500,000 year old Homo erectus from Turkey, and with Tuberculosis

EurekAlert is running a very interesting press release on the discovery of a 500,000 year old Homo erectus fossil recovered from Turkey. Apparently the fossil, a fragment of skull bone, shows lesions that the individual had tuberculosis.Homo erectus from Turkey with tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a deadly infectious disease caused by multiple strains of mycobacteria. Because the mycobacteria have lost numerous coding and non-coding regions in its genome, it is hard to retrace the genetic differences that would tell us of the origins, relationships, and movement of the disease causing pathogen. But through analyzing relatively modern human skeletal remains (I’m talking thousands of years modern) from Egypt and Peru, we know that tuberculosis was taking a big toll on humans relatively recently in our evolutionary history.

If this Homo erectus really did have tuberculosis, then that means he probably, and other hominids, got sick because his body produced less vitamin D due to darker skin and had a less vigilant immune system, hundreds of thousands of years ago. From what’s reported in the press release, I don’t buy it. And neither does John Hawks. I think it is over analyzed and sensationalized science to make big headlines.

I really don’t understand why a Homo erectus from Turkey isn’t enough of a killer headline. To my knowledge this is the first hominid found in Turkey and it fills a big spatial gap in understanding human evolution. Of course, I really don’t know enough about the tuberculosis evidence in this individual to make a solid judgment… we’ll have to wait until we get the paper…

Speaking of which, paper should be out anytime soon in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, so the entire details of the fossil aren’t known to us until the AJPA decides to give the green light and publish the paper. I have, however, discussed this press release with several colleagues and they are all skeptical.

The first thing they are curious about is the date. We speculate that dating was established using faunal evidence. The problem with that is the faunal composition of Turkey during the Pleistocene isn’t well known. Sure, the late Miocene is, and that’s cause there are a lot of Miocene sites… but at 500,000 years ago it is hard to correlate a date to what organisms were around at the time.

I also got word that John Kappelman, and his team damaged the fossil. I don’t know if it was during excavation, transportation, or curation/research, but having rumors run around that your team damaged the first ever Turkish hominid isn’t something the bolsters ones reputation in the field. But again, take this with a grain of salt… it is a rumor. There aren’t any official reports that his team actually broke the fossil, and if Kappelman’s not really liked, I can see how people will start up these things. Physical anthropologists are a catty bunch. But to be really honest, I can’t help but think the tuberculosis is a smokescreen to distract attention from this broken specimen.

Anyways, just reporting on this new paleoanthropology paper… be sure to keep checking the AJPA for the paper, and check out Razib’s post as well.

5 thoughts on “500,000 year old Homo erectus from Turkey, and with Tuberculosis

  1. If this is true, this is a massive leap time-wise. To my knowledge, the earliest specimens date from the late prehistoric, such as those from Neolithic Italy (Canci et al., 1996; Formicola et al., 1987).

    TB is a tricky one to identify though. You really need a reasonably complete skeleton (so that you can look at distribution of lesions across the body) to do it with any degree of confidence as its symptoms aren’t that dissimilar to other infectious diseases. Other forms of evidence, such as the identification of the Mycobacterium complex that causes the infection, are also preferred too.

  2. Given the governmental politics surrounding this particular region as well as the infighting among paleoanthropologists I am very skeptical of the rumors about John Kappelman’s team damaging the fossil. Any excavation is a destructive process that can never be “un-dug” which highlights the importance of maintaining a stringent and detail oriented methodology. I’ve never met Dr. Kappelman but I’ve worked with others who have and never heard a negative word against him.

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