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Ancestors they didn’t teach you in school

Surely you know any of the following names because they are classic ancestors we learned in school: Lucy, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthals… but our history has many more players, and every so often new discoveries are made that change our lineage tree. Find out in this article the latest findings your teachers could not explain to you .

HOMO NALEDI

Reconstrucción facial de Homo naledi por John Gurche. Foto de Mark Thiessen.
Homo naledi’s facial reconstruction by John Gurche. Photo: Mark Thiessen.

It is almost forced to start with one of the latest discoveries that is encouraging discussions in paleoanthropology to gain a key position in our family tree. The discovery of a new species, Homo naledi, was published the September 10, 2015 by Lee Berger et al. It was discovered in a cave system in South Africa named Rising Star at the Dinaledi chamber (“Naledi” means “star” in the local language, Sesotho). It is especially interesting for several reasons:

  • At the moment in the site have been found more than 1,700 human fossils accumulated, making it the largest of South Africa, behind the famous Sima de los Huesos (“Pit of Bones”, Atapuerca, Spain), the largest of the world, with more than 6,000 fossils.
  • The cave is very difficult to access, with corridors of only 19 cm wide, so it was a selected team of 6 thin paleoantropologysts (all women) that reached them.

Esquema del sistema de cuevas de la cámara Dinaledi. Imagen de Jason Treat, NGM Staff, NGM maps, fuente: Lee Berger, Wits. Tomada de National Geographic.
Scheme of the cave system of Dinaledi’s chamber. Image by  Jason Treat, NGM Staff, NGM maps, Source: Lee Berger, Wits. Adapted from National Geographic.

  • The bones belonged to 15 individuals of all ages, male and female, so we can get extensive information about the new species. Some were even on the floor of the cave without mineralize.
  • The physical characteristics of H. naledi are a mix of Homo traits (height, feet) and Australopithecus (shoulders, chest, pelvis), the genus from which most scientists believe Homo appears about 2.8 to 2, 5 million years ago. This may suggest that H. naledi could be the first Homo, the missing link between Australopithecus and us.

    Una parte de la impresionante cantidad de huesos de Homo naledi descubiertos. Foto de John Hawks
    Some of the impressive number of bones discovered Homo naledi. Photo by John Hawks
  • The most intriguing of this discovery, it is believed that the bones were placed there deliberately. By geography, access to the cave was the same as today, they could not fall into the pit, the bones could not be brought by a water flooding or any animal, they have no marks of violence … It could be a funeral ritual? So far, the first rites are attributed to H. neanderthalensis, with most modern physical characteristics and a large cranial capacity compared to H. naledi (1.475 cm3 versus 560 cm3  at the most).

The oldest known Homo fossil, 2.8 million years old, corresponds to a jaw found in Afar in March 2015 which has not been associated to any species. Was H. naledi the first Homo? Is it really an ancient species? Is it possible they had self-awareness so early and cared for their dead? Unfortunately, researchers have not been able to date the remains yet, so many questions remain unanswered and we will must wait for future interpretations of one of the most important discoveries of recent times.

THE DENISOVANS

In Denisova Cave (Siberia) in 2008 was found a non-spectacular fossil: a piece of a finger bone that was dated 30,000 years old and attributed to an individual of about 8 years which turned out to be a gir. But when DNA was extracted, it was concluded that belonged neither to H. sapiens or H. neanderthalensis, but to a new species. Later two teeth of another individual of the same population were found. In the same cave also Sapiens and Neanderthal remains were found.

Diente, muela, denisova, denisovanos, teeth, tooth, denisova
The denisovan teeth.  Photo by Max Planck Institute.

Is it possible that Denisovans hybridized with Sapiens? DNA studies in the current populations indicate that 5% of DNA aboriginal Australians, Papuans and other peoples of Melanesia is Denisovan. On the other hand we know that 20% of the DNA of accumulated European populations is Neanderthal.

WHERE DO WE LOCATE THEM IN OUR FAMILY TREE?

It is thought that Neanderthals and Denisovans had a common ancestor (H. heidelbergensis), who emigrated to western Europe and Central Asia evolving to H. neanderthalensis, who subsequently hybridized with us, and from Southeast Asia where would evolve in the hominin Denisova, who also hybridized with H. sapiens. This would explain the presence of DNA in the current populations of Australasia.

HOW THEY WERE LIKE?

The absence of more fossils or traces of objects and tools prevent us to know how they looked like and what were their skills. Nor it has been found explanation for the lack of Denisovan DNA in the Russian or Chinese populations, so close geographically to the Denisova cave. Denisovans remain a mystery to science.

THE FLORES WOMAN

Homo floresiensis. Reconstrucción de John Gurche
Homo floresiensis. Reconstruction by John Gurche. Photo by Chip Clark

Homo floresiensis, as its name indicates, lived on the island of Flores (Indonesia) only between 95,000 and 12,000 years ago. It was discovered 12 years ago. It is the only site where this species is found.

As in previous fossils, the mix of features caught the attention of the scientific community, especially for its small cranial capacity and height, earning them the nickname hobbit. First they thought it was an individual with a pathology, or a pygmy of a known species, as their morphology was very strange in a so modern fossil. But now we have remains of at least 12 individuals with the same traits, so we can talk (for the moment) of another species.

HOW THEY WERE LIKE?

  • Small height: the most complete skeleton belongs to a female only one meter tall and 25 kg weight.
  • Small skull: their cranial capacity (380-420 cm3) was similar to the current Australopithecus or a current chimpanzee, but the brain had a more similar Homo anatomy. The teeth were large relative to the skull.

Reproducción de cráneo de Homo floresiensis. American Museum of National History. Foto de Mireia Querol
homo floresiensis (LB1) skull cast. American Museum of National History. Photo by Mireia Querol

  • Long feet and short legs: feet were very long in relation to the legs, which were short and stout. This and more features suggest that locomotion was different from ours and were bad runners.
  • Long arms: besides a proportion nearest to Australopithecus and H. habilis than H. sapiens, arms were robust and had a powerful musculature.
  • Stone tools and fire: besides the existence of tools of earlier hominans found in the cave, some tools have been associated to H. floresiensis with a technology similar to the Oldowan Industry, the first to be invented. Also they dominated the fire.

WHY THEY WERE SO SMALL?

Controversy continues: was a direct descendant of Australopithecus (how could they have traveled so far from Africa?), or a recent member of our family tree so small due to lack of resources?

The insular dwarfism is an evolutionary process due to a long-term isolation in a small area with limited resources and lack of predators. Flores pygmy elephants (Stegodon) hunted by H. floresiensis  with this adaptation were also found. The opposite process it is the island gigantism, in which animals that are usually small on the continent are giants in the islands, such as the Galapagos turtles and the extinct lizards or rats of Flores.

Un lagarto gigante se enfrenta al hombre de Flores. Imagen de National Geographic
A giant lizard faces Flores man who has caught a rat. Image by National Geographic

H. floresiensis may be the result of this dwarfism, and some scientists believe it could actually be a reduced Homo erectus. The majority opinion today is that they were already so small when they reached Flores (such as the  Australopithecus from whom evolved), and modern features are due to convergent evolution with H. sapiens. Unfortunately it has not been able to extract DNA in good condition to put them in the phylogenetic tree for sure.

How did they get to Flores? They had a language, art and cultural expressions? Did they get in contact with our species? They were extinct due to a volcanic eruption? Who made the other ancient tools previous to H. floresiensis? The debate and the unknowns remain open.

REFERENCES

 

Lucy in the ground with diamonds

Surely one of the responsibles that you’re reading this post was the climate change that took place about 6 million years ago. The lifting of the Rift Valley caused a cooling and drying of sub-Saharan Africa, which favored the extension of the savannah at the expense of forests and the evolution of the first hominans who already walked by two feet. The most famous of them is undoubtedly Lucy. We encourage you to meet Australopithecus afarensis and the anatomy associated with bipedalism.

¿WHO WAS LUCY?

Just over 40 years ago, Donald Johanson discovered a partial skeleton (AL-288-1) 3.2 million old in Hadar, Ethiopia. It was the oldest hominan discovered and the bones belonged to an unknown species. At night, while celebrating the discovery with his team, the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing in the cassette, and nicknamed the fossil remains. They belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis (Afar southern monkey).

Reproducción de Lucy del Museum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris. (Foto: autor desconocido, Wikimedia)
Cast of Lucy in the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. (Photo: unknown author, Wikimedia)

Currently A. afarensis is one of the best known early hominans, as it have been found remains of hundreds of individuals, males, females and young ones.

ANATOMY

The average height and weight of A. afarensis was 1.05 m and 29 kg for females and 1.51 m and 42 kg for males, significantly smaller compared to us. Brain volume was also small, 387-550 cubic cm (similar to a current chimpanzee). The arms and fingers were longer than ours, which allowed them to climb easily in the trees, and the legs, though shorter, had characteristics that allowed bipedalism (walking on two feet) completely. The forehead was narrow and jaws were located forward (prognathism), with a large space for jaw muscles. Their diet was mainly herbivorous.

Representación de Lucy por Elisabeth Daynès, con las huellas de Laetoli, en CosmoCaixa Barcelona. (Foto: Mireia Querol)
Reconstruction of Lucy by Elisabeth Daynès, with Laetoli footprint trails, in CosmoCaixa. (Photo: Mireia Querol)

ANATOMICAL FEATURES OF BIPEDALISM

A. afarensis already had the necessary adaptations to walk like us, though perhaps is not the older bipedal hominan: Orrorin tugenensis (6.2 to 5.6 million years) is aspiring to be one of the first members of the human race who walked upright .

skeleton comparison
Comparison between the skeletons of a current human (Homo sapiens), an A. afarensis and a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). (Photo: H. sapiens unknown author, A. afarensis John C. Phillips, chimpanzee Udo M. Savalli).
  • Foramen magnum: the spinal cord goes through an opening in the skull, the foramen magnum. In the chimpanzee is located in the back of the skull, while afarensis has it in the base, which allows a vertical backbone settle.
  • Backbone: lumbar and cervical area of the human backbone are more curved, we have a column with a S” shape. The center of gravity is in the midline of the foot and allows spinal flexion during walking, therefore when chimpanzees walk on two feet, stagger for balance because they have a straight spine.
  • Rib cage: A. afarensis still has a rather conical chest to accommodate a larger digestive system due to herviborous diet and better shoulder mobility to climb. H. sapiens have it shaped like a barrel, which facilitates the swing arm for better balance while walking and allows a better torso bending.
  • Pelvis: human pelvis is shorter and wider than other primates, to allow better mobility with the base of the backbone, but the birth canal is narrow.
  • Feet: A. afarensis toe, like ours, is aligned with the rest of the fingers, the sole is arched and a wide bead allows the foot to propel with the fingers and absorb shock when walking.
  • Femur: due to bipedalism the joint surface is wide and the femur is angled toward the center of gravity. In the chimpanzee femurs are shorter, less inclined and with lower joints.

LAETOLI FOOTPRINT TRAILS

Huellas de Laetoli, Tanzania. (Foto: Science Library)
Laetoli footprint trails, Tanzania. (Photo: Sciencephoto Library)

2.000 kms further south where Lucy was found, in Laetoli (Tanzania), Mary Leakey discovered in 1978 the oldest known biped trail (3.6 million years) of probably 4 hominans who walked through the open savannah, with traces of other extinct animals like the horse Hipparion, a bird, a baboon and a centipede. The tracks are laid down in the ashes of the volcano Sadiman and are attributed to A. afarensis. There are 69 footprints, some overlapping others intentionally, perhaps as a strategy to leave no trace. The big toe is parallel to the rest of the fingers and a deep footprint and the bead is well marked, which confirms a completely bipedal stride.

But why has it been so important bipedalism in the process of humanization, towards the emergence of Homo sapiens? We’ll find out in the next article on human evolution.

Representación de A. afarensis por John Gurche. (Foto: Chip Clark)

Rreconstruction of A. afarensis by John Gurche. (Photo: Chip Clark)

 

REFERENCES

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