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Ancient human species may have lived alongside our Homo sapien ancestors

Mark Dunn, May 9, 2017 7:50PM News Corp Australia

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A NEWLY discovered species of human with small-bodied ancient features, could have roamed the earth at the same time as early Homo sapiens, research by Australian and international scientists has shown.

The findings rival another relatively recent discovery of an ancient human species that lived alongside Homo sapiens: the so-called ‘Hobbit’, or Homo floresiensis, discovered in Indonesia in 2003.

The discoveries offer an intriguing insight into how ancient and modern humans evolved.

Modern humans are a subspecies of Homo sapiens. This new human species is called Homo naledi and — while human — is still distinctly different to us.

The fossilised* remains of at least fifteen individual Homo naledi, more than 1550 specimens*, were unearthed* in the Rising Star Cave system at the Cradle of Humankind site northwest of Johannesburg in South Africa in 2013.

La Trobe University palaeoanthropologist Andy Herries with a Homo naledi skull from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. Picture: Tony Gough
media_cameraLa Trobe University palaeoanthropologist Andy Herries with a Homo naledi skull from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. Picture: Tony Gough

Because of Homo naledi’s archaic* features, they were originally thought to date back 900,000 to 2.5 million years, making it an ancient species with no interaction with Homo sapiens.

But La Trobe University palaeoanthropologist* Andy Herries and a team of 20 scientists worldwide have now dated Homo naledi to less than 330,000 years ago.

Evolutionary tree from the University of Georgia. Picture: supplied
media_cameraEvolutionary tree from the University of Georgia. Picture: supplied

“The present day is actually a very rare time in our history because we are now the only human species inhabiting the Earth,” Dr Herries said.

“Homo naledi is another example of why those diagrams they show you in school of a linear evolutionary trajectory* from a common ancestor with chimps to modern humans through a series of species, with each one being replaced, is simply not true.

“Evolution is much more complex and the human lineage was not set on some predetermined* trajectory to become ‘us’.

“It is entirely possible Homo naledi is not on the direct family line to us, but a sidebranch in the human story.”

Dr Herries said modern humans shared the planet and interbred with other human species, the Neanderthals, until around 25,000 years ago and with the Denisovans around 50,000 years ago.

“Now we know that another archaic species lived alongside our ancestors in their home continent, Africa,” Dr Herries said.

The type of diagram Dr Herries thinks lacks the real complexity of human evolution. Picture: supplied
media_cameraThe type of diagram Dr Herries thinks lacks the real complexity of human evolution. Picture: supplied

“Whether we interbred with them is unknown at the moment but there is that possibility.

“So while Homo naledi is not our direct ancestor, it could be part of our story in the way Denisovans and Neanderthals are.”

Dr Herries used a complex method called palaeomagnetism* to date the naledi fossils.

“Australia has the best people in the world for dating … from one fossil, from one tooth we can change our understanding of evolutionary history.”

GLOSSARY

fossilised: preserved in stone

specimens: bits of something used to figure things out

unearthed: dug up

archaic: old

palaeoanthropologist: study of humans through ancient remains

trajectory: path

predetermined: already decided

palaeomagnetism: analysis of magnetic qualities in rocks

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES

Activity 1. Human species

The article mentions a number of human species that are thought to be related to or ancestors of modern humans (us).

Draw up a table to show the following information for each mentioned species.

NAME

DATE DISCOVERED

AREA DISCOVERED

LIVED … YEARS AGO

Complete the table with information from the article.

If you have gaps you can do further research to complete the rest.

Write information from further research in a different colour.

Extension:

Why do you think that scientists study ancient human remains?

What can we learn from this type of research?

Time: allow about 30 minutes to complete this task

Curriculum links: English and Science

Activity 2. Life 330,000 years ago

Imagine you were alive 330,000 years ago.

What do you think life would be like?

Write a short description of your habitat, diet, family, lifestyle etc.

Compare each to your life now.

How could we find out how humans in this time period lived?

What other evidence would help us learn about how ancient humans lived?

Extension: Careers studying the past

Palaeoanthropology, anthropology, archeology and palaeontology all involve studying the past.

Write a short description of what each job involves.

How does each job differ?

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum links: English and Science

VCOP ACTIVITY

(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation)

Word Building

Be a word builder. Look at these base words that are in the story about humans.

Write as many words as you can that stem from these words.
For example, roam – roaming, roamed.

Don’t forget to think of prefixes and suffixes too.

Discover

Remain

Change

Inhabit

Extension: Which word is which?

Read the sentence below. Colour-code the words proper noun, common noun, verb, adverb or adjective.

A newly discovered species of human with small-bodied ancient features, could have roamed the earth at the same time as early Homo sapiens, research by Australian and international scientists has shown.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: English, Big Write and VCOP

EXTRA RESOURCES

AUSTRALIA’S ‘JURASSIC PARK’ DISCOVERED

HAIR DNA REVEALS ANCIENT TIES

TRUE STORY BEHIND LOST TREASURE

ANZAC DIARY SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON WWI

WHAT WILL 2050 LOOK LIKE?

Extra Reading in history