This year, the 8th European Society of Human Evolution meeting was held in Faro, (south Portugal). In a certain sense, holding a conference in the south of the iberian peninsula, home to the last Neanderthals, could be considered a felt homage to the diversity of the human family tree. The Calpe Museum in Gibraltar holds a parallel conference on Neanderthals, and not to far off, in Rabat, Morocco, the PanAf (PanAfrican Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies) was taking place. Three major scientific events related to human evolution almost at the same time, to the delight of those following on Twitter - and the chagrin of the ESHE organization.
The fact that there were around 400 attendants allowed to have an overall impression to the field, from lithics to bones and genetics. As a very interdisciplinary cognitive scientist, I was very much satisfied with the diversity of fields represented, all of them offering insights into our history - as we need as much information as we can gather. Underlying most talks was the idea that we can’t no longer think about a ‘craddle of humanity’, but several, and that this diversity is key to understand our deep evolutionary history. The fossil record shows an incredible range of archaic and modern looking fossils in overlapping time frames, distributed spatially all over the African continent, yet most archaeological research is done at the same old places, like the Afar basin, in Ethiopia. Broadening our horizons means digging in different sites, as the opening lecture by René Bobe emphasized - and the field is taking good note.
It also means understanding better what we have until now. The recent (polemic) redating of some caves in Spain has given back Neanderthals authorship over their art, but also work on classic sites like Skuhl, Turkana or Sima de los Huesos might still offer us new insights on the Homo history. In addition, new methods for old bones are gaining track: a personal highlight is the promising work on proteomics, which might help us identify bones in a non-destructive way (unlike the not so preservation-friendly aDNA recollection). Geometric morphometrics, a more than familiar method for most archaeologists, is being constantly improved, and we had our fair share in the talks and posters, from . I really think some day near morphometric variation will meet genetics, not so far down the road.
On the aDNA note: there has been much buzz in the field about Denny, the famous Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrid found recently by the team led by Viviane Slon and Svante Pääbo, and it was exciting to hear a bit more about this very lucky finding (you can read a great post by Viviane just here.
Expect exciting findings like this in future conference reports!