Lessons of Homo naledi

Anatomy, Archaeology, Archeogenetics, Archeology, Biological Science, Death, Evolution, Human Evolution, Palaeoanthropology, Palaeobiology, Palaeoecology, Palaeontology

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.

1.6 Million Year Old Woman of Eastern Africa (2017 Review)

Human Evolution, Human Origins, Science

When fossil hunter Bernard Ngeneo came across the remains of this fossil, only the upper portion of the orbits were protruding from the ground. Excavation revealed one of the best preserved skulls of this time period, and one of the most striking early human fossils of any age.

KNM-ER 3733 represents a mature female of the early human species Homo erectus. The sex identification comes from a comparison of the anatomical features of her face with several other crania from Koobi Fora: KNM-ER 3883 (male), and KNM-WT 15000 (also male), found on the opposite side of Lake Turkana. The features of KNM-ER 3733 are markedly less robust. It’s known to be an adult on the basis of the cranial sutures (which were fully closed), the extent of the wear on the teeth, and the eruption of the third molars before the individual’s death.

1.6 Million Year Old Woman of Eastern Africa (2017 Review)

Palaeoprimatologist Elwyn Simons Has Died

Human Evolution

On the 6th of March 2016, the accomplished palaeoprimatologist Elwyn Simons passed away in his sleep at the age of 85. It is difficult to overstate this man’s contribution to our understanding of the evolution of Primates. He directed over 90 palaeontological expeditions between 1961 and 2012 which produced over 300 books and peer-reviewed journal articles. As Gregg Gunnell of the Duke Lemur Center noted “I don’t know of anyone in the last half century who has influenced the field as much as he has”.

Elwyn LaVerne Simons was born on the 14th of July 1930 in Lawrence City, Kansas. From William Marsh Rice University, Houstan, Texas, he earned his bachelors degree before moving onto Princeton and Oxford for his doctoral degrees. Prior to joining Duke University in North Carolina, he spent 17 years at Yale University as a professor.

You cannot talk about Elwyn Simons and not mention his work in Egypt. For more than 40 years, Simons and co-director Prithijit Charath organised expeditions to a low basin of desert, south west of Cairo – The Fayum Depression. In Passionate Minds: The Inner World of ScientistsSimons had this to say:

“It’s fun to find fossils because you never know what your’re going to find and there’s always a chance that you’ll find something quite unusual, and that kind of excitement makes it sort of like a treasure hunt”

Fayum Depression

Friderun Ankel-Simons of the Duke Primate Center, recalled the many years of working with her husband. The expeditions were very challenging with all obstacles put in their way from vehicles getting stuck in the sand or mud and running out of diesel on many different occassions. These were sharply contrasted with the good times out in the field, camping beneath the stars in the desert, hearing the desert fox calling or arguing lemurs nearby. He was a very active man, depriving himself of sleep countless times. Daniel Gebo of the Northern Illinois University remembers one time he was conversing with Elywn and out of the blue he said “I have to take a nap NOW” and would simply fall asleep, leaving Daniel wondering what to do about what they were talking about.

Elwyn had the power to captivate an audience, recalled John Fleagle of Stony Brook University. He was an expert storyteller, a model for people who specialise in scientific communication.

Famously, Simons discovered the fossilised remains of an ancient genus of primate – Aegyptopithecus this primate lived in Egypt between 35 to 33 million years ago. It was probably about the same size as South America’s Howler Monkey and remains one of the best known extinct primates from that time. One afternoon, while at an anthropology conference, Simons asked if he could use an empty chair beside a group of anthropologists. “Actually, a friend of ours is just getting a drink”, responded one member of the group. Simons proceed to lift up the chair and say “Yes? Well I discovered Aegyptopithecus


After joining Duke University in 1977, Simons first task was to take an ailing Primate Center and make it an essential breeding programme for wild Lemurs. With populations dwindling on Madagascar, the Malagasy government permitted Simons to capture wild lemurs, relocating them to North Carolina, where he could diversify the gene pool of species. This in his own word created “a second line of defense against extinction”. His passion for the work he was doing, was plain to see in the cradling and hand-feeding of premature newborn lemurs. Thanks to Simons, Duke Primate Center now has the most diverse collection of captive lemurs ouside of Madagascar with hundred of individuals representing over 20 species. The breeding programme allowed Simons to reintroduce lemurs to the wild.

Elywn Simons will forever be remembered for shedding light on primate evolution in the Oligocene of Egypt and helping prevent the extinction of Madagascar’s Lemurs. Simons is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Friderun Ankel-Simons; a brother, Herbert Simons; three children, D. Brenton Simons, Cornelia Seiffert and Verne Simons; and two grandchildren, Eleanor and William Simons.


Right: Elwyn Simons cares for an Aye-Aye. Left: An Aye-Aye scoping out its next meal.

Do check out the “Adopt A Lemur” Project, which helps support the great work done at the Duke Primate Center.

Cancer: The Earliest Carcinoma Yet Discovered

Archaeology, Archeology, Cancer, Human Evolution, Palaeoanthropology, Palaeopathology, Paleoanthropology, Paleopathology

 Pretty isn’t it………… you are looking at the rise of metastatic carcinoma in human body cells. A form of cancer with the ability to infect other organs in a biological organism. While Leprosy is the oldest documented disease in the world, thus far, dating to 4000 B.C. India. Ignoring the debate regarding the true age of knowledge in the Edwin Smith Papyrus (While it dates to 1600 B.C, the knowledge it contains may be as much as 1400 years older), evidence for Cancer may date back to northern Sudan 3,200 years ago.


 Skeleton 244-8 was recovered from tomb G244 in the Amara West C cemetery in 2013. This 25 to 35 year old man was found with a considerable coverage of pin-sized perforations from shoulder to proximal femor. The bone tissue was therefore attacked by something. Historically Metastatic organ cancers are the most likely candidate as they prefer bone tissue. Tumor cells spread through haematopoietic-rich bone marrow creating holes as a result of bone reabsorption in a process known as osteolysis.


 This research is helping us better understand the evolution of cancer and is a useful glance-back to remind us that animals and plants are not the only organisms that evolve, disease causing bacteria have evolved with us (animals, plants etc.) for hundreds of millions of years.