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.

How forensic science can unlock the mysteries of human evolution


People are fascinated by the use of forensic science to solve crimes. Any science can be forensic when used in the criminal and civil justice system – biology, genetics and chemistry have been applied in this way. Now something rather special is happening: the scientific skill sets developed while investigating crime scenes, homicides and mass fatalities are being put to use outside the courtroom. Forensic anthropology is one field where this is happening.

Loosely defined, forensic anthropology is the analysis of human remains for the purpose of establishing identity in both living and dead individuals. In the case of the dead this often focuses on analyses of the skeleton. But any and all parts of the physical body can be analysed. The forensic anthropologist is an expert at assessing biological sex, age at death, living height and ancestral affinity from the skeleton.

Our newest research has extended forensic science’s reach from the present into prehistory. In the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we applied common forensic anthropology techniques to investigate the biological sex of artists who lived long before the invention of the written word.

We specifically focused on those who produced a type of art known as a hand stencil. We applied forensic biometrics to produce statistically robust results which, we hope, will offset some of the problems archaeological researchers have encountered in dealing with this ancient art form.

Sexing rock art

Ancient hand stencils were made by blowing, spitting or stippling pigment onto a hand while it was held against a rock surface. This left a negative impression on the rock in the shape of the hand.

Experimental production of a hand stencil. Jason Hall, University of Liverpool

These stencils are frequently found alongside pictorial cave art created during a period known as the Upper Palaeolithic, which started roughly 40 000 years ago.

Archaeologists have long been interested in such art. The presence of a human hand creates a direct, physical connection with an artist who lived millennia ago. Archaeologists have often focused on who made the art – not the individual’s identity, but whether the artist was male or female.

Until now, researchers have focused on studying hand size and finger length to address the artist’s sex. The size and shape of the hand is influenced by biological sex as sex hormones determine the relative length of fingers during development, known as 2D:4D ratios.

But many ratio-based studies applied to rock art have generally been difficult to replicate. They’ve often produced conflicting results. The problem with focusing on hand size and finger length is that two differently shaped hands can have identical linear dimensions and ratios.

To overcome this we adopted an approach based on forensic biometric principles. This promises to be both more statistically robust and more open to replication between researchers in different parts of the world.

The study used a branch of statistics called Geometric Morphometric Methods. The underpinnings of this discipline date back to the early 20th century. More recently computing and digital technology have allowed scientists to capture objects in 2D and 3D before extracting shape and size differences within a common spatial framework.

In our study we used experimentally produced stencils from 132 volunteers. The stencils were digitised and 19 anatomical landmarks were applied to each image. These correspond to features on the fingers and palms which are the same between individuals, as depicted in figure 2. This produced a matrix of x-y coordinates of each hand, which represented the shape of each hand as the equivalent of a map reference system.

Figure 2. Geometric morphometric landmarks applied to an experimentally produced hand stencil. This shows the 19 geometric landmarks applied to a hand. Emma Nelson, University of Liverpool

We used a technique called Procrustes superimposition to move and translate each hand outline into the same spatial framework and scale them against each other. This made the difference between individuals and sexes objectively apparent.

Procrustes also allowed us to treat shape and size as discrete entities, analysing them either independently or together. Then we applied discriminant statistics to investigate which component of hand form could best be used to assess whether an outline was from a male or a female. After discrimination we were able to predict the sex of the hand in 83% of cases using a size proxy, but with over 90% accuracy when size and shape of the hand were combined.

An analysis called Partial Least Squares was used to treat the hand as discrete anatomical units; that is, palm and fingers independently. Rather surprisingly the shape of the palm was a much better indicator of the sex of the hand than the fingers. This goes counter to received wisdom.

This would allow us to predict sex in hand stencils which have missing digits – a common issue in Palaeolithic rock art – where whole or part fingers are often missing or obscured.


This study adds to the body of research that has already used forensic science to understand prehistory. Beyond rock art, forensic anthropology is helping to develop the emergent field of palaeo-forensics: the application of forensic analyses into the deep past.

For instance, we have been able to understand fatal falls in Australopithecus sediba from Malapa and primitive mortuary practices in the species Homo naledi from Rising Star Cave, both in South Africa.

All of this shows the synergy that arises when the palaeo, archaeological and forensic sciences are brought together to advance humans’ understanding of the past.

The above article was reprinted from The Conversation

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!

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The Rise of the Terrible Beasts – Deinotherium (Johann Jakob Kaup, A.D. 1829)

Deinotherium. The Terrible Beast. A Proboscidean. This video was one of my first introductions to the world of palaeoanthropology and 3D reconstructions of prehistoric life. It inspired me to learn more about the remote prehistory. This creature, a relative of the famed African Elephant, would have been between 4.5 to 5 metres in height at the shoulder, with a set of short downward-facing tusks and would have had a similar behavioural characteristics to modern day elephants. Nobody knows how long the trunk was, though the muscle attachments regions on the front of the skull can give some clues, its length remains conjectural. The set of downward-facing tusks have been the subject of much debate, ranging from sexual display to digging for roots and tubers to tree bark scraping. Again explanations vary. The Deinotheres has, thus far, been broken up into three species – D. giganteum, D. bozasi and D. indicum. The earliest examples of this group have been dated to about 23 million years ago (Early Miocene), while their extinction took place some time in the Middle Pleistocene, about 700,000 years ago. This was probably caused by the knock-on effects of climate change on the habitats in which they lived. The Deinotheres have a history that extends back into the Oligocene Epoch and this will be the subject of this discussion. As a side note, it is really sad that documentaries on human evolution and prehistoric beasts, do not explain the following. This is documentary material, in my opinion.

Deinotherium: A Reconstruction of the “Terrible Beast”

As Gondwana began to rupture apart 184 million years ago in the Early Jurassic. Africa was the first isolated baby continent of Gonwana. It remained as such, quite literally up until about 25 million years ago, 159 million years of isolaton for evolution to work its magic on a limited diversity of placental mammals that called Africa, home. But given that elephant-like creatures existed in Late Oligocene (34 – 28 Million Year ago) Pakistan, land bridges must have developed between Africa and Arabia / Eurasia as the continent made the relentless push north. With such unimaginable tectonic forces at work, it is inevitable that volcanism increases in activity. The tectonic dynamics were such in eastern Africa million of years ago that a unique type of volcanic eruption occurred. Everybody is familiar with the power of water, in the form of slow development floods and the devastating flash-flood. Lava is equally capable of flooding the landscape, not as we all know it today, but on a scale that we cannot comprehend. Everybody is familiar with the Cretaceous – Paleogene Extinction Event, but few are aware of the most devastating mass extinction event in the prehistory of the planet – The Permian – Triassic Extinction Event. It was brought on by a truly massive flood basalt eruption. This is what quite literally created Siberia, that’s right Siberia. Today, 252 million years on, the remains of that basalt eruption covers an area of over 2 million sq km² and may, back then, have covered over 7 million sq km². Eleven flood basalt eruption events have taken place within the last 250 million years. The Eritrean Intertrappean Beds is a much smaller events and featured episodes of volcanic activity followed by laying down of fluvial sediment, hence the “Inter-Trappean”. These beds can be up to 100 metres in depth and cover many square kilometres. This intermittent event has been dated from 29 to 23.6 million years of age.

Our Planet: The Oligocene Epoch (34 to 23 Million Year Ago)

Mendefera, is the town capital of the Debub Region of Eritrea and it sits atop the Eritrean Intertrappean Beds. It was at a number of outcrops of fluvial mudstones and siltstones that fossils of the early ancestors of Deinotherium were uncovered recently, called Prodeinotherium. Numerous other sites have revealed early Proboscideans such as Gomphotherium, which is likely to be the earliest representative of this intriguing family. During the Oligocene, Arabia and north-eastern Africa flirted with the Tethys Ocean promiscuously. So the sight you might have seen from the Eritean highlands, back then was swamp, river and lake populated landscapes, perfect for tropical wet forests, especially when the basaltic volcanism of the area was on hiatus. As Africa edged closer to Arabia and Eurasia, the lack of diverse fauna, may have allowed a large influx of Eurasian fauna to call Africa, home for the first time. There are an estimated six Trans-Tethyan Paleogene mammalian dispersals all of which were limited by the availability of land bridges. So large herbivores could not cross into or out of Africa without substantial land bridge crossing points. By the beginning of the Miocene, there was a massive faunal turnover in the form of African endemic species dying out and the movement of Eurasia fauna south into the continent. This dynamic change in faunal movements also included the northward movement of Prodeinotherium into Eurasia, evolving into the Deinotherium we all know and love.

Mendefera: Site of the ancestral Deinotherium Fossils
Mendefera: Site of the ancestral Deinotherium Fossils

If you are interested in reading more about this subject check out the academic article: Here. Thanks for taking the time to read this discussion. If you wish to learn more about me check out the links below: