What if the earliest members of our Homo genus—those classified as Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus and so forth—actually belonged to the same species and simply looked different from one another? That's precisely the implication of a new report, which describes the analysis of a complete, approximately 1.8-million-year-old skull that was unearthed in Dmanisi, Georgia.
Unlike other Homo fossils, this skull, known as Skull 5, combines a small braincase with a long face and large teeth. It was discovered alongside the remains of four other early human ancestors, a variety of animal fossils and some stone tools—all of them associated with the same location and time period—which makes the find truly unique. The site has only been partially excavated so far, but it's already providing the first opportunity for researchers to compare and contrast the physical traits of multiple human ancestors that apparently coincided in the same time and geological space.
David Lordkipanidze from the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, along with colleagues from Switzerland, Israel and the United States, say that the differences between these Dmanisi fossils are no more pronounced than those between five modern humans or five chimpanzees.
Traditionally, researchers have used variation among Homo fossils to define different species. But in light of these new findings, Lordkipanidze and his colleagues suggest that early, diverse Homo fossils, with their origins in Africa, actually represent variation among members of a single, evolving lineage—most appropriately, Homo erectus.
Their report is published in the 18 October issue of Science.
"Had the braincase and the face of Skull 5 been found as separate fossils at different sites in Africa, they might have been attributed to different species," said Christoph Zollikofer from the Anthropological Institute and Museum in Zurich, Switzerland—a co-author of the Science report. That's because Skull 5 unites some key features, like the tiny braincase and large face, which had not been observed together in an early Homo fossil until now.
Given their diverse physical traits, the fossils associated with Skull 5 at Dmanisi can be compared to various Homo fossils, including those found in Africa, dating back to about 2.4 million years ago, as well as others unearthed in Asia and Europe, which are dated between 1.8 and 1.2 million years ago.
"[The Dmanisi finds] look quite different from one another, so it's tempting to publish them as different species," explained Zollikofer. "Yet we know that these individuals came from the same location and the same geological time, so they could, in principle, represent a single population of a single species."
The hominid fossils from Dmanisi represent ancient human ancestors from the early Pleistocene epoch, soon after early Homo diverged from Australopithecus and dispersed from Africa. The jaw associated with Skull 5 was found five years before the cranium was discovered but when the two pieces were put together, they formed the most massively built skull ever found at the Dmanisi site. For this reason, the researchers suggest that the individual to whom Skull 5 belonged was male.
The braincase of Skull 5 is only about 33.3 cubic inches (546 cubic centimeters), however, which suggests that this early Homo had a small brain despite his modern human-like limb proportions and body size.
"Thanks to the relatively large Dmanisi sample, we see a lot of variation," continued Zollikofer. "But the amount of variation does not exceed that found in modern populations of our own species, nor in chimps and bonobos."
"Furthermore, since we see a similar pattern and range of variation in the African fossil record… it is sensible to assume that there was a single Homo species at that time in Africa," he concluded. "And since the Dmanisi hominids are so similar to the African ones, we further assume that they both represent the same species."
Skull 5 seemingly indicates that, rather than several ecologically specialized Homo species, a single Homo species—able to cope with a variety of ecosystems—emerged from the African continent. And accordingly, our classification system for these early human ancestors may never be the same.
The report by Lordkipanidze et al. was supported by the Rustaveli Georgian National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the American School for Prehistoric Research, a Rolex Award for Enterprise, BP Georgia, the Fundación Duques de Soria, the A.H. Schultz Foundation, and the Foundation for Scientific Research at the University of Zurich.
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