When it comes to human evolution, our understanding really isn’t as clear cut as we’d like it to be. With each new discovery, more branches are added to our evolutionary tree, growing it outward as opposed to from beginning to end. We know our closest relations, but who can say for sure where humanity itself got its start?
While modern tools and testing methods have given us a somewhat clearer picture of our past, it seems not even 21st-century technologies can definitively prove where it really all began. A recent discovery has only served to complicate human history even further — and it’s all thanks to a peculiar, 800,000-year-old object.
Yet our evolutionary tree wasn’t always so fragmented — or, at least, no one really knew it was. Our progress to modern-day humans seemed pretty straightforward: Australopithecus to Homo habilis, habilis to Homo erectus, and erectus to Homo sapiens.
Then, in the 1970s, everything changed. The discovery of new hominin fossils completely eliminated this notion of linear evolution, leaving us to wonder where sapien-like Neanderthals, or the three-foot-tall Homo floresiensis, fit on our neat little tree.
Natural History Museum
Even our notion of which species evolved from which was rocked by these discoveries. While it was generally accepted that Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus, fossils found near Africa’s Lake Tanganyika showed that these species actually lived side by side.
With fossil records showing that early bipedal humans still swung from trees alongside apes and that the use of tools predated larger brains, was it even possible to establish any kind of straightforward human evolution? A 1994 discovery seemed to hold the answer to this burning question.
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While digging in the the Atapuerca Mountains of northern Spain, a group of archaeologists discovered a deposit of 80 bone fragments in the dirt. At first glance they appeared Homo sapien in origin, though upon closer inspection, the researchers were stunned.
The fragments were cut and butchered, indicating that cannibalism was practiced by these early humans. Homo sapiens, however, weren’t known to cannibalize, leading the researchers to rethink their classification.
José María Bermúdez de Castro
They looked to Homo erectus as a possible match, though the fragments were still too different to have come from the species. DNA testing was the logical next step, and when the results returned, they were nothing short of historic.
Not only did the fragments belong to an unidentified hominin species, but they were also more than 800,000 years old, making them some of the oldest ever found in Europe. They decided to call the new species Homo antecessor, derived from the Latin word meaning “predecessor.”
In the researchers’ minds, the age of the fragments made it likely that Homo antecessor was the intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, the supposed direct ancestor to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and, possibly, Homo sapiens. Many in the archaeological community celebrated these findings as a breakthrough — others, however, weren’t convinced.
Some researchers believed the dating of the fragments indicated that Homo antecessor was more closely related to Neanderthals and Homo sapiens than to Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, sitting on the same evolutionary branch rather than preceding them. Calls for further study were made.
DNA, while the backbone of our genetic code, degrades relatively quickly, becoming unreadable after just a few hundred thousand years. If researchers wanted to get to the bottom of Homo antecessor‘s place in the evolutionary chain, they’d have to look to something a bit bigger than DNA.
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Proteins — and no, not the kind you load up on before the gym. Our cells build proteins from amino acids coded by our DNA, meaning that DNA is present in these macronutrients — even after millions of years.
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This makes them perfect for genetic sequencing, which is why researchers turned to paleoproteomics — the study of ancient proteins — in 2020 during a new study of the fragments. Even with so many pieces to choose from, there was one bit of bone they were particularly interested in.
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A tooth! Well, more specifically, the enamel. Using mass spectrometry, which shows the mass of the molecules in a given sample, the researchers could trace the proteins back to the originating source and could finally read that valuable DNA.
After comparing their findings with genetic data taken from more recent human tooth samples, the researchers confirmed that Homo antecessor was not the missing link between Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. Surprisingly, however, the opposing theories were a bit off as well.
Instead of Homo antecessor being laterally related to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens, it appeared to be a close predecessor. Therefore, Homo antecessor was actually a “sister species” to these species’ common ancestor!
“I am happy that the protein study provides evidence that the Homo antecessor species may be closely related to the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans,” said study co-author José María Bermúdez de Castro. “The features shared by Homo antecessor with these hominins clearly appeared much earlier than previously thought.”
While this conclusion seems a logical one, the limited availability of data regarding Homo antecessor has left plenty of room for debate. With our only understanding of the species coming from scans of a single tooth, some researchers have chosen to accept these findings as simply a “best guess.”
Martín-Francés et al.
The only way to know for sure where Homo antecessor fits on the chain of human evolution is to uncover more remains, a realization that’s led countless other researchers to the Atapuerca Mountains in search of the truth. Yet these mountains aren’t the only place archaeologists should be looking.
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The Alps have also proven to be a hotbed of prehistoric finds, though the ones made here aren’t always intentional. In fact, one of history’s most remarkable discoveries was made here completely by accident.
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On September 19th, 1991, German hikers Helmut and Erika Simon set off on an expedition through the snowcapped peaks of the Italian Alps. The Simons were looking to have an unforgettable experience, and by day’s end, the couple had gotten exactly that.
As they navigated the spectacular vistas of the region’s Otztal Alps, the Simons — encouraged by years of hiking experience — tackled some of the range’s more treacherous terrain. And so, the couple abandoned their planned route and began exploring off trail.
Nearing the summit of a large mountain, the Simons noticed a strange-looking shape jutting out of the earth. The couple approached the object, and what they found there chilled them more than any snow ever could…
It was a human corpse! The Simons were understandably shaken by their discovery, which they believed to be the body of a fellow hiker that had met an unfortunate end. But when the couple contacted authorities, they soon learned there was a lot more to this body.
Just after the excavation team arrived a violent storm swept through the mountains, making the recovery of the body incredibly difficult. After three long days of on-and-off digging, rescue workers were finally able to unearth the frozen corpse.
News broke quickly of the daring mountainside recovery, with one Austrian reporter dubbing the deceased mountaineer “Otzi the Iceman” after the location in which he was found. But as authorities began to inspect the recovered body, they realized that Otzi was no ordinary hiker…
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Otzi was quickly brought to the University of Innsbruck, where archaeologist Konrad Spindler examined his body and made a startling discovery. As it turns out, Otzi was actually an ancient mummy cadaver from the Bronze Age, making him an astonishing 5,300 years old!
Otzi’s body was incredibly well-preserved thanks to the wet mountain conditions. Not only did this enable scientists to run an advanced test on the remains, but it also allowed them to create a 3D reconstruction of what Otzi might’ve looked like.
Bonnie Brennan / Smithsonian Mag
According to the data taken from his body, Otzi stood 5’5″, weighed 84 pounds, and was 45 years of age at the time of his death. Scientists also deduced that Otzi had brown eyes, a thick beard, and generally maintained an overall haggard appearance. But the revelations about Otzi weren’t solely cosmetic.
Mother Nature Network
From the 30 different pollen samples taken from Otzi’s stomach, scientists determined that the iceman had perished sometime in the spring or summer. This information, coupled with the fact that Otzi had eaten an ibex a mere two hours before his death, allowed scientists to trace his travels through the region as well as understand some of the diseases he suffered from during his lifetime.
Even after thousands of years in the snow, tests on the body revealed that Otzi had been plagued with a myriad of ailments, including whipworm, cardiovascular disease, and lactose intolerance. Otzi also suffered from the earliest-known case of Lyme’s Disease, though this wouldn’t be the iceman’s only historical first…
Der Mann aus dem Eis
Thanks to the incredible condition of his skin, scientists were able to identify a number of markings on Otzi’s body as primitive tattoos, which were likely used to mark acupuncture points. Not only did this make Otzi the oldest tattooed mummy to date, but it also indicated that acupuncture was practiced 2,000 years before first believed.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
Despite this wealth of information derived from Otzi’s body, it took a full decade before the mystery surrounding the iceman’s death was solved. Though scientists originally believed he had died from exposure, new studies conducted in 2001 revealed a grisly truth behind Otzi’s untimely demise…
Using advanced x-ray technology, scientists discovered an arrowhead lodged in Otzi’s left shoulder. Given the location of the shot, the arrow would’ve pierced a vital artery, likely causing Otzi to bleed to death. It wasn’t a snowstorm that killed Otzi: he was murdered!
Questions swirled about this newfound revelation, with scientists scrambling to find a motivation for the murder of the iceman. One theory suggested that Otzi had been shot while raiding a rival tribe, while another claimed that Otzi had been the victim of ritual sacrifice. Ultimately, though, the items found alongside Otzi’s body provided the biggest insight into his death.
The iceman was discovered with a number of valuables in his possession, including tools, furs, and a copper axe. Seeing that the killer had simply left these items alongside the body, scientists deduced that the killing was likely of a personal nature. Otzi’s murder was solved, but one final realization about the mummy proved deadly for all those involved.
13 years after he and Erika first discovered Otzi, Helmut Simon died in a freak accident in the Austrian Alps. Not long after, Konrad Spindler, the archaeologist that first examined Otzi, also perished under mysterious circumstances. These unexplained deaths fueled rumors that, like the Egyptian pharaohs, the iceman was cursed.
Speculation about the curse only increased when one of the Alpine guides that excavated Otzi was killed in an avalanche, and a forensic expert that once touched Otzi’s body died in a car accident. To this day, seven deaths have been attributed to the curse of Otzi.
Those looking to experience the wonder of Otzi firsthand – and potentially invite a curse or two – could visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where he stood on display. A memorial was also constructed at the site of Otzi’s discovery to commemorate the historic find.
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Though Otzi’s story may be a long and controversial one, there’s no denying his importance to the archaeological community. As scientists continue to peel back the layers of the iceman’s past, hopefully, we too will learn more about the secrets of our history.
Like recently as the first nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the Heiltsuk people have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists have dismissed their claim of ownership for one glaring reason…
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Because boats were not believed to have been invented until centuries later, this presented the possibility that early humans could’ve navigated along the North American coastlines in order to settle the continent.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, the University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
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