The Hominid bush

It seemed a simple story once. Out of the mud, God shaped a man. Or, life grew, and the millennia passed, and life grew more complex, from bacteria to sponges to trilobites to dinosaurs (omitting myriad steps!), until at last, a primate stood on its two feet and started growing a bigger and bigger brain. What a work of art is Man! (that was irony).

Bad enough we had to look at chimpanzees as distant cousins with whom we once shared a distant ancestor, but clearly no one ever came close to our own perfection.

The story turns out rather more complex (though if you put human arrogance aside, rather more plausible). There have been other hominid (human-like) species. In fact, the evolutionary "ladder of progress" turns out to be more like a bush. We've found bones for maybe 20 hominid species. Which raises, of course, a number of questions.

Like, is Homo sapiens the only one left because it is so superior to the others, or are we just last? (bear in mind Homo sapiens hasn't been around that long) or maybe lucky?

Like, are we the only hominid species still around? (think Bigfoot, think Yeti)

If you think we won out because we're so superior, check out the Neanderthal story. If you think it's out of the question that other hominids could have co-existed with humans without us knowing, check out Flores Man.

News reports: 

November 3, 2011

Earliest Modern Europeans Described

A new analysis of a fragment of human upper jaw bone found in 1927 in Kent’s Cavern in southern England has pushed back its dating from 35,000 years old to between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago. This would make it the oldest evidence for early humans in Western Europe (previous oldest fossils date to just 41,000 to 39,000 years ago), although southeastern Europe has fossils this old. The new date suggests modern humans spread rapidly once they crossed into Europe.

Another reanalysis, this time of two molars from southern Italy originally classified as Neanderthal, have been reclassified as human. The teeth are estimated to be 45,000 to 43,000 years old.

September 22, 2011

DNA study suggests Asia was settled in multiple waves of migration

Analysis of DNA from dozens of present-day populations in Southeast Asia and Oceania, including Borneo, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Polynesia, has revealed that, in addition to New Guineans, Denisovans contributed genetic material to Australian aborigines, a Philippine "Negrito" group called Mamanwa, and several other populations in eastern Southeast Asia and Oceania. However, groups in the west or northwest, including other Negrito groups such as the Onge in the Andaman Islands and the Jehai in Malaysia, as well as mainland East Asians, did not interbreed with Denisovans.

The findings indicate that Denisovans interbred with modern humans in Southeast Asia at least 44,000 years ago before Australians and New Guineans separated. The findings also offer genetic support for the hypothesis that Southeast Asia was first colonized by modern humans unrelated to present-day Chinese and Indonesians, and that these and other East Asians arrived in later migrations.

September 22, 2011

Aboriginal Australians: The first explorers

The first genome from an Aboriginal Australian shows that they are descended directly from an early human expansion into Asia that took place some 70,000 years ago, at least 24,000 years before the population movements that gave rise to present-day Europeans and Asians. This is contrary to the previous and most widely accepted theory that all modern humans derive from a single out-of-Africa migration wave into Europe, Asia, and Australia.

The study used DNA from a lock of hair donated to an anthropologist by an Aboriginal man a hundred years ago.

September 19, 2011

Continents influenced human migration, spread of technology

Analysis of human genomes drawn from more than five dozen populations has indicates that orientation seems to explain why technology spread more slowly in the Americas than in Eurasia. The analysis found that populations in North and South America are, for the most part, more different from each other than the populations in Eurasia. That is, genetic difference increased more with latitudinal distance between Native American populations than with longitudinal distance between Eurasian populations. In Eurasia people moved primarily along east-west routes, taking advantage of the relative sameness in climate. But America’s north-south orientation means greater climate variability, making travel between populations less common.

September 19, 2011

CT study of Australopithecus species reveals evolutionary relationships

For decades scientists have disagreed about the significance of facial features shared by a number of Australopithecus species, and in particular two bony columns known as "anterior pillars" that extend up from the canine teeth and bracket the nasal opening.

CT scans of fossil skull fragments from five Australopithecus species have now revealed profound differences in the internal structure of the anterior pillars. In A. africanus the anterior pillar is a hollow column of cortical bone, whereas in A. robustus it is a column of dense trabecular bone. Although A. boisei usually lacks an external pillar, it has internal morphology identical to that seen in A. robustus.

This result supports the view that there was a single evolutionary branch of 'robust australopithecines', and that the A. africanus and A. boisei forms both shared a common ancestor, while the external similarities seen in the South African species (robustus and africanus; boisei is from east Africa) are the result of parallel evolution (perhaps because of a similar dietary niche).

September 8, 2011

New transitional fossils may connect Australopithecus and Homo

New descriptions of Australopithecus sediba fossils, uncovered in Malapa, South Africa in 2008, reveal a mix of traits from apes, earlier Australopithecus, and Homo erectus and its descendants. The small brain (around 420 cu cm) and limb proportions match those seen in Australopithecus, however there are also modern features, such as enlargement of the frontal lobes, a wider pelvis, and human-like hands. It is possible that A. sediba is an ancestor of Homo erectus, and thus of us.

More to the point is that the1.98 million-year-old fossils force a rethink about how crucial traits are ordered in our evolution. An increase in brain size has always been considered a critical driver of traits such as changes in brain structure and the pelvis. But here we have a wider pelvis, a flatter, more human face, and a skull bump in the vicinity of Broca’s area, together with a brain no larger than a chimpanzee’s. This suggests not only that the pelvis widened purely because of a shift to bipedalism, not because of the demands of larger-brained babies, but that the increase in brain size may have occurred later in our evolution than we thought.

Additionally, the changes in the thumb are usually associated with tool-making, but the fingers are curved, suitable for tree-climbers. Although the heel bone in the foot seems primitive, angle of the front suggests an arched foot for walking on the ground, and there is a large attachment for an Achilles tendon as in modern humans.

The fossils are particularly exciting because the A. sediba skeletons are nearly complete, giving us the most complete hominid skeletons we have until we get up to the Neanderthals — including the earliest, most complete fossil hominin hand post-dating the appearance of stone tools (2.6 million years ago). The hand of A. sediba is more suited to tool-making than the 1.75 million-year-old hand belonging to Homo habilis, who were given the name “handy man”. Homo habilis has been considered to be a precursor of Homo erectus, and the South African australopithecines have been regarded as side-branches in the hominid tree. These fossils mean this view needs to be reconsidered.

The other possibility is that parallel evolution was going on, with different hominin species exploring similar traits.

September 5, 2011

Human ancestors interbred with related species

Genetic analysis points to our ancestors having bred with other hominid species. It’s been discovered that some interbreeding took place between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in Europe between 80 and 30,000 years ago. Now a study of the DNA from two African hunter-gatherer groups, the Biaka Pygmies and the San, and a West African agricultural population known as the Mandenka, suggests that roughly 2% of their genetic material came from another hominid species some 35,000 years ago. That as yet unidentified species is estimated to have diverged from the Homo sapiens line around 700,000 years ago.

The hypothesis requires a larger data-set to be convincing, but it’s certainly intriguing.

August 31, 2011

Stone tools shed light on early human migrations

The discovery of stone axes in the same sediment layer as cruder tools indicates that hominins with differing tool-making technologies may have coexisted.

Stone axes, estimated to be around 1.76 million years old, have been found in Kenya alongside primitive tools that had already been in use for at least a million years. The hand axes are part of the Acheulian technology —thought to have been developed around 1.6 million years ago, and associated with the emergence of Homo erectus as the dominant hominin species. The more primitive tools belong to the earlier Oldowan culture.

The findings may explain why early fossil sites in Eurasia almost always reveal hominins with Oldowan toolkits, or no tools at all.

"It might have been that a single species was capable of making both kinds of tools but that factors like what raw materials were available and what tasks needed to be conducted with the tools governed which types of tools were made," says Pobiner.

August 24, 2011

DNA study deals blow to theory of European origins

Modern humans are thought to have entered Europe about 40,000 years ago. When the Ice Age came some 20,000 years ago, they retreated south, returning north when the ice melted. But a few thousand years after that, there was an influx of new settlers from Asia (Turkey), bringing with them a new farming culture.

The burning question, a matter of much debate, has been the extent to which modern Europeans are descended from these early farmers versus the indigenous hunter-gatherers.

One study focused on the Y chromosome. More than 100 million European men carry a type called R-M269. It is especially common in western Europe, with frequencies of 90% or more in Spain, Ireland and Wales. The study has found that the genetic diversity of R-M269 increases eastward, peaking in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Genetic diversity reflects how long the genes have been around in a population. The age ranges calculated support an expansion in Neolithic times (between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago).

Two recent studies have supported this finding, but another supported the idea that R-M269 has more ancient origins.

A new study, using data from more than 4,500 men from Europe and western Asia, has found no geographical trends in the diversity of R-M269. But it’s not discounting the possibility — rather, it suggests that the unreliability of some markers on the Y chromosome mean that are tools are not yet adequate for analysing this material.

But one interesting note is the finding that different subgroups of the R-M269 group are very common in different parts of Europe, consistent with expansion of these subgroups in each place.

August 3, 2011

King Tut and half of European men share DNA

Analysis of the DNA of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun has revealed that it includes the haplogroup R1b1a2. The intriguing thing is that, while this genetic profile group is also found in 70% of British and Spanish males and 60% of French males, it is only present in less than 1% of present-day Egyptian males.

The R1b1a2 DNA haplogroup is believed to have originated in the Black Sea region some 9500 years ago and spread to Europe with the spread of agriculture in 7000BC.

July 13, 2011

New algorithm provides new insights into evolutionary exodus out of Africa

A new technique has revealed that, although the African and non-African populations might have started to differentiate as early as 100,000 to 120,000 years ago, they largely remained as one population until approximately 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. At that point, there was a dramatic drop in population (to approximately a tenth of what it had been), overlapping the period when modern human fossils and artefacts start to appear across Europe and Asia. But genetic exchange continued between the African and non-African populations for at least 20,000 years after this. One explanation could be that new emigrants from Africa continued to join the out-of-Africa populations long after the original exodus.

June 29, 2011

Finding showing human ancestor older than previously thought offers new insights into evolution

Homo erectus is widely considered a direct human ancestor; the first of our ancestors to migrate out of Africa, some 1.8 million years ago. Although Homo erectus died out in Africa and much of Asia by about 500,000 years ago, he appeared to have survived in Indonesia until about 35,000 to 50,000 years ago — meaning that they would have co-existed with Homo sapiens, who arrived about 40,000 years ago.

Such co-existence is predicted in the Out of Africa or replacement model, but not in the multiregional model.

However, more recent work on the Solo River sites has over-turned previous dating. Using three different dating techniques, it’s now concluded that the Indonesian fossils date back to at least 143,000 years ago, and perhaps as much as 550,000 years ago.

June 6, 2011

Stone fragments found in Georgia suggest Homo erectus might have evolved outside Africa.

Discoveries from the excavations at Dmanisi cast into doubt the assumption that Homo erectus evolved in Africa between 1.78 million and 1.65 million years ago, before spreading out to Europe and Asia. Stone artefacts indicative of tool-using H. erectus have been found in sediments almost 1.85 million years old. Distribution of the many artefacts also indicates long-term occupation of the site, being spread through several layers spanning the period between 1.85 million and 1.77 million years ago.

Fossil skulls dated at 1.77 million years ago had brains between 600 and 775 cubic centimetres in volume, whereas H. erectus is thought to have had an average brain size of around 900 cubic centimetres. So are these early members of Homo erectus, and did they originate in Europe rather than Africa? Or did Homo erectus venture out of Africa far earlier than thought?

May 24, 2011

Population genetics reveals shared ancestries

Analysis of publicly available genetic data from 40 populations found no sub-Saharan African genetic signatures in Northern European populations, but around 1-3% in modern southern European groups, 4-15% in Middle Eastern groups, and around 3-5% in Jewish populations.

The dates of population mixtures are consistent with documented historical events. For example, the mixing of African and southern European populations coincides with events during the Roman Empire and Arab migrations that followed. The older-mixture dates among African and Jewish populations are consistent with events in biblical times, such as the Jewish diaspora that occurred in 8th to 6th century BC.

March 25, 2011

Stone cutting tools link early humans to prehistoric India

Dating of Acheulian tools found in Tamil Nadu, in South India, suggests that Acheulian tool-making humans were present in South Asia around a million years ago or earlier, existing at the same time as other populations in southwest Asia and Africa.


for more on Indian prehistory

March 9, 2011

Genetic analysis finds that modern humans evolved from southern Africa's Bushmen

Analysis of southern African genomes has revealed that the greatest genetic variation was seen in the Bushmen, suggesting that this population is most likely to be the original population from which all other African populations emerged. It’s estimated that these first human populations of Homo sapiens Bushmen date back about 200,000 years. The finding doesn’t necessarily contradict conclusions drawn after the recent discovery of three 160,000 year old fossils in Ethiopia, widely believed to be the likely immediate ancestors of anatomically modern humans, because no one knows where the Bushmen were located back then.

February 17, 2011

Recent "human ancestor" finds under question

Two scientists suggest that claims that three fossil species four to seven million years old, dubbed Orrorin, Sahelanthropus and Ardipithecus, belong to the human lineage, rather than that of apes, haven’t been adequately demonstrated.

February 9, 2011

Ancient teeth raise new questions about the origins of modern man

Eight teeth excavated at Qesem cave in Israel, are very similar to those of Homo sapiens found at two other sites in Israel, but are much older than those remains (which have been dated at 100,000 years). The cave was in use from about 400,000 years ago to 200,000 years ago, and the teeth were scattered through the layers, with some in the oldest layers.

If they are indeed Homo sapiens, that would put the migration out of Africa at much earlier than thought. However, they could well be Neanderthal, or other archaic human.

Whoever it was who lived in the Qesem Cave that long ago, they used fire, hunted, cut and shared meat, and mined raw materials to make flint blades.

January 27, 2011

Tools Suggest Earlier Human Exit From Africa

Discovery of stone tools dated at 125,000 years old from a site in what southern Arabia suggests that humans left Africa some 55,000 years earlier than thought. The site is near the Persian Gulf, but the gulf was a low-lying plain up until 8,000 years ago.

The finding does contradict the genetic data that indicates that all modern humans outside Africa are descended from a single, small population that left Africa less than 60,000 years ago. However, it is by no means implausible that there are people outside Africa who descend from an earlier population. On the other hand, the lack of human fossils with the tools means we can’t know whether early modern humans or Neanderthals made them.

Stone tools by unknown makers 75,000 years ago have previously been found in central India.

The findings do suggest that humans left Africa not, as has been thought, because of some technological or behavioral change, but simply because conditions allowed them to do so. Climate records indicate that between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, a global ice age caused sea levels to fall by up to 100 metres, while the Saharan and Arabian deserts became huge inhospitable wastelands. But Arabia became much more hospitable at the same time as the sea fell to record levels, making it possible to walk across from Africa.

December 22, 2010

Denisovan species confirmed

Earlier this year, mitochondrial DNA of a 30,000 year old finger bone revealed a new hominin, named "Denisovans" after the cave in which the bone was found. Now 70% of the nuclear genome has been sequenced, confirming that this is indeed a new species. The species is more closely related to Neanderthals than ourselves, suggesting that Neandertals and Denisovans are shared a common ancestor after they split from the ancestors of modern humans.

The finger bone has also been revealed to belong to a young girl. A large molar found on the same site has also been shown to belong to this new species, but not to the same individual. The tooth is but similar to molars seen in Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

Comparison with the same segments of DNA in 53 populations of present-day humans has also revealed that the Denisovans shared certain mutations with Melanesians from Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Island, mutations not found in Neandertals or other modern populations. Melanesians appear to have inherited between 4% and 6% of their DNA from these extinct Denisovans (as well as carrying the 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA found in non-African humans).

The fact that the fossils were found in Siberia suggests the Denisovans were widespread across Asia.

So here’s a new story: an ancestral group leaving Africa between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago and quickly diverging as some went west into Europe (the Neanderthals) and others moving east (Denisovans). Later, about 70,000 to 80,000 years ago, modern humans left Africa and met (and occasionally bred with) the Neanderthals. One group of humans later met (and bred with) Denisovans.

November 24, 2010

Early Homo sapiens in China

Homo sapiens fossils from south China have been dated to more than 100,000 years ago, challenging the view that H. sapiens didn’t spread across southern Asia and to Australia until 50,000–60,000 years ago.

November 5, 2010

New statistical model moves human evolution back 3 million years

It’s been widely accepted for a long time that the human lineage diverged from that of chimpanzees around 5 to 6 million years ago. But a new statistical model, combined with fossil and DNA evidence, pushes the timeline back to 8 million years.

October 25, 2010

Modern humans emerged far earlier than previously thought

The discovery of early modern human fossil remains in the Zhirendong (Zhiren Cave) in south China that are at least 100,000 years old provides the earliest evidence for the emergence of modern humans in eastern Asia, at least 60,000 years older than the previously known modern humans in the region.

The Zhirendong fossils have a mixture of modern and archaic features that contrasts with earlier modern humans in east Africa and southwest Asia.

April 22, 2010

Out of Africa dating

New genetic analysis (resequencing of 20 independent noncoding regions in the genome in 213 individuals from different continental populations) supports a model in which modern humans left Africa through a single major dispersal event occurring around 60,000 years ago, corresponding to a drastic reduction of about 5 times the effective population size of the ancestral African population of some 13,800 individuals. The ancestors of modern Europeans and East Asians diverged much later, around 22,500 years ago.

Open access article at

January 21, 2010

Early Homo sapiens’ small population

Humans have less genetic variation than other primates. Various "bottlenecks" — events in which a significant proportion of the population is killed or prevented from reproducing — have been suggested to explain this. For example, only some 15,000 humans are thought to have survived the nuclear winter that followed the eruption of the Toba super-volcano in Indonesia around 70,000 years ago.

Now a new genetic analysis points to a similar catastrophic event around a million years ago. The analysis uses specific elements in the genome that hark back to ancient times. Using these, it is estimated that the effective population size of human ancestors living before 1.2 million years ago was 18,500, and it is very unlikely that it was larger than 26,000.

This is unusually small for a species with such a wide distribution (and smaller than the present-day populations of gorillas and chimpanzees). Moreover, they apparently remained an endangered species for a million years.

April 6, 2010

New species of early hominid found

The Malapa cave systems, in the Sterkfontein area near Johannesburg, are a UNESCO world heritage site. An almost complete fossilized Australopithecus skeleton was discovered there in 1994. Now two partial skeletons of a new Australopithecus species, dated to between 1.95 and 1.78 million years ago, have been found there. The skeletons belonged to an adult female and a juvenile male. Another two have been found since the initial report.

The mix of Australopithecus and Homo features seen in these hominids imply that the transition from earlier hominids to the Homo genus occurred in very slow stages. The species has been named Australopithecus sediba.

The species may be an ancestor for the Homo genus, or a sister group to a close ancestor that persisted for some time after the first appearance of Homo. The Homo genus is thought by many to have evolved from Australopithecus a little more than two million years ago (the oldest Homo specimen has been dated at 2.3 million years ago), with Homo habilis representing the start of the Homo genus. However the evidence for Homo habilis is sketchy, and some suggest the genus evolved from the Kenyanthropus genus.

Kenyanthropus platyops was discovered in 2001.

March 24, 2010

Fossil finger points to new human species

New techniques for extracting mitochondrial DNA from ancient samples has enabled a fragment of bone found in 2008 in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains, dated to between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago, to be revealed as belonging to a new hominin.

The sample was compared to 54 modern humans, a 30,000 early modern human from Russia, 6 Neanderthals, a bonobo and a chimpanzee. The fragment's sequence differed significantly from modern human sequences, by almost twice as much as the Neanderthal differed from humans' — suggesting that it diverged from a common ancestor well before Neanderthals and modern humans did -- about one million years ago.

This may indicate a migration out of Africa after Homo erectus (about 1.9 million years ago) and before Neanderthals (between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago).

Denisova Cave is a rich source of Neanderthal artefacts.

January 8, 2010

Hominids Went Out of Africa on Rafts

Large numbers of stone hand-axes found in several places in southwestern Crete have been dated to at least 130,000 years ago and closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by Homo erectus. The axes were made from a local quartz.

Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago.

The idea that Homo erectus were capable of crossing the sea has already been suggested (but not widely accepted) in connection with Indonesia. Neanderthals, too, it’s been suggested, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar.

October 1, 2009

Fossil Ardi reveals the first steps of the human race

In what’s been widely touted as the most important find in human evolution in the past century, the oldest partial skeleton from a human ancestor that has ever been found shows a female who could walk upright but was still a skilled tree-climber. The fossil, found in northern Ethiopia, has been categorized as belonging to a new species — Ardipithecus ramidus — and has been nicknamed Ardi. She was about the size of a chimpanzee: around 4 feet tall (1.2m), weighing in just under 8 stone (50kg), and with a similar-sized brain. Her very long arms and fingers, and opposable toes, are presumed to have helped her move through the forest canopy. Her pelvis however, shows that she walked upright when on the ground. Her teeth indicate a diet of fruit, leaves, and small mammals. The small size of incisors and canines in both male and female Ardipithecus (other remains were found with Ardi; she was simply the most complete) reveal that the enlarged incisors and canines found in modern apes developed later.

September 8, 2009

Fossil find in Georgia challenges theories on early humans

Excavations at Dmanisi in Georgia have uncovered the earliest human remains to be discovered outside Africa: five early Homo erectus skeletons that date back to 1.8 million years ago. The remains were found with stone tools and animal bones with cut marks, and suggest a species that were about 1.5 meters tall, with brains a bit more than half our size.

April 30, 2009

Geneticists publish largest-ever study on African genetics revealing origins, migration

In the largest-ever study of African genetic data, involving more than four million genotypes, from 121 African populations and four African American populations, the ancestral origin of humans has been placed in southern Africa, near the South Africa-Namibian border, and the exit point of modern humans out of Africa near the middle of the Red Sea in East Africa.

February 27, 2009

Earliest human footprints found in Kenya

Footprints, dated to between 1.51 million and 1.53 million years ago, have been found in sedimentary rock in Kenya. The prints give evidence of a modern upright stride, and tall individuals (around 5ft 9in). They were probably made by Homo ergaster or Homo erectus, and are the earliest evidence we have of modern upright walking. The only older footprints by human ancestors are from around 3.6 million years ago, in Tanzania, which show an upright posture but a more ape-like foot (with a shallower arch and more divergent big toe). Those footprints were attributed to Australopithecus afarensis.

July 7, 2008

The Migration History of Humans: DNA Study Traces Human Origins Across the Continents

Good article in Scientific American about the genetic research that helps us trace the movement of ancient humans across the globe

July 2, 2008

Newcomer In Early Eurafrican Population?

A complete mandible of Homo erectus was discovered in Casablanca; the oldest human fossil uncovered from scientific excavations in Morocco. It was found among teeth, one of which was dated to 500,000 BC. Its morphology differs from the three mandibles dated to 700,000 B.C. that were found in Algeria and used to define Homo mauritanicus (the North African variety of Homo erectus).

April 3, 2007

China's Earliest Modern Human

A skeleton recovered in 2003 from the Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, near Beijing City, has been dated to 42,000 to 38,500 years ago, making it the oldest securely dated modern human skeleton in China and one of the oldest modern human fossils in eastern Eurasia. The specimen is basically a modern human, but it does have a few archaic characteristics, particularly in the teeth and hand bone.

The discovery casts further doubt on the longstanding "Out of Africa" theory which holds that when modern Homo sapiens spread eastwards from sub-Saharan Africa to Eurasia about 65,000 to 25,000 years ago, replacing the native late archaic humans. This fossil is evidence that these modern humans interbred with local archaic humans as they spread.

March 16, 2007

Tooth Decay Analysis Supports 'Out Of Africa' Theory Of Human Evolution

Streptoccocus mutans, a bacterium associated with dental caries, has evolved alongside Homo sapiens. Samples that include over 60 strains of the bacteria collected from Chinese and Japanese, Africans, African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, Caucasians in the United States, Sweden, and Australia, and Amazon Indians in Brazil and Guyana, show a family tree that dates back to a single common ancestor who lived in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

The bacterial family tree supports a human tree rooted in Africa, with its main branch extending to Asia, and a second branch extending from Asia back to Europe, indicating the migration of a small group of Asians who founded at least one group of modern-day Caucasians.

March 13, 2007

Fossil shows human growth at least 160,000 years ago

New technology has revealed that the Moroccan fossil child dated at around 160,000 years ago and thought to be one of the earliest representatives of Homo sapiens, showed an equivalent degree of tooth development to living human children at the same age (almost 8 years old).

February7, 2007

Gut reaction

532 different strains of Helicobacter pylori, bacteria that cause ulcers and stomach cancer, have been collected from 51 ethnic groups. The relative genetic diversity seen in these bacteria that have followed us around the world supports the view that we originated in east Africa, and dates our exodus from Africa to about 58,000 years ago.

January 15, 2007

Putting a face on the earliest modern Europeans

A 35,000-year-old skull discovered in western Romania — the earliest largely complete example of an early modern human skull known from Europe — shows that the earliest modern humans in Europe were not completely like us.

Its combination of modern and archaic features can be used to reinforce arguments for some degree of mixture of Neandertals and modern humans. In addition to its large face and retreating forehead, it has the largest cheek teeth so far known for an otherwise anatomically modern human.

January 11, 2007

The Hofmeyr skull is adding to our knowledge of early human migration.

A fossil skull found in South Africa in 1952 that could not be dated at the time has now been dated using new techniques. It dates to about 36,000 years ago. The skull resembles that of modern humans who lived in Europe and Asia about 36,000 years ago more than fossils of Africans or Europeans from the past 10,000 years, suggesting that the humans who left Africa descend from a group in sub-Saharan Africa.

August11, 2006

Artefacts support theory man came from Africa

A comparison of African and Indian artefacts — ostrich eggshell beads, arrow- or spearheads and barbs, and a criss-cross art style — has revealed that they are virtually identical.

Most of the African finds date from between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, while the earliest Indian artefacts discovered so far are just 35,000 years old (although these dates may be pushed back).

The finding adds more support to the view that there was one migration from Africa outwards. Until now, archaeologists felt that the tools found in Australia were so different from those found in Europe that they must have been carried by a separate dispersal, but now they think that the Australian artefacts could be a simplified version of those found elsewhere.

February 25, 2006

Big Stone Age woman reflects cold adaptation

A 260,000-year-old partial skeleton found in northwestern China represents our largest known female ancestor. Known as the Jinniushan specimen, she is estimated at 5 feet, 5-1/2 inches tall, and 173 pounds in weight. She’s identified as belonging to the Homo genus, but her species is uncertain. Researchers suggest her size reflects membership in a cold-adapted population, with large, broad bodies with short limbs (as seen in near-polar populations today).

The fossils are consistent with the theory that our lineage peaked in body size and showed substantial brain growth between 1 million and 200,000 years ago.

April 6, 2005

First hominid?

New fossils support the position of Sahelanthropus tchadensis as a hominid that lived shortly after hominids diverged from chimpanzee ancestors, between 6 million and 7 million years ago. However, more discoveries are needed to decide whether Sahelanthropus represents a separate genus or belongs to a previously identified group of nearly 6-million-year-old African hominids dubbed Ardipithecus.

February 16, 2005

The oldest Homo sapiens

Fossils found in Ethiopia push the birth of our species, Homo sapiens, to some 195,000 years ago. The date is consistent with that suggested by genetic studies. The anatomically modern skull was found with a less modern one, dated within a few hundred years of each other.

January 16, 2005

Genes found in Europeans support species interbreeding

Genetic study of Icelanders has revealed a stretch of DNA (chromosome 17q21.31) that exists in two forms in the Icelandic population. In some Icelanders, this sequence is flipped. Women carrying the inverted sequence tend to have slightly more children, and it is found much more often in women over 95 and in men over 90, suggesting that it confers both fertility and longevity benefits.

The inversion was found to be rare in Africans, almost absent in Asians, but present in 20% of Europeans, as in Iceland.

Although it appears that something in the European environment in the last 10,000 years has made the mutation more desirable, its origin is ancient. The standard and flipped version last shared a common ancestor three million years ago.

It is highly unusual for two different versions of a gene to endure for so long. It may be that the two versions confer different advantages. Alternatively, it may be that the flipped version was carried in a different human lineage, entering our lineage during interbreeding in more recent times. Supporting this idea, the flipped version carries far fewer mutations than the standard version.

November 18, 2004

Ancient ape gives clue to family origins

Fossils from Spain, 13 million years old, are thought to reveal the most recent common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and humans. The species has been christened Pierolapithecus catalaunicus. The male, estimated at about the size of a female chimpanzee, shows a mixture of typical 'apelike' features alongside more primitive 'monkey' characteristics.

June 11, 2003

Human Origins from Afar

The Afar Depression in the Great Rift Valley has offered a wealth of hominid fossils over the years. In 1997, fossils categorized as Homo sapiens idaltu — the Herto people — were found. Dated at 156,000 years ago, these were then the earliest, well-dated “modern” fossils. The three skulls found also appeared to have been separated from their bodies and manipulated with stone tools, suggesting some sort of mortuary practice (cannibalism would have left much less controlled damage). Polishing also suggested that that the skulls were handled repeatedly. The dating of these fossils is of particular interest, because it is the time period that “Mitochondrial Eve” also lived.

A million-year old Homo erectus skull was also found nearby. The skull is remarkably similar to H. erectus fossils from Java, China, and Europe.

The Herto were given a subspecies name (idaltu means “elder” in the local language) because of several significant differences in the skull: larger than modern Homo sapiens, with a longer braincase and more pronounced brow ridges. These differences fit nicely between some older hominid fossils, such as Homo heidelbergensis, and modern humans.

March 5, 2004

Ancient teeth point to earliest humans

The discovery of more fossil teeth in Ethiopia have caused researchers to reclassify the remains of at least five individual hominids from between 5.2 and 5.8 million years ago. At the time they were classified as Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba ("root-man ancestor") on the assumption that it was a subspecies of Ardipithecus ramidus. They have now been reclassified as a new species: Ardipithecus kadabba. This species may be the first on the human branch after the split between the lines that would lead to chimpanzees on one branch, and humans on the other. They appear to have lived in a wooded, wet environment, and from the toe bone, it appears they walked on two feet when on the ground.

Original find:

July 4, 2002

Fossil Skull Discovered In Eurasia Challenges Early-Human Theories

A fossil skull found in Georgia and dated at 1.75 million years, is quite ape-like, with a small brain, thin brow and large canine teeth. The find challenges a long-held assumption that leaving Africa would have required a big brain. Other fossils found at the same site reveal a huge range in size, although they are thought to all belong to the same species. The fossils were also found with hundreds of animal bones and thousands of simple stone tools.

March 20, 2002

Fossil indicates Homo erectus, was single, widespread species 1 million years ago

A million-year-old Homo erectus skull found in Ethiopia has now been carefully assembled and analysed, and scientists say it is clearly exactly the same as those found in Europe and Asia, demonstrating that Homo erectus was a single species spread over the world, not two separate species, as some have argued.

It is suggested that the onset of the Ice Ages about 950,000 years ago split the Homo erectus populations and led to their divergent evolution, with the African population giving rise to modern Homo sapiens, and the European branch perhaps becoming the Neandertals, and the Asian population dying out. Homo erectus first appeared about 1.8 million years ago and disappeared some 400,000 years ago. The largest number of Homo erectus specimens are from Asia, including the first specimen ("Java Man").

September 14, 2001

Oldest Hominid Fossils in Southern Africa Found

The oldest known hominid fossils yet found in southern Africa, dating back 3.5

million years, have been found at the world-renowned Sterkfontein Caves, north of Johannesburg.

November 9, 2001

Archaeological Discovery in N. China Challenges Theory on Origin of Man

Excavations in north China's Hebei Province have unearthed more than 800 stone tools and animal skeletons in a stratum dating back around 2 million years.