Friday, 18 October 2013

Dmansi Man

A new cache of hominin fossils is causing quite a stir in palaeontological circles. Read at The Independent.

The 1.8 million-year-old fossil hominins at Dmansi in Georgia might be late surviving examples of Homo erectus, or possibly even a variant of Homo habilis (or Australopithecus habilis, your mileage may vary). The five specimens show enormous variations in form that would have likely led to them being labelled as separate species had they been found at different sites.

There's been a lot of talk on this subject over the years, particularly with recent finds such as the Denisova man and the Flores 'hobbits' shaking up the formerly reasonably clear-cut human family tree. The fact of the matter is that in palaeontology, with sparse remains and little in the way of ecological data, fossils are frequently assigned to new genera and species as a method of clear labelling. Many related species of animal could, in fact, be examples of the same species at different ages or of different sexes. There's also congenital defects and simple individual variation to take into account.

The sudden proliferation of hominin species over a short period of time, geologically speaking, suggests that we need to rethink how we classify these fossils. As the article above says, there is huge variation across the human population today, and while a smaller community in prehistoric times might not display quite as much variance, it should be taken into account.

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