Remember, there is always more to learn!
Paleoanthropology is the study, of the need for knowledge, of our deep shared human origins. Where do we come from? It is often a question that many of us find ourselves asking from time to time. For some, the answer is in religion, and if that works for you, then I encourage you to continue on that path.
For many of us, religion doesn’t seem quite so cut, explaining everything we encounter. For those people, science typically takes the place of explaining the world around us.
To answer the questions of “where did we come from,” and even “where are we going,” we need to look no further than our bodies, as the evidence of evolution is as clear and ay in everything that we do and in the way that we are built and function. But to provide even further evidence and to begin to provide the trail, we have what is called “The Fossil Record.”
The fossil record is what we have of the remains of our ancestors, hominins, or nonhuman primates within our genus (and a few preceding it) that show us indeed where we come from that we come from Africa, all of us that we share a typical home and origin story. We are not all that different, and that race is a social construct.
There is but one “race”: the human race. Understanding these things is the keystone to biological and paleoanthropology.
So why should you care? What is there to learn about digging up old fossils and having rigorous debates about social issues and behavior that evolved millions of years ago and persist in today’s society? Well, for one, the most simple thing is that we cannot know where we are going, as individuals or as a society; if we do not know where we have been, if we cannot learn from our mistakes, then we are bound to repeat them. So studying our past, even millions of years ago, is critical to this understanding.
Along with this, there is, of course, the fact that many of us have this passion, this wanderlust to know where we come from. An urge that we cannot explain that we need to know, “Who are we.” While we may never know the answer to this question with the current limitations of science, we know far more now than ever before.
For some, the quest for knowledge is all, and I write this paper for those of you. I hope you enjoy it, I hope you learn from it, and I hope that you can take something away from it. Most importantly, please remember that there is always more to learn! And as Prof. Lee Berger says, “Never Stop Exploring”!.
And with that long and wordy introduction, without further ado and in no particular order, I give you some of the most significant and exciting paleoanthropological discoveries of 2022!
The Red Deer Cave People
While this is not so much of a discovery, it is an important answer that we have found that many people have been wondering about the world in this field for decades since the discovery of this unique cave where human remains that are not precisely matching our morphology were found. These people, who dated around 14,000 years ago, seemed very similar to modern humans (you and I), but they had some distinct differences. They had prominent brow ridges, strangely shaped craniums and orbits, etc. There even was evidence in the cave of skulls being used, possibly as cups or containers. These individuals had culture, were intelligent, and were a mystery because while they had behaviors like modern humans, they did not seem to be us morphologically.
Thanks to Bing Su, a professor at the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan who was involved in the research study, we now know that the Red Dear Cave People are modern humans and fit within the area of anatomically modern human variation. They are not a different species, not as memorable as we once thought. Still, they are unique, thanks to regional and geographical microevolution. So are the Red Deer Cave People a new species of human? Not according to the DNA, and while many mysteries still surround these people, we now know much more about who they are.
Next up on the list, we have some surprising news coming from a well-known site in South Africa, Sterkfontein Cave. In this cave, the first australopith was found by Dr. Robert Broom and Raymond Dart in the 1930s. But the war interrupted his investigations. It was once thought that these fossils dated to around 2 million years ago, but instead, they now are believed to be closer to four million years old thanks to new dating technologies that have shown this species to be A. africanus. There is so much to learn about this species. These new dates show that the first hominins may not have come from East Africa but rather from the South, where more and more fossils of various species are being discovered daily. These new dates show that we need to be careful when we set dates for things, embrace new technologies to study older discoveries, and ensure that we are accurate with what we are talking about. The new dates for Mrs. Ples show that Africanus is a much older species than once thought, pushing the date of Australopithecines back even further.
The Oldest Face of Europe
One of the main questions regarding genetics and populations is how they moved around, got to where they ended up, and the evidence left behind. Since 2009, a partial jaw bone from a Basal Neanderthal was found in level 9 of Sima del Elefante, a part of the complex of Ataperca in Spain. This jaw was the oldest evidence of our ancestors in Europe, that is, until this year when another partial jaw and tooth were found a few meters lower. These date to 1.4 MYA. Making this partial face the oldest ever seen in all of Europe. This, of course, is a big deal when we are trying to figure out when our ancestors reached Europe, who they were, and what they looked like. While the remains found in these chasms have been attributed to Neanderthals and Hiedelbergensis (Basal Neanderthals), it may be a long while before we know more about this partial mandible. But we know that these creatures, our ancestral cousins, were in Europe, entirely on the far end of Europe, hundreds of thousands of years earlier than we believed. What we will discover next in the area may continue to change that, but for now, the oldest face in Europe has now been found.
Most senior Signs of Humans in the Americas
For many researchers, the people of the Americas are a great and compelling mystery. As the decade’s pass, new hypotheses are formed as new data is collected from thinking people crossed the Bearing Straight thirteen thousand years ago to people sailing across the Atlantic to land on the east coast of the United States. There have been many ideas and hypotheses. And while we generally now know how people got to the North American continent, it is still a mystery. Many new finds kept pushing back when modern humans arrived in the new world. For a long time, the skeleton of a young girl found in South America dates to around thirteen thousand years old, even in South America. So indeed, humans reached North America first? A few new pieces of evidence have been found in the United States, such as the footprints at White Sands National Park, where we know the footprints of modern humans can be dated to around twenty-four thousand years ago. However, a controversial new find, which I will add, is a mammoth hunting site dating to about thirty-seven thousand years old. This site is that of a mammoth that seems to have butcher marks covering the bones, with bone tool assemblages left behind. This find was found in the backyard of a local man. While this is a very controversial find, as the marks could have been made by natural elements, more research is needed to determine precisely what happened at this site. But if it proves true, it pushes the existence of modern humans in America tens of thousands of years earlier than once believed.
Homo naledi and Fire
During a lecture by Prof. Lee Berger at the start of December (Which is why I have had to wait to publish this paper), I announced something unique if proven true. As of this writing, we are still waiting for the papers to be published, which are being stalled for unknown reasons. But regardless of what the papers say, we have the physical evidence of ash, charcoal, burned wood, hearths, and hearths. Homo naledi used fire to navigate the caves deep inside Rising Star and even used it to cook food, as we see burned bones in the hearths and remains scattered on the floor. First, Lee, once he got into the Dinaledi Chamber for the first time himself, looked up and saw something that no one expected, soot on the roof. This showed that there must have been a fire in the cave. Controlled fire. Furthermore, on his way out, one of his colleagues, Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane, discovered two hearths at the bottom of Dragons Back, an area of the passage you must crawl over and through. This shows much more about what we thought we knew about this species, and while many suspected this for a while, we may now have the proof. And the best part is that Dr. Berger has proclaimed on Twitter that three more impactful announcements are coming about Naledi as soon as they hit the journals. So get ready for more reporting, and be sure to check in for up-to-date news!
One of the most controversial topics within Paleoanthropology is when we began to walk upright. As bipedalism is one of the keys that makes us human, it is essential to understand how we first became bipedal. The only natural way that we know how to figure this out is by examining the fossil record. As you should all know, the fossil record is sparse, especially when you go back farther in time. So who was the first hominin? Who was the first bipedal hominin? There are a few contenders, from Orrorin tungenensis to Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The main reason there is so much controversy surrounding the first biped is that Toumai only contains a skull and is highly distorted, so it is hard to tell if it was a biped. But there is good evidence. This year, a few new papers came out. One claimed that Toumai was not biped, and another claimed, using different parts of the remains, that there was no doubt Toumai could walk bipedally but was also adept in the trees. So, while still very controversial, Sahelanthropus tchadensis may be the oldest bipedal hominin.
While that was all fantastic exciting news that will add to what we know about human origins, there is also a big elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, but must be, and with the utmost respect. This year, we lost many famous but prominent, intelligent, and unique contributors to the field.
While this year might have been great for discoveries, and the advancement of Paleoanthropology as a science, it has been a dark year in other terms. 2022 is one of the darkest years in Paleoanthropology regarding the greats we have lost. As of the time of the writing of this paper, we have lost five unique, influential, and powerful anthropologists. I want to reflect on and respect the explosive contributions the following people have made.s
In loving memory, we remember the following, in no particular order:
Sir Paul Mellars
These individuals have made contributions to our field, the likes of which are rarely seen. Their contributions to analysis, discovery, pure love of the area, and the inspiration they caused in so many others, should be a light we can all follow.
Some of these individuals, and the institutions they once belonged to, and arguably will forever belong to, have started funds in their name to help future students, most notably ASU and the Bill Kimbel Fund.
All of you should look into these funds and donate, and if not, spread the word about them, as they are essential to help future students and keep the memory of these individuals alive.
May we remember them fondly, always.