In “Almost Human,” the search for hominin fossils reads like an extreme sport. Written by Lee Berger with fellow paleoanthropologist John Hawks, the book documents with riveting intensity Berger’s lifelong fascination with fossil hunting and the contributions he has made to our understanding of human origins. Rachel Newcombe Washington PostThere is no doubt that paleoanthropologists are having fun at the present time. One sign of this is the release of Lee Berger and John Hawks' Almost Human. From Rachel Newcombe's review in the Washington Post it sounds like a rattling good yarn.
In contemporary paleoanthropological circles, Berger ..... is considered something of a maverick. He invites National Geographic to document his expeditions for social media, puts out calls on Facebook to invite scientists to join his teams and, rather than hoarding his finds so he alone can analyze them, makes replicas and photos of fossils available for other scientists to study. Rachel NewcombeBerger may be a maverick, certainly he has drawn criticism from fellow professionals, but he is part of a new wave that is reshaping our fundamental understanding of the deep human past.
"The famous drawing of a linear and simplistic evolution from ape-like individual morphing to an upright modern human is anything but accurate." Renaud Joannes-Boyau
The latest in the string of recent discoveries exciting paleoanthropologists comes from the Jebel Irhoud site in
In 2004 an international team of scientists led by Jean-Jaques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and including Renaud Joannes-Boyau from Southern Cross University began a new study of the site. They found 16 new human fossils, animal remains and a large number of African Middle Stone Age artifacts showing Levallois technology with a high proportion of retouched tools.
The rather starting results have now been announced in two articles published in Nature.well summarised by two stories, one by Renaud Joannes-Boyau in The Conversation, a second by Kate Wong in Scientific American.
The fossils have been classified as belonging to homo sapiens. They display our species slim "gracile" face as compared to the more robust face and elongated skull of the Neanderthals. However, there are differences in skull structure from today with a more elongated brain case, both longer and lower. In date terms, the remains have been dated to 300,000 years ago, adding 100,000 years to the earliest known date for homo sapiens.
In parallel with the two Nature articles on the latest Jebel Irhoud results, results have been released for a pre peer review formal publication study entitled Ancient genomes from southern Africa pushes modern human divergence beyond 260,000 years ago.This early release process allows preliminary study results to be made available quickly; the formal peer review and publication process can take years.
This study examined the genomes of seven people from several different groups in Southern Africa who lived between 300 and 2,000 years ago. The results suggested that the different groups to which these individuals belonged diverged at least 260,000 years ago, implying that homo sapiens is at least this old.
I lack the technical expertise to properly evaluate the latest results. However, the conclusions as I see them are:
- Homo sapiens emerged earlier and was more wide spread across Africa than previously realised, well before the 100,000 or so years ago date for the out-of-Africa migration
- The evidence for overlap in time between various hominid species seems to be getting stronger all the time
- The definition of just what constitutes homo sapiens among hominids has become very uncertain. I's all very messy if also intensely interesting!
- The need to understand the detail of constantly changing environments over long periods keeps growing.