Tag Archives: Human evolution

The biodiversity of the human family tree just got bigger

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Today’s announcement of the discovery in South Africa of a new extinct species in the genus Homo, named Homo naledi, is a major scientific discovery that may prove to be one of the findings of the year, if not the decade.  As I’ve mentioned previously, human evolution fascinates me and I could easily have been sucked into the frustrating, controversial and important world of the professional hominid hunter.  But I’m content to view and appreciate from a distance as palaeo-anthropologists make their amazing discoveries about human ancestral biodiversity, and I thought I’d collate the links to some of the main stories and items relating to today’s events:

The scientific paper describing Homo naledi has been published in the open-access online journal eLife, rather than a journal such as Nature or Science, the more usual outlet for such discoveries, presumably because the importance of the find certainly demands rapid publication.  Interestingly its Altmetric score is already 281, having been picked up by numerous news outlets, tweeted, blogged about, etc.

I first saw the story earlier today on the BBC News website; the long article has a video interview with Professor Lee Berger, lead author of the paper.  There is also video footage from today’s press conference in South Africa, presented by Professor John Hawks, in which he describes in more detail the significance of this fossil, with its mix of both primitive and more derived anatomical features.

The Guardian also ran the story, this time with some different video footage, including a view inside the cave where the fossils were found, and there’s a 40 minute podcast.

Finally, National Geographic, which funded the study, has some videos on YouTube, including a fascinating account of the workshop that was convened to study the fossils and more discussion of its significance and amazing footage of how the fossils were recovered from the cave, and how the species was reconstructed.

This is a story that will run and run: we don’t know how old the species is and there’s lots of speculation about the significance of finding such a large number of individuals all together in what appears to be a burial chamber.  It’s an exciting time to be interested in human evolution.

“one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis

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In a parallel universe I work as a paleoanthropologist, a topic that has fascinated me ever since as a teenager I read Donald Johanson’s account of the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis).  At university I took a short human evolution course and could easily have been swayed into doing research in that area were it not for my fascination with plants and ecological interactions (there are also parallel universes in which I’m a marine biologist, palaeontologist, gardener, sound engineer, etc….you get the picture).  I still keep half an eye on the paleoanthropological literature and enjoyed reading this interview on the Nature website with the discoverers of Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” fossil hominids, which added significantly to our understanding of the biodiversity of the human evolutionary lineage.

The line that “one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis“, and some of the other anecdotes, give lovely insights into how science works, and the way it often follows a random, haphazard path, not at all the clear and logical route that non-scientists assume.  And it shows how the peer-review process can pick up and correct errors in a manuscript that could haunt any scientist’s career…..