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.
December 3, 2012
It can be hard to find gifts for lovers of human evolution. They aren’t as easy to find as, say, dinosaur gifts. So I spent some time cruising the Internet looking for some unusual and unique options for the holidays this year. Here’s what I found.
Something to read:
Over the last year, several books on how modern humans took over the world were published. Lone Survivors by anthropologist Chris Stringer weaves archaeology with genetics to explain why Homo sapiens became the last hominid left on Earth. The Last Lost World by father-and-daughter duo Stephen and Lydia Pyne considers how hominids evolved during the ice ages of the Pleistocene epoch and how scientists’ understanding of this period, lasting some 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, has changed over time. Anthropologist Ian Tattersall takes an even broader look at the rise of humans, surveying the last 8 million years or so of human evolution in Masters of the Planet. In Homo Mysterious psychologist David Barash examines a number of evolutionary puzzles, including why humans have big brains and why women tend to live longer than men.
If you’re shopping for an uber-hominid fan, consider this simple “I Heart Hominids” bumper sticker, or maybe human evolution decals to jazz up a boring lapotop. I’m hoping for a hominid skull to put in my office: made out of chalkboard, they come in various species and colors. Candle lovers might be intrigued by this unusual candle holder. And who wouldn’t want a Neanderthal piñata?
Some hominid gifts can be fun and practical. Need a bag to carry groceries? How about this “I Love Lucy” cotton tote with a picture of the Lucy skeleton. It comes in several different sizes. Or maybe your loved one would like a pewter key chain of a Paranthropus boisei or Homo erectus skull, which a reader of last year’s Hominid Hunting holiday gift guide suggested. These colorful glass coasters are also useful.
Something to hang on the wall:
I think I’ve said this before–the Taung Child is my favorite hominid fossil. If you know someone else who really digs the specimen, check out this framed drawing of the skull. These woodcut prints of hominid skulls are another good way to spruce up an empty wall. A Bigfoot skeptic (or a believer with a sense of humor) might like this print from Society 6.
Last year, the big ticket items in my gift guide were hominid fossil reproductions. This year, you can give someone his/her genome. With only a sample of saliva, the genetics company 23andMe analyzes an individual’s complete set of DNA to trace the geographic origins of that person’s forefathers and to look for Neanderthal ancestry.
What would you like for the holidays?
November 26, 2012
Humans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor roughly half a million years ago. While many anthropologists will tell you we don’t really know who that common ancestor was, others will say we do: the species Homo heidelbergensis, or something very much like it. An even smaller portion will point to another possibility: a controversial species called Homo antecessor.
H. antecessor, which first came to light in the 1990s, is known almost entirely from one cave in northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains. While working at the Gran Dolina site from 1994 to 1996, a team of Spanish researchers found 80 fossils belonging to six hominid individuals that lived roughly 800,000 years ago. The hominids’ teeth were primitive like those of Homo erectus, but aspects of the hominid’s face—particularly the shape of the nasal region and the presence of a facial depression above the canine tooth called the canine fossa—were modern, resembling features of modern people. The unique mix of modern and primitive traits led the researchers to deem the fossils a new species, H. antecessor, in 1997.
In 2008, the researchers expanded the timeline of the species . At another cave site in Atapuerca, Sima del Elefante, scientists unearthed a partial lower jaw, as well as a few dozen stone tools, dating to about 1.2 million years ago. Outside of Spain, the only other potential evidence of H. antessor
fossils are stone tools found at a nearly 800,000-year-old English archaeological site named Happisburgh that might have been made by the species.
H. antessor‘s discoverers—including José Bermúdez de Castro of Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and Eudald Carbonell of the University of Tarragona—say the species’ similarities with modern people, and its age, make it the best known candidate for the common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. They suggest H. antecessor may have evolved from a population of H. erectus living in Africa more than 1.5 million years ago and then migrated to Europe, journalist Ann Gibbons reported in Science when H. antecessor was first announced. Although the species has yet to be discovered in Africa, an African origin for H. antecessor may be necessary if it was indeed the direct ancestor of modern humans, which all fossil evidence suggests originated in Africa. Furthermore, the researchers say H. heidelbergensis is too similar to Neanderthals to be a direct ancestor of modern humans. Instead, H. antecessor gave rise to H. heidelbergensis, which then gave rise to Neanderthals.
But many anthropologists are not on board with this scenario. One problem is that most of the known H. antecessor specimens represent children, Gibbons reported. Only two of the six individuals found at Gran Dolina are thought to be adults, about 20 years old. Since most of the features tying H. antecessor to modern people were found in juveniles—whose bodies and physical features change as they grow up and go through puberty—it’s possible that H. antecessor adults didn’t really look much like H. sapiens at all. And if that’s the case, then it’s hard to argue the species had an ancestor-descendent relationship with us. The issue won’t be settled until researchers find good examples of complete adult H. antecessor fossils.
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.