Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Origins of us?

I had the opportunity to read Delta Willis’ Hominid Gang (now out-of-print) as well as Don Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind a few months ago. Without a doubt Johanson’s book is more readable and I felt that Willis’ book was written as a sort of a obtuse rebuttal to Johanson although if it were a rebuttal it wasn’t clear what it was. Despite claiming to be a book about the group of Kenyans (the so-called Hominid Gang) that were instrumental in unearthing archaeological finds in Koobi Fora, this book was more about Richard Leakey and the Leakeys in general.

It is clear that there was some tension between Johanson and the Leakeys regarding Lucy and possibly the Turkana Boy but Johanson’s book does a better job of explaining humanity’s time line and the search for the missing link. Willis and by extension the Leakeys seem to have some doubts about the direction of the direction of this search and whether some of the finds in the past have been been a distinct line in humankind’s descent (or ascent, however you prefer to look at it). Willis’ book does a better job of showing the ambiguity in archaeology/anthropology in contrast to Johanson’s more authoritative tone - the lumpers versus splitters debate.

The recent news about Turkana Boy (if I am reading it correctly) seems to have vindicated the Leakeys’ point of view:

Researchers studying fossils from northern Kenya have identified a new species of human that lived two million years ago....

The finds back the view that a skull found in 1972 is of a separate species of human, known as Homo rudolfensis....

For a long time the oldest known human ancestor was thought to be a primitive species, dating back 1.8 million years ago called Homo erectus. They had small heads, prominent brows and stood upright.

But 50 years ago, researchers discovered an even older and more primitive species of human called Homo habilis that may have coexisted with H. erectus. Now it seems H. rudolfensis was around too and raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time.

This find is the latest in a growing body of evidence that challenges the view that our species evolved in a smooth linear progression from our primate ancestors.

Instead, according to Dr Meave Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, who led the research the find shows that there was a diversity early on in the evolution of our species.
"Our past was a diverse past," she told BBC News, "our species was evolving in the same way that other species of animals evolved. There was nothing unique about us until we began to make sophisticated stone tools."

The research was published in Nature. Image from BBC.

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