Another Homo?

The misty origins of our species a few million years back gets more confused:

Hominin fossils from the African mid-Pleistocene are rare despite abundant Acheulean tools in Africa and apparently African-derived hominins in Eurasia between 1.0 and 0.5 million years ago (Ma). Here we describe an African fossil cranium constrained by 40Ar/39Ar analyses, magnetostratigraphy, and sedimentary features to 0.97 to 0.90 Ma, and stratigraphically associated with Acheulean handaxes. Although the cranium represents possibly the smallest adult or near-adult known between 1.7 and 0.5 Ma, it retains features observed in larger Homo erectus individuals, yet shows a distinct suite of traits indicative of wide population variation in the hominins of this period.

Abstract from this month’s Science.

New Scientist has a article meant for popular consumption. What does this all mean? The lead author seems to believe that the new hominid might be of a distinct subspecies that was subject to genetic isolation and selection pressures that resulted in a reduction of its size. Other scientists seem to be suggesting that this is all part of the normal range of variation that might be found among H. erectus. Knowing how variegated our own species is in form (the tall Tutsi live in close proximity to the tiny “Pygmies”) and feature (the dark skinned Caucasoid Assamese live in close proximity to the light skinned Mongoloid peoples of the highlands in northeast India), I would be cautious of siding with “splitters” and those who favor a “bushy” tree for our lineage. It all comes back to the point that the term “species” is a lot fuzzier than many people think it is. In the context of ancient hominids, the “Other” might be many things, all the way from immediate food to distant family.

Posted by razib at 06:53 PM

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