The Inspirational Tale
Common metaphors in paleoanthropology are those of winning the lottery and being struck by lightning. But although fossils are rarely preserved or exposed at just the right place to be spotted, the assumption that fossil discoverers are supremely lucky is an unfair one.
Eugene Dubois decided he’d find a missing link on Java, moved his family there, and found the first Homo erectus fossils. Louis and Mary Leakey dedicated their lives to traversing
This is the kind of tenacity it took for Tim White and his team to amass a fossil record of as many as 36 Ardipithecus individuals and to collect over 150,000 plant and animal specimens from the Middle Awash study area in the Afar region of
It's no surprise that paleoanthropologists were glued to their computer monitors last Thursday and Friday. Many of us are still carrying around our stack of 11 papers, picking our way through them every spare moment we get.
The Paradigm Shifting Tale
This is not just a new skeleton. Depending on your take, this is a renovation or an entire upheaval of the way we interpret the last 23 million years of ape evolution. Here is a list of just some of these new perspectives that Team Ardipithecus has presented to us:
1. Ardipithecus is a hominid yet it is much more primitive than chimpanzees and gorillas which are both highly derived. (This one is exciting because it links Proconsul (the 18 million-year-old ape that I work on) to hominids.)
2. Anatomical and behavioral similarities between ape species that have to do with suspension and locomotion-in-general are independently evolved. That is, they’re convergences or homoplasies. Even these traits in the fossil apes Dryopithecus and Ouranopithecus do not link them phylogenetically to living apes because they too evolved independently as homoplasies. Conclusion: Ardipithecus shows that phenotypic and maybe genotypic homoplasy is rampant in the hominoid (ape) fossil record.
3. Chimpanzees and humans share a deeper last common ancestor than the one estimated to have lived 6 million years ago (mya). Although the 6 mya hypothesis is currently “in vogue,” the last common ancestor actually lived more like 7-10 mya.
4. Even though the split between the chimp and human lineages occurred 7-10 million years ago, Ardipithecus from between 4-5 mya is our best model for the last common ancestor, better than any other fossil apes from Africa from between 6-11 mya such as Orrorin, Sahelanthropus, Chororapithecus, and Samburupithecus.
If paleoanthropologists were stifled, rather than stimulated, every time something new overturned old ideas, they would quit the field, or flunk out.
However, the suite of game-changers proposed by Team Ardipithecus are bound to raise not just eyebrows but hackles as well.
For example, they explain the ape evolutionary tree with multiple homoplasies (rather than with parsimony or the simplest explanation: that the traits evolved once in a common ancestor), but then they use parsimony analysis (which excludes homoplasies whenever possible) to claim that Ardipithecus is a hominid. Furthermore, the claims about ape homoplasies are grounded in the assumption that Ardipithecus is a hominid in the first place. Could they have done it any other way? I don't know the answer yet. But as it stands, it makes an already large pill even harder to swallow. The whole field is now charged to test these new hypotheses and we certainly have our work cut out for us.
The Snarky Tale
Tim White’s papers are always thrilling to read. Usually the science is tight and methodical, which is highly satisfying, but you can also count on enjoying a bit of snark, and when I write “enjoy” I guess I’m being snarky.
Here’s an example: As the authors explain how un-chimp-like Ardi is, and how derived chimps and gorillas are compared to hominids, they write,
“Some hold that our last common ancestors with African apes were anatomically and behaviorally chimpanzee-like, that extant chimpanzees can be used as “time machines” and/or that unique features of Gorilla are merely allometric modifications to accommodate its great body mass.”(White et al., Science 326(64): 75)
These hypotheses of "Some" paraphrased and quoted by Team Ardipithecus may not sound so strange to any of you. They don't to me. But we're being admonished. Sure, the authors can forgive Darwin for thinking this way because he was forced to work without a fossil record. But the rest of us seem to have no excuse even though up until now we’ve all had to do paleoanthropology without Ardi.
A decent hypothesis for what our last common ancestor with chimps looked like is that it looked a lot like chimps. It’s pretty simple. And it’s only a hypothesis, not a personality trait. And it’s going to remain a decent hypothesis until scientists beyond these authors also support Ardipithecus as a hominid.
If they must lash out at colleagues, the authors should wait until after we've ignored their findings or rejected their arguments. Bashing us over the head the second we get a chance to read about Ardi is something Ardi might do.