The New Missing Link?

In 2010, archaeologists discovered the first fossils of Australopithecus sediba, a human-like species that lived in Africa about 1.9 million years ago. Now, extensive analysis shows that these fossils don’t belong to just any old extinct hominids…they might actually represent a direct link in the evolutionary chain of humanity. In other words, a missing link.

The Missing “Missing Link”?

It’s commonly thought that early humans and chimpanzees parted evolutionary ways about five to seven million years ago. The genus Homo proceeded to evolve even further, leading to numerous species and subspecies. Through a process of extinction and introgression, all of these other creatures eventually disappeared, leaving modern man as the sole surviving members of the Homo genus.

But the exact path of human evolution remains a mystery, due to the difficulty in locating ancient transitional fossils (aka missing links). However, its generally accepted that modern humans can trace their lineage back to Homo Erectus, which may have been the first hominid to leave Africa. The ancestors to Homo Erectus are less certain, with scientists taking sides among numerous candidates.

Is Australopithecus Sediba a Missing Link?

In 2010, a team led by Professor Lee Berger announced the discovery of the remains of two early protohumans in South Africa. The bones consisted of an adult female and a boy who most likely died when they fell into an underground cave. The protohumans were dubbed Australopithecus sediba.

After further examination, Professor Berger and his team now believe that this new species, although older than other species typically considered ancestors to Homo Erectus, was actually more advanced in terms of anatomy and likely capabilities. This has led the team to announce that Australopithecus sediba is a more likely candidate for the ancestor for Homo Erectus than the usual suspects. If true, that would make it “on the direct evolutionary line to us.” In other words, it could be a missing link.

“We have examined the critical areas of anatomy that have been used consistently for identifying the uniqueness of human beings. Any one of these features could have evolved separately, but it is highly unlikely that all of them would have evolved together if Australopithecus sediba was not related to our lineage.” ~ Professor Lee Berger, The University of the Witwatersrand

Some of the evidence backing this assertion include:

  • Age: The fossils were dated to 1.977 to 1.980 million years ago, making it old enough to be an ancestor to Homo Erectus.
  • Brain: While smaller than older fossils, the boy’s brain was probably more similar to modern humans in terms of shape. This may indicate “the start of the reorganization of the brain that would be necessary to make us what we are today.”
  • Hand: The adult female’s right hand shares far more in common with modern humans than with apes.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, is Australopithecus sediba a direct ancestor to Homo Erectus and thus, a direct ancestor to us? Is it a missing link? As of this point, scientists aren’t completely convinced. However, many seem to think that it’s a distinct possibility.

“One lineage of Australopithecus almost certainly led into the first member of our own genus called Homo, and from then eventually emerged modern humans. But some of them are side branches, and we’re trying to work out which ones are and which ones aren’t – and that’s why this finding is so important. In many ways, these fossils are the ‘smoking gun’ just before the emergence of our own genus.” ~ Dr. William Harcourt-Smit, American Museum of Natural History

The site where the Australopithecus sediba remains were found is believed to contain more fossils. If so, those fossils may strengthen Professor Berger’s case…and in the process, help to rewrite the history of human evolution as we know it.

Ancient Sea Mariners?

Homo erectus is an extinct hominid species. Most scholars consider it a direct African ancestor of Homo sapiens or perhaps, a separate species that originated in Asia. Popular opinion holds they were unintelligent cave-dwellers. But recent discoveries promise to rewrite those views. Did Homo erectus conquer the seas? Were they ancient mariners?

Ancient Mariners?

Until recently, researchers believed that man first crossed the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 B.C. But according to the Daily Mail, archaeologists now think that “man was crossing the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa at least 130,000 years ago – more than 100,000 years earlier than previously thought.”

Holy smokes! That’s quite a change. So what brought it about? In 2008-2009, a team led by archaeologist Thomas Strasser discovered stone tools predating Homo sapiens on Crete, an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Since Crete has been an island for many millennia, prehistoric people would’ve had to cross the the Mediterranean to reach it. In other words, they had to be ancient mariners.

Ancient Mariners on Crete?

Crete’s unique geology aided the dating process. Earthquakes in the region have slowly driven the island upward for eons. This created unique rock formations consisting of ancient beach sand. Some of the tools were discovered within those rock formations.

“We know that the tools are tens of meters above the terrace we dated at 50,000 years old, so we know right off the bat that they have to be at least that old.” ~ Karl Wegmann, Geologist

By studying the higher rock formations in which the tools were found, Wegmann was able to calculate their age at about 130,000 years old.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

And just like that, our knowledge of Homo erectus has changed forever. No longer should we view them as unintelligent, uncreative cave-dwellers. They possessed far greater skills that we ever imagined. For the time being, Homo erectus has earned its place in history as the first of the ancient mariners.

What Killed off the Neanderthal’s?

Some 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthal’s vanished from the earth. The cause of their extinction has long been a source of debate. Now, a team of academics believes that they have the answer. So, what’s the story? What killed off the Neanderthal’s?

Who were the Neanderthals?

The Neanderthal was a man-like species that once lived in Europe and parts of Asia. They are believed to have originated some 350,000-600,000 years ago. Modern scientists are locked in a debate about whether to categorize them as a subspecies (or race) of humans or a separate human species altogether. Regardless, compared to anatomically modern humans, Neanderthal’s were probably more robust, stronger, and exhibited a higher degree of facial sloping.

What happened to the Neanderthals?

Scientists have proposed numerous theories to account for their unexplained extinction. As you will see below, most of these theories are based around a sudden influx of competitors…namely modern man.

  • Genocide: Anatomically modern humans are believed to have evolved from an archaic human species some 200,000 years ago. As these early humans drifted out of Africa, they might have engaged the indigenous Neanderthal’s in war and killed them off.
  • Disease: Similar to the above except with pathogens as the agent of death. Humans might have accidentally infected Neanderthal populations with one or more diseases which proceeded to wipe them out.
  • Lack of Competitive Advantage: Humans may have held some kind of competitive advantage that enabled them to outlive the Neanderthal’s. Possibilities include technology or anatomical differences that made it more difficult for the Neanderthal’s to run and caused them to burn far more energy while doing so.
  • Interbreeding: Neanderthal’s might have bred with early humans, causing them to be completely absorbed into the Cro-Magnon population. This theory is backed to some degree by genetic studies and skeletal analysis.
  • Lack of Specialty: Neanderthal men and women may have both focused on hunting big game. With no one gathering plants or performing other home-based activities, they wouldn’t have been able to make full use of their environment.
  • Climate Change: The arrival of an Ice Age reduced plant growth in Europe. The Neanderthal’s might have been unable to adapt to the corresponding decline in plant-eating animals.

A New Theory?

A few days ago, Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution at Cambridge University, and his student Jennifer French announced new findings that may help explain why the European-based Neanderthal’s went extinct. Their research at Périgord, France shows that a great mass of African-based humans swarmed western Europe about 40,000 years ago. Outnumbered ten to one, the Neanderthal’s were forced to compete heavily for resources against a human population that was, in all likelihood, technologically superior.

“Faced with this kind of competition, the Neanderthals seem to have retreated initially into more marginal and less attractive regions of the continent and eventually, within a space of at most a hundred thousand years, for their populations to have declined to extinction – perhaps accelerated further by sudden climatic deterioration across the continent around 40,000 years ago.” ~ Professor Sir Paul Mellars

In addition, Professor Mellars believes that interbreeding, a theory favored by many scientists, had less impact than is generally accepted.

“There’s some evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, but that most likely happened 100,000 years ago, probably in the Near East. Modern humans swept into Europe much later – about 40,000 years ago – and there’s no evidence for interbreeding then.” ~ Professor Sir Paul Mellars

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

I have no doubt that other scientists and archaeologists will soon step forward, providing fresh challenges to Professor Mellars’ theory. Still, it seems probable that increased competition helped kill off the Neanderthal’s. But are they really extinct? Modern research shows that the average person living outside of Africa carries Neanderthal genetic material in the range of one to four percent. Thus, while the Neanderthal’s are no longer around, their legacy continues to live on inside many of us, a small but enduring reminder of the long and twisting path of modern man.