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AI representation of a Neanderthal man surveying the landscape. Source: Dr_Microbe/Adobe Stock

15 Leaps Forward in Our Understanding of Human Evolution in 2023


2023 could likely be viewed as a coming-of-age story for our Neanderthal cousins, as they further shed their brutish image, revealing themselves as skilled hunters and surprising artisans. We learned so much about the Neanderthals capabilities, that some researchers even started to question whether they were really a separate species to us!

There were also revelations about our own lineage stretching back further, blurring the lines between species and rewriting the timeline of our emergence.

We marveled at the ingenuity of early hominins who built structures before we thought possible, and glimpsed the glimmer of complex cultural practices in societies we once deemed primitive.

So let’s dive in to some of the biggest discoveries in human evolution from 2023…

Ancient cave paintings in Patagonia, southern Argentina. (elnavegante/Adobe Stock)

Ancient cave paintings in Patagonia, southern Argentina. (elnavegante/Adobe Stock)

The Oldest Art in the World Wasn’t Made By Homo sapiens

One of the most hotly debated questions in the history of Neanderthal research has been whether they created art. In the past few years, the consensus has become that they did, sometimes. But, like their relations at either end of the hominid evolutionary tree, chimpanzees and  Homo sapiens, Neanderthals’ behavior varied culturally from group to group and over time.

Their art was perhaps more abstract than the stereotypical figure and animal cave paintings   Homo sapiens made after the Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago. But archaeologists are beginning to appreciate how creative Neanderthal art was in its own right.

Homo sapiens are thought to have evolved in Africa from at least 315,000 years ago. Neanderthal populations in Europe have been traced back at least 400,000 years.

As early as 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were mixing minerals such as haematite (ochre) and manganese with fluids to make red and black paints – presumably to decorate the body and clothing.

Research by Palaeolithic archaeologists in the 1990s radically changed the common view of Neanderthals as dullards. We now know that, far from trying to keep up with the   Homo sapiens, they had a nuanced behavioral evolution of their own. Their large brains earned their evolutionary keep.

Read on…

Artist's reconstruction of a group of Neanderthals butchering a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). (It is unknown whether Neanderthals wore any type of clothing, so the depiction reflects artistic license). ( Alex Boersma/PNAS)

Artist's reconstruction of a group of Neanderthals butchering a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). (It is unknown whether Neanderthals wore any type of clothing, so the depiction reflects artistic license). ( Alex Boersma/PNAS)

Neanderthals Hunted Elephants Twice the Weight of Modern Ones

Evidence has emerged from Germany dated to 125,000 years ago showing Neanderthals hunted elephants twice the size of contemporaneous ones. Building on that information, which provides new insight into the organization of Neanderthal society and sophistication of their hunting techniques, scientists have found that these elephants (roughly 13 tons each) weighed twice the size of mammoths who were eventually hunted into extinction by  Homo sapiens!

Read on…

Neanderthal Hunters Were Stalking Cave Lions 48,000 Years Ago

A international team of paleoanthropologists has just published research supposedly proving that Neanderthals were hunting and eating cave lions nearly 50,000 years ago in Europe. Until now experts had no idea that Neanderthals hunters had been stalking cave lions. In fact, this stunning discovery represents the oldest evidence of large predator hunting by human relatives or ancestors found anywhere in the world.

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Proof Emerges that Neanderthals Harvested and Ate Crabs 90,000 Years Ago

New research has once again illustrated that the Neanderthals were neither primitive nor unsophisticated. It shows that Neanderthals living in a cave near Lisbon, Portugal 90,000 years ago enjoyed a rich and diverse diet that included healthy amounts of crab meat. Crab is recognized as a delicacy even in the modern world, that takes hard work and advanced knowledge to obtain in abundance. Well, it seems this is what the Neanderthals were doing 35,000 years before the first modern humans even arrived in Europe.

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Reevaluating Neanderthals: Are They Actually the Same Species as Us?

Neanderthals have been recognized as a species distinct from modern humans for quite some time. But if a trio of researchers from universities in Portugal, Italy and Spain get their way, this designation may soon change. These archaeologists believe Neanderthals were not a different species at all but instead were simply another variety of humans, a conclusion that they draw after completing an analysis of the ingenious way that Neanderthals used fire to satisfy their survival needs.

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Examples of an Oldowan percussive tool, core and flakes dating from roughly 2.9 million years ago and found at the Nyayanga site in Kenya are seen in this undated handout image.  ( T.W. Plummer, J.S. Oliver, and E. M. Finestone/Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project)

Examples of an Oldowan percussive tool, core and flakes dating from roughly 2.9 million years ago and found at the Nyayanga site in Kenya are seen in this undated handout image.  ( T.W. Plummer, J.S. Oliver, and E. M. Finestone/Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project)

Results of Kenyan Dig Suggest Africa’s First Toolmakers Were Not Human

A multi-year series of excavations at a site near Lake Victoria in Kenya unearthed a collection of Oldowan stone tools that are likely the oldest ever found on Earth, dating back to the Pliocene epoch (between 5.3 and 2.5 million years ago). According to the American and British researchers involved in the latest study of the recovered artifacts, these tools (estimated to be a bit under 3 million years old) would have been used to butcher deceased hippos and pound edible plant material into a more appetizing shape.

Who, exactly, was doing the butchering and the pounding?

Past studies of Oldowan artifacts, which represented a huge leap forward in toolmaking technology, have credited their creation and use to the forerunners of modern humans. But the scientists found no fossilized remnants of human ancestors at the site in Kenya. What they discovered instead were two huge molars that belonged to an extinct ape-like creature known as Paranthropus. This hominin was distantly related to ancient humans, but its three different varieties (  Paranthropus aethiopicusboisei and robustus) comprise a unique and separate genus, completely distinct from the  Homo genus that includes modern humans and our ancestors.

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Homo Erectus Mastered Oldowan and Acheulean Tools 2 Million Years Ago

While they first appeared on the lowland savannas of East Africa around two million years ago, the human ancestor Homo erectus soon expanded their range into the Ethiopian highlands. According to a new study just published in the journal Science, those early  Homo erectus groups that migrated upward into the Ethiopian mountains were true toolmaking pioneers, as they successfully completed the transition from the Oldowan tool industry to the Acheulean tool industry in approximately 50,000 years.

Read on…

Left; Kalambo Falls, Zambia where the oldest wooden structure was found. Right: the excavation team uncovering the ancient wood.   ( Left; Professor Geoff Duller/Nature, Right; Professor Larry Barham/Nature)

World’s Oldest Wooden Structure Found in Zambia – It’s Half a Million Years Old!

At the Kalambo Falls archaeological site in northeastern Zambia, archaeologists recovered specimens of ancient wood in the form of logs that had been preserved in waterlogged sand next to the Kalambo River for nearly a half-a-million years—or for 476,000 years, to be more exact. While the discoverers weren’t sure what they had found, a new study by archaeologists from the University of Liverpool and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom revealed that the logs were intentionally cut and shaped to be used as building materials. Using a new dating technology known as luminescence, the archaeologists were able to confirm the astonishing age of these incredibly ancient artifacts.

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300,000-Year-Old Schöningen Spears Reveal Prehistoric Advanced Woodworking

Excavated in the 1990s, the legendary Schöningen spears from Germany, the oldest weapons in human history, have consistently provided fascinating insights into the behavior of our early human ancestors. A newly published study claims that one of the Schöningen spears, a double-pointed wooden stick which was scraped, seasoned and sanded before use, shows that these early humans were woodworking masters.

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Near-Extinction of Our Human Ancestors Revealed by Genetic Research

Approximately one million years ago, the Earth was populated by a few hundred thousand or so ancient human ancestors. But about 900,000 years ago there was a sudden and dramatic crash in this population, which caused the number of archaic human breeding couples to drop down to below 1,300.

Or at least, this is the latest claim from a team of Chinese and Italian genetic researchers, who’ve just published a comprehensive historical analysis of the evolution of the human genome and its relation to past population levels in the journal Science.

To detect the genetic traces of what was nearly an extinction-level population crash, the scientists analyzed genetic data collected from 3,154 individuals in 10 modern African populations and 40 non-African populations. These people all had their genomes sequenced completely, which made it possible for the researchers to assess the differences and correlate them with long-term population patterns.

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Discovery of New Archaic Human Species Announced by Chinese Scientists

A team of evolutionary scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, several Chinese universities and the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Spain has shocked the scientific world by announcing their discovery of an entirely new archaic human species, dating to the Late Middle Pleistocene or 300,000 years before present. Their study of the jaw, skull and leg bones of a skeleton excavated in East China found it possessed characteristics that did not match those of previously identified ancestors of modern humans (Homo sapiens), Neanderthals or Denisovans, meaning it must have come from a species that evolved separately from all three.

Archaeologists first unearthed these astonishing fossils in Hualongdong, East China in 2019. The evolutionary scientists who examined them expected to identify them quickly, but much to their surprise they were unable to do so. As their analysis of the strangely shaped bones continued, after a time it became apparent that they were looking at something they’d never seen before—or more correctly, something  no one had ever seen before.

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New Study Claims Earliest Human Migrants Came to Europe in Three Waves

As recently as 2021, most scholars still believed that modern humans first arrived in Europe about 42,000 years ago. But a 2022 research project produced evidence of an earlier wave of migrants who occupied European lands 54,000 years ago, shaking the standing theory to its core. Now, the lead author of that 2022 study has just published the results of new research that complicates the picture even further.

In a paper appearing in the journal PLOS Onearchaeologist and cultural anthropologist Lubovic Slimak from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) identifies a third wave of human settlers who completed the epic trek from Africa to Europe approximately 45,000 years ago.

“Until 2022, it was believed that  Homo sapiens had reached Europe between the 42nd and 45th millennium. The study shows that this first  Sapiens migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of  Sapiens in Europe,” Slimak said in a statement issued to the scientific press.

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Oldest Human Ancestors May Have Evolved Nine Million Years Ago in Turkey

Modern humans first left Africa and migrated to Eurasia between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago. But a fossilized skeleton with surprisingly human-like characteristics found in central Turkey suggests that ancient human ancestors of  Homo sapiens journeyed in the opposite direction much earlier. These previously undetected hominins may have migrated from the eastern Mediterranean region to Africa over five million years ago, with their evolutionary line eventually producing all the hominin species that are currently acknowledged as human ancestors.

This is the stunning conclusion of a team of researchers from several universities in Turkey and the University of Toronto in Canada, who recently published an in-depth analysis of intact cranium unearthed at a Late Miocene era fossil bed in the journal Communications Biology. They believe this skull belonged to a previously undetected genus of archaic human they call Anadoluvius, which would have evolved from ancient primates that evolved in central and western Europe more than 10 million years ago.

If the researchers are right, it means the ‘out of Africa’ migration was preceded by an ‘out of Asia’ migration that adds a compelling new aspect to the evolutionary history of  Homo sapiens.

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Human Arrival in South America Pushed Back to 25,000 Years Ago

Human arrival in the Americas has a long-disputed timeline, and new evidence supports pushing back the date for human arrival in South America to at least 25,000 years ago. The evidence? Remains of bones of extinct giant ground sloths, transformed into pendants by ancient inhabitants, found in the Santa Elina rock shelter, situated in central Brazil's Mato Grosso state. Till now, this remains the most compelling evidence for human settlement in the Americas this far back.

Sloth Osteoderms and Human Jewelry Interconnected?

In a fantastic new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers meticulously examine sloth osteoderms (fossilized bony dermal plates which act as protective armor for animals like armadillos, etc) revealing intricate details that point to human interaction. Three sloth osteoderms in particular were found to bear distinct signs of human working.  They were discovered in close proximity to stone tools and displayed minuscule holes that could only have been made by human hands.

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Humans Got To America 7,000 Years Earlier Than Thought, New Research Confirms

When and how humans first settled in the Americas is a subject of considerable controversy. In the 20th century, archaeologists believed that humans reached the North American interior no earlier than around 14,000 years ago.

But our new research found something different. Our latest study supports the view that people were in America about 23,000 years ago.

The 20th century experts thought the appearance of humans had coincided with the formation of an ice-free corridor between two immense ice sheets straddling what’s now Canada and the northern US. According to this idea, the corridor, caused by melting at the end of the last Ice Age, allowed humans to trek from Alaska into the heart of North America.

Gradually, this orthodoxy crumbled. In recent decades, dates for the earliest evidence of people have crept back from 14,000 years ago to 16,000 years ago. This is still consistent with humans only reaching the Americas as the last Ice Age was ending.

If humans were in America at the height of the last Ice Age, either the ice posed few barriers to their passage, or humans had been there for much longer. Perhaps they had reached the continent during an earlier period of melting.

Our conclusions were criticized, however we have now published evidence confirming the early dates.

Read on…

Each of these revelations has challenged our assumptions, pushing back the boundaries of what we thought we knew and leaving us hungry to find out what wonders the next chapter will hold. We look forward to what 2024 has in store!

Top image: AI representation of a Neanderthal man surveying the landscape. Source: Dr_Microbe/Adobe Stock



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