Ten new things we learned about human origins in 2020 (2023)

Ella Beaudoin, Briana Pobiner

This year's pandemic has profoundly changed the world and the way we live, including how paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and other field researchers work. This year we want to highlight the different lines of evidence used in research into human origins, so we've grouped our ten presented findings into four broader categories of "lines of evidence." With many scientific papers in the works for years despite our inability to penetrate the field, many important and exciting discoveries have yet to be unveiled in 2020.

Fossil footprints show where and how modern humans traveled

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WhileusYou may not be able to move much this year, three fossil human footprint studies published in 2020 have revealed much more about where ancient humans traveled and how they moved in groups. Unlike physical fossils, footprints (and other "fossil remains") offer us a snapshot of a precise point in time, or at least a very short time interval.

In December, the longest trace of fossil human footprintsIt has been announcedby Matthew R. Bennett and colleagues. The 11,500 to 13,000 year old track, 1.3 km long, about the length of 14 soccer fields, was laid out by a young woman or man aged two to three years on a journey through rough terrain. and dangerous landscape.

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As we know? From time to time, the adult's footsteps stop and join the child's footsteps. The tracks are in a straight, defined line and very fast, indicating a conscious end goal; they then return in the opposite direction, this time without the child.

But did Pleistocene people always travel alone? No way.

Another 2020 ad, this one in May, by Kevin Hatala and colleagues at Chatham University (including Briana Pobiner),analyzedthe largest collection of fossil footprints in Africa. Between 6,000 and 19,000 years ago, a group of modern humans waded through a mudflow in the shadow of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania. The 408 footprints left by 17 people not only help us understand the size and weight of the footprints, but through statistical analysis based on a large data set of modern human feet, the team determined that the group of walkers is likely 14 subjects consisted of female subjects and 2 male subjects. The team compared this to ethnographic data from modern hunter-gatherer groups such as the Hadza of Tanzania and concluded that the tracks are likely from adult females occasionally visiting or accompanying some adult males during a feeding session.

After all, the footprints could simply show that people were in places we didn't know they were at the time, like Michael Petraglia and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.revealedas they observed 120,000-year-old human and animal footprintsfound on the surface of an ancient lake in what is now Saudi Arabia. Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence of human advance into the heart of Arabia dates back some 85,000 years.

Fossils show that ancient primates made great journeys too

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While discoveries directly related to man's evolutionary journey are important, it's just as exciting to understand how extinct primates survived, thrived, and roamed the world.

In October, a team led by Nina Jablonski and Xueping Ji of Pennsylvania State University and the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, respectivelyfoundthree newMesopithecus pentelicusFossils, about 6.4 million years old, in Yunan Province, China. These late Miocene fossils indicate that this ecologically diverse and adaptable ancient ape lived in Asia at the same time as great apes. Modern Asiatic colobins, the likely descendants of this species, continued this trend by inhabiting some of the more seasonal and extreme habitats inhabited by nonhuman primates.

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Speaking of extremes, researchers now believe the monkeys crossed the Atlantic using flippers. In April, Erik Seiffert from the University of Southern California and colleaguesAnnounceda new fossil monkey species the size of a soup can,lost Ucayalipithecus, based on four fossil monkey teeth found deep in the Peruvian Amazon. This newly discovered species belongs to an extinct family of African primates known as the Parapithecids, which are now the third lineage of mammals to have diedTransatlantic journey of more than 900 milesfrom Africa to South America, probably on floating plant rafts washed ashore during a storm. It seems unlikely, but monkeys can survive without access to clean water if given enough food, such as fruit growing on a tree that could be part of itvegetation raft.

Finally, in September, a team led by Christopher C. Gilbert of Hunter College,Announcedanother new primate fossil: this time from a fossil monkey molar,Kapi ramnagarensis,It is around 13 million years old and is located in Ramnagar in northern India. This new species pushes back the gibbons fossil record by about five million years and provides important information about when the ancestors of modern-day gibbons migrated from Africa to Asia, which was around the same time as the great apes. .

New hominin fossils from Drmolen, South Africa

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No list of great discoveries in human evolution would be complete without fossil evidence from hominins themselves, and this year's Drimolen site in South Africa was the big winner.

First, in April, a team led by Andy I.R. Herries from La Trobe UniversityAnnouncednew fossils of botha hardy paranthrope(DNH 152) zstanding man(DNH 134) from about 2.04 million and 1.95 million years ago, making them theThe oldest fossils of both hominid species.. These finds document the simultaneity of these two species at this localityAustralopithecus africanus.DNH 134 resets the origin ofstanding mansince about 150,000 to 200,000 years.

And aspiring paleoanthropologists, check this out. Jesse Martin and Angeline Leece, who attended the aField school in DrmolenWhen DNH 143 was found in 2015, he managed to clean and rebuild the skull. They had to hold the sample, which consisted of more than 150 parts, by a child of around three years of age without coughing, sneezing, speaking or breathing control for up to 40 minutes at a time.

Drimoles seems to be the gift that fossils keep giving us. 2018 the teamfoundbut fromParanthropoFossils including the approximately 2 million year old adult male DNH 155 skull (also found by field student Samantha Good). Analysis of this specimen led by Jesse M. Martin of La Trobe Universitywas publishedthis year in November, and especially compared to other adult malesa hardy paranthropeFossils from Drimoles and other sites in South Africa suggest that differences previously attributed to sexual dimorphism (differences between males and females) are in fact examples of microevolution associated with ecological changes within this early hominin species.

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Denisova DNA found in cave sediments and modern humans

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Let's get back to our topic of migration. (Can you tell we miss being able to, you know, places to go?)

One of the big announcements this year, in October, was the first definitive evidence of Denisova people outside of the Denisova Cave in Siberia, at a site some 1,740 miles away in Tibet. A team led by Dongju Zhang of Lanzhou University wanted to test the hypothesis that a roughly 160,000-year-old partial jawbone found by a Buddhist monk in the Baishiya karst cave could be the remains of a Denisovan. First, in 2019, researchersused a new methodbased on protein variations to identify jaw as Denisovan; but the new method and the unknown exact location of where the jawbone was found in the cave led to continued skepticism. Determined to find more evidence, Zhang and her team returned to the cave. They agreed to dig only in winter when the temperature was below zero and at night so as not to disturb the faithful, andthey were rewardedfor the discovery of Denisovan mitochondrial DNA from cave sediments dating from 100,000 to 60,000 years ago and possibly as late as 45,000 years ago. The research team also found charcoal from the fires the Denisovans built in the cave, as well as stone tools and animal bone fossils.

Also in October, a team led by Svante Pääbo and Diyendo Massilani from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropologyanalyzedeins anThe 34,000 year old modern human female skullcap.found by miners in 2006: the only currently known Pleistocene fossil from Mongolia, and a modern human skull from Tianyuan Cave in China, dating back about 40,000 years. They discovered that both fossils contain Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. What does this evidence mean for interactions and migrations between Eurasian Pleistocene populations? Well it was...complicated. Since the Denisovan DNA sequences in these fossils are not found in modern-day Oceanians (native Australians and New Guineans) but in modern-day East Asians, modern humans must have encountered and exchanged genes with two distinct populations of Denisovans. one in Southeast Asia and one in mainland Asia. This suggests that the Denisovans once inhabited a fairly large area of ​​Asia. Looks like it's time to find more Denisova fossils. Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, museums continue to work on digitization programs to allow scholars to study and access collections regardless of pandemics or long distances. EITHERNational Museums of KenyaIt is inInstitut SmithsonianThey are already working on the production3D fossil reconstructionsavailable to researchers around the world. If you too miss visiting museums like we do, the Smithsonian has created a way to view fossils from the safety of your home. While we wait for more Denisovan fossils to be discovered, feel free to use thisVirtual-Reality-TechnologieSee through the eyes of a Neanderthal and get up close and personal with some mammoths.

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Briana Pobiner ist Paläoanthropologin am National Museum of Natural History.Human Origins program. He oversees the program's education and outreach.

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Ella Beaudoin is a Smithsonian-Paleolithic archaeologist whose research interests range from cultural adaptation and resistance to colonialism to early hominin cultural evolution and landscape use. He has conducted field research in the United States, Kenya and South Africa.

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