The small, big new Dmanisi skull

The 5th skull early Homo skull from the site of Dmanisi was announced last week. The skull was discovered nearly 10 years ago, but is finally (and very comprehensively) published in Science (Lordkipanidze et al. 2013). The ‘new’ D4500 cranium goes with the massive D2600 mandible, making this the earliest and most complete skull of Homo that I know of. It’s really a remarkable specimen, for a number of reasons beyond its age and completeness. I’ve been busy traveling, teaching and writing lately, so I haven’t yet gotten to pore over the details as much as I’d like. So I hope to sporadically post thoughts on this badass new skull as they come to me. In the mean time, several of what I’d consider the top biology/anthropology blogs*** have discussed the skull, so do check those out if you haven’t already.

The first thing I noted about D4500 is its small brain size, estimated at a mere 546 cubic centimeters. For perspective, D4500 is the green point in the following plot showing brain size in early human evolution:

Endocranial volume for various fossil hominin fossils. 1: Australopithecus afarensis, africanus & boisei; 2: Dmanisi specimens; 3: "habilines" 4: early African Homo erectus; 5: Indonesian and Chinese Homo erectus

Endocranial volume for various fossil hominin fossils. 1: Australopithecus afarensis, africanus & boisei; 2: Dmanisi specimens; 3: “habilines” 4: early African Homo erectus; 5: Indonesian and Chinese Homo erectus. D4500 is green with envy.

I got to see (but not study) the cranium a few years ago when I was helping with the Dmanisi Paleoanthropology field school, and I remember noting just how “robust” the specimen was – big mastoid processes, prominent and thick brow ridge, huge attachments for the neck muscles. In humans, and presumably our fossil forebears, these features are more developed in males than females, and so presumably D4500 was a male (consistent with the huge, associated D2600 mandible). In many primates, and 4 to ~1 mya hominins so far as we can tell, males are larger than females. So it is surprising that a robust probable male cranium is in fact not only the smallest in the Dmanisi sample, but also at the low end of early African Homo (i.e. habilis or rudolfensis), comparable to the largest australopiths. Of course, the only other faces known from Dmanisi are either not fully grown (D2700 and D2282) or old and decrepit (D3444), so perhaps the larger-brained specimens would have been at least as robust as D4500. An untestable hypothesis!

The new skull really highlights the overlap, or continuous variation between later australopiths and early Homo known also from eastern Africa. In association with the postcranial remains known from Dmanisi, the authors the paper posit that early Homo may have been distinguished from Australopithecus not so much in brain size as in body size. We could probably add body shape (limb proportions) and tool use to that list of distinguishing features, and to be sure there are Oldowan tools and small but human-like body size and shape indicated by postcrania at Dmanisi. But then, evidence for body proportions and for/against tool use in Australopithecus, especially later in the record, is somewhat equivocal…

More thoughts to follow.

*** https://blogs.wellesley.edu/vanarsdale/2013/10/17/uncategorized/the-new-wonderful-dmanisi-skull/; http://johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/lower/dmanisi/d4500-lordkipanidze-2013.html; http://ecodevoevo.blogspot.com/2013/10/how-many-human-species-are-there-is-it.html

Reference: David Lordkipanidze, Marcia S. Ponce de León, Ann Margvelashvili, Yoel Rak, G. Philip Rightmire, Abesalom Vekua, and Christoph P. E. Zollikofer. 2013. A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo. Science: 342 (6156), 326-331.

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6 thoughts on “The small, big new Dmanisi skull

  1. Pingback: Skull suggests a single human species emerged from Africa, not several as some claim… | huttriverofnz

  2. I’ve spend too much time in a deep hole and am therefore a little bit out of touch to provide anything of real value to this discussion. So instead, here’s some wild speculation/stupid questions from me:

    Is the brain-size actually that unusual for a fossil from this paticular period of time?

    Also, I wonder how likely the chance might be that early Homo was a ring-species. Sure it’s not really testable, and therefore probably not even worth considering, but I’m always fond of unorthodox answers.

    P.S.: Is it possible to get in touch with you via email? I might have some questions which would require a bit more elaboration from my part.

  3. Pingback: This Week in Science: October 19-25 2013 | Scientia and Veritas

  4. Pingback: Double act at Dmanisi: evidence for two lineages? | The Human Story

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