Recent Developments in Paleoanthropology
These pages use a fairly conservative naming system. In recent
years a number of changes have been suggested in the
classification of hominid fossils.
Many people are now using the genus name Paranthropus,
originally given to robustus, to refer to the robust
australopithecines (robustus, boisei, and aethiopicus).
This change makes sense if all these species form a clade (all of
the species descended from a common ancestor) but it is not yet
known if this is the case.
Here is a selection of recent discoveries and other developments
- Dec 2010: Most of the nuclear genome of the Denisovan fossil has now been published (Reich et al. 2010), and shows it to have been more closely related to Neandertals than modern humans. The Denisovan genome also seems to have made about a 5% contribution to the genome of modern Melanesians!
- Dec 2010: A new paper (Green et al. 2010)
- Apr 2010: Two partial skeletons assigned to a new species, Australopithecus sediba, were discovered at Malapa in South Africa in 2008 (Berger et al. 2010). It is claimed by its finders to be transitional between A. africanus and Homo and a possible candidate for the ancestor of Homo.
- Oct 2009: A partial skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus which was discovered in late 1994 was finally released after 15 years of excavation, restoration and analysis (White et al. 2009; Gibbons 2009). It was bipedal on the ground, though not as well-adapted to it as the australopithecines, and quadrupedal in the trees. The journal Science has published a collection of 11 papers on the skeleton and its environment.
- Sep 2006: An exceptionally complete skeleton of a young Australopithecus afarensis child, nicknamed 'Selam', has been discovered in Ethiopia. It seems to contain a mixture of bipedal and arboreal features. (Alemseged 2006, Wood 2006)
- Mar 2005: A newly-discovered partial skeleton from Mille in Ethiopia is claimed to be the world's oldest bipedal hominid. The fossil is about 4 million years old and has not yet been classified or published in the scientific literature, though it is said to fall between Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus afarensis.
- Feb 2005: Two skulls found near the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1967 by Richard Leakey and thought to be about 130,000 years old have now been dated at 195,000 years, the oldest date known for a modern human skull (McDougall et al. 2005). The Omo I skull is fully modern, while Omo II has some archaic features.
- Oct 2004: A new species of hominid, Homo floresiensis, has been discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores. The most complete fossil is that of an almost complete skull and partial skeleton of a female who appears to be about a meter tall, with an astonishingly small brain size of 380cc. The floresiensis fossils date from between 38,000 and 18,000 and are thought to be a dwarf form of Homo erectus. (Brown et al. 2004, Morwood et al. 2004, Lahr and Foley 2004)
- Jul 2004: Fragments of a small H. erectus skull, OL 45500, have been discovered at Olorgesailie in Kenya. The skull is an adult or near-adult, and about 0.95 million years old. The brain size can not be measured directly, but from the size of the bones the skull is similar in size to the two larger Dmanisi skulls (D2280 and D2282) and so probably in the 650-800 cc range, which is small for erectus. (Potts et al. 2004, Schwartz 2004) (See also a New Scientist article, Petite skull reopens human ancestry debate, and my comments)
- Mar 2004: A new paper contains details of four new mtDNA sequences which have been retrieved from Neandertal fossils (Serre et al., 2004). This brings the number of known Neandertal mtDNA sequences to eight, all of which are closely related, and considerably different from all modern human mtDNA sequences.
- Mar 2004: Some fragmentary fossils discovered in Ethiopia and dating between 5.2 and 5.8 million years old were originally assigned to a new subspecies, Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba. Following further study, the finders have decided that the differences between them and other fossils justify assigning them to a new species, Ardipithecus kadabba. (Haile-Selassie et al. 2004, Begun 2004)
- Jun 2003: Three new skulls from Herto,
Ethiopia, are the oldest known modern human fossils, at 160,000 yrs. The
discoverers have assigned them to a new subspecies, Homo sapiens
idaltu, and say that they are anatomically and chronologically intermediate
between older archaic humans and more recent fully modern humans. Their
age and anatomy is cited as strong evidence for the emergence of modern
humans from Africa, and against the multiregional theory which argues that
modern humans evolved in many places around the world. (White et al.
2003, Stringer 2003)
- Apr 2003: A new study has claimed an age of over 4 million
years for the australopithecine skeleton Little Foot
from South Africa. If true, this would make it one of the oldest known
australopithecine fossils. (Partridge et al. 2003)
- Feb 2003: OH 65, a fossil from Olduvai Gorge consisting of an upper jaw and part of the lower face, may cause a reevaluation of the species Homo habilis. (Blumenschine et al. 2003, Tobias 2003)
- Jul 2002: A fossil skull
discovered in Chad, between 6 and 7
million years old, has been assigned to a new genus and species,
Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The skull is small and apelike, but with some features associated with hominids. (Brunet et al. 2002, Wood 2002)
- Jul 2002: The fossil skull D2700
discovered at Dmanisi, Georgia, is the smallest and most primitive
hominid skull ever discovered outside of Africa, and although tentatively
assigned to Homo erectus, it and two other skulls and three lower
jaws appear in many ways to be intermediate
between it and H. habilis. (Vekua et al. 2002, Balter and Gibbons 2002)
These specimens have since been allocated to Homo georgicus (Gabunia et al. 2002)
- Mar 2002: According to its discoverers, a new Homo
erectus skull from Bouri in Ethiopia, about 1 million years old, indicates that
Homo ergaster should not
be considered a separate species from Homo erectus (Asfaw et al. 2002)
- Dec 2001: A new study claims that Homo erectus had
rapid dental growth rates and had not yet developed the slow growth rates
of modern humans. (Dean et al. 2001, Moggi-Cecchi 2001)
- Jul 2001: A number of fragmentary fossils discovered between 1997 and 2001,
and dating from 5.2 to 5.8 million years old, have been assigned to a new
subspecies, Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba. (Haile-Selassie 2001)
(P.S. this taxon was later named as a species, Ar. kadabba, in March 2004)
- Mar 2001: A 3.6 million year old fossil from Kenya, WT 40000, has been assigned to a new species and genus, Kenyanthropus platyops. (Leakey et al 2001, Lieberman 2001).
- Feb 2001: A French-Kenyan team has found a fossil claimed to be both considerably older than any other hominid (at 6 million years) and more advanced than the australopithecines. The fossil, originally nicknamed "Millennium Man", has been named Orrorin tugenensis, and is claimed by its finders to be a direct ancestor of humans, relegating the australopithecines to a side branch (Senut et al. 2001). These claims are being treated with caution so far (Aiello and Collard 2001).
- Jan 2001: A fossil of a 3.4 million year old hominid, probably
belonging to a child, has been discovered in Ethiopia.
- Jan 2001: A new
study has sequenced
mitochondrial DNA from the anatomically modern Mungo Man
fossil from Australia and found it to be outside the range of modern
The authors have claimed this is strong evidence for the multiregional
model of human evolution, as opposed to the currently dominant Out Of
Africa model (Adcock et al. 2001). However, other
other experts have challenged this. Cooper
et al. (2001) have published a rebuttal of this claim.
- Mar 2000: Mitochondrial DNA from a second Neandertal specimen (a baby from
Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia) has been
successfully sequenced. Like the first specimen, it is well outside
the range of variation of modern humans (Ovchinnikov
et al. 2000, Höss
2000). Analysis of the mtDNA of a third Neandertal from Vindija in Croatia also confirms the
earlier findings. (Krings et al. 2000)
- Apr 2000: Two Homo erectus crania and a mandible have been discovered
at Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. They have been
dated at about 1.7 million years. (Gabunia et al. 2000, Balter
and Gibbons 2000)
- The complete skull of a female Australopithecus
robustus has been discovered at Drimolen in South Africa, along
with the lower jaw of a male robustus found only a few inches
away. (Keyser 2000)
- Apr 1999: A new species, Australopithecus
garhi, has been named from fossils found near Bouri in Ethiopia, by a
joint Ethiopian, American and Japanese team. This
small-brained, large-toothed hominid was found near
antelope bones which had been butchered by stone tools
(Asfaw et al. 1999).
- Apr 1999: According to Neandertal expert Erik Trinkaus, the
24500-year-old skeleton of a young boy found in Portugal
contains characteristics of both modern human and
Neandertals, and is evidence that the two groups
interbred (Duarte et al. 1999).
- Oct 1998: Although it has not yet been fully excavated, it seems
that virtually an
entire australopithecine skeleton has been discovered
by Ronald Clarke at Sterkfontein in South Africa. This
skeleton belongs to the same individual as the
"Little Foot" set of four foot bones discovered
by Clarke in 1994 (see below).
- An article by geographer Jerome Dobson
(1998) suggests that Neandertal features are
caused by an iodine deficiency, or by a genetic
difference in the thyroid. (Diseases associated with
low-iodine diets are goiter and cretinism.) Expect this
controversial claim to receive skeptical
scrutiny from anthropologists.
- Jul 1998: Analysis
of new A. africanus fossils from Sterkfontein in
South Africa suggests that the forelimb and hindlimb
proportions of africanus were more ape-like than
in the earlier A. afarensis. (McHenry and Berger
- A well-preserved Homo cranium discovered in
Eritrea is about 1 million years old, and contains a
mixture of erectus and sapiens
characteristics. (Abbate et al. 1998)
new A. boisei skull is one of the most
complete known, and the first known with an associated
cranium and lower jaw. It also has a surprising amount of
variability from other boisei skulls, which may
have implications for how hominid fossils are classified.
(Suwa et al. 1997; Delson 1997)
- Jul 1997: In a stunning technical achievement, it appears that a
portion of Neandertal
mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been successfully extracted
for the first time. It differs by a surprising amount
from equivalent modern human DNA, suggesting that
Neandertals were not particularly closely related to any
modern humans, and supporting (but certainly not proving)
claims that they were a different species. (Krings et al.
1997; Kahn and Gibbons 1997)
- Some Homo fossils found recently
in Spain, and dated at over 780,000 years, are the
oldest confirmed European hominids. It is not yet clear
what species they belong to, although the discoverers
have named them Homo
antecessor. (Bermudez de Castro
et al. 1997; Kunzig R. 1997)
oldest known stone tools have been found at Gona, Ethiopia,
in sediments dated at between 2.5 and 2.6 million years
old. The makers are unknown, but may be early Homo.
(Semaw et al. 1997)
upper jaw belonging to the genus Homo and
dated at over 2.3 million years old has been found in
Ethiopia, associated with stone tools. (Kimbel et al.
- Recent studies claim that some
Javan skulls are between 51,000 and 27,000 years old,
far more recent than previously thought. If confirmed, it
means that Homo erectus and sapiens
co-existed in this region for some time. (Swisher et al.
- A partial jaw found in Chad (Central Africa) greatly
extends the geographical range in which
australopithecines are known to have lived. The specimen,
which has been nicknamed Abel, has since been named Australopithecus
bahrelghazali. (Brunet et al. 1995)
- Four australopithecine foot bones dated at around 3.5
million years are the oldest hominid fossils yet found in
South Africa. They seem to be adapted to bipedalism, but
have an intriguing mixture of ape and human features
(Clarke and Tobias 1995). Since then, 8 more
foot and leg bones have been found from the same
individual, who has been nicknamed Little Foot.
- Recent finds at Zafarraya in Spain suggest that
Neandertals may have survived longer than previously
thought, perhaps as recently as 27,000 years ago.
- Two hominid teeth in a small jaw fragment found in China
and dated at around 1.9 million years are claimed as
evidence that Homo arrived in Asia earlier than
currently thought. (Huang et al. 1995) (However other
researchers have suggested this is a fossil ape.)
- Recent research suggests that the some australopithecines
were capable of a precision grip, like that of humans but
unlike apes, which would have meant they were capable of
making stone tools. (Susman 1994)
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This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at
the talk.origins Archive.
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