The best on human origins 2013

What we discovered about ancient human origins this year… and what is still a mystery

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This year, huge strides were made in unravelling some of the mysteries of our ancient ancestors. For example, in the first ever analysis of a virtually complete Neanderthal genome, scientists were able to prove that rampant interbreeding occurred between Humans, Neanderthals and other species, resulting in an incredibly complex family tree.  However, other studies revealed that there is so much more about our ancestry that we still don’t know, such as several studies pointing to the possibility of a completely unknown ancient human lineage.  Here is a snap shot of some of the most significant studies to be made in 2013 relating to our ancient human origins.

What was revealed about Inter-breeding and how it formed our family tree

It was long believed that Neanderthals became extinct before modern Humans even emerged.  However, this theory was later revised and it became accepted that Neanderthals and modern Humans had a cross-over of thousands of years, but never encountered each other. New evidence caused a revision yet again, this time saying that Neanderthals and modern Humans did indeed encounter each other but never interbred. And this year, in yet another shake-up of old theories, a number of studies have presented evidence that Humans and Neanderthals did interbreed and produce offspring.

In one of the most dramatic studies that have been seen in many years, scientists were able to extract DNA from a 50,000-year-old fossil that came from a Neanderthal woman found in a Siberian cave and piece together the Neanderthal genome to the same level of detail that has been achieved in modern day humans.  The results showed that ancient human species, including Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo sapiens mated with each other, resulting in an incredibly complex family tree.  In fact, it was found that about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of the DNA of people with European ancestry can be traced to Neanderthals; proportions of Neanderthal DNA are higher among Asians and Native Americans, who also have small percentages of Denisovan DNA; six percent of the genome of Australian Aborigines and indigenous Papua New Guineans belong to the Denisovan species; and only 96 genes responsible for making proteins in cells are different between modern humans and Neanderthals.

This supports a unique finding made in a rock shelter in Lisbon, Portugal some years ago, in which archaeologists uncovered the bones of a four-year-old child, comprising the first complete Palaeolithic skeleton ever dug in Iberia. The significance of the discovery was that an analysis of the bones revealed that the child, who became known as ‘ the Lapedo Child’ , had the chin and lower arms of a human, but the jaw and build of a Neanderthal, suggesting that he was a hybrid, the result of interbreeding between the two species.

However, the study on the fossil found in the Siberian cave produced another totally unexpected finding – the Denisovans share up to 8 percent of their genome with a “super archaic” and totally unknown species that dates back around 1 million years.  It appears that the Denisovans bred with a mystery species from Asia – one that is neither human nor Neanderthal.  Traces of the unknown new genome were detected in two teeth and a finger bone of a Denisovan.  In fact, there have been several studies this year which have all pointed to the fact that there is unknown species in our family tree that is yet to be identified.

A mysterious unknown lineage

A landmark study this year revealed the oldest known human DNA ever to be found, dating back approximately 400,000 years – substantially older than the previous earliest human DNA from a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal.  It came from a hominin found in Sima de los Huesos, the “bone pit”, which is a cave site in Northern Spain. Initial analysis on the DNA revealed a complex and confusing interbreeding of species which took place in our ancient past.   The scientists were able to use novel techniques to extract the DNA and determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old representative of the Homo genus. The researchers then compared the DNA with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and present-day humans, and found that the individual shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, a relatively newfound relative of humans who are thought to have lived in the vast expanse from Siberia to Southeast Asia. This was unexpected since the skeletal remains carry Neanderthal-derived features. In addition, the fossil was uncovered in Europe and not eastern Asia where it was believed the Denisovans lived.  The investigators suggested that a currently unknown species brought Denisovan-like DNA into the Pit of Bones region, and possibly also to the Denisovans in Asia.

Comments

Hi, 

There are many statements made in this article relating to genetic findings and studies.

Would it be possible to edit the piece to include references to the authors and origins of the claims made.

Without references and links, this piece becomes little more than hearsay, when in reality it may well be based on factual evidence.

Even more important is that the conclusions drawn from actual data might be wrong or biased by preconception.  By allowing the readers to access the original material, a far wider perspective can be taken.

aprilholloway's picture

Hello smithder, this article is a summary of news stories we released throughout the entire year, so we haven't repeated all the details that were in the original articles. Instead, we added hyperlinks throughout the story to the original news reports, which contain information about the journals that the research was published in.  

Hi April, please do not take my comment the wrong way, it was a request for information. It was certainly not a dig at your article, which I found to be an excellent compilation and very informative. I must also compliment you on the aesthetic layout. The bold orange highlights which turn out to be the links you have included, I took to be simply for reading impact (and very effective they are too).

The reason I was seeking more information is that I recently came across the work of Geneticist Eugene McCarthy. http://www.macroevolution.net/e-book-readers.html and this ties in amazingly well with the content of your article.

McCarthy debunks the Darwinian theory that evolution is driven by compounded micro change, a theory which is in direct odds with the fossil record which steadfastly shows that new lifeforms are formed very rapidly and remain essentially static until their eventual extinction. McCarthy has shown that it is hybridisation that drives the creation of new life forms, and in particular, cross species hybridisation as being responsible for the far less frequent formation of extremely divergent life forms.

But the most significant aspect to come out of McCarthy's shattering perspective, is that man, when our hybrid was first formed, was as intelligent (probably more so) than we are today... We are not evolving Darwinain style into a more intelligent species, we are simply using our innate intelligence to gain more knowledge. We arrogantly mistake our technological knowledge as intelligence, looking down on those peoples and tribes who do not share our knowledge as being unintelligent. This is blatantly not the case.

But of course, knowledge comes and goes with the growth and waning of societies. Our own scientific knowledge base is but a few hundred years old, and we could loose it with the turning of fortunes, returning to a basic survival state of hunter gatherer in another 'dark age'. However, we would retain our intelligence, and in time we would be able to develop a new knowledge base. A different knowledge from a different perspective.

It is rational to consider that the ancients, with their intelligence matching or exceeding ours created an advanced knowledge that allowed them to create the artifacts we today find so incomprehensible from our different knowledge perspective. By way of an example, the Inca had a technology based on thread. Even their accounting and record keeping was done with cordage (Quipu). But when the Spanish destroyed their society, their knowledge and technology were lost. Same intelligence, different knowledge and technology.

McCarthy's work has massive implications for the way we can now understand our world and the workings of our forefathers. But it has even greater implications on our working today, because an academic establishment built on a faulty premise has an inertia that will carry it into dispute with this new insight.

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the McCarthy theory.

a very valid comment as many will believe only that which agrees with their preconceptions, never coming across the source of the data which the article/website is based. I find very annoying when unable to check whether I`m just reading some imagined fantasy or reproducible research

aprilholloway's picture

Hi Steve, 

Actually, you will not find a single article without a source.  If an article is a news report, then we provide a hyperlink to the original news website where we obtained the information.  If it is an article we have researched ourselves, there will be references at the end. 

With regards to this article you are referring to, it is a wrap up of stories we covered throughout the year, and again, we have provided hyperlinks to those articles where you will find the sources mentioned. 

April

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