Footprints, Sculptures, & Hobbit Ancestors: A Paleoanthropology Best of Summer Roundup

srep28766-f1 (1)Summer is coming to a close, giving us a great excuse to reflect on the incredible announcements that have been recently made in paleoanthropology. From footprints to new fossils, these discoveries have definitely altered the ways I think about many hominin species, so I’m counting down my favorites. This time, I polled a bunch of you folks on Twitter first, before compiling my list! It was great to hear what caught your attention, but…then I overrode you a bit. More on that later. So let’s count them down, here we go!

5.  Homo erectus footprints. Trace fossils made the list! These beautiful footprints from at least 20 individuals reveal a very human structure. The footprints tell us about weight distribution and help confirm that at 1.5 million years ago, “at least one of our fossil relatives walked in much the same way as we do today,” as one researcher put it. The researchers argue that this was a cooperative, multi-male group–important evidence for human-like social behavior!

France Neanderthal Ruins

(Michel Soulier/CNRS via AP)

4. We’ve been looking at human evolution wrong. Ok so this isn’t a discovery in the fossil-finding sense, but a collection of papers recently published in the Philosophical Transactions is equally (if not MORE) important! These works ask us to reframe how we think about human evolution and  begin focusing on transitions. Let’s be less concerned with “origins”: e.g. the moment we became human and more concerned with “transitions”: e.g. the series of steps that occurred that led us to where we are today. This type of reframing alters the way we think in important ways–and I have a feeling this is the kind of work I will be pointing to in my histories 30+ years from now.

3. Ancient cancer. Very ancient cancer. Researchers have uncovered the oldest known case of malignant cancer, at the site of Swartkrans in South Africa. The amazing find is explained here, alongside a discussion of a benign tumor announced simultaneously in Australopithecus sediba. Cool stuff.

2. Neanderthal sculpture garden (interior decorating, if you will). 176,000 years ago, a bunch of Neanderthals deliberately broke hundreds of pieces of stalagmites and arranged them in rings and piles. This find, buried deep in a cave in France, raises a TON of questions. Why construct these things? We don’t know. Some have argued this was some sort of a “meeting place” for a type of “ritual social behavior.” This is a very human thing to do–and it’s making some people reexamine what they thought they knew about Neanderthals. Ed Yong wrote a great piece about the find and check out Nature‘s great video as well.


Mete Menge Mandible (Kinez Riza)

And my number one favorite of the summer is…

  1. Hobbit ancestors! Ok so I might be a little biased here–anything hobbit-related is automatically going to rise to the top for me–but the Mete Menge fossils (a partial jaw and a few teeth) announced in June were pretty incredible nonetheless. These 700,000 year old jaw and teeth fragments helped prove that Homo floresiensis was indeed a legitimate species of hominin. Also, the fossils gave us insight into where the hobbit came from, probably a Homo erectus type critter. Some researchers argue that the Mete Menge fossils demonstrate that once this species arrived on Flores, they shrunk very quickly (but others are less convinced). One of my favorite quotes about the discovery: “It’s kind of like Flores is its own little laboratory of early human evolution” a researcher said.

Close candidates:

  • Fire at Liang Bua 50,000 years ago. The hobbit’s cave has been continuously occupied for tens of thousands of years, earlier by H. floresiensis and more recently by H. sapiens. Scientists are working to close the gap in time between when these two species lived in and around the cave, and they found some evidence of fire that helps illuminate this gap. Of course, this raised questions about whether these same humans could have caused the hobbits’ extinction…only time (& more research!) will tell.
  • Additional evidence for Neanderthal cannibalism, researchers argue. They found cut marks on the bones that suggest thy  were defleshed and broken open for marrow.

Other cool stuff:


  • Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 9.12.01 AM

    Gorham’s Cave complex, Gibraltar

    The Gorham’s Cave complex on Gibraltar–a favorite home of Neanderthals 40,000 years ago–is now a UNESCO world heritage site! Congrats to the dedicated team that has worked tirelessly to make this happen! For more info, check out @GorhamsCave on Twitter!

  • I wrote a piece for Aeon about licking fossils and dating bones, wait…that came out wrong. But check it out, I got to talk about Homo naledi, Neanderthal history, and how difficult it is to fill in the timeline of human evolution.
  • Twilight beasts wrote a great post titled On the origins of our species.
  • There’s a free online course on the hobbit, called Homo floresiensis Uncovered, and I’m obsessed. It has great videos of the excavations and more, definitely check it out.

In the Twitter poll, most of you guys said the Neanderthal sculpture garden was #1, but other than that we largely agreed! I only overrode you because the Mete Menge fossils pretty much made my summer. So that’s my take on Summer 2016, what do you think? What was your favorite discovery? What did I miss? And do you think these epic finds will be surpassed before 2016 is up?! Tell me in the comments!

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Phil Trans papers, written by Foley, Martin, Lahr, & Stringer: “How do we square the circle of explaining something new, while accepting that there is nothing entirely new, and that the roots of novelty in evolution lie in existing forms?”

2 thoughts on “Footprints, Sculptures, & Hobbit Ancestors: A Paleoanthropology Best of Summer Roundup

  1. The new discoveries are all the more incredible when I look back on what was known (and the supposed certainties of it) when I was being taught human evolution at university in the early 1980s. Despite the conceits of science as impartial, the framing of theory by social fads dictated by wider society always seems evident – witness the transition from the organising principle of human evolution as linear ‘progress’ or ‘advance’ to one in which humanity speciated like everything else – this last opening the door for Neanderthals to be seen as ‘neither better or worse, just different’, among other things. I’m sure we have only just begun to explore the true breadth and diversity of human change through time. And we’ll get more surprises as the picture unfolds.


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