Finding the right fossil record for human evolution

Finding the right fossil record for human evolution

The SK 48 skull of an ancient hominin, Paranthropus robustus, was one of the fossils included in the analysis of some recent claims about human evolution. Credit: Carrie S Mongle

Uncovering the evolution of any group of living things is a complex and highly detailed task for scientists, and theories and approaches, which may differ over time, can actually alter the fossil record. But paleoanthropologist and Stony Brook University professor Carrie S. Mongle, Ph.D., and co-authors urge researchers to exercise caution with their findings. They provide researchers studying the evolutionary past of ancient hominins (a group that includes humans and our immediate fossil ancestors) with an important and fundamental message in a recently published article Natural Ecology & Evolution. That is, conclusions drawn from evolutionary models are only as good as the data on which they are based.

In “Modeling Hominin Evolution Requires Accurate Hominin Data,” the authors develop a response to previous research that made some important claims about when the genus Homo emerged based on fossil dates. However, the team proved that many of the fossil dates from the study were wrong and provided data to correct those errors.

“It has become increasingly common in our field for researchers to propose a ‘new and exciting’ synthesis of evolutionary events that a certain group of scientists believe will revolutionize our understanding of human evolution,” says Mongle, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Turkana Basin Institute. “Our paper aims to draw attention to the problem that we cannot make big claims based on piecemeal compilations of the fossil record and questionable data from the literature. We also provide a carefully constrained geochronological data set that researchers can use for future studies.”

Mongle and co-authors found that by reanalyzing the original study with corrected fossil dates, the estimated timing of species divergences differed from previously reported estimates by up to 300,000 years. This is important because these estimates are often used to correlate evolutionary transitions with ancient environments and climate change. When the estimates are off by that much, it could completely change scientists’ interpretations of the evolutionary drivers that made us human.

Mongle and co-authors advocate that evolutionary scientists develop future full evidence studies when studying human evolution. They conclude that it is “crucial to recognize that no algorithm is a substitute for careful comparative anatomy and meticulously constrained geochronology when it comes to interpreting evolutionary trends from the fossil record”.

New analyzes indicate that the increase in body size played no role in the emergence of the genus Homo

More information:
Carrie S. Mongle et al., Modeling hominin evolution requires accurate hominin data, Natural Ecology & Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01791-2

Provided by Stony Brook University

Citation: Getting the fossil record right on human evolution (July 11, 2022), retrieved July 12, 2022 from

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