2010 was a big year for anthropology and lawn-chair-anthropologists. There was laughter and crying, and maybe also some yelling. And smiling. Let’s take a look back at some of the big events of the past year.
- Ancient DNA. What a great year for ancient human DNA! In April, Krause and colleagues (2010) announced the sequencing of mitochondrial DNA from a ~50,000 year old girl from Denisova in Siberia. This sequence was twice as divergent from humans as Neandertal mtDNA, which really shocked a lot of people. Then just a week or so ago Reich and colleagues (2010) announced nuclear DNA from the site. The big news was that these ancient humans contributed genes to modern day Melanesians, but not other modern humans sampled. In May, Green and the Pääbo lab announced a draft sequence of the Neandertal nuclear genome. Like with the Denisova story, Neandertal mtDNA is fairly distinct from that of modern humans, and the nuclear genome revealed contribution to some modern humans but not to others. Basically, ancient DNA came out supporting the multiregional model of modern human origins.
- Malapa hominids. Lee Berger and researchers announced a new fossil site, Malapa, in South Africa. This site yielded 2 partial skeletons (and others forthcoming), including a very well-preserved skull of a subadult. Superficially the thing looked to me like Australopithecus africanus, though the authors argue that it shows some features derived toward the condition of early Homo. But at an estimated 1.9-1.7 million years old, it’s a little too young to have anything to do with the origin of Homo – not to mention its small 400 cubic centimeter cranial capacity. I really don’t know what to do with Malapa yet.
- Woranso-Mille Australopithecus afarensis. This site dates to around 3.6 million years ago, so it’s roughly contemporaneous with Laetoli afarensis, or intermediate in age between Laetoli and later afarensis sites like Maka and Hadar. Haile-Selassie and colleagues described a partial skeleton from the site. This male includes part of the pelvis, which didn’t get much coverage. But it has a 1st rib, scapula and clavicle, indicating a fairly human-like (rather than ape-like) torso shape. So even for how well we know A. afarensis, we’re always learning more about our ancestor.
- Saadanius hijazensis and catarrhines. I didn’t blog about this one at the time as I was getting ready to hit the field. But this was exciting because Iyad Zalmout and friends here at UM discovered and analyzed it. Saadanius was found in ~29 million year old deposits in Saudi Arabia, right around the estimated time of origins of apes. The fossil looks like an Aegyptopithecus to my untrained eye, but apparently may be similar to the last common ancestor of apes and old world monkeys.
- Field work. I had my first (of hopefully more!) field season at Dmanisi in Georgia. Paleoanthropology would be nothing without fossils, so an important aspect of the job I’d like to do more of is increasing the fossil record. Dmanisi is an amazing place for this, being among the oldest human sites outside Africa, and the interesting ‘intermediacy’ of the Dmanisi hominids between early Homo and more classic H. erectus. We found some great stuff last year, and I anticipate the site will produce more great fossils in the future. Who knows, maybe more fossiliferous deposits will be found in nearby regions?
- More ancient DNA – the surprise that many researchers got from Denisova and Neandertal ancient DNA clearly warrants more work on other ancient DNA. What does that of other fossil humans look like? Will the picture of human origins become further complicated (that is, different from paradigmatic out-of-Africa replacement)? In this regard we need to analyze DNA from more late Pleistocene fossils regarded as ‘anatomically modern.’
- a) More about Malapa. I want to say I heard somewhere that there were more hominids than just the 2 presented in the Science paper. These additional specimens will provide further evidence, including what variation within the site was like, and how it fits with other South African specimens. From the appearance of things, these fossils may be late-persisting A. africanus, somehow contemporaneous (roughly sympatric?) with A. robustus and possibly early Homo. Perhaps more work on the geology and taphonomy of Malapa will show it to be older, contemporaneous with the nearby site of Sterkfontein known for abundant A. africanus fossils? Probably not.
b) More hominid sites and fossils in South Africa. One thing that was neat about Malapa was that it was from slightly outside the rest of the South African ‘cradle’ sites like Sterkfontein, Kromdraai, Drimolen, and Swartkrans. When I was in the area in 2008 I went with some researchers on survey of the Sterkfontein valley, new sites are definitely being sought. Perhaps 2011 will see the discovery of more Malapa-like sites?
- Human fossils from East Asia. Maybe even ancient DNA recovery from the region. East Asia has long been thought to be a potential ‘center’ of human origins. Earlier in the year, fossils coming from Zhirendong suggest some of the earliest evidence of chin, arguably a ‘modern human’ feature. Recent fossil and genetic discoveries ought to usher a renewed vigor in examining human evolution in Asia.
That’s all I feel like doing for now. Happy New Year, all!