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9 March 2015
Ancient skull reveals human diversity

A partial human skull found at a site in Kenya suggests early humans living in Africa were incredibly diverse. The 22,000-year-old skull is that of an anatomically modern human, but is markedly different from similar finds from Africa and Europe from the same time.
     "It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we've since lost," says study co-author Christian Tryon, a Palaeolithic archaeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum.
     The same site also contained deposits more than twice as old as the skull, including 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads. The finds could reveal shifts in human culture that took place starting when the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, around 50,000 years ago.
     Humans began farming about 12,000 years ago, living in denser settlements and burying their dead, but relatively little is known about the people who came before them. Tryon and his colleagues took a second look at specimens unearthed in the 1970s at rock shelters at Lukenya Hill, in Kenya.
     Among the finds was the top of an ancient skull. The team compared it with skulls from Neanderthals, human skulls from the same and other time periods, as well as those of modern-day humans. Its dimensions were markedly different from those of European and African skulls from the same time. Carbon dating places the skull about 22,000 years old - the height of the last ice age.
     Modern-day Africans have greater genetic diversity than other populations, but the new findings suggest that during this early period of human history, Africa may have supported even greater human diversity.
     The rediscovery of fragments from Lukenya Hill are important because evidence of human culture from this critical juncture is incredibly rare.

Edited from LiveScience (19 February 2015)

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