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The 195,065th year of Homo sapiens’ existence comes to a close. What big discoveries did we make about our species – and our origins – during that year?

It turns out an awful lot; with countless crucial discoveries being made. But alas, as it is the end of the year it is my duty to count – and rank – them for your pleasure.

The order has been partly decided by their popularity over the past year; but more decided by me. Because people can’t be trusted to recognise good science, apparently.

5. Oral sex saves lives

Here’s one of the more popular “discoveries” of last year; albeit perhaps one of the least scientifically relevant. See, people are idiots. Idiots only interested in sex.

Specifically, oral sex. Some psychologists have postulated that it might have evolved to encourage the partner to remain faithful. Now, the researchers don’t claim that we specifically evolved a drive to give/receive oral sex (although that may be a possibility). It may simply be the case that our evolved brain encourages us to do it because it ticks the right boxes.

Except this thing is evolutionary psychology and riddled with all the associated flaws.

Stone age phalluses

4. Massive monoliths under the sea

The discovery of a massive prehistoric monolith under the Mediterranean captured peoples’ imagination. It was no doubt my most popular post throughout the whole year.

It’s easy to see why. This undersea pillar dates to around 10,000 years old; making it older than writing, farming and civilisation as we know it. How were these early hunter-gatherers able to summon the manpower and materials to undertake such a massive project.

Sadly, it’s location at the bottom of the sea makes it rather hard to study; so it’s likely that the exact nature of this mystery will be lost for some time.

The prehistoric monolith in all its glory

The prehistoric monolith in all its glory

Speaking of which, there have been some to doubt its veracity, given its under the sea. Could it not simply have been the result of a later shipwreck? Nope. It turns out the monolith was made out of the same rock the seabed was. In fact, the specific shelf of ocean it came from could be identified.

Thus it had to have been made before the ocean swallowed that location ~10,000 years ago.

3. International cave art

This story turned out to be one of the least popular of the year; yet also one of the most significant. The discovery represents the first case of Palaeolithic cave art found outside of Europe; over in Asia. .

It’s especially significant because it’s so similar to the Europe. Like much of the art in Europe it depicts animals. And like Europe, it’s side on. Despite being created thousands of miles away from the European art.

Does it represent a singular culture spreading across thousands of miles? Does it represent a unique coincidence? Does it represent something innate about how humans depict animals. The list of interesting options goes on. And that’s why this discovery is so interesting.

The images from Asia

The images from Asia

2. Homo naledi

The fossils of Homo naledi found, representing 15 individuals. Note how many times the same bone is repeated. Each repeat is a chance to test - and disprove - the creationist narrative

The fossils of Homo naledi found, representing 15 individuals.

Homo naledi  is perhaps one of the most significant discoveries of the year. And the one labeled the most significant by so many people (and also predicted by me last year)

And it certainly it is very significant. This fossil appears to document the period more modern “humans” were evolving from the more ape-like individuals. However, the key thing is that it doesn’t look like it’s en-route to becoming a true modern human. It seems to be more of a “side branch”. Sure, it’s heading down the road of modern-ness, but it’s taking a different exit to us.

In short, it demonstrates that the human family wasn’t climbing this inevitable ladder towards modernity. Instead, it seems that our family tree was very bushy; with all sorts of odd branches splintering off.

At the same time, it could also be none of those things. A large part of its significance rests upon the age of these discoveries; which has yet to be determined. As such, it gets knocked off the top spot in favour of the. . .

1. Lomekwian

The Lomekwian is my top discovery of 2015. By far. This new set of stone tools are the oldest artefacts we’ve ever found (clocking in at 3.2 million years ago), but also the most important.

It might not be as sexy as a new species (or even oral sex) but it represents an even more important moment in our family history. The point our ancestors went from just using natural objects as tools to making brand new objects to use as tools.

For millions of years our ancestors used rocks to crack open nuts – just as chimps do today. Sometimes a piece of rock would break off in the process. The Lomekwian represents the moment they realised that this debris was sharp and valuable as a tool in its own right. So they set about deliberately manufacturing it, breaking rocks in specific ways to produce these sharp flakes.

To me it represents the moment our ancestors became more than just another ape. And that’s why it claims top spot on my list.

oldest stone tools found

Some of the new old tools

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Anonymous · 18th January 2016 at 12:36 am

No predictions for 2016?

Okay, how about 1) Little Foot, Little Foot, Little Foot. 2) More from Lee Berger’s team which has at least two significant unpublished sites: Rising Star 2 and one is “quite accessible” whose location is under wraps for its protection. The first two were fairly predictable. How about a speculative? 3) More hobbits as there at least a slight chance the new chamber will have something. Did I mention 4) Little Foot?

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