I was startled when I picked up my November issue of National
Geographic and on the cover in big red letters were the words
“Was Darwin Wrong?”. My first thought was that there had
been a coup and creationists had taken over the magazine. I was
relieved to find on paging to the article that the answer to the
question, in bigger golden-brownish letters, was “NO”, followed
by the statement “The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming.”
I’m in total agreement with that statement. Yet the article, by
David Quammen, quotes a Gallup poll of over a thousand
respondents in which virtually half (45 percent) agreed that God
created us humans in “pretty much” our present forms about a
mere 10,000 years ago.
If you’re one of those 45 percent, you won’t believe a word that
follows. An AP report by Charles Sheehan posted November 9
on AOL News concerns a freshman geology student, Adam
Striegel, at the University of Pittsburgh. I did my graduate work
at Pitt and am always interested when a relative newcomer to a
field makes a significant contribution. Adam was on a field trip
along a fresh road cut near the Pittsburgh International airport
when he picked up a rock and tossed it back on the ground.
However, on his way back he decided to pick it up again and
showed it to his instructor.
Charles Jones looked at the rock and made out the outlines of
teeth and a skull. Striegel, had discovered a new species which,
if all goes well, will be known in the future by a name that may
start with the term “Striegeli ….” The creature possessing the
skull was a 3 to 4-foot long salamander sort of critter that had
teeth resembling those of a crocodile. The huge salamander
lived about 300 million years ago. Paleontologists at the
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, just down the street from
Pitt, were shocked that this well-preserved fossil was found just a
few miles away.
Coincidentally, one of Carnegie’s paleontologists, Dave Berman,
happens to have found one of the only two other known skulls of
this giant salamander family. He found that skull in New
Mexico. Berman and his team have chipped away at Striegel’s
rock to reveal a skull a bit larger than the skull of a large cat.
He’s hoping that future trips to the area will result in more finds
that will permit them to determine what sort of other animal and
plant life existed when Striegel’s salamander roamed the wilds of
the future Pittsburgh suburbs.
Another fossil find far from Pittsburgh made the news a couple
of weeks ago. The island of Flores is an Indonesian island lying
north of Western Australia. What was found in Liang Bua Cave
on Flores has stirred both the scientific and lay communities. A
big debate over the past decades has concerned how and when
we of the Homo sapiens family emerged as the sole human
species occupying the Earth. More specifically, the debate was
and still is concerned with such things as: Did the Neandertals
just die out or did we kill or force them out of existence? Was
there any interbreeding of us with the Neanderthals? When did
they go extinct? The answer to the last question seems to be
roughly 30,000 years ago.
Who knew that, perhaps as late as only 12,000 years ago, we
shared this planet with another Homo species completely
unknown to science until this year? Actually, it was September
of 2003 when Michael Morwood, of the University of New
England in Australia and his team of workers from Australia and
Indonesia entered the Liang Bua Cave. I found details of their
work in an article by Ann Gibbons in the October 29 issue of
Science (the work was published in nature). The researchers
were following a trail of stone tools that led them to the cave, in
which they found a human tooth and the remains of a Stegodon.
The Stegodon, now extinct, was a dwarf elephant about the size
of a pony. The cave clearly warranted further attention and the
team dug down about 20 feet. There they found a skull and
partial skeleton of an adult human female.
Like the Stegodon, this female was diminutive in size and was
not one of us, that is, she was not a Homo sapiens. Standing a
mere 3 feet tall, she had a brain only half the size of Homo
erectus, a normal sized early human that had spread quite widely
from Africa to Asia and Indonesia. The scientists considered the
possibility that this gal was deformed or a dwarf but found no
evidence for that and, in addition, the bones of other individuals
in the same area were also tiny. The results of various methods
of dating the fossil showed that she lived around 18,000 years
ago. Her skull is not that of Homo sapiens but does resemble a
small version of the skull of Homo erectus.
The occupants of the cave have been deemed a new species by
the researchers, who call it Homo floresiensis after the island’s
name, Flores. How did H. floresiensis come about? The
thinking is that the resemblance to H. erectus is not a
coincidence. The speculation is that H. erectus came to the
island and stayed there, unmolested by any other Homos. One of
the features of island living is that the resources are often limited
and the inhabitants evolve to make do with the limitations.
Downsizing is apparently not uncommon in other island
mammals. Witness the dwarf elephants found with H.
floresiensis. Over the centuries or millennia, the diminutive
people evolved into a different species of humans.
What was the fate of these hobbit-like humans? Morwood’s
feeling is that they might have been around as late as only 12,000
years ago. His estimate is based on the fact that about that time
the stone tools and also any evidence of the tiny elephants
disappear from the fossil record. A possible cause for the demise
of the small creatures is a deadly volcanic eruption, certainly not
unheard of in that active region of the world. Modern humans
came to the Indonesian islands and were living on them in a
timeframe overlapping the time of the tiny people. Eventually,
the moderns also arrived on Flores. Did they meet the little
people? It’s intriguing that the islanders of today tell stories of
little people, the stories passed down through the generations.
This brings up something our editor, Brian Trumbore, might
explore on his next trip to Ireland. Irish lore is rich with tales of
little people. Were/are those leprechauns real?
Allen F. Bortrum