What early Europeans might have looked like

May 5, 2009 • 7:01 am

Today’s Daily Mail reports on an upcoming BBC2 program in which a forensic scientist Richard Neve, using 40,000-year-old bones, recreated the face of a very early inhabitant of Europe.  This was soon after “modern Homo sapiens” began migrating out of Africa and populatint the world (ca. 100,000 to 60,000 years ago).

From the article:

To sculpt the head, Mr Neave called on his years of experience recreating the appearance of murder victims as well as using careful measurements of bone.

It was made for the BBC2 series The Incredible Human Journey. This will follow the evolution of humans from the cradle of Africa to the waves of migrations that saw Homo sapiens colonise the globe.

The head has taken pride of place on the desk of Alice Roberts, an anthropologist at Bristol University, who presents the programme.

‘It’s really quite bizarre,’ she told Radio Times. ‘I’m a scientist and objective but I look at that face and think “Gosh, I’m looking at the face of somebody from 40,000 years ago” and there’s something weirdly moving about that.

‘Richard creates skulls of much more recent humans and he’s used to looking at differences between populations.

‘He said the skull doesn’t look European or Asian or African. It looks like a mixture of all of them.

‘That’s probably what you’d expect of someone among the earliest populations to come to Europe.’

And, if you’re of European ancestry, no matter how far back, here’s what your forebear might have looked like:


News from the “hobbit conference” in New York

April 28, 2009 • 5:56 am

The hobbit continues to be a mystery: perhaps the deepest mystery about human evolution. Today’s New York Times has a longish and interesting report on the status of the “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis, that I’ve posted about several times.  This is a diminutive (3-foot-tall) human skeleton found on the island of Flores, in Indonesia, that has a brain case not much larger than those of modern chimps.  It is, however, modern in time, going back only about 18,000 years ago (see chapter 8 of WEIT).  Based on its wrist bones and other skeletal characteristics, scientists are now beginning to think it was not an aberrant or diseased individual, but a representative of a distinct species, perhaps an earlier species of hominin that became isolated on Flores hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago:

Scientists who reviewed hobbit research at a symposium here last week said that a consensus had emerged among experts in support of the initial interpretation that H. floresiensis is a distinct hominid species much more primitive than H. sapiens. On display for the first time at the meeting was a cast of the skull and bones of a H. floresiensis, probably an adult female. . . . .

. . . Some prominent paleoanthropologists are reserving judgment, among them Richard Leakey, the noted hominid fossil hunter who is chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University. Like other undecided scientists, he cited the need to find more skeletons at other sites, especially a few more skulls. Mr. Leakey conceded, however, that the recent research “greatly strengthened the possibility” that the Flores specimens represented a new species.

It’s possible that hobbits represented a much earlier migration out of Africa than previously thought, earlier than the migration that gave rise to the widespread Homo erectus.  It could even represent a migration of the very early australopithecines!   As John Noble Wilford, the writer, says, lots of puzzles remain:

Indeed, the more scientists study the specimens and their implications, the more they are drawn to heretical speculation.

¶Were these primitive survivors of even earlier hominid migrations out of Africa, before Homo erectus migrated about 1.8 million years ago? Could some of the earliest African toolmakers, around 2.5 million years ago, have made their way across Asia?

¶Did some of these migrants evolve into new species in Asia, which moved back to Africa? Two-way traffic is not unheard of in other mammals.

¶Or could the hobbits be an example of reverse evolution? That would seem even more bizarre; there are no known cases in primate evolution of a wholesale reversion to some ancestor in its lineage.

Stay tuned; I’ll provide further information on this strange branch of our family tree as more research is published.  Be sure to listen to the 20-minute podcast on the Times website.  Meanwhile, courtesy of the NYT, here is the hobbit’s tiny foot (notice that the ruler is 5 cm long: about 2 in., which makes the foot about 6 inches long).


Homo floresiensis on display

April 21, 2009 • 7:52 am

Also in today’s New York Times is a piece by John Noble Wilford about the display of a skeleton of “the hobbit,” (Homo floresiensis) at Stony Brook this week.  It includes the head and much of the body (see below).  If you’ve read my book or followed this website (see here), you know that whether H. floresiensis is a real species rather than an aberrant individual is a subject of real controversy, though the latest evidence suggests it was indeed a real species.  This individual, an adult, was only three feet tall. Imagine how small that is — just put a yardstick up against your leg, with its end on the floor, to see.

Here is what’s on display (it’s actually a cast, not the real skeleton).  Look at that tiny braincase!  If you’re anywhere near Stony Brook, go have a look.hobbit-1901

H. floresiensis.  Photo from The New York Times

Did cooking fuel human evolution?

April 21, 2009 • 7:41 am

In today’s New York Times, primatologist Richard Wrangham (at Harvard) is interviewed about his controversial theory of human evolution.  Wrangham posits that the invention of cooking food over fire, rather than eating it raw, was the important impetus for the evolution of many hominin traits, including big brains, upright posture, etc.  The theory is apparently about to appear in a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.”wrangham_

While I don’t find this theory extremely convincing — for one thing, there is no evidence for the use of fire before H. erectus (about 1.5 mya), which was already well advanced in bipedality and big brains.  Still, Wrangham is a smart guy and the short interview is well worth reading (including his account of how he ate like a chimp, including raw monkey).