Category Archives: Human Evolution

Scientists apply Genetic Estimates to Homer’s Iliad

iliad-2-TOPHomer’s Iliad is one of the most famous works of Bronze Age Greece. Its date and composition, however, is one of the academically controversial. Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Reading applied the same techniques to researching genetic evolution (using the rate of genetic mutation) to the evolution of language. Using this method, they determined that the Iliad was written approximately 762 BCE +/- 50 years; a date consistent with historical theories.

“Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes.It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does. If so, then we should be able to find a date for Homer.” — Mark Pagel, Ph.D.

To learn more about the process and extensive findings, see the article published at Inside Science, “Geneticists Estimate Publication Date of the ‘Iliad‘” or the paper, published in the Journal of BioEssays.

Fossilized Foot Sheds New Light on Evolution of Bipedalism

Paleoanthropologists have long looked to early hominids to answer questions about our own development and evolution. The most famous example is the Australopithecus Lucy, who roamed the African savannah more than 3 million years ago.

Recently, paleoanthropologists have uncovered a fossilized foot close to Lucy’s age but with details resembling an older species of proto-human, Ardi. The find provides scientists with new details and information on the evolution of bipedalism in humans.  To learn more about the discovery, see the article in Scientific American.

Mapping of Bonobo Chimpanzee Genetic Code Reveals More About (Us) Humans

Bonobos at the Cincinnati Zoo (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Scientists have recently mapped and published the genetic code of the Bonobo Chimpanzee (Pan paniscus); our closely related primate cousins. Bonobo Chimps, sometimes called pygmy or gracile chimpanzees, share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings (on par with the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytesThe two species of chimpanzee share more than 99% of their genetic code, but have clearly distinct social constructions and inherent behaviors.

Common chimpanzees are characterized by not only their intelligence, but their often violent (sometimes inexplicably so) behavior. Whereas their primate “siblings,” Bonobos, are inherently peaceful, egalitarian, and matriarchal (the only group of great apes with a female-focal social construct).

Scientists hope that these new genetic revelations will help us to understand concepts of ‘inherently human’ behavior – specifically concepts of empathy, cooperation, and peaceful negotiation (all behaviors human beings can and do express).

“If you look at bonobos, chimpanzees and humans, what you can see is that there are some specific characteristics that we share with both of them.”

Scientists hope to study the genetic distinctions to help understand what is inherent versus learned social behavior that we may have genetically inherited from our distant, primate ancestors. To learn more about this research, see the articles: “‘Hippie Chimp’ DNA may shed light on our Dark Side” at MSNBC and Bonobo’s Genetic Code Laid Bare at the BBC.

Debunking the Myth of the Inherently “Mean Girl” – Humans Weren’t Born Nasty

Today, Discovery news highlighted that the fact that, contrary to the assertions of scientists a decade ago, human beings are not ‘naturally nasty.’ In fact, humans regularly engage in cooperate behavior

“… human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes,” he said.

“Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

So, mean girls (and boys) of the world – sorry, you weren’t just born that way. Human begins are inherently cooperative and social. If you don’t believe me, check out the article in Discovery News.

The Adolescent Brain

This month, National Geographic highlights what we already know about teenagers: they make poor decisions, are experiencing severe shifts in hormones, struggle with self-control, and struggle through the growing pains of becoming an adult. At least, this is what I have heard from others – I personally never made poor decisions as a teenager or suffered with self-image and esteem.

While most researchers have asserted that very little brain development occurs in teenage years (as the brain does not tend to get much larger and the hardened skull develops). However, new research suggests that during adolescence and until 25 years of age, the human brain experiences massive reorganization and development – a process not dependent (entirely) on size. The process of development can cause some instability, primarily manifest during adolescence.

These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they’re still learning to use their brain’s new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire.

To read more about this study, see the article in National Geographic.

Cooking a Nearly Two Million Year Old Practice

Recent excavations and analysis of the molars of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis suggest that human ancestors began cooking much earlier than originally thought. The introduction of culturally treating food (specifically cooking) directly correlates to smaller molar size in human beings (as thick enamel and wide chewing surfaces are no longer necessary).

Paleoanthropologists have suggested that the the decreasing size of molars in proto-humans suggests that our ancestors were cooking as early as two million years ago. The finding, however, is not without controversy as the connection with cooking also suggest other sophisticated tool use – specifically the control of fire.

“There isn’t a lot of good evidence for fire. That’s kind of controversial,” Organ said. “That’s one of the holes in this cooking hypothesis. If those species right then were cooking you should find evidence for hearths and fire pits.” (MSNBC)

These new findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If you do not have a subscription to this esteemed article, you can read more about it in this article of Scientific American or at MSNBC.

Chimpanzees Can Display Altruism

New recent on the behavior of chimpanzees demonstrates that our closest living relatives do in fact display altruistic behavior. Previously, primatologists believed that chimpanzees solely demonstrated behavior for self-serving ends. However, recent behavioral models have shown that the great apes take into account the feelings and needs of others in the group.

 “All studies with wild chimpanzees have amply documented that they share meat and other food abundantly, that they help one another in highly risky situations, like when facing predators or neighboring communities, and adopt needing orphans.” — Christopher Boesche to Discovery News.

These findings also shed an interesting light on the existence and development of altruistic behaviors amongst humans and the role it played in our evolutionary and social progression. To learn more about these findings and the future of these research models, see this article in Discovery News or at MSNBC.