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If you care about human evolution, keep an eye out for reports on what happened in South Africa a few years ago. A massive cache of bones was discovered. I’ve been privy to a few preliminary findings, and the implications are explosive, revolutionary, all the hyperbolic language that I tend to avoid. This is a big deal, not just because of the results, but also because of the possibility that this will be an inflection point in how paleoanthropology is done. That is, rather than hoarding fossils the “sharing economy” of science will make itself felt within the individualistic and proprietary domain of the fossil hunters.

If I did the timing right the announcement should drop in a little over a day from when I post this. Keep track of Lee Berger and John Hawks’ Twitter.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Paleoanthropology 
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  1. Riordan says:

    Razib,

    Don’t know if you would be able to answer any additional questions based on your comfort zone, but:

    1. On a scale of 1-10, 1 least 10 most, how would you rate the significance of this?

    2. Was any, uh, ancient DNA recovered and sequenced successfully?

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    #1, 8 or 9.

    #2, not to my knowledge. but my information is two years out of date.

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  2. Anthropologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists all together. I always wondered what delineated them from each other when it came to those that focus on ancient hominins. Obviously each might have a certain amount of expertise and focus, but I wonder how exactly that plays out. Paleontologists mostly the anatomy and archaeologists mostly the tools?

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    well, i think if you are focusing on tools, rather than pottery, you're talking full service paleoanthropologist.
    , @Razib Khan
    well, i think if you are focusing on tools, rather than pottery, you're talking full service paleoanthropologist.
    , @Labayu
    In the US, archeology is considered a subfield of anthropology. Paleontology is the study of pre-Holocene life and so isn't limited to the study of humans. Whereas, anthropology is the study of humans, but includes non-human specialization such as primatology for comparative purposes. Archeologists study non-human species only in relation to humans, such as domestication. For example, rats who scavenged off of human settlements in the ancient Near East were morphologically distinct from those that lived in the wild, so their presence can be used as evidence for permanent rather than temporary settlement.
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  3. @Riordan
    Razib,

    Don't know if you would be able to answer any additional questions based on your comfort zone, but:

    1. On a scale of 1-10, 1 least 10 most, how would you rate the significance of this?

    2. Was any, uh, ancient DNA recovered and sequenced successfully?

    #1, 8 or 9.

    #2, not to my knowledge. but my information is two years out of date.

    Read More
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  4. @Senator Brundlefly
    Anthropologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists all together. I always wondered what delineated them from each other when it came to those that focus on ancient hominins. Obviously each might have a certain amount of expertise and focus, but I wonder how exactly that plays out. Paleontologists mostly the anatomy and archaeologists mostly the tools?

    well, i think if you are focusing on tools, rather than pottery, you’re talking full service paleoanthropologist.

    Read More
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
  5. @Senator Brundlefly
    Anthropologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists all together. I always wondered what delineated them from each other when it came to those that focus on ancient hominins. Obviously each might have a certain amount of expertise and focus, but I wonder how exactly that plays out. Paleontologists mostly the anatomy and archaeologists mostly the tools?

    well, i think if you are focusing on tools, rather than pottery, you’re talking full service paleoanthropologist.

    Read More
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  6. O'really says:

    Did they find a torn-up sheet of metal stamped TTLESTA[illegible]ALACT

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  7. Rick says:

    This is the Homo naledi find, right? Or something else?

    Those are pretty interesting. Did they come to a conclusion on the age? It would be very cool if they are 2 million years old.

    I guess I will just wait a bit and see!

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  8. BB753 says:

    Did they find the monolith?

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  9. BB753 says:
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  10. Dr Duck says:

    This was posted over at National Geographic a few hours ago…

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/

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  11. Labayu says:
    @Senator Brundlefly
    Anthropologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists all together. I always wondered what delineated them from each other when it came to those that focus on ancient hominins. Obviously each might have a certain amount of expertise and focus, but I wonder how exactly that plays out. Paleontologists mostly the anatomy and archaeologists mostly the tools?

    In the US, archeology is considered a subfield of anthropology. Paleontology is the study of pre-Holocene life and so isn’t limited to the study of humans. Whereas, anthropology is the study of humans, but includes non-human specialization such as primatology for comparative purposes. Archeologists study non-human species only in relation to humans, such as domestication. For example, rats who scavenged off of human settlements in the ancient Near East were morphologically distinct from those that lived in the wild, so their presence can be used as evidence for permanent rather than temporary settlement.

    Read More
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  12. Riordan says:

    Razib,

    I guess the two main selling points of this find is that it’s a new species and that they possibly show some advanced cultural practices not present until the Neanderthals. However they seem rather (very) speculative now, at least according to the critics cited below. Do you agree with those criticisms, such as this one?

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/10/new-species-of-ancient-human-discovered-claim-scientists

    “Without knowing the age of the bones, some researchers see the fossils as little more than novelties. “If they are as old as two million years, then they might be early South African versions of Homo erectus, a species already known from that region. If much more recent, they could be a relic species that persisted in isolation. In other words, they are more curiosities than game-changers for now,” said William Jungers, an anthropologist at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York.”

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i don't care if it's a new species. the age is not relevant to me because it shows 'ritualistic behavior' or whatever i a very different lineage from that of modern humans. to me it increases the probability that the hobbits of flores could have tools even without our type of brain.
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  13. @Riordan
    Razib,

    I guess the two main selling points of this find is that it's a new species and that they possibly show some advanced cultural practices not present until the Neanderthals. However they seem rather (very) speculative now, at least according to the critics cited below. Do you agree with those criticisms, such as this one?

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/10/new-species-of-ancient-human-discovered-claim-scientists

    "Without knowing the age of the bones, some researchers see the fossils as little more than novelties. “If they are as old as two million years, then they might be early South African versions of Homo erectus, a species already known from that region. If much more recent, they could be a relic species that persisted in isolation. In other words, they are more curiosities than game-changers for now,” said William Jungers, an anthropologist at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York."

    i don’t care if it’s a new species. the age is not relevant to me because it shows ‘ritualistic behavior’ or whatever i a very different lineage from that of modern humans. to me it increases the probability that the hobbits of flores could have tools even without our type of brain.

    Read More
    • Replies: @O'really
    Reviewers of the paper were not convinced of the claim of deliberate disposal, and the authors were forced to change the title and tone down their interpretations. The investigators went much farther in the press conference than they were allowed to go in print.

    It is possible that these specimens were living in the cave and died in a flood or some such.
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  14. O'really says:
    @Razib Khan
    i don't care if it's a new species. the age is not relevant to me because it shows 'ritualistic behavior' or whatever i a very different lineage from that of modern humans. to me it increases the probability that the hobbits of flores could have tools even without our type of brain.

    Reviewers of the paper were not convinced of the claim of deliberate disposal, and the authors were forced to change the title and tone down their interpretations. The investigators went much farther in the press conference than they were allowed to go in print.

    It is possible that these specimens were living in the cave and died in a flood or some such.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Rick
    While this flood interpretation is possible, it just doesn't seem likely.

    All evidence points to this cave section being very difficult to access and not associated with any other kind of debris that might result from flooding.

    Sure, it may have changed in the last two million years, but it couldn't have changed much and still had piles of untouched bones.

    Given the sheer number of bones, and the extremely small space, I think a simple calculation of the volume taken up by the intact bodies would show that they could not have been deposited at a single point in time.
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  15. Rick says:
    @O'really
    Reviewers of the paper were not convinced of the claim of deliberate disposal, and the authors were forced to change the title and tone down their interpretations. The investigators went much farther in the press conference than they were allowed to go in print.

    It is possible that these specimens were living in the cave and died in a flood or some such.

    While this flood interpretation is possible, it just doesn’t seem likely.

    All evidence points to this cave section being very difficult to access and not associated with any other kind of debris that might result from flooding.

    Sure, it may have changed in the last two million years, but it couldn’t have changed much and still had piles of untouched bones.

    Given the sheer number of bones, and the extremely small space, I think a simple calculation of the volume taken up by the intact bodies would show that they could not have been deposited at a single point in time.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Rick
    Of course another hypothesis could be that these bodies were put there by modern humans.

    They could actually be as young as 10,000 years. We just can't say. Many scientists would like to believe that they are possible human ancestors, but that might not be the case.

    Maybe a group of modern humans had a ritual of throwing these human-like animals into a specific deep pit. Perhaps this isn't likely, but it can't be ruled out.

    As we don't know much about the age of the bones, I would be very surprised if DNA extraction is not attempted. You never know. We have pulled full mitochondrial sequences from very old material.
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  16. I wouldn’t think burial behavior is too radical, especially since some suspect mourning behavior in more “simple” intelligences like elephants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5RiHTSXK2A

    Ants even “bury”, though its for hygienic rather than emotional reasons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDWq6SYJXtk

    Put the two motivations together and it doesn’t seem too crazy to me.

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  17. Philip Neal says: • Website

    Razib, do you know what the problem about dating the finds was? It seems strange that they are so vague on the question.

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    • Replies: @Rick
    They usually date these finds using volcanic ash data. Either directly in layers or when the distinct composition is found in layers deposited in water flowing.

    This cave section was too isolated for them to detect any trace of volcanic layers. Most of the bones were actually directly on the surface, not in deposits.
    , @BDoyle
    There's not much to go by in dating the deposit. The bones were buried in (or laying on top of) about 20 cm of stuff that either filtered down through cracks or fell off the ceiling and walls over the last million years or so. There is a flowstone that covers some of the bones, but from reading the geology paper on this that was also released, the dating results on that don't seem to be back yet. They might be able to get a minimum date for the bones from that, but I am not hopeful about getting any precise dates on the bones.
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  18. kmd says:

    From the comparison of traits with other specimens, this looks to me most like habilis and then erectus. That made me think of dmanisi,but they had bigger teeth and were more variable, although the relatively small brain is right.

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  19. Rick says:
    @Philip Neal
    Razib, do you know what the problem about dating the finds was? It seems strange that they are so vague on the question.

    They usually date these finds using volcanic ash data. Either directly in layers or when the distinct composition is found in layers deposited in water flowing.

    This cave section was too isolated for them to detect any trace of volcanic layers. Most of the bones were actually directly on the surface, not in deposits.

    Read More
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
  20. Rick says:
    @Rick
    While this flood interpretation is possible, it just doesn't seem likely.

    All evidence points to this cave section being very difficult to access and not associated with any other kind of debris that might result from flooding.

    Sure, it may have changed in the last two million years, but it couldn't have changed much and still had piles of untouched bones.

    Given the sheer number of bones, and the extremely small space, I think a simple calculation of the volume taken up by the intact bodies would show that they could not have been deposited at a single point in time.

    Of course another hypothesis could be that these bodies were put there by modern humans.

    They could actually be as young as 10,000 years. We just can’t say. Many scientists would like to believe that they are possible human ancestors, but that might not be the case.

    Maybe a group of modern humans had a ritual of throwing these human-like animals into a specific deep pit. Perhaps this isn’t likely, but it can’t be ruled out.

    As we don’t know much about the age of the bones, I would be very surprised if DNA extraction is not attempted. You never know. We have pulled full mitochondrial sequences from very old material.

    Read More
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
  21. BDoyle says:
    @Philip Neal
    Razib, do you know what the problem about dating the finds was? It seems strange that they are so vague on the question.

    There’s not much to go by in dating the deposit. The bones were buried in (or laying on top of) about 20 cm of stuff that either filtered down through cracks or fell off the ceiling and walls over the last million years or so. There is a flowstone that covers some of the bones, but from reading the geology paper on this that was also released, the dating results on that don’t seem to be back yet. They might be able to get a minimum date for the bones from that, but I am not hopeful about getting any precise dates on the bones.

    Read More
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  22. So I suppose this is the final nail in behavioral modernity revolution theory’s coffin?

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  23. Razib, what is the material evidence at Neandertal and other ancient hominid sites that has led people to assume “burial,” and how does that evidence compare to the site here? For that matter, what is the evidence of burial in sites containing bones of homo sapiens? It seems like one could draw up a list of things that unequivocally signal a burial site in modern humans, then work back from there as a general rubric for how confident we can be about this particular site’s signification.

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  24. The standard line for increased cultural complexity is an interaction between greater cognitive abilities and greater population density (and hence greater opportunities to transmit said culture/knowledge), right?

    Is there any reason think this area supported a particularly high density of hominids? Or at least relatively high for an area that preserves remains?

    It seems rather significant that this site is so close to the first evidence for the controlled use of fire by humans too.

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