I’m currently writing an essay on the origins and definitions of Anatomically Modern Humans (Homo sapiens species), and it is an endlessly fascinating (and confusing!) topic. Recent finds and reports have complicated the picture but have also opened up the delightful hominin evolutionary line (Jurmain et al 2011). It is also necessarily a wide ranging subject with researchers pinpointing various features of AMH throughout the palaeoanthropological record (Jurmain et al 2011, Pettitt 2005, Tattersall & Schwartz 2008). By seperating out the modern skeletal anatomy, modern behavioural characteristics and genetic information as they appear in the fossil and archaeological record, it is my view that this approach highlights the ever changing nature of what it means to be a modern human. This triad approach allows the investigator to realise that different aspects of what is typically expressed as AMH traits (Tattersall & Schwartz 2008: 50), whilst taken as a whole, can also be expressed at differing times due to several factors.
From our earliest anatomically modern traits described in the crania of Omo Kibish 1 & 2 from 195,000 years ago (Pettitt 2005), to cultures and symbolic behaviour attributed to populations throughout Africa by 100,000 years ago, and the evidence of the first dispersals of AMH out of Africa around 80,000-60,000 years ago (Wood 2005), it is clear that AMH have spread far beyond their homeland. However the continuing work of researchers in Africa and elsewhere in the world has also highlighted the rentention of archaic features in certain AMH populations; examples include the intriguing Iwo Eleru crania found in Nigeria (Harvatie 2011, and Dienekes’ Anthropology post here) and the recently described Chinese skeletal remains reporting a complex evolutionary history of East Asian AMH (Curnoe et al 2012). This can be attributed to various reasons, such as the admixture of those AMH with archaic hominids or population isolation.
Recent email communication with my friend and fellow blogger Confusedious has also highlighted the varied genetic changes in recent populations of Homo sapiens. His excellent post on gene culture coevolution is a detailed and elegant essay discussing rapid and modern genetic changes in H. sapiens regarding disease loading in populations, gene expression and selective gene adaptation; largely as a result of agricultural uptake and increased population density (Barnes et al 2011, Hawks et al 2007). Recent molecular work on the origin of TB (Smith et al 2009 & previously wrote about here by me) has helped highlight the need for a nuanced approach in treating the disease in modern populations. Examples include indigenous Papua New Guinea people and the Torres Strait Islanders, who do not have a genetic history of coevolution with the disease from the practise of intense animal husbandry, and who are now threatened by today’s demographic pressure and population expansion of those who do, and who have selectively adapted to it (Barnes et al 2011).
In conclusion, the gestalt of the Homo sapiens species may be instantly recognizable to some (Tattersall & Schwartz 2008), but there are a number of factors that intertwine, such as skeletal morphology, genetic change and behavioural adaptations, that produce a species that emerged roughly 200,000 years ago and are continuing in their adaptations to this world.
Barnes, I., Duda, A., Pybus, O. G. & Thomas, M. G. 2011. Ancient Urbanization Predicts Genetic Resistence to Tuberculosis. Evolution. 65 (3): 842-848.
Curnoe, D., Xeuping, J., Herries, A. I. R., Kanning, B., Tacon, P. S. C., Zhende, B., Fink, D., Yunsheng, Z., Hellstrom, J., Yun, L., Cassis, G., Bing, S., Wroe, S., Shi, H., Parr, W. C. H., Shengmin, H. & Rogers, N. 2012. Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. PLoS ONE. 7 (3): 1-28. e31918. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031918
Harvati, K., Stringer, C., Grun, R., Aubert, M., Allsworth-Jones, P., & Folorunso, C. A. 2011. The Later Stone Age Calvaria from Iwo Eleru, Nigeria: Morphology and Chronology. PLoS ONE. 6 (9): e24024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024024
Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive Evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (52): 20753-20758.
Pettitt, P. 2005. ‘The Rise of Modern Humans’. In Scarre, C. (ed) The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames & Hudson. pp 124-175.
Smith, N. H. Hewinson, R. G. Kremer, K. Brosch, R. & Gordon, S. V. 2009. Myths and Misconceptions: The Origin and Evolution of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Nature Reviews: Microbiology. Vol 7: 537-544.
Tattersall, I. & Schwartz, J. H. 2008. The Morphological Distinctiveness of Homo Sapiens and Its Recognition in the Fossil Record: Clarifying the Problem. Evolutionary Anthropology. 17: 49-54.