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A new hominid skull.

This skull's features resemble those of both earlier and later humans.

Photograph courtesy Georgian National Museum

new-hominid-skull-map--s2048x1369--p.jpg

Brian Switek

National Geographic

Published October 17, 2013

A newly discovered skull, some 1.8 million years old, has rekindled debate over the identity of humanity's ancient ancestors. Uncovered at the Dmanisi site in the Caucasus in Georgia, "Skull 5" represents the most complete jaw and cranium from a turning point in early human history.

Researchers, led by Georgian National Museum anthropologist David Lordkipanidze, first found the complete lower jaw of a fossil human in 2000. The cranium turned up five years later, at the fossil-rich Dmanisi site 96 miles southwest of Tbilisi, and is now being reported in the journal Science.

"It was discovered on August 5, 2005—in fact, on my birthday," Lordkipanidze says. He adds that the fossil's importance was clear as soon as the team saw it, but required eight years of preparatory analysis.

That is because Skull 5 is what paleoanthropologists often refer to as a "mosaic," or mixture of features seen in earlier and later humans. The skull's face, large teeth, and small brain size resemble those of earlier fossil humans, but the detailed anatomy of its braincase—which gives clues to the wiring of the brain—is similar to that of a more recent early human species called Homo erectus. This combination of features has fueled a long-running discussion over whether the Dmanisi humans were an early form of Homo erectus, a distinct species called Homo georgicus, or something else.

Dmanisi Fossil Trove

The newly described skull isn't the only one that has been found at Dmanisi. At least five relatively complete skulls have been found there in the last two decades. Those individuals may not have actually lived alongside each other, but apparently occupied this same place within a window of a few thousand years more than 1.75 million years ago.

Lordkipanidze and his coauthors suggest that, taken together, these skulls demonstrate how the Dmanisi humans varied in appearance from one individual to the next. "Together, our analyses suggest that Skull 5 and the other four early Homo [human] individuals from Dmanisi represent the full range of variation within a single species," study senior author Christoph Zollikofer of Switzerland's University of Zurich, said at a briefing on the new skull discovery.

Using morphometrics to gauge skull shape for each fossil skull, Lordkipanidze and colleagues found that the Dmanisi humans varied from each other in facial features and brain size, for example, about as much as modern humans do from each other. In other words, despite minor differences, they all belonged to the same species.

Diagram of features of new skull.

Family Tree Pruned

The single species finding raises wider implications for the history of humanity. Scholars have previously seen Dmanisi's inhabitants as a distinct variation of the human Homo erectus, or possibly as a new species. That would make them early emigrants out of Africa and part of a wildly branching early human family tree.

In the new study, however, Lordkipanidze and coauthors suggest that Dmanisi's inhabitants were actually part of a single human lineage that contains several earlier human species long thought of as distinct from Homo erectus.

So, who were the early humans living at Dmanisi? Lordkipanidze and colleagues place them in a single lineage of early humans that may stretch back as far as 2.4 million years ago in East Africa, when the first human species, Homo habilis, arose. This would lump the various human species that have been named during early Homo history into a single evolving species connecting Homo habilis to the Dmanisi humans, and forward in time to Homo erectus as it expanded across Eurasia. "We think that many African fossils can be lumped in this category and aligned with the single-lineage hypothesis," Lordkipanidze says.

Skull Skepticism

While other paleontologists recognize the fossilized beauty of Skull 5, not everyone agrees on the evolutionary assertions of the new paper.

"There's no doubt that this is an interesting cranium," says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in D.C. "It's a good playing card, added to some other playing cards that are equally good."

Anthropologist Fred Spoor of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology agrees that Skull 5 is "an absolutely fabulous specimen." He says the skull will help researchers "figure out what's going on with the really early evolution of Homo erectus."

But both Wood and Spoor disagree with the "one big species" message of the new study.

The methodology used in the new study, Wood says, can obscure real differences between species, since the focus was on cranial shape rather than telltale anatomical features such as small openings on the skull for blood vessels or the delicate bony anatomy of the braincase.

Likewise, "species are identified by a clear diagnosis," Spoor says, based on distinct anatomical traits, and using such a shape analysis to determine species "is clearly not adequate," in his view.

Don't "Bring the Whole Bloody House Down"

Wood also points out that the study is entirely focused on skulls. "They are assuming that the only reason that people have come to the conclusion that there was more than one species of early Homo is that it's based entirely on cranial shape, and that's not true," Wood says.

The rest of the skeleton in other early human species carries distinguishing characteristics used to identify distinct species, such as relatively long arms still adapted for climbing in Homo habilis. "It doesn't make any sense to pretend that these pieces of evidence don't exist," Wood says. While he acknowledges that the Dmanisi humans are all likely the same species and can be difficult to categorize as Homo erectus or a separate species, he argues that it's unreasonable to "bring the whole bloody house down" by lumping all early human fossils into a single lineage.

Dmanisi Debate Only a Debut?

So where does that leave the one-time inhabitants of Dmanisi? According to Spoor, their grab bag of skull features places them near an ancient split in human evolution.

The Dmanisi humans have "an interesting combination of a primitive face, primitive teeth, primitive size of the brain," Spoor says, "but if I would take a saw and cut off the face and show the braincase to a colleague, I'm pretty sure that person would say, 'That's Homo erectus.'"

The combination of features seen in the Dmanisi skulls is a record of "evolution in action," Spoor adds. They might place the Dmanisi humans somewhere after the split between the earlier Homo habilis and Homo erectus, sometime prior to 1.8 million years ago.

Debate will undoubtedly continue about who the Dmanisi humans really were and how they fit into our broader family history. Those arguments will hinge on what is still being found. "Dmanisi is a snapshot in time, like a time capsule," Lordkipanidze said at the briefing. He suggests that his discovery team isn't done yet, and more early human fossil finds may lie ahead: "We can say for sure that Dmanisi has enormous potential to yield new discoveries."

79 comments
Tom Carberry
Tom Carberry

We probably never will know a lot about human ancestry because of the tens of thousands of years of ice ages the earth has gone through recently.  Ice sheets have covered massive portions of the earth, retreated, and then covered them again.  When hundreds of billions of tons of ice scour the earth, nothing much remains, except things like the Great Lakes.  650000 years ago the earth suffered an ice age so severe the ocean levels dropped by 400 feet and ice made it to the midwest and into Germany.  The last ice age reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago.  

Who knows what the ice destroyed.  Entire cities and civilizations for all we know, or maybe just primitive camps of struggling ape people.  It took humans only about 4000 years from the time discussed in this article to reaching the moon.  What would have stopped humans from doing this many times in the past, especially humans with much larger brains than ours?  (preagricultural people had brains more than 10% larger than ours).

All of the ancient human remains found in Africa could fit into a single banker's box.  I don't think even the world's greatest scientists could glean much from that sparse record.

Tim Bauermeister
Tim Bauermeister

It seems like they are clutching at straws more than anything else.There has been only a handful of humain  remains ever found in comparison to dinosaur bones. Its seems they are so desperate to prove our existence and where we evolved. If we were so numborous why has there been such little evidence that we even existed at all 2 million years ago. If you look carefully at the human species we have more points to prove our evolution origin is doughtful than the contraire.  

Susan McKenzie
Susan McKenzie

In the case of science; science is always a changing evolving field. Man continuously is finding new evidence on one theory or another. In the case of the skull 1) the skull gives more information than the rest of the body 2) after diagenesis skeletal remains can be crushed or moved from original position. For religion I do have faith but I realize the Bible was written thousands of years ago and has been rewritten and changed to benefit the prevailing belief. As the Vatican says, the Bible is an allliteral translation and not a science textbook.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I think what's become apparent in recent years is that humans advanced out of Africa in many migration phases over a period of perhaps 2 million years or more. Migration almost certainly increased during more favourable climactic periods but I'm sure that isolated bands, and maybe even individuals, made their ways north and east into Europe and Asia for many reasons at most times over the history of human migration.

I hope there are more such discoveries in the next few years for those of us around today to have a clearer understanding of the origins of ourselves. Future generations will certainly have a much greater understanding of our origins than we do today.  

  

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

Why this term 'humanity', which is surely the most inappropriate and inapt for our species. Our species has always been referred to as 'Man'. Our Linnean name is 'Homo' (Man) and 'anthropology is 'study of man'. Let's please drop this ridiculous term 'humanity' and continue with our species name Mankind.

Juanita Waite
Juanita Waite

I am very excited about seeing the re-construction of muscle and skin to see what this level of hominid looked like....

Sukhbinder Sidhu
Sukhbinder Sidhu

Its simply fascinating. The origins of modern humans may perhaps be the biggest mystery of all.

Leon Gore
Leon Gore

another "skull" where is the body ? Am wondering why scientist keep on presenting those skulls without their skeletons...are skeletons to be decomposed faster than the skulls that is why they are no where to be found ..or these are beheaded individuals , but why should they always would discover a beheaded individuals ..am just a bit confused about these finds..

Gustavo Cárdenas
Gustavo Cárdenas

Tantos descubrimientos recientes, nos dejan un poco confundidos. Es hora que los cientificos pongan la casa en orden

Ivan Pletado
Ivan Pletado

possibly early humans have small brains because they don't need  to analyze as much as present homo. larger teeth to gnaw thick meats, not like present homo which eat processed food. long face might  mean bigger eyes for better vision, bigger nose and ears for keen smell and auditory since early humans use common senses as main tool for survival. not like present ones, use technology. the point is, it is as it was.

Fernando HG
Fernando HG

que monton de tonterias, unos que si el mono y otros con adan y la biblia, no se que teoria es mas tonta jejejejeje

Sati Das
Sati Das

Man has always been man and never ape to man. If it was ape to man it would still be running the same process as of caterpillar to butterflies don't you think. All those theories were merely assumptions. 

Claymon Gross
Claymon Gross

Leaky and his daughter must be around here planting her cousins.

Rony M.
Rony M.

Praise the Lord..It is proof enough ...Adam was the first man

Tristan McCutcheon
Tristan McCutcheon

For the true origin of man kind find Genesis, chapters 1 and 2 in the HOLY BIBLE. There has only been one species of human, man kind in it's whole.

Nathon Morris
Nathon Morris

@Tim Bauermeister  In reality, there have only been about 2000 nearly complete dinosaur skeletons found in comparison to nearly 6000 early human remains.  The vast majority of our knowledge of dinosaurs comes from a single or collection of different bones. We have 2 good T.Rex skeletons, but 0 complete.  Yes, much of it is speculation and deductive reasoning.


Many other mammals like the mastadon and sabertooth tiger were well studied because of WHERE they died.  Many died in tar pits and ice areas which have preserved their bones and tissues intact.  This fact also contributes to the lack of human remains found.


Humans are now considered an apex predator.  We were able to survive not because we are stronger or faster than many other apex predators (alligators, snakes, lions, tigers, etc), but because we were able to outsmart these animals.  In a purely wild setting, a single tiger would kill a single human much as it would kill other animals. 


Finally, look where the fossils are found.  Dinosaur bones were only starting to be found in rock beds that became exposed millions of years later.  They lived in a time of large amounts of continent and volcanic activity which again, preserved their bones.  Humans are a recent occurence and like many of the mammals alive, their bones and tissues in the same area would have been exposed and destroyed long ago.  Coupled with the fact humans have continued to build our cities/towns on top of where we began (prime example... Rome, Delhi, London) and covering much of our remains.  Humans are mostly found in Caves or where mass burials took place because those areas are protected from the elements.  We aren't old enough that our remains would fall deep enough to be fossilized along with the dinosaurs.

Jan Pospisil
Jan Pospisil

@Tim Bauermeister I see you skipped (or failed) not only science in school, but spelling as well. Good grief.

Stephen Cochran
Stephen Cochran

@Leon Gore A skull is a very strong structure. The effect of an arch shape, the curvature, it's semicircular structure tends to resist crushing forces. It helps the fossil survive in the rock matrix. Skulls last longer than some of the other bones, which get grinded into into dust more quickly. However, geologic time has been very gentle to this particular skull. This "person" must have been living right for God to have treated his, or her, remains so gently.

Robert Stefan
Robert Stefan

@Leon Gore :) Don't you see it took 5 years to discover the skull after finding the lower jaw first?!  Think about it: we're talking many MILLIONS of years of SOIL MOVEMENT.   The pieces of the body are scattered over large areas. They could be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. Assuming that all the bones of a body were preserved , it could take centuries to find all the pieces of the skeleton :)

Beheaded bodies???? :))))

Peter Kvint
Peter Kvint

@Ivan Pletadothey don't need  to analyze as much as present homo

the present homo only use their brain to pairing election, where the female must convince the male that he will stay with her and help her to feed the children.

If females were easier to cheat. then so the males do not need so much brain.

Venkatesan Ramalingam
Venkatesan Ramalingam

sir i am venkatesan.r from india. currently am writting script for moviedeals about human evolution and out africa. sir are you an anthropologist. if yes i kindly request you to guide me to develope my script. my email is oscardirector7193@gmail.com

Alejandro Esquivel
Alejandro Esquivel

@Fernando HG cuál mono? nadie está hablando de monos, ese es un cuento que inventan en la iglesia para ridiculizar la teoría de la evolución.

william maston
william maston

@Sati Das man didnt come from ape. man and ape came from a far older species, similar to, but different than both. The skulls they discover from so long ago are missing links in the chain of human evolution from that old ancestor. we can see with our own eyes the evolution, by evaluating those glimpses into our ancestor's anatomy.

julio irigoyen
julio irigoyen

@Sati Das las ballenas eran terrestres pero desde que adaptaron al medio acuatico no volvieron a vivir en suelo firme.


Ahmad Mahmud
Ahmad Mahmud

@Rony M. totally right and I guess it might be another creature near to human in shape like apes.

mo silmar
mo silmar

And earth is flat. With the sun revolving around it :-)

LaDonna Cook
LaDonna Cook

@Tristan McCutcheon  the bible has been messed with more than this skull and by men prejudiced to find what they want. Take King James....just take that part out

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

There is a comment below linking this finding to Hinduism. would you say he is wrong? What made the Christian religion above other religions?

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@Tristan McCutcheonThe bible is a great book, it represents a rich way of thinking, of understanding, of the world and the universe by different civilizations. It is great to have a belief system, especially if it keeps you at peace with yourself, however, it doesn't hurt to ask questions and actually look for the answers yourself.

John Foe
John Foe

@Nathon Morris @Tim Bauermeister  This would be true if they had not recently found dinosaur bones and human bones in Dakota sandstone 58 meters in the ground in the same stratified rock layer.  Google dinosaur national monument.  

Ivan Pletado
Ivan Pletado

@Venkatesan Ramalingam I am just an undergraduate computer engineering student who just so happen got interested on this one. :D I hope for your team's success Mr Ramalingam.

Ivan Pletado
Ivan Pletado

@mo silmar earth is flat theory came from ancient Egypt and Babylonia and others but not from what you think of.

John Reddicks
John Reddicks

@LaDonna Cook @Tristan McCutcheon King James also rushed his translators to get their work done within a certain time frame, which caused his translators to misinterpret several words and phases in the Torah as they were converted to English.

mo silmar
mo silmar

That's right. It represents a way of thinking. An opinion is not the thruth.

Ivan Pletado
Ivan Pletado

@John Reddicks I beg to disagree. A Prophet of God  already wrote a significant fact about the shape of the earth and it was written thousand of years ago. The problem is, those information came from 'clergy' and as you speak, i noticed it was from Vatican. But as much as I want to tell you more, i have to stop because this is off the topic. But thanks for the response. Btw, I am not a Catholic.

John Reddicks
John Reddicks

@Ivan Pletado Yet the clergy held firm on the belief of flat Earth and Earth-centric philosophies until the evidence presented against that belief was irrefutable, at which point they took the classic stance of absorbing the truth into their theism, while simultaneously forgetting that they were ever wrong.

Kind of damning points against religion when the beliefs held by the clergy are supposed to be "divine knowledge given directly from God", but are in fact completely wrong.

Karma Kraze
Karma Kraze

@John Reddicks @LaDonna Cook @Tristan McCutcheon King James was a free mason who supported the knights Templar, and many other secret society and cults. Who pillaged and raided sacred knowledge from continents across the world to exploit the information to their benefit (religion). To Control The mass.. because religion back then was like law now. ... Looks like they forgot a 2 million year old skull. Never the less, new finding/evidence will always take precedent over literal pretense and disposition..

MARK JAMES AGUSTIN
MARK JAMES AGUSTIN

@ LaDonna Cook. Jews only  came from Abraham's Lineage. Before Abraham was born, civilizations existed already.

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