Out of Africa revisited? pt 2

nature-siberian-neanderthals-17.02.16-v2The out-of-Africa theory basically says that humans evolved in Africa, then spread in several pulses across the rest of the planet. The first hominin to leave Africa–as far as we know–was Erectus, followed by the Neanderthals/Denisovans, and finally Sapiens. Where exactly smaller, less well-known hominins like Homo Floresiensis fit into the picture we don’t know, yet.)

One of the incredible things about human evolution is just how many other human species we used to co-exist with. We shared this earth with at least 8 other species of human, met and mated with at least 4 of them. Before us came a proliferation of australopithecines.

Today, there is only us. This stunning diversity of upright apes has been winnowed to a single line. Species that had survived for thousands if not millions of years disappeared, either because they died out or were wiped out. We, sapiens, are the last ones standing.

Humans met Neanderthals. We interbred, briefly. Then the Neanderthals died out. Humans met Denisovans. We interbred, briefly. Then the Denisovans disappeared. Humans met so-called “Ghost populations” in west and southern Africa and interbred. The ghosts then disappeared. It’s all very mysterious how every other species of hominin and australopithecine seems to have died out immediately after we sapiens arrived in the area.

This implies, then, that sapiens didn’t live in these areas during the thousands or so years before we wiped out the locals (though some small exceptions may exist.)

So where did we live?

The West African Ghost Population contributed a big chunk of DNA to modern humans a mere 50,000 years ago–around the same time as sapiens were mating with Neanderthals. This seems to have been a much more significant encounter than the one with Neanderthals–perhaps many of these “ghosts” joined the sapiens who moved into their area.

So west Africa was likely not inhabited by modern humans before 50,000 years ago.

Homo naledi is too small to have co-existed with us, effectively ruling out their part of South Africa during that period, and the Pygmies probably interbred with their mystery hominin around 35,000 years ago, so that rules out the Congolese forest area.

The Neanderthal ancestry is in pretty much everyone not in Africa, (and a little in Africa due to recent back-migration) which is pretty strong support for the out-of-Africa theory. The most parsimonious explanation is that a single population split, and half of that population, as it entered Eurasia, encountered Neanderthals, while the other half traveled deeper into Africa and encountered African hominins.

East Africa/the horn of Africa region remains, therefore, the most logical spot to locate Homo sapiens immediately before this splitting phase, but I wouldn’t rule out the Middle East.

On the other hand, Homo sapiens’s ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, lived in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East for thousands, possibly a million years (depending on how we classify the similar bones of Homo antecessor, who lived near Norfolk, England, about 950,000 years ago. Homo heidelbergensis’s (probable) ancestor, Homo erectus, lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia for over a million years.

Here’s where it gets complicated, because while species like the little hobbits from Flores are clearly different from other varieties of Homo, there are no clear dividing lines between folks like erectus, heidelbergensis, and ergastor. We have a bunch of bones, a few nice skulls, scattered across continents and centuries, from which we try to derive a vague sense of whether this population and that population were similar enough to consider them a single species. Quoting Wikipedia:

Although “Homo ergaster” has gained some acceptance as a valid taxon since its proposal in 1975, ergaster and erectus since the 1980s have increasingly come to be seen as separate (that is, African or Asian) populations of the larger species H. erectus. … The question was described as “famously unresolved” as of 2003.[10] Sura et al (2007) concluded that Homo erectus “was a likely source of multiple events of gene flow to the Eurasian continent”.[11]

The discoveries of the Dmanisi skulls in the South Caucasus since 2005 have re-opened this question. Their great morphological diversity suggests that the variability of Eurasian H. erectus already includes the African fossils dubbed H. ergaster. The discovery of Dmanisi skull 5 in 2013, dated to 1.8 million years ago, now dates evidence of H. erectus in Eurasia as of virtually the same age as evidence for H. ergaster in Africa, so that it is unclear if the speciation of H. erectus/ergaster from H. habilis took place in Africa or Asia.[12] This has reinforced the trend of considering H. ergaster as synonymous with H. erectus, a species which would have evolved just after 2 million years ago, either in Africa or West Asia, and later dispersed throughout Africa and Eurasia.[13][14]

Homo habilis, by contrast, is (so far) only found in east Africa.

What does it mean to evolve in a place? Habilis, as far as we know, actually did evolve in Africa. It didn’t leave Africa; neither did the australopithecines (unless one of those little hobbity folks out in the Philippines turn out to be australopiths, but that would be very remarkable). But after that, “humans” spread from Africa to Europe and Asia with remarkable speed. They lived in England almost a million years ago. And within this range, we seem to have become repeatedly isolated, speciated, and then met back up again when the weather improved.

Personally, I wouldn’t say that the out of Africa theory is wrong. It is still the most parsimonious explanation of human evolutionary history. However, I would say that it simplifies a huge chunk of our history, since for most of our time on this earth, our range has been quite a bit larger than Africa.

A mercifully short note on Lice and the Invention of Clothes

Lice apparently come in three varieties: head, body, and pubic. The body louse’s genome was published in 2010 and is the shortest known insect genome. (Does parasitism reduce genome length?) According to Wikipedia:

Pediculus humanus humanus (the body louse) is indistinguishable in appearance from Pediculus humanus capitis (the head louse) but will interbreed only under laboratory conditions. In their natural state, they occupy different habitats and do not usually meet. In particular, body lice have evolved to attach their eggs to clothes, whereas head lice attach their eggs to the base of hairs.

So when did the clothes-infesting body louse decide to stop associating with its hair-clinging cousins?

The body louse diverged from the head louse at around 100,000 years ago, hinting at the time of the origin of clothing.[7][8][9]

So, did Neanderthals have clothes? Or did they survive winters in ice age Europe by being really hairy?

Behavioral modernity–such as intentional burials and cave painting–is thought to have emerged around 50,000 years ago. Some people push this date back to 80,000 years ago, possibly just before the Out of Africa event (something that made people smarter and better at making tools may have been necessary for OOA to succeed.)

But perhaps we should consider the invention of clothing alongside other technological breakthroughs that made us modern–after all, I don’t think we hairless apes could have had much success at conquering the planet without clothes.

(On the other hand, other Wikipedia pages give other estimates for the origin of clothing, some even also citing louse studies, so I’m not sure of the 100k YA date, but surely clothes were invented before we went anywhere cold.)

Oddly, though, there appears to have been at least one human group that managed to survive in a cold climate without much in the way of clothes, the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego. In fact, the whole reason the region got named Tierra del Fuego (translation: Land of the fire) is because the nearly-naked locals carried fire with them wherever they went to stay warm.

Only 100-1,600 Yaghans remain; their language is an isolate with only one native speaker, and she’s 89 years old.

Unfortunately, searching for “people with no clothes” does not return any useful information about other groups that might have led similar lifestyles.

PS: Pubic lice evolved from gorilla lice 3 million yeas ago. I bet you didn’t want to know that. Someone should look for that introgression event.

Native Americans appear to also carry a strain of head lice that had previously occupied Homo erectus’s hair, suggesting that H.e. and the ancestors of today’s N.A.s once met. Since these lice aren’t found elsewhere, it’s evidence that H. e. might have survived somewhere out there until fairly recently.

When did language evolve?

The smartest non-human primates, like Kanzi the bonobo and Koko the gorilla, understand about 2,000 to 4,000 words. Koko can make about 1,000 signs in sign language and Kanzi can use about 450 lexigrams (pictures that stand for words.) Koko can also make some onomatopoetic words–that is, she can make and use imitative sounds in conversation.

A four year human knows about 4,000 words, similar to an exceptional gorilla. An adult knows about 20,000-35,000 words. (Another study puts the upper bound at 42,000.)

Somewhere along our journey from ape-like hominins to homo sapiens sapiens, our ancestors began talking, but exactly when remains a mystery. The origins of writing have been amusingly easy to discover, because early writers were fond of very durable surfaces, like clay, stone, and bone. Speech, by contrast, evaporates as soon as it is heard–leaving no trace for archaeologists to uncover.

But we can find the things necessary for speech and the things for which speech, in turn, is necessary.

The main reason why chimps and gorillas, even those taught human language, must rely on lexigrams or gestures to communicate is that their voiceboxes, lungs, and throats work differently than ours. Their semi-arborial lifestyle requires using the ribs as a rigid base for the arm and shoulder muscles while climbing, which in turn requires closing the lungs while climbing to provide support for the ribs.

Full bipedalism released our early ancestors from the constraints on airway design imposed by climbing, freeing us to make a wider variety of vocalizations.

Now is the perfect time to break out my file of relevant human evolution illustrations:

Source: Scientific American What Makes Humans Special

We humans split from our nearest living ape relatives about 7-8 million years ago, but true bipedalism may not have evolved for a few more million years. Since there are many different named hominins, here is a quick guide:

Source: Macroevolution in and Around the Hominin Clade

Australopithecines (light blue in the graph,) such as the famous Lucy, are believed to have been the first fully bipedal hominins, although, based on the shape of their toes, they may have still occasionally retreated into the trees. They lived between 4 and 2 million years ago.

Without delving into the myriad classification debates along the lines of “should we count this set of skulls as a separate species or are they all part of the natural variation within one species,” by the time the homo genus arises with H Habilis or H. Rudolfensis around 2.8 million years ag, humans were much worse at climbing trees.

Interestingly, one direction humans have continued evolving in is up.

Oldowan tool

The reliable production of stone tools represents an enormous leap forward in human cognition. The first known stone tools–Oldowan–are about 2.5-2.6 million years old and were probably made by homo Habilis. These simple tools are typically shaped only one one side.

By the Acheulean–1.75 million-100,000 years ago–tool making had become much more sophisticated. Not only did knappers shape both sides of both the tops and bottoms of stones, but they also made tools by first shaping a core stone and then flaking derivative pieces from it.

The first Acheulean tools were fashioned by h Erectus; by 100,000 years ago, h Sapiens had presumably taken over the technology.

Flint knapping is surprisingly difficult, as many an archaeology student has discovered.

These technological advances were accompanied by steadily increasing brain sizes.

I propose that the complexities of the Acheulean tool complex required some form of language to facilitate learning and teaching; this gives us a potential lower bound on language around 1.75 million years ago. Bipedalism gives us an upper bound around 4 million years ago, before which our voice boxes were likely more restricted in the sounds they could make.

A Different View

Even though “homo Sapiens” has been around for about 300,000 years (or so we have defined the point where we chose to differentiate between our species and the previous one,) “behavioral modernity” only emerged around 50,000 years ago (very awkward timing if you know anything about human dispersal.)

Everything about behavioral modernity is heavily contested (including when it began,) but no matter how and when you date it, compared to the million years or so it took humans to figure out how to knap the back side of a rock, human technologic advance has accelerated significantly over the past 100,000 and even moreso over the past 50,000 and even 10,000.

Fire was another of humanity’s early technologies:

Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago (Mya).[1] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus, beginning some 600,000 years ago, has wide scholarly support.[2][3] Flint blades burned in fires roughly 300,000 years ago were found near fossils of early but not entirely modern Homo sapiens in Morocco.[4] Evidence of widespread control of fire by anatomically modern humans dates to approximately 125,000 years ago.[5]

What prompted this sudden acceleration? Noam Chomsky suggests that it was triggered by the evolution of our ability to use and understand language:

Noam Chomsky, a prominent proponent of discontinuity theory, argues that a single chance mutation occurred in one individual in the order of 100,000 years ago, installing the language faculty (a component of the mind–brain) in “perfect” or “near-perfect” form.[6]

(Pumpkin Person has more on Chomsky.)

More specifically, we might say that this single chance mutation created the capacity for figurative or symbolic language, as clearly apes already have the capacity for very simple language. It was this ability to convey abstract ideas, then, that allowed humans to begin expressing themselves in other abstract ways, like cave painting.

I disagree with this view on the grounds that human groups were already pretty widely dispersed by 100,000 years ago. For example, Pygmies and Bushmen are descended from groups of humans who had already split off from the rest of us by then, but they still have symbolic language, art, and everything else contained in the behavioral modernity toolkit. Of course, if a trait is particularly useful or otherwise successful, it can spread extremely quickly (think lactose tolerance,) and neither Bushmen nor Pygmies were 100% genetically isolated for the past 250,000 years, but I simply think the math here doesn’t work out.

However, that doesn’t mean Chomsky isn’t on to something. For example, Johanna Nichols (another linguist,) used statistical models of language differentiation to argue that modern languages split around 100,000 years ago.[31] This coincides neatly with the upper bound on the Out of Africa theory, suggesting that Nichols may actually have found the point when language began differentiating because humans left Africa, or perhaps she found the origin of the linguistic skills necessary to accomplish humanity’s cross-continental trek.

Philip Lieberman and Robert McCarthy looked at the shape of Neanderthal, homo Erectus, early h Sapiens and modern h Sapiens’ vocal tracts:

In normal adults these two portions of the SVT form a right angle to one another and are approximately equal in length—in a 1:1 proportion. Movements of the tongue within this space, at its midpoint, are capable of producing tenfold changes in the diameter of the SVT. These tongue maneuvers produce the abrupt diameter changes needed to produce the formant frequencies of the vowels found most frequently among the world’s languages—the “quantal” vowels [i], [u], and [a] of the words “see,” “do,” and “ma.” In contrast, the vocal tracts of other living primates are physiologically incapable of producing such vowels.

(Since juvenile humans are shaped differently than adults, they pronounce sounds slightly differently until their voiceboxes fully develop.)

Their results:

…Neanderthal necks were too short and their faces too long to have accommodated equally proportioned SVTs. Although we could not reconstruct the shape of the SVT in the Homo erectus fossil because it does not preserve any cervical vertebrae, it is clear that its face (and underlying horizontal SVT) would have been too long for a 1:1 SVT to fit into its head and neck. Likewise, in order to fit a 1:1 SVT into the reconstructed Neanderthal anatomy, the larynx would have had to be positioned in the Neanderthal’s thorax, behind the sternum and clavicles, much too low for effective swallowing. …

Surprisingly, our reconstruction of the 100,000-year-old specimen from Israel, which is anatomically modern in most respects, also would not have been able to accommodate a SVT with a 1:1 ratio, albeit for a different reason. … Again, like its Neanderthal relatives, this early modern human probably had an SVT with a horizontal dimension longer than its vertical one, translating into an inability to reproduce the full range of today’s human speech.

It was only in our reconstruction of the most recent fossil specimens—the modern humans postdating 50,000 years— that we identified an anatomy that could have accommodated a fully modern, equally proportioned vocal tract.

Just as small children who can’t yet pronounce the letter “r” can nevertheless make and understand language, I don’t think early humans needed to have all of the same sounds as we have in order to communicate with each other. They would have just used fewer sounds.

The change in our voiceboxes may not have triggered the evolution of language, but been triggered by language itself. As humans began transmitting more knowledge via language, humans who could make more sounds could utter a greater range of words perhaps had an edge over their peers–maybe they were seen as particularly clever, or perhaps they had an easier time organizing bands of hunters and warriors.

One of the interesting things about human language is that it is clearly simultaneously cultural–which language you speak is entirely determined by culture–and genetic–only humans can produce language in the way we do. Even the smartest chimps and dolphins cannot match our vocabularies, nor imitate our sounds. Human infants–unless they have some form of brain damage–learn language instinctually, without conscious teaching. (Insert reference to Steven Pinker.)

Some kind of genetic changes were obviously necessary to get from apes to human language use, but exactly what remains unclear.

A variety of genes are associated with language use, eg FOXP2. H Sapiens and chimps have different versions of the FOXP2 gene, (and Neanderthals have a third, but more similar to the H Sapiens version than the chimp,) but to my knowledge we have yet to discover exactly when the necessary mutations arose.

Despite their impressive skulls and survival in a harsh, novel climate, Neanderthals seem not to have engaged in much symbolic activity, (though to be fair, they were wiped out right about the time Sapiens really got going with its symbolic activity.) Homo Sapiens and Homo Nanderthalis split around 800-400,000 years ago–perhaps the difference in our language genes ultimately gave Sapiens the upper hand.

Just as farming appears to have emerged relatively independently in several different locations around the world at about the same time, so behavioral modernity seems to have taken off in several different groups around the same time. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that these groups had some form of contact with each other–peaceful or otherwise–but it seems more likely to me that similar behaviors emerged in disparate groups around the same time because the cognitive precursors necessary for those behaviors had already begun before they split.

Based on genetics, the shape of their larynges, and their cultural toolkits, Neanderthals probably did not have modern speech, but they may have had something similar to it. This suggests that at the time of the Sapiens-Neanderthal split, our common ancestor possessed some primitive speech capacity.

By the time Sapiens and Neanderthals encountered each other again, nearly half a million years later, Sapiens’ language ability had advanced, possibly due to further modification of FOXP2 and other genes like it, plus our newly modified voiceboxes, while Neanderthals’ had lagged. Sapiens achieved behavioral modernity and took over the planet, while Neanderthals disappeared.


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.)