The news of finding this new and rather distinctive new South African hominid suddenly appeared all over public fora earlier this week, but I didn’t remember to mention it until now. The discovery, by recreational cavers, actually took place a couple of years ago, though I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. Can you imagine finding some kind of burial chamber while caving, by the way? Because totally creepy, even if you are sort of keeping an eye out for fossils.
So, a major archaeological find — super major behaviorally, too, because the newly discovered species really does not seem to have had a big enough brain to be burying its dead, and yet here is this cave, with no other obvious way to get the the bones into it.
Here is the National Geographic article about the new speices.
It’s a really interesting and well-written article, and you should click through just for the pictures. Check out the picture of the cave, too, and you can see why it took so long to discover this particular chamber.
The species has been assigned to Homo rather than Australopithecus, but the skeletons show rather a mish-mash of characteristics. Apparently it’s considered Homo because skull and tooth characteristics are weighted more heavily than other skeletal characteristics — this is a general rule in taxonomy, by the way; rabbits are not considered rodents because their skulls and dentition is peculiar in certain ways.
There were some 1,550 specimens in all, representing at least 15 individuals. Skulls. Jaws. Ribs. Dozens of teeth. A nearly complete foot. A hand, virtually every bone intact, arranged as in life. Minuscule bones of the inner ear. Elderly adults. Juveniles. Infants, identified by their thimble-size vertebrae. Parts of the skeletons looked astonishingly modern. But others were just as astonishingly primitive—in some cases, even more apelike than the australopithecines …
…A fully modern hand sported wackily curved fingers, fit for a creature climbing trees. The shoulders were apish too, and the widely flaring blades of the pelvis were as primitive as Lucy’s—but the bottom of the same pelvis looked like a modern human’s. The leg bones started out shaped like an australopithecine’s but gathered modernity as they descended toward the ground. The feet were virtually indistinguishable from our own.
Naturally one thinks of the Piltdown hoax. But it’s impossible this is a hoax. I mean, not only would it be really tough to fool modern paleontologists who know all about Piltdown, but also the confusing mix of primitive and modern features exist in things like teeth with modern crowns and primitive roots.
So. Sometimes it feels like all major paleontological and zoological and geological discoveries MUST have already been made. And then we find a bunch of feathered dinosaurs or a cave with lots of bones of a new hominid species and whoops! We have to re-evaluate a whole bunch of interconnected theories; in this case about the Homo suite of characteristics and behaviors.
Next: I sure want someone to figure out the actual age of these bones. No one has a clue yet.
4 thoughts on “You’ve probably already heard about the just-discovered hominid species —”
Paleontological: remember when they found the “hobbits” of Flores, a few years back? That certainly made me wonder how many additional hominids there were that we still have no clue ever existed.
Geological: I didn’t know about that potential NW “Big One” you posted about recently, and it sounds like they only realized it was there a few decades ago. And that’s the sort of thing you’d imagine people would be concerned about figuring out.
Zoological? When was the most recent discovery of a previously-unknown large living animal?
How about aquatic critters? I remember a fuss over a giant-giant squid a few years ago. They call it the Colossal Squid now.
I remember when I first heard about the Colossal Squid: I was tempted to disbelieve. (In addition to being larger than the mere giant squid, its tentacles don’t have suckers, they have *hooks.*) If wikipedia is to be trusted, it looks like it was identified as a species in 1925, but the first living specimen was in 2005.
La Wik also has a “List of megafauna discovered in modern times” page: it lists a new tapir species identified in 2013. Huh.
Yes, the colossal squid is too cool for words. What I was actually thinking of was the “elvis monkey” from the Mekong delta, a Rhinopithecus species. It’s a pretty good-sized monkey but it was only formally described a few years ago.
Of course a few new rodents and bats are described every year, but I wasn’t thinking about those.
Something subtle that I don’t know if the Wikipedia entry noted was the recent division of the African elephants into two species on grounds of genetic (and minor anatomical) differences. That’s a zoological discovery even if it’s not as cool as discovering a colossal squid.