For over 100 years scholars have interpreted the evolutionary relationship between hominin species based on bones and the contexts in which they’re found; where in the world are they, how old are they, and what traits can we infer from their morphology?
Svante Paabo with Neanderthal skull (www.mpg.de)
Decades of scientific debate about how archaic human populations were related to one another revolved around these factors. Through it all, I fervently wished we had “smoking gun” genetic evidence to conclusively settle the issues: Did modern humans and Neanderthals ever interbreed? (Yes. Check out this TED talk with Svante Paabo.) Who were the Denisovans? (Still working on this.) Today, genome studies of preserved ancient DNA are finally answering these questions.
Research presented at the Royal Society of London last week indicates that modern humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and a previously unknown hominin all interbred! Who was this mystery hominin? “We don’t have the faintest idea” (Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum London, cited in Nature article above). These results raise at least as many questions as they answer, but I’m thrilled that genome analysis, in addition to “stones and bones” paleoanthropology, is shedding light on the complex history of our genus Homo.
If only we had genomes for Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and other extinct hominins…
I’m a big Superman fan but, until today, didn’t realize that the producers of Man of Steel had hired linguistic anthropologist Christine Schreyer to develop a Kryptonian language for the film. Check out this story at the University of British Columbia site for details about her work.
Warner Brothers’ official Man of Steel movie site also has a “glyph generator” if you’d like to see what your name looks like in Kryptonian script. Enjoy!
How’s that for an attention-getting, but completely inaccurate, headline?
Today’s Guardian features an excellent story on the Dmanisi, Georgia Homo erectus fossils. Unfortunately, the accompanying headline is “Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray.” With headlines like this, is it any wonder that the average newsreader thinks hominin evolution is scientifically controversial? Thankfully, there are disagreements within paleoanthropology. These disagreements move the discipline forward; they are the axle grease of scientific inquiry…and words like “disarray” are overstating it. Certainly, the Dmanisi fossils are an important find. They suggest that early Homo researchers in Africa might have erred on the side of splitting individual hominin specimens into distinct species, as opposed to lumping them into a single species. But “lumping vs. splitting” is a constant balancing act within zoological nomenclature.
Again, I think this is a great and informative newspaper article. Maybe I just prefer the more tentative language of academic articles. But then, who’s going to read a newspaper article titled “Dmanisi fossils indicate significant intra-species variation among early Homo“? Anyway, please read and enjoy the article – just don’t expect evolution to be in disarray when you’ve finished!
Scientific American published a fascinating article about language structure and universal grammar the other day. It’s a great gateway to further readings about human language and the big questions of linguistics. Enjoy!