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Path of human evolution continues to be enriched and elucidated by growing trove of fossil evidence

In comments to the media, renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey opined that the evolution debate "would soon be over" thanks to a growing wealth of fossil evidence.  The latest piece of the puzzle comes courtesy of Professor Leakey's wife, Meave Leakey, and his mother, Louise Leakey, who are busy working on the excavation of a site east of Lake Turkana.

I. Two New Branches on the Evolutionary Tree

Located in Eastern Africa, specifically in the north of Kenya and south of Ethiopia, the Turkana Basin has been the site of some of many astonishing and fortunate fossil discoveries that have given mankind a glimpse of its evolutionary ancestors.  In fact the region proved so fruitful that the Leakey family of famed anthropologists raised funds to open Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), a special research institution devoted to studying the region's fossils and human evolution.

The recent discoveries were made by Professors Louise and Meave Leakey, along with other TBI researchers and researchers from the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP) -- a evolutionary research team funded by the National Geographic Society.

Lake Turkana Basin
The Turkana basin is located in Eastern Africa. [Orig. Image Source: Google Maps]

Unearthed between 2007 and 2009, the find includes a face, a remarkably complete lower jaw, and part of a second lower jaw.  Researchers believe that the fossils belong to not one, but two genus Homo species, which lived beside mankind's direct ancestor, Homo erectus.

II. Solving a Big Mystery

The find solves the mystery of KNM-ER 1470 -- the research designation given to a mysterious hominid skull fossil found four decades ago.  The KNM-ER 1470 specimen featured a striking long, flat-face -- à la the pop culture depiction of an alien -- and a large brain size.

Researchers were unsure if the fossil was truly a different species or simply an unusual variant of Homo erectus.

Professor Meave Leakey enthuses, "For the past 40 years we have looked long and hard in the vast expanse of sediments around Lake Turkana for fossils that confirm the unique features of 1470's face and show us what its teeth and lower jaw would have looked like.  At last we have some answers."

Complete specimen
The stellar jaw specimen (bottom) fits perfectly on the restored KNM-ER 1470 skull (top).  
[Image Source: Fred Spoor]

The new finds left little doubt among researchers that KNM-ER 1470 was indeed a separate species, and as an added surprise, they also indicated that one of the two specimens dug up during the various excavations was a second relative.

Comments Fred Spoor who led the analysis of the specimens unearthed by the Leakey team, "Combined, the three new fossils give a much clearer picture of what 1470 looked like.  As a result, it is now clear that two species of early Homo lived alongside Homo erectus. The new fossils will greatly help in unraveling how our branch of human evolution first emerged and flourished almost two million years ago."

The KNM-ER 1470 look alike was found in 2008.  Dubbed KNM-ER 62000, the individual is thought to have lived between 1.78 million and 1.95 million years ago (placing it in the early Pleistocene era), according to isotopic dating techniques.  

Hominid Jaw
The semi-complete skull and upper jaw provided promising clues. [Image Source: Nature]

The find included a complete skull with most of the cheek teeth present in the well-preserved upper jaw, allowing researchers to infer the shape of the lower jaw.

Hominid jawHominid Jaw
The KNM-ER 60000 jaw was the best lower jaw specimen recovered to date. [Image Source: Nature]

The skull allowed a 2007 partial lower jaw discovered by Robert Moru, dubbed KNM-ER 62003, to be confirmed as a member of the new species.  Likewise, another jaw discovered in 2009 by Cyprian Nyete -- KNM-ER 60000 -- further enriched the picture.  The 60000 specimen was the most complete hominid lower jaw ever discovered by researchers to date.

III. Much Work Remains

The discovery was truly a breathtaking process, beginning with geological analysis of probable sites for preserved remains, funded by the Leakey Foundation.  With promising dig sites pinpointed, the National Geographic Society provided funding for the successful fieldwork, a half decade ago.  And the Max Plank Society also chipped in, funding the laboratory work on the unearthed fossils.

The finished paper [abstract] on the groundbreaking work was published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature.  Its authors include Christopher Kiarie (TBI), who carried out the laboratory preparation of the fossils, Craig Feibel (Rutgers University), who studied the age of the fossils, and Susan Antón (New York University), Christopher Dean (UCL, University College London), Meave and Louise Leakey (TBI, Kenya; and Stony Brook University, New York) and Fred Spoor (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig and UCL), who analyzed the fossils.

Leakeys
The Leakey ladies with their outstanding find. [Image Source: National Geographic]

While the terrific find solves many unanswered questions about hominid evolution, it raises yet others.  These species clearly have not survived to the present day, but it is unclear what their true fate is.

Recent sequencing of the Neanderthal genome revealed that humans surprisingly interbred with this co-existing species, allowing some of its genetic material to be preserved even after it was displaced by Homo sapiens and went extinct.  Likewise, these new hominids could have interbred with Homo erectus, contributing scraps of valuable DNA that helped create the creature that we today know as a "human".

There's much work to be done on the eve of this discovery.

Sources: Nature, National Geographic Society



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RE: Lying Bones
By waykizool on 8/9/2012 4:28:14 PM , Rating: 3
You keep using that word, but I don't think you know what it means.

Theory - In modern science, the term "theory" refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science.

Hypothesis - People refer to a trial solution to a problem as a hypothesis, often called an "educated guess" because it provides a suggested solution based on the evidence.

And we're not talking thousands of years, this is hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

Try keeping an open mind to things as well, the Bible says God created man, but keep in mind, it doesn't say HOW.


RE: Lying Bones
By morob05 on 8/9/2012 9:38:27 PM , Rating: 3
LOL, it does say how. He shaped adam out of dirt and blew into his nostrils the breath of life! Then he stole one of adams ribs while he was sleeping and created Eve.


RE: Lying Bones
By maugrimtr on 8/10/2012 8:22:58 AM , Rating: 5
And after witnessing Man write that down, He erupted in laughter, shook his head, and moved out a few light years to check on other random planets showing evidence of sentient life that might not be so ridiculously gullible.


RE: Lying Bones
By ppardee on 8/14/2012 2:09:54 PM , Rating: 2
First, the quote is "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Hypothesis is an educated guess.

Theory is a hypothesis that has withstood repeated testing and has been accepted by a consensus (lots of people say.. yeah, sounds reasonable to me!) but can still be disproved.

Law is a theory to which no exceptions have been found.

Evolution is a theory by virtue of people coming to a consensus, not by testing. It has never been tested to my knowledge. Never once have we observed significant changes in an organism that would constitute anything other than adaptation. Evolution requires new genetic info to be injected into an organism - easy for prokaryotes, not so much for eukaryotes - or mutation of existing genes, which is harmful in all observations I'm aware of.


RE: Lying Bones
By morob05 on 8/14/2012 8:52:38 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sorry dude, but you don't understand. A law is by no means a theory to which no exceptions has been found. Law and theory are 2 entirely different things all together. A law does NOT attempt to explain any phenomena at all. The purpose of a theory on the other hand is to provide an explanation for natural phenomena. A theory is the closest thing you will get to fact within science.

Scientific hypothesis:
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it. Scientists generally base scientific hypotheses on previous observations that cannot satisfactorily be explained with the available scientific theories.

Scientific theory:
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Scientists create scientific theories from hypotheses that have been corroborated through the scientific method, then gather evidence to test their accuracy.

Scientific law:
A scientific law is a statement based on repeated experimental observation that describes some aspect of the world. A scientific law always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements.
Laws differ from scientific theories in that they do not posit a mechanism or explanation of phenomena: they are merely distillations of the results of repeated observation.

Evolution has in fact been confirmed through experimentation and observation, time and time again. It would NOT be a theory if it hadn't! Evolution does NOT require new genetic information to be injected into an organism. That's an insane notion... New genetic information arises through the re-arrangement of existing genetic information and through mutations. Mutations are NOT all harmful, many beneficial mutations has been observed, both within the general populations of humans and animals and also in lab-experiments. Evolution IS adaptation. If you believe that different organisms adapt to different environments, then i'd pretty much say that you believe in evolution. For whatever weird reason you just don't like to call it evolution.


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