Intro by Deb Haarsma: On September 10, the discovery of a new Homo species was announced. This is likely one of the early hominins, ancient species some of which were on the direct lineage to our own. Note that this isn’t just a discovery of more fossils of a species we already knew, but discovery of a new piece of the ancestral family tree. What piece it is remains to be determined, but it will undoubtedly add to our understanding. Darrel Falk sent me a note the same day about the find. Darrel is a wonderful biologist and educator, the past president of BioLogos and currently our Senior Advisor for Dialogue. Here are his initial thoughts on the discovery and recommendations on where you can learn more. Look for more BioLogos coverage of this exciting discovery in the near future.
The new Homo species announced last Thursday is the most extensive hominin find ever in Africa. Based on its characteristics, it appears quite possible that it is a transitional early Homo species at the transition between Australopithicus and Homo. The site of discovery was an isolated cave in South Africa. The find consists of more than 1500 fossil elements from at least 15 individuals. The scientific findings appeared today in the online journal eLife and are summarized here by leading paleoanthropologist, Chris Stringer (with links to the two scientific articles).
Unfortunately, the fossil discovery has not yet been dated. People are surprised and disappointed that there is no discussion of attempts to identify approximate dates of the fossils. The cave has been dated to around 3 million years before present, but the fossils themselves were not located in rock strata that are datable. My guess is that they are working on carbon dating or DNA methods, and they're saving an exciting story yet to be published once all the data is in.
Interestingly, besides all the PR associated with the discovery, it is documented by likely the finest Nova/National Geographic production I have ever seen on human evolution, which is available to view online here. I've watched the first hour of the two hour special which will appear next Wednesday evening (Sept 16) on PBS. I love it because it shows in absolutely exciting detail how the science is done. It also shows how wrong earlier paleontologists were regarding the nature of our early ancestors—they weren't 'killers' as depicted in early film and scientific literature. They were plant eaters with likely the occasional meat meal. The natural forces associated with the evolution of the human body were NOT selection for the fittest killers. Indeed, although not specifically discussed in the film (I've not quite finished it), cooperation was likely a much more important shaper of the distinctively human mind than competition.
The Nova special offers a richer perspective than is commonly understood on how science is done. As a significant bonus, it informs people about what we know of human evolution in a way that will stay with them for a long time.