Two papers in PNAS this week.
Our species, Homo sapiens, is highly autapomorphic (uniquely derived) among hominids in the structure of its skull and postcranial skeleton. It is also sharply distinguished from other organisms by its unique symbolic mode of cognition. The fossil and archaeological records combine to show fairly clearly that our physical and cognitive attributes both first appeared in Africa, but at different times. Essentially modern bony conformation was established in that continent by the 200-150 Ka range (a dating in good agreement with dates for the origin of H. sapiens derived from modern molecular diversity). The event concerned was apparently short-term because it is essentially unanticipated in the fossil record. In contrast, the first convincing stirrings of symbolic behavior are not currently detectable until (possibly well) after 100 Ka. The radical reorganization of gene expression that underwrote the distinctive physical appearance of H. sapiens was probably also responsible for the neural substrate that permits symbolic cognition. This exaptively acquired potential lay unexploited until it was "discovered" via a cultural stimulus, plausibly the invention of language. Modern humans appear to have definitively exited Africa to populate the rest of the globe only after both their physical and cognitive peculiarities had been acquired within that continent.
A procedure is outlined for distinguishing among competing hypotheses for fossil morphology and then used to evaluate current views on the meaning of Neandertal skeletal morphology. Three explanations have dominated debates about the meaning of Neandertal cranial features: climatic adaptation, anterior dental loading, and genetic drift. Neither climatic adaptation nor anterior dental loading are well supported, but genetic drift is consistent with the available evidence. Climatic adaptation and activity patterns are the most discussed explanations for Neandertal postcranial features. Robust empirical relationships between climate and body form in extant humans and other endotherms currently make climatic adaptation the most plausible explanation for the wide bodies and relatively short limbs of Neandertals, and many additional postcranial features are likely secondary consequences of these overall skeletal proportions. Activity patterns may explain certain Neandertal postcranial features, but unlike the situation for climate, relationships in extant humans between morphology and activities are typically not well established. For both the cranium and the postcranium, changes in diet or activity patterns may underlie why Neandertals and Pleistocene modern humans tend to be more robust than Holocene humans.