Tag Archives: human evolution

Stepping Stones eBook

Title

A revised and updated edition of Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World by Steve Drury, first published in 1999, has been released as a free eBook on the book’s web site https://earthstep.wordpress.com/. The revision incorporates the hundreds of commentaries on geoscientific advances written since 2000 by Steve for earth-pages. It is a personal view of the evolution of the Earth System and the emergence of humanity from it. First published by Oxford University Press, Stepping Stones was widely acclaimed by  fellow Earth scientists and general readers.

Homo naledi: an anti-climax

In September 2015 a barrage of publicity announced the remarkable unearthing of the remains of 15 diminutive hominins, dubbed Homo nadeli, from the floor sediments of an almost inaccessible South African cave, part of the equally hyped ‘Cradle of Humankind’ UNESCO World Heritage Site near Johannesburg. An international team of lithe women speleo-archaeologists was recruited for the excavation, for which the original discoverers were incapably burly. The remains included numerous examples of still articulated intricate bones, such as those of feet and hands, and none show signs of dismemberment by large scavengers. Indeed the discovery chamber was so far from the cave entrance that such animals probably were unaware of their presence. These features and the sheer complexity of the system strongly suggested that cadavers had been deliberately taken to the chamber; implying that the deep penetration had been accomplished using fire-brand illumination. What seized the headlines was the possibility of ritual burial, although sanitary disposal or panicked refuge from predators seem equally, if not more likely.

Lee Burger and the reconstructed skull of Homo naledi

Now yet more fossils have been reported from a separate chamber at a crawling distance about 150 m away from the original but closer to the system’s main entrance (~85 m). These add at least other 3 individuals to the H. nadeli association, with sufficient similarity to indicate that all 18 belong to H. naledi. This wealth of detail enabled the team of authors (Hawks, J. and 37 others 2017. New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24232) to perform a detailed comparative anatomic analysis of the species. The results are a mosaic, showing some post-cranial affinities with australopithecines, H. habilis, H.floresiensis, H. erectus, Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, and others, such as the hands and shoulders, that are not well matched with other hominins. Their crania show a similar broad spectrum of resemblances, and as regards dentition they are distinctly primitive. They are also on the small-brained side of the hominin clade. Despite the astonishing abundance of fossil material, not a single artifact was found in the cave system, despite the apparent similarity of its hands to those of ourselves and Neanderthals.

With plenty of scope for speculation, H. nadeli remains enigmatic. The big question looming over the 2015 announcement of the species was its age, the discovers suggesting about 2 Ma, and placing on the direct line of human descent. On the same day as the fossil description there appeared a multi-method dating analysis (Dirks, P.H.G.M. and 19 others 2017. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24231.001), which showed that with little doubt that the H. nadeli association was deposited between 236 ka and 335 ka; around the time when anatomically modern humans first emerged and stone tools had undergone a >2 Ma technological evolution. To me, the only sensible conclusion at present is that H. nadeli is another addition to the 6 species living and in some cases coexisting across the late Pleistocene world, and that expansion of ideas beyond that must await DNA analysis; a definite possibility considering the age of the fossils, their seemingly good preservation in a relatively dry cave system and the new possibility of cave soils as well as bones yielding genetic materials. The leader of the research team, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand now maintains, together with four other members of the research team, that H. nadeli may be a coelacanth-like survivor of Homo’s earliest diversification and that ‘we cannot exclude that this lineage was responsible for the production of Acheulean or Middle Stone Age tool industries’.

Barras, C. 2017. Homo naledi is only 250,000 years old – here’s why that matters. New Scientist, 6 May 2017 Issue

Sample, I. 2017. New haul of Homo naledi bones sheds surprising light on human evolution. The Guardian, 9 May 2017

Human penis bone lost through monogamy?

The baculum or penis bone is arguably the most variable of mammalian bones, present in some species but not others. Among those in which it does occur the baculum varies enormously in shape, length and breadth relative to body size. This makes it likely to have been subject to the most divergent evolution among mammals. Yet its evolution has remained somewhat puzzling until recently. Observation has shown that the width of the baculum in male house mice is positively correlated with reproductive success. So one factor in the bone’s evolution may be postcopulatory sexual selection: female mice seem to favour males well endowed in this department once they have mated with them, a notion supported by careful laboratory experimentation. The physical role of the penis bone is to support and protect the penis during sexual intercourse. Sturdy dimensions are increasingly efficacious the longer the duration and the greater the frequency of copulation, particularly among polygamous and seasonally breeding species. They also tend to delay or inhibit a female mating with another male after copulation.

Walrus baculum, approximately 22 inches long

Walrus baculum, approximately 0.6 metres long (credit: Wikipedia)

Matilda Brindle and Christopher Opie of University College London have applied advanced phylogenetic statistical analysis to data on the dimensions of penis bones among 2000 mammal species (Brindle, M. & Opie, C. 2016. Postcopulatory sexual selection influences baculum evolution in primates and carnivores. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, v. 283, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.1736) and suggest that the baculum first evolved in mammals between 145 to 95 Ma ago, earlier mammals likely having no penis bone. Ancestral primates and carnivorous mammals, however, were so endowed. Yet some mammalian species have lost the baculum.  Among the primates human males do not have one whereas male chimpanzees and bonobos, with which we share a last common ancestor, do: both are boisterously promiscuous whereas humans are pair-bonded to a large degree.

The issue of polygamy versus monogamy among human ancestors, and when the latter emerged, continues to exercise palaeoanthropologists. The former in other living primates is often associated with a marked contrast in size between males and females – sexual dimorphism. The earliest hominins, such as species of Australopithecus, did exhibit such dimorphism whereas species of Homo show significantly less size contrast, which some have taken to mark the emergence of pair-bonding amongst members of the earliest human species to be passed on to their successors. Another indicator of competitiveness among primate males for females, and their dominance over the latter, is the near universal possession of large canine teeth among males of polygamous primates; an odd feature for species whose diet is dominantly and often exclusively vegetarian. Not only do living humans not have prominent canines, neither do any known fossil hominins. Despite the views of a small minority of anthropologists who demand that modern human females won social parity with males only in the last 100 thousand years, only to lose it following the Neolithic ‘revolution’, the physical evidence suggests that a trend towards that emerged with other distinct characteristics of hominins and concretised in early Homo. An assiduous search for fossil hominin penis bones may yet reveal the moment of monogamy.

Tree-climbing australopithecines

We know that Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, could climb trees because her many bone fractures show that she fell out of a tree to her death. But that does not mean her species was an habitual tree-climber: plenty of modern humans fall to their deaths from trees, cliffs and the like. But the issue seems to have been resolved by using X-ray tomography of Lucy’s limb bones (Ruff, C.B. et al. 2016. Limb bone structural proportions and locomotor behaviour in A.L. 288-1 (“Lucy”).  PLOS ONE v. 11, e0166095. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166095) during the skeleton’s triumphal series of exhibits in the US.

The authors, including two of those who showed that Lucy died after a fall using similar data, compared the digital 3-D models of her surviving arm- and leg bones with those of other hominins and living primates, estimating their relative strengths at different positions. Lucy was probably stronger in the arm than in the leg, but not to the same degree as chimpanzees. This is a feature that would significantlyassist climbing , but her bipedal locomotion on the ground would have been only slightly different from that of later Homo species. If anything, her strength relative to size would have been greater than ours, perhaps reflecting less reliance on tools for getting food and defending herself. But almost certainly Australopithecus afarensis habitually spend more time in trees, perhaps foraging and as a defence against predation, especially at night.

The new data for Lucy allows palaeoanthropologists to better judge the capabilities of other hominins. Interestingly Homo habilis, the earliest of our genus, may have had similar habits. But later species, beginning with H. erectus/ergaster, were as Earth-bound as we are. This suggests a shift in hominin ecology from an early and probably long history of semi-arboreal behavior until humans became masters of their terrain about 1.9 Ma ago, probably through their invention of better tools and the controlled use of fire.

Read more about human evolution here and here

Climatic conditions for early hominin evolution

Until about 1.8 Ma ago, when early Homo erectus and perhaps other archaic hominins strode into Eurasia, our forerunners lived and evolved on only one continent – Africa. The physical and environmental conditions underlying the steps from a common ancestor with modern chimpanzees through a growing number of upright species are not well charted by the Pliocene and early Pleistocene terrestrial evidence. All that is know of this formative period is that global climate cooled in an oscillating fashion that culminated in the onset of Northern Hemisphere glaciations in the late Pliocene (~3 Ma) and a shift to drier conditions in East Africa around 2.8 Ma suggested by pollen records off the east coast. Marine sediments of the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden still offer the most convenient means of charting environmental change in detail for this crucial episode in human history. As well as oxygen-isotope and pollen-type variations, modern core analysis offers a growing number of wind-blown proxies for onshore vegetation. These include organic geochemistry plus carbon and hydrogen isotopes from trace amounts of leaf waxes. During the May to September East African Monsoon, high speed winds in the upper atmosphere drag dusty continental air from the East African Rift System over the Gulf of Aden, making sea-floor sediment an important target for tracking variations in the proxies (Liddy, H.M. et al. 2016.  Cooling and drying in northeast Africa across the Pliocene.  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 449, p. 430-438. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2016.05.005). Hannah Liddy and colleagues from the Universities of Southern California and Arizona, USA, applied these techniques to a Gulf of Aden core from offshore Somaliland to open a window on this crucial period.

Early history of hominin evolution and evidence for climate change in East Africa. Based on a diagram at the handprint.com website

Early history of hominin evolution and evidence for climate change in East Africa. Based on a diagram at the handprint.com website and in Stepping Stones Chapter 22

Early Pliocene East Africa (5.3 to 4.3 Ma), the time of Ardepithecus ramidus, was characterized by evidence for a climate wet enough to sustain grasses and riverine woodlands. Yet around 4.3 Ma conditions had shifted to ecosystems more dominated by shrubby plants able to thrive in more arid conditions. At about that time the earliest australopithecines appear in the fossil record, with A. anamensis. Yet the later Pliocene was not devoid of grasses or herbivores. There is ample carbon-isotope evidence from the teeth of hominins that shows that after 3.4 Ma the diet of A. afarensis and A. africanus included increasing amounts whose carbon derived from grasses, when. This apparent paradox can be explained by a major turn to eating meat from herbivores as vegetable foods declined with increasing aridity. This is all very interesting, especially the detailed record of δ13C in plant waxes, but there is little to indicate that steps in hominin speciation or extinction had much direct connection with fluctuations in climatic conditions. Environmental change may have formed a background to other influences that may have been wholly down to early hominin’s social and technological behaviour.

Our ancestors parted from other humans earlier than expected

Despite the excitement raised by the discovery of remnants of 15 individuals of Homo naledi in a South African Cave the richest trove of hominin fossils remains that of Sima de los Huesos (‘pit of bones’) in northern Spain. In 2013 bone found in that cave from one of 28 or more individuals of what previous had been regarded as H. heidelbergensis, dated at around 400 ka, yielded mitochondrial DNA. It turned out to have affinities with mtDNA of both Neanderthals and Denisovans, especially the second. The data served to further complicate the issue of our origins, but were insufficient to do more than throw some doubt on the significance of H. heidelbergensis as a distinct species: nuclear DNA would do better, it was hoped by the palaeo-geneticists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Now a small fragment of those data (about 1 tro 2 million base pairs) have been presented to a London meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution – though not yet in a peer-reviewed journal. Anne Gibbons summarised the formal presentation in the 18 September 2015 issue of Science (Gibbons, Ann 2015. Humanity’s long, lonely road. Science, v. 349, p. 1270).

English: Cranium 5 is one of the most importan...

One of the best preserved discoveries in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain). (credit: Wikipedia)

The partial nuclear DNA is a great deal more like that of Neanderthals from much more recent times than it is of either Denisovans and modern humans. It seems most likely that the Sima de los Huesos individuals are early Neanderthals, which implies that the Neanderthal-Denisovan split was earlier than 400 ka. That might seem to be just fine, except for one thing: Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA are much more closely related to each other than to that of ourselves. That implies that the last common ancestor of the two archaic human species must have split from the ancestral line leading to modern humans even further back in time: maybe 550 to 765 ka ago and 100 to 400 ka earlier than previously surmised. This opens up several interesting possibilities for our long and separate development. Since Neanderthals and perhaps Denisovans emigrated from Africa to Eurasia several glacial cycles ago, maybe people genetically en route to anatomically modern humans did so too. The Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes suggest that they interbred with each other and that could have been at any time after the genetic split between them. Famously, they also interbred with direct ancestors of living Eurasians, but there is no genetic sign of that among living Africans. The evidence suggests that the insertion of archaic genetic material was into new migrants from Africa around 100 to 60 ka ago at different points along their routes to Europe and East Asia. But, obviously, it is by no means clear cut what passed between all three long-lived groups nor when. It is now just as possible that surviving, earlier Eurasians on the road to modern humans passed on their own inheritance from relationships with Neanderthal and Denisovan to newcomers from Africa. But none of these three genetic groups ever made their way back to Africa, until historic times.

More on Neanderthals, Denisovans and anatomically modern humans

The ‘star’ hominin of South Africa

The week of 7 to 11 September 2015 was one of the most news-rich of the year. To name but two issues: the plight of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East to Europe was made worse by total confusion, little action and downright obstruction by some of the most privileged governments on Earth ; in Britain one of the most exciting political dramas in decades – the leadership elections of the Labour Party – were reaching a climax of press and political skulduggery because of the unexpected direction both had taken. Something else burst onto the media scene that was, if anything, even more out-of-the-blue to the majority of people on Thursday 10 September: the remains of at least 15 individuals of a new hominin species found in a near-inaccessible cave were announced by a multinational team of geologists and anthropologists. The feature that ensured its wide publicity in competition with some pretty serious political and humanitarian developments was the suggestion that the corpses had been ritually laid to rest by beings that lived maybe 2 million years ago. This major scientific stir arose from the publication of two lengthy papers by the open-access, electronic journal eLife (Berger, L. R. and 46 others 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife DOI: 10.7554/eLife.09560. Dirks, P.H.G.M. and 23 others 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.09560).

Artist’s reconstruction of the face of Homo naledi (credit: John Gurche artist, Mark Thiessen photographer, National Geographic)

Homo naledi (naledi means ‘star’ in the Sotho language: the find was in the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg) is known in more anatomical detail than any early hominin, and most closely resembles H. habilis and H. rudolphensis discovered 3 to 4 thousand miles away in Tanzania and Kenya. The Dinaledi deposit remains undated but likely to come out at around 2 Ma or older. The sheer wealth of anatomical detail, including complete foot- and hand-bone remains from individuals, evidence for a range of ages at death, and plenty of dental and cranial information, actually poses a taxonomic problem of comparison with remains of other early hominins. Most of them are fragmentary, and it seems likely that once a precise date is obtained H. naledi will assume greater importance in comparative anatomy. Comparison with australopithecines is easier because of their abundant remains, and H. naledi is clearly distinct from that clade as regards gait, chewing, overall physiognomy (see reconstruction video) and cranial dimensions, but does have some australopithecine affinities. They were certainly different from their near geographic neighbour Au. sediba, also found in a cave deposit within the great swath of Palaeoproterozoic limestones near Johannesburg, where the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site is situated. The brain of Homo naledi was on a par with those of australopithecines as regards volume, yet larger than that of H. floresiensis: it does seem that brain size is not necessarily related to the uses to which it is put.

The route into the Dinaledi Chamber where bones of at least 15 individual members of Homo naledi were found (credit: National Geographic magazine http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/)

Interestingly, it is reported that only the most diminutive members of the research team were able to enter the chamber where the remains were found because of the narrowness of the connecting passage. Also, access from the main cave system involved an upward ‘U-bend’, so that although water could – and did from time to time – enter the chamber in the past, it is unlikely that coarse material such as large bones could simply have been washed in, the more so as the chamber is on a minor spur from the main system and its outlet is through small floor drains that could not sustain torrential flow. Nor is there any direct access from the ground surface to this part of the system. Some of the more fragile body parts, such as a hand, are still articulated, which suggests a non-violent movement to the chamber. There are no signs of physical trauma to any of the bones, ruling out action by carnivores or transport by violent floods, nor any indicative of de-fleshing as by cannibalism. However, before fossilisation, many of the bones had been gnawed by beetles and snails. This combination of features leads to the possibility that corpses may have been deliberately placed in the chamber. If they had been, then to get to deepest recess of the cave system and find the Denalidi Chamber required illumination: fire brands.  That the chamber was actually a living space is highly unlikely because of its remoteness from the surface. One big question that cannot be answered is whether or not such possible disposal was by ritual or simply for sanitary arrangements. Another possibility, not considered by the authors is seeking refuge from predators and becoming trapped in the desperately constricted space.

The possibility of ritual burial is clearly what has seized headlines. Yet few palaeoanthropologists will accept that: only Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans are definitely considered to have adopted such a practice, in the last hundred thousand years. The association of a bifacial stone tool with 350 ka old H. heidelbergensis remains at Atapuerca in northern Spain has been suggested to be the earliest evidence for ritual burial, but is not widely accepted. There are no reports of artefacts in the Dinaledi Chamber.

Stone tools go even further back

Shortly after it seemed that the maker of the earliest stone tools (2.6 Ma) may have been Australopithecus africanus, thanks to a novel means of analyzing what hominin hands may have been capable of, some actual tools have turned up from even earlier times (Harmand, S. and 20 others 2015. 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature, v. 521, p. 310-315). Their age is comparable with that (3.4 Ma) of animal bones from Dikika, Ethiopia showing cut marks and signs of deliberate breaking, which had previously been controversial as they suggested that local Australopithecus afarensis of a similar age had made them. What the authors claim to be ‘a new beginning to the known archaeological record’ almost a million years earlier than the first appearance of Homo fossils in the Lake Turkana area seems to point in that direction. But A. afarensis has not been found in that area, although a hominin known as Kenyanthropus platyops with roughly the same age as the tools has.

Australopithecus afarensis reconstruction

Reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 150 fine-grained basaltic artefacts turned up at the Lomekwi site, which may have been where knappers habitually worked as many of them were fragments or debitage. The cores from which flakes had been struck are large, weighing on average 3.1 kg. It seems that the tool makers may have been forcefully pounding out edged tools for a variety of uses, unlike the single-use hammer stones used by chimpanzees today. Compared with the well known Oldowan tools, however, these are cruder and made by a different knapping technique that seems not to have focused on exploiting the conchoidal fracturing that produces the sharpest tools and is a feature of the later Oldowan tools.

English: Chopper: one of the earliest examples...

Oldowan ‘chopper’ from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia. (credit: Wikipedia)

Frederick Engels, whose 1876 essay The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man was among the first works to take Darwin’s ideas on human origins forward, would have had a field day with the new evidence. For him the vital step was freeing of the hands by a habitual bipedal gait and their manipulation of objects – together with changes to the hands that would arise by such a habit. What the first tool maker looked like, doesn’t really matter: the potential that act conferred was paramount. Nevertheless, there is a big step between early hominins and humans, from relatively small brains to those of H. erectus that were on the way to modern human capacity. The Lomekwi tools and the improved Oldwan artefacts spanned 1.7 Ma at least before H. erectus revolutionised manufacture to produce the bi-facial Acheulian hand ‘axe’, and going beyond that took almost a million years of little change in both tools and anatomy until the emergence of archaic modern humans.

Note added 28 May 2015: Within a week palaeoanthropologists’ focus shifted to the Afar Depression in Ethiopia where a new species of hominin has emerged from Pliocene sediments dated to between 3.3 and 3.5 Ma (Haile-Selassie, Y et al. 2015. New species from Ethiopia expands Middle Pliocene hominin diversity. Nature, v. 521, p. 483-488. doi:1038/nature14448). Australopithecus deyiremeda is represented by fragments of two lower- and one upper jaw plus several other lower facial specimens. So the species is differentiated from other hominins by dentition alone, but that is unmistakably distinct from extensive data on Au. afarensis which lived within a few kilometres over the same period. Until the last 15 to 20 years it was thought that Au. afarensis was the sole hominin around in the Middle Pliocene of East and Central Africa, but now it seems there may have been as many as five, the three mentioned above, plus Au. bahrelghazali from Chad and an as yet undesignated fossilised foot from Afar. For possibly three closely related species to coexist in Afar is difficult to understand: possibly they occupied different niches in the local food web or employed different strategies (Spoor, F. 2015. The middle Pliocene gets crowded. Nature, v. 521, p. 432-433). Another question is: did they all make and use tools? For the Lomekwi tools K. platyops is a candidate, but for the cut marks on bones at Dikika in Afar there are at least two: Au. afarensis and Au. deyiremeda. So multiple tool makers living at the same time suggests some earlier originator of the ‘tradition’.

Note added 4 June 2015: Add southern Africa into the equation and there is yet more breaking news about coeval hominin diversity. US, Canadian, South African and French collaborators have finally started to resolve the achingly complex stratigraphy of the fossil-rich Sterkfontein cave deposits in South Africa by using a novel approach to estimating ages of materials’ last exposure to cosmic rays (Granger, D.E. et al. 2015. New Cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan. Nature, v. 522, p. 85-88). Specifically, they managed to date the tumbling into a deep sinkhole of a recently found, almost complete skeleton of an australopithecine. It still resembles no other some 70 years after a less complete specimen was found by Raymond Dart in the mid 1940s. It was first informally dubbed ‘Little Foot’ and then Au. prometheus and up to now has been regarded as an odd contemporary of 2.2 Ma old Au. africanus. The new dating gives an age of about 3.7 Ma: so at least 6 hominids occupied Africa in the Middle Pliocene. It is beginning to look like a previously unsuspected time of sudden diversification.

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!

Convincing, indirect evidence for early toolmakers

A surprising number of animals pick up items from their surroundings and use them, mainly to get at otherwise inaccessible foodstuffs. What sets humans apart from such tool users is that we make them and for a long time part of our repertoire has been tools used to make other tools; so-called ‘machine tools’. An example is a piece of antler used to pressure-flake flint to give a stone blade a better edge, a more recent one is the increasing use of robots on assembly lines. Making a tool is impossible for a bird with only its beak and ill-adapted feet, while even a chimpanzee lacks various forms of grip needed for precisely directed force and manipulation. It was Frederick Engels who first focussed on the importance of the hand being freed to evolve the capacity for manual labour by the permanent adoption of an upright posture and gait, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man written in 1876.

The earliest tools known turned up in 2.6 Ma old sediments at Gona in NE Ethiopia, while evidence for tool use is well accepted from cracked and sliced bones found in sediments dated at 2.5 Ma from Bouri in the same region. In neither case can the finds be tied to fossil remains of the makers and users, the earliest direct link emerging from famous Olduvai Gorge in western Tanzania, where crude Oldowan tools and worked bones occur with incomplete remains of a hominin, dubbed Homo habilis (‘handy man’) because of this association. Somewhat more controversial are bones that show cuts and scrape marks plus signs of having been cracked open that were found in a 3.4 Ma context at Dikika, also in Ethiopia, within the same sedimentary horizon as the young Australopithecus afarensis known as Selam (‘Hello’). The Dikika material is little different from 0.9 to 1.2 Ma younger bones at Bouri and Olduvai: the controversy seems to stem more from its much greater age and association with hominins deemed by some to have been incapable of creating tools.

English: Main division on the (right) human hand.

Bone structure of the (right) human hand. (credit: Wikipedia)

An entirely novel approach to the issue of the first tools and their makers, which with little doubt would have tickled Engels no end, is a careful anatomical and physiological examination of fossil hominin hand bones in comparison with those of chimps and living humans (Skinner, M.M. et al. Human-like hand use in Australopithecus africanus. Science, v. 347, p. 395-399). The bones being scrutinized are the five metacarpals that form the links in the palms from muscles of the forearm to finger and thumb movements and thus to various kinds of grip. In humans there are a host of ways of gripping objects from the precision of opposed thumb and finger pinching, especially that using the forefinger, to the squeezing power grip that wraps thumb and all fingers around an object and makes a fist. The best a chimp can do is grabbing a branch, to which its knuckle-walking hands are well adapted. The tips of the metacarpals are mechanically loaded according to the types of grip used repeatedly in life and that works to modify the physical density of the tips’ spongy bone tissue in patterns that vary according to habitual usage of the hand and its digits. This new approach is reputedly far more diagnostic than the actual shape of metacarpal bones, and requires high-resolution CT scanning.

Known early human and Neanderthal tool-makers show very similar patterns: in fact they suggest far more heavy loading through various kinds of grip than the metacarpals of humans from the modern period. In 1.8 to 3.0 Ma old A. africanus and Paranthropus robustus (a gorilla-like but bipedal australopithecine) from South Africa metacarpals suggest that both were habitually using a tree-climbing grip, much as chimpanzees do, but more closely resembled modern human and Neanderthal committed tool users. Both were certainly capable of using forceful precision grips to make and use tools up to 0.5 Ma earlier than the date of the earliest known tools. So far the technique has not been applied to the palm bones of earlier hominins such as A. afarensis (2.9-3.9 Ma) and Orrorin tugenensis (~6 Ma). Despite the suggestion of tool-making capability­, agreeing that it did take place in non-Homo hominins must await finds of tools, as well as signs of their use, in close association with fossil remains of their makers. The Dikika association is simply not enough. Yet, some bipedal being must have made tools before the date of the earliest ones (~2.6 Ma) discovered at Gona. Look at it this way: it is a lucky archaeologist who discovers every piece of evidence for a fundamental social change at one site. The fact that, by definition, the vast bulk of Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments that may contain the key evidence is either buried by younger material or was a victim of erosion, means that the chance of resolving the origin of the fundamental feature of human behaviour is tiny. The chance that scientists will continue looking is astronomically higher.