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The Most Fascinating Human Evolution Discoveries of 2012

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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.

 

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

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