Snippets on human evolution

Image copyright held by author, Chris Henshilw...

Artifacts from the Blombos Cave, South Africa, including deliberately etched block of hematite Image by Chris Henshilwood via Wikipedia

The news that most humans outside of Africa carry fragments of DNA that match with those of Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovan archaic humans ( see Yes, it seems that they did… and Other rich hominin pickings in the May 2010 issue of EPN) has entered into popular culture; or soon will have! Similar dalliances with the ‘older folk’ seem also to have occurred among those humans who remained in Africa (Hammer, M.F. et al. 2011. Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 108, p. 15123-15128). The DNA of three groups in West Africa who maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyles show regions that are not involved in coding for proteins that differ from the African norm. This suggests mating with an entirely separate and unknown group of hominins – probably archaic forms of humans – that produced fertile offspring, probably around 35 thousand years ago. The find spurred re-evaluation of bones with a mix of archaic and modern features that were discovered in a Nigerian cave in the 1960s (Harvati, K. et al. 2011. The Later Stone Age Calvaria from Iwo Eleru, Nigeria: Morphology and Chronology. PLoS ONE, v.  6: e24024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024024). The study confirms that the skulls are outside the fully modern human range, but display a close similarity with Neanderthal and H. erectus. The big surprise is that U-Th dating suggests they are quite recent, around 16 ka. The stage seems set for nor only a burst of exploration for human remains of less antiquity than early hominins but a ‘paradigm shift’ in our view of what constitutes a human species.

See also: Gibbons, A. 2011, African data bolster new view of modern human origins. Science, v. 334, p. 167.

Another interesting link with archaic humans who had the closest of relationships with some of our ancestors is that their union may have bolstered the resistance of migrants from Africa to Eurasian pathogens (Abi-Rached, L. and 22 others 2011. The shaping of modern human immune systems by multiregional admixture with archaic humans. Science, v. 334, p. 89-94). The focus was on the human leucocyte antigen (HLA) group that is a vital part of our immune system in the form of ‘killer cells’. Part of modern Eurasian DNA that codes for the group (HLA-B*73 allele) appears in the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes; indeed more than half the HLA alleles of modern Eurasians may have originated in this way, and have also been introduced into Africans subsequently.

Also at the front line of genomic research into human origins, DNA sequenced from a lock of hair given to an Edwardian anthropologist by a native Australian turns out to have an extreme antiquity compared with that of other Eurasian people descended from African migrants (Rasmussen, M. and 57 others. An aboriginal Australian genome reveals separate human dispersals into Asia. Science, v. 334, p. 94-98). The unique aspects of the Australian genome signify separation of a group of individuals from the main African population around 62-75 thousand years ago; significantly earlier than and different from ‘run of the mill’ migrants from whom modern Asians arose at between 25 to 38 ka. There is little doubt that native Australians are descended from the pioneers who first diffused from Africa either by crossing the Straits of Bab el Mandab or taking another route and they moved more speedily across southern Asia than other waves made possible by climate change and sea-level falls following the Eemian interglacial of 133-115 ka.

Despite the lingering Eurocentrist view that somehow fully modern human consciousness sprang into being at the time the famous French and Spanish cave art was painted, around 30 ka, increasing evidence points to an African origin for a sense of aesthetics and the ability to express it. The latest is the discovery of a 100 ka ‘paint box’ in a South African coastal cave (Henshilwood, C.S. et al. 2011. A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science, v. 334, p. 219-223). The material consists of two large abalone shells containing traces of red and orange ochre, together with a hammer stone and grinder with adhering ochre, and fat-rich bones which ground-up would have produced a binder for the ochre. No art occurs in the cave and it might be supposed that the pigments were intended for face- or body adornment.

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