It’s only March (on a related note–how is it already March?!), and already a TON has happened in paleoanthropology this year. So far in 2016, we’ve seen announcements on everything from teeth to DNA.
I thought I’d recap some of the big finds, but as always, I have to include the disclaimer that these announcements are the recent views of particular scientists, and only time will tell if their inferences hold up! Anyway, here is a countdown of my top 5 favorites:
5. New fossils from Sterkfontein! Milner Hall, an area within the Sterkfontein caves, has yielded a new finger bone and a tooth! So far, comparisons suggest these fossils are somewhat different than that of Homo naledi and other S. African hominins, but stay tuned! John Hawks discussed the finds in a blog post, and a press release of the find can be found here.
4. When did the human lineage split from gorillas? Chororapithecus weighs in. Some scientists argue that fossils of these potential primitive relatives of gorillas suggest that the split of humans and gorillas occurred millions of years before we thought. Based on teeth of these guys, scientists think the gorilla lineage may have diverged from ours around 10 million years ago.
3. What did Neandertal genes do for us? Thanks to medical records, scientists are beginning to illuminate the lasting legacy of Neandertal genes that live on in our bodies today. Ed Yong covers this issue beautifully.
2. Baby teeth and tooth size in our ancestors? A super cool new study looks at the role of development in determining hominin tooth size. This study proposes a rule that governs how tooth size evolves in hominins, which is especially interesting in the case of Homo, who tend to have unique tooth proportions. This rule has exciting predictive applications.
1. Sima Nuclear DNA revealed! Some 430,000 year old fossils from the Sima de los Huesos site in Spain have yielded part of their nuclear genome. This DNA tells us that Sima hominins are likely early Neandertals. This research is interesting for a number of reasons, primarily because it pushes back in time when we should be looking for the common ancestor of Neanderthals and humans. Much has already been written about this amazing work, but there are two main things I want to highlight:
- This is crazy cool: we have DNA from a creature 430,000 years old. Think about that for a minute. “It’s like science fiction.” Says paleoanthropologist Maria Martinón-Torres. I agree.
- Also, this means that, in the case of human/Neandertal divergence the ancient DNA evidence actually agrees with the fossil evidence–a rare phenomenon thus far in paleoanthropology. Definitely a great moment.
Other interesting things:
- John Hawks wrote about the braided stream of our origins for Aeon.
- On visualizing Homo naledi‘s Dinaledi chamber through 3D scans of the excavations.
- Neandertals may have used manganese dioxide to start fires!
- Neandertals did eat SOME veggies.
- Could Australopithecus sediba chew hard foods? New research argues no!
On a less upbeat note, it would be impossible to talk about anthropology this year without mentioning the sexual misconduct story that recently made headlines. Michael Balter reported on the issue for Science, breaking the silence on sexual harassment and asking “what can be done?” This story reminds us that these issues are real and present in our discipline, and must be addressed.
So what do you guys think about 2016? What have I missed? And is 2016 shaping up to be as incredible as 2015 (which I recently wrote would be hard to beat)?!