Early risers

Kevin Lewis

March 19, 2017

Ancient X chromosomes reveal contrasting sex bias in Neolithic and Bronze Age Eurasian migrations

Amy Goldberg et al.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 7 March 2017, Pages 2657–2662

Dramatic events in human prehistory, such as the spread of agriculture to Europe from Anatolia and the late Neolithic/Bronze Age migration from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, can be investigated using patterns of genetic variation among the people who lived in those times. In particular, studies of differing female and male demographic histories on the basis of ancient genomes can provide information about complexities of social structures and cultural interactions in prehistoric populations. We use a mechanistic admixture model to compare the sex-specifically–inherited X chromosome with the autosomes in 20 early Neolithic and 16 late Neolithic/Bronze Age human remains. Contrary to previous hypotheses suggested by the patrilocality of many agricultural populations, we find no evidence of sex-biased admixture during the migration that spread farming across Europe during the early Neolithic. For later migrations from the Pontic Steppe during the late Neolithic/Bronze Age, however, we estimate a dramatic male bias, with approximately five to 14 migrating males for every migrating female. We find evidence of ongoing, primarily male, migration from the steppe to central Europe over a period of multiple generations, with a level of sex bias that excludes a pulse migration during a single generation. The contrasting patterns of sex-specific migration during these two migrations suggest a view of differing cultural histories in which the Neolithic transition was driven by mass migration of both males and females in roughly equal numbers, perhaps whole families, whereas the later Bronze Age migration and cultural shift were instead driven by male migration, potentially connected to new technology and conquest.


Evolutionary population history of early Paleoamerican cranial morphology

Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, André Strauss & Mark Hubbe

Science Advances, February 2017

The nature and timing of the peopling of the Americas is a subject of intense debate. In particular, it is unclear whether high levels of between-group craniometric diversity in South America result from multiple migrations or from local diversification processes. Previous attempts to explain this diversity have largely focused on testing alternative dispersal or gene flow models, reaching conflicting or inconclusive results. Here, a novel analytical framework is applied to three-dimensional geometric morphometric data to partition the effects of population divergence from geographically mediated gene flow to understand the ancestry of the early South Americans in the context of global human history. The results show that Paleoamericans share a last common ancestor with contemporary Native American groups outside, rather than inside, the Americas. Therefore, and in accordance with some recent genomic studies, craniometric data suggest that the New World was populated by multiple waves of dispersion from northeast Asia throughout the late Pleistocene and early Holocene.


Ardipithecus ramidus and the evolution of language and singing: An early origin for hominin vocal capability

Gary Clark & Maciej Henneberg

HOMO - Journal of Comparative Human Biology, forthcoming

In this paper we analyse the possibility that the early hominin Ardipithecus ramidus had vocal capabilities far exceeding those of any extant non-human primate. We argue that erect posture combined with changes in craniofacial morphology, such as reduced facial and jaw length, not only provide evidence for increased levels of pro-sociality, but also increased vocal ability. Reduced length of the face and jaw, combined with a flexed cranial base, suggests the larynx in this species was situated deeper in the neck than in chimpanzees, a trait which may have facilitated increased vocal ability. We also provide evidence that Ar. ramidus, by virtue of its erect posture, possessed a degree of cervical lordosis significantly greater than chimpanzees. This is indicative of increased mobility of the larynx within the neck and hence increased capacity to modulate vocalisations. In the paleoanthropological literature, these changes in early hominin skull morphology have to date been analysed in terms of a shift in mating and social behaviour, with little consideration given to vocally mediated sociality. Similarly, in the literature on language evolution there is a distinct lacuna regarding links between craniofacial correlates of social and mating systems and vocal ability. These are surprising oversights given that pro-sociality and vocal capability require identical alterations to the common ancestral skull and skeletal configuration. We therefore propose a model which integrates data on whole organism morphogenesis with evidence for a potential early emergence of hominin socio-vocal adaptations. Consequently, we suggest vocal capability may have evolved much earlier than has been traditionally proposed. Instead of emerging in the Homo genus, we suggest the palaeoecological context of late Miocene and early Pliocene forests and woodlands facilitated the evolution of hominin socio-vocal capability. We also propose that paedomorphic morphogenesis of the skull via the process of self-domestication enabled increased levels of pro-social behaviour, as well as increased capacity for socially synchronous vocalisation to evolve at the base of the hominin clade.


Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty

Douglas Kennett et al.

Nature Communications, February 2017

For societies with writing systems, hereditary leadership is documented as one of the hallmarks of early political complexity and governance. In contrast, it is unknown whether hereditary succession played a role in the early formation of prehistoric complex societies that lacked writing. Here we use an archaeogenomic approach to identify an elite matriline that persisted between 800 and 1130 CE in Chaco Canyon, the centre of an expansive prehistoric complex society in the Southwestern United States. We show that nine individuals buried in an elite crypt at Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the canyon, have identical mitochondrial genomes. Analyses of nuclear genome data from six samples with the highest DNA preservation demonstrate mother–daughter and grandmother–grandson relationships, evidence for a multigenerational matrilineal descent group. Together, these results demonstrate the persistence of an elite matriline in Chaco for ∼330 years.


Massive increase in visual range preceded the origin of terrestrial vertebrates

Malcolm MacIver et al.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming

The evolution of terrestrial vertebrates, starting around 385 million years ago, is an iconic moment in evolution that brings to mind images of fish transforming into four-legged animals. Here, we show that this radical change in body shape was preceded by an equally dramatic change in sensory abilities akin to transitioning from seeing over short distances in a dense fog to seeing over long distances on a clear day. Measurements of eye sockets and simulations of their evolution show that eyes nearly tripled in size just before vertebrates began living on land. Computational simulations of these animal’s visual ecology show that for viewing objects through water, the increase in eye size provided a negligible increase in performance. However, when viewing objects through air, the increase in eye size provided a large increase in performance. The jump in eye size was, therefore, unlikely to have arisen for seeing through water and instead points to an unexpected hybrid of seeing through air while still primarily inhabiting water. Our results and several anatomical innovations arising at the same time suggest lifestyle similarity to crocodiles. The consequent combination of the increase in eye size and vision through air would have conferred a 1 million-fold increase in the amount of space within which objects could be seen. The “buena vista” hypothesis that our data suggest is that seeing opportunities from afar played a role in the subsequent evolution of fully terrestrial limbs as well as the emergence of elaborated action sequences through planning circuits in the nervous system.

to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.