Yet another alleged early human ancestor unearthed
11 March 2005
It seems these days that there are precious few ordinary human or ape fossils unearthed, rather they all have to be a missing link between the two. The latest contender for ‘apeman’ fame, this time as the ‘world’s oldest early human skeleton’ or ‘oldest walking hominid’,1 consists of bones from a site in the northeastern Afar region of Ethiopia, ‘dated’ at between 3.8 to 4 million years ago. The remains include a complete tibia and shoulder blade, as well as parts of a femur, ribs, vertebrae, collarbone and pelvis, as well as an ankle bone. The fossil remains of up to 11 other individuals are also reported to have been found. As the finds have not been published in a journal, nor been reviewed by outside scientists, it is difficult to make an assessment of the find at this stage, except what can be interpreted from a few quotes from ‘hominid’ fossil experts released to the media.
It is stated that ‘Scientists are yet to classify the new find, which they believe falls between A. ramidus and A. afarensis. The fossils would help “join the dots” between the two hominids, said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, an Ethiopian scientist and curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as well as a co-leader of the discovery team’.2 Falling between Australopithecus ramidus and Australopithecus afarensis (e.g. ‘Lucy’) hardly boosts its status as a missing link hominid. According to Peter Andrews, of London’s Natural History Museum, the thin enamel on the teeth of ramidus ‘is more of what you’d expect from a fossil chimp’, and the features of an upper arm bone ‘suggests knuckle-walking, chimp-style’.3 Even the team that discovered ramidus admits that the specimen ‘shows a host of characters usually associated with modern apes’.4
As for the younger and hence supposedly more evolutionarily advanced afarensis, it had a brain the size of an ape; a skull that was apelike; a body similar in shape and stature to apes; and other parts of its skeletal morphology indicate that it was specialized for climbing in trees, as well as knuckle-walking, as are apes.5 Much has been made of skeletal features indicating afarensis may also have had limited ability for (non-human-style) bipedal locomotion. However, similar limited bipedal ability also existed in apes not considered human precursors, such as Oreopithecus bambolii, ‘evolutionary dated’ to earlier than the supposed human and chimpanzee split. According to the authors who studied the specimen, parts of the pelvis of bambolii resembled that of afarensis, and its femur showed ‘a pronounced diaphyseal angle combined with condyles of subequal size, similar to Australopithecus and Homo and functionally correlated with bipedal activities’.6 According to Henry Gee, ‘This creature is thought to have become bipedal independently and was only distantly related to hominids’.7 Apes evolving a form of bipedal locomotion once is difficult enough to believe or imagine; that it must have independently happened multiple times, in order to ‘rescue’ evolutionary theory, reveals evolution to be a collection of just-so-stories that can be accommodated to almost any scenario, no matter how unlikely.
This brings us to the big claim concerning this new fossil find. That is, that the ‘ankle bone … , with the tibia, proves the creature walked upright, said Latimer, co-leader of the team that discovered the fossils’.2 Whether this is the case or not cannot be assessed on the information available. Even the morphology of the skeleton is not known, but since the specimen is placed between ramidus and afarensis then one must assume that it was essentially apelike. Hence, even if this creature had some form of limited bipedal ability, as may have been the case with afarensis, it proves very little, as this trait, as indicated by the nonancestral ape bambolii, was not unique to these supposed hominids. One should also be wary of claims that this or that skeletal feature ‘proves the creature walked upright’, as usually some other evolutionist fossil ‘expert’ will debunk or dispute the claim. As examples of this, Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba and Orrorin tugenensis come immediately to mind.5
Dr Peter Line is a neuroscience researcher from Melbourne, Australia. His undergraduate major was in biophysics. After that he completed a masters degree and a Ph.D., both in the area of neuroscience. Return to top.
- Keys, D., The world’s oldest early human skeleton is unearthed in Ethiopia, 6 March 2005 (available at news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/story.jsp?story=617252, 7 March 2005); Mitchell, A., Remains may be of oldest walking hominid, 6 March 2005 (available at abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory?id=555446, 8 March 2005). Return to text.
- Mitchell, ref. 1. Return to text.
- Fischman, J., Putting our oldest ancestors in their proper place, Science 265:2011, 1994. Return to text.
- White, T.D., Suwa, G. and Asfaw, B., Australopithecus ramidus, a new species of early hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia, Nature 371:311, 1994. Return to text.
- See Line, P., Overview of fossil evidence for alleged ape-men—Part 2: Non-Homo hominids, TJ (in press), 2005. Return to text.
- Kohler, M. and Moya-Sola, S., Ape-like or hominid-like? The positional behavior of Oreopithecus bambolii reconsidered, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 94:11747, 1997. Return to text.
- Gee, H., Return to the planet of the apes, Nature 412:131, 2001. Return to text.