March 25, 2010

Fossilized Finger Points to New Humanoid Species

Genetic testing on a humanoid pinky finger bone discovered in a Siberian cave in 2008 has revealed the possible existence of a new, previously undiscovered pre-human life form, researchers announced on Wednesday.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the University of Montana's Division of Biological Sciences, the University of Vienna's Department of Anthropology, and the Russian Academy of Sciences published their research online in the journal Nature on March 24.

In their report, they state that they assumed that the recovered bone was from a Neanderthal. However, when DNA was extracted and sequenced from the fossil, it was discovered that it did not match the genetic code of Neanderthals or of modern day humans. The data shows that the finger may, in fact, belong to a now extinct hominid species that once lived in Africa.

"This really surpassed our hopes," Dr. Svante Pääbo, senior author on the international study and director of evolutionary genetics at the Leipzig, Germany-based Max Planck Institute, told Rex Dalton of Nature on Wednesday. "I almost could not believe it. It sounded too fantastic to be true."

As Dalton noted, "Researchers not involved in the work applauded the findings but cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from a single study"¦ If further work does support the initial conclusions, the discovery would mark the first time that an extinct human relative had been identified by DNA analysis. It would also suggest that ice-age humans were more diverse than had been thought."

Since the late 1800s, scientists have known about the existence of two humanoid species, the Neanderthal and the modern human. In 2003, a possible third, Homo floresiensis or 'Flores Man' was discovered, though there has been debate about its status as a separate and unique species.

The possible discovery of a new type of hominid has the scientific community buzzing.

"I haven't seen a picture of the bone, and would like to," C. Owen Lovejoy, a professor of anthropology at Kent State University in Ohio, told Dalton. "The stratigraphic age for the bone is 30,000 to 48,000 years old, but the mtDNA age could be as old as H. erectus. That doesn't tell us much about human evolution unless it truly represents a surviving ancient species."

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