Can you spell g-a-u-t-e-n-g-e-n-s-i-s?

It seems like barely a few weeks have gone by since the last public announcement about the discovery and identification of a new fossil human ancestor and here we are again, looking at a new face in the family line up.

Meet Homo gautengensis.

Recently we were “warned” that the discovery of several proto humans were about to hit the headlines. The first of these is now getting the limelight; a new member to the genus Homo no less.

Homo gautengensis lived in what is now South Africa. Gauteng refers to a province in that country, and a term in the local Sesotho language meaning ‘place of gold.’

 Photo courtesy of Darren Curnoe

The preliminary information available through public channels at the time of writing indicate that this new species of hominid, which  measured about three feet tall and weighed around 110 pounds, was capable of walking upright as well as moving around in the trees. They lived from about 2 million years ago to 600,000 years ago. According to the researchers involved in this discovery, Homo gautengensis predated Homo habilis, officially still listed as the oldest known tool making and using human. As you will see below, there are other researchers who claim that Homo habilis had a much greater time depth. This headline grabbing statement will, no doubt, generate an interesting discussion.

This may now change as more context information becomes available. According to Dr. Darren Curnoe thinks it is highly likely that these hominids ‘produced and used stone tools and may even have made fire.” The presence of burnt bones found in association with the human remains points to this alleged use and mastery of fire.

More information will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Until then, this seems to be the extent of what the general public knows. What is certainly interesting to note here is that, while the announcement is to be made soon, the skull fragments were found in 1976 in the famous Sterkfontein caves. According to a University of New South Wales publication,

“The surprise finding was based on a partial skull – known by its museum catalogue number Stw 53 – along with two other partial skulls, several jaws, teeth and other bones found at various times at Sterkfontein and other nearby caves.”

This is not the end of the story. As they say in late night commercials: “but wait there is more…”  What is the broader picture here? We all know that when it comes to the study of early human ancestors, hyperbole often abounds in press releases and subsequent newspaper articles. With that in mind, be prepared to read headlines in which the totally incorrect terminology of “missing link” will re-appear. There will also be claims that our understanding of human has been “severely shaken,”  as it was claimed in other cases, again and again. You get the picture.

Homo erectus
Creative Commons License Photo credit Thomas Roche

Aside from all this predictable hoopla, we do have a chronological range (2 million to 600,000 years ago) and a place (Gauteng province, South Africa). Who else was around during that timeframe? As it turns out, quite a few hominids were around during that time span, all members of the genus Homo. Homo rudolfensis lived in East Africa from 1.9 to 1.8 million years ago; Homo habilis lived in Eastern and Southern Africa from 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago; Homo erectus lived in Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as parts of Asia; Homo heidelbergensis lived in Europe, and possibly Asia and Africa from 700,000 to 200,000 years ago.

It looks like the place was crowded. In a way it was, with many more species of hominids present on our planet, mainly Africa, than there are today. In another way, it was not; we should not conjure up images of all these ancient hominids bumping into each other and stepping aside to let the others pass as if it were a busy pedestrian crossing in downtown Tokyo. Chances are that most may not have seen other species, and, if they did, were they aware that these others were different?

The earliest accepted evidence of using and controlling fire dates back to 790,000 years ago, at a site in Israel. If this find is pegged closer to the 2 million years ago mark, this would move the marker of fire use back in time considerably. We are not yet at stage of the game yet to make that call.
I wonder what the next announcement will bring.

Stay tuned.

In fide constans… Always loyal [Lucy’s Legacy]

The model of Lucy created for
the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition.
Photo by reality photography

The Lucy’s Legacy exhibit was reviewed in early February by a representative of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes Creationism and Intelligent Design. In the following paragraphs, I would like to add my observations to the statements found in this review.

Let me start with a few general remarks. First, a favorite approach by Creationists is to cast doubt on the subject of evolution, particularly human evolution and to drive a wedge between faith and science. This policy, known as the Wedge Document, is publicly acknowledged by the Discovery Institute as being theirs. Second, a favorite approach of Creationist writers is to represent issues in stark black and white terms.

The 2000-word document is sprinkled with terms that drive the message home: the study of human evolution fails as a belief system; the evidence is scarce and the interpretations fast and loose and not widely accepted. Moreover, some of the evidence is misrepresented.

The writer of the document stated that there is a “paucity of actual hard evidence for human evolution.” An interesting statement, but one which considering the presence of an actual fossilized hominin fossil, fails itself to carry any water. What harder evidence can one want, but for an authentic fossil, I wonder. The same author also quotes a statement that “unless more fossils are recovered (…) there is likely to be a continuing debate on Lucy’s posture…”  Two thoughts come to mind here. It is always good to have more fossil evidence. In fact, for years paleoanthropologists have continued to find fossils every year. Our database of fossilized early humans continues to grow, courtesy of an ongoing scientific effort. This growing database has led to the formulation of answers to old questions while at the same time giving rise to new questions which we need to answer. That is the essence of scientific research; it is a never ending quest for better insights in what we can observe.

These statements, using the terms “paucity” and “until more fossils are recovered,” are misleading. One wonders if the author knows that the remains of 300 Australopithecus afarensis individuals are known to the scientific community, making Lucy and her kind the best known of all of early human ancestors.

Turkana Boy
Creative Commons License photo credit: ideonexus
Turkana Boy

Another lament found in the document is the “incompleteness” of her (i.e. Lucy’s) skeleton.” The author continues “only 40% was found” and “very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered.” I suppose one could say that everything is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, 50% or more would have been even better. However, another way of referring to Lucy and the preservation of her skeleton is that it is amazing that so much was preserved, considering she died more than 3 million years ago. 

Factually incorrect is a statement that “Lucy still represents the most complete known hominid skeleton to date.” There are currently older and better preserved fossils, including some of the same species as Lucy. Baby Selam for example, is much better preserved. More recent than Lucy, but better preserved is an early hominid known as Turkana Boy. Lucy is still the earliest known and most complete adult Australopithecus afarensis. Things were different in 1974, when scientists could say that she was the oldest known and best preserved skeleton of a distant human ancestor. The fact that this statement now has to be qualified to reflect more recent discoveries is a testimony to the dogged work carried out by teams of paleoanthropologists in Africa. It is also an insight that ought to have been included in the Discovery Institute document, as I am sure that this is something they are aware of.

Photo by reality photography

We also get to read that Lucy’s bones were found scattered across a hillside, a vague reference to an old creationist claim that Lucy’s bones do not all belong to the same individual. The fact that this claim has been debunked does not stop creationists from repeating it. The author – it seems – seems to prefer that Lucy’s bones would have been found together as a contiguous skeleton. Aside from the fact that intentional burial did not exist in Lucy’s time and that she did die more than 3 million years ago, it would have been a miracle (pardon the pun) if she had been preserved completely intact and as a contiguous skeleton. One should not, however, raise the reader’s hopes by presenting this a something that should have happened.

I would like to end by referring the author of the Discovery Institute piece as well as all the readers to this latest development: Lucy was scanned at the University of Texas, Austin campus, after the exhibit in Houston had ended. I have no doubt that scientists will be pouring over this new dataset and that this effort will result in improving our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

Loyalty to a cause is admirable; having the ability to see countless shades of grey instead of only black and white is even more desirable.