Tilting at absent Asian australopithecines

10 minute read

In Nature a couple of weeks ago, Robin Dennell and Wil Roebroeks had a provocative paper exploring the possibility that early humans (i.e. Homo erectus) originated in Asia rather than Africa.

The paper is all speculation of course; there is no evidence of any earlier hominid in Asia.

But it is the good kind of speculation. Although maybe not quite this big:

Most probably, we are on the threshold of a profound transformation of our understanding of early hominin evolution that might prove as far-reaching as the demise of the notion of Man the Hunter in the early 1960s (Dennell and Roebroeks 2005:1103).

Here's the abstract:

The past decade has seen the Pliocene and Pleistocene fossil hominin record enriched by the addition of at least ten new taxa, including the Early Pleistocene, small-brained hominins from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the diminutive Late Pleistocene Homo floresiensis from Flores, Indonesia. At the same time, Asia's earliest hominin presence has been extended up to 1.8 Myr ago, hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously envisaged. Nevertheless, the preferred explanation for the first appearance of hominins outside Africa has remained virtually unchanged. We show here that it is time to develop alternatives to one of palaeoanthropology's most basic paradigms: 'Out of Africa 1' (Dennell and Roebroeks 2005:1099).

It is worth reviewing exactly what "Out of Africa 1" is supposed to be. The paradigm is that emergence of hominids from Africa required increases in brain size and/or body size, coincident with the emergence of hominids like KNM-ER 3733, KNM-WT 15000, and others. The motivation for this hypothesis is simple: australopithecines have not been found outside of Africa. Nor has anything like Homo habilis, which is australopithecine-sized but has larger brains.

Of course, it is questionable just how basic this paradigm is. Consider what I (and my colleagues) were able to write only seven years ago:

The problem is that significant range expansion out of Africa occurred a half million years or more later than the first H. sapiens [corresponding to others' H. erectus or H. ergaster]. Population size before then may have remained small, and this is not an inconsequential time span, being one quarter of the time H. sapiens has existed. An important date in behavioral evolution is 1.5 MYA because it is marked by the earliest appearance of the Acheulean, the ubiquitous hand-axe industry of the Early and Middle Pleistocene.... Before this time, humanity was limited to Africa and immediately adjacent sections of Asia such as the Levant (Hawks et al. 2000:7).

Evidence for large body size in Late Pliocene humans (notably KNM-WT 15000 but also many others) made it very plausible that larger bodies were necessary for dispersal from Africa. But without good evidence for such dispersal before around 1.4 million years ago (and arguably not before 1 million years), larger bodies could not be assumed to be a sufficient condition for dispersal. Writing about the origin of humans, we had to consider all these alternatives -- at a time when the Dmanisi sample consisted of a single uncertainly dated mandible and the Mojokerto date stood alone with very questionable provenience.

Now we know that hominids did leave Africa by at least 1.8 million years ago. Dmanisi has almost singlehandedly changed the perspective.

And in doing so, it made much more convenient the hypothesis that large body size was both necessary and sufficient for dispersal from Africa. If the date of dispersal and the date of human origins are the same, then it is natural to propose that the coincidence is more than chance.

I would say this is more of a convenient hypothesis (and an easy story to tell) than it is a basic paradigm. The idea that large body size caused dispersal from Africa may have been a local minimum in terms of parsimony (at least as long as the body size of the Dmanisi fossils was not known), but it was only one alternative among many still in play.

And it remains a plausible hypothesis -- after all, the Dmanisi remains are a bit larger than australopithecines, and they might well have shrunk from a larger early-human-like size after reaching Asia instead of before.

But Dennell and Roebroeks give motivations for examining some alternatives.

The only reason why the earliest tool assemblages in Asia are attributed to H. erectus s.l. is that palaeoanthropologists have already decided that, in effect, it was the only hominin capable of migration out of Africa, and with sufficient Wanderlust to do so (Dennella and Roebroeks 2005:1099).

Homo erectus sensu lato (s.l.) means Homo erectus "in the loose sense", which would include not only the "strict sense" (sensu stricto) H. erectus. from Java and China, but also hominids like OH 9 and KNM-ER 3733 from Africa, and presumably the Dmanisi hominids.

A long passage reviews the total faunal evidence from Asia during the Late Pliocene. The thrust of the passage is that there are very few sites with extensive fauna, and of these most preserve mainly large-bodied herbivores. There are a few hints that a hominid-friendly fauna may have existed, including the presence of baboons. But there are no hominids of any kind at the vast majority of Asian localities -- Dmanisi is a real exception in the Plio-Pleistocene record.

This is the key taphonomic argument: if we have only found Early Pleistocene humans from continental Asia within the past ten years, then how can we preclude there having been australopithecines there? Dennell and Roebroeks argue that if there were australopithecines, we shouldn't necessarily expect to have found them yet -- we just haven't looked extensively enough.

A close read of the section raises a caution, though. One of the main arguments for the incompleteness of the Asian record is that sites don't preserve each others' fauna.

It is also likely that the full range of taxa is incomplete for the Indian subcontinent, because Megantereon and Pachycrocuta are not recorded in India but are present in Pakistan; in Pakistan, there is no evidence of Camelus and small primates, and in neither country is Homotherium recorded, although this is present to the west at Dmanisi, to the north at Kuruksay, central Asia and to the east at Longuppo, south China (Dennell and Roebroeks 2005:1100).

Of course, all of these species are recorded in Asia taking all the sites in aggregate; this is hardly an argument for the overall weakness of the record -- just an argument that no individual site is an adequate record of the continent's fauna.

To me, the important question is not whether australopithecines as currently known from Africa were in Asia. A more troubling possibility is that the australopithecines that we now know from Africa were not the only (or main) manifestations of early hominids in Africa. Large parts of Africa that we might expect to be congenial to hominids, like the Zambesi basin, have few or no fossils at all. The recovery of the Bahr el Ghazal mandible (Brunet et al. 1994) certainly makes clear that hominids were living across a much larger area than we have adequately sampled. But that mandible is, although not identical, certainly very similar to known contemporary hominids in its adaptation.

The question is whether hominids had adapted to other ecologies that are much less satisfactorily sampled than the East African rift. They probably weren't living where chimpanzee and gorilla ancestors did, but where else might they have been? Some such ecologies -- like the coasts -- would make early dispersal very plausible.

(In this regard, early humans are not the only hominids who lack a satisfactory ancestor. Who was the ancestor of A. aethiopicus? In what ecology did the first robust hominid arise?)

So what is the broader set of hypotheses that we should consider? Dennell and Roebroeks suggest:

If the above taphonomic review suggests that we cannot show the absence of hominins from areas in Asia at a time before the little evidence we have indicates their presence, we need to consider alternatives to the current Out of Africa [that is, their "Out of Africa 1"] model. There are three issues here. The first is when hominin(s) first left Africa -- might they, for example, have left shortly after they acquired the ability to make stone tools, the earliest of which are currently 2.6 Myr old? Or could they have left even earlier, about 3.03.5 Myr ago, when some australopithecines were already living in the African grasslands? The second issue is whether we yet know the full range of hominins that inhabited both Africa and Asia in the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene. Even in east Africa, several new taxa have been claimed in the past decade (for example, A. anamensis, A. garhi, Ardipithecus ramidus and Kenyanthropus platyops) and doubtless more will be found. (An indication of how little we know about Pleistocene east Africa is that only recently has the first fossil evidence for chimpanzee been found.) In Asia, the recent discoveries of H. georgicus and H. floresiensis should make us very wary of assuming that H. erectus s.l. was the only player on the Asian stage in the Early Pleistocene. Third, Asia might not have been the passive recipient of whatever migrated out of Africa but might have been a major donor to speciation events, as well as dispersals back into Africa. Such two-way traffic is well documented for other mammals in the Pliocene and Early Pleistocene, such as Equus and bovids, with more taxa migrating into than out of Africa. There is no reason why hominin migrations were always from Africa into Asia, and movements in the opposite direction might also have occurred, as has been suggested for the Olduvai OH9 (refs 13, 58) and Daka specimens. We should even allow for the possibility that H. ergaster originated in Asia and perhaps explain its lack of an obvious east African ancestry as the result of immigration rather than a short (and undocumented) process of anagenetic (in situ) evolution (Dennell and Roebroeks 2005:1100-1101).

Of course, most of the evidence indicating the presence of hominids is not fossil but archaeological. On this topic, Dennell and Roebroeks have much to say:

Any stone tool assemblage in Asia dated as older than 1.9 Myr ago (the earliest date that Homo is supposed to have left Africa) is either dismissed or (more usually) ignored; undated Oldowan tools are assumed to date from after 1.9 Myr ago and not from 2.6 Myr ago (the date of their first appearance in east Africa); and stone tool assemblages in Asia dated to the Olduvai Event (1.771.95 Myr ago) and not associated with hominin remains are automatically attributed to Homo erectus s.l. However, there is no reason why Oldowan assemblages in Arabia cannot be older than 1.9 Myr old, or why the tools from Ain Hanech (Algeria) or Erq el Ahmar (Israel) were made by H. erectus s.l. [instead of other hominids] (ibid:1102, references omitted).

There is a section about what exactly absence of evidence can tell, a short critique of using continents as proxies for biogeographic units:

As noted earlier, Pliocene grasslands extended all the way from west Africa to north China, and 'Savannahstan' might prove a more useful spatial unit for modelling early hominin adaptations and dispersals within them than simply an undifferentiated 'Africa' or 'Asia'. For example, the African hominins 1.91.7 Myr ago at Koobi Fora (Kenya) and Ain Hanech (Algeria), and their slightly later counterparts in Asia at 'Ubeidiya (Israel), and Majuangou (north China) were all living in broadly comparable grassland environments, and it makes sense to place them within the same frame of reference.

I think there is much of value to consider here; but it is less a revolution and more a statement of the field in transition. There are also alternatives that are not considered in this paper but that may be equally plausible -- most notably, the idea that early humans themselves may have been substantially polymorphic (witness KNM-ER 42700), or that brain size rather than body size may have been a prerequisite to dispersal (since habilines, Dmanisi, and H. erectus s.l. are all allometrically similar in brain size).

National Geographic News also has an article about the paper.


Dennell R, Roebroeks W. 2005. An Asian perspective on early human dispersal from Africa. Nature 438:1099-1104. Full text (subscription)

Hawks J, Hunley K, Lee S-H, Wolpoff M. 2000. Population bottlenecks and Pleistocene human evolution. Mol Biol Evol 17:2-22.