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Fossil Find Reveals New Species of Early Human - Origins of Modern Man Gets Crowded

Fossil Find Reveals New Species of Early Human - Origins of Modern Man Gets Crowded

Make room, Lucy! A fossil of a 3.4 million-year-old hominin has been found by researchers who say this could be an entirely new species of early human, previously unknown to history. This new and distinct hominin is thought to have lived side by side with Australopithecus afarensis (commonly identified with the well-known skeleton “Lucy”), reports an article by Nature, and was one of several diverse species of hominins living in the northern region of Ethiopia between 3.3 and 3.5 million years ago.

The teeth and jawbones found in the Woranso-Mille area of northern Ethiopia were recovered in 2011 and the tail end of a long dig. Dubbed Australopithecus deyiremeda from the local Afar language meaning ‘close’ and ‘relative’, the remains were uncovered only 35 kilometers (22 miles) from where Lucy and other A. afarensis fossils were found, at Hadar.

A study published by the research team reveals that the A. deyiremeda in Afar were distinct from the other contemporary species, such as Lucy’s A. afarensis in Hadar, and a third species, Kenyanthropus platyops, living near Lake Turkana, Kenya. ( Nature notes that the two species are thought to have overlapped, “although Lucy herself may have lived too recently” to see a Deyiremeda.)

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Jawbones in Ethiopia reveal an ancient past: A 2.8 million-year-old fossilized jawbone from Ledi-Geraru research area in Ethiopia, 2013. The specimen is the bone of one of the very first humans – it represents the oldest known human genus Homo - and comes from a time when humans split from the more ape-like ancestors, Australopithecus. Representational image. Credit: Brian Villmoare

The species differed quite substantially. The newly found A. deyiremeda jaw is beefier and has smaller teeth than A. afarensis , while K.platyops fossils have flat faces, writes Nature.

The fossilized skull of Kenyanthropus platyops.

Palaeoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and co-author of the study Yohannes Haille-Selassie tells Nature, “We’re convinced this is different from all the species we know.”

Haille-Selassie says the vital question in all of this is which of these species gave rise to the genus Homo, and modern humans.

  • Prehistoric teeth found in China may point to mysterious new human species
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  • Preserved Tissue on 2-Million-Year-Old Human Ancestor May be Oldest Skin Ever Found

Fred Spoor, palaeontologist at University College London, has written an article titled “Palaeoanthropology: The middle Pliocene gets crowded,” suggesting that the diversity of species demonstrated in Ethiopia between 3.5 million and 3.3 million years ago might have been as varied in later evolutionary periods.

However, just because the various species coexisted does not mean everyone got along. Spoor tells Nature, “We shouldn’t suddenly think they stood at the Awash River, shook hands and said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Instead, he supposes that both A. deyiremeda and A. afarensis “have been able to thrive side-by-side because they might not have directly competed for food, shelter and territory,” writes Nature.

Side view of Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), replica. Wikimedia Commons

The A. deyiremeda discovery comes soon after the recent dating of the South African Australopithecus creature “Little Foot” to 3.67 million years ago , and the incredible find of two-million-year-old preserved Australopithecus sediba tissue from an ancient cave near Johannesburg.

The skull of Little Foot, a proto-human found in the 1990s (University of Witwatersrand photo)

As technology advances and science is able to more precisely date new (and older) finds, we will learn much more about the ancient origins of our human species, and how the story of our evolution isn’t a straight line from ape to modern human, but a rich and diverse jumble of lineages, families, and neighbors.

Featured Image: Casts of the jaws of Australopithecus deyiremeda, a new human ancestor species from Ethiopia, held by principal investigator and lead author Yohannes Haile-Selassie of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of Laura Dempsey

By Liz Leafloor


Human fossils hint at new species

The bones, which represent at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

But scientists are calling them simply the Red Deer Cave people, after one of the sites where they were unearthed.

The team has told thePLoS One journalthat far more detailed analysis of the fossils is required before they can be ascribed to a new human lineage.

"We're trying to be very careful at this stage about definitely classifying them," said study co-leader Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

"One of the reasons for that is that in the science of human evolution or palaeoanthropology, we presently don't have a generally agreed, biological definition for our own species (Homo sapiens), believe it or not. And so this is a highly contentious area," he told BBC News.

Much of the material has been in Chinese collections for some time but has only recently been subjected to intense investigation.

The remains of some of the individuals come from Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. A further skeleton was discovered at Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Province.

The skulls and teeth from the two locations are very similar to each other, suggesting they are from the same population.

But their features are quite distinct from what you might call a fully modern human, says the team. Instead, the Red Deer Cave people have a mix of archaic and modern characteristics.

In general, the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges. Their skull bones were quite thick. Their faces were quite short and flat and tucked under the brain, and they had broad noses.

Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Computed Tomography (X-ray) scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking anterior, or parietal, lobes. They also had large molar teeth.

Dr Curnoe and colleagues put forward two possible scenarios in their PLoS One paper for the origin of the Red Deer Cave population.

One posits that they represent a very early migration of a primitive-lookingHomo sapiensthat lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out.

Another possibility contends that they were indeed a distinctHomospecies that evolved in Asia and lived alongside our own kind until remarkably recently.

A third scenario being suggested by scientists not connected with the research is that the Red Deer Cave people could be hybrids.

"It's possible these were modern humans who inter-mixed or bred with archaic humans that were around at the time," explained Dr Isabelle De Groote, a palaeoanthropologist from London's Natural History Museum.

"The other option is that they evolved these more primitive features independently because of genetic drift or isolation, or in a response to an environmental pressure such as climate."

Dr Curnoe agreed all this was "certainly possible".

Attempts are being made to extract DNA from the remains. This could yield information about interbreeding, just as genetic studies have on the closely related human species - the Neanderthals and an enigmatic group of people from Siberia known as the Denisovans.

Whatever their true place in theHomofamily tree, the Red Deer People are an important find simply because of the dearth of well dated, well described specimens from this part of the world.

And their unearthing all adds to the fascinating and increasingly complex story of human migration and development.

"The Red Deer People were living at what was a really interesting time in China, during what we call the epipalaeolithic or the end of the Stone Age," says Dr Curnoe.

"Not far from Longlin, there are quite well known archaeological sites where some of the very earliest evidence for the epipalaeolithic in East Asia has been found.

"These were occupied by very modern looking people who are already starting to make ceramics - pottery - to store food. And they're already harvesting from the landscape wild rice. There was an economic transition going on from full-blown foraging and gathering towards agriculture."

Quite how the Red Deer People fit into this picture is unclear. The research team is promising to report further investigations into some of the stone tools and cultural artefacts discovered at the dig sites.

The co-leader on the project is Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.


Fossil Find Reveals New Species of Early Human - Origins of Modern Man Gets Crowded - History

The current globalist agenda seeks to erase history, in particular religious history which progressives believe is outdated.

Religion has failed to eliminate war and poverty, deliver equality, provide reparations for slavery, and produce healthy people, say modernists who promise to “build back better.”

The modernist believes humanity will be saved from itself (overpopulation myth) by establishment of an expiration date for all humans (dying on time would be a dream come true for the life insurance industry), and save the planet from the false proposition of global warming/ climate change by limiting greenhouse gases (CO2). However, NASA shows carbon dioxide (CO2), which is nourishment for the oxygen-making plant world, comprises just 0.04% of the atmosphere, which is a vital nutrient for the entire plant world, and if reduced too much, all life ceases to exist.

The 4 th Industrial Revolution

The agenda of the globalists is to create a global citizen by ending national sovereignty, and borders, and impose a centralized digital currency linked to a social health credit score, in which no one would be able to buy, sell, or travel without it, (the banking side of the Biblical “mark of the beast”). Access to money may only be granted to those who are vaccinated. Donations to church may be denied as worship centers are designated as terrorist, racist organizations. Worship will be to the all-powerful unelected global government.

“The 4 th Industrial Revolution” will be ushered in the idea that automated intelligence will mate people with technology to produce super-enhanced humans here on Earth. And with this super-brain power also comes a promised eternal health via synthetic biology – – machine-grown organ transplants can finally replace the promised renewed bodies in heaven of antiquated Christianity. This is the dystopian world being forced on human populations around the globe at the present time via the banking and healthcare system.

The god of technology

In this cancel culture era, a progressive website claims one objective of progressives is to ban the words “God” and “Jesus” from use by the year 2030. The god of technology will replace the historical God. Technocrats will run the world. Pseudoscience has taken a front seat in the current global pandemic, and everyone can see its contrivances and failures.

Humanity is now taking instructions from “scientific experts” who know what is best for the rest of us. The pandemic is just the first page of the unveiling globalist agenda.

The Bible: a collection of fables and old wives tales or “scientifically accurate?”

According to evolutionists, by now we should all know that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor tens-of thousands of years ago. But as scientists look in the mirror, they find their published-in-print ideas are not cast in stone. To the contrary, science validates the Biblical rendition of history and human identity.

The question of human identity can only be answered by genealogy

Klaus Schwab, designer of this dehumanizing, dystopian new world, says the 4 th Industrial Revolution “will fuse our physical, our digital and biological identities.” Essentially, humans will no longer have a mind of their own. Automated intelligence is going to “change who we are.”

In fact, the only answer to the question “Who are you?” is through your genealogy. You ARE “the daughter or son of your mother and father.” That is who you are. Or, going further back to creation, you are a child of God (created in the image of God).

It is important for humans to know where they came from. History is important, personally and generationally. Adopted children always want to know who their real birth parents were.

Sidetracked by carbon dating

Anything shown to have lived over 6000 years ago would overturn the Biblical account of “the beginning.”

Ah, but you have been taught the fossil record is far older than that. However, the fossils are dated by the rock layer they are found in, and the rock layer is dated by the fossils found within, which is circuitous reasoning.

What about carbon dating of fossils that shows dinosaurs lived millions of years ago? You may need to take a short course about the flaws of carbon dating. Believe it or not, living organisms have been carbon dated to be thousands of years old.

A biological clock betrays the notion humans evolved long ago

So, with the question “where did I come from?” in the back of our minds, geneticists have attempted find a clock in our body that would tell us when the first humans lived. To repeat, anything dating back further than 6000 years, the Biblical time span from creation to the present, would invalidate the scriptures.

There is a genetic clock in the human body. This clock is located in the mitochondria within every cell of the human body. Mitochondria can be likened to small rechargeable batteries that produce energy inside cells.

These small power plants within living cells develop flaws we call mutations over time, and like a clock, assuming a certain rate of mutation, can be back-counted to indicate how long ago they occurred. This may, looking back in biological time, chronologically indicate how long ago the first person existed on the planet.

Mitochondrial DNA easier to examine

Surprisingly, as intricate as humans are, there are only

25,000 genes in each cell of the human body. These genes are housed in the nucleus of the cell.

A smaller number of genes, 37, are located the mitochondria. These mitochondrial power plants, 200- 300 in each cell, reside in the watery cytoplasm outside the nucleus. It is obviously much easier to backtrack mitochondrial DNA than nuclear DNA.

Rate of mitochondrial mutation serves as a biological/ chronological clock

Every so many years there is a mutation in the mitochondrial genome (library of genes). The rate of these mutations can serve as a sort of clock. So, geneticists have suggested there were mutations every 6,000 to 12,000 years or so. They then estimated by this back-dating method that humans as a species began some 180,000 to 200,000 years ago.

However, the number of errors in the genome were very small, only 21.6 flawed nucleotides out of 16,569 DNA differences. Nucleotides are building blocks of DNA. So, geneticists realized a much shorter time span must have transpired since “Adam and Eve.”

When their mistake was corrected, they found Homo Sapiens dates back only 6,000 years (a 33-fold mistake). This error was reported in Science Magazine in 1998 by correcting the mutation rate in the mitochondria of females. This coincides with the Biblical record that human life began

Not the only mistake

Evolutionary biologists were reluctant to admit there was bias in their backdating of human history. These discoveries were uncomfortable for evolutionists. And that wasn’t their only mistake.

Since then, there is new data along the male side of mitochondrial history. The error among evolutionists was mistakenly believing all mitochondrial inheritance came from the mother. It was later reported small amounts of mitochondrial DNA are also inherited from fathers. But even that was a large error.

Epigenetics

Of interest, while the Bible teaches both Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the predilection to sin was specifically inherited from Adam (the man). And only Adam could pass on the initial mutations that sperm use to reproduce the next generation after the fall, whereas Eve’s eggs were created perfectly before the fall. Women would not be able to pass on mutations until the next generation. Again, the Bible got it right genetically. However, there is more to this story. Gene mutations may not be involved at all.

The misplacement or substitution of nucleotides (building blocks of DNA) results in classically described mutations. However, there can be long-standing changes in human genes without altering the sequence of DNA. There is a dynamic aspect of genes wherein proteins are produced. This is called epigenetics.

Genes can be “expressed” (activated) or “silenced” (turned off) by exogenous factors like radiation, temperature, food, and quite surprisingly, behavior (way of thinking).

Early life behavior can “imprint” and reprogram the brain via epigenetic memory. A detectable defect in DNA is not evident, but a long-standing epigenetic change can occur. This is part of learning and memory.

This is consistent with what the Bible talks about when after Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s instructions and ate from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” (Genesis 2: 17), all succeeding generations were cursed (genes reprogrammed, epigenetically altered).

The New Testament talks about “all men dying because of one man’s (Adam’s) trespasses, and by one man’s obedience (Jesus) many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5)

Behavior (obedience, compliance, faith) can alter epigenetic memory. This is called “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.”

But as interesting as epigenetics is, I’m off topic. Let’s proceed with the discussion of mitochondrial backdating and the origins of man.

Another revelation: the genetic bottleneck of the Flood

About 1,660 years passed from Creation to the flood, whereas 4,369 passed from the flood to the present day.

This new data reveals via mitochondrial backdating that the human genome (library of genes) went through a genetic bottleneck about 4,500 years ago. That bottleneck can be explained by the Biblical story of Noah and his family as the only remaining people on Earth after the great Flood.

Then only the DNA from Noah’s three sons and their wives were used to repopulate the Earth. At this point, investigation into the Y chromosome, which only males carry, is revealing.

Researchers were perplexed to understand, if humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, there would be 8 to 59 times more mutations than currently observed in the Y-chromosome DNA. However, only about 4,500 years of mutations have accumulated in the paternal ancestry, which dates back to when Noah launched his ark to survive the Flood, according to the book of Genesis. Again, another confirmation of the Bible.

So, technically, though Adam was the first man, modern humans are all descendants of Noah if we are to embrace the Biblical creation story followed by The Flood.

A universal gene mutation stunted human lifespan

As an aside, a long-ago gene mutation that affected all humans, disengaged a gene that produced an enzyme that in turn internally converts blood sugar to ascorbate (vitamin C). Most animals endogenously secrete vitamin C from their liver. But humans do not.

For that gene mutation to have affected every human, again there had to have been a bottleneck in the size of the human population. That bottleneck appears to have been Noah’s Flood – only 8 people, Noah and his family, survived.

The Bible explains that humans were living up to 900 years before the flood and Biblical genealogies reveal the human lifespan began to steeply decline after The Flood.

For that gene mutation to be universal there had to be a bottleneck in the size of the human population. Here again, Noah’s children interbred and that is when gene mutations often occur. There is no time machine to validate all this, but the Bible genealogies explain this in terms of human lifespan. Once again, the Bible gets it right.

Because of this gene mutation, humans experience heart attacks, but most animals don’t. Biochemist Irwin Stone explained this problem in the 1970s and dreamed of a day when this gene mutation would be genetically corrected.

Modern-day researchers show if internal synthesis of vitamin C is genetically halted in animals, they live only a third as long. This is the current human predicament. Elevation of blood vitamin C levels to that of naturally-secreting animals increases lifespan and healthspan by 2.7-fold.

Any claim such a pill prolongs human life by hundreds of years would be speculative until a decades-long longevity study could be mounted to provide conclusive evidence, but that would be impractical. However, such a development is now plausible.

This is nothing globalists want to hear about. Any anti-aging technology is anathema to their current godless agenda, which is to cull the size of the world’s population.

This is despite the fact human populations are in decline numbers-wise in North America, western Europe, Italy and Japan, and birth rates are being curbed in India and China. Urbanization and stable economies result in women voluntarily limiting the size of their families to two children, which is population neutral. The book EMPTY PLANET tells the shocking story. The globalists are living in the past.

Evolutionists are often on the same page with creationists

Evolutionists have attempted to recreate the early Earth environment in the now infamous Miller-Urey experiment where various compounds combined with gases and light energy were employed to re-create the building blocks of proteins that could be combined to produce DNA, the molecule of life.

Some scientists hail this failed experiment, which attempted to find the spark of life. It is described in great detail at Wikipedia. If intentional manipulation of all the elements of life could not reproduce DNA, then how could random chance?

It wasn’t till 1982 when it was confirmed that every element in man is found in the soil. There are 25 elements essential for human life. According to Moses, man came from the dust of the Earth. Another Biblical validation. What was missing was “the breath of life.”

What this experiment shows is that man is unceasingly attempting to find his origins. For now, these efforts are largely determined by predilections and preconceived world views.

Nothing new under the sun

In the 1 st Century the Apostle Paul wrote: “In the latter times….there will be deceivers… forbiddance of marriage and abstaining from eating meat.” (I Timothy 4).

That is precisely the World Economic Forum’s globalist agenda and modus operandi. The world will be genderless, having relations with sex dolls, not making babies, and there will forbiddance of red meat because domestic animals produce a lot of greenhouse gases. Just how did the Apostle Paul know?

Without red meat there will be massive malnutrition, especially for iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 among growing children and fertile females.

The Mark of the Beast

Two historical scholars speculate the Mark Of The Beast will not only be required to conduct business (Revelation 13:17 – “that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark or the name of the beast or the number of his name”), but will include a carrot – a compelling benefit, to become an advanced human, a god.

The requirements for that will be superior knowledge and immortality in the physical world. These scholars speculate The Mark of the Beast will be delivered through the healthcare system via an invisible particle (called atma, a Sanskrit word meaning “soul” in Hindu reincarnation teachings).

It is not that globalists don’t want an anti-aging pill, it is that they want to cull the world’s population first and then use life-extending technology to control human populations. Those who adopt the mark of the beast will be connected to AI.

The most promising anti-aging pill has been quashed and ignored by modern medicine for fear it would worsen the imagined problem of overpopulation and put modern medicine out of business. An anti-aging pill is to globalists what a garlic ring is to a vampire.

The Bible “invented” super-longevity

According to the Biblical record, super-longevity existed before Noah’s Flood. Had there been no rebellion against God, there would have been no Flood, and no gene mutation, and therefore humans may have gone on living hundreds of years. God invented super-longevity, not any biologist.

What is God’s viewpoint of all this? When God faced a perverse generation, he said this in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 32):

I will erase their name from human memory,

They are a nation without sense,
there is no discernment in them.
If only they were wise and would understand this
and discern what their end will be!

The Lord will vindicate his people
and relent concerning his servants
when he sees their strength is gone
and no one is left, slave or free.


The Top Seven Human Evolution Discoveries From Tanzania

An artist’s reconstruction of Paranthropus boisei, a hominid species that was first discovered in Tanzania. Image: dctim1/Flickr

Lucy and Ardi are the poster children of human evolution. But these famous fossil skeletons may never have been found if it weren’t for Louis and Mary Leakey’s pioneering efforts. The pair made several discoveries at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge in the 1950s and 1960s that inspired other anthropologists to come to East Africa in search of human ancestors. Here’s a look at some of the most important hominid fossil finds from Tanzania.

The Nutcracker Man (OH 5): The Leakeys’ first major discovery at Olduvai Gorge occurred in 1959. Mary found the roughly 1.8-million-year-old skull of a hominid with a flat face, gigantic teeth, a large crest on the top of its head (where chewing muscles attached) and a relatively small brain. They named the species Zinjanthropus boisei (now known as Paranthropus boisei). Nicknamed the Nutcracker Man, the species was too different from modern people to be the direct human ancestor that Louis had been hoping to find. But the discovery captured public interest in human evolution, and the Leakeys went on to unearth many more hominid fossils at Olduvai. OH 5 is the fossil’s official catalog name, meaning Olduvai Hominid Number 5.

Johnny’s Child (OH 7): The next big Leaky discovery came in 1960. Mary and Louis’ son, Johnny, found a lower jaw about 300 yards away from where the Nutcracker Man was discovered. The bone came from a young hominid thus, the fossil was nicknamed Johnny’s Child. At the same spot, the Leakeys also dug up some hand bones and skull fragments. Using these skull fragments, the Leakeys and their colleagues estimated the roughly 1.8-million-year-old hominid’s brain size: 680 cubic centimeters. That was significantly bigger than the size of the average australopithecine brain, about 500 cubic centimeters. The hand bones revealed that the hominid had a “precision grip,” when a fingertip presses against the tip of the thumb. This movement allows for fine manipulation of objects, such as turning a key in a door or threading a needle. The precision grip led the Leakeys to conclude that this hominid was the one who made the stone tools found at Olduvai. Because of the tool-making and the big brain, the Leakeys decided OH 7 represented the earliest member of the genus Homo: Homo habilis (meaning Handy Man).

OH 8: Also in 1960, the Leakeys’ team discovered a well-preserved fossil foot belonging to H. habilis. The bones indicate the hominid had modern-looking foot arches, suggesting the species walked like modern people do. Tooth marks on the specimen’s ankle reveal the hominid had been a crocodile’s lunch.

OH 9: At the same time the Leakeys unearthed the first examples of H. habilis, they also recovered the skull cap of a more recent hominid dating to about 1.4 million years ago. At 1,000 cubic centimeters, the specimen’s brain was much bigger than that of H. habilis. The skull had thick brow ridges and a low, sloped forehead—key features linking the fossil to the species Homo erectus.

Twiggy (OH 24): Discovered in 1968 by Peter Nzube, Twiggy is a skull belonging to an adult H. habilis dating to roughly 1.8 million years ago. Although OH 24 is the most complete H. habilis skull from Olduvai Gorge, it was found crushed completely flat (and therefore named after the slender British model of the same name). Paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke reconstructed what the skull would have looked like, but it’s still fairly distorted.

LH 4: In the 1970s, after Louis died, Mary began excavations at Laetoli, about 30 miles from Olduvai Gorge. The fossils she was finding there were much older than the bones she and Louis had discovered at Olduvai. In 1974, for example, her team unearthed a lower jaw with teeth dating to 3.6 million years ago. It was cataloged as Laetoli Homind 4, or LH 4. Around the same time, anthropologists at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia were also finding hominid fossils dating to more than 3 million years ago, including the famous Lucy skeleton. At first, no one was sure what to call these older fossils. After analyzing both the Hadar and Laetoli specimens, anthropologists Tim White and Donald Johanson (Lucy’s discoverer) concluded that all of the fossils represented one species that they called Australopithecus afarensis. They chose LH 4 as the species’ type specimen, or the standard representative of the species. Mary did not approve. She didn’t believe the fossils from Laetoli were australopithecines. But under the rules of taxonomy, once a type specimen is designated, it’s forever associated with its species name. (For more on the controversy, see Johanson’s book Lucy.)

Laetoli Footprints: In 1978, one of Mary’s team members, Paul Abell, made the most famous discovery at Laetoli: He found the trail of about 70 fossilized hominid footprints. Based on the footprints’ age, 3.6 million years, anthropologists think they were made by an A. afarensis group. The footprints reveal this early hominid had a very modern way of walking. The big toe was in line with the other toes, not off to the side like an ape’s big toe. And the prints reveal the walkers had arches, unlike the flat feet of an ape. The footprints also suggest A. afarensis had a modern gait.


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The find was made at a site called Misliya Cave on Mount Carmel, a coastal mountain range in northern Israel.

Anthropology associate professor Rolf Quam from Binghamton University, State University of New York, said: 'Misliya is an exciting discovery.

'It provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed.

Before the latest discovery, the earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa were those estimated to be between 90,000 to 120,000 years old. And scientists say it suggests that early man either displaced or interbred with Neandertals and other hominin groups

The fossil, an upper jawbone with several teeth, was found in one of several prehistoric cave sites in Israel (pictured)

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT HUMANKIND'S JOURNEY OUT OF AFRICA?

The traditional 'Out of Africa' model suggests that modern humans evolved in Africa and then left in a single wave around 60,000 years ago.

The model often holds once modern humans left the continent, a brief period of interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred.

This explains why individuals of European and Asian heritage today still have ancient human DNA.

There are many theories as to what drove the downfall of the Neanderthals.

Experts have suggested that early humans may have carried tropical diseases with them from Africa that wiped out their ape-like cousins.

Others claim that plummeting temperatures due to climate change wiped out the Neanderthals.

The predominant theory is that early humans killed off the Neanderthal through competition for food and habitat.

How the story is changing in light of new research

Recent findings suggest that the 'Out of Africa' theory does not tell the full story of our ancestors.

Instead, multiple, smaller movements of humans out of Africa beginning 120,000 years ago were then followed by a major migration 60,000 years ago.

Most of our DNA is made up of this latter group, but the earlier migrations, also known as 'dispersals', are still evident.

This explains recent studies of early human remains which have been found in the far reaches of Asia dating back further than 60,000 years.

For example, H. sapiens remains have been found at multiple sites in southern and central China that have been dated to between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago.

Other recent finds show that modern humans reached Southeast Asia and Australia prior to 60,000 years ago.

Based on these studies, humans could not have come in a single wave from Africa around this time, studies have found.

Instead, the origin of man suggests that modern humans developed in multiple regions around the world.

The theory claims that groups of a pre-human ancestors made their way out of Africa and spread across parts of Europe and the Middle East.

From here the species developed into modern humans in several places at once.

The argument is by a new analysis of a 260,000-year-old skull found in Dali County in China's Shaanxi Province.

The skull suggests that early humans migrated to Asia, where they evolved modern human traits and then moved back to Africa.

'It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges.'

Researchers analysed the fossil remains relying on microCT scans and 3D virtual models and compared it with other hominin fossils from Africa, Europe and Asia.

Prof Quam added: 'While all of the anatomical details in the Misliya fossil are fully consistent with modern humans, some features are also found in Neandertals and other human groups.

'One of the challenges in this study was identifying features in Misliya that are found only in modern humans.

'These are the features that provide the clearest signal of what species the Misliya fossil represents.'

The fossil dubbed Misliya-1, exhibits teeth that are in the upper size range of what's seen in modern humans, but that otherwise shows clear patterns and features of our species (computer generated image)

As well, the foramen and aspects of the skull support the classification of the specimen as human. Yet Misliya-1 lacks certain unique features of Neandertals and earlier hominin species, such as a low and broad tooth crown

The archaeological evidence revealed the inhabitants of Misliya Cave were capable hunters of large game species, controlled the production of fire and were associated with an Early Middle Paleolithic stone tool kit, similar to that found with the earliest modern humans in Africa.

The fossil dubbed Misliya-1, exhibits teeth that are in the upper size range of what's seen in modern humans, but that otherwise shows clear patterns and features of our species.

As well, the foramen and aspects of the skull support the classification of the specimen as human.

Yet Misliya-1 lacks certain unique features of Neanderthals and earlier hominin species, such as a low and broad tooth crown.

Stone tools excavated near Misliya-1 are shaped in a sophisticated way, called the Levallois technique.

Tools shaped this way have been discovered in a cave close by, but the material at Misliya represents the earliest known association of the Levallois technique with modern human fossils in the region.

While older fossils of modern humans have been found in Africa how and when they left the continent are key issues for understanding the evolution of our own species.

The find was made at a site called Misliya Cave on Mount Carmel, a coastal mountain range in northern Israel

The region of the Middle East represents a major corridor for hominin migrations during the Pleistocene and has been occupied at different times by both modern humans and Neandertals.

Professor Quam said the new discovery opens the door to demographic replacement or genetic admixture with local populations earlier than previously thought

Evidence from Misliya is consistent with recent suggestions based on ancient DNA for an earlier migration, prior to 220,000 years ago, of modern humans out of Africa.

Several recent archaeological and fossil discoveries in Asia are also pushing back the first appearance of modern humans in the region and, by implication, the migration out of Africa.


What should we believe?

Both Carroll and Rovelli are master expositors of science to the general public, with Rovelli being the more lyrical of the pair.

There is no resolution to be expected, of course. I, for one, am more inclined to Bohr's worldview and thus to Rovelli's, although the interpretation I am most sympathetic to, called QBism, is not properly explained in either book. It is much closer in spirit to Rovelli's, in that relations are essential, but it places the observer on center stage, given that information is what matters in the end. (Although, as Rovelli acknowledges, information is a loaded word.)

We create theories as maps for us human observers to make sense of reality. But in the excitement of research, we tend to forget the simple fact that theories and models are not nature but our representations of nature. Unless we nurture hopes that our theories are really how the world is (the Einstein camp) and not how we humans describe it (the Bohr camp), why should we expect much more than this?


Dawn of Humanity

Deep in a South African cave, an astounding discovery reveals clues to what made us human.

NOVA and National Geographic present exclusive access to a unique discovery of ancient remains. Located in an almost inaccessible chamber deep in a South African cave, the site required recruiting a special team of experts slender enough to wriggle down a vertical, pitch-dark, seven-inch-wide passage. Most fossil discoveries of human relatives consist of just a handful of bones. But down in this hidden chamber, the team uncovered an unprecedented trove—so far, over 1,500 bones—with the potential to rewrite the story of our origins. They may help fill in a crucial gap in the fossil record and tell us how Homo, the first member of the human family, emerged from ape-like ancestors like the famous Lucy. But how did hundreds of bones end up in the remote chamber? The experts are considering every mind-boggling possibility. Join NOVA on the treacherous descent into this cave of spectacular and enigmatic finds, and discover their startling implications for the saga of what made us human.

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PBS Airdate: September 16, 2015

NARRATOR: What makes us human? Where do we come from? Ever since Darwin put forward the idea that we evolved from apes, scientists have wondered about those first creatures that left the ape world and crossed into ours.

In the last 50 years, fossil finds have filled in some of the many blanks in the story of our evolution, but the bones of our ancestors are few and far between, allowing only glimpses of how we slowly changed, over millions of years, from ape to human.

Now, in South Africa, in caves dangerously deep underground, two new species of hominin, our human ancestors, have been found.

LEE BERGER (University of the Witwatersrand): There it was, right there, one of the most spectacular early hominins ever discovered, lying on the surface of a cave.

NARRATOR: And not just a few bone fragments,…

CAVER: It's everywhere.

NARRATOR: …here, there are thousands.

STEVE CHURCHILL (Duke University): It's just absolutely incredible, the amount of bone that's coming up.

LEE BERGER: Beautiful!

MARINA ELLIOTT (Simon Fraser University): The first thing that came through my mind was Howard Carter's anecdote about opening Tutankhamen's tomb. It was Lord Carnarvon in the back saying, you know, “What do you see?” And Carter says, “Things, wonderful things.”

LEE BERGER: We have found a most remarkable creature and a most unexpected one.

RICK POTTS (Smithsonian Institution): So, we need a new kind of language to talk about this.

NARRATOR: These bones could finally bring our past into focus. What story will they tell about how we became human? A new light shines at the Dawn of Humanity, right now, on this NOVA/National Geographic special.

The high plains to the northwest of Johannesburg have been called the Cradle of Humankind. In the 1930s and ❀s, fossil finds here gave us the first important glimpses of our earliest ancestors. Then, for decades, the discoveries seemed to dry up. It looked like the Cradle of Humankind had little left to offer.

LEE BERGER: Go get them. Good luck. Happy hunting.

NARRATOR: But now, from deep caves in the Cradle, come two new discoveries that could reshape the understanding of our ancient past.

CAVER #2: It has teeth.

CAVER #1: It's so solid!

LEE BERGER: There aren't just hundreds of bones there are thousands of bones. I had never seen or dreamed of anything like the richness of this site.

NARRATOR: …bones that may end up illuminating a critical million-year period in our evolution that has long been a mystery.

BRIAN RICHMOND (American Museum of Natural History): There's a big gap in the fossil record, with only a few little fragments.

NARRATOR: The fossil record suggests that in that gap lies the dawn of humanity, the birth of the genus Homo. It's perhaps the least understood and most important episode in our evolution. Before, it was the world of Australopithecus, an ape-like creature with a tiny brain. Lucy is the poster child for the Australopiths. She walked upright, but belonged to the world of the apes.

VIKTOR DEAK (Paleo-Artist): If I were to see an Australopithecus at the end of a football field, I would probably call the zoo and say, “Hey, an ape has escaped.”

ZERESENAY ALEMSEGED (California Academy of Sciences): The upper part of the body in Australopithecus is, in general, very apish. Go down, look at the pelvis, very human-like.

CAROL WARD (University of Missouri): An Australopithecus is, sort of, like a bipedal ape. If you went back in time and saw them walking around the savannah, you would see animals that stood up and walked like we do, but they would've been smaller in body size. Their brains wouldn't have been as big, so their heads would've looked smaller. Their jaws and teeth were very large.

NARRATOR: The fossil record suggests that somewhere between 2- and 3,000,000 years ago, these ape-like Australopiths evolved into the first recognizably human species: Homo erectus.

BRIAN RICHMOND: They have big brains and small faces, adaptations for using tools.

VIKTOR DEAK: If I were to see, say, Homo erectus at the other end of a football field, I would probably call 911 and say, “Oh, there's a wild man over here, and, you know, somebody should put some clothes on him.”

NARRATOR: So what went on in the transition from the ape-like Australopithecus to Homo erectus? For years, the only species that filled that gap was a creature called Homo habilis. But so little of it has ever been found, the origins of the genus Homo have remained an enigma.

DON JOHANSON (Institute of Human Origins): The greatest mystery, facing paleoanthropology today is to try to understand how, when, where the transition from Australopithecus to Homo occurred.

BRIAN RICHMOND: And what we don't know is what happened between Australopithecus and early Homo. That's one of the big mysteries right now we're trying to solve.

NARRATOR: The prize would be to discover fossil remains that could tell us about that mysterious transition. And now they may have found some.

LEE BERGER: There, you can see two foot bones in articulation.

NARRATOR: Emerging from ancient caves in South Africa are fossil finds of astonishing richness, and not just fragments but virtually complete skeletons.

STEVE CHURCHILL: From the very first block that we had, we had a portion of the mandible, the lower jaw, and we had a collarbone and one of the bones of the forearm. So that was really, really exciting.

LEE BERGER: She's in there.

PETER SCHMID (University of the Witwatersrand): We have a skull we have a mandible we have a complete scapula we have a complete clavicle we have a complete arm a complete hand and half of the pelvis, which we can, with reconstruction, make into a whole pelvis.

NARRATOR: Will these skeletons live up to their promise, offering us a new understanding of the dawn of humanity?

In August, 2013, South African Pedro Boshoff was out of work. He had been a soldier, a prospector, an adventurer and even a part-time student of human origins. Now, he wondered if he could earn some money doing what he loves most: fossil hunting.

PEDRO BOSHOFF (Fossil Hunter): Towards the end of August, I approached Professor Lee Berger, asking if there would be the possibility of a position at faculty with him.

LEE BERGER: Pedro Boshoff came into my office and said, “You know, I really need work, and I have the same belief as you that there is more out there.”

NARRATOR: Lee Berger started exploring the area of South Africa known as the Cradle of Humankind in the early 1990s. After 18 years of searching, he had found only a few isolated fossils. That's not unusual in the field of paleoanthropology.

LEE BERGER: These early human fossils are probably the rarest sought-after objects on Earth. We, in paleoanthropology sit in one of the few fields that probably have more scientists studying objects than there are objects to study. In fact, the vast majority of people who do what I do will never find a single piece of one of these early humans. And if they do, it's going to be an isolated tooth. Probably 80 to 90 percent of our record, just little bits of isolated teeth.

NARRATOR: Just to the northwest of Johannesburg, the Cradle of Humankind is riddled with limestone caves. Some have already yielded fragmentary fossils of our remote ancestors. Lee was convinced there were more discoveries to be made.

LEE BERGER: I had known Pedro for 20 years, and I said, you know, “Go out there. Enlist your caving buddies. Get underground, and see if you can find something.” And so I bought Pedro a motorcycle, so he could move around out here.

PEDRO BOSHOFF: Basically, what he wanted me to do is to go through the Cradle area, locating and finding fossils. So, I sat, as I often do, on a rock, and I contemplated, “How am I going to approach this?” And then it dawned on me, I'm part of a caving society, having caved in this area for years. And in there I found Rick and Steven.

I asked them to systematically work their way through caves and holes towards the east of the Cradle, while I was busy working in the west.

LEE BERGER: We often don't look in the places that are most familiar to us, because we think we know them well. I call it “backyard syndrome.” And so I said, you know, “Start right under our noses. Go to the most well-known places.”

NARRATOR: On September the 13th, 2013, Rick and Steve decided to look into a cave system they thought they knew well. It's called Rising Star.

STEVE TUCKER (Fossil Hunter): It's an amazing cave. It's got a bit of everything. There's tight squeezes, some great climbs, beautiful formations.

NARRATOR: Rick and Steve headed deep underground.

STEVE TUCKER: I wanted to show Rick a great climb in the cave called the Dragon's Back. We climbed up there. And in the process of taking some video of the formations at the top of it, Rick wanted to get past me. So, I went down a small little crevice, basically, so that Rick could crawl over me. I was just getting out of his way. And as I went into it, I noticed that there's still a little bit continuing down.

NARRATOR: Once in the crevice, Steve realized there was nothing below his feet. He squeezed himself further down.

STEVE TUCKER: Every time you go down, it just goes a bit further and a bit further and bit further down. You squeeze your body in so that you don't slip and you feel around for a grip.

So, my legs were dangling down this last little bit, and you don't feel anything below you. And the only way to climb down is actually to lower yourself as far as possible, just keep on lowering yourselves, until your arms are almost fully stretched out, and then you start to feel a couple of rocks you can actually put your feet on.

NARRATOR: He emerged into a hidden chamber. He called for Rick to come down and join him. They could see massive rock formations above their heads. But the real discovery was beneath their feet. The floor of the cave was littered with small bones.

STEVE TUCKER: We saw at first one bone lying around. We looked around a bit more and saw another bone,…

RICK HUNTER (Fossil Hunter): We actually spotted teeth in the rocks and realized we actually had found something.

STEVE TUCKER: …followed by a skull, in the ground. And, finally, one of the most interesting ones was a mandible, with four teeth in it.

NARRATOR: Rick and Steve had no idea what type of bones they were looking at, but they seemed intriguing. They took pictures and decided to show them to Pedro.

PEDRO BOSHOFF: And I will never, never forget when he came to me with his photos, put it on the computer, and the first thing I noticed was the jaw with the teeth. And I realized this is definitely a hominin! So, needless to say, I called Professor Berger. He didn't answer his phone, and we decided we're going to drive to his house. Now, we are all excited, bubbling of course. Arriving at his home, I rung the bell, and when he answered, my words to him was, “Lee, you really want to talk to us!”

LEE BERGER: Pedro says, “You're really going to want to let me in.” And, you know, 9:30 at night, and it's dark, but I could hear that emotion in his voice. They flipped open a computer and I saw something I don't think I ever dreamed I would see on a computer screen.

STEVE TUCKER: A lot of swearing at first. Apparently, that's his reaction when he sees fossils. But yeah, he immediately identified it as a hominin.

LEE BERGER: That was a mandible of what was clearly an early hominin, the teeth just perfect. The next picture had a skull in it, of a hominin, I could see it in outline. There were bones everywhere. They take…every one of them I could see in the image were hominin. I was a bit in shock, because it all went like a car crash for me, you know, it really did, black and white, I have only visual not audio.

NARRATOR: Hominins are all creatures in the human evolutionary line, including Australopiths, Homo erectus and us.

When his shock faded, Lee immediately turned his mind to the question of what type of hominin this might be. From what he could see, Lee thought it was a single individual, probably one of the Australopiths that came on the scene some 4,000,000 years ago.

The photos were hard to make out. Lee wanted to know if the bones in the Rising Star cave were similar to fossils he had discovered five years earlier. That was in a different cave, just 10 miles, away, also in the Cradle of Humankind. It was Lee's first big find.

LEE BERGER: The story all began on August the 1st, 2008, when I came into this valley, following targets, which were these trees above my head that I could see on Google Earth. I walked up that old lime miners' trackway, which wasn't quite as clear as it is today, mostly overgrown, and I came into this grove and found this little hole.

NARRATOR: The little valley was called Malapa. Lee thought he knew it well. It was a Friday. Lee's nine-year-old son, Matthew, and his dog, Tau, were with him.

LEE BERGER: I stood at the edge of this pit, and I said, “Go find fossils.” With that, Matthew raced off into the bush, here. I thought he was going to go chase giraffe or zebra or something like that, with Tau in tow. And a minute-and-a-half later he shouted, “Dad, I found a fossil.”

Sitting right over by that lightning-struck tree, he had stopped and found a little rock. And I almost didn't go and look, because I knew he had found an antelope fossil, because that is pretty much all we ever find.

LEE BERGER'S SON, AGE 9: I saw a fossil. I didn't think it was a hominin, I just thought it was an antelope, ⟊use we find thousands of those.

LEE BERGER: I started walking towards him, though, because I had to see what he had found, and five meters away, I realized that, sticking out of that rock, was a hominin clavicle. I couldn't believe it.

I took the rock in my hand, and I was turning it, trying to think what else this could be. And as I turned the back of it over, there, sticking out of the back, was a mandible and a canine. That's when I realized that an extraordinary thing had taken place.

NARRATOR: After almost 20 years of searching in the Cradle of Humankind, Lee finally had a major discovery. He had his son to thank but, also, a crew of Welsh miners, who had come through the valley a hundred years ago.

LEE BERGER: And theyɽ come through this area looking for limestone to build Johannesburg. And they would blast these caves apart, looking for that rich, white, pure limestone. And theyɽ burn it and make cement out of it.

NARRATOR: In the 1880s Johannesburg was a gold-rush town, little more than a collection of shacks. But it sat on some of the richest gold seams ever discovered. As the gold kept coming, so did the gold prospectors. The town grew, and construction crews were desperate for limestone, essential for cement and gold processing. Lime miners combed the high veld outside the town looking for seams of limestone.

Although they likely didn't know it, these seams concealed remnants of ancient cave systems and were full of fossils. When they found the limestone seam at Malapa, they laid their charges as usual.

LEE BERGER: They came in here and put in three, at the most four blasts. One right below me here, one over on the side, one over there that I can see.

NARRATOR: Then, for some reason, the miners never collected the blocks of lime and left the blast hole largely untouched.

LEE BERGER: I'm not sure why they did that, but what they did do in that process was expose just the edge of these remarkable skeletons. They damaged it just enough so we could find this site, and could make these fossil discoveries, but not too much that they destroyed the evidence. It really is a miracle.

NARRATOR: It was in one of the rocks scattered by the blast that Matthew found the collarbone of a child. But that was just the beginning. The hole where the miners planted the dynamite would soon yield so much more.

LEE BERGER: It was only once I had the permit, and we came back on September 4th, a whole bunch of us, that we spent all morning looking here and we found nothing. We were even thinking of leaving, ⟊use we thought that there wasn't anything here. I stood over on the other side of this pit, looking down into that pit, and I saw something sticking out of the rock right down here.

And what I saw stunned me. I climbed down the pit and looked right over here and there, sticking out of the wall, was the proximal humerus of a hominin. I couldn't believe it. I did my Ph.D. on this. I climbed closer, and, as I got closer, I realized there was a scapula of the shoulder blade in place. And I came even closer and put my hand on the wall, right here, and two hominin teeth fell into my hand. Then I said something, and that started the second part of this remarkable story. Everyone piled down in here. At my feet was a proximal femur, in a block, here, that clearly belonged to the child.

What was amazing was it never crossed my mind that this wasn't the child that Matthew had found. How could you find two skeletons in a site like this? What it would turn out to be, of course, was a second skeleton, the female skeleton. The child would be laying right here, just lying in position here, and it would turn out that there were other skeletons here. There was one sitting over there. There's a baby just above me here, and who knows how many are in front of me here. It really is a treasure trove of paleoanthropology.

NARRATOR: One by one, they took out blocks of stone they thought might have hominin fossils in them, remnants of our ancient human family. The blocks were all taken back to the University of the Witwatersrand.

At the medical school, Lee's wife, Jackie, a radiologist, ran the blocks through a C.T. scanner, allowing the scientists to peer inside.

C.T. TECHNICIAN: Higher. There we go. Okay. That's good. Yep.

NARRATOR: What one of those blocks revealed was stunning.

LEE BERGER: A slice came through, and you could see an entire skull. I was dumbfounded. I could not, in my wildest dreams, believe an entire skull could be sitting in this little rock.

NARRATOR: Then began the painstaking job of freeing the skull from the rock that had encased it for possibly millions of years.

CELESTE YATES (University of the Witwatersrand): It took me three months to get it out. I was the first one that saw this. And you can't describe this to anybody. It's beautiful. I mean it's been in the ground for 1.9-million years, and you're the first person to see that. I thought, “Well, you're beautiful.” I basically brought this boy back to life.

NARRATOR: Finally, the skull was free. Its small brain and forward projecting face made it clear that it was an Australopith, but details of the teeth and other parts of the skeleton made it unlike any found before.

Many types of Australopithecus once walked the earth, between about 2-and 4,000,000 years ago. Lucy is known as afarensis. There's also Australopithecus africanus. This appeared to be an entirely new species. Lee called it “Australopithecus sediba,” after the waterhole near which it was found in South Africa. In the local language, Sotho, sediba means “wellspring.”

The team was able to radioactively date the limestone layers in the cave with great precision. The layer containing the sediba skeletons was 1.97-million years old. That makes these creatures among the last of their kind, living right at the end of the fossil gap between Australopiths and Homo erectus.

Here, at last, was a creature that could tell us something about that transition. And the bones were not just fragments. Here were two remarkably complete skeletons, a female and a child.

Still encased in the rock at Malapa, are fragments of at least three more, waiting to be excavated. This made sediba the most complete evidence ever found, for what was going on at the dawn of humanity.

CAROL WARD: The Australopithecus sediba fossils are some of the most spectacular skeletons known for early hominins. They're absolutely amazing. We don't get two bones associated with one another very often, much less several bones, much less partial skeletons. So that makes these fossils really special.

STEVE CHURCHILL: Sediba was exciting from the get-go. Right away, we knew that we had parts of the skeleton. And we had parts of the cranium, which helps us figure out who this animal is. So, that was really, really exciting. And, initially, these upper limb bones looked very primitive. So, we knew we were dealing with something that looked like it would be a good climber, kind of an ape-like creature.

NARRATOR: Peter Schmid's job is to reconstruct sediba's skeleton. Unlike past fossil finds, here, the skeletons are so complete, there doesn't have to be much guesswork. By scanning and mirror imaging, Peter can fill in any missing bones, with great accuracy.

PETER SCHMID: From the C.T., we've got a few thousand slices now, and Aurore has to put everything together to form a 3D model. And then we have to cut the model, because the pelvis we already casted, so, we only need the ribcage. But the right ribcage we have already, but we need now the mirror image of that, and the computer helps us to do the mirror image in a second.

NARRATOR: Layer by layer, a 3D printer then slowly prints the ribcage in fine plaster.

PETER SCHMID: Beautiful.

NARRATOR: Finally, Peter has assembled a complete skeleton.

It is highly unusual. All Australopiths are a mix of ape and human, but sediba has a unique mosaic of features scientists have never seen before, in the same creature.

PETER SCHMID: The arm is very long, like in a chimpanzee, but the hand is with short fingers and very long thumb, like a human hand, which was never found, until now, because this is the most complete hand ever found in this period.

NARRATOR: Job Kibii, who was with Lee and Matthew when they discovered the skeletons, has been working on the sediba hand. He's found an unusual combination of ape and human features here, too.

JOB KIBII (University of the Witwatersrand): What's special about sediba's arm and hand is that we know that sediba has a very long thumb, which is more chimp-like, but sediba has a very human-like hand. For example, sediba has a thumb which is longer relative to the other fingers, which indicates a human-like condition.

NARRATOR: Sediba's hand, with its opposable thumb and forefingers, is so human that it could've been a tool user. But since no tools were found, that remains only an intriguing possibility.

From the reconstructed skeleton, paleo-artist Viktor Deak can start to create a lifelike digital painting. By virtually applying tissue thickness markers, carefully calculated from the known facial tissues of living primates, he can build up a realistic impression of sediba's face.

VIKTOR DEAK: Once that was all done, I have now gone ahead and created a body for it. And if you want to see, we can check all that by going transparent, and seeing, making sure that the bones and everything line up in the proper spaces. So, here we have a concept reconstruction of how sediba potentially could look like.

NARRATOR: The step from there to a lifelike digital painting is a short one. Finally, for the first time in almost 2,000,000 years, the face of Australopithecus sediba looks out on the world, once again.

But the true revelations will come from the bones themselves. Because they are so well-preserved, these fossils will give scientists unprecedented insights into the lives of these ancient creatures, everything from what they ate to how they died.

Such details might help explain the Australopiths' transition into our genus, Homo. They might also prove or disprove a highly influential theory about the dawn of humanity, a theory inspired by the very first discovery of an Australopith fossil.

The year is 1924. Anatomist Raymond Dart teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. His hobby is fossil hunting, but he never imagines he will find a human ancestor. Nobody, at the time, believes we had evolved in Africa.

RICK POTTS: Well, in the late 19th century, fossils were found in Europe, with the Neanderthals they were found in Asia, with the earliest known examples of Homo erectus. No one really had a sense that anything interesting occurred in Africa.

WILLIAM HARCOURT-SMITH (American Museum of Natural History): Darwin and Huxley predicted that our origins would be in Africa, based on comparative anatomy. You know, they looked at the skeletons of chimps and gorillas, and they looked at ours, and they went, “Well, they're so close to us, and they're more close than anything else, so it must have been in Africa.” And then the, sort of, second generation of evolutionary biologists shied away from that. They started to find fossils in Europe they started to find fossils in Asia. And, of course, that tied in very nicely with sort of racist and imperialistic thoughts of the day: they couldn't abide the thought of it being in Africa.

NARRATOR: In late 1924, Raymond Dart receives a package. He sees it's from the mining town of Taung, in South Africa's North West province.

RICK POTTS: And in that box is a fossil. And this is a game-changing fossil.

NARRATOR: It has been sent to him by miners who noticed what looks like the skull of a small ape encased in the rock. Dart is fascinated. He begins the long laborious process of revealing the mysterious skull. He can see that it is the skull of a child, but like no child he has ever seen before. It has ape-like characteristics but also some very human ones.

RICK POTTS: And so, as he cleaned this fossil, and he saw the hole in the bottom of the skull, where the spinal cord enters the brain underneath, that he had something like a two-legged walker on his hands. And this he named Australopithecus africanus, and what that means is “southern human of Africa.”

NARRATOR: Dart rushed into print with his find. He claimed it was proof that we evolved in Africa, just as Darwin had predicted. He was unprepared for the firestorm his theory unleashed.

DON JOHANSON: The Taung child sparked an incredible revolution. Up to that point everyone said, “Let's look to Europe for our ancestors.” It was unthinkable that anything as important as the emergence of humans could have happened in Africa.

ZERAY ALEMSEGED: Raymond Dart was a feisty guy, and when he was pushed back by the British intelligentsia, he became feistier, more aggressive, in terms of his defending of his views.

WILL SMITH: Most scientists disagreed with him. He really was seen as an outsider, but it absolutely set the ball rolling for one, paleoanthropology, as a field, in Africa and two, vindication of what Darwin and Huxley had predicted, with actual fossil evidence. It showed, once and for all, that our origins were in Africa and only in Africa. And that's huge. It totally changed the field.

NARRATOR: Dart was sure he had discovered the missing link between apes and humans. But it wasn't enough to know what they looked like. He wanted to know how they behaved. What sort of creatures were they? He understood that these great questions about our ancestors were also questions about ourselves.

LEE BERGER: The reason we are interested in our own ancestry, I think, is the reason that you or I want to know who our parents were and who our grandparents were and who our great grandparents were, because, somewhere in us, we realize that there's a little bit of them in us. So, to understand the quirks of our own behavior and why we do things, if not just why we look the way we do, comes from that ancestry. Paleoanthropology is just that, in deep time. We're looking way back. And so we're looking at the things, the, sort of, little bits and pieces that drive why humanity is like it is today.

NARRATOR: Raymond Dart was building a theory about how the Australopiths, our ape-like ancestors, became human. His ideas about the dawn of humanity were the touchstone for thinking about our origins for generations.

RICK POTTS: In the 1940s, more examples of Australopithecus began to be found. And a key site not only had fragments of Australopithecus, but also the bones of many other fossil animals. And Dart noted that these bones were broken in a special way.

NARRATOR: Dart became convinced they were weapons made by our primitive ancestors. Was this the key to what first made us human? Dart had been a young medic in World War I. He had seen, firsthand, the barbarity humans are capable of. It made sense to him that the origins of humanity were steeped in blood.

BRIAN RICHMOND: Raymond Dart's experiences in the world war may have colored his interpretation of what these bones and teeth meant. You know, it gave him a view of the dark side of humanity and the violence of humanity, and he came up with this idea that Australopithecus had figured out that bones and teeth were hard and could be used as weapons to kill other animals, the, sort of, “killer ape” theory of early humans.

NARRATOR: Dart believed that the more aggressive and adventurous of our ape-like ancestors abandoned their forest environments and moved into savannahs. There, they became hunters and predators. His theory that this violent transformation gave rise to humanity soon found an audience far beyond the small world of paleoanthropology.

RICK POTTS: In the 1950s, there was a drama critic and playwright named Robert Ardrey, who became very interested in human origins, and he went to Africa and spoke with Raymond Dart. And Robert Ardrey, being a dramatist, could write like anything, and he wrote this amazing book, published in 1961, called African Genesis.

NARRATOR: African Genesis became a pop science publishing sensation of the early 1960s. Ardrey's ideas, building on those of Raymond Dart, helped frame public debate about the dawn of humanity for the next 20 years.

RICK POTTS: The very first sentence in that book, I remember, ⟊use I read it as a teenager and was enthralled by it: “Not in innocence and not in Asia was mankind born.” And, in that one sentence, he encapsulated Raymond Dart's ideas that it was an African genesis and that where we came from was not from an innocent creature but from the most violent of killer apes.

NARRATOR: One of Robert Ardrey's greatest fans was the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. At the time he was planning a film based on the science fiction novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was to be a meditation on human technology run wild. On a mission to Jupiter, the spacecraft's computer turns on the crew.

At the beginning of the film, our ancestors discover the first technology, weapons. Eventually, they will use them on each other. This was the "dawn of humanity" imagined by Dart and Ardrey.

RICK POTTS: And so, this sets up, then, for Kubrick, the same conflict that Dart felt. For Dart, that first weapon explained the emergence of human beings, while at the same time it explained the atrocities of the 20th century.

NARRATOR: Are we killer apes at heart? Is this what we will discover about our ancestors at the dawn of humanity?

The discoveries at Malapa may finally provide evidence to support or refute Raymond Dart's theory. The sediba skeletons are so well-preserved, they give the scientists a unique glimpse into their lives.

LEE BERGER: And that's the story we are really after: how did these individuals really live, out there, in the environment? What did they do on a daily basis?

NARRATOR: Whether they were so-called “killer apes” or not can be seen in what they ate. The first direct evidence comes from their teeth. At the Max Planck Institute, in Leipzig, Amanda Henry is analyzing calculus, or tartar, fossilized along with sediba's teeth.

AMANDA HENRY (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology): Calculus is what happens when the bacteria in your mouth form a film on your teeth. So, it's this very thick, layered, heavily mineralized material that forms around your gum line and all sorts of surfaces of your tooth. And as it forms, it traps bacteria and proteins and remnants of your food inside.

NARRATOR: Just like the tartar dentists remove from our teeth, the calculus from sediba's teeth provides a snapshot of what they were eating.

AMANDA HENRY: So, once I have the calculus here, in this little powdered form, I'm going to dissolve it in a little bit of a weak acid. And then we're going to rinse that acid off, and hopefully, what we'll be left with is micro-remains, with this mineral matrix removed. And then we'll look at that under a microscope and see if we can identify what was in the calculus.

NARRATOR: Amanda can see what sediba was eating, when she discovers phytoliths, the microscopic remains of plants.

AMANDA HENRY: Well, this is a phytolith that we recovered from the calculus of the sediba individuals. And we have a couple of examples here, all from different plants that this individual ate.

NARRATOR: Here, at last, is evidence that will help support or disprove Dart's theory.

AMANDA HENRY: Well, this is the first time that we've had direct evidence of the kinds of foods that any Australopith ate. We've had proxy information before, we've had sort of vague categories, where the food's harder or tougher, but this is direct evidence. That's exciting.

NARRATOR: What Amanda can see trapped in sediba's tartar are microscopic remains of many different plants.

AMANDA HENRY: We have phytoliths from grasses, we have phytoliths from the bark or woody tissue of plants, and we have phytoliths, possibly, from fruits. So, all the evidence suggests that the foods that this individual was eating was coming from closed-forested regions, so eating fruits, maybe chewing on stems, eating the grasses that are growing in that area.

NARRATOR: The tooth evidence from sediba indicates a diet very similar to today's chimpanzees. While they may have eaten some meat, there's little to back up Raymond Dart's theory that they were killer apes.

BRIAN RICHMOND: So later, scientists came and looked at the evidence and found that there were tooth marks in the skull of an Australopithecus individual. And that was just really compelling evidence that Australopithecus, maybe, instead of being the predator, was the prey.

ZERAY ALEMSEGED: So our ancestors, or the early hominins in South Africa, were the victims, rather than being the carnivores that Raymond Dart wanted them to be. The caves in which he was finding, not only the remains of human ancestors, but the remains of many, many, many other animals, which he thought were being consumed and devoured by our ancestors, were actually all the victims of predators and carnivores, who were pulling all of those animals into the cave.

NARRATOR: It seems Raymond Dart's vision of our ancestors as the first killer apes, so famously portrayed by Stanley Kubrick, was wrong.

The sediba skeletons are so well-preserved, they offer the team a chance to investigate, not just the lives, but the deaths of these individuals. They can analyze the 2,000,000-year-old death scene, almost as if it were a forensic case.

LEE BERGER: I mean, we're looking at the preservation of organic material here. These animals are articulated the way they died. The breakage patterns may often be a result of the moments before or shortly after their death.

NARRATOR: So far, the team has excavated the skeletons of a female adult and a child.

AURORE VAL (University of the Witswatersrand): So the female was this one, and the juvenile is all the bones in blue, all of these. They were found very close to each other.

NARRATOR: Aurore Val has been creating a virtual reconstruction of the scene at the bottom of the cave. Besides the sediba skeletons, there are the skeletons of many other animals too. How did they all get there?

Two-million years ago, Malapa was a much deeper cave. Landscape erosion has reduced it to a small depression in the ground. But when Australopithecus sediba was around, it was a cave system about 90 feet, deep.

LEE BERGER: Imagine a vertical shaft going up, there is probably water dripping down, roots hanging down. Right here is the curled up body of the female. Lying right there is a child's body, the 13-year-old boy. There are other animals, all being eaten by bugs and going through the usual process of decay.

NARRATOR: This reconstruction shows the sediba death scene in great detail. Now the team want to know how all these creatures died. Were they dragged in by predators or did they fall?

The man to answer that question is Patrick Randolph-Quinney. He's an eminent forensic anthropologist more accustomed to working on murder cases and mass graves.

PATRICK RANDOLPH-QUINNEY (University of the Witwatersrand): I'm involved in looking at homicides, and I'm involved in looking at the forensic identification process, so, unknown remains, giving them back their identity and their name, that's what I do for a living.

NARRATOR: The skull of the child is the first piece of evidence.

PATRICK RANDOLPH-QUINNEY: This is this fracture, here. And it is a fracture that has actually separated part of the body of the jaw, and it runs up through the tooth. And, basically, if you are in an impact, you jar your teeth together and you create compression on the tooth row, and that provides force, or generates force, which goes down to the tooth roots. And what this has done is actually split part of the corpus apart. So it's actually damage consistent with, effectively, an impact on the jaw, and the energy has come from the teeth out into the bone around it. And that only happens mechanically with fresh bone, so this individual was still functioning skeletally when this happened.

NARRATOR: The mandible fracture is a green fracture that happened when the bone was fresh, at or around death. It would be consistent with a fatal fall. The fractures to the forearms are even more telling.

PATRICK RANDOLPH-QUINNEY: And if you look at MH2, she's got a fracture that runs through the body of this joint, where it articulates in the elbow with the humerus, the bone of the upper arm. There are also fractures associated with the wrist, in this portion of the ulna and this portion of the radius. And we've actually got fractures in the scaphoid and triquetral bones in the wrist, as well. And what this appears to indicate is putting your hand out to stop yourself.

NARRATOR: This seems to be good evidence the individual was alive when she fell. The cave at Malapa was probably a death trap. Were they searching for water and lost their grip? Perhaps they were trying to escape in terror from some predator. Whatever the reason, they fell and died either immediately on impact or soon after.

It appears that mud then buried the bodies and as it hardened, kept them from disintegrating. This is why they were so well-preserved. Then began the long slow process of fossilization, in which all organic material in the bone was replaced by minerals.

Today, the sediba fossils are still yielding insights into the Australopith world of almost 2,000,000 years ago. But the most tantalizing question of all is still unanswered. How did these primitive creatures evolve into more advanced human ancestors?

To find out, scientists need to find perhaps the most elusive fossils of all, the first members of our genus Homo. For decades the only fossils that came close were the fragmentary remains of a creature called Homo habilis: handy man.

RICK POTTS: In the early 1960s, fossils discovered from Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, by the Leakeys, led to the definition of a new fossil species in our evolutionary tree, Homo habilis, handy man. And what was significant about that is that stone tools were connected with what Leakey proposed as the first human, a member of our lineage, the genus Homo.

NARRATOR: Like most scientists at the time, Louis Leakey thought our evolution was probably a gradual, linear process, a single chain of species becoming progressively more human. He decided the key event that made our ancestors cross the threshold to humanity was not the invention of weapons, as Raymond Dart believed, but tools.

Since Homo habilis seemed to be the first toolmaker, he declared it the first member of our genus: Homo. Here, at last, was the link between the ape-world of the Australopiths and the human world of Homo erectus.

WILL SMITH: So, there was always this gap between Australopithecus and later members of the genus Homo, like Homo erectus and Neanderthals, and we didn't really know what species in that gap would've looked like. And then, along in the 1960s, along comes along Homo habilis. And it's slightly bigger-brained, it's probably a bit more bipedal, and of course it had these stone tools associated with it. And it was argued very strongly to be a contender for early Homo, and it was instantly controversial. And it's still controversial to some people, today. It's a bit of a mess.

LEE BERGER: Because it became clear, probably in the 1990s, and moving into the early 21st century that Homo habilis, we really didn't know what that was.

NARRATOR: One of the main reasons for classifying it as human was that it was found with tools. But that is now looking less like a defining characteristic of the genus, Homo. We now know that even the primitive Australopiths had the capacity to use stone tools.

Zeray Alemseged, who discovered a 3,000,000-year-old Australopith called Dikika child, has found what he believes to be evidence of stone tool use in the same period.

ZERAY ALEMSEGED: If you were defining Homo habilis as a toolmaker, tool user, then what do you make of it when you see that Australopithecus was doing the same thing?

DON JOHANSON: We know that there is rudimentary stone tool use, not stone tool, but stone use, among living chimpanzees.

NARRATOR: The confusion surrounding Homo habilis has grown. It has been compounded by the fact that so little of it has ever been found.

LEE BERGER: Colleagues have said, “You know, if you had a shoebox, you could put all those fossils that might be early members of the genus Homo into it and still have room for a good pair of shoes.”

NARRATOR: With so few fossils to go on, scientists had little they could say for sure about the first members of our genus, Homo. This was the situation when the two young cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, made their discoveries in the Rising Star cave.

When Lee saw the photos from the fossil chamber, he could only hope they would clear up the confusion. Was it another sediba or was it even Homo habilis? The only way to find out was to bring up the fossils. Lee knew there was no time to waste.

LEE BERGER: I had to make a decision, and about, oh, just before one a.m., I decided that history would never forgive me, if I did not act right then.

NARRATOR: Just five weeks later, the Rising Star excavation was beginning to take shape. It's planning had taken some ingenuity. Lee knew he would never be able to get down to the fossil chamber himself. In places the chamber entrance was less than seven inches wide.

LEE BERGER: I put a call out on Facebook, saying I need skinny scientists who are not claustrophobic, who are cooperative, who can work together in a dangerous and difficult environment. And I need you available by the first of November.

HANNAH MORRIS (Chena Consulting Group): I saw Lee's Facebook post, actually, and, on a whim, I applied for it. And then, the next thing I know, I got asked to an interview, and from there, just things started happening really quickly.

K. LINDSAY HUNTER (Sepela Field Programs): I saw a call that came out on Facebook, from Lee, that was looking for skinny scientists, skinny paleoanthropologists that weren't claustrophobic and that would be able to fit into a slot that was about 18 centimeters. And that was very intriguing.

LEE BERGER: I didn't say what had been discovered. I didn't say anything about what I thought it was. They only knew it was me, in South Africa, and it was clearly underground. I thought Iɽ get three, four, five applicants. I really did. I mean, how many people in the world could be qualified and could fit that criteria? Within ten days I had 57 qualified applicants from all over the world, most of them women.

ALIA GURTOV (University of Wisconsin–Madison): One morning, I woke up and there was a call for tiny, experienced archaeologists, from Lee Berger, and I thought, “That's me.”

BECCA PEIXOTTO (American University): I received the Facebook post via a friend, who saw that it was an ad for small archaeologist with caving and climbing experience, and she said, “That's you!”

MARINA ELLIOTT (Simon Fraser University): I'm almost finishing a Ph.D. in physical anthropology, osteology, so this is my area.

BECCA PEIXOTTO: I'm an archaeologist, so I can study up quick on the paleo stuff.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL (Australian National University): I'm a Ph.D. candidate, specializing in evolutionary biomechanics, so, more on the paleo-anthropological side of things.

MARINA ELLIOTT: It really seemed perfect. In fact, when I read the callout to my husband he said, “Well, they might as well have meant, you know, written, ‘Marina is wanted over here.'”

NARRATOR: The Rising Star expedition was to be a new kind of paleoanthropology, tailor-made for the age of social media and the Internet.

LEE BERGER: I held Skype interviews, and I did a few things in that, with the 11 people that I short-listed out of this spectacular list of applicants.

ALIA GURTOV: Lee explained a little bit about how the cave was found and shared with us some video footage and the initial photographs that Steve and Rick took. And he told us about the conditions of traveling into the cave. So, you know, he wanted to make sure that we really knew what we were getting into.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: It was mysterious. It was very enticing for that reason, you know, sort of wondering what sort of circumstances there were that necessitated asking for small people with excellent paleontological skills.

LEE BERGER: In the Skype interviews, I wanted to see these people face to face, but I also wanted to test some things. I needed to know that if I shut the cameras off, which I did for many of them, I wanted to hear if they could respond to me, because I had already designed, by then, this system of communication. I knew, I knew I was never going. I will never set foot in that chamber.

MARINA ELLIOTT: Then maybe a day after that I was told I was a go. It was so fast, so fast.

LEE BERGER: And I sent off emails saying, “Congratulations. Pack your bags. Expect to be here in the first week of November.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Then I got the email that said that I got it, and then, characteristically, I bust out crying and just kept reloading my email to make sure, refreshing it, just like, “Really, it's really there. It's really there.” And I screamed so loud.

BECCA PEIXOTTO: It was a very quick process. The ad went up, and then the interviews happened the next week, and then I learned a day later that I was accepted to the project. All of a sudden, I was rearranging my schedule and waiting for the plane tickets and packing up and reading, quickly, everything that I needed to know. It was fast and furious getting ready for this.

LINDSAY HUNTER: My brain was just like a flurry, an explosion of glitter and confetti. It's everything, it's like every best birthday and Christmas and Hanukah and Kwanzaa, and it's everything, all at once.

ALIA GURTOV: I figured, if he thought I could do it, if Lee thought I could do it, then I could do it.

LEE BERGER: I had no illusions that this was going to be easy. Nothing like this had ever been done, certainly in the African context, I knew, perhaps ever, anywhere. And I knew I had to have everything, from medical support, to safety support, to design of the infrastructure underground and above ground, and all the things that go on with a scientific expedition.

NARRATOR: As the camp was set up, Pedro, Rick and Steve readied the cave for the excavators. Safety lines, lights, cables and cameras were installed. The possibility for accidents was ever-present. Lee rehearsed safety procedures over and over again.

LEE BERGER: Critical issue is, “No one panic.”

NARRATOR: A command post was set up from which he could watch virtually every part of the cave.

LEE BERGER: I really began to get a feel for what I was putting these young women into, as the cavers who were laying over two kilometers of cable. And I think they were terrified, and I was terrified. They were still untested. We took them through the caves, testing their capabilities in this system. And so, we reached the 10th, which was my intended day of going in, and we tested systems, everything worked. It was a little sloppy, but it worked. We tested safety. It all worked, and, by the early afternoon, we were ready.

PEDRO BOSHOFF: Youɽ be surprised, I'm actually a gentle soul.

NARRATOR: Marina, Becca and Hannah have been chosen to go down first. Still, nobody knows exactly what they will find.

LEE BERGER: I've seen a skull, I've seen the other pieces. I am pretty sure that we have got quite a lot of a skeleton of at least one hominin. That, of course, waits to be seen. And it's going to happen pretty fast now, over the next several hours.

NARRATOR: Anxiously watched by Lee and the team in the command post, Marina, Becca and Hannah make their way deeper and deeper underground.

MARINA ELLIOTT: The descent is difficult. And as I looked down there I thought, oh you know, “I don't know if I'm, if I can do this.” But then, once I was committed to go down, it was actually much, much easier than I was dreading.

I'm just trying to also slow it down a bit, because I've got the GoPro running.

HANNAH MORRIS: It was just an amazing, an amazing feeling, to realize how far away you are from everyone up top in the command center, and to just fully realize what you are down there to do. I became a little bit overwhelmed, but then you also have to turn that off, in some sense, because you're only down there for a little amount of time, and you have a job to do, a very important job to do.

BECCA PEIXOTTO: Going down the chute for the first time was, honestly, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. And then you come into a landing zone, and there's a hallway to pass through. It's not really a squeeze, but it's a narrow passage to pass through, and then the chamber opens up again.

MARINA ELLIOTT: This is the entrance to the cave, here. So, you start by descending down, you know, a fairly narrow shaft and some tunnels. You get down to an area, here. This is what we call the Superman crawl, which is a very narrow crawl, you have to crawl on your stomach for about three meters. Then you enter into another chamber. This is what we call the Dragon's Back, so that's the ridge climb with the sort of four- or five-meter drop on either side. You get up to the top of Dragon's Back, and you end up at the top of the chute, which is the, another sort of tunnel access, that, then, you start the 12-meter descent into the chamber. So, that's this area here. Once you drop into the chamber, you're actually just in a landing zone. It's another sort of antechamber. You then go through another passageway into the main chamber, which we call UW-101, or the fossil chamber.

NARRATOR: Marina is the first to enter the chamber.

MARINA ELLIOTT: There was a little bit of trepidation, I have to confess, and a lot of excitement, to be the first of the advance scientists to go into the cave. The first thing that came through my mind, when I went through the final slot into the actual final chamber was Howard Carter's anecdote about opening Tutankhamen's tomb. I think it was Lord Carnarvon in the back saying, “What do you see?” And Carter says, “Things, wonderful things.” And it was that feeling.

God this place is beautiful.

First of all, the cave is beautiful, just geologically beautiful, and then you look down and there was just a sea of bone, and it was obviously just not regular bone. Yeah, it was amazing, amazing.

LEE BERGER: And then I saw them enter this chamber. We got the cameras set up and you could see their feet moving. And it was surreal.

Fantastic! There we go. Skull is being flagged. You can see the skull here. She's now flagging the mandible.

And then the process started. The process of doing science began.

MARINA ELLIOTT: So, we'll put pin number one right beside the mandible, and that's where we'll concentrate. Okay, okay, das ist super. Okay, thanks. Bye.

CONVERSATION AMONG CAVERS: Yeah, that's perfect right there.

Okay, going to start scanning.

NARRATOR: The first foray into the fossil chamber lasts only a few hours. Enough time to start scanning and flagging bone fragments, as well as to test the safety systems.

CONVERSATION AMONG CAVERS: Good.

NARRATOR: Finally, it is time to bring up the first precious fossil, the mandible.

LEE BERGER: There, their coming. I see what looks like a mandible in the middle there, on the right. That looks fantastic.

NARRATOR: It's Becca who will take care of it on the ascent.

LEE BERGER: You got the fossil?

BECCA PEIXOTTO: Yes, I got the fossil.

LEE BERGER: Well done.

BECCA PEIXOTTO: Here you go.

MAN: And we have everyone else.

LEE BERGER: Everyone's out. Rick's out safe. They're all out. Well done.

And so, first their safety, in that they were out was just this enormous emotive relief, and then the sense that they had actually got this thing, and now, I was going to see, for the first time, what all of this was about.

When they opened that little box and we unwrapped this thing that they collected, every great idea we had went out the window, gone, you know? Suddenly, we didn't know what we had.

NARRATOR: When he had first seen the jawbone in Rick and Steve's photos, Lee had decided it probably belonged to an Australopith. One of the most striking characteristics of an Australopith's face is its large ape-like jaws and teeth. As the Australopiths transitioned into the genus Homo, their faces shrunk. Jaws and teeth became smaller. When he finally had the jawbone in his hands, Lee saw it was too small to be an Australopith. It seemed quite human.

Could it be a new specimen of Homo habilis? Or could it be a new transitional species between Australopiths and early Homo? These are the questions on anatomist Peter Schmid's mind as he studies the mandible from Rising Star.

PETER SCHMID: We have this molar teeth and this very strange use of the frontal part, here, and, luckily, we got another piece. So, with these two pieces, we have a mandible, which is complete, and then we can put on the mirror image, and we have sort of outline.

NARRATOR: Peter can then compare it to the mandible of Homo habilis.

PETER SCHMID: I will take this away, and you see this is the tooth row of Homo habilis. You see, also, that these are massive teeth. But the tooth row is straight, and we have a very strong shelf here.

NARRATOR: The mandible from Rising Star is clearly more curved. It's not Homo habilis and it is not an Australopith. They don't know what it is.

DARRYL DE RUITER (Texas A&M University): This is pure confusion. We don't know what to make of it. We realize all of our preconceived notions have to be tossed aside. We can't go into this thinking this is going to belong in this group or belong in that group. We just have to start from, literally, scratch.

NARRATOR: The team hopes that as more fossils emerge from the cave, the confusion will clear up. There is reason to be optimistic. Each descent reveals more bones. Where once they thought there might be one individual, they now see evidence of a whole lot more.

LEE BERGER: It was probably a couple of hours into the first day, when we realized it also wasn't one skeleton.

LEE BERGER: If I remember right, it started with a second femur from the same side. And since there has never been a three-legged hominine, we knew there were two, and then there were three. And I think it was by day two, there were four. And we realized we were in something very, very, very special.

All right, good luck with that, Becca. We can't wait to see you. You've got something we want to see.

NARRATOR: Every time the scientists in the cave remove a piece of bone, they find more bones beneath it.

LINDSAY HUNTER: It's everywhere. I mean, it's all strewn, all throughout.

NARRATOR: Not just the chamber, but the passages leading to it are littered with bone fragments.

LEE BERGER: At the landing zone, where they stopped, Iɽ get a call on the intercom. We found another tooth.

RICK HUNTER: It was just sitting there. I was trying to find a nice place to sit, and there it is. It just caught my eye.

LEE BERGER: Rick was sitting there, as the safety caver, waiting, and he kicked the dirt and hominids fell out.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: You have to pass me up some flags.

RICK HUNTER: Do you have enough flags?

LEE BERGER: By the afternoon of day 14 in the expedition, we were overwhelmed. Iɽ started with one safe to hold one skeleton, day three we had two safes, day four we had three safes, day six, people were going, “We need more safes.”

MARINA ELLIOTT: Two more. I don't know whether you should hug me for someone finding something in another spot.

LEE BERGER: By day 14, as we would get fossil after fossil, we were getting 40, 50, 60, 70 elements a day, all that was flashing through my mind, as I was doing that, was that famous scene in Jaws where Roy Scheider is chumming, and they hadn't yet seen the shark, and he's sitting there chumming, and all of a sudden this gigantic shark appears. And he goes, “We're going to need a bigger boat.” We're going to need a bigger safe. It's extraordinary.

STEVE CHURCHILL: I think this year, at Christmas, I'm just going to hang one of these instead of a stocking.

NARRATOR: As the fossils accumulate in ever-greater numbers, a picture of the creature of the Rising Star cave begins to emerge.

LEE BERGER: This is part of a juvenile pelvis.

NARRATOR: Thigh and hip bones tell them it was an upright-walking biped, but its gait was primitive. From what they can see of the exposed skull, it is small, not much bigger than a chimp's. But the teeth and jaws seem more advanced: Homo-like.

The team's excitement grows. It's beginning to look as if they have found another species from the dawn of humanity. But on which side of the Australopith-Homo divide will it fall? One of the key fossils that will tell them that is the skull. They are saving that until last.

CAVERS: Distance is perfect. And I can see marker two.

NARRATOR: In the meantime, another extraordinary fact is becoming evident. There are no other animals in the cave. All the fossils are human ancestors. This is unheard of.

LEE BERGER: It was pretty surprising that something completely normal to every other excavation I have ever been in on the continent of Africa, every one I have ever heard of on the continent of Africa, wasn't happening here. We weren't getting anything else, other than hominins.

NARRATOR: When early hominins are discovered in caves, they are always found along with the bones of other animals that have either wandered in and died or been dragged there by predators.

LEE BERGER: They're mixed with antelopes, generally, in huge abundance. Then you get, the kind of percentages you see, depending on the circumstances, you see carnivores and other bits and pieces, and rodents, the stuff that accumulates when things die and are eaten and are dragged into caves.

NARRATOR: Apart from the bones of a solitary owl, there's not a single other animal in the Rising Star chamber, only hominins. So how did these creatures get in there?

The chamber is very inaccessible: deep in the dark zone of the cave and with no entrance other than the long, narrow chute. The team believes it likely was just as inaccessible two million years ago.

It is starting to look as if the bodies might have been intentionally placed there. Could this possibly be some sort of burial? There has never been evidence of anything like this linked to such a primitive-looking ancestor.

LEE BERGER: So, we have that looming in front of us and don't have an answer to it.

NARRATOR: Until now, the earliest known burials are from about 100,000 years ago, and a much more advanced form of early human.

The team does not have a date yet for the fossils of Rising Star, but it seems unthinkable that such a primitive-looking creature could be disposing of its dead. But that's what it looks like.

And the age ranges of the individuals are very similar to what archaeologists find in cemeteries.

LEE BERGER: At the early stages of this expedition, they look like a cemetery population: very young individuals and very old individuals and nothing in the middle so far. It doesn't mean we're not going to find it. That's what you find in a cemetery when you dig it up. Right now, it looks a lot like that. Will it hold out to be that? That will be a mystery I will want to see solved. And we're left with this conundrum of, you know, “Is what we are looking at…?” You don't, almost, want to say it out loud.

NARRATOR: It's a mystery with profound implications, but one that will require further analysis before anyone is willing to back it wholeheartedly.

The excavation is now approaching its third and final week. Perhaps the most important bone has been left until near the end: the skull. Its shape and the size of its brow ridges will be crucial in telling them whether the creature of Rising Star is Australopith or Homo: human.

LEE BERGER: We're going to go ahead and bite the bullet and take that skull out.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: Yes, yes, yes, yes, good, good.

If only because it gets it out of the way.

LEE BERGER: Not because you want it out to see it.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: Oh, I want it out. Trust me.

LEE BERGER: A couple of reasons we want to get it out. One, the skull can tell you a lot. It can tell you cranial capacity and start getting an idea of the shape of the skull. Is it Australopith-like and pinched in the front, or is it rounded more like a human, or is it something in between, does it have sagittal crest neck? We want to see that skull.

And, also, the skull was probably the most complex initial extraction. It is fragile, it's a thin piece of bone, and it could break apart. We need to know if we can get something like that out. And we need to get it out to see what is underneath it. Whether this was a skeleton or whether there were lots of individuals associated with each other. So there was all this tension, and it was a lot harder to extract than we thought.

Oh, I'm sure you'll find plenty. All right, stage on in after her. Good luck everyone. Have a blast.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: Thank you. Will do.

LEE BERGER: Alright. Let's get you something here. Go get them. Good luck. Happy hunting.

K. LINDSAY HUNTER: Thank you. Enjoy topside.

NARRATOR: The skull is extremely fragile. The team carefully scans the area immediately around it.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: How big?

K. LINDSAY HUNTER: That's perfect.

NARRATOR: Then they begin the laborious process of removing every tiny fragment of bone surrounding the skull.

K. LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh, we've got medium bags now.

NARRATOR: Finally, they delicately scrape away the dirt to release it.

LEE BERGER: Everyone was feeling all these points of tension around the science of the skull, when we knew it was imminent coming out. We only had two people down on the bottom, and they were working on it, Becca and Marina, and working and working and working, and finally, we kept trying to call them out, and they wouldn't come out, because they knew they were that close to the extraction. And, eventually, it did come out.

That's it. That's it. It's so fragile.

NARRATOR: With everyone holding their breath, praying that it does not break, the skull fragment is finally lifted and delicately placed in a box. Then it begins its slow ascent, leaving the cave, for the first time in possibly millions of years.

LEE BERGER: And he's holding the box.

JOHN HAWKS (University of Wisconsin–Madison): Yeah, that's right, he's holding the box. So he can't do this. He's got to be much more careful than that. There it is. All right.

LEE BERGER: And all of those scientists piled back in, all of the people that spent so much time and so much energy coming to this moment, went back in there, and they lined up in the most difficult places, up the Dragon Back to Base 1, and they knew there was a risk that it could get damaged. If dropped, it could get destroyed. And this huge team effort occurred as they handed this off from one to the other, as it moved its way from this dark recess, where it has been for however long it has been, to the entrance of the cave, where those of us not privileged enough to be able to get into this system had to wait with huge tension, watching this passage on the cameras until there it was.

LEE BERGER: There we go folks, let's go get it.

LINDSAY HUNTER: There is so much wonder. No one's bored. No one's too academic to hold it in. Everyone is just brimming with childlike excitement.

LEE BERGER: Would you hate me, if I took this before I hug you?

MARINA ELLIOTT: Please take it.

LEE BERGER: Oh, well done.

MARINA ELLIOTT: I don't even want to hug you with that thing in your hand.

LEE BERGER: I'm going to give this off to John.

ELEN FEUERRIEGEL: I am constantly sitting there and stopping myself and going, “Oh, my god. This is like, this is probably the first time this fossil has seen the light of the day in millions of years.” And so, I am continually sort of having to stop and just think for a moment and sort of revel in it.

NARRATOR: It's the moment everyone has been waiting for. They hope the skull fragment will be the telltale piece to identify the creature of Rising Star as either an Australopith or a member of our own genus.

LEE BERGER: Looking at a left frontal, so it's this part, the orbit and then part of the brain case behind the orbit. And that is a very important piece.

NARRATOR: Large orbital ridges with indentations behind them would indicate Australopith smaller brow ridges with evidence of a more rounded skull would say Homo.

LEE BERGER: We do have our genus. We have our genus!

DARRYL DE RUITER: This is indisputably Homo.

NARRATOR: The team's verdict is clear: they have a new member of our genus. Now the question is: what can it tell them about the mysterious dawn of humanity?

LEE BERGER: We are certain that this is in the genus Homo, our genus, and we are certain it's a new species. And that's where we are right now: the idea that we've discovered a large number of individuals, males and females, young and old, of a new species in the genus Homo.

NARRATOR: In the next phase, they will have to piece together and analyze the rest of the fossil remains. Already they have almost 2,000 bone fragments from more than 12 individuals.

CAROL WARD: The Rising Star discovery is one of the most startling and amazing discoveries in all of hominin evolution. To have that many fossils in one place is unprecedented and took everybody by surprise.

NARRATOR: The excavation was planned as a three-week operation. As it nears its end, the scientists know they will have barely scratched the surface of what Rising Star has to offer.

LEE BERGER: I had never seen or dreamed of anything like the richness of this site. There aren't just hundreds of bones, there are thousands of bones. It's clear. You can't blow on the ground and it doesn't uncover another one. They can't gently brush their hand across it, and teeth and long bones don't fall out, usually of another individual. This is going to take a long, long, long time.

NARRATOR: As everybody goes home, the Rising Star fossils are carefully transported to the University of the Witwatersrand.

It was here, 90 years ago, that Raymond Dart sparked a firestorm by declaring that the dawn of humanity was in Africa. It seems fitting that it is here, too, that the mysterious early humans of Rising Star will begin to tell their story.

At a symposium, six months after the excavation, researchers meet for an intensive analysis of the fossil material.

LEE BERGER: They're in the analytical phase here, they're in the diagnostic phase, and it's been an experiment in working together, bringing together some of the brightest minds on the planet with some of the most current data sets, to analyze over 1,700 fossil hominin remains that we recovered only last November. And it's been fantastic to watch, this constant energy of science. And you can almost feel it in the room right now.

WILL SMITH: We are total nerds. It's nerd heaven here, but it is an extraordinary experience. There's never been anything like this before, in the field of hominin paleontology, to get a group of young, talented scholars together to bring their new techniques and their fresh outlooks, on the record, to newly discovered fossil hominin remains. This certainly never happened when I was a Ph.D. student, and I would have died to have done this.

NARRATOR: As the analysis goes on, the bones from the Rising Star cave are finally ready to be presented to the world.

LEE BERGER: We've got a new species of early human in the genus Homo, and that's tremendously exciting. We've never had anything in that transition period between the late Australopiths and the earliest members of our genus in any kind of abundance, and, boy, we have it in abundance now.

NARRATOR: To members of the team, the fossils suggest a creature unlike anything ever found before.

JOHN HAWKS: We're looking at creatures that are humanlike in their feet, humanlike in their hands, humanlike in their teeth, everything that interacts directly with the environment is Homo and everything that is sort of central, the trunk, the architecture of the vertebral column, the brain, those sorts of things are more primitive. It's like evolution is crafting us from the outside in.

LEE BERGER: We've called the species Homo naledi, and “naledi” means star in Sotho. And we've called the chamber that the fossils come from—it still has fantastic fossils to be found—the “dinaledi” chamber, which means the chamber of stars.

NARRATOR: Homo naledi is a strange mosaic of ape and human, small-brained and small-bodied, with chimp-like arms, but with human hands, teeth, small brows and long legs, probably a long-distance walker.

LEE BERGER: Naledi is a surprise in very many ways. It's got an incredibly tiny brain. A brain that's more than a third as small as a modern human's brain is. Yet it's clear, when you look at the cranial shape, the dentition, the legs, particularly the feet and even the hands, that this thing is part of our genus.

NARRATOR: Here are creatures on the cusp of becoming human but still very close to the Australopith world. It makes the question of how they got into the cave even more intriguing.

JOHN HAWKS: It looks like they got in there because somebody put them there. Now, if we say that, you have to understand, that's a very controversial thing to say. And so, we approach it very conservatively. We can show that there's no signs of predation. We can show that there is no predator that accumulates only hominines in this way. We can show that they didn't all get there at once. We can show there is not a flow of material into the chamber, and that's where we leave it, scientifically. You know, we can say, the best hypothesis we can come up is, they were put there.

NARRATOR: If this is true, its implications are far-reaching. They now know that the Rising Star hominin had a brain size in the range between 450 and 550 cubic centimeters. That's just slightly larger than a chimp's.

STEVE CHURCHILL: So, if, in fact, the Rising Star hominins are purposefully disposing of their dead, we're talking about some small-brained hominins who are doing this. And that begins to change our thinking about, sort of, the cognitive attributes and the neural machinery that you need to engage in that kind of behavior. And that becomes really interesting.

NARRATOR: The accumulation of Homo naledi skeletons in the cave raises the type of big question that Raymond Dart wanted to answer. What type of creatures were our primitive ancestors? If the naledi skeletons have indeed been intentionally disposed of, some sort of burial, it would indicate already quite advanced social behavior.

This fits with new ways of thinking about the transition from ape to human. Many scientists now believe that a key element of that transition was the growth of ever-stronger cooperation and social bonds. Psychologist Michael Tomasello has spent a lifetime comparing the social behavior and capacities of chimpanzees and human children.

MICHAEL TOMASELLO (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology): Well, there's social and there's ultra-social. And all mammals are social to some degree. Great apes are especially social in the sense that they form long-term relationships with others, and have bonding relationships with others, and they groom and support each other in fights. So, they're very highly social creatures, but a lot of it is organized around competition. So, a lot of it is organized around coalitions to fight over food and so forth. And in humans we, of course, haven't lost our selfish and competitive streak, but we have become so much more cooperative, not perfectly cooperative, but much more cooperative.

LEE BERGER: The fact that we can sit in an airplane with 3- or 400 hundred individuals of breeding age that we aren't related to and not rip each other apart is a uniquely human character, and it was evolved on this landscape behind me, because Africa is a harsh place, and we, as early humans, had to evolve cooperation in order to survive here. We didn't have big canines and sharp claws, we just had each other.

NARRATOR: Humans are the most highly social primates ever to walk the earth. We bond and form relationships far more complex than any other primate.

So, if the Rising Star chamber is indeed a burial, perhaps this would suggest that here, at the dawn of humanity, those more complex social bonds had begun to take shape. This possibility will generate fierce debate as other scientists weigh in. But how do these discoveries change the narrative of human evolution?

STEVE CHURCHILL: There is an old refrain in paleoanthropology. People always say, “We need more fossils. We need more fossils. We need more fossils.” But, the fact of the matter is, more fossils just complicate the picture.

NARRATOR: One compelling question to be answered is: where do these new fossil ancestors fall on our family tree? Dating the fossils is proving to be difficult and complex. It will take time.

CAROL WARD: The thing that's hard about it is we don't know how old those fossils are, and we can tell what they look like because we have so many of them, but if they're 3,000 years old or if they are 3,000,000 years old, it's going to mean a very different thing for how it changes our understanding of human evolution.

NARRATOR: Because we have a date, things are a little clearer with the Malapa finds. At 1.97-million years old, most scientists believe sediba is too late to be a direct ancestor of ours. Our genus Homo was already established by the time sediba came along. But even if sediba is not our direct ancestor, it does show there were many different types of primitive ancestors living together at the same time.

MAN AT EXCAVATION: 'Kay. Yeah, yeah. Keep on.

ZERAY ALEMSEGED: The quality of the material that Lee is uncovering is really phenomenal. Sediba shows that we had more than two or three species in South Africa, 1.9 million years ago. It's a very interesting find. It shows that there were diversity. It's a beautiful material, but I don't think that sediba was ancestral to our genus Homo.

NARRATOR: Whether or not they are our direct ancestors, the fossils at Malapa and Rising Star point us toward a new way of thinking about human evolution.

STEVE CHURCHILL: We have a strong tendency to want to draw simple lines between species and make nice family trees. And we have to understand that is our need. That's our desire, that's not necessarily the way that nature works.

NARRATOR: It's very natural to think about human evolution as a sort of family tree in deep time, but evolution is much more complex than that.

CAROL WARD: Evolution is bushy. There are different experiments. Populations try different adaptations. They try different ways of being about the world.

NARRATOR: Paleoanthropologists talk about the bushiness of human evolution as a metaphor for the many types of early hominins and the difficulty of knowing which one led to us, but even that metaphor may not do justice to the way evolution works.

STEVE CHURCHILL: Nature is messy. Nature is complicated. Nature does not really respect our desire to put fossils into neat bins and to, sort of, name nice neat species.

NARRATOR: Both sediba and naledi have a mosaic of Australopith and Homo features. They seem to show that, at the dawn of humanity, there were multiple evolutionary experiments with small-bodied, small-brained upright walking apes.

Scientists now know some of these varieties of late Australopith and early Homo lived together at the same time. And some of them may have been interbreeding.

STEVE CHURCHILL: These aren't fully formed species, and there's a lot of interbreeding between these groups. Some adaptive features are evolving in one group, other adaptive features are evolving in other groups, and by interbreeding those are coming together. And if that's the case we may never be able to draw neat lines between any of these groups and later Homo.

NARRATOR: Perhaps now we need a new metaphor to help us understand our evolution, one that expresses better the dynamic and fluid nature of it.

LEE BERGER: Now, perhaps the best metaphor is a braided stream. And that's brought on by discovery of these mosaic hominines like naledi, sediba and others. They're showing us there's lots of experiments going on.

NARRATOR: Some of these evolutionary experiments died out, others came together and interbred. The ebb and flow of genes through these groups was probably so complex that we may have to give up hope of discovering a simple linear evolution.

LEE BERGER: So imagine, in your mind, a glacier in the top of a valley and what happens is as it melts: it creates many, many rivulets, and some of them are large and some are small, and they all move off down the valley. And almost inevitably, at the end of that valley is going to be a lake, of which some, maybe the majority, but not all are contributing to. I think we have to begin looking at these species we're finding as almost individual channels in a braided stream. It's clear they have something to do with the end population—and that's us, the billions of human beings alive today—but it's hard to tell which one's the most responsible for us being here.

NARRATOR: The new finds, on the plains of South Africa, are adding a vital new chapter to the story of our origins. The tantalizing gap in the fossil record at the beginning of our genus is being slowly filled in. Finally, there is light at the dawn of humanity.

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IMAGE: Image credit: (Cradle of Humankind, Africa) Courtesy: Flowcomm / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Participants Zeresenay Alemseged, Lee Berger, Pedro Boshoff, Steven Churchill, Viktor Deak, Elen Feuerriegel, William Harcourt-Smith, John Hawks, Amanda Henry, K. Lindsay Hunter, Rick Hunter, Donald Johanson, Job Kibii, Hannah Morris, Rick Potts, Patrick Randolph-Quinney, Brian Richmond, Peter Schmid, Michael Tomasello, Steven Tucker, Carol Ward, Celeste Yates


Ancient DNA from Sardinia reveals 6,000 years of genetic history

A new study of the genetic history of Sardinia, a Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy, tells how genetic ancestry on the island was relatively stable through the end of the Bronze Age, even as mainland Europe saw new ancestries arrive. The study further details how the island's genetic ancestry became more diverse and interconnected with the Mediterranean starting in the Iron Age, as Phoenician, Punic, and eventually Roman peoples began arriving to the island.

The research, published in Nature Communications, analyzed genome-wide DNA data for 70 individuals from more than 20 Sardinian archaeological sites spanning roughly 6,000 years from the Middle Neolithic through the Medieval period. No previous study has used genome-wide DNA extracted from ancient remains to look at the population history of Sardinia.

"Geneticists have been studying the people of Sardinia for a long time, but we haven't known much about their past," said the senior author John Novembre, PhD, a leading computational biologist at the Univeristy of Chicago who studies genetic diversity in natural populations. "There have been clues that Sardinia has a particularly interesting genetic history, and understanding this history could also have relevance to larger questions about the peopling of the Mediterranean."

An interdisciplinary team

The people of Sardinia have long been studied by geneticists to understand human health. The island has one of the highest rates of people who live to 100 years or more, and its people have higher than average rates of autoimmune diseases and disorders such as beta-thalassemia and G6PD deficiency. Many villages in Sardinia also have high levels of relatedness, which makes uncovering the genetics of traits simpler. Across the island, the frequencies of genetic variants often differ from mainland Europe. These factors have made Sardinia a useful place for geneticists like senior author Francesco Cucca from the Università di Sassari in Italy to uncover genetic variants that may be linked to disease and aging.

"Contemporary Sardinians represent a reservoir for some variants that are currently very rare in continental Europe," Cucca said. "These genetic variants are tools we can use to dissect the function of genes and the mechanisms that are at the basis of genetic diseases."

Sardinia also has a unique archaeological, linguistic, and cultural heritage, and has been part of Mediterranean trade networks since the Neolithic age. How much the population's genetic ancestry has changed through these times, however, has been unknown.

To generate a new perspective on the genetic history of Sardinia, long-term collaborators Cucca and Novembre brought together an interdisciplinary group with geneticists, archaeologists, and ancient DNA experts. A team led by Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Tübingen in Germany helped coordinate the sampling and carried out DNA sequencing and authentication. Teams led by Novembre and Cucca then analyzed the data and shared the results with the whole group for an interdisciplinary interpretation.

"We were thrilled to be able to generate such a dataset spanning six thousand years because the retrieval of ancient DNA from skeletal remains from Sardinia is very challenging," said Cosimo Posth, an archaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute and co-first author of the study.

Periods of stability and change

Sampling DNA from ancient remains allows scientists to get a snapshot of people living at a specific time and place, instead of using modern DNA and inferring the past based on assumptions and mathematical models. When the team compared the DNA of 70 ancient individuals collected from Sardinia to the DNA of other ancient and modern individuals, they uncovered two major patterns.

First, they saw that Sardinian individuals in the Middle Neolithic period (4100-3500 BCE) were closely related to people from mainland Europe of the time. Genetic ancestry then remained relatively stable on the island through at least the end of the "Nuragic" period (

900 BCE). This pattern differs from other regions of mainland Europe which experienced new ancestries entering from people moving across the continent in the Bronze Age.

The results also show the development of Sardinia's distinctive nuraghe stone towers and culture (after which the Nuragic period is named) did not coincide with any detectable, new genetic ancestry arriving to the island.

"We found striking stability in ancestry from the Middle Neolithic through the end of the Nuragic period in Sardinia," said Joe Marcus, a PhD student in the Department of Human Genetics at UChicago and a co-first author on the paper.

Second, the team found evidence of the arrival of different populations across the Mediterranean, first with Phoenicians originating from the Levant (modern-day Lebanon) and Punics, whose culture centered in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). Then, new ancestry continued to appear during the Roman period and further in the Medieval period, as Sardinia became historically influenced by migration of people from modern-day Italy and Spain.

"We observed clear signals of dynamic periods of contact linking the island to the rest of the Mediterranean, appearing first in individuals from two Phoenician and Punic sites as early as 500 BCE, and then in individuals from the Roman and Medieval periods," said Harald Ringbauer, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the computational data analysis at UChicago and a co-first author on the paper.

The group's results help explain similarities with DNA from mainland European individuals of the Neolithic and Copper Age, such as "Ötzi the Iceman," an almost perfectly preserved, 5,300-year-old human discovered in alpine ice in northern Italy in 1991. Specifically, among modern Europeans, Ötzi's DNA is most similar to modern-day Sardinians. The new study supports the theory that this similarity remains because Sardinia had less turnover of genetic ancestry over time than mainland Europe, which experienced large-scale migrations in the Bronze Age.

Insights from the past, implications for the present

Besides providing new insight into mysteries of the past, studying ancient DNA also has implications for the well-being of present-day humans. This model of Sardinia's population history -- establishment followed by relative isolation and then the arrival of new sources of diversity -- provides a new framework for understanding how genetic variants with health implications became more frequent on the island.

"For future studies, we want to look more precisely at mutations that we think are involved in disease to see in which period they changed in frequency and how quickly they changed," Novembre said. "That will help us understand the processes acting on these diseases, and in turn gain a richer view that may yield insights for human health."


Early Human Species Likely Driven to Extinction by Climate Change

Of the six or more different species of early humans, all belonging to the genus Homo, only we Homo sapiens have managed to survive. Now, a study reported in the journal One Earth today (October 15, 2020) combining climate modeling and the fossil record in search of clues to what led to all those earlier extinctions of our ancient ancestors suggests that climate change — the inability to adapt to either warming or cooling temperatures — likely played a major role in sealing their fate.

“Our findings show that despite technological innovations including the use of fire and refined stone tools, the formation of complex social networks, and — in the case of Neanderthals — even the production of glued spear points, fitted clothes, and a good amount of cultural and genetic exchange with Homo sapiens, past Homo species could not survive intense climate change,” says Pasquale Raia of Università di Napoli Federico II in Napoli, Italy. “They tried hard they made for the warmest places in reach as the climate got cold, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough.”

To shed light on past extinctions of Homo species including H. habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens, the researchers relied on a high-resolution past climate emulator, which provides temperature, rainfall, and other data over the last 5 million years. They also looked to an extensive fossil database spanning more than 2,750 archaeological records to model the evolution of Homo species’ climatic niche over time. The goal was to understand the climate preferences of those early humans and how they reacted to changes in climate.

Their studies offer robust evidence that three Homo species — H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neanderthalensis — lost a significant portion of their climatic niche just before going extinct. They report that this reduction coincided with sharp, unfavorable changes in the global climate. In the case of Neanderthals, things were likely made even worse by competition with H. sapiens.

“We were surprised by the regularity of the effect of climate change,” Raia says. “It was crystal clear, for the extinct species and for them only, that climatic conditions were just too extreme just before extinction and only in that particular moment.”

Raia notes that there is uncertainty in paleoclimatic reconstruction, the identification of fossil remains at the level of species, and the aging of fossil sites. But, he says, the main insights “hold true under all assumptions.” The findings may serve as a kind of warning to humans today as we face unprecedented changes in the climate, Raia says.

“It is worrisome to discover that our ancestors, which were no less impressive in terms of mental power as compared to any other species on Earth, could not resist climate change,” he said. “And we found that just when our own species is sawing the branch we’re sitting on by causing climate change. I personally take this as a thunderous warning message. Climate change made Homo vulnerable and hapless in the past, and this may just be happening again.”


4. The Remains of One of the Oldest Americans Were Found in Mexico

Human remains found in 2012 in Mexico’s Tulum system of submerged caves were re-analyzed this year, leading scientists to believe the remains are the oldest osteological remains of humans in the Americas. In a paper published in PLOS One in August, the scientists behind the research, led by Heidelberg University paleoecologist Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, Ph.D., explain the bones likely belong to a young man who lived around 13,000 years ago.

Stinnesbeck and his team dated one bone, the pelvis, by measuring the levels of uranium, carbon, and oxygen isotopes within it as well as that within the stalagmite that had grown through it. Calcite layers, which contain oxygen and carbon isotopes, store information about climate and precipitation data, which helps determine an age.

The researchers claim this discovery adds further proof to the theory that humans came to the Americas at least 5,000 years before the Clovis, a prehistoric group of people who have previously been called the first Americans.


Could we clone a dinosaur? DNA breaks down over time. The dinosaurs went extinct around 66 million years ago and with so much time having passed it is very unlikely that any dinosaur DNA would remain today. While dinosaur bones can survive for millions of years, dinosaur DNA almost certainly does not.

There currently is no solid scientific evidence that anyone has cloned human embryos. In 1998, scientists in South Korea claimed to have successfully cloned a human embryo, but said the experiment was interrupted very early when the clone was just a group of four cells.


Watch the video: Die Erdgeschichte durch die Augen eines ihrer ältesten Bewohner (December 2021).