Uncle Neanderthal and Auntie Denisovan
A friend recently visited the USA, and did me the marvellous favour of going to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. She did a fair job of photographing every corner for me, and we've spent many hours discussing what she saw.
This really caught my eye - the most comprehensive collection of hominid skull casts I've seen.
Fossil Hominids at the Museum of Osteology, Oklahoma City, OK.
The skulls are positioned in height according to age - the oldest ancestors at the bottom. One of the most notable things is that there isn't a clear lineage. Our recent evolution has been puzzling, and with added investigations such as DNA, it is because it is turning out to, and I'll use the technical term, "a right old mess".
A recent BBC documentary, The lost tribes of humanity talked about this. The assumption that, as modern man, we had out competed and triumphed against our lumbering idiot neanderthal cousins. Whatever our direct ancestors thought of them, they also thought them sexy. I personally have an approximated 2.6% neanderthal DNA, which is a touch higher than average. One thing I hadn't realised was that a full half of the neanderthal genome is still up and walking around our streets. On top of that, 60-80% of the Denisovans' genome is preserved in modern humans, and is notably thought to be why Tibetans and Nepalese cope better at altitude than European climbers.
We slept with everyone!
Illustration from Nature on the "interbreeding bonanza", article from 17 Feb 2016.
This diagram misses out another of our hominid cousins, the Floresiensis or "Hobbit Human" that split from other lines around 700,000 years ago in Indonesia, and may have survived up until 12,000 years ago, and be remembered in folk tales of ebu gogo of the area, who would steal food and kidnap children.
And this is why that display doesn't yet have clear lineages drawn on, and may never do so. Some of the skulls have been described as looking surprisingly ancient, or having a mix of features from modern man and his antecedents. It looks increasingly likely that instead of a family tree, we are figuring out a web of cross breeding that would make for a great Jeremy Kyle show!