Australopithecus sediba—no human ancestor
New alleged hominid ignites debate, but is no missing link
Published: 15 April 2010 (GMT+10)
Australopithecus sediba emerged a few days ago out of an obviously coordinated propaganda campaign or, for those less cynically inclined, a media frenzy. Allegedly nearly two million years old, Australopithecus sediba was hailed by some media outlets as the “Missing link found in ascent of man”, which experts say “could rewrite the story of human evolution”.1 If it sounds like you have heard these headlines before, you probably have. The announcement of missing links or apemen that “rewrite the story of human evolution” is the evolutionist’s version of the movie Groundhog Day.
In reading comments as to what this fossil is supposed to represent to creationists, one can be amused or bemused. A few days before the details of the discovery were released, when next to nothing about the fossils was known publicly, one reader commented: “One more transitional nail in the creationist coffin … fervent fanatics that deny evolution will find this exceptionally distressing”.2 I will try and keep the diazepam3 handy whilst writing this, although I doubt somehow that I will be the one needing to use it.
One would imagine that careful analysis of the bones would be carried out before determining that the fossils were supposedly hominids. Think again! Discovered in cave deposits at Malapa, close to Johannesburg, South Africa, apparently only a quick on-the-spot look at a clavicle (collarbone) sticking out of a rock convinced Lee Berger, the main author of the study, that it was a hominid.4 It is very unlikely anyone could make such a quick judgment reliably, particularly as from “a comparative point of view the clavicle is one of the most poorly studied bones in the body.”5 Rather, it illustrates that this whole issue concerns preconceived notions about our origins. Consider the training and role of physical anthropologists (also known as human paleontologists or paleoanthropologists):
“Their background training is in skeletal and dental (tooth) anatomy and paleontology, and they are grounded in evolutionary theory. Their principal task is to discern the proper place for newly discovered fossils within an ever-expanding array of fossils already assigned to human evolution. Prehistoric archaeologists reconstruct past cultures, and physical anthropologists reconstruct evolutionary relationships of past populations.”6
The above statement indicates the total indoctrination of physical anthropologists into evolution. In fact, it is hard to see, according to the above definition, how anyone could be a paleoanthropologist without also being an evolutionist. It is obvious that such people are going to interpret all fossil evidence within the evolutionary paradigm, and are going to be completely biased against any other interpretation of human origins. Given this state of affairs there is a definite need for an alternative assessment of the fossil evidence that allegedly supports the notion of human evolution—one that is free from evolutionary bias. This is not to say that an alternative assessment of the fossil evidence will be an unbiased presentation, but that it will be a bias based on a different perspective.
Reading some of the comments attributed to evolutionary experts, one quickly gets the sense that there is disagreement over what type of hominid the Australopithecus sediba fossils represent, in particular whether it belongs in the genus Homo or Australopithecus, and also what alleged role it had in human evolution. It also becomes clear that Lee Berger does not exactly endear himself to many of his fellow paleoanthropologists, some of whom have made some rather unflattering comments about him. In an article in The Weekend Australian national chief correspondent Hedley Thomas commented:
“Renowned University of California paleoanthropologist Tim White savaged Berger on the release of his subsequent book, The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind, calling it ‘in many ways worse than useless, given the astonishing density of errors and misleading statements’. He added that it showed a disturbing ‘pattern of fabrication’.
White wrote in the South African Journal of Science. ‘Berger’s rise to prominence signals a new era: one of smoke and mirrors, in which style triumphs over substance. In his short career, Berger has not in fact found very much but shows a remarkable ability to inject himself, via funding and publicity, into discoveries made by others.’ In case anyone missed the point, White branded Berger an enthusiastically ambitious but inexperienced American ‘more fascinated with fame and fortune than with serious science’”.7
In the world of paleoanthropology, Tim White is definitely no lightweight8, so in some respects one can have sympathy for Berger in being the target of such criticism, yet it makes one also feel warier than usual about this particular find.
The fossil find consists of a nearly complete skull and a partial postcranial skeleton of a juvenile male (MH1), estimated to be 11 to 12 years old, as well as maxillary (upper) teeth, a partial mandible (lower jaw), and a partial postcranial skeleton9 of an adult female (MH2).10,11 Bones from at least two other individuals have also been found, including an infant and adult female, but these finds have yet to be published.12 The authors of the study assigned the fossils to the genus Australopithecus, and believe that the “age and overall morphology of Au. sediba imply that it most likely descended from Au. africanus, and appears more derived toward Homo than do Au. afarensis, Au. garhi, and Au. africanus.”13
It should be pointed out that creationists regard all ‘australopiths’ as extinct ape-like creatures that had nothing to do with human evolution.14 Evolutionists have created many more genera of alleged hominids outside the genus Homo in addition to the original genus Australopithecus, and all these supposed hominids are sometimes informally referred to as ‘australopiths’, regardless of the genus they have been placed in.15 Hence, collectively they are referred to as australopiths, but when talking more specifically, the genus and/or species name is used. The term ‘australopithecine’ refers specifically to members of the genus Australopithecus.
There are certainly good reasons why Australopithecus sediba belongs in the genus Australopithecus, and not in the genus Homo. Its estimated cranial capacity of 420 cm3 is in the ape/australopithecine range, as is the maximum estimated height of 1.3 meters, as well as the relatively long arms.16 As reported by Kate Wong, Fred Spoor “observes that whereas it has Australopithecus-like brain size and molar shape, it calls to mind Homo in its brain case shape and molar size.”17 Wong also mentions the flatter face of Australopithecus sediba as being a characteristic of Homo.17 In his weblog John Hawks points out similarities between the Australopithecus sediba cranium and that of Australopithecus africanus crania (Sts 71 and Sts 52) from Sterkfontein, and states that “it’s my impression that the postcrania of the Malapa skeletons fit within A. africanus.”18
The above contrary opinions may well be resolved if Australopithecus sediba is a small-brained specimen of the type evolutionists have often classified as Homo habilis. (This is commonly regarded as an invalid or ‘phantom’ taxon19 whose members by and large should be put into the genus Australopithecus) This notion may not sit comfortably with any evolutionist scheme, but it would fit the creationist picture well. There has always been some ambiguity surrounding the status of some of the Homo habilis specimens, particularly as there were few bones below the head that could be attributed unambiguously to Homo habilis.17 Some evolutionary experts have suggested transferring the specimens in Homo habilis to the genus Australopithecus, whilst others have pointed out Homo erectus resemblances in some of the fossil skulls.19 Given this, and without reliably associated postcranial bones to help clarify the nature of Homo habilis, the species has pretty much been in limbo, being variously described as a ‘garbage bag’ or ‘wastebasket’, that is, a dumping ground for difficult-to-classify fossils.19 Prior to Berger’s discovery of Australopithecus sediba, the general evolutionary view was that the australopithecines evolved into Homo habilis, with the latter in turn evolving into Homo erectus. This may or may not change. From a creation point of view, if the postcranial skeleton of Australopithecus sediba is representative of the other specimens labeled Homo habilis, and if (as seems likely) the postcranium of Australopithecus sediba is australopithecine-like, then this adds weight to the notion that most of the specimens attributed to Homo habilis were also australopithecine-type apes.20
In a newspaper article, Berger was quoted as saying that Australopithecus sediba had “ape-like arms, primitive wrists and short but powerful curved fingers, yet surprisingly a pelvis that is clearly evolved for walking on the ground in very much the way we do”, and that they “could still climb trees, that is very clear with these long arms, but they were competent walking bipeds.”21 Hence, here you have a creature with apparently an upper body designed for climbing trees, which implies, even from an evolutionist perspective, that this was a major feature of its lifestyle, in line with today’s tree-dwelling apes. However, the main bone of contention is what is considered by the authors to be the advanced (or derived) features present in the coxal bones (os coxae) of the pelvis, which were partially preserved, and discussed in more detail in the paper (including an MH1 composite comparison).22 One problem with interpreting functional aspects of features in the pelvic and lower limb bones in the australopithecines is that there is a tendency to “assume a priori that the muscles were in a close to human pattern”,23 and not an ape-like organization. Also, without being able to directly examine the various coxal bones from the different alleged hominid species, it is hard to assess the significance of the claims of “Homo-like morphology compared to other australopithecines” for the MH1 coxal bones.13 In Michael Balter’s commentary in Science he writes:
“But others are unconvinced by the Homo argument. The characteristics shared by A. sediba and Homo are few and could be due to normal variation among australopithecines or because of the boy’s juvenile status, argues Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. These characters change as a hominin grows, and the features of a young australopithecine could mimic those of ancient adult humans. He and others, such as Ron Clarke of Witwatersrand, think the new fossils might represent a late-surviving version of A. africanus [not generally considered a human ancestor anymore] or a closely related sister species to it”.24
As reported by Ker Than, anthropologist Bernard Wood’s opinion is that “A. sediba’s arms are too long—too apelike—and the species isn’t as well adapted for upright walking as some scientists expect the direct ancestor to the first humans to be”.25 It should also be emphasized that even if some australopithecines, such as Australopithecus sediba, walked upright then that is not proof they were on their way to becoming human. According to evolutionist authority Charles Oxnard, certain features (humeri, ankle bones, and metacarpals) of the australopithecines “clearly differ more from humans and African apes, than do these two living groups from each other. The australopithecines are unique.”26 He further states on the same page that “though bipedal, it is likely that their bipedality was mechanically different from that of humans. Though terrestrial, it is further likely that these fossils were accomplished arborealists [i.e., suited to living in the trees].” Creationists do not have any problem in acknowledging that some extinct apes (australopiths) may have walked upright, although, as indicated by Oxnard, it is doubtful that mechanically their bipedalism was like that of humans. In fact, important research done by the evolutionist Fred Spoor, using CAT scans on the portions of fossil skulls housing the organs of balance, indicated that the australopithecines he studied did not walk habitually upright.27 (Even some apes today are capable of walking upright non-habitually, i.e. some of the time.) This contradicts the confident claims of many evolutionists who argue from, for example, australopithecine pelvic anatomy.
Actually, a type of bipedal ability existed in other extinct apes, such as Oreopithecus bambolii, presumably not considered a human precursor because its evolutionary age (it supposedly lived 7 to 9 million years ago) was too early, and because it was found in a location (in Tuscany, Italy) unsuitable as the cradle for ‘early apemen’. According to the authors who studied the specimen, parts of the pelvis of Oreopithecus bambolii resembled that of Australopithecus 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”.28 According to Henry Gee, “this creature is thought to have become bipedal independently and was only distantly related to hominids”.29 It is difficult enough to imagine apes evolving a form of bipedal locomotion once, let alone that it happened independently two or more times. It seems evolution can be accommodated to almost any scenario, and as such seems more of a belief system than science.
The final point to be made is that evolution or creation cannot be proved or disproved based on the sorting of alleged apemen or hominid fossils, as these are always subject to different interpretations. One reason why there are no apemen fossils is that evolution is impossible. Yes, natural selection occurs, and yes, mutations are also observed to happen. However, the problem for evolutionists is that natural selection only sorts existing information; it cannot create the information needed for new body structures. Mutations are random, and usually detrimental to the organism. Even in the few examples where they are beneficial, mutations still do not create the new information needed to make microbes-to-mankind evolution possible30; rather they overwhelmingly cause a loss of information (e.g., loss of wings on a beetle living on a windy island).
Natural selection sorting random mutations is a blind process that cannot see into the future. Hence, it cannot affect the selection process of mutations that would be needed ‘further down the road’ in order to get the right DNA sequences to code for a specific gene and particularly a suite of genes (genes rarely act in isolation). If anything, natural selection would act to eliminate any mutations that were on their way to a new structure, as they would serve no purpose unless functional. However, it appears that not even natural selection can effectively rid our genomes of harmful mutations, particularly ones that are only slightly detrimental (near neutral), and so our genome deteriorates from generation to generation.31 Simply put, humans cannot have evolved as a species over millions of years because there is no viable mechanism to increase information in the genome, and because the accumulation of errors (mutations) in the genome over that hypothetical time makes it inconceivable that it would still be functional. That is, we would be extinct if the evolutionary scenario with its millions of years were true.32
- Thom, G., Missing link found in ascent of man, Herald Sun, p. 17, Friday 9 April, 2010. Return to text.
- Trekgeek1, comment on story “New species of early hominid found”, 6 April 2010 (Available at http://www.physorg.com/news189771175.html, 10 April 2010). Return to text.
- A medication used for treating anxiety; the original brand name was Valium. Return to text.
- Amos, J., South African fossils could be new hominid species, 8 April 2010 (Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8609192.stm, 10 April 2010). Return to text.
- Aiello, L. and Dean, C., An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy, Academic Press, London, p. 352, 1990. Return to text.
- Meier, R.J., The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Human Prehistory, Alpha Books, New York, NY, p. 16, 2003. Return to text.
- Thomas, H., Fossil warriors won’t call a truce for Sediba, The Weekend Australian, p. 13, 10–11 April, 2010. Return to text.
- Although White himself has also hyped finds that he has been involved with; see: Line, P., Connecting imaginary human evolution dots: the case of Australopithecus anamensis, Journal of Creation 20(2):4–5, 2006. Return to text.
- Postcranial means everything from the head down. Return to text.
- Berger, L.R., de Ruiter, D.J., Churchill, S.E., Schmid, P., Carlson, K.J., Dirks, P.H.G.M. and Kibii, J.M., Austalopithecus sediba: A new species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa, Science, 328:195–204, 2010. Return to text.
- Balter, M., Candidate human ancestor from South Africa sparks praise and debate, Science, 328:154–155, 2010. Return to text.
- Balter, Ref. 11, p. 154. Return to text.
- Berger et al, Ref. 10, p. 203. Return to text.
- Line, P., Fossil evidence for alleged apemen—Part 2: non-Homo hominids, Journal of Creation, 19(1):33–42, 2005. Return to text.
- Relethford, J.H., The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Seventh Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, p. 268, 2008. Return to text.
- Balter, M., Candidate human ancestor from South Africa sparks praise and debate, Science, 328:155, 2010. Return to text.
- Wong, K., Spectacular South African skeletons reveal new species from murky period of human evolution, 8 April 2010 (Available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=south-african-hominin-fossil, 9 April 2010). Return to text.
- Hawks, J., What, if anything, is Australopithecus sediba? 8 April 2010 (Available at http://johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/sediba/malapa-berger-description-2010.html, 10 April 2010). Return to text.
- Line, P., Fossil evidence for alleged apemen—Part 1: the genus Homo, Journal of Creation, 19(1):22–24, 2005. Return to text.
- The confusion regarding habilis was likely contributed to by the occasional bone fragment from H. erectus (fully human) being assigned to this ‘taxon of convenience’. See discussion by evolutionist Dr Fred Spoor on the DVD documentary The Image of God. Return to text.
- Thomas, H., A new face on our distant past, The Australian, p. 15, Friday 9 April, 2010. Return to text.
- Berger, L.R., de Ruiter, D.J., Churchill, S.E., Schmid, P., Carlson, K.J., Dirks, P.H.G.M. and Kibii, J.M., Austalopithecus sediba: A new species of Homo-like Australopith from South Africa, Science, 328:202–204, 2010. Return to text.
- Berge, C., How did australopithecines walk? A biomechanical study of the hip and thigh of Australopithecus afarensis, Journal of Human Evolution, 26:270, 1994. Return to text.
- Balter, M., Candidate human ancestor from South Africa sparks praise and debate, Science, 328:155, 2010. Return to text.
- Than, K., “Key” Human Ancestor Found: Fossils Link Apes, First Humans? 8 April 2010 (Available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/100408-fossils-australopithecus-sediba-missing-link-new-species-human/, 9 April 2010) Return to text.
- Oxnard, C., Fossils, Teeth and Sex: New Perspectives on Human Evolution, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, p. 227, 1987. Return to text.
- Spoor, F., et al., Implications of early hominid labyrinthine morphology for evolution of human bipedal locomotion, Nature 369(6482):645–648, 23 June 1994. Spoor was at the time Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at University College London, UK, and joint editor of the Journal of Human Evolution. Return to text.
- Kohler, M. and Moya-Sola, S., Ape-like or hoinid-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.
- Israeli bio-informatics specialist Dr Lee Spetner has written in his book Not By Chance that he knows of no point mutations that increase information (specified complexity) but would not be surprised if in a complex world, there might be a handful eventually identified that do add a tiny bit of information by chance. But his point is that for the neo-Darwinian theory to have any credibility, it would require us to easily be able to identify hundreds of information-gaining mutations out of the multiplied thousands occurring all the time. Return to text.
- Sanford, J., Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome, Third edition, FMS Publications, New York, p. 153, 2008. Return to text.
- DVD The Mystery of our Declining Genes, featuring former Cornell University lecturer and genetic engineering pioneer Dr John Sanford at a CMI Supercamp in January 2009 at Philip Island, Australia. Return to text.
Thanks Peter for a helpful article. If one starts with a creationist framework, new finds seem to generally readily fit categories of human or not human. When I first looked at a homo erectus skeleton it was clearly human- indistinguishable from the neck down from modern skeletons of humans(I am a doctor). If Berger had looked at a long set of arms on A. sediba with a creationist framework, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble and been fairly sure it wasn't from the genus Homo straight away.