Cracks in the Out of Africa Theory?

The most exciting finding of the past two decades in biological anthropology has been, without a doubt, evidence for interbreeding between Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc. and the sheer multiplicity of new hominin species being uncovered.

Exactly where the lines between species lie is a bit of a matter of semantic debate–where exactly did our ancestors end and Homo sapiens begin? Should we classify Neanderthals and Sapiens as one species if we interbred? etc–but if we accept the current classifications as decent approximations, we have:

Source: Wikipedia

Sorry, I realized it would be much more efficient if I just grabbed the family tree off Wikipedia instead of copying it over bit by bit. The top part of the tree got cut off, so I’ll note that Homini (6.3 million years ago) includes us + chimps, while Hominina (5.7 million years ago) has no chimps, but includes australopithecines. Gorillas are way back in Homininae, with an e. Homo, our genus, includes all of the “human” species, but usually doesn’t include australopithecines.

There is further debate on exactly who descended from whom. We’re finding new fossils all the time, which is quite exciting, but our current record is not nearly as complete as we’d like it to be. So sometimes branches get moved around or re-categorized as more data comes to light.

The most recent notable additions to our genus are the Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo Naledi, Homo doesn’t have a name yet, and more Denisovans.

You have probably heard of the “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis. The remains we have uncovered of this diminutive hominin are remarkably good, including a skull in great condition (despite some damage caused after excavation.) They lived on the island of Flores from about 200,000 to 50,000 years ago (though their arrival may get pushed back considerably because there are stone tools on Flores that are much older–700,000 years old–we just don’t know yet who used them.)

The hobbits are remarkable in multiple ways. First, they lived in an area that was not connected to the mainland by any landbridges–that is, they had to swim, boat, or otherwise be carried to their island. I am skeptical of the idea of anyone surviving a tsunami as a means of populating an island, but they arrived in an era when, as far as we know, humans had yet to build boats. So perhaps their ancestors were among the first humans to build boats, and we just haven’t found the remains of their crafts (wood being a material that degenerates very quickly.)

Second, the Hobbits are most likely descended from Homo erectus, who lived nearby on mainland Indonesia (at the time, connected to the rest of Asia via a landbridge), but are morphologically very different. They are tiny–shorter than pygmies, Homo erectus, or even australopithecines.

There is much debate about whether they are descended directly from erectus, or part of a sister-clade to erectus that descended from a common ancestor. It was previously believed that erectus was the first hominin to leave Africa, but if Floresiensis is not descended from erectus, Flores could be the first.

Now a similarly diminutive hominin has turned up in the Philippines, also past a significant water barrier that would require some effort to cross. It has been dubbed Homo luzonensis. Not much is known, yet, about luzonensis, (we haven’t found as many of its bones), but what we do know is tantalizing:

It was soon apparent to Détroit that the remains featured a puzzling mosaic of traits both modern and ancient. “Each of the features [of Homo luzonensis] corresponds to some hominin or another,” he says. “But the combination makes for something really unique. There’s no known species with this same suite of features.”

They’re small, possibly even smaller than the Hobbits. Their feet resemble australopithecines, but australopithecines supposedly died out a couple million years before Luzonensis arrived on the scene. And their teeth were “remarkably uniform,” which probably sounds boring to anyone who isn’t a dentist, but provides strong evidence of them being a different species.

Two island dwelling species in the same area supports the idea that their ancestors either developed boats or were remarkably skilled at surviving tsunamis, and that southeast Asia was a remarkable hotspot of hominin diversity.

And then there are the Denisovans!

Denisovans are mysterious because we have so few of their bones–a chunk of skull was recently uncovered, but we have no jaws, no faces, no ribs, etc–so we don’t have a good idea of what they looked like. What we do have are Denisovan DNA (extracted from those fragments of skeletons) and traces of Denisovan DNA in modern humans.

Oddly, those Denisovan bones turned up in Siberia (a good place for preserving old bones, but not such a great place for humans adapted to warm climates) while the humans with Denisovan DNA live in modern Papua New Guinea and nearby areas.

The obvious answer to this puzzle is that both the Denisovans had a much broader range than one cave in Siberia and the ancestors of modern folks from PNG used to live in different areas than they do now.

A more detailed analysis of PNG DNA was recently released, which reveals three separate, significant groups of Denisovans who interbred with sapiens:

… modern Papuans carry hundreds of gene variants from two deeply divergent Denisovan lineages that separated [from each other] over 350 thousand years ago. Spatial and temporal structure among these lineages suggest that introgression from one of these Denisovan groups predominantly took place east of the Wallace line and continued until near the end of the Pleistocene. A third Denisovan lineage occurs in modern East Asians. This regional mosaic suggests considerable complexity in archaic contact, with modern humans interbreeding with multiple Denisovan groups that were geographically isolated from each other over deep evolutionary time.

The Wallace line is a place that’s too deep for a landbridge, and thus the area to the east was an island even during the Ice Age. In other words, it looks like Denisovans could use boats. (Or survive tsunamis, pfft.)

Next, we sought to retrieve dates of divergence between D1, D2, and the Altai Denisovan genome … to encompass two deeply divergent Denisovan-related components, our best fitting model indicates that D1 and D2 split from the Altai Denisovan approximately 283 kya … respectively (Figure 4B). While clearly branching off the Denisovan line, D2 diverged so closely to the Neanderthal-Denisovan split that it is perhaps better considered as a third sister group… For context, even the youngest of these divergence times is similar to the evolutionary age of anatomically modern humans … Our model implies substantial reproductive separation of multiple Denisovan-like populations over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. … 

The genetic diversity within the Denisovan clade is consistent with their deep divergence and separation into at least three geographically disparate branches, with one contributing an introgression signal in Oceania and to a lesser extent across Asia (D2), another apparently restricted to New Guinea and nearby islands (D1), and a third in East Asia and Siberia (D0). This suggests that Denisovans were capable of crossing major geographical barriers, including the persistent sea lanes that separated Asia from Wallacea and New Guinea. They therefore spanned an incredible diversity of environments, from temperate continental steppes to tropical equatorial islands.

(We will probably reclassify some of the older fossils from Asia as Denisovans once we figure out what they looked like.)

Then we have Homo naledi, from South Africa. Naledi lived around 250,000 years ago, about the same time as Homo sapiens were differentiating from their ancestors. We have a wonderful array of Homo naledi fossils, preserved in the bottom of a cave pit. If they were placed here intentionally, this was pretty advanced behavior, though I wonder if perhaps they just got lost in the cave from time to time and then died in the pit.

At about 5 ft tall, (male height) naledi was short, but not nearly as short as Floresiensis, and taller than some groups of sapiens. Its skull was significantly smaller than a modern skull, however, and I find it odd that, out of the thousands of bones and fragments discovered, we have not yet recovered much of the front of their faces. Perhaps their faces were shattered when they fell into the cave?

Naledi, like Floresiensis and Luzonensis, shares some more modern traits with other members of the homo genus, and some traits with the older australopithecines. Unlike them, we have yet to uncover evidence that Naledi used tools.

The we have a couple of unnamed hominins

These so-called “ghost populations” are known entirely from their presence in the DNA of modern humans. We don’t have any fossils from them, either because they lived in areas where the weather didn’t favor preservation, or the modern political climate makes searching for fossils difficult.

The pygmies and Bushmen derive about 2% of their DNA from an archaic population or two that we estimate split off from the rest of us about 700,000 years ago. They met and mated with these other hominins around 35,000 years ago.

More interesting is another ghost population that shows up in the genomes of west African groups like the Mende. Now, the average non-African has about 1-4% Neanderthal DNA, and Melanesians have about 4-6% Denisovan, but some tribes in west Africa, such as the Yoruba, Mende, Gambians, and Esan, may derive about 10% of their DNA from an otherwise unknown ghost population that split off before the Neanderthals! (Razib’s very nice article summarizing the paper.)


Oh, jeeze, it’s three am, let me finish this in the next post…



Denny: the Neanderthal-Denisovan Hybrid

Neanderthal Sites (source: Wikipedia)

Homo Sapiens–that is, us, modern humans, are about 200-300,000 years old. Our ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, lived in Africa around 700,000-300,000 years ago.

Around 700,000 years ago, another group of humans split off from the main group. By 400,000 years ago, their descendants, Homo neanderthalensis–Neanderthals–had arrived in Europe, and another band of their descendants, the enigmatic Denisovans, arrived in Asia.

While we have found quite a few Neanderthal remains and archaeological sites with tools, hearths, and other artifacts, we’ve uncovered very few Denisovan remains–a couple of teeth, a finger bone, and part of an arm in Denisova Cave, Russia. (Perhaps a few other remains I am unaware of.)

Yet from these paltry remains scientists have extracted enough DNA to ascertain that no only were Denisovans a distinct species, but also that Melanesians, Papuans, and Aborigines derive about 3-6% of their DNA from a Denisovan ancestors. (All non-African populations also have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, derived from a Neanderthal ancestors.)

If Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred, and Denisovans and Homo sapiens interbred, did Neanderthals and Denisovans ever mate?

The slightly more complicated family tree, not including Denny


The girl, affectionately nicknamed Denny, lived and died about 90,000 years ago in Siberia. The remains of an arm, found in Denisova Cave, reveal that her mother was a Neanderthal, her father a Denisovan.

We don’t yet know what Denisovans looked like, because we don’t have any complete skeletons of them, much less good skulls to examine, so we don’t know what a Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrid like Denny looked like.

But the fact that we can extract so much information from a single bone–or fragment of bone–preserved in a Siberian cave for 90,000 years–is amazing.

We are still far from truly understanding what sorts of people our evolutionary cousins were, but we are gaining new insights all the time.

No, Graecopithecus does not prove humans evolved in Europe

Hello! We’re in the midst of a series of posts on recent exciting news in the field of human evolution:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

Today we’re discussing the much-publicized claim that scientists have discovered that humans evolved in Europe. (If you haven’t read last week’s post on Homo naledi and flores, I encourage you to do so first.) The way reporters have framed their headlines about the recent Graecopithecus freybergi findings is itself a tale:

The Telegraph proclaimed, “Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa, scientists find,” Newsweek similarly trumpeted, “First Human Ancestor Came from Europe Not Africa,” and CBS News stated, “Controversial study suggests earliest humans lived in Europe – not Africa.”

The Conversation more prudently inquired, “Did humans evolve in Europe rather than Africa? ” and NewScientist and the Washington Post, in a burst of knowing what a “human” is, stated, “Our common ancestor with chimps may be from Europe, not Africa” and “Ape that lived in Europe 7 million years ago could be human ancestor,” respectively.

This all occasioned some very annoying conversations along the lines of “White skin tone couldn’t possibly have evolved within the past 20,000 years because humans evolved in Europe! Don’t you know anything about science?”

Ohkay. Let’s step back a moment and take a look at what Graecopithecus is and what it isn’t.

This is Graecopithecus:

I think there is a second jawbone, but that’s basically it–and that’s not six teeth, that’s three teeth, shown from two different perspectives. There’s no skull, no shoulder blades, no pelvis, no legs.


By contrast, here are Lucy, the famous Australopithecus from Ethiopia, and a sample of the over 1,500 bones and pieces of Homo naledi recently recovered from a cave in South Africa.

Now, given what little scientists had to work with, the fact that they managed to figure out anything about Graecopithecus is quite impressive. The study, reasonably titled “Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe,” by
Jochen Fuss, Nikolai Spassov, David R. Begun, and Madelaine Böhm, used μCT and 3D reconstructions of the jawbones and teeth to compare Graecopithecus’s teeth to those of other apes. They decided the teeth were different enough to distinguish Graecopithecus from the nearby but older Ouranopithecus, while looking more like hominin teeth:

G. freybergi uniquely shares p4 partial root fusion and a possible canine root reduction with this tribe and therefore, provides intriguing evidence of what could be the oldest known hominin.

My hat’s off to the authors, but not to all of the reporters who dressed up “teeth look kind of like hominin teeth” as “Humans evolved in Europe!”

First of all, you cannot make that kind of jump based off of two jawbones and a handfull of teeth. Many of the hominin species we have recovered–such as Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis, as you know if you already read the previous post–possessed a mosaic of “ape like” and “human like” traits, ie:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Nebraska Man teeth compared to chimps, Homo erectus, and modern humans

If we only had six Homo naledi bones instead of 1,500 of them, we might be looking only at the part that looks like an Australopithecus instead of the parts that look like H. erectus or totally novel. You simply cannot make that kind of claim off a couple of jawbones. You’re far too likely to be wrong, and then not only will you end up with egg on your face, but you’ll only be giving more fuel to folks who like to proclaim that “Nebraska Man turned out to be a pig!”:

In February 1922, Harold Cook wrote to Dr. Henry Osborn to inform him of the tooth that he had had in his possession for some time. The tooth had been found years prior in the Upper Snake Creek beds of Nebraska along with other fossils typical of North America. … Osborn, along with Dr. William D. Matthew soon came to the conclusion that the tooth had belonged to an anthropoid ape. They then passed the tooth along to William K. Gregory and Dr. Milo Hellman who agreed that the tooth belonged to an anthropoid ape more closely related to humans than to other apes. Only a few months later, an article was published in Science announcing the discovery of a manlike ape in North America.[1] An illustration of H. haroldcookii was done by artist Amédée Forestier, who modeled the drawing on the proportions of “Pithecanthropus” (now Homo erectus), the “Java ape-man,” for the Illustrated London News. …

Examinations of the specimen continued, and the original describers continued to draw comparisons between Hesperopithecus and apes. Further field work on the site in the summers of 1925 and 1926 uncovered other parts of the skeleton. These discoveries revealed that the tooth was incorrectly identified. According to these discovered pieces, the tooth belonged neither to a man nor an ape, but to a fossil of an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops serus.

That basically sums up everything I learned about human evolution in highschool.


Scientists define “humans” as members of the genus Homo, which emerged around 3 million years ago. These are the guys with funny names like Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, and the embarrassingly named Homo erectus. The genus also includes ourselves, Homo sapiens, who emerged around 200-300,000 years ago.

Homo habilis descended from an Australopithecus, perhaps Lucy herself. Australopithecines are not in the Homo genus; they are not “human,” though they are more like us than modern chimps and bonobos are. They evolved around 4 million years ago.

The Australopithecines evolved, in turn, from even older apes, such as–maybe–Ardipithecus (4-6 million years ago) or Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

Regardless, humans didn’t evolve 7 million years ago. Sahelanthropus and even Lucy do not look like anyone you would call “human.” Humans have only been around for about 3 million years, and our own specific species is only about 300,000 years old. Even if Graecopithecus turns out to be the missing link–the true ancestor of both modern chimps and modern humans–that still does not change where humans evolved, because Graecopithecus narrowly missed being a human by 4 million years.

If you want to challenge the Out of Africa narrative, I think you’d do far better arguing for a multi-regional model of human evolution that includes back-migration of H. erectus into Africa and interbreeding with hominins there as spurring the emergence of H. sapiens than arguing about a 7 million year old jawbone. (I just made that up, by the way. It has no basis in anything I have read. But it at least has the right characters, in the right time frame, in a reasonable situation.)

Sorry this was a bit of a rant; I am just rather passionate about the subject. Next time we’ll examine very exciting news about Bushmen and Pygmy DNA!


Recent Exciting Developments in Human Evolutionary History: Naledi and Flores

A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Image credit: John Gurche / Mark Thiessen / National Geographic. source:

Continuing with our series on recent exciting discoveries in human genetics/paleo anthropology:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

One of the most interesting things about our human family tree (the Homo genus and our near primate relatives, chimps, gorillas, orangs, gibbons, etc.) is that for most of our existence, “we” weren’t the only humans in town. We probably coexisted, mated with, killed, were killed by, and at times perhaps completely ignored 7 other human species–Homo erectus, floresiensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans, heidelbergensis, rhodesiensis, and now Naledi.

That said, these “species” are a bit controversial. Some scientists like to declare practically every jawbone and skull fragment they find a new species (“splitters”,) and some claim that lots of different bones actually just represent natural variation within a species (“lumpers.”)

Take the canine family: dogs and wolves can interbreed, but I doubt great danes and chihuahuas can. For practical purposes, though, the behavior of great danes and chihuahuas is similar enough to each other–and different enough from wolves’–that we class them as one species and wolves as another. Additionally, when we take a look at the complete variety of dogs in existence, it is obvious that there is actually a genetic gradient in size between the largest and smallest breeds, with few sharp breaks (maybe the basenji.) If we had a complete fossil record, and could reliably reconstruct ancient hominin behaviors and cultural patterns, then we could say with far more confidence whether we are looking at something like dogs vs. wolves or great danes vs. chihuahuas. For now, though, paleoanthropology and genetics remain exciting fields with constant new discoveries!

Homo naledi and homo Floresiensis may ultimately be small branches on the human tree, but each provides us with a little more insight into the whole.

Naledi’s story is particularly entertaining. Back in 2013, some spelunkers crawled through a tiny opening in a South African cave and found a chamber full of bones–hominin bones.

Anthropologists often have to content themselves with a handful of bones, sometimes just a fragment of a cranium or part of a jaw. (The recent claim that humans evolved in Europe is based entirely on a jaw fragment plus a few teeth.) But in the Rising Star Cave system, they found an incredible 1,500+ bones or bone fragments, the remains of at least 15 people, and they haven’t even finished excavating.

According to Wikipedia:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Adult males are estimated to have stood around 150 cm (5 ft) tall and weighed around 45 kg (100 lb), while females would likely have been a little shorter and weighed a little less. An analysis of H. naledi‘s skeleton suggests it stood upright and was bipedal.[2][22][23] Its hip mechanics, the flared shape of the pelvis are similar to australopithecines, but its legs, feet and ankles are more similar to the genus Homo.[2][24]

I note that the modern humans in South Africa are also kind of short–According to Time, the Bushmen average about 5 feet tall, (that’s probably supposed to be Bushmen men, not the group average,) and the men of nearby Pygmy peoples of central Africa average 4’11” or less.

The hands of H. naledi appear to have been better suited for object manipulation than those of australopithecines.[2][25] Some of the bones resemble modern human bones, but other bones are more primitive than Australopithecus, an early ancestor of humans. The thumb, wrist, and palm bones are modern-like while the fingers are curved, more australopithecine, and useful for climbing.[3] The shoulders are configured largely like those of australopithecines. The vertebrae are most similar to Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, whereas the ribcage is wide distally as is A. afarensis.[2] The arm has an Australopithecus-similar shoulder and fingers and a Homo-similar wrist and palm.[24] The structure of the upper body seems to have been more primitive than that of other members of the genus Homo, even apelike.[3] In evolutionary biology, such a mixture of features is known as an anatomical mosaic.

Four skulls were discovered in the Dinaledi chamber, thought to be two females and two males, with a cranial volume of 560 cm3 (34 cu in) for the males and 465 cm3 (28.4 cu in) for females, about 40% to 45% the volume of modern human skulls; average Homo erectus skulls are 900 cm3 (55 cu in). A fifth, male skull found in the Lesedi chamber has a larger estimated cranial volume of 610 cm3 (37 cu in) [6]. The H. naledi skulls are closer in cranial volume to australopithecine skulls.[3] Nonetheless, the cranial structure is described as more similar to those found in the genus Homo than to australopithecines, particularly in its slender features, and the presence of temporal and occipitalbossing, and the fact that the skulls do not narrow in behind the eye-sockets.[2] The brains of the species were markedly smaller than modern Homo sapiens, measuring between 450 and 610 cm3 (27–37 cu in). The teeth and mandiblemusculature are much smaller than those of most australopithecines, which suggests a diet that did not require heavy mastication.[2] The teeth are small, similar to modern humans, but the third molar is larger than the other molars, similar to australopithecines.[24] The teeth have both primitive and derived dental development.[26]

The overall anatomical structure of the species has prompted the investigating scientists to classify the species within the genus Homo, rather than within the genus Australopithecus. The H. naledi skeletons indicate that the origins of the genus Homo were complex and may be polyphyletic (hybrid), and that the species may have evolved separately in different parts of Africa.[27][28]

Because caves don’t have regular sediment layers like riverbeds or floodplains, scientists initially had trouble dating the bones. Because of their relative “primitiveness,” that is, their similarity to our older, more ape-like ancestors, they initially thought Homo naledi must have lived a long time ago–around 2 million years ago. But when they finally got the bones dated, they found they were much younger–only around 335,000 and 236,000 years old,[1][4] which means H naledi and Homo sapiens–whose age was also recently adjusted–actually lived at the same time, though not necessarily in the same place.

(On the techniques used for dating the bones:

Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Witwatersrand, suggested that H. naledi lived 2 ± 0.5 million years ago, based on the skulls’ similarities to H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, and H. habilis, species that existed around 1.5, 2.5, and 1.8 million years ago, respectively.[35][36] Early estimates derived from statistical analysis of cranial traits yielded a range of 2 million years to 912,000 years before present.[2][37][38]

Dirks et al. (2017) obtained a much more recent age range of between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago from dating fossil teeth, sediments encasing the fossils and overlying flowstone. They used a variety of dating techniques, including radiocarbon dating of teeth, optically stimulated luminescence of sediment, palaeomagnetic analysis of flowstone, and most conclusively, uranium-thorium dating of cave flowstone and teeth and electron spin resonance dating of teeth.[1][4] The latter two types of measurements of teeth were performed on blind duplicate samples by two different labs.[1])

H naledi is unlikely to be a major branch on the human family tree–much too recent to be one of our ancestors–but it still offers important information on the development of “human” traits and how human and ape-like traits can exist side-by-side in the same individual (a theme we will return to later.) (Perhaps, just as we modern Homo sapiens contain traits derived from ancestors who mated with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others, H naledi owes some of its traits to hybridization between two very different hominins.) It’s also important because it is one more data point in favor of the recent existence of a great many different human varieties, not just a single group.

Flores Hobbit aka Homo floresiensis source

The Flores hominin, (aka the Hobbit,) tells a similar tale, but much further afield from humanity’s evolutionary cradle.

The island of Flores is part of the Indonesian archipelago, a surprisingly rich source of early hominin fossils. Homo erectus, the famous Java Man, arrived in the area around 1.7 million years ago, but to date no erectus remains have been discovered on the actual island of Flores. During the last Glacial Maximum, ocean levels were lower and most of Indonesia was connected in a single continent, called Sundaland. During one of these glacial periods, H erectus could have easily walked from China to Java, but Flores remained an island, cut off from the mainland by several miles of open ocean.

Stone tools appeared on Flores about 1 million years ago, though we don’t know yet who made them, nor how they developed the technology necessary to make the journey.

The diminutive Hobbits show up later, around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, though stone tools recovered alongside their remains have been dated from 50,000 to 190,000 years ago. Homo erectus is generally believed to have lived between 2 million and 140,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens arrived in Indonesia around 50,000 years ago. This places Floresiensis neatly between the two–it could have interacted with either species–perhaps descended from erectus and wiped out, in turn, by sapiens. (Or perhaps floresiensis represents an altogether novel line of hominins who left Africa on a completely separate trek from erectus.)

Unlike H naledi, whose diminutive stature is still within the current human range (especially of humans in the area,) floresiensis is exceptionally small for a hominin. According to Wikipedia:

The first set of remains to have been found, LB1, was chosen as the type specimen for the proposed species. LB1 is a fairly complete skeleton, including a nearly complete cranium (skull), determined to be that of a 30-year-old female. LB1 has been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores or “Flo”.[2]

LB1’s height has been estimated at about 1.06 m (3 ft 6 in). The height of a second skeleton, LB8, has been estimated at 1.09 m (3 ft 7 in) based on measurements of its tibia.[3] These estimates are outside the range of normal modern human height and considerably shorter than the average adult height of even the smallest modern humans, such as the Mbenga and Mbuti (< 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)),[32] Twa, Semang (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women) of the Malay Peninsula,[33] or the Andamanese (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women).[34]

By body mass, differences between modern pygmies and Homo floresiensis are even greater. LB1’s body mass has been estimated at 25 kg (55 lb). This is smaller than that of not only modern H. sapiens, but also H. erectus, which Brown and colleagues have suggested is the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis. LB1 and LB8 are also somewhat smaller than the australopithecines from three million years ago, not previously thought to have expanded beyond Africa. Thus, LB1 and LB8 may be the shortest and smallest members of the extended human family discovered thus far.[citation needed]

Aside from smaller body size, the specimens seem otherwise to resemble H. erectus, a species known to have been living in Southeast Asia at times coincident with earlier finds purported to be of H. floresiensis.[3]

There’s a lot of debate about whether floresiensis is a real species–perhaps affected by insular dwarfism–or just a hominin that had some severe problems. Interestingly, we have a find from about 700,000 years ago on Flores of another hominin, which we think was also a Hobbit, but is even smaller than Flo and her relatives.

Floresiensis, like Naledi, didn’t contribute to modern humans. Rather, it is interesting because it shows the breadth of our genus. We tend to assume that, ever since we split off from the rest of the great apes, some 7 or 8 million years ago, our path has been ever upward, more complex and successful. But these Hobbits, most likely descendants of one of the most successful human species, (Homo erectus, who mastered fire, was the first to leave Africa, spread across Asia and Indonesia, and lasted for over a million and half years, far longer than our puny 300,000 years,) went in the opposite direction from its ancestors. It became much smaller than even the smallest living human groups. Its brain shrank:

In addition to a small body size, H. floresiensis had a remarkably small brain size. The brain of the holotype LB1 is estimated to have had a volume of 380 cm3 (23 cu in), placing it at the range of chimpanzees or the extinct australopithecines.[2][40] LB1’s brain size is half that of its presumed immediate ancestor, H. erectus (980 cm3 (60 cu in)).[40] The brain-to-body mass ratio of LB1 lies between that of H. erectus and the great apes.[41]

Nevertheless, it still made tools, probably controlled fire, and hunted cooperatively.

Whatever it was, it was like us–and very much not like us.


More on Naledi: Another Awesome Twig on our Human Family Tree and Homo Naledi was Chipping its Teeth Amazingly Often.

Recent Exciting Developments: 130kya American Hominins?

There has been SO MUCH EXCITING NEWS out of paleoanthropology/genetics lately, it’s been a little tricky keeping up with it all. I’ve been holding off on commenting on some of the recent developments to give myself time to think them over, but here goes:

  1. Ancient hominins in the US?
  2. Homo naledi
  3. Homo flores
  4. Humans evolved in Europe?
  5. In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  6. then to 300,000 years!
  7. Bell beaker paper

1. Back in May (2017,) Holen et al published an article discussing A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA, in Nature:

Here we describe the Cerutti Mastodon (CM) site, an archaeological site from the early late Pleistocene epoch, where in situ hammerstones and stone anvils occur in spatio-temporal association with fragmentary remains of a single mastodon (Mammut americanum). The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production.

Reconstruction of a Homo erectus woman, Smithsonian

Note that “Homo” here is probably not H. sapiens, but a related or ancestral species, like Denisovans or Homo erectus, because as far as we know, H. sapiens was still living in Africa at the time.

This is obviously a highly controversial claim. Heck, “earliest human presence in the Americas” was already controversial, with some folks firmly camped at 15,000 years ago and others camped around 40,000 yeas ago. 130,000 years ago wasn’t even on the table.

Unfortunately, the article is paywalled, so I can’t read the whole thing and answer simple questions like, “Did they test the thickness of mineral accumulation on the bones to see if the breaks/scratches are the same age as the bones themselves?” That is, minerals build up on the surfaces of old bones over time. If the breaks and scratches were made before the bones were buried, they’ll have the same amount of buildup as the rest of the bone surfaces. If the breaks are more recent–say, the result of a bulldozer accidentally backing over the bones–they won’t.

They did get an actual elephant skeleton and smacked it with rocks to see if it would break in the same ways as the mammoth skeleton. A truck rolling over a rib and a rock striking it at an angle are bound to produce different kinds and patterns of breakage (the truck is likely to do more crushing, the rock to leave percussive impacts.) I’d also like to know if they compared the overall butchering pattern to known stone-tool-butchered elephants or mammoths, although I don’t know how easy it would be to find one.

Oldowan tool, about 2 million years old

They also looked at the pattern of impacts and shapes of the “hammerstones.” A rock which has been modified by humans hitting it with another rock will typically have certain shapes and patterns on its surface that can tell you things like which angle the rock was struck from during crafting. I’ve found a few arrowheads, and they are pretty distinct from other rocks.

Here’s a picture of an Oldowan stone chopper, about 2 million years old, which is therefore far older than these potential 130,000 year old tools. Homo sapiens didn’t exist 2 million years ago; this pointy rock was probably wielded by species such as Australopithecus garhi, H. habilis, or H. ergaster. Note that one side of this chopper is rounded, intended for holding comfortably in your hand, while the other side has had several chunks of rock smacked off, resulting in convex surfaces. Often you can tel exactly where the stone tool was struck to remove a flake, based on the shape and angle of the surface and the pattern of concentric, circular lines radiating out from the impact spot.

Homo erectus, who lived after the Oldowan tool makers and had a fancier, more complicated lithic technology, did make it out of Africa and spread across southeast Asia, up into China. This is, as far as I know, the first case of a hominin species using tools to significantly expand its range, but we have no evidence of erectus ever expanding into places that get significantly cold in the winter, and boat-building is a pretty advanced skill. We don’t even think erectus made it to Madagascar, which makes it sailing to the Americans rather doubtful.

I dislike passing judgment on the paper without reading it, but my basic instinct is skepticism. While I think the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to be a longer, more complex, and interesting process than the 15,000 years camp, 130,000 years is just too interesting a claim to believe without further evidence (like the bones of said hominins.)

Still, I keep an open mind and await new findings.

(We’ll continue with part 2 next week.)