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Concept: Human evolution


Sequencing the genomes of extinct hominids has reshaped our understanding of modern human origins. Here, we analyze ∼120 kb of exome-captured Y-chromosome DNA from a Neandertal individual from El Sidrón, Spain. We investigate its divergence from orthologous chimpanzee and modern human sequences and find strong support for a model that places the Neandertal lineage as an outgroup to modern human Y chromosomes-including A00, the highly divergent basal haplogroup. We estimate that the time to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of Neandertal and modern human Y chromosomes is ∼588 thousand years ago (kya) (95% confidence interval [CI]: 447-806 kya). This is ∼2.1 (95% CI: 1.7-2.9) times longer than the TMRCA of A00 and other extant modern human Y-chromosome lineages. This estimate suggests that the Y-chromosome divergence mirrors the population divergence of Neandertals and modern human ancestors, and it refutes alternative scenarios of a relatively recent or super-archaic origin of Neandertal Y chromosomes. The fact that the Neandertal Y we describe has never been observed in modern humans suggests that the lineage is most likely extinct. We identify protein-coding differences between Neandertal and modern human Y chromosomes, including potentially damaging changes to PCDH11Y, TMSB4Y, USP9Y, and KDM5D. Three of these changes are missense mutations in genes that produce male-specific minor histocompatibility (H-Y) antigens. Antigens derived from KDM5D, for example, are thought to elicit a maternal immune response during gestation. It is possible that incompatibilities at one or more of these genes played a role in the reproductive isolation of the two groups.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Chromosome, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Neanderthal, Human evolution, XY sex-determination system


Investigations at Happisburgh, UK, have revealed the oldest known hominin footprint surface outside Africa at between ca. 1 million and 0.78 million years ago. The site has long been recognised for the preservation of sediments containing Early Pleistocene fauna and flora, but since 2005 has also yielded humanly made flint artefacts, extending the record of human occupation of northern Europe by at least 350,000 years. The sediments consist of sands, gravels and laminated silts laid down by a large river within the upper reaches of its estuary. In May 2013 extensive areas of the laminated sediments were exposed on the foreshore. On the surface of one of the laminated silt horizons a series of hollows was revealed in an area of ca. 12 m(2). The surface was recorded using multi-image photogrammetry which showed that the hollows are distinctly elongated and the majority fall within the range of juvenile to adult hominin foot sizes. In many cases the arch and front/back of the foot can be identified and in one case the impression of toes can be seen. Using foot length to stature ratios, the hominins are estimated to have been between ca. 0.93 and 1.73 m in height, suggestive of a group of mixed ages. The orientation of the prints indicates movement in a southerly direction on mud-flats along the river edge. Early Pleistocene human fossils are extremely rare in Europe, with no evidence from the UK. The only known species in western Europe of a similar age is Homo antecessor, whose fossil remains have been found at Atapuerca, Spain. The foot sizes and estimated stature of the hominins from Happisburgh fall within the range derived from the fossil evidence of Homo antecessor.

Concepts: Human, Foot, United Kingdom, Europe, Netherlands, Western Europe, Human evolution, Northern Europe


Evidence of interpersonal violence has been documented previously in Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, but only very rarely has this been posited as the possible manner of death. Here we report the earliest evidence of lethal interpersonal violence in the hominin fossil record. Cranium 17 recovered from the Sima de los Huesos Middle Pleistocene site shows two clear perimortem depression fractures on the frontal bone, interpreted as being produced by two episodes of localized blunt force trauma. The type of injuries, their location, the strong similarity of the fractures in shape and size, and the different orientations and implied trajectories of the two fractures suggest they were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict. Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill. This finding shows that the lethal interpersonal violence is an ancient human behavior and has important implications for the accumulation of bodies at the site, supporting an anthropic origin.

Concepts: Psychology, Bone, Human, Skull, Human behavior, Terrorism, Human evolution, Hominina


The production of purposely made painted or engraved designs on cave walls-a means of recording and transmitting symbolic codes in a durable manner-is recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Considered exclusive to modern humans, this behavior has been used to argue in favor of significant cognitive differences between our direct ancestors and contemporary archaic hominins, including the Neanderthals. Here we present the first known example of an abstract pattern engraved by Neanderthals, from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It consists of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into the bedrock of the cave that has remained covered by an undisturbed archaeological level containing Mousterian artifacts made by Neanderthals and is older than 39 cal kyr BP. Geochemical analysis of the epigenetic coating over the engravings and experimental replication show that the engraving was made before accumulation of the archaeological layers, and that most of the lines composing the design were made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves, excluding the possibility of an unintentional or utilitarian origin (e.g., food or fur processing). This discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms.

Concepts: Human, Thought, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Archaic Homo sapiens, Gibraltar, Gorham's Cave, Engraving


Modern humans replaced Neandertals ∼40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool, lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoir is consistent with the use of lissoir in modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans.

Concepts: Bone, Human, Chimpanzee, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Humans, Bone products, Bone tool


Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology. H. naledi has humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist. It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb. These humanlike aspects are contrasted in the postcrania with a more primitive or australopith-like trunk, shoulder, pelvis and proximal femur. Representing at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times, this is the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Species, Kenya, Human evolution, Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, Homo habilis


It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package.” However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000-100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Science, Linguistics, Language, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Charles Darwin


We describe the first definitive case of a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm in a Neandertal rib (120.71) from the site of Krapina in present-day Croatia. The tumor predates other evidence for these kinds of tumor by well over 100,000 years. Tumors of any sort are a rare occurrence in recent archaeological periods or in living primates, but especially in the human fossil record. Several studies have surveyed bone diseases in past human populations and living primates and fibrous dysplasias occur in a low incidence. Within the class of bone tumors of the rib, fibrous dysplasia is present in living humans at a higher frequency than other bone tumors. The bony features leading to our diagnosis are described in detail. In living humans effects of the neoplasm present a broad spectrum of symptoms, from asymptomatic to debilitating. Given the incomplete nature of this rib and the lack of associated skeletal elements, we resist commenting on the health effects the tumor had on the individual. Yet, the occurrence of this neoplasm shows that at least one Neandertal suffered a common bone tumor found in modern humans.

Concepts: Cancer, Human, Oncology, Primate, Chimpanzee, Neanderthal, World population, Human evolution


Vocal fold control was critical to the evolution of spoken language, much as it today allows us to learn vowel systems. It has, however, never been demonstrated directly in a non-human primate, leading to the suggestion that it evolved in the human lineage after divergence from great apes. Here, we provide the first evidence for real-time, dynamic and interactive vocal fold control in a great ape during an imitation “do-as-I-do” game with a human demonstrator. Notably, the orang-utan subject skilfully produced “wookies” - an idiosyncratic vocalization exhibiting a unique spectral profile among the orang-utan vocal repertoire. The subject instantaneously matched human-produced wookies as they were randomly modulated in pitch, adjusting his voice frequency up or down when the human demonstrator did so, readily generating distinct low vs. high frequency sub-variants. These sub-variants were significantly different from spontaneous ones (not produced in matching trials). Results indicate a latent capacity for vocal fold exercise in a great ape (i) in real-time, (ii) up and down the frequency spectrum, (iii) across a register range beyond the species-repertoire and, (iv) in a co-operative turn-taking social setup. Such ancestral capacity likely provided the neuro-behavioural basis of the more fine-tuned vocal fold control that is a human hallmark.

Concepts: Human, Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Human evolution, Catarrhini


The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals.

Concepts: Human, Science, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Pleistocene, Gibraltar, Homo sapiens idaltu, Kebara Cave