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Friday, July 31, 2015

Prehistoric man

When you look for pictures of "caveman" on the internet, you tend to get a lot of pictures of people who vaguely resemble the GEICO "caveman" spokesperson:

He looks vaguely like a Neanderthal, those early Europeans who were more or less wiped out by Cro-Magnons roughly 30,000 years ago (though all non-African races evidently carry traces (usually 1-4%) of Neanderthal genes.

This picture of a "caveman," with his prominent nose, strong brow ridges, and receding chin, is typical:

He looks not too dissimilar to this reconstruction-from-a-Neanderthal skull by John Gurche:

There are also representations of "cavemen" who resemble Cro-Magnons (modern humans):

That makes sense, since many humans did live in caves until the last few millennia. And, in the past few thousand years, we really haven't changed all that much genetically. (Bear in mind, that's a very short time frame in the context of the roughly four million or so years of human evolution.)

When you Google "early hominids," the pictures start to vary more. (This post will ignore the earliest "humans," like Sahelanthropus Tchadensis, which lived roughly 6 to 7 million years ago, and Ardepithecus Ramidus, 4.4 million years ago, both of which looked more like apes than like humans.)

The evolution of mankind is a still-fuzzy picture. The fossil record is incomplete, and it's unclear whether various evolutionary branches died off, or were simply absorbed into other branches.

But the fossil record does show a number of early human branches, and it's always interesting to look at the artists' depictions of what they might have looked like based on their skulls, and in some cases, complete skeletons.

Here is a picture of Australopithecus Afarensis, who lived more than three million years ago:

Homo Habilis, who lived from 2.8 to 1.5 million years ago:

These pictures of Dmanisi hominids, who lived roughly 1.8 million years ago and stood four feet tall, are based on skulls found in the Caucasus:

Here is a 3-D rendering of "Turkana Boy," who lived roughly 1.5 million years ago. His complete skeleton was found near Lake Turkana, Kenya, in 1984:

Homo Rudolfensis is based on an incomplete skull found in Kenya, and is thought to have lived approximately 1.5 million years ago:

Homo Erectus lived from 1.8 million years ago until just 70,000 years ago:

Here's another rendering of Homo Erectus:

Yet another artist's interpretation from a Homo Erectus skull:

This is a reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis, who lived from approximately 800,000 years ago to 300,000 years ago:

Homo Rhodesiensis is thought to have lived from 300,000 to 125,000 years ago:

A recent wrinkle in the story of human evolution was the discovery of a finger from a juvenile in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia in 2008. The finger was dated to roughly 40,000 years ago, and because of the cool climate of the cave, its DNA had been preserved. Testing has shown that the Denisovans were closely related to the Neanderthals, and may have contributed up to 6% of the gene pool of modern day Southeast Asians. Because only the finger was found, there are no renderings of Denisovan faces. But their recent discovery underlines how much has yet to be learned about our ancestry.

In any case, it's fascinating to look at the pictures of our ancient human forbears and speculate as to which branches of the human family survived to contribute to our current gene pool, and which did not.

As one does, strive as one might, it's near impossible to prevent a few politically incorrect thoughts from wandering in.


Jokah Macpherson said...

One thing I find interesting is how much early hominins resemble fictional fantasy races. None of the pictures you have here would look out of place in Peter's Jackson's version of Lord of the Rings.

It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (most depressing novel ever) where the alien Overlords resemble traditional depictions of demons and it is explained that humans' latent extrasensory perception saw into the future that demon-like beings would bring great sadness and therefore incorporated such beings into their mythology.

John Craig said...

Jokah --
They do, actually. Peter Jackson, or some of Frank Frazetta's illustrations for the Conan the Barbarian books and Bran Mak Morn the like.

Anonymous said...

Really fascinating.

I have a question maybe you can answer: are there any renderings of the earliest humans that look identifiably European? When did that change begin?

- Gardner

John Craig said...

Gardner --
That' a really good question; I"m not sure what the answer is.

There does seem to be a big debate going on right now about whether the white and black races separated closer to 56,000 years ago or 100,000 to 120,000 yeas ago, something like that.

It's also fascinating to see which races branched off from each other more recently. (This they can tell by genetic distance, even if they don't have dates for when these diverging paths took place.) Take a look at the chart I posted here:

For instance, did you know that Africans separated from all the other races before any of the other races separated from each other? Or that genetically speaking, Africans are more closely related to Europeans than they are to Australian aborigines?

Mark Caplan said...

Scientists wonder if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but leave "intelligent" undefined. Suppose they discovered a planet with life that had evolved as far as dogs and cats. Intelligent life? Probably not. To chimpanzees and gorillas? Not quite. To Australian Aborigines? Hmmm. To Sub-Saharan Africans? Do I have to answer that question?

John Craig said...

Mark --
I think you just did.

High Arka said...

You're reminding me of "Erectus Walks Amongst Us." Read it?

John Craig said...

High Arka --
No, I haven't, but will look it up.