Our ancestors parted from other humans earlier than expected

Despite the excitement raised by the discovery of remnants of 15 individuals of Homo naledi in a South African Cave the richest trove of hominin fossils remains that of Sima de los Huesos (‘pit of bones’) in northern Spain. In 2013 bone found in that cave from one of 28 or more individuals of what previous had been regarded as H. heidelbergensis, dated at around 400 ka, yielded mitochondrial DNA. It turned out to have affinities with mtDNA of both Neanderthals and Denisovans, especially the second. The data served to further complicate the issue of our origins, but were insufficient to do more than throw some doubt on the significance of H. heidelbergensis as a distinct species: nuclear DNA would do better, it was hoped by the palaeo-geneticists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Now a small fragment of those data (about 1 tro 2 million base pairs) have been presented to a London meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution – though not yet in a peer-reviewed journal. Anne Gibbons summarised the formal presentation in the 18 September 2015 issue of Science (Gibbons, Ann 2015. Humanity’s long, lonely road. Science, v. 349, p. 1270).

English: Cranium 5 is one of the most importan...
One of the best preserved discoveries in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain). (credit: Wikipedia)

The partial nuclear DNA is a great deal more like that of Neanderthals from much more recent times than it is of either Denisovans and modern humans. It seems most likely that the Sima de los Huesos individuals are early Neanderthals, which implies that the Neanderthal-Denisovan split was earlier than 400 ka. That might seem to be just fine, except for one thing: Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA are much more closely related to each other than to that of ourselves. That implies that the last common ancestor of the two archaic human species must have split from the ancestral line leading to modern humans even further back in time: maybe 550 to 765 ka ago and 100 to 400 ka earlier than previously surmised. This opens up several interesting possibilities for our long and separate development. Since Neanderthals and perhaps Denisovans emigrated from Africa to Eurasia several glacial cycles ago, maybe people genetically en route to anatomically modern humans did so too. The Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes suggest that they interbred with each other and that could have been at any time after the genetic split between them. Famously, they also interbred with direct ancestors of living Eurasians, but there is no genetic sign of that among living Africans. The evidence suggests that the insertion of archaic genetic material was into new migrants from Africa around 100 to 60 ka ago at different points along their routes to Europe and East Asia. But, obviously, it is by no means clear cut what passed between all three long-lived groups nor when. It is now just as possible that surviving, earlier Eurasians on the road to modern humans passed on their own inheritance from relationships with Neanderthal and Denisovan to newcomers from Africa. But none of these three genetic groups ever made their way back to Africa, until historic times.

More on Neanderthals, Denisovans and anatomically modern humans

An iconic early human skull

The earliest known human fossils outside of Africa were found at a site near Dmanisi in Georgia, between 1991 and 2005, following the discovery there in 1984 of primitive stone tools together with early Pleistocene animal bones. The Dmanisi finds occur with those of sabre-toothed cats and giant cheetahs, and so are probably not interments or in some kind of dwelling but were probably dragged into an underground carnivore den.

The five Dmanisi skulls of Homo erectus georgicus (credits; M.S. Ponce de Leon & P.E. Zollkofer, University of Zurich)
The five Dmanisi skulls of Homo erectus georgicus (credits; M.S. Ponce de Leon & P.E. Zollkofer, University of Zurich)

Initially the remains were assigned to a new species – Homo georgicus – but are now believed to be a subspecies of H. erectus. The finds are anatomically rich, with fossils of at least 5 individuals, both male and female, including 5 well-preserved skulls.  Analysing them has been a long process. Details of the best preserved, indeed the most complete early Homo skull ever found, have taken 8 years since its discovery in 2005 to reach publication (Lordkipanidze, D.  et al. 2013. A complete skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the evolutionary biology of early Homo. Science, v. 342, p. 326-331, DOI: 10.1126/science.1238484).

To the surprise of palaeoanthropologists, this specimen of Homo erectus georgicus has some ape-like features, including a protruding upper jaw in a relatively large face that most resembles the oldest African H. habilis, from Ethiopia, dated at 2.3 Ma. With a braincase of 546 cm3, the skull is on the small side of H. habilis and in the range of late australopithecines. Yet, like the much younger Homo floresiensis – dubbed ‘the Hobbit’ – the association with tools, of the most basic Oldowan type,  places it a cut above non-human hominins. The rest of the skeletal fossils show individuals with modern human proportions, albeit somewhat diminutive.

Surprises multiplied when comparative studies of all 5 skulls were complete. They are so different that, if found in widely separated specimens, would be placed in different species by most anatomists. Ruling out the chance association of several human species far from their Africa origins – few would suggest that up to 5 species left Africa at the same time and stuck together – a suggested explanation is that they represent a population of a human lineage in the process of evolving to a new species. The strength of this hypothesis contradicts the other recent view that several human species may have cohabited environments at different times. It also seems to throw into question the adoption of the name H. erectus for later human populations in both Africa and Eurasia: unless, as the authors tentatively suggest, there was genetic continuity and connectivity over large distances between both evolving populations