<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Roboto%3A300%2C400%2C500%2C700%7CRoboto+Slab%3A400%2C700">Top human evolution discoveries expected in 2016 - Filthy Monkey Men

It’s Wednesday which means I answer questions from my lovely readers.

Or this time, I respond to requests for speculation. Someone wants to know what my top predictions for discoveries are for 2016.

However, I can’t quote them since they stole all the good ones. So here are my totally original predictions for the upcoming year.

And you can’t prove otherwise.

#5: More from Rising Star

For 2015 I predicted that we would hear from the Rising Star expedition in South Africa. And we did.

The fossils from Rising Star belonged to a whole new species: Homo naledi. It took the world by storm (particularly the creationists). But this might only be scratching the surface.

The excavations in Rising Star only examined a tiny area from the cave. And that already turned up more than 1,500 fossils. Who knows what else is in there? Additionally, the team behind this discovery reckons they may have found something at other nearby sites.

Rumour has it that it might be as significant as Homo naledi. Hopefully we’ll hear something about it in 2016.

#4: Little foot

Little Foot may well be one of the most significance fossils of all time.

Little foot. The big (re)discovery of 2016?

It’s extremely complete, so could well shed light on all the missing pieces of Australopithecus. Unfortunatley, it’s stuck in rock. Which makes it a bit hard to study.

Last year I hoped that we would finally get some sort of scan that would reveal the anatomy of this enigmatic species. And we did certainly hear a lot about this species (including the discovery it was older than we thought). But no complete scan emerged.

Perhaps 2016 will be the year scientists finally get their act together.

#3: A secret migration out of Africa

Modern humans tried to leave Africa twice (or perhaps 3 times). But they only succeeded the second time.

There appears to have been a failed attempt that made it to the Middle East (and perhaps a bit further) before ultimately petering out. Except as more and more data becomes available, this failed migration becomes more and more successful. They may have even made it as far as China before they died out.

Could it ultimately have been successful? Genetic data from these pioneers could reveal they contributed to the modern human genome. This would confirm that these migrations were not a dead end, but actually a proper migration that happened tens of thousands of years earlier than we thought.

This would be particularly interesting, as it would imply that humans lived happily alongside other species of hominin for much longer than we thought. Just how long were humans and Neanderthals getting chummy?

#2: Dates for Homo naledi

OK, I think I might be cheating a bit by reusing prediction #5. But I’m not expecting anything new out of Rising Star Cave here.

Actually, a lot of the significance of Homo naledi is based on how old the fossils are (expected to be around 2 million years). Except these fossils haven’t actually been dated yet. Early efforts to do so failed. With a bit of luck, maybe we can get some reliable results out of the cave in 2016.

#1: A new species

2015 saw the addition of two pretty important members to the human family: Australoputhecus deyiremeda and Homo naledi.

The fossil foot, as it would have appeared in life (albeit without the skin and muscle)

The fossil foot, as it would have appeared in life (albeit without the skin and muscle)

But these aren’t the only such discoveries in recent years. There’s also the Burtele footAustralopithecus sediba and more. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that our family is big and bushy. There were lots of different offshoots. Most appear to have been experimental (and ultimately failures). Au. sediba tried a new way of walking, for example.

So it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to speculate that this trend will continue in 2016. Perhaps with the findings from Rising Star and the other sites associated with it.

But whilst it might be a fairly banal prediction, it has the potential to be very significant. After all, one of those evolutionary experiments ultimately gave rise to us. Any new species has the potential to reveal which one it was.

Or at the very least, perhaps shed light on just why our ancestors were becoming so diverse.

Plus, it always sounds cool in the papers.

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11 Comments

Charles A. Bishop · 27th January 2016 at 6:08 pm

Thanks for the list of possible new discoveries. Even these don’t count unexpected finds. Last summer when my wife and I were in Les Eyzies in southwestFrance where so many important Middle and Upper Paleolithic discoveries have been made, I realized that despite all these, there must be many other sites yet to be discovered in the numerous rock shelters and caves that are within 50 kilometers of that famous town. Oh to be a young paleoanthropologist with time and resources to spare!

Jim Birch · 27th January 2016 at 11:33 pm

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

— Attributed to Yogi Berra, actually stolen from a physicist, maybe Niels Bohr

    Adam Benton · 28th January 2016 at 1:04 pm

    One of the interesting things I thought was how predictable last years big discoveries were. Stuff like Homo naledi and the Lomekwian had kind of been expected for a while.

Mike · 28th January 2016 at 6:53 pm

As much fun as the creationists “dealing with” Rising Star has been so far, I think we in for far more fun. Look at the desperation that the YECs have attacked Lucy over the years and consider just how fragmentary Lucy really is. If Little Foot is as good as advertised, we will be able to say it is literally everything they demanded in an “ape-man” fossil: extraordinarily complete, nonfragmented, and fully articulated. It will be interesting to see how they attack what will be very clearly a walking ape.

As for Lee Berger & friends, I am not sure that “rumour” is the right word as they been rather unsubtle in saying that got big stuff coming from their yet unpublished sites. With Berger suggesting that Dinaledi has already been topped, “promise” might be more apt. Normally, I would hope for a new species (or at least a species not well represented), but I think I will hope for more naledi because: 1) a second naledi find might be able to end the debate over body disposal as the non-disposal explanations imply Dinaledi is a freak find, 2) maybe this time it will be an easier site to date, 3) I am rooting for a better skull, and 4) more opportunities for creationists to contract foot-in-mouth disease.

    Adam Benton · 1st February 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Often they just ignore the fossils, unless it reaches public conciousness (like Lucy and hopefully Little Foot). For example, there’s the Dikika fossils that beautifully preserve an Australopithecus with a bipedal spine. Yet they continue to claim they were quadrupeds and just ignore Dikika

      Mike · 2nd February 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Dikika’s lack of public presence might be related to it being so young. Of course as creationists are doing PR and not science they attack Lucy because it is a hit with the public. Attacking Selam might only attract attention to it. In any event when Little Foot is finally unveiled, it will be important to keep it in the public eye after the initial news wave ends. I hope some media savvy folk put some thought into this. A traveling exhibit of the cast might be nice. A saw a nice one with a replica of the T. rex Sue plus explanations of the science. And more immediately, follow the Rising Star team’s lead and put 3D files of the skeleton online for anyone to print.

        Adam Benton · 4th February 2016 at 11:16 am

        Actually, when Dikika was first discovered she gained a bit of traction. If anything the age helped; earning the nickname “Lucy’s baby”. However, that fossil just doesn’t seem to have had the staying power of Lucy.

        Was there something wrong in the coverage? Or can the public conciousness only tolerate a few fossils at a time and we’re already at capacity with Lucy and the Neanderthals.

Mike · 28th January 2016 at 11:38 pm

“And that already turned up more than 15,000 fossils. ”

Actually 1,550 is how many specimens were removed from the Dinaledi chamber.

    Adam Benton · 1st February 2016 at 3:00 pm

    oops, looks like I was a little too liberal with my zeroes

      Mike · 2nd February 2016 at 9:32 pm

      Given how little area of Dinaledi has been excavated and that they can still go deeper, it would not surprise me if the typo turns out to be prophetic. Dare we hope it is underestimating what will come out over the next few decades?

        Adam Benton · 4th February 2016 at 11:14 am

        More is always better, but at this point I’d really like some confirmation from other sites. There are a bunch of species only known from one locale. Do these represent local variations? An entire new lineage?

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