of the hobbit fossils would help resolve the debate, revealing whether or not its genetic blueprints match our own.
4. Fossils of a Denisovan: The study of the Denisovans has the opposite problem. A couple years ago, researchers discovered a potentially new hominid species based purely on its DNA. The DNA came from an isolated finger bone found in a cave in Siberia. The bone dates to between 30,000 and 48,000 years ago, a time when modern humans and Neanderthals could have lived in the area. But the genetic material didn’t match either species. So now anthropologists know there was a third type of hominid in Eurasia at this time—but they have no idea what it looked like.
5. Australopithecus skin: When researchers stumbled upon Australopithecus sediba in a South African cave, they found more than just a possible link between australopithecines and the genus Homo. Some of the 1.977-million-year-old fossils are covered in a thin layer that might be skin. If so, it would be the first time anyone has ever found fossilized soft tissue from an ancient hominid. To investigate the matter, a pair of scientists has started the open-access Malapa Soft Tissue Project to gather ideas on the best way to analyze the possible skin.
6. More Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis fossils: Homo habilis is the earliest known member of the genus Homo, living 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in East and South Africa. It was given its Homo status largely because its brain was bigger than the Australopithecus brain. The species is somewhat controversial, however, with some researchers believing it really was a species of Australopithecus. The issue became even more confused when scientists decided that at least one Homo habilis fossil was different from all the others. A 1.8-million-year-old skull found in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region had a much larger brain size than any other Homo habilis—nearly 200 cubic centimeters bigger. Now some researchers place this and a few other specimens in the species Homo rudolfensis. But many questions remain. Are the two really different species or part of one variable species? Finding more of the big-brained skulls, with associated post-cranial bones, might help researchers determine how different the two forms really were.
7. The skeleton of Gigantopithecus: The largest ape that ever lived went extinct about 300,000 years ago. All researchers know about Gigantopithecus comes from a few jaws and teeth. Based on that scant evidence, some anthropologists think the ape might have stood 10 feet tall and weighed a whopping 1,200 pounds. But to more accurately determine how gargantuan the ape was, and how it moved, someone needs to find some of its post-cranial parts.
8. More Kenyanthropus fossils: In 1999, anthropologists found the skull of the 3.5-million-year-old Kenyanthropus platyops. Researchers classified the skull as a new hominid species because of its unique mix of apelike and humanlike traits. For example, the species had small earholes like a chimp’s but a much flatter face. Many anthropologists don’t agree with this classification. The skull was in bad condition when it was found, and some researcher think it is just a distorted Australopithecus afarensis skull. The only way to settle the matter is to find more skulls that look like the original, if Kenyanthropus really ever existed.
9. A chimp relative: Almost nothing is known about the evolution of chimpanzees after they split away from the human lineage. The lack of fossil evidence may be due to where chimpanzee ancestors likely lived—warm, wet forests where fossils are not often preserved. But in 2005, a pair of anthropologists reported they had found three isolated chimp teeth dated to 500,000 years ago. Whether these teeth belonged to modern chimpanzees (which would imply they are a very long-lived species) or a chimpanzee ancestor is unknown. But what’s interesting about the teeth is where they were found: the Rift Valley of Kenya. Half a million years ago this part of Africa was largely a savannah, indicating ancient chimps were not restricted to forests. Still, even with this discovery, next to nothing is known about chimp ancestry. More fossils, from an even older period, would be a great find.
10. Something unexpected: Of course, the most exciting fossil discoveries are the ones you don’t anticipate and make scientists rethink some aspect of human evolution.
This is just my personal wish list. What’s on yours?
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