Skulls of Hominids: Other Beings Left to Uncover

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: November 26, 2013

It was Charles Darwin, observing the vast communities of chimpanzees and gorillas occupying the African jungles who speculated that most likely the first ancestors of modern humans appeared in Africa before beginning a vast migration to the north as the climates shifted, the Sahara growing more unforgiving. However, in Darwin’s time, there remained a debate among scientists over whether humans had their origins in Africa or Asia, with renowned scientist and artist Ernst Haeckel claiming that humans bore more of a resemblance to the Orangutan apes of Borneo than they do with gorillas.

A few decades later, evidence in the Olduvai Gorge of early hominid footprints and tools confirmed Darwin’s speculation of a long line of apelike ancestors migrating out of Tanzania, and giving rise to what formally became known as the Out of Africa Hypothesis, the suggestion that modern day humans evolved from the upright walking ape Homo erectus, a distant cousin of the chimpanzee, was strengthened by the findings of DNA evidence in the 1980s, and it is now generally accepted that all human beings can be linked back to one male and female living in Africa. Coinciding with what would have been the hundredth birthday of paleontologist Mary Leakey, who played a key role in the Olduvai Gorge expedition, scientists have uncovered new evidence that may put the hypothesis to the test yet again.

Deep in the dark caverns of a mine in China’s Yunnan Province, paleontologists discovered the skull of a Lufengpithecus child, who would have lived in the river valleys of China at approximately the same time that the famous Australopithecus Lucy roamed the Earth, 6.5 million years ago. Skulls of hominids are extremely rare because of the conditions required for fossilization, particularly in Asia, where much of the land has been used for mining and so many Lufengpithecus skulls have been found with considerable damage. For the first time have experts like anthropologist Jay Kelley been able to truly look at the remains and compare them to their modern human descendants. Clear evidence is present in the eye sockets, which have a similar ratio between the size of the eyes and brain as modern humans, but surprisingly little in common with modern Orangutans as researchers had originally planned to find. The child is believed to have been five years old, estimating the rate of aging in modern chimps and humans and considering that Lufengpithecus followed this trend.

Orangutans have long been noted for their resemblance to a human skull, and the skull of an adult was even used to perpetrate the infamous Piltdown Man hoax, which also used the jaw of a modern human to suggest the existence of a large brained ancestor of modern man living in Europe. However, the lack of similarities between Lufengpithecus and Orangutan suggest something more critical: that a myriad of different hominids occupied Asia, perhaps even large enough to rival the diversity found in Africa, with this skull being the signal to explore further. Climate evidence too, suggests that hominids may have adapted nicely to the environment of Southern China around the last few million years, as the area was largely a swamp, allowing for the later development of its coal-based economy.

Although it is too soon to suggest that our ancestors may have used a different migratory pattern than what the experts speculate, the road to discovery is only beginning to open, leaving us to wonder what other beings are left to uncover in the great tree of life, and what tracks are left to uncover. 

Other Stories by James Sullivan
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