New Findings Solve Human Origins Mystery

The critical event involves a dramatic embryological change unique to the human lineage that was not previously understood because the unusual human condition was viewed as "normal."
by Staff Writers
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Oct 11, 2007
An extraordinary advance in human origins research reveals evidence of the emergence of the upright human body plan over 15 million years earlier than most experts have believed. More dramatically, the study confirms preliminary evidence that many early hominoid apes were most likely upright bipedal walkers sharing the basic body form of modern humans. On October 10th, online, open-access journal PLoS ONE will publish the report based on research from Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology and from the Cedars Sinai Institute for Spinal Disorders that connects several recent fossil discoveries to older fossils finds that have eluded adequate explanation in the past.

Recent advances in the field of homeotic genetics together with a series of discoveries of hominoid fossils vertebrae now strongly suggest that a specific genetic change that generated the upright bipedal human body form may soon be identified. The various upright "hominiform" hominoids appear to share this morphogenetic innovation with modern humans. Homeotics concerns the embryological assembly program for midline repeating structures such as the human vertebral column and the insect body segments.

The report analyses changes in homeotic embryological assembly of the spine in more than 200 mammalian species across a 250 million year time scale. It identifies a series of modular changes in genetic assembly program that have taken place at the origin point of several major groups of mammals including the newly designated 'hominiform' hominoids that share the modern human body plan.

The critical event involves a dramatic embryological change unique to the human lineage that was not previously understood because the unusual human condition was viewed as "normal."

"From an embryological point of view, what took place is literally breathtaking," says Dr. Aaron Filler, a Harvard trained evolutionary biologist and a medical director at Cedars Sinai Medical Center's Institute for Spinal Disorders. Dr. Filler is an expert in spinal biology and the author of three books about the spine - "Axial Character Seriation in Mammals" (BrownWalker 2007), "The Upright Ape" (New Page Books 2007), and "Do You Really Need Back Surgery" (Oxford University Press 2007).

In most vertebrates (including most mammals), he explains, the dividing plane between the front (ventral) part of the body and the back (dorsal) part is a "horizontal septum" that runs in front of the spinal canal. This is a fundamental aspect of animal architecture. A bizarre birth defect in what may have been the first direct human ancestor led to the "transposition" of the septum to a position behind the spinal cord in the lumbar region. Oddly enough, this configuration is more typical of invertebrates.

The mechanical effect of the transposition was to make horizontal or quadrupedal stance inefficient. "Any mammal with this set of changes would only be comfortable standing upright. I would envision this malformed young hominiform - the first true ancestral human - as standing upright from a young age while its siblings walked around on all fours."

The earliest example of the transformed hominiform type of lumbar spine is found in Morotopithecus bishopi an extinct hominoid species that lived in Uganda more than 21 million years ago. "From a number of points of view," Filler says, "humanity can be redefined as having its origin with Morotopithecus. This greatly demotes the importance of the bipedalism of Australopithecus species such as Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) since we now know of four upright bipedal species that precede her, found from various time periods on out to Morotopithecus in the Early Miocene."

For the published article please go here.

related report

Environmental setting of human migrations in the circum-Pacific Region
A new study by Kevin Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research and John Terrell of The Field Museum adds insight into the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa and into Asia less than 100,000 years before present (BP). The comprehensive review of human genetic, environmental, and archaeological data from the circum-Pacific region supports the hypothesis, originally based largely on genetic evidence, that modern humans migrated into eastern Asia via a southern coastal route.

The expansion of modern human populations into the circum-Pacific region occurred in at least four pulses, in part controlled by climate and sea level changes in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. The initial "out of Africa" migration was thwarted by dramatic changes in both sea level and climate and extreme drought in the coastal zone.

A period of stable climate and sea level 45,000-40,000 years BP gave rise to the first major pulse of migration, when modern humans spread from India, throughout much of coastal southeast Asia, Australia, and Melanesia, extending northward to eastern Russia and Japan by 37,000 years BP.

The northward push of modern humans along the eastern coast of Asia stalled north of 43 N latitude, probably due to the inability of the populations to adjust to cold waters and tundra/steppe vegetation.

The ensuing cold and dry Last Glacial period, about 33,000-16,000 year BP, once again brought dramatic changes in sea level and climate, which caused abandonment of many coastal sites. After 16,000 years BP, climates began to warm, but sea level was still 100 m below modern levels, creating conditions amenable for a second pulse of human migration into North America across an ice-free coastal plain now covered by the Bering Sea.

The stabilization of climate and sea level in the early Holocene (8,000-6,000 years BP) supported the expansion of coastal wetlands, lagoons, and coral reefs, which in turn gave rise to a third pulse of coastal settlement, filling in most of the circum-Pacific region.

A slight drop in sea level in the western Pacific in the mid-Holocene (about 6,000-4,000 year BP), caused a reduction in productive coastal habitats, leading to a brief disruption in human subsistence along the then densely settled coast. This disruption may have helped initiate the last major pulse of human migration in the circum-Pacific region, that of the migration to Oceania, which began about 3,500 years BP and culminated in the settlement of Hawaii and Easter Island by 2000-1000 years BP.