I love this lede in The Economist: Myth and fantasy populate the world with “othermen” – the elves, goblins, dwarfs and giants that live in the wild wood, in the cave or on the high mountain peaks. Not animal, not quite human either…”
It captures well my own feelings about the widely reported news today that, in a Siberian mountain cave (pic shows view from just above it) in which fragmentary remains of humans have been found, one little pinkie finger bone appears quite different. Top-tier paleoanthropologists including the busy Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig amplified enough DNA from it for a comparison with that of modern humans and the extinct near-human species, the Neanderthal, that also once lived in the same region. It is neither, they report in Nature today. While only about 30,000 to 50,000 years old, the DNA is so different from H. sapiens and H. neandertalensis that it looks like the last common ancestor to all three may have lived as much as a million years ago.
It would thus make four hominins of (presumably) goodly brain that occupied Earth until the fairly recent past: Us, Neanderthals, the “hobbit” Homo floresiensis species of Indonesia that appears to be gaining respectability as a distinct member of genus Homo, and now this new old one from Siberia.
Most peculiarly to me, Nature itself runs a News and Views article by a British professor that calls it “an unknown type of extinct human ancestor” in its headline and copy as well. Many reporters use the ancestry label too. Hmmm. Either we share a common ancestor a million years ago or so, or we don’t, and if we do, then this thing is a somewhat distant cousin and no more an ancestor than are hobbits or Neanderthals, right? Or does this recent instance of the species represent the last common ancestor to us and to its own self and maybe to H. neandertalensis too? And unchanged for a million years before exiting the planet for good? That’d be weird.
No matter how the cladogram works out, this is pretty neat and it all stems from a mitochondrial DNA result (the finger bone by itself, it appears, is too little for phylogenic parsing at such detail). Reporters had a good time with this, despite so many of them agreeing that this appears to be a human ancestor. I am definitely hung up on that assertion. How is this different from calling a gorilla, or a gibbon for that matter, a human ancestor? That makes no sense to me. Maybe “ancestor” has a technical meaning in phylogenic circles utterly unlike what makes grandfather Charlie Petit, former mayor of Ventura, my ancestor?
Addendum: As I went through stories, a possible further mixup in reporting emerged, it appears, in the name given by scientists to the last common ancestor or to the specimen that left its pinkie finger behind so recently. X Woman, or Woman X, or X, or what and who is it anyway? Read down to see what I mean. There is much of the rush-job on an unfamiliar topic to be seen in many of these reports.
- Independent (UK) Chris Stringer : The tip of the iceberg in understanding of human history; A fine commentary by a noted paleoanthropologist says nothing about this being maybe our ancestor, but a lot about its indication that, maybe, the human family tree remained an abundantly branched bush until much more recently than we had supposed.
- Reuters – Maggie Fox: Possible new human ancestor found in Siberia ; I am going nuts here. The story simply calls the creature “Woman X,” although how it is determined to be female I dunno, as it was mitochondrial DNA that was sequenced. (Skip down to the Christian Sci Monitor bullet a few down for a hint of explanation).
- AP – Malcolm Ritter: New ancestor? Scientists ponder DNA from Siberia ; Ritter is so reliable – so why does he go for the notion that the species living in that cave so recently, and with Neanderthals and modern people already as neighbors, is simultaneously our ancestor?
- Los Angeles Times – Thomas H. Maugh II: A possible new link in human lineage — all from a little finger ; Hmmm, again. Is a side chain to the human lineage also a link within it? I am in terminal terminological overload. But this story at least does not have us descended from the mystery bone person thing.
- Voice of America – Jessica Berman: Scientists Discover Third Prehistoric Human Relative ; The hed gives me solace as does Berman’s description of this as, apparently, “a previously unknown prehistoric human relative..: She labels it X-woman, not woman-X.
- The Australian – Leigh Dayton: X Woman may be unknown human species ;
- Times (UK) Mark Henderson: Fingerbone points to a new type of human who fell off the family tree 30,000 years ago ;
- Christian Science Monitor – Peter N. Spotts: X Woman. Not human, not Neanderthal, what is she? ; Now this, I submit, is a hed with brains. But then he attaches the X Woman label to the last common ancestor to us and to Neanderthals. This is a clue that other reports, listed above, got the Woman-X or X-Woman monicker bollixed, and attached it to the finger bone, not the distant female creature who mitochondrial DNA has been passed along to all three lines, mutating for a million years. A fast scan of the paper itself sees no mention of X Woman or variation thereof – suggesting it came up during a teleconference on the paper.
- Science News – Bruce Bower: Ancient DNA suggests new hominid line ; The story, while unclear on what exactly X-woman means, is a serious effort to get the bigger picture right: The human family was once quite an extended one.
- NPR – Christopher Joyce: Fossilized Pinky May Point to New Human Relative ;
- Financial Times – Clive Cookson: Scientists reveal discovery of fourth human species ;
- Bloomberg – Michelle Fay Cortez: Siberian Fossil Yields Ancient DNA of Long-Lost Human Ancestor ; More usage and meaning problems, just in the hed. Which the reporter probably did not write. But if it was never known before, who lost it? And there is, again, that ancestor appelation for a creature that co-existed with fully modern people and apparently split from us a million years ago and dead-ended just a few tens of thousands of years ago.
- Sydney Morning Herald – Nicky Phillips: Meet Digit, the new type of human ;
- Telegraph – Richard Alleyne : Stranger from Siberia is new ancestor of man, claim scientists ; Right. And I’m a monkey’s uncle.
- Time Magazine – Eben Harrell: Scientists Discover an Ancient Human Relative ; Hey. This one let my blood pressure drop a bit. No X woman (just an X), no assertions this is a human ancestor, the hed makes sense.
- BBC – Paul Rincon : DNA identifies new ancient human dubbed “X-woman” ;
And finally – to either clarify or add to the confusion and I’m voting for the former:
- NYTimes – Nicholas Wade: Bone May Reveal a New Human Group ; He says the pinkie bone was from a child 5 to 7 years old, sex unknown, and hence no Woman X. He mentions bits of beadwork and jewelry at the site – as do a few other reporters but unlike them Wade is careful to report one cannot conclude that the mystery bone belonged to the species using such body decor. This is a good one, second only to the Economist article cited at top.
*UPDATE (per comment below):
- USA Today – Dan Vergano: Fossil DNA analysis may have revealed new human species ; Nice job, to the point, while sowing no confusion over why a small child of undetermined gender might also be called Woman-X, or whether this individual’s species might have been the exact same species unchanged for more than a million years and that is ancestral to both us and Neanderthals and maybe more as well.
– Charlie Petit