Extracting Gold Dust From Air: Best Paleoanthropology of 2017 so far!

How is it August already?! We’re more than halfway through 2017 and a dizzying amount of paleoanthropology has already happened this year. I can’t think of a better time to look back on some of the incredible discoveries that have been announced so far, so let’s count down my favorites!

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Alesi. Image: Fred Spoor

5. Alesi. A 13 million-year-old ape from Kenya has been put forward as a potential common ancestor of humans and other apes. There’s one particular aspect of Alesi that I find interesting and amusing: the specimen that of a juvenile. This is somewhat problematic because it makes it difficult to compare it with other (adult) specimens, keeping in mind that certain features change as primates mature. One anthropologist alluded to the game the fossil record sometimes play, stating  “This is the sort of thing that the fossil record loves to do to us.” The problem is reminiscent Raymond Dart’s uphill battle with his infant Australopith in the 1920s. His fossil was not ultimately accepted as a hominin until other, adult specimens were discovered–decades later.

4. Neo. Back in May, the world had the pleasure of meeting Neo, the newest member of the species Homo naledi to be identified. Neo (which means gift) was remarkably complete and was discovered in a chamber near the cache of naledi bones. Neo provides more information about naledi body size, and as I mentioned in a post at the time of the announcement, the preservation is just beautiful. Neo includes some beautiful bones in the face that are extremely fragile and usually don’t preserve for hundreds of thousands of years. Also, it’s worth mentioning that retrieving Neo was no easy feat, it involved lying wedged between rocks for hours at a time. You can learn more about Neo in the open access paper published in elife.

3. Jebel Ihoud. Decades of work at the Moroccan site of Jebel Ihoud have revealed some strangely human looking bones. While they’re not quite Homo sapiens, the Jebel Ihoud specimens might shed some light on our lineage just before we became anatomically modern–giving our species some desperately needed history. One of the biggest surprises? The site’s location. Morocco is located pretty far from other places in Africa scientists had been looking for sapiens ancestors (seriously–it’s far). This has led some scientists to reevaluate their assumptions about where, within Africa, our evolution was occurring–perhaps all over. As John Hawks suggested, “Focusing on ‘out of Africa’ has obscured the fascinating story of what was in Africa.” There’s a pretty epic poem about the discovery that’s definitely worth checking out, it reads in part “Experts of the world came to here to dwell; On these mysterious species, their story to tell…”

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Jebel Ihoud left, Homo sapiens skull right. NHM London

2. Naledi‘s age. As if meeting Neo back in May wasn’t exciting enough, that very same day we learned the answer to a much-discussed question: the date of the original Homo naledi fossils from the Dinaledi chamber. The dates were pretty darn shocking. Homo naledi lived as recently as 250,000 years ago– much younger than some estimates that placed them between one and two million years old (though the species certainly could have originated then and persisted into the recent past). That is wild to think about, particularly because naledi had very small brains and retained other primitive features. One of the many interesting implications of these dates is that it means Homo sapiens were not alone in South Africa in the very recent past. This article is also open access on elife.

  1. DNA from cave dirt. Not long ago, scientists were not sure if DNA could even survive after an organism died. Fast forward to 2017 and the field of ancient DNA has taken yet another giant leap forward, recovering DNA not from the bones of Neanderthals and other hominins, but also from the random dirt they left behind in caves. Scientists were able to identify genetic traces of Neandertals and Denisovans in cave sediment, likely because the hominins once defecating or somehow left behind small tracers. Let me repeat the crazy part: scientists discovered DNA without discovering bones. “It’s a bit like discovering that you can extract gold dust from the air,” population geneticist Adam Siepel commented–a sentiment that captures the incredible nature of this find. This will certainly lead to interesting discoveries in the future. Chris Stringer pointed out, for example, that the technique could reveal the existence of other ancient hominin species–ones we don’t even know about yet!
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Matthias Meyer works in a clean room. Image: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Honorable mention: There are two other studies that I must also mention, both of which will reveal some of my bias towards a certain wonderful part of the world: Indonesia. (What do you mean–this isn’t the most objective list ever?!)

  • Earlier this year, a fascinating study was done concerning my favorite little hominin, the hobbit of Flores (Homo floresiensis). Using a large number of characters, the team ran a statistical analysis to try to determine where the hobbits fit in the family tree. The scientists rejected the hypothesis that floresiensis was closely related to the Homo erectus folks found nearby throughout Asia. So who were these creatures most closely related to? The hobbit saga continues.
  • Dating of an old tooth revealed a surprising fact, humans may have been in Southeast Asia as early as 63,000-73,000 years ago. What makes this study so cool? It was a new look at an old tooth–a specimen originally discovered by Eugene Dubois in the late 1800s! I love it when new technologies are applied to old specimens, revealing fascinating insights. Thank you, history!

So those are a few of my favorites, thank you for joining me in celebrating the incredible science that has arisen from an otherwise difficult year. What do you think–did I cover your favorite find so far this year? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments! Most importantly, do you think these discoveries can be topped by the time the year comes to a close?!

3 thoughts on “Extracting Gold Dust From Air: Best Paleoanthropology of 2017 so far!

  1. I think the ability to obtain DNA from cave floor samples is simply stunning. Actually, just about everything found this year (and recently) has been amazing, particularly when you look back at the history of the field and realise how much was being wrung out of such a small range of evidence, even into the late twentieth century.

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  2. Pingback: #SVP2017 Edition: Fossil Friday Roundup: August 25, 2017 | PLOS Blogs Network

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