Thursday, January 09, 2020

EarthSky: Twenty years of discoveries changing story of human evolution

EarthSky has an interesting article that summarizes twenty years of human evolution discoveries.  They write:
Perspectives on our own species have also changed. Archaeologists previously thought Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, but the story has become more complicated. Fossils discovered in Morocco have pushed that date back to 300,000 years ago, consistent with ancient DNA evidence. This raises doubts that our species emerged in any single place.
This century has also brought unexpected discoveries from Europe and Asia. From enigmatic “hobbits” on the Indonesian island of Flores to the Denisovans in Siberia, our ancestors may have encountered a variety of other hominins when they spread out of Africa. Just this year, researchers reported a new species from the Philippines.
All of these discoveries point to the idea that there was considerable population mixing throughout the Middle to Late Pleistocene not just in Africa but throughout the Old World. We know that it took place in China around 120,000 years ago by the evidence from Linjing.  These particular hominins have characteristics found in modern humans, Neandertals and Homo erectus.

Interestingly, the idea that our species did not originate in any single place was an idea pursued by Rachel Caspari almost two decades ago, at a paper given at one of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conventions.  At the time, it was still thought that the “Out of Africa” replacement model was still the best explanation for modern human origins.We now know that it is not.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

New Spot for the Origins of Modern Humans: Botswana

One thing is consistent in the study of the origins of modern humans: there isn't any.  What National Geographic calls a “controversial” new study pinpoints the origins of our line in Botswana:
A powdery white layer blankets the desiccated landscape of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi pans, one of the world's largest salt flats. But some 200,000 years ago, this blank canvas would have been painted in the blues and greens of a flourishing wetland. Set in the middle of a harsh desert in southern Africa, the lush landscape would have been an appealing place for early humans to call home.

Now, a controversial new study in Nature argues that this oasis, known as the Makgadikgadi–Okavango wetland, was not just any home, but the ancestral “homeland” for all modern humans today. The researchers studied mitochondrial DNA—genetic material stored in the powerhouse of our cells that is passed from mother to child—of current residents across southern Africa. Then they layered the genetic data with an analysis of past climate and modern linguistics, as well as cultural and geographic distributions of local populations.
We've seen this play before.  The Nature article is an odd one.  It purports to examine the origins of modern humans using mitochondrial DNA evidence but then goes out of its way to not mention ANY of the fossil evidence that does not fit the hypothesis constructed in the paper.  How did the editors of Nature let that get by?  There is no mention of either the East African Bouri or the Northwest African Jebel Irhoud sites in this paper.  The Bouri site contains the Herto remains that are demonstrably modern human at 160 thousand and the Jebel Irhoud remains, which date to around 315 thousand exhibit modern facial characteristics.  The 180 thousand year-old East African Omo remains are only mentioned in passing and then, not by name.