3 different early human ancestors lived at the same time, in the same place

A 3D rendering of Homo erectus from an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria.


Homo sapiens have existed in the form we do today for only about 50,000 years. Go back 2 million years ago though, and there were several kinds of archaic humans. It was near the end of the Australopithecus era (you may have heard of Lucy), and the beginning of the time of Paranthropus and Homo erectus, one of Homo sapiens’ direct ancestors. It’s easy to assume that one group died off before the next came on the scene, but they overlapped, according to new research.

“We know that the old idea, that when one species occurs another goes extinct and you don’t have much overlap, that’s just not the case,” study coauthor Andy Herries, a paleoanthropologist at La Trobe University in Australia, told Smithsonian magazine.

The recent find, published in the journal Science, comes out of the Drimolen Paleocave System in South Africa. This area is a gold mine of ancient ancestry; over 160 remains have been found there already, and now, the oldest Homo erectus discovery, a cranium, has been found there, dating to about 2 million years ago. Also found were skull fragments and teeth of Paranthropus robustus, and our earlier human ancestor, Australopithecus, who was also known to live in the same area at the same time.

Lucy belonged to the extinct species Australopithecus afarensis, portrayed here in a sculptor’s rendering. (Photo: Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

These recently discovered fossils are the oldest examples of their respective species ever discovered.

“Here we have evidence of all three genera, Homo, Paranthropus and Australopithecus, sharing the landscape at just about the same time,” David Strait, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the paper, told The New York Times. “It is our first really good look at the time that this replacement is taking place and that’s pretty exciting.”

It’s well-known that the later human variants (hominins is the term scientists use for modern and related humans) diverged, evolved and then intermixed: Groups of hominins left East Africa and explored North Africa, Europe and Asia. As those early humans moved through various environments, some stayed and adapted to local conditions while others moved on. They might bump into each other again, sometimes using the same places to fish, or shelter. And sometimes they would die there, leaving the fossil record for modern Homo sapiens to find.

“The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today, there are many species of foxes, bears, and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man,” writes Yuval Harari in his book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal who lived some 50,000 years ago in what’s now Spain, by Italian scientist Fabio Fogliazza. (Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty Images)

Muscular, bulky Neanderthals were well-suited to the Ice Age climate of western Eurasia, and Homo erectus populated east Asia (and did so successfully for 2 million years). Homo soloensis was found on the Indonesian island of Java, and another tiny island was home to Homo floresiensis; the people there were petite, reaching a maximum height of just 3 1/2 feet due to limited local food resources. The remains of Homo denisova were found in a Siberian cave, but they traveled far and wide; their DNA has been found in modern Australian aborigines, Polynesians, Fijiians and others.

Other humans continued to evolve within Africa, including Homo rudolphenisis and Homo ergaster. And like the others, Homo sapiens (that’s us) also came out of Africa, and then met up with many of these species as we moved around the world. And by “met up with,” I mean a few things, including sex that resulted in offspring. Just last year, a half-Denisovan, half-Neanderthal child, was found, proving that successful procreation occurred.

And of course, the proof is also in our DNA. As mentioned above, Denisovan DNA is present in some populations and most non-Africans have some Neanderthal DNA. (For example, according to my 23andMe report, I have 249 variants, which is lower than average.)

We Homo sapiens live in a lonely time: Throughout most of human history, there were many other kinds of humans on the planet with us — we are still discovering new ones all the time. So what happened to them all?

There are plenty of theories: “The Interbreeding Theory tells a story of attraction, sex, and mingling,” writes Harare. “As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this inbreeding.”

This idea is at least partially backed up by Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA found in modern humans. But another possibility is that Homo sapiens outcompeted Neanderthals and others, over time starving them of resources. Or we may have killed these other people for being so different from us. As Harare writes, “Tolerance is not a sapiens trademark.”


Ancient Swedish ritual of the ‘year walk’: Årsgång

by Starre Vartan

This Swedish ritual reportedly helps people see the future. Start by spending your daylight hours shut in a dark room. No eating, speaking, sleeping or engaging with technology or the outside world for a whole day. By cutting yourself off in this manner, you’re preparing your mind and spirit for the Swedish pseudo-pagan ritual of Årsgång, or the “year walk.”

Next, leave your home when the clock strikes 12. Alone in the dark, walk to the local church or house of worship. This ritual can only be done at midnight, preferably on the winter solstice or Christmas, but another winter’s eve of your choosing will work. When you arrive, walk around the building three times counterclockwise, then blow in the keyhole of the front door. (This is to temporarily renounce any attachments you may have to religion.)

Once you’ve completed these steps, you will have opened yourself up to enter the spirit world — and you may even be able to see the future.

When pagan beliefs and rituals were at their height in Scandinavia, some people were known to disappear during these walks, while others were rewarded with seeing what was ahead personally or for those in their community.

“The walker might gain information about marriage, the harvest, the possibility of war, or if there will be fires, but the most common information was about who was going to die in the upcoming year,” explains Atlas Obscura.

A year-walker might also see visions, like the brook horse, which gathers children on its back and then plunges into the water with them, drowning them all. Or the huldra, “a deceptively beautiful female entity, who often had bark and treelike features growing on her back instead of skin. Said to be the forest guardians, they would lure people to their homes to either marry them or kill them. Either way, the victim would be lost forever,” according to this page on folklore from the University of Southern California.

When the walker was ready for the experience to be over, he would return to the church and reclaim his faith.

A team at Swedish video game maker Simogo developed a game for smartphones based on the year walk. You can see a trailer for the immersive game set in a snowy landscape in the video below:

“We based [the game] off folklore in a very unscientific way,” the writer of the game, Jonas Tarestad, told Atlas Obscura. “In a way we recreated the word-of-mouth process of the past and added our own details. In the end we had sort of lost the grasp of what parts we made up to fit the game and what parts were original folklore.”

Underground city in Poland that’s carved out of salt

by Starre Vartan

The Wieliczka Salt Mine has existed — and been recognized as a marvel — for so long that its famous visitors include Copernicus, Goethe and Chopin. This incredibly unique space was officially recognized as a UNESCO heritage site in 1978 but had been used as a salt mine near Krakow, Poland, since the 13th century.

During the Renaissance, it was one of the biggest businesses in Europe, since salt was recognized as a key ingredient for safe food preservation. The mine continued to produce salt until the late 1990s, but now it’s one of Poland’s main tourist attractions with over a million visitors every year.

It’s pretty obvious why so many flock to see it. This large complex more than 1,000 feet underground is a marvel of centuries of human construction and decoration. The entire mine is over 178 miles long, but only part of that is open to visitors, who can take a two-mile-long tour of the various rooms and artworks.

The oldest art was created by the miners themselves, and in recent years artists and artisans have added to the craftsmanship, sculptures and reliefs throughout the public areas of the mines.

In addition to the chapel pictured at the top of this page, there are many other decorated spaces and tunnels. One chamber’s walls were carved to resemble wood, as churches were built of at the time, while others feature Disney-like recreations of history in the mines.

In the 19th century, huge chandeliers — made of salt crystal, of course — were brought in to fill the spaces with light. There’s even a lake (above) and a grotto (below).

Surprisingly, there’s also a health resort within the mine — the air is said to be beneficial to those who have respiratory issues. You can visit for the day or stay overnight to experience what the website calls “subterraneotherapy.”

Staying overnight in the salt caves could be a unique adventure — accommodations are in the Stable Chamber, which used to be where the horses were kept in the 12th century when horses were used to power salt excavations. According to the resort’s site: “…there is no pollution in which the environment on the surface abounds today; there are no allergens, bacteria and fungi, or harmful electromagnetic radiation, either.” Sounds peaceful, for sure.


Daycare inside a nursing home: Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle

By Starre Vartan

Some of the most innovative ideas for the future are rooted in the past. Take the Mount Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle. Within its walls, elderly people are teaching and spending time with preschool students.

But if it also seems odd, that’s because it’s not something you typically see in Western societies. These two groups of people tend to be almost completely isolated from each other, except maybe during holidays. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. When people lived in family groups — and in those places in the world where people still do — this was and is completely normal. And it makes sense, as both the very old and the very young seem to live at a slower, less focused, more in-the-moment state of being.

Here’s what the Mount Center says about its program: “Five days a week, the children and residents come together in a variety of planned activities such as music, dancing, art, lunch, storytelling or just visiting. These activities result in mutual benefits for both generations.”

In one of those moments of kismet, I happen to be reading Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” which is an influential feminist-utopian novel written in 1976. One of the characters from the year 2137 explains to a from-the-’70s visitor why the young children in their advanced society are being cared for by the very old: “We believe old people and children are kin. There’s more space at both ends of life. That closeness to birth and death makes makes a common concern with big questions and basic patterns. We think old people, because of their distance from the problems of their own growing up, hold more patience and can be quieter to hear what children want.”

Behind the project is Seattle University adjunct professor Evan Briggs. She told ABC News, that when the children and the residents come together there’s a “complete transformation in the presence of the children. Moments before the kids came in, sometimes the people seemed half alive, sometimes asleep. It was a depressing scene. As soon as the kids walked in for art or music or making sandwiches for the homeless or whatever the project that day was, the residents came alive.”

Like the quote from the book above, Briggs writes on her Kickstarter page that when she first saw what was happening at the Mount, she noticed: “…with neither past nor future in common, the relationships between the children and the residents exist entirely in the present. Despite the difference in their years, their entire sense of time seems more closely aligned.”

Hence the name, “Present Perfect,” for her documentary. It seems like this is an idea that might spread, an idea whose time has come — again.

Read more: http://www.mnn.com/family/family-activities/blogs/a-daycare-inside-a-nursing-home-its-pure-magic#ixzz3eZYE5Ao3