<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Roboto%3A300%2C400%2C500%2C700%7CRoboto+Slab%3A400%2C700">Top human evolution discoveries expected in 2015 - Filthy Monkey Men

2014 was an interesting year for human evolution, but that’s in the past now. Now’s the time to look forwards, to the future study…of the past. Yeah. Before I fumble with my words any more, lets just cut to the action. Here are my top 5 predictions for the human evolution discoveries of 2015. 

And they are proper exciting.

5. Neanderthal cave art

Every few years an example of Neanderthal cave art is “discovered”. However, the evidence that this art was actually made by Neanderthals tends to be a bit more ambiguous than I’d like. For instance, it’s typically claimed that this art predates the arrival of modern humans; thus it had to have been made by Neanderthals. Yet it often only predates modern humans by a couple of thousand years. Hardly the clear difference that would definitely confirm a Neanderthal source.

Spanish cave art, possibly made by Neanderthals. If the data on them is ever published

Perhaps the best “example” of Neanderthal cave art comes from Spain and appears to be upwards of 42,000 years old. This puts a fair bit of chronological distance between its creation and the arrival of modern humans.

However, rigorous dates for the site were never published in a scientific journal. Researchers have teased us about such data since 2013, but it’s never appeared and without it the case for Neanderthal cave art remains shakey. I’ve got my fingers crossed that 2015 is the year they finally get their act together and publish this information, confirming Neanderthals were arty after all.

Or maybe we just find another site with clear Neanderthal cave art. Either option works for me.

4. Problems for Noah’s ark

Creationists over in America are trying to build a full-sized replica of Noah’s ark and things aren’t going well for them. They recently lost access to several million dollars worth of tax incentives on the grounds they discriminate with their hiring policies (as they only employ other creationists). As such I predict we’ll see significant delays – maybe even a scaling back of the project – during 2015.

And I think this is a great thing.

Not because their silly ark won’t get built, but because of what this represents. Survey after survey tells us a significant portion of America is creationist; and the creationists constantly telling how the matter is a question of (after)life and death. So you’d think there would be a large and highly motivated base of supporters, making it easy for any financial issues to disappear in a flood of donations (haha, get it? Because Noah’s ark). Yet their donations page tells us they’re still more than >$10 million short; despite the fact they’ve already started construction. And now there’s potentially >$22 million of lost tax incentives they’ll have to make up as well.

Maybe creationism isn’t as big a problem as one might suspect

3. Australopithecus prometheus 

Australopithecus prometheus is the name given to some of the first human fossils ever found; on the grounds they may have been the first to make fire. Since then the claim they made fire has been dismissed, and it’s even been questioned as to whether they are a legitimate species. Despite this, Au. prometheus remains important because of one fossil assigned to it: Little Foot.

Little Foot is important because it may be an almost complete fossil of Australopithecus. For context, Lucy is only ~45% complete. Obviously finding such a fossil is a big deal that may revolutionise our understanding of human evolution.

Little foot’s little face, still encased in rock

However, despite being discovered in the ’90s we still know precious little about it. This is because the skeleton is encased in thick, concrete-like rock. Removing it without damaging the fossil is very time consuming. In fact, the name of the specimen stems from the fact that we’ve only really been able to study their foot thus far. There are rumours that researchers are trying to circumvent this issue by CT scanning the rock and reconstructing the fossil digitally. I hope 2015 is they year this stops being just a rumour and we find out more about this effort.

2. Hominin X

A few tens of thousand years ago there were three human species in Eurasia: us, Neanderthals and the Denisovans. DNA evidence reveals all three of us interbred. However, it also reveals that these species have some “extra” genes they didn’t get from each other. It looks like us three were interbreeding with another, unknown species of human (maybe even more than one). This (these?) is (are) the mysterious hominin X (hominins Xs)

Advances in studying ancient DNA meant that last year scientists were able to examine DNA from 400,000 year old fossils of human relatives (the oldest human DNA ever studied). It was discovered that they may actually belong to a previously unknown fourth branch of humanity. Maybe hominin X? Or maybe they’re hominin Y and things are even more confusing than we thought.

Regardless, I predict the success of this research will motivate a lot more studies into really old DNA. I expect we’ll start finding out a lot more of the genetics of early Europe; and I expect it will be very confusing (and fascinating).

The new family tree of humans, Neanderthals and Denisovanns published in Nature

The family tree produced by looking at the really old DNA. The Spanish fossil (the triangle) appears as a previously unknown fourth branch of the human family 

1. The results of the Rising Star expedition

The cave excavated was very small, forcing most of the team to watch from outside through cameras

The Rising Star expedition was one like no other. An interntational team of palaeoanthropologists gathered to go and excavate a cave in South Africa; and you could follow along at home! A series of live blogs and tweets kept the public informed about their progress, in perhaps the most thorough integration of social media human evolution has ever seen.

As a result of this we know that they found a boatload of fossils; most likely belonging to Australopithecus. Such a goldmine of scientific data has the potential to significantly improve our understanding of human evolution.

Analysing the results of such a large expedition can take years; but I’m hoping the social media saviness of this team will ensure a bit of information comes out this year, keeping people interested. Maybe we’ll hear about the Rising Star results in 2015. Maybe in 2016. Maybe even later. But when they do eventually come out they will be worth paying attention too.

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13 Comments

Mike · 9th January 2015 at 7:48 pm

“New Scientists” says Rising Star results should be early this year.
http://www.sec-caving.co.za/2014/12/bone-bonanza-chamber-of-secrets-yields.html

Emily Lakdawalla has called 2015, “The Year of the Dwarf Planet” (because Ceres and Pluto will get probed), but if “Little Foot” and the Rising Star hominins get published this year, it will also be “The Year of South African Paleoanthropology.” Add something from Malapa and it will be the perfect trifecta.

    Adam Benton · 9th January 2015 at 11:53 pm

    I’m not sure we’ll get much out of Malapa; mostly because many of the people studying it are now on the Rising Star expedition.

Ashley Haworth-roberts · 9th January 2015 at 7:59 pm

That’s a slightly risky blog post though I expect you thought carefully before ‘putting pen to paper’.

    Adam Benton · 9th January 2015 at 8:02 pm

    In what way?

      Ashley Haworth-roberts · 9th January 2015 at 8:04 pm

      Simply that making predictions for a year can be a bit risky (I have not studied your post very closely and I hope you are proven correct).

        Adam Benton · 9th January 2015 at 8:45 pm

        Oh I was worried you were implying I’d said something libalous, which had got me worried

        Mike · 9th January 2015 at 11:12 pm

        Somehow, if 2015 gives us five stories on human evolution bigger than the Rising Star hominins and Little Foot then I suspect Adam will be too busy studying, writing about, and celebrating the finds to be sad that he did not predict them. But I suspect the place for Rising Star is secure. As is Little Foot if it finally gets full publication in 2015.

        Personally, I would have moved the Answers in Genesis story to a list of 2015 stories in pseudoscience and moved in another story. Maybe they will have soft tissue results from Malapa. Or maybe: researchers will announce that they have proven that the Hobbit is a modern human with a bad case of rheumatic fever. Just kidding about the last one.

        Adam Benton · 9th January 2015 at 11:50 pm

        You’re not half wrong. I write this list kinda hoping that I can look back on it and thinking it seems silly, because we actually discovered something way better.

        FYI, number 4 started off as simply a joke. “Creationists still won’t be convinced”. It got a bit out of hand.

John S. Mead · 21st June 2015 at 3:55 pm

With hope of the Rising Star results being published later this year, I share my 2013 blog post for those less familiar with the actual excavation – As a bio teacher we followed the dig and took advantage of the RSE team’s tweets to create a daily “Twitter Play by Play” for the length of the project – If you want to find out the minute my minute details of the dig you can go back in time to http://bluelionphotos.blogspot.com/2013/11/rising-star-expedition.html

    Adam Benton · 22nd June 2015 at 10:04 am

    I’m disappointed they stopped that play by play. I’d love to know how the introduction to the paper is going, when it’s off for review etc. 😛

John S. Mead · 16th August 2015 at 9:47 pm

Adam – The “Play by Play” was my creation and I am not officially associated with the Rising Star Team. This summer I did have the great privilege to interview many of the team members in South Africa in July and have permission to share my interviews in the run up to the expected Fall release of the papers and the more broad based media interest that the announcement will engender – my blog is found at http://bluelionphotos.blogspot.com/

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