Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where to put Australopithecus sediba?

It took me some time to decide what I should do with Australopithecus sediba on this Blog, in the end I decided to concentrate on the aspects I at least know a little bit of, one of them is taxonomy.

I had to reconstruct a bunch of phylogenetic trees in the last few months and I found  some free online tools which enabled me to do this without using any fancy (and expensive) Computer Programs. The only disadvantage of these resources is that they were originally made for molecular data sets. This made my work a little bit more complicated since I had to modify my morphological datasets in a way that these programs were able to work with them. I won’t talk about the exact process right now; instead I want to show you some of the stuff I did with Australopithecus sediba.
First of all, let’s have a look at a classic tree which illustrates the phylogenetic relationships among the genus Homo. I took the tree from Strait et al. (1997) for this particular example:

Strait et al. (1997)
There’s nothing really special about this tree, sure you could discuss whether or not the shown phylogeny represent the true relationships of these fossils, but discussing this stuff always tends to get boring, since you have to look at the characters and you need to discuss the validity of each of them
To make things a little more interesting, I took the character matrix from Strait et al. and included Australopithecus sediba. The characters for Australopithecus sediba were taken from the initial description of this Fossil (Berger et al., 2010). This is the tree you get, when you run this modified matrix through an Analysis:

Same character matrix but with A. sediba.

Sediba ruined everything!
What in the first tree looked like a nice and clear relationship is now collapsed into something completely indifferent.
To make things clear, the taxonomic position of Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis never was pretty clear. In fact, the latter species was established, because the initial hypodigm (the total sum of all fossils which describe a species) of Homo habilis was so diverse in its morphology that it was split up into two separate species. The “new” species was then called Homo rudolfensis. I won’t talk up the exact reasons why this was the case, since it would make this post too long, but I will eventually come back to this topic in another post.

Let’s go back to Australopithecus sediba for the moment. It’s not only that the fossil practically ruins the common taxonomic picture of relationships of early homo, it’s also very young. Right now, Australopithecus sediba is dated at about 1.9 million years, this is very young, if you keep in mind that there are fossils of Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis which are much older then 2 million years. There are also possible fossils from Homo ergaster/erectus which are only slightly younger then the sediba fossils. Now add the about 1.7-1.8 million year old remains from Dmanisi/Georgia to this mess and you can see how complicated this whole story starts to look.
Fortunately the tree I showed you at the beginning of this post isn’t completely useless since it shows that Australopithecus sediba falls somewhere within the relationship of Homo ergaster/erectus, Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis.

So let’s have look at the possible relationships and the possible consequences of each scenario:

Scenario if A. sediba would share a LCA with the Genus Homo

In this scenario, Australopithecus sediba would share a last common ancestor with the Genus Homo. The only problem which arises from this tree is that you have to discuss what you should do with the Homo rudolfensis and habilis fossils which pre-date the emergence of Australopithecus sediba in the fossil record.

All other scenarios basically ruin our contemporary picture of the Genus Homo:

Two of the possible relationships if A. sediba would be place somewhere within the Genus Homo
 No matter which scenario we look at, none of them shows the Genus Homo as a monophyletic group. This means that either we have to include Australopithecus sediba within the genus Homo which I’m not very fond of since it would lead to an even weaker definition of it. Or we have to exclude Homo habilis and/or Homo rudolfensis from the genus Homo. The Genus Homo would then begin with Homo ergaster/Homo erectus and everything before that species would be either inside the genus Australopithecus or in a complete new genus.
Personally, I have no Idea what I should make out of this stuff. Right now everything seems to contradict itself and I think we need to have much more knowledge about this certain period of time. This means of course more fossils from this period but also more research on the already known fossils.
What I think we can safely right now is that the emergence of the genus Homo didn’t happen in a gradualistic fashion where one species slowly evolved into the next one. I think what we have here is a series of, possible independent, speciation events. This would explain why we have that many species that look similar to another but who overlap in spatial as well as temporal aspects and whose phylogenetic relationships are completely unclear. I have some more thoughts on this matter and I will write another Post where I go into much more detail. For now, all I can say is that, although Australopithecus sediba completely ruins the contemporary phylogeny, it might help us to really understand what happened back then.

 Berger, L., de Ruiter, D., Churchill, S., Schmid, P., Carlson, K., Dirks, P., Kibii, J. (2010). Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa Science, 328 (5975), 195-204 DOI: 10.1126/science.1184944
Strait, D., Grine, F., Moniz, M. (1997). A reappraisal of early hominid phylogeny Journal of Human Evolution, 32 (1), 17-82 DOI: 10.1006/jhev.1996.0097