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Department of Human Evolution

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

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News

August 28, 2019: A face for Lucy's ancestor
© Dale Omori, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Researchers discover remarkably complete 3.8 million-year-old cranium of Australopithecus anamensis at Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia

Australopithecus anamensis is the earliest-known species of Australopithecus and widely accepted as the progenitor of “Lucy’s” species, Australopithecus afarensis. Until now, A. anamensis was known mainly from jaws and teeth. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Stephanie Melillo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and their colleagues have discovered the first cranium of A. anamensis at the paleontological site of Woranso-Mille, in the Afar Region of Ethiopia.

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Original publication

June 26, 2019: The ancient history of Neandertals in Europe
© Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm

Early ancestors of the last Neandertals lived in Europe already 120,000 years ago

Parts of the genomes of two around 120,000-year-old Neandertals from Germany and Belgium have been sequenced at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The analyses of these sequences showed that the last Neandertals, who lived around 40,000 years ago, trace at least part of their ancestry back to these European Neandertals that lived around 80,000 years earlier. The 120,000-year-old Neandertal from Germany, however, carried some ancestry that may originate from an isolated Neandertal population or from relatives of modern humans.

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Original publication

June 03, 2019: Human ancestors invented stone tools several times
© David Feary, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Scientists discover the oldest systematically produced stone artifacts to date

A new archaeological site discovered by an international and local team of scientists working in Ethiopia shows that the origins of stone tool production are older than 2.58 million years ago. Previously, the oldest evidence for systematic stone tool production and use was 2.58 to 2.55 million years ago. A group of archaeologists and anthropologists led by David Braun from George Washington University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology suggests that stone tools may have been invented many times in many ways before becoming an essential part of the human lineage.

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Original publication

May 01, 2019: First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans
© Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University

Denisovan mandible likely represents the earliest hominin fossil on the Tibetan Plateau

So far Denisovans were only known from a small collection of fossil fragments from Denisova Cave in Siberia. A research team led by Fahu Chen from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, CAS, Dongju Zhang from Lanzhou University and Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology now describes a 160,000-year-old hominin mandible from Xiahe in China. Using ancient protein analysis the researchers found that the mandible’s owner belonged to a population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Siberia. This population occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and was adapted to this low-oxygen environment long before Homo sapiens arrived in the region.

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Original publication

April 11, 2019: Multiple Denisovan-related ancestries in Papuans
© Isabella Apriyana

DNA sequences from Indonesia and New Guinea reveal new branches of the Denisovan family tree

As they dispersed out of Africa anatomically modern humans interbred with their close relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. An international research team examined DNA fragments passed down from these ancient hominins to modern people living in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea. Their study suggests that the ancestry of Papuans includes not just one but two distinct Denisovan lineages, which had been separated from each other for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, one of those Denisovan lineages is so different from the other that they might even be considered an entirely new group of archaic hominins.

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Original publication

February 18, 2019: Neandertals’ main food source was definitely meat
© MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ A. Le Cabec

Isotope analyses performed on single amino acids in Neandertals’ collagen samples shed new light on their debated diet

A specific feature of modern humans seems to be their frequent fish consumption, which can be determined by nitrogen isotope analyses of bone or tooth collagen. An international research team, led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, discovered two late Neandertals characterized by exceptionally high nitrogen isotope ratios, which would traditionally be interpreted as the signature of freshwater fish consumption. By studying the isotope ratios of single amino acids, they however demonstrated that instead of fish, the adult Neandertal had a diet relying on large herbivore mammals and that the other Neandertal was a breastfeeding baby whose mother was also a carnivore. According to isotope data, Neandertals seem to have had a very stable diet over time, including after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

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Original publication

January 30, 2019: Age of the earliest Denisovans and Neanderthals in Southern Siberia
© Tom Higham, University of Oxford

New studies reveal deep history of Denisovans and Neanderthals in southern Siberia

Denisova Cave is the only site in the world known to have been occupied by both Denisovans and Neanderthals at various times. Two new studies published in the journal Nature, now put a timeline on when the two groups of archaic humans (hominins) were present at the site and the environmental conditions they faced before going extinct. The studies identify the age of the earliest Denisovans and Neanderthals in Southern Siberia. One of the studies, was led by Dr Katerina Douka from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, while the other one was led by Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Link to press release (MPI-SHH)

Original publication

January 11, 2019: Plant phytolith and water content influence rate of tooth enamel abrasion in vertebrates
© Daniela E. Winkler
© Daniela E. Winkler

Scientists can reconstruct the feeding behavior and habitats of extinct vertebrates

Plant phytolith and water content cause differing degrees of tooth enamel abrasion in vertebrates. This is the conclusion reached by an international research team headed by scientists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Featured online before print in the journal PNAS, their study has implications for how tooth wear in extinct animals is interpreted and how this information can be employed to reconstruct their dietary behavior and habitats. Ellen Schulz-Kornas of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig contributed to this research.

Link to press release (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

Original publication

January 24, 2018: Modern human brain organization emerged only recently
© MPI EVA/ S. Neubauer, Ph. Gunz (License: CC-BY-SA 4.0)
© MPI EVA/ S. Neubauer, Ph. Gunz (License: CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Homo sapiens fossils demonstrate a gradual evolution of the human brain towards its modern globular shape

In a paper researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reveal how and when the typical globular brain shape of modern humans evolved. Their analyses based on changes in endocranial size and shape in Homo sapiens fossils show that brain organization, and possibly brain function, evolved gradually within our species and unexpectedly reached modern conditions only recently.

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Original publication

June 07, 2017: The first of our kind
© Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig (License: CC-BY-SA 2.0)
© Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig (License: CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Scientists discover the oldest Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

New finds of fossils and stone tools from the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, push back the origins of our species by one hundred thousand years and show that by about 300 thousand years ago important changes in our biology and behaviour had taken place across most of Africa.

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Original publication (Hublin et al.)

Original publication (Richter et al.)

March 14, 2017: A newly discovered fossil human cranium from Portugal dated to be 400,000 years old
© Elena Santos
© Elena Santos

U-series (U-Th) dating of associated calcite formations constrains the age of the Middle Pleistocene cranium between 390,000 and 436,000 years.

An international team recently discovered a fossil human cranium in Portugal. The cranium was excavated in Gruta da Aroeira which is part of the Almonda cave system (Torres Novas, Portugal). The cranium was found in sediments which accumulated on top of a stalagmite column and calcite crusts also formed on the cranium after its burial. U-series dating of the calcite formations was done by Dirk Hoffmann from the Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The results provided maximum and minimum ages for the cranium and revealed an age between 390,000 and 436,000 years. The Aroeira specimen is the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium found in Europe and one of the best dated Middle Pleistocene specimen. It might help elucidate hominin evolution in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, including the origin of the Neandertals. The study, led by J. Daura from the University of Lisbon, included researchers from Portugal, Spain, Germany and the US.

Link to press release (University of Lisbon)

Original publication