For this last Hominid Hunting post of 2011, I reviewed recent human evolution research highlights to come up with my picks for the top 10 hominid discoveries of the year. While genetic breakthroughs have hogged the spotlight the past couple of years, good old-fashioned fossil and archaeological finds were front and center in 2011.
10. Earliest Modern Humans in Europe: Paleoanthropologists believe modern humans (Homo sapiens) came to Europe about 43,000 years ago. This date is based on the age of sophisticated stone tools, not human fossils. This year two teams dated European fossils that are in line with the age of the tools: A human upper jaw discovered in southern England in 1927 was dated to 44,000 years ago, and two molars unearthed in Italy were dated to 45,000 years ago. These fossils are the oldest known human remains on the continent.
9. The Arches of Australopithecus afarensis: There’s no doubt that Lucy and her species, Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright. But the degree to which these hominids walked on the ground has been debated. The discovery of a 3.2-million-year-old foot bone confirmed that Lucy and her kind had arched feet and therefore probably walked much like modern people. The researchers who studied the fossil say it indicates Australopithecus afarensis no longer needed to spend much time in the treetops; however, other researchers disagree, saying hominids at this time were still good tree climbers.
8. World’s Earliest Mattress: In a rock shelter in South Africa, archaeologists uncovered a 77,000-year-old mattress composed of thin layers of sedges and grasses, predating all other known mattresses by 50,000 years. Early humans knew how to keep the bed bugs out; the bedding was stuffed with leaves from the Cape Laurel tree (Cryptocarya woodii), which release chemicals known to kill mosquitos and other bugs.
7. Neanderthal Mountaineers: Neanderthals evolved many traits to deal with the cold; for example, their short limbs helped them conserve heat. A mathematical analysis revealed that short limbs may have also helped Neanderthals walk more efficiently in mountainous terrains. Specifically, the fact that Neanderthals had shorter shins relative to their thighs meant they didn’t need to lift their legs as high while walking uphill, compared to modern people with longer legs. “For a given step length, they to put in less effort,” said lead research Ryan Higgins of Johns Hopkins University.
6. The First Art Studio: Archaeologists working in South Africa’s Blombos Cave discovered early humans had a knack for chemistry. In a 100,000-year-old workshop, they found all of the raw materials needed to make paint, as well as abalone shells used as storage containers—evidence that our ancestors were capable of long-term planning at this time.
5. Australopithecine Females Strayed, Males Stayed Close to Home: In many monkey species, when males reach adolescence, they leave their home to search for a new group, probably as a way to avoid breeding with their female relatives. In chimpanzees and some humans, the opposite occurs: Females move away. Now it appears that australopithecines followed the chimp/human pattern. Researchers studied the composition of strontium isotopes found in the teeth of members of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus. An individual consumes strontium through food and it is taken up by the teeth during childhood. Because the isotopes (different forms of the element) in plants and animals vary by geology and location, strontium can be used as a proxy for an individual’s location before adulthood. In the study, the researchers discovered that large individuals, presumably males, tended to have strontium isotope ratios typical of the area where the fossils were found; smaller individuals, or females, had non-local strontium isotope ratios, indicating they had moved into the area as adults.
4. Confirmation of Pre-Clovis People in North America: Since the 1930s, archaeologists have thought the Clovis people, known for their fluted projectile points, were the first people to arrive in the New World, about 13,000 years ago. But in recent years there have been hints that someone else got to North America first. The discovery of more than 15,000 stone artifacts in central Texas, dating to between 13,200 and 15,500 years ago, confirmed those suspicions. Corroborating evidence came from Washington State, where a mastodon rib containing a projectile point was dated this year to 13,800 years ago.
3. Denisovans Left A Mark in Modern DNA: The Denisovans lived in Eurasia sometime between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Scientists don’t know what they looked like; the only evidence of this extinct hominid group is DNA extracted from a bone fragment retrieved from a cave in Siberia. But this year, several studies revealed the mysterious population bred with several lineages of modern humans; people native to Southeast Asia, Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia and elsewhere in Oceania carry Denisovan DNA.
2. Out of Africa and Into Arabia: Traditionally, paleoanthropologists have thought modern humans left Africa through the Sinai Peninsula and into the Levant. But some researchers suggest our ancestors took a more southerly route, across the Red Sea and into southern Arabia. This year, several studies provided evidence pointing to this exit strategy. First, a team reported the discovery of 125,000-year-old stone tools in the United Arab Emirates. The researchers suggested humans ventured into Arabia when sea level was lower, making a trip across the Red Sea easier. (Geologists later verified the climate would have been just right at this time.) No fossils were found with the tools, but the scientists concluded they belonged to modern humans rather than Neanderthals or some other contemporaneous hominid. Another study this year complemented the finding: Paleoanthropologists also found stone tools, dating to 106,000 years ago, in Oman. The researchers say the artifacts match tools of the Nubian Complex, which are found only in the Horn of Africa. This connection implies the makers of those African tools, most likely modern humans, made the migration into Oman.
1. Australopithecus sediba, Candidate for Homo Ancestor: Last year, scientists announced the discovery of a new hominid species from South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind—Australopithecus sediba. This year, the researchers announced the results of an in-depth analysis of the 1.97-million-year-old species. They say a mix of australopithecine and Homo-like traits make Australopithecus sediba, or a species very similar to it, a possible direct ancestor of our own genus, Homo.