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.

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

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.

DNA reveals Aboriginal people had a long and settled connection to country

Historic hair samples collected from Aboriginal people show that following an initial migration 50,000 years ago, populations spread rapidly around the east and west coasts of Australia.

Our research, published in Nature today, also shows that once settled, Aboriginal groups remained in their discrete geographical regions right up until the arrival of Europeans a few hundred years ago.

So where does the evidence for this rapid migration and long settlement come from?

Early expeditions

In a series of remarkable expeditions that ran from the 1920s to 1960s, scientists travelled widely across the Australian outback. They recorded as much anthropological information as possible about Aboriginal Australians.

They recorded film and audio, drawings, songlines, genealogies and extensive physical measurements under tough outback conditions. This included packing in the equipment on camels for the early trips.

Alan Rau, EO Stocker and Herbert Wilkinson on an expedition party departing for a day’s trip from Cockatoo Creek, Central Australia, 1931. South Australian Museum Archives Norman Tindale Collection (AA 338/5/7/8), Author provided

The extensive collections from the Board for Anthropological Expeditions are now curated in the South Australian Museum. They contain the vast majority of the black and white film footage you may have seen of traditional Aboriginal culture, songs, hunting practices and ceremonies.

The metadata collected was voluminous. It now comprises possibly the best anthropological collection of an indigenous people in the world.

Locked in the hair

But perhaps the biggest scientific contributions may yet turn out to be hidden within small locks of hair.

These were collected with permission (such as it was given in the situation and era) for a minor project to study the variation of Aboriginal hair types across Australia.

But the hair clippings turn out to preserve an incredible record of the genetic diversity and distribution of Indigenous Australia prior to European disruption.

Importantly, the detailed genealogical data collected with each sample allows the genetic lineages to be placed on the map back through several generations.

This allowed us to reconstruct the genetic structure within Australia prior to the forced relocation of Aboriginal people to missions and stations, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their traditional lands.

Reconnecting histories

This project was only possible through partnership with Aboriginal families and communities. So we needed to design an ethical framework and protocol for such unprecedented work.

This was based on large amounts of archival research performed by our team members in the Aboriginal Family History Unit of the South Australian Museum, to locate and contact the original donors, or their descendants and family elders.

We arranged a meeting time, and then the combined team spent several days in each Aboriginal community talking to individual families about the project, and passing on copies of the archival material.

We discussed both the potential and pitfalls of genetic research, and answered common questions. These included why the results cannot be used for land claim issues (insufficient geographical resolution) or as a test of Aboriginality (which is a cultural, rather than genetic, association).

The feedback from communities was overwhelmingly positive. There was a strong interest in how a genetic map of Aboriginal Australia could help people of the stolen generation to reconnect with family and country.

It could also help facilitate the repatriation of Aboriginal samples and artefacts held in museums.

The DNA results

The initial genetic results not only reveal exciting insights into the deep genetic history of the continent, but also showcase the enormous potential of our project.

We mapped the maternal genetic lineages onto the birthplace of the oldest recorded maternal ancestor (sometimes two to three generations back) and found there were striking patterns of Australia’s genetic past.

There were many very deep genetic branches, stretching back 45,000 to 50,000 years. We compared these dates to records of the earliest archaeological sites around Australia. We found that the people appear to have arrived in Australia almost exactly 50,000 years ago.

Early migration

Those first Australians entered a landmass we collectively call “Sahul”, where New Guinea was connected to Australia.

The Gulf of Carpentaria was a massive fresh water lake at the time and most likely a very attractive place for the founding population.

The genetic lineages show that the first Aboriginal populations swept around the coasts of Australia in two parallel waves. One went clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, before meeting somewhere in South Australia.

The occupation of the coasts was rapid, perhaps taking no longer than 2,000 to 3,000 years. But after that, the genetic patterns suggest that populations quickly settled down into specific territory or country, and have moved very little since.

The genetic lineages within each region are clearly very divergent. They tell us that people – once settled in a particular landscape – stayed connected within their realms for up to 50,000 years despite huge environmental and climate changes.

We should remember that this is about ten times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught.

This pattern is very unusual elsewhere in the world, and underlines why there might be such remarkable Aboriginal cultural and spiritual connection to land and country.

As Kaurna Elder, Lewis O’Brien, one of the original hair donors and part of the advisory group for the study, put it:

Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time, but it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.

Reprint from The Conversation

Benefits of Palaeoanthropology

Human evolution is a way to find who we really are. A way to humility. A process of clear critical thinking, relying on evidence, that brings us closer to our ancestors. Discovers how they looked, how they moved, what they ate, the predators they encountered, the herbivores they hunted and the ecosystems they inhabited. It gives us an appreciation of the plight of the planets most endangered biological organisms, trying to etch out a living in fragile ecosystems that are being destroyed by humanities greed. We can never empathise with these creatures unless we learn the lessons of passed mass extinctions. 6 million years of hominin evolution is complicated. There is much that has yet to be discovered, but that is what makes the science of palaeoanthropology exciting.

Cancer: The Earliest Carcinoma Yet Discovered

 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.

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 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.

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 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.

What about insects in hominin diets?

For those fans of human evolutionary research news, you will be well aware of the lack of research into the role insects played in the diet of hominins over the past 6 or so million years.

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An Ant! – Credit: Wiki Commons

This topic was addressed back in 2001 in the chapter of an academic volume by William McGrew of the department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Since then nothing has been done to address ways in which such an investigation could be conducted. What can be done to address this? Look at what we………..modern primate diets and the role insects play in their diets from the human to the Orang-utan. Let’s then look at the earliest evidence for hominin consumption of insects. South Africa has nabbed that prize, thus far. The Lower Palaeolithic sites of Swartkrans, Sterkfontein and Drimolen contained hominin fossil bone tools with wear patterns similar to those wear patterns you find on sticks used by Chimps to fish for termites. Fossil remains of Paranthropus robustus were found at these sites and the evidence suggests they were feasting on termites.

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Paranthropus boisei (Extinct cousin of Paranthropus robustus) – Credit: Wiki Commons

Examining the fossil evidence is one focus, but there are others including, lithics, residues, dental microwear, stable isotopes, DNA and coprolites (Fossilised shit…..basically). The dental microwear is quite problematic, because you have to take note that the tooth has been in the earth for millions of years (2.4 million years for the earliest Paranthropus specimen). Stable isotopic research is the much more promising of the topics discussed in William McGrew’s latest paper for the Journal of Human Evolution.

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