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 5, 2012
Perhaps no other human trait is as variable as human height. At 5’4″, I’d be dwarfed standing next to 6’3″ Kerri Walsh, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball. But next to an African pygmy woman, I’d be a giant. The source of that variation is something that anthropologists have been trying to root out for decades. Diet, climate and environment are frequently linked to height differences across human populations.
More recently, researchers have implicated another factor: mortality rate. In a new study in the journal Current Anthropology, Andrea Bamberg Migliano and Myrtille Guillon, both of the University College London, make the case that people living in populations with low life expectancies don’t grow as tall as people living in groups with longer life spans. They also argue changes in mortality rates might account for the jump in body size from Australopithecus to Homo some 2 million years ago.
From an evolutionary standpoint, Migliano and Guillon note, it’s beneficial to start reproducing as soon as possible if you live in a society where individuals typically die young. That way you can have as many babies as possible in a short amount of time. Thus, you should stop growing relatively early in life and start devoting your energy to having children and taking care of them. Having a shorter developmental period means you can’t grow as tall, on average, as someone who has more time to mature. But getting big has reproductive benefits: Larger individuals tend to take in more energy and therefore can invest more energy in reproducing. So in societies with lower mortality rates, and longer adulthoods, it’s better to mature slowly and grow bigger and taller. Over time, populations experiencing different mortality rates will adapt to have shorter or longer developmental periods—and therefore be shorter or taller. (Of course, there is also variation within a population. But here, and throughout the post, I’m talking about population averages.)
To investigate this idea, Migliano and Guillon looked at previously collected height and mortality data from 89 small-scale populations from all over the world. These groups live in a variety of environments, including deserts, forests and savannas, and have different subsistence strategies, including hunter-gathering, pastoralism and agriculture. Using statistical analyses, the team wanted to see what kind of factors best explained the variation of heights in their data set.
In one analysis, three measures of survivorship—life expectancy at birth, life expectancy at age 15 and probability of survival to age 15—accounted for about 70 percent of height variance. The researchers also found evidence that people from societies with high mortality rates do indeed develop faster: Girls from groups that have low life expectancies start menstruating earlier than girls who are more likely to live longer. Environmental setting also influenced height, with people from savannas tending to be taller than people from forests. Diet, however, seemed to play a much smaller role, at least in the study samples.
Other variables not considered in the study may also contribute to height variation, the researchers point out. Temperature and humidity probably somehow factor in. For example, some work suggests shorter people generate less heat in hot, humid environments and therefore cool down more efficiently. That might explain why people living in tropical forests are shorter than those from savannas.
There are some situations, however, where the study’s findings don’t hold up. In modern Western societies, where mortality rates are low, growth is actually sped up because of an overabundance of food. Some studies now show that obesity may contribute to early puberty in girls. On the other hand, severe malnourishment can lead to delayed growth.
Based on the study’s findings, Migliano and Guillon suggest lower death rates probably contributed to changes in body size and height during the Australopithecus-Homo transition. In one study, anthropologists estimated early Homo species were about 30 percent bigger than australopithecines. Homo erectus grew even taller, within the range of variation of modern people. The larger brain of the genus Homo may have allowed the group to lower its mortality rate by outsmarting predators or foraging more efficiently than Australopithecus. Within H. erectus, differences in mortality rates between populations—which lived over a much larger geographic expanse than australopithecines—probably accounts for the variation of height seen in the fossil record of that species.
Much more investigation is needed to corroborate the link between death and height in the fossil record. But the work does highlight how even seemingly simple physical features have complex evolutionary histories.
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.
October 22, 2012
Everyone’s heard of the A, B, AB and O blood types. When you get a blood transfusion, doctors have to make sure a donor’s blood type is compatible with the recipient’s blood, otherwise the recipient can die. The ABO blood group, as the blood types are collectively known, are ancient. Humans and all other apes share this trait, inheriting these blood types from a common ancestor at least 20 million years ago and maybe even earlier, claims a new study published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But why humans and apes have these blood types is still a scientific mystery.
The ABO blood group was discovered in the first decade of the 1900s by Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner. Through a series of experiments, Landsteiner classified blood into the four well-known types. The “type” actually refers to the presence of a particular type of antigen sticking up from the surface of a red blood cell. An antigen is anything that elicits a response from an immune cell called an antibody. Antibodies latch onto foreign substances that enter the body, such as bacteria and viruses, and clump them together for removal by other parts of the immune system. The human body naturally makes antibodies that will attack certain types of red-blood-cell antigens. For example, people with type A blood have A antigens on their red blood cells and make antibodies that attack B antigens; people with type B blood have B antigens on their red blood cells and make antibodies that attack A antigens. So, type A people can’t donate their blood to type B people and vice versa. People who are type AB have both A and B antigens on their red blood cells and therefore don’t make any A or B antibodies while people who are type O have no A or B antigens and make both A and B antibodies. (This is hard to keep track of, so I hope the chart below helps!)
After Landsteiner determined the pattern of the ABO blood group, he realized blood types are inherited, and blood typing became one of the first ways to test paternity. Later, researchers learned ABO blood types are governed by a single gene that comes in three varieties: A, B and O. (People who are type AB inherit an A gene from one parent and a B gene from the other.)
More than a hundred years after Landsteiner’s Nobel Prize-winning work, scientists still have no idea what function these blood antigens serve. Clearly, people who are type O—the most common blood type—do just fine without them. What scientists have found in the last century, however, are some interesting associations between blood types and disease. In some infectious diseases, bacteria may closely resemble certain blood antigens, making it difficult for antibodies to detect the difference between foreign invaders and the body’s own blood. People who are type A, for instance, seem more susceptible to smallpox, while people who are type B appear more affected by some E. coli infections.
Over the last hundred years, scientists have also discovered that the ABO blood group is just one of more than 20 human blood groups. The Rh factor is another well known blood group, referring to the “positive” or “negative” in blood types, such as A-positive or B-negative. (The Rh refers to Rhesus macaques, which were used in early studies of the blood group.) People who are Rh-positive have Rh antigens on their red blood cells; people who are Rh-negative don’t and produce antibodies that will attack Rh antigens. The Rh blood group plays a role in the sometimes fatal blood disease erythroblastosis fetalis that can develop in newborns if an Rh-negative women gives birth to an Rh-positive baby and her antibodies attack her child.
Most people have never heard of the numerous other blood groups—such as the MN, Diego, Kidd and Kell—probably because they trigger smaller or less frequent immune reactions. And in some cases, like the MN blood group, humans don’t produce antibodies against the antigens. One “minor” blood type that does have medical significance is the Duffy blood group. Plasmodium vivax, one of the parasites that causes malaria, latches onto the Duffy antigen when it invades the body’s red blood cells. People who lack the Duffy antigens, therefore, tend to be immune to this form of malaria.
Although researchers have found these interesting associations between blood groups and disease, they still really don’t understand how and why such blood antigens evolved in the first place. These blood molecules stand as a reminder that we still have a lot to learn about human biology.
October 15, 2012
I was sick this weekend. The kind of sick where your nose runs so much that you begin to question how the human body can produce so much mucus. My throat hurt. I was coughing. But the worst part was the headache: My head felt like it was being continuously squeezed by a vise, or maybe some sort of medieval torture device. The pain was so bad even my teeth hurt. As I was lying in bed next to my half-empty box of Kleenex, I thought, “This wouldn’t be happening if we had descended from Asian, not African, apes.” (Yes, I was really thinking that.)
But before I explain what apes have to do with my cold, let’s cover some basic biology. When the cold virus (or bacteria or an allergen like ragweed) enters the body, the nose produces mucus to prevent an infection from spreading to the lungs. This results in a runny nose. All of the extra snot can also plug up passages that connect the nose to air-filled pockets in the bones of the skull, called sinuses. Sinuses produce their own mucus and are thought to help humidify air, as well as stabilize and strengthen the skull. But when the passageways between the head’s sinuses and nasal cavity get blocked, the sinuses’ mucus can’t drain and the air pockets fill, causing pressure to build . Sometimes the lining of the sinuses swell, which results in the further production of mucus and build-up of pressure. That pressure hurts.
Humans have four types of sinuses that play a role in sinus headaches: the frontal sinus in the forehead, the maxillary sinus in the cheeks, the ethmoid sinus between the eyes and the sphenoid sinus behind the nose. The African apes, gorillas and chimpanzees, have all four of these sinuses. The Asian apes, orangutans and gibbons (the so-called lesser apes because of their smaller size), have just two, lacking the ethmoid and frontal sinuses.
The ethmoid and frontal sinuses can be traced back at least 33 million years ago to a primate called Aegyptopithecus that lived in Africa before the ape and Old World monkey lineages originated. (Old World monkeys are those that live in Africa and Asia.) These sinuses have also been found in some of the earliest known apes, such as the roughly 20-million-year-old Morotopithecus and 18-million-year-old Afropithecus, both from Africa. Chimpanzees, gorillas and humans inherited these sinuses from the most ancient apes. Gibbons and orangutans, however, each lost these sinuses independently after they diverged from the rest of the apes; gibbons evolved about 18 million years ago while orangutans split from the other great apes roughly 15 million years ago.
It’s not clear why the Asian apes lost the ethmoid and frontal sinuses. In the case of the orangutan, the animal has a much more narrow space between its eyes and a more severely sloped, concave forehead than the African great apes. So there just may not be room for these air pockets to form.
But gibbons and orangutans do still have the maxillary and sphenoid sinuses, which are enough to cause annoying pain and headaches. So I should really apologize to my African ape ancestors. Clearly, I had some misdirected anger. I should have been mad at the virus that invaded my body.