Genus Homo pushed back nearly half a million years

Bill Deller, a friend whose Sunday is partly spent reading the Observer and Sunday Times from cover to cover, alerted me to a lengthy article by Britain’s doyen of paleoanthropologists Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum. (Stringer, C. 2015. First human? The jawbone that makes us question where we’re from. Observer, 8 March 2015, p. 36). His piece sprang from two Reports published online in Science that describe about 1/3 of a hominin lower jaw unearthed – where else? – in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia. The discovery site of Ledi-Geraru is a mere 30 km from the most hominin-productive ground in Africa: Hadar and Dikika for Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’ at 3.2 Ma and ‘Selam’ at 3.3 Ma, respectively); Gona for the earliest-known stone tools (2.6 Ma); and the previously earliest member of the genus Homo, also close to Hadar.

On some small objects mighty tales are hung, and the Ledi-Geraru jawbone and 6 teeth is one of them. It has features intermediate between Australopithecus and Homo, but more important is its age: Pliocene, around 2.8 to 2.75 Ma (Villmoare, B. And 8 others. Early Homo at 2.8 Ma from Ledi Geraru, Afar, Ethiopia. Science Express doi: 10.1126/science.aaa1343). The sediments from which Ethiopian geologist Chalachew Seyoum, studying at Arizona State University, extracted the jawbone formed in a river floodplain. Other fossils suggest open grassland rich with game, similar to that of the Serengeti in Tanzania, with tree-lined river courses. These were laid down at a time of climatic transition from humid to more arid conditions, that several authors have suggested to have provided the environmental stresses that drove evolutionary change, including that of hominins (DiMaggio, E.N. and 10 others 2015. Late Pliocene fossiliferous sedimentary record and the environmental context of early Homo from Afar, Ethiopia. Science Express doi: 10.1126/science.aaa1415).

Designating the jawbone as evidence for the earliest known member of our genus rests almost entirely on the teeth, and so is at best tentative awaiting further fossil material. The greatest complicating factor is that the earliest supposed fossils of Homo (i.e. H. habilis, H rudolfensis and others yet to be assigned a species identity) are a morphologically more mixed bunch than those younger than 2 Ma, such as H. ergaster and H. erectus. Indeed, every one of them has some significant peculiarity. That diversity even extends to the earliest humans to have left Africa, found in 1.8 Ma old sediments at Dmanisi in Georgia (Homo georgicus), where each of the 5 well-preserved skulls is unique.  The Dmanisi hominins have been likened to the type specimen of H. habilis, but such is the diversity of both that is probably a shot in the dark.

English: Cast replica of OH 7, the type specim...

Replica of OH 7, the deformed type specimen of Homo habilis. (credit: Wikipedia)

Coinciding with the new Ethiopian hominin papers a study was published in Nature the same week that describes how the type specimen of H. habilis (found, in close association with crude stone tools and cut bones, by Mary and Lewis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania in 1960) has been digitally restored from its somewhat deformed state when found (Spoor, F. et al. 2015. Reconstructed Homo habilis type OH 7 suggests deep-rooted species diversity in early Homo. Nature, v. 519, p. 83-86, doi:10.1038/nature14224). The restored lower jaw and teeth, and part of its cranium, deepened the mysterious diversity of the group of fossils for which it is the type specimen, but boosts its standing as regards probable brain size from one within the range of australopithecines to significantly larger –~750 ml compared with <600 ml – about half that of modern humans. The habilis diversity is largely to do with jaws and teeth: it is the estimated brain size as well as the type specimen’s association with tools and their use that elevates them all to human status. Yet, the reconstruction is said by some to raise the issue of a mosaic of early human species. The alternative is an unusual degree of shape diversity (polymorphism) among a single emerging species, which is not much favoured these days. An issue to consider is: what constitutes a species? For living organisms morphological similarity has to be set against the ability for fertile interbreeding. Small, geographically isolated populations of a single species often diverge markedly in terms of what they look like yet continue to be interfertile, the opposite being convergence in form by organisms that are completely unrelated.

Palaeontologists tend to go largely with division on grounds of form, so that when a specimen falls outside some agreed morphological statistics, it crosses a species boundary. Set against that the incontrovertible evidence that at least 3 recent human species interbred successfully to leave the mark in all non-African living humans. What if the first humans emerging from, probably, a well-defined population of australopithecines continued to interbreed with them, right up to the point when they became extinct about 2 Ma ago?

On a more concrete note, the Ledi Geraru hominin is a good candidate for the maker of the first stone tools found ‘just down the road’ at Gona!

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