Brief Fossil Update
Our editor, Brian Trumbore, suggested that old Bortrum take the
Thanksgiving week off. However, I feel compelled to follow up
on the hobbit-like human fossil found on the island of Flores that
I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Remember that Australian
and Indonesian researchers found a skull and other skeletal
remains of an individual on the island and concluded that it was a
new species of human. The fossil was only 18,000 years old.
Until this find, we modern Homo sapiens were the only humans
thought to exist at that time. A recurring theme is these columns
is that any new and startling finding is almost certain to generate
controversy. This finding is no exception.
The November 12 issue of Science contains a report by Michael
Balter that a group of critics has arisen to challenge classifying
the tiny 3-foot tall Flores human as a new species. For example,
Maciej Heneberg, a paleopathologist at the University of
Adelaide in Australia claims that the skull resembles a 4,000-
year-old microcephalic skull of a modern human that was found
on the island of Crete. An Indonesian paleoanthropologist,
Teuku Jacob, has latched on to the skull and taken it to his lab at
the Center for Anthropology in Jakarta. Jacob claims that the
skull is just that of a small modern human.
In rebuttal, the finders of the fossil remains point to the fact that
they’ve found the remains of at least 7 other humans with tiny
bones on Flores. Other independent researchers back up the
conclusion that a new species has been found, citing the shape
and sizes of other features of the skeleton as showing it cannot be
the remains of a modern human. Not being a paleo-anything,
just a physical chemist, I’m not qualified to weigh in with an
opinion on the matter. However, I do confess to hoping these
researchers are right. I think it’s neat to think of 3-foot tall
humans surviving while we modern guys and gals were strutting
around thinking we were the only game in town.
Unfortunately, it’s such controversies that are seized upon by
creationists to cast doubt on the whole concept of evolution. I
was disheartened to find in the same issue of Science reports of
actions last month by certain school boards in Pennsylvania and
in Wisconsin that would include in the curriculum the teaching
of alternatives to evolution, specifically so-called “intelligent
A much older, exceptional skeleton has turned up in Spain, as
reported in last week’s November 19 issue of Science in an
article by Salvador Moya-Sola of the Institut de Paleontologia M.
Crusafont in Barcelona and his coworkers. There seems to be no
controversy about one thing. This is one truly monumental 12.5
to 13 million-year-old fossil. So often these old fossils consist of
just a single part or two of the skeleton of the deceased. In this
case, a substantially complete skull was found along with ribs,
wrist, hands and vertebrae.
The Spanish researchers propose that this guy, he is a male, is
probably close to being the last common ancestor to both humans
and the great apes. The implication is that this fellow could walk
upright, climb trees and probably walk on all fours on branches.
However, the hands were small and not developed sufficiently to
permit him to swing around in trees below the branches as great
apes do today. The proposal is that later members of this
evolutionary line developed bigger hands suited to swinging in
trees and that somewhere along the line we humans branched off.
We came down out of the trees and developed smaller hands as
we lost the need to swing in the trees.
The same issue of Science contains an article by Elizabeth
Culotta, who notes that, while other scientists may question the
proposals of the Spanish workers, they all agree the fossil itself is
a treasure. They are quoted as describing the fossil in terms such
as “this skeleton is great”, “an amazing fossil” and “a marvelous
find, a dream come true”. With all the attention, it seems likely
that this fellow will eventually take his place along side Lucy and
other famous fossils in the evolutionary scheme of things.
Well, I promise I’m finished with evolution for this year. Have a
happy Thanksgiving and don’t eat too much of that bird that
evolved either from or shared a common ancestor with the
Allen F. Bortrum