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Thursday, October 28, 2004
 
Planet Of The Homos

This is truly amazing. An expedition of paleoanthropologists have
just announced the discovery of a whole new species of extinct human.
What's incredible is not only how different these humans were from
us, but how recently they managed to stick around. In fact, if it
weren't for a violent twist of fate, they might even be alive
to this day
:


The remains of a tiny and hitherto
unknown species of human that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago
have been discovered on an Indonesian island.


The discovery has been heralded as
the most important palaeoanthropological find for 50 years, and has
radically altered the accepted picture of human evolution.


The skull and bones of one adult
female, and fragments from up to six other specimens, were found in
the Liang Bua limestone caves on Flores Island, which lies at the
eastern tip of Java.


The female skeleton, known as LB1 —
or by the nickname “Ebu” — has been assigned to a
new species within the genus HomoHomo
floresiensis
. Examination of the remains shows members of the
species stood just 1 metre tall and had a brain no bigger than a
grapefruit.


Yes, you read that correctly. The adults of this species topped
out at just three feet tall, about as big as your average homo
sapien
three-year-old. Go ahead and call them Hobbits
... even the scientists can't
resist it
.


And no, this is not some sort of Weekly World News
exclusive.”
It's all very sober and peer-reviewed, even if it's damned incredible
stuff. For the most detailed rundown of the backstory of the species'
discovery, I recommend this interview
of expedition member Peter Brown
in the latest edition of
Scientific American.


It's been a pretty topsy-turvy couple of weeks in
paleoanthropology. Just last week, we learned that the existence of a
species
of human hair louse
found only in the Americas points to some
sort of fairly recent contact between American Indians and a
lingering remnant homo erectus population somewhere in Asia.
Researchers were so excited by this development that they were
already psyching themselves up to conduct an investigation of human
pubic lice
, just to see how (ahem) close the contact really was
between these two species.


Homo erectus still loafing around the planet a mere 25,000
years ago? I thought that was a pretty big deal at the time. But an
entire island full of teeny-tiny people, only a few thousand years
removed from our own time? That's freakin' major.


What this also means is that little more than 25,000-30,000 years
ago there were at least four separate and distinct species of
humans wandering the planet.


That's right, four. In fact, if you accept some scientific
assertions about what makes us human, then there could have been as
many as six coexistent species at the time — three of whom are
still alive to this day.


Here's a rundown of the four/six human species in question, by
order of their most recent appearance on the scene. The first four
are by their official taxonomies, while the latter two are presented
for the most part as educated speculation:



  • HOMO FLORESIENSIS: The new discovery.
    Amazingly, it appears as if these little guys, and not us,
    were the most recent species of humans to evolve. While this
    interpretation is subject to change (research on this species is
    still in its infancy), the oldest fossil evidence so far uncovered
    indicates a branching off from the parent population between 78,000
    and 94,000 years ago, long after our species of human first showed
    up in Africa (see below). They might still be with us to this day,
    if a massive volcanic eruption hadn't dropped a giant turd in their
    island-paradise punch bowl.

    Then again, maybe the volcano didn't
    kill them all off. The scientists who discovered them note that
    island folk tales speak
    of contact with a people
    very much like floresiensis up
    until the arrival of European colonists only a few hundred years
    ago.

    But while floresiensis may have come along after us,
    they did not evolve from us, however. Floresiensis in
    all likelihood is a direct
    descendant
    of our own immediate parent, homo
    erectus
    . It's gratifying to know that even in this late
    stage of his existence, good ol' pappy erectus was still able
    to get it up ...


  • HOMO SAPIENS: Otherwise known as “us
    guys.” While recent
    fossil discoveries
    have pushed the age of the species sapiens
    to about 160,000 years ago, we don't seem to have amounted to much
    during the first 60,000 years or so of our existence. For the most
    part, we just sorta putzed around Ethiopia until about 100,000 B.C.
    ... after which we literally swarmed the planet, nearly wiping out
    every other species of human in the process.




  • HOMO NEANDERTHALENSIS: These guys were straight
    outta Bedrock.
    Squat, heavy-boned, and powerfully muscled, a Neanderthal
    would be king
    of the barroom-brawl
    if he were around today. He isn't —
    fortunately for us modern barflies — having fallen victim to
    global
    climate change and probable encroachment
    from those swarming, if
    more effete, homo sapiens. Homo neanderthalensis first
    appeared in Europe and West Asia about 300,000 years ago, peaked
    around the same time we showed up on the planet (see above), and
    managed to hold it together until about 28,000 years ago — a
    blink of the eye in geological terms.

    Early speculation was that
    interbreeding diffused neanderthalensis into the sapiens
    gene pool. Fossil evidence indicates that hybridization
    between the two species
    , if it happened, wasn't terribly
    successful; and recent
    genetic research
    shows no
    evidence
    of unique neanderthalensis genetics in modern
    Europeans. This bolsters the notion that they were a separate
    species of human (homo neanderthalensis), rather than a
    subspecies (homo sapiens neanderthalis). Nevertheless, in
    their time they were our closest relatives, sharing the unique (if
    unofficial) classification with us of “guys who wear clothes.”


  • HOMO ERECTUS: The parent of all three species
    of humans outlined above (and, considering how he got around, God
    knows
    what else),
    erectus was a very
    old and successful
    species of human, first arriving on the scene
    some two
    million years ago
    , and finally giving up the ghost just 25,000
    years ago
    (which, suspiciously, is the same time the final
    neanderthal breathed his last). Homo erectus was the genius
    who first figured out how to make fire and complicated tools like
    axes and knives ... none of which, unfortunately, was of much use to
    him when us sapiens came a-knocking on his door.

    In
    addition to giving rise to the rest of humanity, erectus also
    bequeathed to the ancestors of modern American Indians his sacred
    collection of ancient
    hominid cooties
    before passing on — a gift that has kept
    on giving now for thousands of years.



Well, that's it for Us and the Commonly Accepted Humans of Recent
Antiquity that We Killed Off. And now, as promised, here are the rest
... the living “human” wannabes:



  • HOMO PANISCUS: Both homo paniscus and
    homo troglodytes (see below) are not in any way broadly
    accepted taxonomical divisions yet, but rather names given to them
    by a small
    but determined group
    of biogeneticists.
    This is because both species are still alive today; in fact, they
    are quite well known to us ... as bonobos (more commonly known as
    pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (aka pan
    troglodytes
    ).

    Nevertheless, the bonobo (also known as the
    pygmy chimp) is widely regarded as our closest relative, regardless
    of taxonomical esoterica. They possess social
    and behavioral patterns
    that are eerily humanoid, have a
    tendency to walk
    upright
    (when the environment suits them), possess a highly
    developed proto-lingual
    capability
    , and share in excess of 99%
    of their critical genetic makeup
    with us. That's a good start,
    if you ask me — but I'd first let the scientists duke this out
    before coming to any conclusions.




  • HOMO TROGLODYTES: Chimps.
    Despite how cool it would be for our little furry brethren to be
    considered people too, one of the problems I have with reclassifying
    them into the homo (i.e. “human”) genus is that,
    to the best of my knowledge, the earliest accepted representative of
    our genus shows up in the fossil record only about 2.5 million years
    ago. The most common assessment of when chimpanzees and humans
    diverged has it happening around 5.5
    million years ago
    . There was some sort of pre-human
    critter or two
    roaming around the veldt at that time, but none
    of them have been blessed with the vaunted homo
    classification.

    In other words, in order to rejigger chimps (and
    bonobos) into the genus homo, we would have to either
    discover evidence of a later branch-off date (which is possible: the
    date given above is admitted to be somewhat arbitrary), or widen the
    homo club to include our primitive australopithecine
    granddaddies (also possible: the afore-mentioned erectus once
    wasn't considered to be homo, either).

    Still, chimps can
    act
    pretty human
    when they want to be, what with their primitive
    tool-using abilities
    ... not to mention their
    tendency
    to engage in organized
    warfare
    against one another. And the possibility of a “natural”
    (i.e. copulated) human-chimp
    hybrid
    , although highly unlikely, is
    not considered
    entirely out
    of the question
    either.

    Yeah, yeah ... I know. Yuck.



At the very least, getting chimps and bonobos reclassified would
provide 11-year-old boys with loads of sophomoric summer vacation
fun. Can you imagine anything more hilarious to a pre-teen than the
thought of running down to the local zoo and calling all the
chimpanzees a “bunch of homos?”


Not that I would have ever done a thing like that, mind
you.


But there you have it. Four recognized (and very different)
species of humans once occupying the planet at the same time, and two
other possible species of humans still living with us today.


Then there's the intriguing fact that of the four recognized
species on the list, all but one of them are extinct. Not only that,
but after coexisting with us for almost 90% of our history on this
planet, they all died out at roughly the same time. What's up with
that?


It may be our breeding ... or lack thereof. One of the creepier
discoveries of our advanced genetic age is the fact that homo
sapiens
are one of the least
genetically diverse animals
on the planet. In short, we are
freakishly inbred — like an entire planet overrun with
appalachians. Genetically speaking, the concept of “race”
as it relates to human beings is meaningless.


Inbreeding is usually considered very
bad
because it increases the possibility for unhealthy genetic
traits to be passed off from one generation to another. On
the other hand
, if a species is really, really lucky, useful
genetic traits will be reinforced, thus speeding
up evolution
and — by extension — that
creature's
domination
of its environment
.


Sounds like us, all right. It was recently discovered, for
instance, that around 30,000 years ago our ancestors suddenly
experienced a dramatic
spike in longevity
. Within a few generations, the number of old
people (i.e. folks 60 years old or older) hanging around the tribe
increased by a factor of five. That's a lot of old farts — and
in those pre-internet days, a
lot of accumulated knowledge
to pass around.


The other humans didn't get this bonus. Certainly poor old,
hulking homo neanderthalensis didn't; although considering his
live
fast, die young, and leave a busted-up corpse
” lifestyle,
who could tell?


Other factors may have been involved in our rapid global
ascendancy, but it seems mighty telling that the two major alternate
lines of humans both died out within 5,000 years of this development.
That sounds like about the right amount of time for one species to
displace another on a global scale.


As for the little
guys
... well, it's too bad their island went all kablooey on
them. I would have liked to have had a chance to meet one.



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