Top 10 Human Origins Discoveries in 2015
In 2015, DNA analysis provided deeper insight into the lives of our ancient ancestors. Studies of their appearance, diet, living conditions, and the human family tree, were all hot topics. Research suggesting new species and the concept of human de-evolution also made waves. Each of the following investigations into human origins demonstrate that human evolution is not as simple as many people think, and that technology is a tool that is of great advantage in advancing our knowledge of the past.
The living quarters of Neanderthals also made the news this year. Archaeologists in Spain made a number of discoveries inside an ancient cave in Abric Romaní, Catalonia which suggest that Neanderthals had hot water and separate living quarters around 60,000 years ago. The finding adds to the mounting evidence that Neanderthals were a lot more sophisticated than previously thought and were at least as advanced, if not more so, than early Homo sapiens.
More than 10,000 fossil remains and artifacts were retrieved from the cave, enabling scientists to confirm long-term occupation of the site by Neanderthals. Among the more significant discoveries was a concave hole, which was found enclosed by a large number of hearths with evidence of fire use. Archaeologists believe the Neanderthals used the hole to heat water by placing heated stones from the hearth. Archaeologists also determined that Neanderthals used different parts of the cave for different activities, including making tools, butchering meat and preparing food, throwing out rubbish, and sleeping.
A fossilized lower jaw, with five small teeth, began to connect the dots between primitive ancestors and modern humans. The specimen, discovered in Ethiopia, is the bone of one of the very first humans and comes from a time when humans split from the more ape-like ancestors, Australopithecus. The find is more than 400,000 years older than the oldest fossils belonging to the early humans who eventually gave rise to Homo sapiens, our modern species.
Field work is being done in the Ledi-Geraru site to see if more fossils can be recovered. More information could help determine if the jaw belongs to a known early species of Homo, or an entirely new species, and researchers are putting off definitively naming it for the time being.
People who came from prehistoric Germany, Belgium and France beginning about 11,000 years ago seem to have contributed the most genetic material to modern Caucasian Britons, according to a new study. People may have gone to the islands from those areas long ago via a land bridge. Also, some came from what is now France by boat.
The genetic study analyzed genes of 2,039 white people from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The results show their dominant ancestry pre-dates the most recent invaders – the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans and Romans. But of those four, the group that contributed the most genes was the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded in the fifth century AD.
As for the distribution of genes: The Orkney Islands are the only area where the people have significant Viking ancestry, with about 25 percent of the Orkney people’s genes being Viking. The modern people of Wales most closely hew genetically to Stone Age peoples. A bit less than half of modern Britons have Anglo-Saxon ancestry, most of whom are in England proper.
In a third study on Neanderthals, a 55,000-year-old skull found at Manot Cave in northern Israel may be the earliest evidence of modern man meeting and mating with Neanderthals found to date. The partial skull “provides evidence that both modern humans and Neanderthals inhabited the southern Levant during the late Pleistocene, close in time to the likely interbreeding event between modern humans and Neanderthals.” This challenges the theory that two species connected 10,000 years later in Europe.
(Image of reconstructed faces of three early humans in profile view. Credit: Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program /Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History )
A recent analysis by anthropologists suggests that the light skin color and the tallness associated with European genetics are relatively recent traits to the continent. The evidence suggests modern Europeans do not appear as their ancient ancestors did. Their study was based on 83 human samples from Holocene Europe and shows that for the majority of the time that humans have lived in Europe, the people had dark skin, and the genes signifying light skin only appear within the past 8,000 years. This recent and relatively quick process of natural selection suggests to researchers that the traits which spread rapidly were advantageous within that environment – especially those necessary for Vitamin D absorption. People in less sunny climates required different skin pigmentations in order to absorb and synthesize Vitamin D. Thus, pale skin was advantageous in the region.