Key to Early Humans Provides Plenty More to Unlock

David Lordkipanidze's finds ultimately upended prior theory on humans' early ancestors.

About a quarter century ago, a 1.8-million-year-old skull fossil was discovered in the republic of Georgia that eventually wound up altering scientific consensus on humans' earliest known ancestors to venture outside of Africa.

Today, the site where those fossils were found remains a treasure trove of evolutionary history.

Paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze led the excavation of the Georgia site, known as Dmanisi. Based on a haul of fossils, including Skull 5, an astonishingly complete skull of an adult male, an international team of scientists led by Lordkipanidze eventually concluded that all early fossil humans belong to the same species, Homo erectus. Their findings ran against the prevailing view that several species existed in the Pleistocene.

September 24 marks the anniversary of the original fossil find, coinciding with this week’s International Senckenberg Conference in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, where the history of Homo erectus is center stage.

“To me, it’s like a birthday,’’ says Lordkipanidze, 53, whose dig teams have unearthed over 3,000 stone tools and faunal remains of animals, including those of extinct saber-toothed cats.

As director general of the Georgian State Museum in nearby Tbilisi, Lordkipanidze lectures field schools and supervises archaeological projects at Dmanisi, regarded as one of the world’s foremost prehistoric sites. He visits at least twice weekly, his passion unabated.

“I couldn’t imagine my life without this place; it’s like oxygen,’’ says Lordkipanidze, a Rolex Laureate. “It’s like a book you don’t finish. There are incredible opportunities to learn and open your horizon to fresh knowledge.”

The Dmanisi hominins, some who had brains less than half the size of a modern human’s, are key to understanding the earliest hominin expansion from Africa to Eurasia. Genetic studies indicate the expansion from Africa began about 1.9 million years ago, although modern humans did not begin leaving Africa on a mass scale until about 60,000 years ago.

Subsequent studies of the Dmanisi site have revealed tidbits of how they lived and hunted.

Just 5,000 square metres of the Tbilisi site have been excavated so far, a fraction of the 50,000 square metres Lordkipanidze says remain to be explored.

“There’s a potential to find more information about human’s earliest ancestors, and understanding their connections remains huge,’’ he says. “Although their brains were small and they were very primitive, we think there were social groups that connected with each other and learned from each other.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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