"Australopithecus sediba" by Brett Eloff, courtesy Profberger and Wits University / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Top Ten Scientific Discoveries of the Decade

Jan 7, 2020

By Jay Bennett

Millions of new scientific research papers are published every year, shedding light on everything from the evolution of stars to the ongoing impacts of climate change to the health benefits (or determents) of coffee to the tendency of your cat to ignore you. With so much research coming out every year, it can be difficult to know what is significant, what is interesting but largely insignificant, and what is just plain bad science. But over the course of a decade, we can look back at some of the most important and awe-inspiring areas of research, often expressed in multiple findings and research papers that lead to a true proliferation of knowledge. Here are ten of the biggest strides made by scientists in the last ten years.

New Human Relatives

The human family tree expanded significantly in the past decade, with fossils of new hominin species discovered in Africa and the Philippines. The decade began with the discovery and identification of Australopithecus sedibaa hominin species that lived nearly two million years ago in present-day South Africa. Matthew Berger, the son of paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, stumbled upon the first fossil of the species, a right clavicle, in 2008, when he was only 9 years old. A team then unearthed more fossils from the individual, a young boy, including a well-preserved skull, and A. sediba was described by Lee Berger and colleagues in 2010. The species represents a transitionary phase between the genus Australopithecus and the genus Homo, with some traits of the older primate group but a style of walking that resembled modern humans.

Also discovered in South Africa by a team led by Berger, Homo naledi lived much more recently, some 335,000 to 236,000 years ago, meaning it may have overlapped with our own species, Homo sapiens. The species, first discovered in the Rising Star Cave system in 2013 and described in 2015, also had a mix of primitive and modern features, such as a small brain case (about one-third the size of Homo sapiens) and a large body for the time, weighing approximately 100 pounds and standing up to five feet tall. The smaller Homo luzonensis (three to four feet tall) lived in the Philippines some 50,000 to 67,000 years ago, overlapping with several species of hominin. The first H. luzonensis fossils were originally identified as Homo sapiens, but a 2019 analysis determined that the bones belonged to an entirely unknown species.

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