It’s hard to believe it’s already August. The year has sped by at an unprecedented rate, so much so that I missed the halfway point of the year (by a couple of months–oops). But, I’ve decided I need to do a roundup of my favorite finds this year anyway, there’s too much bad news out there and I need to celebrate. So let’s do an arbitrary August roundup of our favorite science of 2018 so far, just because. I was going to pull together a list of just top 5, but WHOA, a lot has happened this year. So here we go, a countdown:

10. A New Story of Humanity’s Origins? The generally accepted narrative of African origins is looking more complex than ever. While scientists continue to agree that we evolved from ancestral hominids in Africa, they are starting to think we did it in a complicated fashion—one that involves the entire continent. Finds like last year’s Jebel Irhoud show us that there was likely no simple population in one area of Africa from which humanity sprung. These ideas have been discussed in a recent paper that “challenges the view that our species, Homo sapiens, evolved within a single population and/or region of Africa.” One of the lessons? We need to keep looking for fossils, even in the most unexpected places.

Photograph: Ian Cartwright

9. Fossil finger bones. A tiny finger bone discovered in Saudi Arabia provides further evidence that modern humans spread out of Africa much earlier (and farther) than previously thought. “This discovery of a fossil finger bone for me is like a dream come true,” archaeologist Michael Petraglia said because it confirms theories the team has been working on for a while. Indeed, they have been searching the desert for over ten years and their reward is a beautiful little a bone from an ancient human’s middle finger. The team hopes there’s more to be discovered in the desert. “This fossil is just a piece of a whole skeleton, like a drop of rain,” one of the team members said, adding “the rain is coming.”

8. Neanderthals made fire? A team of researchers found that they suspect are 60 partially burned digging sticks, possibly made by Neanderthals. We still don’t know if Neanderthals regularly controlled and used fire, so these artifacts–by virtue of being burned–could help settle the debate. Some scientists certainly want more information before they are convinced but, if true, as one researcher put it. this further “humanizes Neandertals.”

7. The shape of the human brain. By studying a large number of hominin skulls (89 present-day humans, 8 Neandertals, and 10 members of other ancient Homo species), scientists are getting a better idea of when the human brain reached its oddly-globular shape. Physical anthropologist Simon Neubauer and his colleagues found that our rounded noggins that rise above the forehead didn’t appear until between about 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.

Neanderthal art? Credit: P. Saura

6. Neanderthal art. Scientists recently dated cave art deep on three caves in Spain. The art–a series of ladder-like shapes, dots, and handprints–appear to date to 64,000 years ago. The only hominins we think were living in Spain 60,000 years ago were Neanderthals, making this possible ancient Neanderthal art! Anticipating objections about the dating method, the researchers waited three years to publish their results after finding the first clearly pre-human date. They worked to collect multiple examples and publish their methodology. There still are some skeptical opinions, but it’s certainly exciting to think about.

5. The foot of Dikika Baby. One of my favorite fossil skeletons just revealed a bit more information about the past. The fossilized toddler, known as Dikika Baby–or Selam–or Lucy’s Baby, is amazingly well preserved–and scientists just published a closer look at his foot. The team found that the Dikika Baby’s toes are slightly curled, good for tree climbing. This weighs in on the decades-long debate over whether or not Australopithecus afarensis spent significant time in the trees. However, it doesn’t pose a clear answer just yet.

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Homo antecessor, Credit: J.M. Bermúdez de Castro, M.N.C.N.

4. Dating at Atapuerca. Fossils from the archaeological site of Gran Dolina in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain have been directly dated for the first time. The fossils, labeled Homo antecessor dated to about 772,000-949,000 years old, confirming what scientists expected, but still–this is very cool. The dating itself was quite the feat, and it required collaboration between an international team of geochronologists, geologists, archaeologists, and paleoanthropologists. This site, which has already divulged so much about our origins, is definitely a place to watch.

3. Hominins in the Philippines. On the island of Luzon, scientists found a fossilized Ice Age rhinoceros that was butchered. The date of this butchery? Around 700,000 years ago! Aaaaahhh. That’s a long time ago. Who butchered the rhino? That’s the best part–WE DON’T KNOW. It could have been Homo erectus, or maybe even a species closely related to our favorite little hobbits, Homo floresiensis. Either way, the rhino suggests that early hominins were more widespread than previously thought in island Southeast Asia. I look forward to following the continued excavations in the Philippines!

2. Misliya jaw. It feels like ages ago now, but in January we learned of a new fossil from the Misliya Cave in Israel that upends our understanding of when humans left Africa. The jaw and associated teeth date to around 177,000–194,000 years old. At that age, it holds the record for earliest modern-human outside Africa. As a historian, I love this find even more because it’s from a cave on Mt Carmel, which has been a fascinating site of research since the 1920s when legendary archaeologist Dorothy Garrod first ran excavations there (think Skhul and Qafzeh). Also, it is truly one beautiful maxilla (jawbone).

Misliya maxilla .Credit: Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv Univ.

  1. 2.1 million-year-old artifacts in China. Every now and then (ok, every year at least) there is a discovery that is difficult to even comprehend. This find, to me, is that. Researchers recently announced that they have found stone tools in modern-day China in sediments dating back to 2.1 million years ago. This date means that hominins were outside Africa earlier time than scientists previously knew. Which hominins? Again, we don’t know–we only have their tools. The site, a place named Shangchen, has revealed 96 stone tools that look fairly similar to tools made in Africa about the same time. What were the stone tools used for? Scientists don’t know yet. But wow, the implications. Asia is the place to watch for paleoanthropology if you ask me!

Picture: ZHAOYU ZHU ET AL / NATURE

What do you all think? An exciting year so far, no? Is your ranking similar or do you totally disagree?! Personally, I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year has to tell us…I’m sure 2018 has some more fun in store for us!

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