Recent headlines in hominin origins

The Dikika juvenile (Australopithecus afarensis) and
researcher Zeresenay Alemseged
(Photo: Andrew Heavens, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It seems like forever since I started writing The Quest and put off blogging, and in that time, a couple of mildly interesting research on human "evolution" have appeared.  So let's see what we have.

First up, Aurore Val and colleagues have a paper on the deposition of the Australopithecus sediba fossils at the Malapa site.  Nothing earth shattering here, but it's an interesting study.  Like the Homo naledi fossils, the fossils show no evidence of predator or scavenger damage.  Val and colleagues propose that the bodies had partially mummified when they were washed into their final resting place.

Next, DeSilva and colleagues have a new paper on the Dikika juvenile, Selam (above), originally discovered back in 2000.  It's a magnificent fossil with a number of traits that are intermediate between living humans and apes.  The authors suggest that A. afarensis might have retained some climbing ability even though they could walk erect like we do.  Yet more evidence that these australopiths are a weird mixture of traits that we don't have today.

In the same journal, Williams and colleagues report new dates for stone tools from the Gault site north of Austin, TX.  Gault provides evidence of extremely ancient settlement of North America.  Last year, there was a bit of buzz when archaeologists announced they'd found evidence of a mastodon butcher site in California that was conventionally dated to 130,000 years old.  The evidence at that site was a bit more inferential than the stone tools found at Gault.  Like the California site, though, Gault also pushes back the settlement of North America, but only to a conventional date of about 20,000 years.  True confession: I'm starting to get more and more interested in the rest of the history of humanity as it spread out over the earth.  Until now, I've mostly focused on identifying the human holobaramin, but there's a lot more to the story.  Time to start checking that out.

There's also been a lot of buzz about the Shangchen dating results published in Nature.  Well documented stone tools from China have been conventionally dated to 2.1 million years.  I'm not really that surprised, since we have Homo erectus in Java shortly thereafter (at least "shortly" in my creationist chronology).  John Hawks has an interesting blog post about this result where he explains all the other early hominin sites in Asia.  It's kind of surprising how many very early sites there are in Asia.  I've heard rumbling about "Out of Asia" hypotheses, and the growing number of sites in Asia certainly makes it suspiciously plausible.  Still too early to say for certain though, but it's intriguing nonetheless.

Finally, today we have word of research that puts the origin of bread "4,000 years" older than the origin of agriculture.  I'm interested because I wonder about how humanity recovered from the Flood.  This is most likely post-Babel, so did some language groups re-invent crop domestication, as the conventional archaeological record suggests, or did some groups of humans retain some knowledge of agriculture?  Add to this the lifespans of the patriarchs, and I wonder how long agricultural knowledge could persist just because people lived a long time.  It's a fascinating question I'd like to dig into in the near future.

Val et al. 2018. Reconstruction of the burial position of two hominin skeletons (Australopithecus sediba) from the early Pleistocene Malapa cave site, South Africa. Geoarchaeology. 33(3):291-306.

DeSilva et al. 2018. A nearly complete foot from Dikika, Ethiopia and its implications for the ontogeny and function of Australopithecus afarensis. Science Advances 4(7):eaar7723.

Williams et al. 2018. Evidence of an early projectile point technology in North America at the Gault Site, Texas, USA. Science Advances 4(7):eaar5954.

Zhu et al. 2018. Hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau since about 2.1 million years ago. Nature DOI 10.1038/s41586-018-0299-4.

Arranz-Otaegui et al. 2018. Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. PNAS DOI 10.1073/pnas.1801071115.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.