A cranium found in 1972 and the lower jaw of a newly discovered fossil,
shown reconstructed and combined above, are believed to be from
the same ancient hominid species.
The big-brained, upright primates of the genus Homo—the group to which we modern-day humans belong—evolved in East Africa around 2.4 million years ago. By half a million years later, Homo erectus, from whom we’re directly descended, was walking the plains near Lake Turkana in what is now Kenya. But anthropologists have increasingly come to believe that Homo erectus wasn’t the only hominid around. Three newly discovered fossils, detailed online this week in Nature, confirm that at least two other Homo species lived nearby—providing the strongest evidence yet that several evolutionary lineages split off in the genus’s early days.
According to one group of scientists, figuring out the answer required only a pair of high-tech gloves and a trained craftsman who could make both simple stone knives and more complicated hand axes. The craftsman wore gloves studded with electronic sensors that tracked his his hand movements. Lead researcher Aldo Faisal of Imperial College London found that simple and complex tools required the same amount of dexterity to produce.
“From these results, dexterity can be ruled out, and we can infer it has something to do with the complexity of the task,” says Faisal. Axes are made in several stages, which requires switching between tasks, suggesting that a higher level of complexity is required in the brain. [New Scientist]
Your brain is hungry. That big gray calculating machine in your head is an energy hog that needs lots of calories—more than the diet of fruits and plants that our distant hominin ancestors probably ate could provide. It’s a mystery, then, just how human ancestors like Homo erectus—who were around when our craniums started to expand in a hurry—ate enough to start growing big brains. But buried in Kenya, a two-million-year-old hint has emerged: Those hominins started eating seafood way back then, archaeologists say.
Near a place called Lake Turkana, archaeologists David Braun found two intriguing groups of items: The bones of fish, turtles, and even crocodiles with the scars of stone tools still showing, and stone fragments that Braun says come from the simple tools these hominins used to carve up the marine animals. He and his colleagues report the find of our ancestors’ ancient feast in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Today, their leftovers—in the form of hundreds of bones and several thousand stone tools—are the earliest “definitive evidence” of hominins butchering and eating aquatic animals, which are rich in fatty acids essential for growing bigger brains [ScienceNOW].
The fossilized pelvis of a Homo erectus woman who lived 1.2 million years ago on the banks of an Ethiopian river has been discovered, and while researchers say it casts new light on human evolution, some of their conclusions are challenging previous theories about these early human ancestors. The pelvis reveals a short, squat woman who wasn’t built for long-distance running, but also a woman with a wide birth canal to accommodate big-brained infants.
Study coauthor Scott Simpson says the pelvis’s wide birth canal indicates that hominds’ increasing brain size was a driving factor in human evolution. Getting through the birth canal is “the most gymnastic thing we ever do,” he says. To accommodate big-brained babies, humans must have developed larger and wider birth canals over time, but with few pelvic fossils, researchers had little idea when these changes began. The Busidima pelvis shows that a wide birth canal was already in place 1.2 million years ago [New Scientist].