Greg Laden has a write up of the 1.1-1.2 MYA find at Atapuerca. I mentioned this story last year and the find has finally been published. I will have more to say about this in a later post (there are several other papers out that relate – I also plan on writing about the Homo floresiensis paper and the Orrorin tugenensis paper as well). In the meantime a second paper relating to Atapuerca came out in January.
The paper compare two hyoids found at Sima de los Huesos to Kebara 2 and SDR-034 (found at El Sidron) – both Neanderthal hyoids – and DIK-1-1 as well as some modern human and ape hyoids. The two Sima de los Huesos hyoids were found in 1994 and 1997 and date to about 530 ka. Metric analysis indicates that they share a number of traits in common with Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens, although there is some variability in all three, and all three samples can be clearly distinguished from the australopithicine and ape hyoids. Although, given how young the Dikaka specimen was, I have to wonder if including it in the analysis was very informative. The most interesting aspect of the paper was was the discussion of hyoids in relation to changes in the bony labyrinth of the inner ear (which was short but interesting). Given the importance of the hyoid in speech one would expect to see changes in the organ responsible for perceiving language and the authors state:
However, the presence in the SH fossils of a modern-human-like hyoid shows that some of the skeletal characteristics implicated in speech production in modern humans are very ancient features of the genus Homo. At the same time, the skeletal characteristics of the outer and middle ear associated with modern human auditory capacities and speech perception are also present in the SH hominins…
Martinez, L., Arsuaga, J.J., Quam, R., Carretero, J.M., Gracia, A., Rodriguez, L. (2008). Human hyoid bones from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution, 54(1), 118-124. DOI: doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.07.006