For decades palaeoanthropology of the Americas has been dominated by a single idea; that nobody entered the continents before those people who used the elegant fluted spear blades first found near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1930s. These were eventually dated at a maximum age of around 13 ka before the present. One reason for accepting the Clovis people as the first Americans, apart from the lack of conclusive evidence for any earlier occupation, was the fact that glaciers blocked the route from the Bering land bridge of the last Ice age until about 13 ka. Increasing evidence has suggested earlier penetration by people who did not use Clovis tools from Asia, which reached Chile by around the same time and possibly as early as 33 ka. However, none of the evidence is definitive and the Clovis First hypothesis has been stoutly defended against this growing body of contrary evidence.
The ‘traditional’ idea of American occupation by humans after 13ka has taken a double whammy from an unusual set of fossils – of human excrement – discovered in a cave in Oregon. These have been dated at up to 15 ka and are unmistakably human, containing human mtDNA with genetic signatures typical of Native Americans (Waters, M.R. & Stafford, T.W., Jr. 2007. Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas. Science v. 315, p. 1122-1126; Gilbert, M.T.P et al. 2008. DNA from pre-Clovis human coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1154116).
Ideas of how and when the Americas were colonised are changing rapidly after decades of ossification. A fascinating article in the 14 March 2008 issue of Science magazine reviews the issues and prospects (Goebel, E. et al. 2008. The late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans in the Americas. Science, v. 319, p. 1497-1502). Genetic studies of living native Americans suggest their common ancestry in a Siberian population no earlier than 30 ka, and perhaps as late as 22 ka. The Beringia land bridge had repeatedly created a possible migration route during every major glaciation followed by many of the Pleistocene mammals that inhabited the Americas, but not by humans until the late stages of the last glaciation. Dating of archaeological sites and remains, including the human coprolites found by Waters and Stafford, is slowly pushing back the earliest evidence for a human presence to around 15 ka, several trhosand years before the Clovis culture appeared. Sometime before that, the first Americans had arrived and begun to spread. Ice barred their way through the interior of Alaska and NW Canada, and they must therefore have travelled along the coast, where the way was open from Beringia to Cape Horn; perhaps they used boats to move along the flat, but frigid shores of Beringia and the rugged western seaboard of North America. Early populations subsisting on shoreline resources would not have needed the heavy projectiles of the Clovis culture that are more attuned to ‘big-game’ hunting on plains. That may explain the sudden appearance of Clovis artefacts once access to plains was possible around 13.5 ka and its equally sudden disappearance at the start of the Younger Dryas around 12.8 ka when survival on icy plains would have become very difficult. Interestingly, the period of occupation of Siberia around 30 ka, would have presented the Beringia route to migration to North America when climate was similar to that following the last glacial maximum. So far, no tangible evidence
Homo floresiensis had big feet
Controversy has raged about her identity since the skull of a minute female hominin was unearthed from the Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. On the one hand are authorities who believe the fossil is that of a distinct human species, while on the other are sceptics convinced that the diminutive stature and chimp-like brain capacity reflect some pathological issue in a population of ordinary humans. The 12 April meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology in Columbus, Ohio (see Culotta, E. 2008. When hobbits (slowly) walked the Earth. Science, v. 320, p. 433-435) were treated to an anatomical exposition of the rest of the Liang Bua skeleton. A great deal more turns out to be different from human characteristics, including the legs and feet. Amusingly, for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit had them, the feet of H. floresiensis were disproportionately large. Also, her gait was quite different from ours – a kind of careful, high-stepping plod. Although not all agree, the post-cranial bones of H. floresiensis appear to bear close resemblance to those of early Homo species. Those favouring a separate species from our own suggest either that it arose through allopatric speciation from SE Asian H. erectus after isolation of a population on Flores, or perhaps even that it is a relic of an early migration of H. habilis from Africa almost 2 Ma ago. Whatever, it is now going to be even more difficult not to speak of hobbits.
Orrorin walked the walk
Orrorin tugenensis is one of those fossils over which palaeontologists tend get heated. It is a hominin, old (~6 Ma) and fragmentary, so it just might be the daddy of us all. That possibility takes a significant step forward with statistical evidence that Orrorin walked upright in a similar manner to the much later australopithecines and paranthropoids (Richmond, B.G. & Junggers, W.L. 2008. Orrorin tugenensis femoral morphology and the evolution of hominin bipedalism. Science, v, 319, p. 1662-1665). The study was made independently of the original discoverers, who claim that the femur has especially human-like features. Whichever, one of the original suggestions that Orrorin was on the ancestral line to gorillas has become improbable. The creature clearly displays the oldest known example of a bipedal gait (the older Sahelanthropus (~7 Ma) is known only from skull fragments and teeth, although its skull’s foramen magnum hints at bipedalism). In itself, Orrorin’s walking biomechanics is remarkable, as molecular evidence suggests that the branching that led to chimpanzees and to hominins is not much older than 6 Ma. It does seem as if that phylogenetic split may well have centred first on adaptation for traversing open ground from a forest common ancestor.
Colonisation of Europe pushed further back
Europe is so close to Africa that in recent years repeated waves of immigrants have crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, often on frighteningly flimsy craft. Their driving force is simply the search for a better life in the booming economies of Spain and Italy. Far more intense pressure from deteriorating climate and vanishing game drove Africans of many earlier times to escape their home continent, reaching back almost 2 million years. So how come the European hominin record is so short? At last count it went to H. antecessor around 750 ka, albeit a species that was sufficiently adventurous to reach British shores (see Earliest tourism in Northern Europe in EPN of January 2006). The famous Sierra de Atapuerca cave systems in northern Spain have now yielded clear evidence of much earlier occupants from around 1.1 to 1.2 Ma ago in the form of a lower jaw fragment in association with tools and bones showing signs of butchery (Carbonell, E. and 29 others 2008. The first hominin of Europe. Nature, v. 452, p. 465-469). Provisionally, the person has been assigned to H. antecessor, and there are two possible interpretations: either (s)he was a new immigrant from Africa, or represents a new speciation in northern Spain from an earlier population of African colonists. The paper’s title may prove to be premature.