Lessons of Homo naledi

New discoveries of fossilised hominin remains have to varying degrees helped to shape our ever-morphing interpretation of hominin evolution. Homo naledi is a case in point.

Though many worker in the field of palaeoanthropology were disappointed with the confirmed Middle Pleistocene age of the Dinaledi remains, this news nevertheless fills a void in our understanding of Middle Pleistocene evolution.

H. naledi confirms what we have known since the astonishing discovery of Homo floresiensis, namely that small brained hominins continued to thrive in some part of the planet right up to recent times. H. naledi can now join Homo floresiensis in the small brain Middle to Late Pleistocene club.

Palaeoanthropologist can now exercise a high level of skepticism on dating hominin fossilised remains using morphological stucture and statistics. In 2015, palaeoanthropologist John Francis Thackeray concluded Homo naledi to be over 1.5 Ma, while Mana Dembo and her colleagues concluded an age of 930,000 years of age for the Rising Star remains. Though Dembo et al were closer to actual age of the remains, they were still nearly 600,000 years off.

Finally, H. naledi continues to confirm what we have known since the announcement of Australopithecus sediba that hominin evolution features an ever changing mosasicism. With Australopithecine-like shoulders and cranium, while the lower limbs and foot appears more derived.

Middle Pleistocene Homo naledi

John Hawks discusses the latest news on the Rising Star Project:

Africa’s richest fossil hominin site has revealed more of its treasure. It’s been a year and a half since scientists announced that a new hominin species, which they called Homo naledi, had been discovered in the Rising Star Cave outside Johannesburg.

Now they say they have established and published the age of the original naledi fossils that garnered global headlines in 2015. Homo naledi lived sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago, making it relatively young.

They’ve also announced the discovery of a second chamber in the Rising Star cave system, which contained additional Homo naledi specimens. These include a child and the partial skeleton of an adult male with a well-preserved skull. They have named the skeleton “Neo” – a Sesotho word meaning “a gift”.

The Conversation Africa’s Science Editor Natasha Joseph asked Professor John Hawks, a member of the team, to explain the story behind these finds.

To an ordinary person, 236 000 years is a very long time ago. Why does the team suggest that in fact, Homo naledi is a “young” species?

The course of human evolution has taken the last seven million years since our ancestors diverged from those of chimpanzees and bonobos. The first two-thirds of that long history, called australopiths, were apelike creatures who developed the trick of walking upright on two legs.

Around two million years ago some varieties of hominins took the first real steps in a human direction. They’re the earliest clear members of our genus, Homo, and belong to species like Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo rudolfensis.

Homo naledi looks in many ways like these first members of Homo. It’s even more primitive than these species in many ways, and has a smaller brain than any of them. People outside our team who have studied the fossils mostly thought they should be around the same age. A few had the radical idea that H. naledi might have lived more recently, maybe around 900,000 years ago.

Nobody thought that these fossils could actually have come from the same recent time interval when modern humans were evolving, a mere 236 to 335 thousand years ago.

How do you figure out a fossil’s age?

We applied six different methods. The most valuable of these were electron spin resonance (ESR) dating, and uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating. ESR relies on the fact that teeth contain tiny crystals, and the electron energy in these crystals is affected by natural radiation in the ground over long periods of time after fossils are buried.

U-Th relies on the fact that water drips into caves and forms layers of calcite, which contain traces of uranium. The radioactive fraction of uranium decays into thorium slowly over time. So the proportion of thorium compared to uranium gives an estimate of the time since the calcite layers formed. One of these calcite deposits, called a flowstone, formed above the H. naledi fossils in the Dinaledi Chamber. That flowstone helps to establish the minimum age: the fossils must be older than the flowstone above them.

For these two methods, our team engaged two separate labs and asked them to process and analyse samples without talking to each other. Their processes produced the same results. This gives us great confidence that the results are reliable.

What does the discovery of Homo naledi’s age mean for our understanding of human history and evolution?

For at least the past 100 years, anthropologists have assumed that most of the evolution of Homo was a story of progress: brains got bigger over time, technology became more sophisticated and teeth got smaller as people relied more upon cleverness to get better food and prepare it by cooking.

We thought that once culture really got started, our evolution was driven by a feedback loop – better food allowed bigger brains, more clever adaptations, more sophisticated communication. That enabled better technology, which yielded more food, and so on like a snowball rolling downhill.

No other hominin species could compete with this human juggernaut. You would never see more than one form of human in a single part of the world, because the competition would be too intense. Other forms, like Neanderthals, existed within regions of the world apart from the mainstream leading to modern humans in Africa. But even they were basically human with large brains.

That thinking was wrong.

Africa south of the equator is the core of human evolutionary history. That’s where today’s human populations were most genetically diverse, and that diversity is just a small part of what once existed there. Different lineages of archaic humans once lived in this region. Anthropologists have found a few fossil remnants of these archaic populations. They’ve tried to connect those remnants in a straight line. But the genetic evidence suggests that they were much more complex, with deep divisions that occasionally intertwined.

H. naledi shows a lineage that existed for probably more than a million years, maybe two million years, from the time it branched from our family tree up to the last 300,000 years. During all this time, it lived in Africa with archaic lineages of humans, with the ancestors of modern humans, maybe with early modern humans themselves. It’s strikingly different from any of these other human forms, so primitive in many aspects. It represents a lost hominin community within which our species evolved.

I think we have to reexamine much of what we thought we knew about our shared evolutionary past in Africa. We know a lot of information from a few very tiny geographic areas. But the largest parts of the continent are unknown – they have no fossil record at all.

Explorers Mathabela Tsikoane, Maropeng Ramalepa, Dirk van Rooyen, Steven Tucker (seated), and Rick Hunter (seated) inside the Rising Star cave system. Wits University/Marina Elliott

We’re working to change that, and as our team and others make new discoveries, I’m pretty sure we are going to find more lineages that have been hidden to us. H. naledi will not be the last.

The first Homo naledi discoveries were made in the Dinaledi Chamber. What led researchers to the second chamber? And what did you find there?

The Dinaledi Chamber is one of the most significant fossil finds in history. After excavating only a very tiny part of this chamber, the sample of hominin specimens is already larger than any other single assemblage in Africa.

The explorers who first found these bones, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, saw what the team was doing when they were excavating in the chamber. The pair realised that they might have seen a similar occurrence in another part of the cave system. The Rising Star system has more than two kilometres of mapped passages underground. In another deep chamber, accessed again through very tight underground squeezes, there were hominin bones exposed on the surface.

Our team first began systematic survey of this chamber, which we named the Lesedi Chamber, in 2014. For two years Marina Elliott led excavations, joined at times by most of the team’s other experienced underground excavators. They were working in a situation where bones are jammed into a tight blind tunnel. Only one excavator can fit at a time, belly-down, feet sticking out. It is an incredibly challenging excavation circumstance.

Geologist Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf studying difficult to reach flowstones in a small side passage in the Dinaledi Chamber. Wits University

The most significant discovery is a partial skeleton of H. naledi, with parts of the arms, legs, a lot of the spine and many other pieces, as well as a beautifully complete skull and jaw. We named this skeleton “Neo”. We also recovered fragments of at least one other adult individual, and one child, although we suspect these bones may come from one or two more individuals.

Is there a way for people to view these discoveries in person?

On May 25 – Africa DayMaropeng at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site outside Johannesburg will open a new exhibit with the discoveries from the Lesedi Chamber and the Dinaledi Chamber together for the first time.

For people outside South Africa, the data from our three-dimensional scans of the new Lesedi fossils are available online.

Anyone can download the 3D models, and people with access to a 3D printer can print their own physical copies of the new fossils, as well as the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber. It’s a great way for people to see the evidence for themselves.

Reprint from The Conversation

Three reasons the Cerutti Mastodon was not manipulated by hominins

A team of scientists recently announced an extraordinary claim that the 130,000 Cerutti Mastodon was manipulated by hominins.

“I have read that paper and I was astonished by it,” archaeologist Donald Grayson of the University of Washington. “I was astonished not because it is so good, but because it is so bad. Cracked bones and chipped stones at a fossil site might mean anything”, said Grayson. “It is quite another thing to show that people, and people alone, could have produced those modifications. The study doesn’t take that step, he said, “making this a very easy claim to dismiss.”

Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada Reno had this to say, “The paper states that the bones were being exposed by a backhoe. These pieces of heavy equipment weigh seven to fifteen tons or more, and their weight on the sediments would have crushed bones and rocks against each other.” When asked, Holen, the study leader, said that it “was very easy to tell the difference” between fractures made by stone hammers and those seen in bones crushed by bulldozers. He did not elaborate on how the differences manifest. “He’s pretty much dead wrong — there’s no definable difference,” Haynes said. A similar fossil dispute broke out in 2015 over a 24,000 year old mammoth in Maryland, he noted, shown to be fractured by heavy equipment. Also troubling, the “hammer” and “anvil” stones described in the paper don’t unequivocally look like tools, said Michael Waters of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans.

Michael Waters of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans noted that the “hammer” and “anvil” stones described in the paper don’t unequivocally look like tools. The study also runs afoul of the mounting genetic evidence, which indicates that the first people to reach the Americas and eventually give rise to modern Native Americans arrived no earlier than 25,000 years ago.”

Returning Kabwe Man To Zambia: Renewed Efforts for 2015

Everybody has heard of the Elgin Marbles and the debate surrounding the right’s of countries to those artefacts. These marbles are famous the world over but this story is repeated many more times not just in archaeology, but palaeoanthropology also.  Zambia was once a colony of the British Empire and it was during that time that a certain hominin skull E 686 was uncovered. This skull Mr-Kabimba-with-Hon.-Susan-Kawandami-in-Kaoma-for-the-Kazanga-ceremony-is now lies in the vaults of the South Kensington Museum, London. In Zambia, Deputy Minister Susan Kawandami (pictured) recently reported before the Zambian Parliament that years of talks failed to secure the return of E 686 to Zambia with the Natural History Museum, London prepared to make copies of the skull instead. Kawandami will now establish new discussions through UNESCO, while Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, Nkandu Luo will visit London to establish a dialogue with the Trustees of the Museum.

E 686

If the Natural History Museum is ever to return the fossil, one thing is for sure, Zambia will have to convince the London Museum, that it is proactive in heritage (particularly palaeoanthropological) promotion and will ensure great care for the priceless skull. Which is currently not the case. The famed locality has no interpretative centre, no sign, no indication that two pivotal hominin bones – E 686 (Skull) and E 691 (tibia), were uncovered there. On the 17th of June 1921, A. S. Armstrong and A. W. Whittington uncovered those remains at Mutwe wa Nsofu, Mulungushi Road, Kabwe, Zambia. That same year, the fossils were given a new human species name – Homo rhodesiensis. This species has, thus far, only ever been found in Africa and it is a species that is seldom used by palaeoanthropologists. Most consider it a variation of Homo heidelbergensis. A key species that diverged into Homo sapiens (in Africa) and Homo neanderthalensis (in Europe). From about 1.5 million to 500,000 years ago, is a time that palaeoanthropologists have difficulty understanding due to the particularly patchy fossil record. So, what I have described is quite simplistic and many would argue over the exact details. The two fossils represent two adults males, that lived around 1 million years ago. Sadly, given they were found in the 1920’s, excavations in the field of human evolution were in their infancy and so, grossly inaccurate. The only way to date the site was through biostratigraphy. By looking at the animals that were found in the layers in which the fossils were found, later palaeoanthropologists compared those assemblages to strata at other sites which were radiometrically dated. The Kabwe stratigraphy was quite similar to Bed IV at the Oldupai Gorge which was dated to between 780,000 years to 1.3 million years.

E 686 (Kabwe 1) fleshed out in this hyper-realistic reconstruction by John Gurche (http://www.gurche.com)

Zambia’s National Heritage and Conservation Commission (NHCC) is now in the process of rehabilitating the site. Chief executive officer of the commission, Collins Chipote warned that though the site was intact, it needs to be secured and developed. A Kabwe Mining museum was commissioned by Nkandu-LuoMinster Nkandu Luo (pictured), which will be run by the Lead-Zinc Mining company Enviro-Processing Ltd. a subsidary of the giant Berkeley Mineral Resources PLC. More effort is required on the part of Zambia to show that they have the determination to celebrate their priceless heritage and right now, there seems to be no action, but plenty of talking.

Abel Lived 3.5 Million Years Ago Along The Shores of Megachad – Australopithecus bahrelghazali

On the 23rd of January 1995, a team of palaeontologists discovered a fragment of fossil jaw lying on the gravel desert of northern Chad. The fossil could not be accurately dated, nevertheless stratigraphic layers nearby suggested it could be around 3.5 million years of age. Back then, the site of Koro Toro was on the edge of africa-11117a 3 million square kilometre Lake called Megachad. The fossil, now codenamed KT 12/H1 consisted of the front portion of the jaw with a number of teeth still in place. By using Isotopic analysis the diet of the hominin shortly before it died, can be determined. The fossil showed a preference for C4 plants, including sedges and grasses, suggesting that the area around Koro Toro was predominantly grassland. Comparing the fossil to other hominins, the features were considered very different compared to Australopithecus afarensis, 2,500 km away in Ethiopia and Kenya. The French team, led by Michel Brunet, concluded the fossil was part of a new species of AustralopithecusAustralopithecus bahrelghazali. This caused a bit of a stir in the palaeoanthropological community, but progressively began to die down. The lack of fossil finds in Chad thereafter contributed to the rate at which the palaeoanthropological community forgot about the fossil, that was, until 2001. Given the same variety of animals can be found in both Ethiopia and Chad, it is not a stretch to imagine australopithecines travelling between the two regions three million years ago and many palaeoanthropologists now consider the fossil, a variant of Australopithecus afarensis.

KT12/H1 the holotype of Australopithecus bahrelghazali

How did the fossil make palaeoanthropologists rethink their understanding human evolution? “Abel” as the fossil became to be known reminded palaeoanthropologists that human evolution could have been more complex than previously accepted. Though once you considered the features of an Australopithecus afarensis jaw and compare that to “Abel”, it is acceptable to attach it to the Ethiopian hominin. The differences are subtle. It is worth reminding here however that the use of species names don’t tell us much about the hominins palaeobiology, are primarily to put, order to our understanding of evolution and are a useful means of scientific communication. Palaeoanthropology has had a long history of naming new species, when later we realize we were too optimistic. In the sense, that we forget how useless this venture is. More is learned from the fossils, about a hominins diet, locomotion patterns and physical characteristics than what species it belongs too. Thankfully, science is less focused on this and we are now learning much more about the hominin and the ecosystem it was once a part of. The second way in which “Abel” got us thinking, was via the surprise geographic location. Up until that time, any fossil finds made on the continent of Africa were made exclusively in eastern and southern Africa. “Abel”, reminded us that hominins were not just restricted to those regions and likely could be found all over Africa. Exciting though this prospect was, it could not solve the problem of preservation in areas where fossils cannot survive, in the hostile environments of the Sahel.

A Gravel Desert in Tunsia

Gorjanović-Kramberger Hypothesis: Took 99 Years, But We Finally Tested It

You meet Homo neanderthalensis in a dark alley……………….What do you do?

Homo neanderthalensis is one of the best understood species of hominin today. One that lasted many hundreds of thousands of years throughout Europe. Despite what we know through the lens of science, there is still much that we want to know about this species of human. Interrogating the subtle pieces of evidence is the task of palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, palaeoenvironmental scientists throughout the world. Contrary to what you may see on your average human evolution documentary, the kind of research conducted can be much more subtle. Here I will draw your attention to a difficult question. If we could fill the Great Hall of the South Kensington Museum with a few hundred individuals of our extinct cousin, what differences would we see in the upper chest and neck. The answer to that, at the beginning of 2015: We are not happy that we really know enough to give an answer.

Range of Homo neanderthalensis

H. neanderthalensis is a well represented species of human in the fossil record, but the post-cranial anatomy is less well accounted for than the skulls. Not ideal for an investigation into the chest and abdominal regions of the human body. Nevertheless, it is vital we exhaustively examine what we have, to reveal potential clues to the kind of morphology these populations once exhibited. To that end, ten palaeobiologists from various Spanish academic institutions presented evidence that may be useful here. The mechanics of the breathing system, constrained by the rib cage and not the evolution of the species, is the focus here. Research continues to be a work in progress, new technologies arrive and they help further our understanding of the past. This research is no exception. Two year into the new millennium a new form of analysis that gauged quantity within a structure was applied to a collection of isolated ribs from an individual codenamed Shanidar 3. This individual had a more splayed lower rib cage compared to the more barrel-like form of our lower rib cage. Thus started a series of papers that suggested the lower rib cage of Homo neanderthalensis was generally less like ours. Comparatively less investigative research has been given to the upper end of the rib cage. This latest academic paper sets out to help understand just that.

Title and Authors of the Paper in Question
Title and Authors of the Paper in Question
Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger (1856 – 1936)

In 1906 and a time when ancient humans were Anti or Post Diluvian Era (Noah’s Great Flood), Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger suggested that the superior ribs are an important facet of an upper thoracic orchestra of components, that together control upper thoracic breathing, separate from diaphragmatic breathing. It was not until 2015 that this hypothesis was put to the test on six hominin first-ribs from the cave site of El Sidrón, Asturias, northern Spain. The six first-rib fragments may represent, at most, four individuals. The first step was to identify the bone fragments and place them in their correct anatomical position. Below is a re-organisation of the information given about the sample itself. The first-rib of Kebara 2 was found to be similar in shape space and form space (both terms used in a statistical analysis of shape, known as Procrustes Least Squares (PLS)) to SD-1767 and SD-1699, indeed H. neanderthalensis exhibits straighter first-ribs than modern day Homo sapiens. What could this mean? The scalene muscles are the ones that give your neck, its shape. They run from the Rib 1 and Rib 2 up the side of your neck attaching to the vertebrae. Alteration in shape of the first ribs, and the attached muscles will have to operate differently, but may help explain the differences we see between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis. The principle component analysis (PCA) reveals some overlap in the linearity of the rib shaft. Such results are reflected in analysis of the specimens of Krapina Cave, Croatia and ATD6-108 representing Homo antecessor, from Gran Dolina Cave, Atapuerca, Spain. So, the straightness of the first-ribs may affect the movement of the upper torso during breathing.

Juvenile 1: SD-2148 (Right) and SD-2172 (Left)

Juvenile 2: SD-417 (Left) and SD-1225 (Right)

Large Adolescent / Small Adult: SD-1767 (Left)

Large Adult: SD-1699 (Right)

Looking at the juveniles, it is important to understand costal cartilage development. Understanding adult H. neanderthalensis individuals is easier, as there are more post-cranial fossils, but the El Sidrón hominins will be useful in understanding the ontogeny of costal cartilage in future fossil ribs of  juveniles. The El Sidrón juveniles confirm a tighter upper chest for H. neanderthalensis. The first-ribs are smaller, but feature larger attachments at the rib heads, whereas the lower ribs have smaller attachment points. Therefore, a H. neanderthalensis individual, exhibited a smaller upper torso, which was further from the cranium thanks to the slightly longer neck vertebrae. First-ribs that are straighter would have to project out from the skeleton more and Gorjanović-Kramberger proposed that the rest of the rib-cage would project outward, just as much. The scientific team added to this, that a change in the first ribs would in turn affect the rest of the rib-cage, because the ribs are latched together with intercostal muscle, preventing individual ribs from varying in shape, that ultimately allows coordination of muscle, chest wall and breathing action. Upper ribs connect directly with the sternum and so, result in distinctive rib shape compared with the lower thorax.

Association of Intercostal Muscle and Rib Bone
Association of Intercostal Muscle and Rib Bone

To summarise, the first ribs appear to determine the shape of the upper thorax ribs, but straightness of the first rib is linked with the straightness of the upper ribs. Together, this suggests the existence of different rib shape and functions between the upper and lower thorax. When you look at a particular fossil specimen, it is important you are aware of what bones, muscles, cartilage was associated with it. They all interact in subtle ways which we are piecing together in hominins, with the variety in body forms available going back 7 million years. In examination of the monophyly of Paranthropus, cladistical statistics showed us that the skeletal points used, should not be linked with eachother. An example of that, would be the masticatory system in Paranthropus comprising numerous points, all interacting with one another. This is a shame because the crania and mandibles are predominantly all we have of that genus. Currently, most are happy that Paranthropus boisei, Paranthropus aethiopicus and Paranthropus robustus are part of the same family – they are monophyletic. The rib cage, is similar to the masticatory system but it is a single unit with two functions, one  is upper thoracic respiration and the other is diaphragmatic respiration. H. neanderthalensis evolved a more restrictive respiratory system and highly developed arm muscles, evolutionarily more important for the condition in which it lived. So, if you were to meet our ancient ancestor in a dark alley, what should you do? It would have been prone to breathlessness, but could rearrange your face easier. Moral of the story, RUN!

The costal remains of the El Sidrón Neanderthal site (Asturias, northern Spain) and their importance for understanding Neanderthal thorax morphology

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