May 23, 2019

An Ancient Ancestor Shakes Up the Human Family Tree

“This week, anthropologists working in the Philippines unveil new fossils that they say belong to a previously undiscovered species of human relatives. The fossils come from Callao Cave, on the northern island of Luzon, and are at least 50,000 years old.

The team, led by Florent Détroit of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, have named the new species Homo luzonensis after the island where it lived.

With only seven teeth, three foot bones, two finger bones, and a fragment of thigh, the set of Callao fossils doesn’t give much to go on. Their small size is reminiscent of Homo floresiensis, the tiny-bodied species discovered in 2003 on the island of Flores, Indonesia, that lived around the same time. But there aren’t enough remains here to say just how tall Homo luzonensis was. And, unfortunately, the team was unsuccessful in attempts to find DNA. Many people will wonder, on such slim evidence, if the declaration of a new species is warranted.

I was fortunate to be a part of the team that discovered the new hominin species Homo naledi, which lived in South Africa around 250,000 years ago. That work was published in 2015. Such discoveries seemed almost unimaginable 20 years ago, when I was finishing my Ph.D. At that time, some of the most respected anthropologists actually suggested that the hunt for hominin fossils was almost over. Funding agencies directed their efforts away from exploring for new fossils and toward new technologies to wring more precious data from fossils discovered in the past.”

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