Biology Magazine

Top Human Evolution Discoveries Expected in 2016

Posted on the 27 January 2016 by Reprieve @EvoAnth

It's Wednesday which means I answer questions from my lovely readers.

Or this time, I respond to requests for speculation. Someone wants to know what my top predictions for discoveries are for 2016.

However, I can't quote them since they stole all the good ones. So here are my totally original predictions for the upcoming year.

And you can't prove otherwise.

#5: More from Rising Star

For 2015 I predicted that we would hear from the Rising Star expedition in South Africa. And we did.

The fossils from Rising Star belonged to a whole new species: Homo naledi. It took the world by storm ( particularly the creationists). But this might only be scratching the surface.

The excavations in Rising Star only examined a tiny area from the cave. And that already turned up more than 15,000 fossils. Who knows what else is in there? Additionally, the team behind this discovery reckons they may have found something at other nearby sites.

Rumour has it that it might be as significant as Homo naledi. Hopefully we'll hear something about it in 2016.

#4: Little foot

Little Foot may well be one of the most significance fossils of all time.

It's extremely complete, so could well shed light on all the missing pieces of Australopithecus. Unfortunatley, it's stuck in rock. Which makes it a bit hard to study.

Last year I hoped that we would finally get some sort of scan that would reveal the anatomy of this enigmatic species. And we did certainly hear a lot about this species ( including the discovery it was older than we thought). But no complete scan emerged.

Perhaps 2016 will be the year scientists finally get their act together.

#3: A secret migration out of Africa

Modern humans tried to leave Africa twice ( or perhaps 3 times). But they only succeeded the second time.

There appears to have been a failed attempt that made it to the Middle East ( and perhaps a bit further) before ultimately petering out. Except as more and more data becomes available, this failed migration becomes more and more successful. They may have even made it as far as China before they died out.

Could it ultimately have been successful? Genetic data from these pioneers could reveal they contributed to the modern human genome. This would confirm that these migrations were not a dead end, but actually a proper migration that happened tens of thousands of years earlier than we thought.

This would be particularly interesting, as it would imply that humans lived happily alongside other species of hominin for much longer than we thought. Just how long were humans and Neanderthals getting chummy?

#2: Dates for Homo naledi

OK, I think I might be cheating a bit by reusing prediction #5. But I'm not expecting anything new out of Rising Star Cave here.

Actually, a lot of the significance of Homo naledi is based on how old the fossils are (expected to be around 2 million years). Except these fossils haven't actually been dated yet. Early efforts to do so failed. With a bit of luck, maybe we can get some reliable results out of the cave in 2016.

#1: A new species

2015 saw the addition of two pretty important members to the human family: Australoputhecus deyiremeda and Homo naledi.

But these aren't the only such discoveries in recent years. There's also the Burtele foot, Australopithecus sediba and more. It's becoming increasingly apparent that our family is big and bushy. There were lots of different offshoots. Most appear to have been experimental (and ultimately failures). Au. sediba tried a new way of walking, for example.

So it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to speculate that this trend will continue in 2016. Perhaps with the findings from Rising Star and the other sites associated with it.

But whilst it might be a fairly banal prediction, it has the potential to be very significant. After all, one of those evolutionary experiments ultimately gave rise to us. Any new species has the potential to reveal which one it was.

Or at the very least, perhaps shed light on just why our ancestors were becoming so diverse.

Plus, it always sounds cool in the papers.

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