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.
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.
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).
1. The results of the Rising Star expedition
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.