Human Evolution: The Year 2010 in Review (Part 2)

Make sure you check out part one of my blog, published two weeks ago.

Teeth came up in another story in 2010. Researchers were quoted as saying that modern humans, traditionally thought to have evolved roughly 200,000 years ago in East Africa, now might be 400,000 years old. In addition, they may have evolved in Israel rather than Africa. Twice as old and not from Africa, was the message spread by the media. The evidence? A few teeth found in Qesem Cave.

However, a word of caution is in order here. What was reported in the media was not what the scientists had said. In fact, they had implored the members of the press not to engage in hyperbole and present hypotheticals as proven facts. They were ignored. Someone called the media on this and chastised them for engaging in “science by press release.”

DNA made the headlines several times this past year.  In August scientists announced that they had decoded famous ice man Oetzi’s genome. This is interesting in itself; it would be even more interesting if we could compare his genetic makeup with the genome of the Tarim Basin mummies.  Such a genome has not been decoded yet, so we will have to wait. Imagine, however, the potential such a comparison would present to evaluate the origins of these Caucasoid mummies.

Oetzi the Iceman: as exhibited in Museum Bélesta (Ariège), France;
reconstruction of his equipment. Photo by: Gerbil

What lessons can we draw from all this?

First, it seems that a lot of trailblazing research is now based on minute amounts of evidence, a finger bone here, and a few teeth there.

Second, the fact that we are dealing with minute amounts of information does not detract from the importance of the scientific contributions these data have made.

Third, some of the data are microscopically small. Size notwithstanding, DNA and DNA analysis have become a very valuable component in retracing human origins.

I would like to end with an observation and a comment.

In March 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History proudly opened its doors on the completely renovated David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. It is a wonderful exhibit, sharing with millions of visitors the scientific basis of our understanding of human evolution.

On display for the first three months were three original fossils, one Cro-Magnon and two Neanderthals. Their presence was announced with great pride in the original press release.  A review by a leading US newspaper stated:  “Because of the fragility of human remains, only a handful of actual fossils are on display, diminishing the sense of wonder the real thing always inspires.”

Interestingly, the reference to the original fossils was missing in other (presumably later) online versions of that same announcement. Instead, we only find a reference to “a display of more than 75 skulls (exact replicas).”

Here is a photograph as it appeared in the media (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin), showcasing two of the three original skulls on display.

Treasured Neanderthal and Original Cro-Magnon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

The caption read :
“Fossil skulls of La Ferrassie Neanderthal, left, and Cro-Magnon, that are on a three-month loan from the Musée de l’Homme in France, are seen in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Scientists think DNA analysis of Siberian genetic material may have revealed yet another branch of the human tree.”

In an age where the human attention span seems to be measured in minutes, let alone days or even years, it is good to remember that in 2007, there was another original fossil on display in the US. The venue was the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The original fossil involved was that of Lucy.

In a very savvy media campaign, several leading paleoanthropologists engaged in variations of an ad hominem attack, and used rather unfortunate language to refer to the museum, as well as the curator of the exhibit.

The scientists who opposed Lucy going on display all invoked the same document, a 1998 statement drafted by the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology. The second resolution in this document declares:

“We strongly recommend that original hominid fossils should not be transported beyond the country of origin unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the foreseeable future in the country of origin.”

Less than three years after invoking this document, the National Museum of Natural History now finds itself doing the very same thing it once so vehemently opposed. Moreover, an internet search in the days following the opening of the new hall in Washington failed to identify any criticism by the same individuals who in the previous case had brought out the big guns. As the first anniversary of the hall is just around the corner, still not a word of criticism has been uttered.

As someone once said: “Isn’t that special?”

Shhh… Science in action

This story starts in Italy and will then take us to the Tarim Basin in Northwestern China. It features a well-known mummy (Oetzi) and one of the best preserved mummies in the world (The Beauty of Xiaohe). It contains data from in-depth DNA analysis performed on one mummy and holds the promise of similar date generated in the near future on another set of mummies. Fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

During the month of August 2010, several stories hit the wire that the DNA of Oetzi, the famous Iceman mummy had been sequenced. The Iceman was discovered emerging from a glacier on the border between Austria and Italy. His mitochondrial DNA is now the oldest complete H. sapiens mtDNA genome generated to date.

This is where we segue to the Tarim Basin mummies, discovered thousands of miles away from the Alps. As it turns out, Oetzi’s find spot was very close to Alpine pastures where Dr. Victor Mair’s family once took their animals to graze, and that brings us to the Tarim Basin Mummies, a long term focus of Dr. Mair’s research.

A gratuitous link between these two areas, you say? Not necessarily, if one considers what has just been announced in Italy and the potential of what could happen with the mummies in China. Moreover, one of the reasons Dr. Mair got to be so interested in ancient human remains was the discovery of Oetzi in 1991. This occurred a few years after he had seen the Tarim Basin mummies on display in a museum in Urumqi.

 The Beauty of Xiaohe. Courtesy of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi.

Oetzi lived about 5000 years ago; while the Beauty of Xiaohe lived about 1,000 years later, around 2000 BC.  In both cases, DNA research has been carried out on these early human remains. It seems that the Beauty of Xiaohe and her kinfolk had very close links with areas to the west of the Pamir Mountains. (In a previous blog, the Pamirs are mentioned as part of the geography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  Specifically, “Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that the Xiaohe people carried both the East Eurasian haplogroup (C) and the West Eurasian haplogroups (H and K), whereas chromosomal DNA analysis revealed only the West Eurasian haplogroup R1a1a in the male individuals.”

Oetzi is of European origin; the Tarim Basin Mummies are often referred to as Eurasian, and Caucasian, without much further information about where they may have originated from, other than “west of the Pamir mountains.” This is where the reference made above, to the potential of future research comes in. The techniques exist to investigate the Tarim Basin mummies in much greater detail. The research has not happened yet.

In addition, there are ways to establish where individuals were born and raised, one of the most famous examples being the remains of an archer found close to Stonehenge. Tests showed that he originated in the Alps, probably Switzerland, Austria or Germany. He somehow made his way into what is now the United Kingdom, where he was buried. A similar scientific approach could be applied to the Xiaohe remains. I am sure that one day this will happen.

Currently the Beauty of Xiaohe is receiving visitors at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Oetzi, on the other hand, remains safely ensconced in his refrigerated display unit in Bolzano, Italy. No word yet if he is interested in coming over to visit his long lost relative.

Don’t miss Secrets of the Silk Road, open now at HMNS. See strikingly well-preserved mummies, tall in stature and fair in complexion, that have lain in the parched Tarim Basin of western China for 3,800 years along with 150 objects drawn from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi.