Friday, May 21, 2010

Homo Gautengensis: Big Teeth, Tiny Brain, Fire, Stone Tools; and a New Puzzle

"Toothy Tree-Swinger May Be Earliest Human"
Human News, Discovery News (May 21, 2010)

"Your family tree has a new and colorful member, Homo gautengensis, a toothy, plant-chomping, literal tree swinger that was just named the world's earliest recognized species of human.

"The new human, described in a paper accepted for publication in HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology, emerged over 2 million years ago and died out approximately 600,000 years ago. The authors believe it arose earlier than Homo habilis, aka 'Handy Man.'

"Darren Curnoe, who led the project, told Discovery News that Homo gautengensis was 'small-brained' and 'large-toothed.'

"Curnoe, an anthropologist at the University of New South Wales School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, said that it was 'probably an ecological specialist, consuming more vegetable matter than Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, and probably even Homo habilis. It seems to have produced and used stone tools and may even have made fire,' since there is evidence for burnt animal bones associated with this human's remains...."

Homo gautengensis, based on what's been found, was just over three feet tall, weighed around 110 pounds, and most likely walked on two feet: but spent quite a bit of time in trees. Unlike the more recent Neanderthals, no amount of haircuts and tailoring would help one of those folks blend in to the crowd today.

I used the term "folks," because Homo gautengensis remains were found with stone tools and burned animal bones. A sort of cottage industry grew in the scientific community during the 20th century, finding examples of animals that made tools: sort of. To date, though, we're the only creatures to make and control fire - apart from critters like the bombardier beetle, whose bodies use energetic chemical reactions.

So, I'm quite willing to assume that Homo gautengensis were people. Maybe my ancestors. Then again, maybe not.

As often happens with scientific inquiry, new data raises more questions than it answers - and shows that models that explained previously-known data are probably wrong.

"...De Ruiter of Texas A&M University and his colleagues proposed that A. sediba was the transitional species between Australopithecus africanus (a non-human not in our genus) and Homo erectus -- 'Upright Man.'

"The newly identified human, however, throws a wrench into that theory since A. sediba was 'much more primitive than H. gautengensis, and lived at the same time and in the same place,' according to Curnoe. As a result, 'Homo gautengensis makes Australopithecus sediba. look even less likely to be the ancestor of humans.'

"Curnoe instead proposes that Australopithecus garhi, found in Ethiopia and dating to about 2.5 million years ago, is a better possibility for the earliest non-Homo direct ancestor in the human evolutionary line.

"Curnoe still regards East Africa as being the cradle of humans, 'because it has the oldest fossil record, going back to about 7 million years, but we are clearly learning now that there was much greater diversity in our evolutionary tree than we realized for a long time.'

"'If we compress all of human evolution into a single year, we have been alone only since the last hour on December 31, so the situation we find ourselves in today -- we are alone -- is unusual,' Curnoe said. 'We need to explain why this is the case. Was it climate, or are we responsible for the demise of all of our close relatives, including recently the Neanderthals and the Hobbit (Homo floresiensis)?' "

That last sentence is the sort of thing you've just about got to write, these days, to be taken seriously by serious thinkers: "...Was it climate, or are we responsible for the demise of all of our close relatives, including recently the Neanderthals and the Hobbit (Homo floresiensis)?' "

It's 'obvious' that, since there aren't any Neanderthals walking around today (a debatable point), they must have all died - probably killed by those Cro-Magnon dudes. Who are also extinct. Or are us. (Archeology, Why Don't We Call Them Cro-Magnon Anymore?)

The 'we killed the Neanderthals' fits neatly into the 19th century assumptions about 'survival of the fittest,' and late-20th century preferences about feeling guilty. Turns out, though, that it's not a particularly good match with reality.

First, I've seen folks who look a bit like the less 'brutish' reconstructions of Neanderthals.

Second, now that the human genome and that of quite a number of other creatures has been mapped - and we finally got a decent sample of Neanderthal DNA - turns out, quite a few people living today have Neanderthal DNA in their genes. (May 7, 2010)

Okay: so we look different now. I don't look like my Campbell ancestors - but that doesn't mean that we're not related. Change happens.

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