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The Ten Most Fascinating Discoveries About Human Ancestors in 2021

Human ancestorsBrains of some of our human ancestors, recreated according to the shape of skulls that were discovered in Georgia in 2021. Credit: M. Ponce de Leon/Ch. Zollikofer/University of Zurich

The ten most fascinating things discovered about our human ancestors were not difficult to decide this past year, which was a banner year in the field of research into human history.

From North America through Europe and Asia, scientists who study ancient origins were treated to a wealth of new discoveries which shed great light into humanity’s distant past.

So here, in chronological order, are the discoveries made about our human ancestors that are among the most amazing of 2021:

1. It took one million years for ape-like brains to develop into human brains

Grecian Delight supports GreeceTarim mummiesOne of the “Tarim mummies,” the naturally-desiccated remains of people found in the Xinjiang-Uyghur region of China. They are now found to be related to Native Americans and Siberian peoples. Credit: Hiroki Ogawa/CC BY 3.0

DNA studies on Bronze Age Tarim mummies found in China’s western Xinjiang region revealed recently that not only were these people not descendants of Indo-Europeans who had immigrated to the area — they may in fact be the ancestors of Native Americans.

With genes that are shared between them, people living in Siberia, and Native Americans, the “Tarim mummies” have now been proven to be clearly related to these groups, according to a study that was published on Oct. 27 in the journal Nature.

While scientists originally thought that they may have come overland from the West, the DNA sequencing showed that they actually had origins near where they were found, in the deserts of western China.

7. Recreation of Neanderthal face includes tumor humans suffer from today

Neanderthal faceA Neanderthal man’s face was recently reconstructed by a team of experts, with his image going viral all over the world as people appreciated his good humor and magnetic personality. Credit: Facebook/Archaeology Magazine

The artistic recreation of a grinning Neanderthal face took the internet by storm last year; the man not only showed the great good humor that many of our ancestors must have had – it also shows that they suffered from the same kind of tumor that we do today.

A recreation of a Neanderthal man’s face is turning heads all over the world – not only for its strong resemblance to our own physiognomy today but also because of the good humor it exudes, as much as 70,000 years after the man died.

Believed to have lived in Doggerland, which was once dry land but now forms the seabed in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and continental Europe, he died between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, according to the researchers.

Interestingly, the man also suffered from a small intradiploic epidermoid cyst above one eyebrow. Located in the skin layers, tumors like these are normally slow-growing and benign. The artists decided to recreate the man, tumor and all, to show that ancient mankind suffered from many of the same maladies that we do today.

8. Oldest-known Denisovan fossils found

The Bashalaksky Range of the Altai Mountains in Siberia is the site of the Cave of the Denisovans, the mysterious peoples who scientists believe originated in that very area. As ancestors of all Asiatic peoples — including all Native Americans — the identification of the Denisovans as a distinct people several years ago was groundbreaking.

In 2021, scientists uncovered the remains of the oldest-known Denisovan individuals, who lived approximately 200,000 years ago, as reported in Live Science.

Researchers now have fossils from an additional three Denisovan individuals from the eponymous cave in which they were first discovered.

9. Stunning bracelets made by Denisovans 45,000 years ago

Traces of both Neanderthals and Denisovans have also been found there, showing that they inhabited it between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. The study showing the habitation of the two peoples in the cave was published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Paleolithic jewelry created at least 45,000 years ago, which was found in the southern gallery of Denisova Cave — including a stone bracelet made of white marble — comes after the discovery of an earlier bracelet, made of Chloritolite. That stunningly beautiful, jade-green bracelet is thought to have been worn for ceremonial purposes.

Found in 2008, it was one of the first objects found in the eastern end of the Denisova Cave, showing fine technical skills that scientists had thought were developed much later.

10. Oldest fossilized footprints found in the Americas

White Sands National Park in New Mexico was the site of another groundbreaking discovery in human history in 2021 when researchers found 60 fossilized human footprints.

Of course, the date when peoples first emigrated to the Americas is still up for debate. In the past, some researchers held that it took place during the last glacial period, approximately 13,000 years ago.

However, that date was thrown out of the window this past year after the discovery of the footprints, which had been made in an ancient lake bed between 23,000 and 21,000 years before the present.

Many researchers had dated the settlement of the Americas back to 13,000 years ago, when the first Clovis points were created, as indicated in the nearby area of Clovis, New Mexico. Similar points were subsequently identified all over North America.

The footprints found last year constitute the first definitive proof that people lived here during the Last Glacial Maximum, which lasted from 26,500 to 19,000 years ago. The study on the origin and dating of the footprints was published in the journal Science.

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