About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

The Most Fascinating Human Evolution Discoveries of 2012

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Australopithecus sediba skull

PALEO DIET: Analyses of tartar on the teeth of Australopithecus sediba show that this early human species ate bark and other unexpected foods. Image: Kate Wong

Recent years have brought considerable riches for those of us interested in human evolution and 2012 proved no exception. New fossils, archaeological finds and genetic analyses yielded thrilling insights into the shape of the family tree, the diets of our ancient predecessors, the origins of art and advanced weaponry, the interactions between early Homo sapiens and other human species, and other facets of our ancestors’ lives. The list below highlights the discoveries that most captivated me in a year of revelations about the way we were. Did I miss your favorite? Let me know in the comments.

  • A 3.4 million-year-old fossil foot suggests a second lineage of hominins (creatures more closely related to us than to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees) may have lived alongside Lucy’s kind and spent more time in the trees than on the ground.
  • Fossils from Kenya dating to between 1.87 million and 1.95 million years ago rekindle debate over whether our own genus, Homo, split into multiple lineages early on.
  • Analysis of tartar, molar wear and tooth chemistry in the nearly two-million-year-old hominin known as Australopithecus sediba shows that it had an unexpected diet, including tree bark.
  • A shift in the technology and diet of early Homo around two million years ago may have doomed large carnivores
  • Tiny bits of burned plants and bone from a South African cave show that humans had tamed fire by 1 million years ago–some 600,000 year earlier than had previously been documented.
  • Our ancestors began making multicomponent tools in the form of deadly stone-tipped spears 500,000 years ago—200,000 years earlier than previously thought.
  • Cave paintings in Spain are the oldest in the world and are sufficiently ancient to be the creations of Neandertals.
  • Neandertals hunted birds for their fashionable feathers for thousands of years and may have exploited certain plants for their medicinal properties–compelling evidence that our hominin cousins were cognitively sophisticated.
  • Reconstructed genome of the Denisovans–an enigmatic group of archaic hominins—confirms that early Homo sapiens interbred with them and reveals new details of their genetic legacy.
  • Whole-genome sequencing of modern hunter-gatherers from Africa turns up loads of previously unknown genetic variants and indicates that early Homo sapiens interbred with another hominin species long ago in Africa.
  • Paleoanthropology’s hobbit, a tiny hominin species called Homo floresiensis, gets a new face thanks to forensic reconstruction–and the result is startlingly familiar.
  • Stone tools and preserved poop from Oregon add to mounting evidence that the early human colonization of the Americas was more complex than scholars once envisioned.
  • Study finds that mom’s metabolism—not the size of the pelvis—limits gestation length to nine months, providing a new explanation for why humans give birth to helpless babies.


Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 8 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Andrew Planet 9:59 am 12/19/2012

    The last discovery you mention makes perfect sense to me, as a layperson with a natural heterosexually filtering mind, in that different women with equal length gestation have visibly obvious dissimilar sized pelvises, asides from the different amounts of subcutaneous fat they carry.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 1:16 pm 12/19/2012

    I think there are developmental benefits to birthing a still developing baby, other than the mother’s metabolic limitations, since there is greater opportunity for adaptive learning after birth. Perhaps the mother’s metabolic commitment is governed by the length of gestation rather than being its determining factor – yes, once again, correlation still does not infer causation.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 1:24 pm 12/19/2012

    As I understand, forensic facial reconstruction is guided by statistical measurements of facial tissue depths, even categorized by ethnicity. Obviously, this foundational data is not available for the Flores Hobbit, making its facial reconstruction less ‘scientific’ than even the methods commonly used in murder cases.

    I wouldn’t have included this story in my list just because it made it into SA – the other articles are fascinating indeed!

    Link to this
  4. 4. Dredd 3:10 pm 12/19/2012

    Isn’t it about time that we spent more time on the evolution that has taken up far more time than biotic evolution?

    Like spending the appropriate amount of time on abiotic evolution that preceeded biotic evolution?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Stumpzian Farber 9:45 am 12/27/2012

    I think this discovery about time travel will be worthy of inclusion on next year’s list.

    Link to this
  6. 6. SteveinOG 12:55 pm 12/31/2012

    I think that this year it has become increasing more evident that cognitively modern humans originated near the south coast of Africa rather than central or rift valley region of Africa.

    Link to this
  7. 7. gnagy 8:39 pm 01/2/2013

    Evolution did you say?

    There is a systemic problem especially in archaeology and paleontology.

    Read the info below and weep.

    On December 9, 2010 in The New York Times science writer Nicolas Wade wrote: “Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word ‘science’ from a statement of its long-range plan.”

    On her July 2010 radio show (WOR 710AM in New York) national talk-host Joan Hamburg spoke about her early career as a paleontologist and confessed “When we dig up something we don’t really know anything. We just make it up.”

    Read pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson’s best seller “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and discover on almost every other page the charlatanism, chicanery, lies, outright fraud—even murder—rampant in the sciences——even murder in paleontology and archaeology.

    The American Museum of Natural History has a life-sized African diorama with a hairy male and female ape-like homonids walking upright—based on the finding of a set of footprints!

    When Bryson asked the curator of the museum and paleoanthropologist, Ian Tattersall, if “he was troubled about the amount of artistic license that was taken in reconstructing the figures, Tattersall replied, “It’s always a problem in making recreations. You wouldn’t believe how much discussion can go into deciding details like whether Neanderthals had eyebrows or not…We simply can’t know the details of what they looked like… If I had to do it again, I think I might have made them slightly more apelike and less human. ”

    He also wrote “If you correlate [fossil] tool discovery with the species of creature most found nearby, you would have to conclude that early hand tools were mostly made by antelopes…”

    In 2004 National Geographic tested four paleoartists by giving them the same fossil bones at different times without telling them other paleoartist would be creating drawings from the fossils. Not one of the drawings looked like the others—and none of them had any body hair on them!

    The biography, “Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit,” by Dr. David Traill, a classics professor at the University of California, shows that Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of the sites of Troy and Mycenae, was an unscrupulous, deceitful and repeatedly guilty of falsifying his excavation reports concluding that the famous archaeologist was a pathological liar. The trove of gold, silver, bronze and rock crystal attributed to King Priam of the Homeric period was an assemblage of artifacts collected at several places and on different occasions. Archeologists rallied to defend him stating that his excavations are a reliable foundation for modern scholarship despite the fact that truthfulness of researchers is of even more importance in archeology than in most other fields. Dr. Traill said the reluctance of archeologists to condemn Schliemann is understandable. The data they use to construct theories are based on excavation reports. Then someone comes along and puts as lot of knowledge in disrepute…so they dismiss the criticism. Dr. Machteld Mellink, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr College and former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, expressed her impatience in the matter, “We don’t make much progress on Troy by digging up this old gossip.”
    From a NYT article, “Archeologists Rally to Defend a Suspect Giant”January 6, 1996

    A NY Times (March 12, 1961) article, “There Are Neanderthals Among Us” discussed fossil skeletons found in La Chapelle in Europe which turned out to be those of recently departed residents who were bent over from bone disease.

    From a WSJ book review of The Half-Life of Facts:
    “The story of Brontosaurus, the lovable, distinct herbivore we all grew up with—never existed. Originally described in 1879 by Othniel Marsh, the Brontosaurus was soon determined to be a type of dinosaur that Marsh had already discovered in 1877, the Apatosaurus. But since the original Apatosaurus was just “a tiny collection of bones,” while the Brontosaurus that Marsh named “went on to be supplemented with a complete skeleton, beautiful to behold,” the second discovery captured the public’s imagination and the name “Brontosaurus” stuck for nearly a century. Only recently has the name “Apatosaurus” started to gain traction.

    Reconstructed Face of Extinct “Hobbit” Species Is Startlingly Humanlike
    By Kate Wong | December 11, 2012
    A third possibility, embraced by a few researchers, is that the tiny bones are simply the remains of diseased modern humans.

    Hobbit Hullabaloo
    New findings challenge the idea of a mini human species on Flores
    By Kate Wong Scientific American
    In recent months researchers have published several papers favoring the minority view of the skeptics. Hobbit proponents, however, think that the evidence for the hobbit as a separate human species is stronger than ever. The stakes are high. Proponents now believe the finds suggest that the first human ancestors to leave Africa may have been far more anatomically primitive—and may have left far earlier—than previously thought. If they are right, the Flores remains rank among the most important paleoanthropological discoveries of all time, one that will revolutionize our understanding of human evolution. If they are wrong, “it will be worse than Piltdown” in terms of its effect on the field, as one anonymous observer put it, referring to the 1912 hoax that combined modern human and orangutan fragments.

    This whole field has proven again and again that many of these researchers have lied and continue to lie. The most brazen—and unfounded—theories are proclaimed only to find the research was faked or non-existent.

    This is chicanery not science.
    This is weird imagination run wild.
    This is absolute fraud.

    Talk about honesty in the “sciences.”

    This is pure bunk.

    Link to this
  8. 8. kso721 10:46 pm 02/24/2013

    gnagy = troll. Sounds like a great book by a creationist. Nuff said.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American


Get All-Access Digital + Print >


Email this Article