All in the family  JUL 08 2013

Did you know that there are new human beings? Like, not just new human babies but new species of humans? And not just new species of humans, but new species of humans who lived at the same time as, and even possibly bred with, modern humans, aka us? (Helloooooo, mesofacts.)

If you've read kottke.org over the years, you've likely heard of Homo floresiensis (aka Flores man, aka Hobbits), a species whose remains were discovered in present-day Indonesia in 2003. Homo floresiensis lived 95,000 to 13,000 years ago and stood about three feet high.

In this month's National Geographic, Jamie Shreeve tells the story of the 2010 discovery of the Denisovans, hominids who lived in modern-day Russia as late as 40,000 years ago. Only a handful of bone fragments and teeth have been recovered, but DNA and other evidence suggests that Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern humans lived together in the same place and interbred.

By the time of the Denisova symposium, Pääbo and his colleagues had published first drafts of the entire Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes. Reading so many more pages allowed Pääbo and his colleagues, including David Reich at Harvard University and Montgomery Slatkin at the University of California, Berkeley, to discover that human genomes today actually contain a small but significant amount of Neanderthal code -- on average about 2.5 percent. The Neanderthals still may have been swept into extinction by the strange, high-browed new people who followed them out of Africa, but not before some commingling that left a little Neanderthal in most of us, 50,000 years later. Only one group of modern humans escaped that influence: Africans, because the commingling happened outside that continent.

Although the Denisovans' genome showed that they were more closely related to the Neanderthals, they too had left their mark on us. But the geographic pattern of that legacy was odd. When the researchers compared the Denisovan genome with those of various modern human populations, they found no trace of it in Russia or nearby China, or anywhere else, for that matter -- except in the genomes of New Guineans, other people from islands in Melanesia, and Australian Aborigines. On average their genomes are about 5 percent Denisovan. Negritos in the Philippines have as much as 2.5 percent.

In 2012, evidence emerged of a possible new human species, the Red Deer Cave people, who lived in what is now southern China.

The Red Deer Cave dwellers' unusual features included a flat face, a broad nose, a jutting jaw that lacked a chin, large molar teeth, a rounded braincase with prominent brow ridges, and thick skull bones, the researchers say.

Their brains were "moderate in size," Curnoe added.

Despite this seemingly primitive human design, radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the fossil deposits suggests the Red Deer Cave people lived just 14,500 to 11,500 years ago, the team says-a time by which all other human species, such as Neanderthals, are thought to have died out.

As with the other potential new human species, and as is proper in science, there is some skepticism about the Red Deer Cave people.

The team's suggestion that the Red Deer Cave people are somehow evolutionarily unique is receiving a skeptical reception from other scientists.

Physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus described the findings as "an unfortunate overinterpretation and misinterpretation of robust early modern humans, probably with affinities to modern Melanesians"-indigenous peoples of Pacific islands stretching from New Guinea to Fiji (map).

"There is nothing extraordinary" about the newly announced fossil human, added Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, via email.

Philipp Gunz, of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, isn't convinced by the study team's interpretation either.

"I would be surprised if it really was a new human group that was previously undiscovered," said, Gunz, also a physical anthropologist.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
archaeology   DNA   Flores Man   humans   science

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