Hominin skulls found at Dmanisi link Africa to first Europeans
Found in the shadow of a ruined medieval castle near the small town of Dmanisi just south of Tbilisi, four skulls and other bones provide a rare snapshot of what could be a single population of hominins, as anthropologists now call human ancestors. Even if they didn't actually set eyes on one another, a handful of individuals living at the same site in a relatively short time span can be thought of as a population, a group that closely shared genes and lifestyles. At places like Olduvai in Tanzania, individual fossils are so far apart in time—hundreds of thousands of years or more—that scientists argue over whether differences among them indicate different species or just the kind of variations you might see among people today.
At Dmanisi, for the first time, anthropologists are getting a good look at a population, young and old. They're starting to appreciate just how much variety can crop up within a single group. And the range of features they're seeing is helping them fit Dmanisi into humanity's evolutionary odyssey.
Excerpt from the National Geographic:April 2005
Across a dusty courtyard at the Georgian State Museum, up three flights of stone steps, and down a long hallway, humanity's distant past lies waiting. On a table in a high-
Lordkipanidze slowly lifts the lids of four wooden boxes, one by one. Inside are bare skulls, nearly 1.8 million years old.
"Here, this is our teenager," he says. The skull does look youthful, with small, even graceful features, some of the teeth not yet fully grown in. "And this is what we're calling the old man," he continues. Again, the skull is humanlike but small. But the remarkable feature is the mouth.
Not only are there no teeth, but nearly all the sockets are smooth, filled in by bone that grew over the spaces. The jaws look like two crescent moons. Although it's hard to be sure of his age, "it looks like he was maybe about 40, and the bone regrowth shows he lived for a couple of years after his teeth fell out," says the anthropologist. "This is really incredible." How did the toothless old man survive, unable to chew his food? Maybe his companions helped him, says Lordkipanidze. If so, those toothless jaws might testify to something like compassion, stunningly early in human evolution. You have to flash forward more than one and a half million years, to the Neanderthals of Ice Age Europe, to see anything comparable.
He smiles and spreads his arms to encompass the old man, the teenager, and two more skulls. "We hit the jackpot."
Lordkipanidze and his colleagues hit it in a very unexpected place: not in Africa, home to famous fossils like Lucy and famous sites like Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, but well to the north, in Georgia, where Europe ends and Asia begins.
How the National Geographic portrayed the Dmanisi Family
The Two Cities -
The portraits below are reconstructions based on skulls found at Dmanisi. Drag your mouse over the faces to see the skulls. (Excerpt from the National Geographic: April 2005)
Images of Dmanisi