XClose

Human Evolution @ UCL

Home
Menu

News

New Book: The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Medicine (2019)

Medicine is grounded in the natural sciences, among which biology stands out with regard to the understanding of human physiology and conditions that cause dysfunction. Ironically though, evolutionary biology is a relatively disregarded field. One reason for this omission is that evolution is deemed a slow process. Indeed, macroanatomical features of our species have changed very little in the last 300,000 years. A more detailed look, however, reveals that novel ecological contingencies, partly in relation to cultural evolution, have brought about subtle changes pertaining to metabolism and immunology, including adaptations to dietary innovations, as well as adaptations to the exposure to novel pathogens. Rapid pathogen evolution and evolution of cancer cells cause major problems for the immune system to find adequate responses. In addition, many adaptations to past ecologies have turned into risk factors for somatic disease and psychological disorder in our modern worlds (i.e. mismatch), among which epidemics of autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity, as well as several forms of cancer stand out. In addition, depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions add to the list. 

Publication date:

Homo neanderthalensis of Charente, France relied heavily on reindeer for meat

We conducted a preliminary analysis of faunal remains from three Middle Paleolithic assemblages from sites in Charente, France: Grotte Simard, Abri Commont (Petit-Puymoyen), and Abri Lartet, a distinct locus in the Grotte de Montgaudier. All three assemblages were excavated between the 1950s and the 1980s. Our examination of the material, while mindful of the potential role of selective retention of faunal remains, suggests a number of hypotheses concerning the role of humans in the faunal accumulations, particularly regarding the possible exploitation of small, fast prey by Neandertals at the three sites. While traces of human activity are present at Grotte Simard, this assemblage seems to predominantly reflect carnivore activity. In contrast, the faunal samples from Abri Commont and Abri Lartet contain strong anthropogenic signals and minimal evidence of large carnivore imprint in the main occupation layers. At Abri Commont, the fauna from Couche 2, associated with a Quina industry, is dominated by reindeer, followed by horse and large bovids. More detailed study of the small game from Abri Commont suggests that non-human animal activity was responsible for their accumulation at the site. At Abri Lartet, the main occupation layer (Couche 2) is associated with what has been described as a transitional “Ferrassie/Quina” lithic industry, and the faunal assemblage is heavily dominated by reindeer. Based on the available stratigraphic information, we divide the assemblages from the lower levels (3–9) of Abri Lartet into east and west sectors. The faunal assemblages from levels 3, 4, and 6 in the east part of the Abri are consistently dominated by reindeer, while levels 3 and lower in the west part show substantial evidence of bear activity. Despite signs of extensive processing of ungulate parts in the east levels of Abri Lartet, we hypothesize that small animals were rarely exploited as food at the site, consistent with other sites in southwestern France.

Publication date:

Régismont-le-Haut open-air-site provides interesting insights into daily camp organisation during dominance of the Aurignacian stone tool industry

Régismont-le-Haut, an Aurignacian open-air campsite, provides an occasion to investigate aspects of Aurignacian site variability that are rarely broached: (1) the relatively poorly known area connecting the Aquitaine and Mediterranean Basins, and (2) the high-resolution spatial organization of an Early Upper Palaeolithic campsite. While more difficult to integrate directly into chronological models of Aurignacian evolution, mostly derived from stratified rock-shelter and cave sites from the northern Aquitaine Basin, it is argued that studying open-air sites like Régismont-le-Haut can furnish detailed information that rock shelter/cave sites cannot, therefore providing critical building blocks and possible reading keys to help reconstruct prehistoric circulation systems and marry synchronic and diachronic perspectives on variability.

Publication date:

Chemical composition of the 40,000 year old Sulawesi Rock Art

Rock art comprises various forms of images and markings, including paintings, drawings, and engravings, created by prehistoric people on immobile surfaces of rocks. In Indonesia, the distribution of rock art sites has been relatively well studied and documented. Indeed, Uranium-series analysis of speleothem materials overlying negative hand stencils and naturalistic animal paintings from the limestone karsts of Maros in southern Sulawesi shows that the rock art in this region dates to at least 40,000 years ago, and is thus among the world's oldest. To our knowledge, the chemistry of the Sulawesi rock art, including that of the pigments used for making these images, and with particular regard to the topology and morphology of these materials, have not yet been systematically investigated. In this study, we report the results of our spectroscopic and microscopic analyses of two samples of pigment collected from rock art motifs at Leang Sumpang Bita 2 in Pangkep, South Sulawesi. The first and second samples possess dark red and purple colours, respectively. Analysis shows that both samples contain iron oxide, which may explain their reddish colours. Nevertheless, microstructural differences are evident, including crystal morphology and size, and, in our view, are responsible for the discrepancy in the observed pigment colours. Our findings suggest that the sampled dark red and purple pigments are from the same raw material source (ochre), but differ in colour because of mechanically-induced alteration, presumably the result of varying pigment-processing methods used by the prehistoric artists.

Publication date:

Gona, Ethiopia: New 4.8 to 4.3 million year old partial skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus announced

Functional analyses of the 4.4 Ma hominin Ardipithecus ramidus postcrania revealed a previously unknown and unpredicted locomotor pattern combining arboreal clambering and a form of terrestrial bipedality. To date, all of the fossil evidence of Ar. ramidus locomotion has been collected from the Aramis area of the Middle Awash Research Project in Ethiopia. Here, we present the results of an analysis of additional early Pliocene Ar. ramidus fossils from the Gona Project study area, Ethiopia, that includes a fragmentary but informative partial skeleton (GWM67/P2) and additional isolated manual remains. While we reinforce the original functional interpretations of Ar. ramidus of having a mixed locomotor adaptation of terrestrial bipedality and arboreal clambering, we broaden our understanding of the nature of its locomotor pattern by documenting better the function of the hip, ankle, and foot. The newly recovered fossils document a greater adaptation to bipedality in the Ar. ramidus ankle and hallux than previously recognized. In addition, a newly discovered scaphoid bone with a fusing os centrale provides further evidence about the nature of hominin hand evolution.

Publication date:

Hominin Dispersal into south-east Asia: A Review

While the “Movius Line” may no longer represent a valid cultural division between Early and Middle Pleistocene hominins in South and Southeast Asia, it still offers a useful geographical and ecological window into changing processes of colonization by different members of the genus Homo. In this paper, we initially review the palaeoenvironmental and cultural record associated with Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis to argue for a relatively homogeneous adaptive strategy utilized by hominins moving east of this notional line during the Early and Middle Pleistocene. We then contrast this to the rapid dispersal of Homo sapiens into South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Melanesia, from at least 45,000 years ago, associated with specialized subsistence and technological adaptations to a variety of environmental settings. While earlier members of our genus appear to have followed riverine and lacustrine corridors, whose situation varied with periods of climate change, Homo sapiens specialized in adaptations to tropical rainforests, faunally depauperate island settings, montane environments, and deep-water marine habitats. After evaluating whether this distinction may be one of taphonomic and survey bias, and reviewing potential methodological developments that may facilitate further investigation, we suggest that the adaptive and cultural plasticity of our species enabled pioneering colonization and occupation not previously seen in this part of the world. This plasticity allowed our species to remain in this region through ever-increasing climatic instability and become the last surviving hominin in Late Pleistocene South Asia and Sahul.

Publication date:

Least Cost Path Modelling suggests early hominin dispersal via the northern Sinai

The state of our knowledge concerning the geographic routes through which hominins spread out of Africa remains incomplete. The Nile basin (Northern Route) and the Strait of Bab al-Mandab (Southern Route) have been commonly cited as the likely Out-of-Africa dispersal paths, although the degree to which these routes were always accessible is unclear. This paper seeks to identify areas that may have served as viable routes for hominin dispersals from eastern Africa into the Levant using analytical tools within a Geographic Information System (GIS). We employed a heuristic model that would find the Least Cost Paths (LCPs) from three hypothetical origin points in the Ethiopian-Afar Rift basins to a predefined destination point on the Sinai Peninsula (a gateway to Eurasia). Three input variables, namely topographic roughness, drainage density and elevation were used in creating the LCP model. All of the resulting LCPs have travelled through the Nile basin, reinforcing the Northern Route hypothesis. It is also interesting to observe that all the LCPs have crossed the western highlands of Ethiopia before converging at the Nile, lending support to the recently proposed “Mountain Exile Hypothesis” (Vogelsang, 2018). This region had seen little Paleolithic research in the past, thus our model provides a critically needed baseline for future systematic fieldwork there.

Publication date:

New Electron Spin Resonance and Uranium Series Dating suggests hominin occupation of Cueva del Angel, Lucena, Spain between 350,000 and 183,000 years ago

The Cueva del Angel (Lucena, Spain) is an open-air archaeological site with a sedimentary sequence remnant of a collapsed rock shelter which was part of a still active karst complex. The lithic assemblage consists essentially of abundant retouched tools including 46 identified handaxes along with non-modified flakes, and is associated with faunal remains dominated by Equus ferus and other large bovids and cervids. A large proportion of bones has undergone intense anthropic actions and been subjected to intense fire, thus evidencing sustained use of animal meat resources by humans.

Publication date:

Highest African Acheulean Archaeological Site Found on Ethiopian Mountain

High-altitude mountain habitats are regarded as unfavorable for human occupation (e.g., Aldenderfer 2014) and basic findings of high altitude human physiology research impressively illustrate this: e.g., prevalence of high-altitude hypoxia, increased UV radiation, increased loss of water, and higher basal metabolic rates (Beal 2001; Berghold and Schaffert 2009). Therefore, it seems reasonable that hominins would only be pushed into such conditions by decreasing land resources in the lowlands following rapid population increase or ecological changes (Basell 2008; Foerster et al. 2015). In fact, the scarce archeological evidence for a pre-Holocene occupation of high mountain ranges hypothesized a late colonization of these environments. Archeological investigations on Mount Dendi (3270 m a.s.l.) located on the Ethiopian Plateau question this assumption.

Publication date:

Antiquarian Collections of British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts are assessed for their value to research

The British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic record makes an important contribution to understanding the early occupation of northern Europe, in particular, through the detailed, systematic and multidisciplinary excavations of key sites. However, it is the historic collections, amassed by a large number of collectors over a 100-year period from the 1860s to the 1960s, that contribute the majority of the artefact record accounting for almost 80% of the handaxes and over 85% of finds locations. Although much of this material lacks the contextual details of excavated assemblages, it still forms an important and large body of data for the British early Palaeolithic. This paper explores the collecting practices of the individuals responsible for the majority of the old collections and demonstrates that through a study of collection history, from discovery to museum curation, the material provides a dataset that can be used in a critical way to address broad-scale questions concerning changes in material culture, demography and landscape use. Such studies also have implications for the interpretation of the Palaeolithic record, beyond the sharp focus of modern excavation.

Publication date:

Highly muscular Homo neanderthalensis was adapted more for hunting than the harsh tundra environment of the Late Pleistocene

The prevailing explanation for Neanderthal body form is the cold (glacial) adaptation hypothesis. However, palaeoecological associations appear to indicate a less cold woodland environment. Under such conditions, encounter and ambush (rather than pursuit) hunting – and thus muscular power and sprint (rather than endurance) capacity – would have been favoured. We hypothesise that the highly muscular Neanderthal body form reflects an adaptation to hunting conditions rather than cold, and here both review the palaeoecological evidence that they inhabited a mainly woodland environment, and present preliminary genetic analyses in support of this new hypothesis. Among the team members is Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment).

Publication date:

A re-evaluation of hominin diversity in the 1.5 million year old Okote Formation, Kenya

The newly described partial skeleton of Paranthropus boisei KNM-ER 47000 as well as the FwJj14E Ileret footprints provide new evidence on the paleobiology and diversity of hominins from the Okote Member of the Koobi Fora Formation at East Turkana about 1.5 Ma. To better understand the ecological context of the Okote hominins, it is necessary to broaden the geographical focus of the analysis to include the entire Omo-Turkana ecosystem, and the temporal focus to encompass the early Pleistocene. Previous work has shown that important changes in the regional vegetation occurred after 2 Ma, and that there was a peak in mammalian turnover and diversity close to 1.8 Ma. This peak in diversity included the Hominini, with the species P. boisei, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus co-occurring at around 1.8 Ma. There is considerable debate about whether H. habilis and H. rudolfensis indeed constitute separate species, but even if we consider them both as H. habilis sensu lato, the co-occurrence of three hominin species at any one time and place is rather unusually high diversity for hominin standards (even if not so for other mammalian groups such as suids, bovids, or cercopithecids). Here we use mammalian faunal abundance data to place confidence intervals on first and last appearances of hominin species in the early Pleistocene of the Omo-Turkana Basin, and use these estimates to discuss hominin diversity in the Okote Member. We suggest that in the early Pleistocene a wide range of depositional environments and vegetation types, along with a high frequency of volcanism, likely maintained high levels of environmental variability both in time and space across the Omo-Turkana region, and provided ecological opportunities for the coexistence of at least three hominin species alongside a diverse mammalian fauna.

Publication date:

KNM-ER 47000: The Complete Collection (January 2019)

At Site FwJj14E, Area 1A, Ileret, along the eastern shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya, a number of fossils of a 1.52 million year old hominin arm were uncovered. A number of academic papers have been published on these fossils by Brian Richmond and his team. You can view them all below here.

Publication date:

It's taken over half a century, but the Regourdou 1 hominin foot has finally been described and comparatively assessed

Regourdou is a well-known Middle Paleolithic site which has yielded the fossil remains of a minimum of two Neandertal individuals. The first individual (Regourdou 1) is represented by a partial skeleton while the second one is represented by a calcaneus. The foot remains of Regourdou 1 have been used in a number of comparative studies, but to date a full description and comparison of all the foot remains from the Regourdou 1 Neandertal, coming from the old excavations and from the recent reanalysis of the faunal remains, does not exist. Here, we describe and comparatively assess the Regourdou 1 tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges. They display traits observed in other Neandertal feet, which are different from some traits of the Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca) hominins and of Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic and recent modern humans. These Neandertal features are: a rectangular talar trochlea with a large lateral malleolar facet, a broad talar head, a broad calcaneus with a projecting sustentaculum tali, a wide and wedged navicular with a projecting medial tubercle, large and wide bases of the lateral metatarsals, and mediolaterally expanded and robust phalanges that also show hallux valgus in a strongly built hallux.

Publication date:

Further dental analysis of Homo antecessor suggests it was basal to Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis and the Denisovan Hominins

Here we analyze the unpublished hominin dental remains recovered from the late Early Pleistocene Gran Dolina-TD6.2 level of the Sierra de Atapuerca (northern Spain), as well as provide a reassessment of the whole TD6.2 hominin dental sample. Comparative descriptions of the outer enamel surface (OES) and the enamel-dentine junction (EDJ) are provided. Overall, the data presented here support the taxonomic validity of Homo antecessor, since this species presents a unique mosaic of traits. Homo antecessor displays several primitive features for the genus Homo as well as some traits exclusively shared with Early and Middle Pleistocene Eurasian hominins. Some of these Eurasian traits were retained by the Middle Pleistocene hominins of Europe, and subsequently became the typical condition of the Neanderthal lineage. Although other skeletal parts present resemblances with Homo sapiens, TD6.2 teeth do not show any synapomorphy with modern humans. In addition, TD6.2 teeth can be well differentiated from those of Asian Homo erectus. The dental evidence is compatible with previous hypothesis about H. antecessor belonging to the basal population from which H. sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and Denisovans emerged. Future findings and additional research may help to elucidate the precise phylogenetic link among them.

Publication date: