The World Turns Upside Down II
The second in my series on possibly revolutionary scientific discoveries that are unfolding also involves our ancestors. Well, our relatives to be more precise. For all of the twentieth century there were only two recent extent types of human beings, us (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis.) Our other relatives were long gone, but Neanderthal man was around to at least 30,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 22,000 years ago some holdouts survived in Gibraltar. It’s not exactly known why Neanderthal man went extinct, but apparently they couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens and were edged out as our culture grew and advanced while the Neanderthals remained more or less stagnant. And not only was that that for a century, no one seriously expected it to change. Sure, all sorts of new developments had been made and will be made in the hominid lineage millions of years ago, but as far as the last few hundred thousand years, it was us or Neanderthals.
Well, in 2003 this simple picture began to fall apart. In that year archaeologist Mike Morewood and colleagues announced the discovery of a new species of human on Flores Island in Indonesia. These little guys and gals, they were under four feet tall, apparently lived on Flores until about 13,000 years ago. Dubbed Homo floresiensis by their discoverers, a scientific debate immediately began about whether this was actually a new species, or possibly some degenerate humans of some type. And while the debate continues, a lot of studies are showing that Flores man, or Hobbit Man as some call them, is indeed a distinct species that appears to have evolved from a common ancestor, Homo erectus. They had much smaller brains than humans, but the part of the brain that denotes self awareness was as large as a human’s. And they made stone tools, used fire, and hunted cooperatively. So far the remains (mostly partial) of nine individuals have been discovered.
The debate as to whether Homo floresiensis is truly a distinct species may well go on for awhile, but at this point it’s looking pretty good for the little guys. At least people could console themselves with the fact that this was more or less a fluke, a species that evolved in isolation on an island that has been surrounded by deep water for millions of years. That however just changed … in 2008 archaeologists dug up some bones in a remote Siberian cave, Denisova Cave. The cave had been frequented for Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years, and nothing different was expected from this batch of bones. They were sent off to Germany for genetic testing, to further refine our understanding of Neanderthal man.
And this spring the bones were duly tested. And one particular finger bone wasn’t what archaeologists, or anyone, were expecting. In the Hollywood version, after placing the bone in this huge complicate machine with many dials, lights started flashing and alarms starting going off while scientists stood around and looked astounded. In real life, a bored lab assistant probably looked at a printout and said “Dammit, this can”t be right, Ill have to test this one again.” And it was tested, again and again and again. 156 times to be exact, scientists are nothing if not thorough.
And what or who does this one finger bone belong to? Well, it wasn’t a Neanderthal. Neither was it modern human, nor was it Flores man. What it was however was one thing, it definitely belonged to a human, a previously unknown species of the Homo genus. If this pans out, it shows that there was a previously unknown migration of humans out of Africa, one that occurred before either our ancestors or Neanderthals. This is exciting news in its own right, and if true this would be the first species of humans identified from DNA alone. In fact as I type this, I’m willing to bet that museum drawers full of dusty old bone fragments are being opened for the first time in decades and being sent off post haste for DNA testing.
In just six years, the number of recent human species has doubled. Now granted both of these discoveries are still tentative at this point, especially the later, but no matter how the dust settles, these discoveries show that the story of humanity on our planet is more complicated than anyone ever imagined. And as an exciting side show to the main stream science of these discoveries, this has heartened dedicated people working on, shall we say, the periphery of science. These discoveries have given strength to the radical idea that there may be existing non humans in the Homo genus still lurking in the shadows. Things like Bigfoot, or in this case, the semi-legendary Almas, the wild man of the woods in Asia. Even as I type new expeditions to Asia are being formed to look for Almas. That however is a topic for a future blog.
Yerp, a single finger hasn’t generated this much excitement since the previous discovery of same in a bowl of Chili at Wendy’s. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, it is central to illustrating the post, and it’s the only image of the new human available. Sadly I can’t find the site where I got the image from, so I can’t attribute it yet. When I do find said site (it should show up as a tineye hit sooner or later) I will properly attribute it. It’s an image of the putative new human discovered in the cave in Siberia. How they got there from a study of mitochondrial DNA is a bit of a mystery to me, I am thinking the image is more conjecture than science.)