Read Lone Survivors Online

Authors: Chris Stringer

Lone Survivors

 

To the memory of lost family Tony and David, and lost colleagues Bill, Clark, and Roger

Contents

Title Page

Dedication

List of Illustrations

Introduction

1. The Big Questions

2. Unlocking the Past

3. What Lies Beneath

4. Finding the Way Forward

5. Behaving in a Modern Way: Mind Reading and Symbols

6. Behaving in a Modern Way: Technology and Lifeways

7. Genes and DNA

8. Making a Modern Human

9. The Past and Future Evolution of Our Species

Sources and Suggested Reading

Acknowledgments

Index

About the Author

Also by Chris Stringer

Copyright

Illustrations

Copyright information is given in parentheses

Eugène Dubois and his “
Pithecanthropus erectus
” skull
(
John Reader
)

Map showing early human sites
(
Chris Stringer
)

Replica of the Heidelberg jaw
(
The Boxgrove Project
)

Franz Weidenreich and some of the “Peking Man” fossils
(
John Reader
)

Louis Leakey with the Olduvai Gorge “
Zinjanthropus
” skull
(
Natural History Museum, London
)

Chris Stringer on his 1971 research trip around Europe
(
Chris Stringer/Rosemary Lee
)

Milford Wolpoff
(
David Hart
)

Günter Bräuer and Chris Stringer
(
Günter Bräuer/Chris Stringer
)

Skulls of
erectus
,
heidelbergensis
,
sapiens
, and
neanderthalensis
(
Natural History Museum, London
)

Side view of skulls of
erectus
,
heidelbergensis
,
sapiens
, and
neanderthalensis
(
Natural History Museum, London
)

Ranges of the main dating methods for recent human evolution
(
Chris Stringer
)

Boxgrove handaxes
(
The Boxgrove Project
)

Skeleton from the Neander Valley
(
John Reader
)

Skulls from Jebel Irhoud and La Ferrassie
(
Chris Stringer/Musée de l'Homme, Paris
)

The Oase fossils
(
Erik Trinkaus
)

Oblique view of the Herto skull
(
courtesy and © Tim White
)

Side view of the Herto skull
(
courtesy and © Tim White
)

The child's skull from Herto
(
courtesy and © Tim White
)

Map showing early human sites in Europe
(
Chris Stringer
)

Objects from Hohle Fels Cave, Germany: “Lion Man”
(
Juraj Lipták/University of Tübingen
); flute (
Hilde Jensen/ University of Tübingen
); Venus (
Hilde Jensen/University of Tübingen
); waterbird (
Juraj Lipták/University of Tübingen
)

Excavations outside Vogelherd Cave, Germany
(
Maria Malina/ University of Tübingen
)

Blombos Cave, South Africa, exterior
(
Chris Henshilwood
)

Blombos Cave, South Africa, interior
(
Chris Henshilwood
)

Still Bay tools from Blombos Cave
(
Chris Henshilwood
)

Ocher plaque from Blombos Cave
(
Francesco d'Errico
)

Bone tools from Blombos Cave
(
Chris Henshilwood
)

Tick shells from Blombos Cave
(
Chris Henshilwood
)

Reindeer carving from Montastruc rock shelter, France
(
replica, Chris Stringer
)

Pigments from Pech-de-l'Azé, France
(
Francesco d'Errico and Marie Soressi
)

The mtDNA tree
(
Mark Stoneking
)

Map showing the spread of early modern groups
(
Chris Stringer
)

Chimpanzees cracking palm oil nuts
(
Susan Carvalho
)

Diagram showing limited cultural transmission in archaic humans
(
Chris Stringer
)

Diagram showing much wider cultural transmission in modern humans
(
Chris Stringer
)

Map showing later human sites
(
Chris Stringer
)

Map showing later human sites in Europe
(
Chris Stringer
)

Mungo 3, Australia
(
Colin Groves
)

Omo Kibish 1 and 2
(
Michael Day
)

Ngaloba skull
(
Chris Stringer
)

Iwo Eleru skull
(
Natural History Museum, London
)

Which model is “right”?
(
Chris Stringer
)

Evolutionary tree
(
Chris Stringer
)

Introduction

We have just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's
On the Origin of Species
and his two hundredth birthday, and evolution by natural selection is now widely accepted. But what do we know about the origin of our own species,
Homo sapiens
? Despite the fascinating and growing record of very ancient prehuman fossils, one topic has dominated recent scientific and popular discussion about evolution: our own origins. While it is generally agreed that Africa was the homeland of our earliest human ancestors, a fierce debate continues about whether it was also the ultimate place of origin of our own species, and of everything that we consider typical of our species, such as language, art, and complex technology. Originally centered on the fossil record, the debate has grown to encompass archaeological and genetic data, and the latter have become increasingly significant, now even including DNA from Neanderthal fossils. Yet much of these new data and the discussions surrounding them are buried in highly technical presentations, scattered in specialist journals and books, so it is difficult for a general readership, however informed, to get an accessible overview.

In this book I want to try and provide a comprehensive—but comprehensible—account of the origin of our species from my position in these debates over the last thirty years or so. I've worked at the Natural History Museum in London even longer than that, and the idea that I could have ended up there, studying our origins, was a boyhood dream which I never thought would actually come to pass, given my relatively humble origins in the cockney area of east London. But with supportive parents and foster parents and some teachers who encouraged me along the way, I started to realize that dream when, at age eighteen, I made a last-minute switch from studying medicine to taking a degree in anthropology. It was a gamble that paid off when I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Bristol University in 1970 to study my favorite fossil people—the Neanderthals—and then even that was capped by the offer of a job in the Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum in London, in 1973.

It has been such an exciting time to be working in this field, with wonderful new fossil finds, but also the arrival of a host of new techniques to date and study them. I hope my book will make every reader think about what it means to be human, and change his or her perceptions about our origins—writing it has certainly changed some of mine!

I regularly give talks on human evolution and receive hundreds of inquiries on this topic every year from the media and the public. The same questions recur time and again, and in this book I will try to answer them. These questions include:

  1. What are the big questions in the debate about our origins?

  2. How can we define modern humans, and how can we recognize our beginnings in the fossil and archaeological record?

  3. How can we accurately date fossils, including ones beyond the range of radiocarbon dating?

  4. What do the genetic data really tell us about our origins, and were our origins solely in Africa?

  5. Are modern humans a distinct species from ancient people such as the Neanderthals?

  6. How can we recognize modern humans behaviorally, and were traits such as complex language and art unique to modern humans?

  7. What contact did our ancestors have with people like the Neanderthals, and were we the cause of their extinction?

  8. Do archaic features in modern human fossils and genes outside Africa indicate hybridization?

  9. What does DNA tell us about the Neanderthals and possible interbreeding with modern humans?

10. What can we learn from a complete Neanderthal genome, and will we ever clone a Neanderthal?

11. What forces shaped the origins of modern humans—were they climatic, dietary, social, or even volcanic?

12. What drove the dispersals of modern humans from Africa, and how did our species spread over the globe?

13. How did regional (“racial”) features evolve, and how significant are they?

14. What was the “Hobbit” of the island of Flores, and how was it related to us?

15. Has human evolution stopped, or are we still evolving?

16. What can we expect from future research on our origins?

It is now over twenty years since the publication of the seminal
Nature
paper “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution” by Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan Wilson that put modern human origins and “Mitochondrial Eve” on the front pages of newspapers and journals all over the world for the first time. Not only did that paper focus attention on the evolution of our own species, but it also led to a fundamental reformulation of scientific arguments about the way that we look at our own origins. A year after that publication, I wrote the paper “Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans” for the journal
Science
with my colleague Peter Andrews, which set out the contrasting models of modern human origins that have dominated debate ever since: the Recent African Origin model and the Multiregional Evolution model. Later in the book we will see how these models have fared in the face of many new discoveries, but in the first chapter I will look at some of the big questions of modern human origins, including what diagnoses our species, what the recent debates are all about, and how the different models lay out expectations of what we should find in the record of modern human evolution, from fossils, archaeology, and genetics.

1

The Big Questions

It is barely 150 years since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented their ideas on evolution to the world. A year later, in 1859, Darwin was to publish one of the most famous of all books,
On the Origin of Species
. Then, the first fossil human finds were only beginning to be recognized, and paleontology and archaeology were still in their infancy. Now, there is a rich and ever-growing record from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and I have been privileged to work in one of the most exciting eras for discoveries about our origins. There have been highly significant fossil finds, of course, but there have also been remarkable scientific breakthroughs in the amount of information we can extract from those finds. In this first chapter I will outline the evidence that has been used to reconstruct where our species originated, and the very different views that have developed, including my own. There are in fact two origins for modern human features that we need to consider. Here, I will talk about our species in terms of the physical features we humans share today, for example, a slender skeleton compared to our more robust predecessors, a higher and rounder braincase, smaller brow ridges, and a prominent chin. But there are also the characteristics that distinguish different geographic populations today—the regional or “racial” characteristics, such as the more projecting nose of many Europeans, or the flatter face of most Orientals. I will discuss their quite different origins later in the book.

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