December 17, 2012
As 2012 nears its end, one thing stands out as the major theme in human evolution research this year: Our hominid ancestors were more diverse than scientists had ever imagined. Over the past 12 months, researchers have found clues indicating that throughout most of hominids’ seven-million-year history, numerous species with a range of adaptations lived at any given time. Here are my top picks for the most important discoveries this year.
1. Fossil foot reveals Lucy wasn’t alone: Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, lived roughly 3.0 million to 3.9 million years ago. So when researchers unearthed eight 3.4-million-year-old hominid foot bones in Ethiopia, they expected the fossils to belong to Lucy’s kind. The bones do indicate the creature walked upright on two legs, but the foot had an opposable big toe useful for grasping and climbing. That’s not something you see in A. afarensis feet. The researchers who analyzed the foot say it does resemble that of the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus, suggesting that some type of Ardipithecus species may have been Lucy’s neighbor. But based on such few bones, it’s too soon to know what to call this species.
2. Multiple species of early Homo lived in Africa: Since the 1970s, anthropologists have debated how many species of Homo lived about two million years ago after the genus appeared in Africa. Some researchers think there were two species: Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis; others say there was just H. habilis, a species with a lot of physical variation. It’s been a hard question to address because there’s only one well-preserved fossil, a partial skull, of the proposed species H. rudolfensis. In August, researchers working in Kenya announced they had found a lower jaw that fits with the previously found partial skull of H. rudolfensis. The new jaw doesn’t match the jaws of H. habilis, so the team concluded there must have been at least two species of Homo present.
3. New 11,500-year-old species of Homo from China: In March, researchers reported they had found a collection of hominid bones, dating to 11,500 to 14,300 years ago, in a cave in southern China. Based on the age, you’d expect the fossils to belong to Homo sapiens, but the bones have a mix of traits not seen in modern humans or populations of H. sapiens living at that time, such as a broad face and protruding jaw. That means the fossils may represent a newly discovered species of Homo that lived side by side with humans. Another possibility is that the remains came from Denisovans, a mysterious species known only from DNA extracted from the tip of a finger and a tooth. Alternatively, the collection may just reveal that H. sapiens in Asia near the end of the Pleistocene were more varied than scientists had realized.
4. Shoulder indicates A. afarensis climbed trees: Another heavily debated question in human evolution is whether early hominids still climbed trees even though they were built for upright walking on the ground. Fossilized shoulder blades of a 3.3-million-year-old A. afarensis child suggest the answer is yes. Scientists compared the shoulders to those of adult A. afarensis specimens, as well as those of modern humans and apes. The team determined that the A. afarensis shoulder underwent developmental changes during childhood that resemble those of chimps, whose shoulder growth is affected by the act of climbing. The similar growth patterns hint that A. afarensis, at least the youngsters, spent part of their time in trees.
5. Earliest projectile weapons unearthed: Archaeologists made two big discoveries this year related to projectile technology. At the Kathu Pan 1 site in South Africa, archaeologists recovered 500,000-year-old stone points that hominids used to make the earliest known spears. Some 300,000 years later, humans had started making spear-throwers and maybe even bow and arrows. At the South African site called Pinnacle Point, another group of researchers uncovered tiny stone tips dated to 71,000 years ago that were likely used to make such projectile weapons. The geological record indicates early humans made these small tips over thousands of years, suggesting people at this point had the cognitive and linguistic abilities to pass on instructions to make complex tools over hundreds of generations.
6. Oldest evidence of modern culture: The timing and pattern of the emergence of modern human culture is yet another hotly contested area of paleoanthropology. Some researchers think the development of modern behavior was a long, gradual buildup while others see it as progressing in fits and starts. In August, archaeologists contributed new evidence to the debate. At South Africa’s Border Cave, a team unearthed a collection of 44,000-year-old artifacts, including bone awls, beads, digging sticks and hafting resin, that resemble tools used by modern San culture today. The archaeologists say this is the oldest instance of modern culture, that is, the oldest set of tools that match those used by living people.
7. Earliest example of hominid fire: Studying the origins of fire is difficult because it’s often hard to differentiate a natural fire that hominids might have taken advantage of versus a fire that our ancestors actually ignited. Claims for early controlled fires go back almost two million years. In April, researchers announced they had established the most “secure” evidence of hominids starting blazes: one-million-year-old charred bones and plant remains from a cave in South Africa. Because the fire occurred in a cave, hominids are the most likely cause of the inferno, the researchers say.
8. Human-Neanderthal matings dated: It’s not news that Neanderthals and H. sapiens mated with each other, as Neanderthal DNA makes up a small portion of the human genome. But this year scientists estimated when these trysts took place: 47,000 to 65,000 years ago. The timing makes sense; it coincides with the period when humans were thought to have left Africa and spread into Asia and Europe.
9. Australopithecus sediba dined on wood: Food particles stuck on the teeth of a fossil of A. sediba revealed the nearly two-million-year-old hominid ate wood—something not yet found in any other hominid species. A. sediba was found in South Africa in 2010 and is a candidate for ancestor of the genus Homo.
10. Earliest H. sapiens fossils from Southeast Asia: Scientists working in a cave in Laos dug up fossils dating to between 46,000 and 63,000 years ago. Several aspects of the bones, including a widening of the skull behind the eyes, indicate the bones were of H. sapiens. Although other potential modern human fossils in Southeast Asia are older than this find, the researchers claim the remains from Laos are the most conclusive evidence of early humans in the region.
December 12, 2012
South Africa plays a central role in the history of paleoanthropology. Anthropologists and other scientists of the 19th and early 20th century balked at the possibility that Africa was humankind’s homeland—until an ancient hominid was unearthed in South Africa in 1924. Since then, Africa has become the center of human evolution fieldwork, and South Africa has produced a number of iconic hominid fossils and artifacts. Here is a totally subjective list of the country’s most important hominid discoveries.
Taung Child: In 1924, anatomist Raymond Dart pried a tiny fossilized partial skull and brain from a lump of rock. The bones were the remains of a child. The youngster looked like an ape, but Dart also recognized some human qualities. He decided he had found a human ancestor that was so ancient it was still ape-like in many ways. (Later, scientists would determine the bones were nearly three million years old). Dart named the hominid Australopithecus africanus. The Taung Child, known by the name of the place where the fossils came from, was the first australopithecine ever discovered—and the first early hominid found in Africa. After the discovery, anthropologists who were searching for humanity’s origins in Europe and Asia switched their attention to Africa.
Mrs. Ples: Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, paleontologist Robert Broom led the efforts to find hominids in South Africa. He scoured the region’s limestone caves and quarries—the Taung Child came from a quarry—and was well rewarded for his efforts. Of the numerous fossils he uncovered (sometimes with the help of dynamite), his most influential find was a roughly 2.5-million-year-old skull of an adult female hominid now known as Mrs. Ples. Unearthed in 1947 at a site called Sterkfontein, the skull was well preserved and displayed the same mix of ape and human features seen in the Taung Child. Finding an adult version of A. africanus helped convince skeptics that the species was an ancient human ancestor. Some anatomists had thought Taung was just an ape and would have developed more pronounced ape-like features, and lost its human-like traits, as it grew up. Instead, Mrs. Ples showed that the species retained its mix of human and ape traits throughout life.
STS 14: Another one of Broom’s key finds is a set of well-preserved post-cranial bones that includes a pelvis, partial spine, ribs and upper thigh. Like Mrs. Ples, these fossils were found in 1947 at Sterkfontein and date to about 2.5 million years ago. The bones are officially known as STS 14 (STS refers to Sterkfontein) and presumably belonged to an A. africanus individual. The shape of the pelvis and spine are remarkably modern, and the find was some of the first evidence that early human ancestors walked upright on two legs.
SK 48: In addition to finding a trove of A. africanus specimens, Broom, along with his many assistants, discovered a new hominid species: Paranthropus robustus. The first hints of the species came in 1938 when Broom acquired a jaw fragment and molar that were much larger and thicker than any fossils belonging to A. africanus. Broom collected more of the unusual fossils and then hit the jackpot in 1950. A quarry worker found a nearly complete skull of an adult hominid that had giant teeth and a flat face. The fossil is officially called SK 48 (SK refers to the cave of Swartkrans where the skull was found). The collection of fossils with big chompers, which the hominids used to chew tough foods, was given the name P. robustus, which lived in South Africa about 1.8 million to 1.2 million years ago.
Little Foot: In the early 1990s, anthropologist Ron Clarke of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand found four small australopithecine foot bones at Sterkfontein. Later, Clarke and his colleagues discovered a nearly complete skeleton embedded in limestone that belonged to the foot. The researchers are still carefully chipping away at the rock to release the skeleton, dubbed Little Foot, but they have already noted that the individual has some characteristics not seen in any other known species of Australopithecus. But since the bones haven’t been fully studied and shared with other scientists, it’s hard to know where the hominid sits in the family tree, Science reported last year. It’s also hard to know exactly how old it is. Clarke’s team places the fossils at 3.3 million years old while other groups using different dating methods say Little Foot is more like 2.2 million years old. Science reported that Little Foot was expected to be fully liberated from its rocky enclosure sometime this year. As far as I know, that hasn’t happened yet.
Australopithecus sediba: The most recent major hominid fossil discovery in South Africa occurred in 2010. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand led a team that found two partial hominid skeletons at Malapa Cave. Dating to nearly two million years ago, the skeletons indicate that these hominids had their own unique style of walking and spent time both on the ground and in trees. X-ray scans of one of the skulls reveals that some aspects of the brain were more modern than in previous species. Berger and his colleagues therefore think the species, which they named A. sediba, could have given rise to the genus Homo.
Origins of Modern Behavior: Fossils aren’t the only major human evolution discoveries from South Africa. Several coastal cave sites have been treasure troves of artifacts that reveal when and how sophisticated behavior and culture emerged in early populations of Homo sapiens. There have been too many of these discoveries to single any one out. Some of these finds—such as red pigments used 164,000 years ago and shell beads dating to 77,000 years ago—are among the earliest evidence for symbolic thinking in our ancestors. Other artifacts, like 71,000-year-old projectile weapons, indicate early humans could construct complicated, multipart tools that require a lot of planning and foresight to make.
November 19, 2012
Lucy and Ardi are the poster children of human evolution. But these famous fossil skeletons may never have been found if it weren’t for Louis and Mary Leakey’s pioneering efforts. The pair made several discoveries at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge in the 1950s and 1960s that inspired other anthropologists to come to East Africa in search of human ancestors. Here’s a look at some of the most important hominid fossil finds from Tanzania.
The Nutcracker Man (OH 5): The Leakeys’ first major discovery at Olduvai Gorge occurred in 1959. Mary found the roughly 1.8-million-year-old skull of a hominid with a flat face, gigantic teeth, a large crest on the top of its head (where chewing muscles attached) and a relatively small brain. They named the species Zinjanthropus boisei (now known as Paranthropus boisei). Nicknamed the Nutcracker Man, the species was too different from modern people to be the direct human ancestor that Louis had been hoping to find. But the discovery captured public interest in human evolution, and the Leakeys went on to unearth many more hominid fossils at Olduvai. OH 5 is the fossil’s official catalog name, meaning Olduvai Hominid Number 5.
Johnny’s Child (OH 7): The next big Leaky discovery came in 1960. Mary and Louis’ son, Johnny, found a lower jaw about 300 yards away from where the Nutcracker Man was discovered. The bone came from a young hominid; thus, the fossil was nicknamed Johnny’s Child. At the same spot, the Leakeys also dug up some hand bones and skull fragments. Using these skull fragments, the Leakeys and their colleagues estimated the roughly 1.8-million-year-old hominid’s brain size: 680 cubic centimeters. That was significantly bigger than the size of the average australopithecine brain, about 500 cubic centimeters. The hand bones revealed that the hominid had a “precision grip,” when a fingertip presses against the tip of the thumb. This movement allows for fine manipulation of objects, such as turning a key in a door or threading a needle. The precision grip led the Leakeys to conclude that this hominid was the one who made the stone tools found at Olduvai. Because of the tool-making and the big brain, the Leakeys decided OH 7 represented the earliest member of the genus Homo: Homo habilis (meaning Handy Man).
OH 8: Also in 1960, the Leakeys’ team discovered a well-preserved fossil foot belonging to H. habilis. The bones indicate the hominid had modern-looking foot arches, suggesting the species walked like modern people do. Tooth marks on the specimen’s ankle reveal the hominid had been a crocodile’s lunch.
OH 9: At the same time the Leakeys unearthed the first examples of H. habilis, they also recovered the skull cap of a more recent hominid dating to about 1.4 million years ago. At 1,000 cubic centimeters, the specimen’s brain was much bigger than that of H. habilis. The skull had thick brow ridges and a low, sloped forehead—key features linking the fossil to the species Homo erectus.
Twiggy (OH 24): Discovered in 1968 by Peter Nzube, Twiggy is a skull belonging to an adult H. habilis dating to roughly 1.8 million years ago. Although OH 24 is the most complete H. habilis skull from Olduvai Gorge, it was found crushed completely flat (and therefore named after the slender British model of the same name). Paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke reconstructed what the skull would have looked like, but it’s still fairly distorted.
LH 4: In the 1970s, after Louis died, Mary began excavations at Laetoli, about 30 miles from Olduvai Gorge. The fossils she was finding there were much older than the bones she and Louis had discovered at Olduvai. In 1974, for example, her team unearthed a lower jaw with teeth dating to 3.6 million years ago. It was cataloged as Laetoli Homind 4, or LH 4. Around the same time, anthropologists at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia were also finding hominid fossils dating to more than 3 million years ago, including the famous Lucy skeleton. At first, no one was sure what to call these older fossils. After analyzing both the Hadar and Laetoli specimens, anthropologists Tim White and Donald Johanson (Lucy’s discoverer) concluded that all of the fossils represented one species that they called Australopithecus afarensis. They chose LH 4 as the species’ type specimen, or the standard representative of the species. Mary did not approve. She didn’t believe the fossils from Laetoli were australopithecines. But under the rules of taxonomy, once a type specimen is designated, it’s forever associated with its species name. (For more on the controversy, see Johanson’s book Lucy.)
Laetoli Footprints: In 1978, one of Mary’s team members, Paul Abell, made the most famous discovery at Laetoli: He found the trail of about 70 fossilized hominid footprints. Based on the footprints’ age, 3.6 million years, anthropologists think they were made by an A. afarensis group. The footprints reveal this early hominid had a very modern way of walking. The big toe was in line with the other toes, not off to the side like an ape’s big toe. And the prints reveal the walkers had arches, unlike the flat feet of an ape. The footprints also suggest A. afarensis had a modern gait.
November 14, 2012
The nearly 2-million-year-old Paranthropus boisei was the cow of the hominid family. Unlike other human cousins, the species was a fan of dining on grasses. But it turns out it wasn’t the only, or even the first, hominid grazer. Australopithecus bahrelghazali was munching on grasses and sedges at least 1.5 million years before the origin of P. boisei, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The findings may mean early hominids were capable of consuming a wide variety of foods and colonizing new environments.
But before we discuss how scientists figured out A. bahrelghazali‘s diet, and why that matters, we need to address a far more pressing question: Who the heck was A. bahrelghazali?
In 1993, researchers in Chad unearthed a 3.5-million-year-old hominid lower jaw fragment and a few attached teeth. Based on the fossils’ age, many paleoanthropologists think the bones belonged to Australopithecus afarensis. But the specimen was found more than 1,500 miles farther west than any other A. afarensis bones, and subtle differences in the size and shape of the fossils led the discoverers to conclude they had found a new species. They named it A. bahrelghazali after the Bahr el Ghazal valley in Chad where the bones were recovered. Since then, researchers haven’t found any other A. bahrelghazali fossils and its species’ status remains controversial.
With just a jaw and teeth, there’s not too much scientists can say about what A. bahrelghazali looked like or how it lived its life. But, fortunately, diet is something that can be gleamed from these fossils. Analyzing the teeth’s chemistry is one way to assess what the species ate. This is possible because the carbon found in plants comes in two versions, or isotopes, called C3 and C4. Trees and other forest plants are rich in C3; grasses, sedges and other grassland plants have an abundance of C4. When an animal eats these plants—or eats other animals that eat these plants—the different carbon isotopes get incorporated into the individual’s teeth, serving as a record of what it once ate. Previous work on P. boisei has shown that C4 plants made up as much as 77 percent of that hominid’s diet.
In the new study, Julia Lee-Thorp of Oxford University and colleagues come to a similar conclusion for A. bahrelghazali, that the species mainly ate C4 plants, probably grasses and sedges. And like modern baboons that live on savannas, the hominid probably ate different parts of these plants, including underground tubers and bulbs. This diet is not surprising given the type of habitat A. bahrelghazali lived in. Based on the other types of animals found near the hominid, the researchers say A. bahrelghazali made its home in an open grassland, with few trees, near a lake. So forest foods weren’t really a dining option.
The results mean that by 3.5 million years ago hominids were probably already “broad generalists” capable of eating a variety of foods depending on what was locally available, the researchers say. (The younger Australopithecus sediba,which lived roughly 2 million years ago, demonstrates some of the stranger foods that hominids could eat: The South African species liked to eat wood—a dietary preference not seen in any other hominid.) Being a food generalist may have allowed A. bahrelghazali to explore new environments and leave behind the forests that earlier hominids, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, and their ancestors resided in.
November 7, 2012
The bow and arrow is an ancient weapon—going back at least 71,000 years, a study published in Nature suggests. Archaeologists working at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point cave site uncovered a collection of tiny blades, about an inch big, that resemble arrow points, likely belonging to prehistoric bow and arrows or spear-throwers. The researchers say the discovery is further evidence that humans (Homo sapiens) started to act and think like modern people early in their evolution.
The skeletons of H. sapiens appear in the fossil record by about 200,000 years ago in Africa. But when modern culture and cognition emerged is still an open question. Some anthropologists think the human brain evolved in tandem with the rest of the body, and culture built up slowly over time as technology advanced. Others have suggested there was a disconnect between physical and behavioral modernity, with some sort of genetic mutation roughly 40,000 years ago causing an abrupt change in how humans think. Still other researchers argue that incipient signs of advanced intellect appear early in the archaeological record but then disappear for thousands of years before reappearing. Needless to say, there’s a lot of debate on this subject. (For a detailed discussion on the topic, check out the story I wrote in June for Smithsonian.com).
Kyle Brown of the University of Cape Town and his colleagues say the tiny blades that they found are signs of complex tool making. The tiny tools were created from silcrete stone that people had heated over a fire to make the raw material easier to work with before chipping the rock into blades. This suggests people had to follow a lengthy multi-step process to make the blades, which included gathering the stones, gathering fuel for the fire, heating the rocks and carefully cutting the stone into delicate blades. The shape of the blades looks like the shape of arrow tips found in more recent arrows, which led Brown and colleagues to conclude the blades were used in bow-and-arrow projectile weapons. That implies there were even more steps in the tool-making process, such as hafting the stone tips to a wooden shaft.
The blades aren’t the only evidence that humans had advanced cognitive abilities as early as 71,000 years ago. Pigments, jewelry and other art found in South African cave sites dating to as many as 164,000 years ago suggest that early humans were capable of abstract or symbolic thinking. Some researchers view this ability as central to human intellect.
The new study, however, goes one step further. The researchers say the blades were found throughout a geological section of Pinnacle Point that spans roughly 11,000 years (71,000 to 60,000 years ago), indicating people could communicate complicated instructions to build intricate tools across hundreds of generations. This instance of long-term maintenance of a cultural tradition early in human history is evidence that the capacity for modern culture began early and slowly built up, Brown and colleagues say. Previous suggestions that complex culture came and went in the early days of humans is probably an artificial result, they say, because so few African sites have yet been excavated.