Is a lack of fossils the problem with early Homo?

4 minute read

Just noticing, in this John Noble Wilford article:

A new report, to be published Thursday in Nature, will review more skeletal evidence of the transitional aspects of the Dmanisi specimens.

More later...

UPDATE(2007/09/18): Wilford doesn't directly state the article's theme but it clearly has one: Why the heck can't these people agree about these fossils that have been out of the ground for thirty years?

The first answer that everyone has given him is about the "million year gap" between 3 million and 2 million years ago. People can't agree about early Homo because they can't decide what its ancestors looked like. Without any ancestors, they don't know which of the traits of early Homo are derived.

For a good example, we can turn to a feature Wilford doesn't mention: limb proportions. Recently, a lot of ink has been spilled discussing the evolution of arm size in later australopithecines and early Homo. OH 62 (probably Homo habilis) and A. africanus have been argued to have large arms compared to their legs. A. afarensis and Nariokotome (KNM-WT 15000, probably Homo erectus) have relatively small arms compared to their legs. Did H. habilis and H. erectus have different ancestors? Did H. erectus evolve from H. habilis, reverting its limb proportions to earlier A. afarensis? Or are all these comparisons just batty, since only three specimens have arm and leg elements whose length can be compared? There's no clear answer; but one of the most important specimens in the question (with sort-of-intermediate limb proportions) is the Bouri skeleton, BOU-VP 12/1, which at 2.5 million years old is right in the middle of that "gap."

The more you look at the "gap," the less gap-like it looks. For one thing, we have a pretty good idea of what was going on behaviorally during that million year span. The first stone tools are 2.6 million years old. The technology of these toolmakers -- although simple -- included all the basic manufacturing methods used before 1.5 million years ago. The tools were used to butcher animals and break bones for marrow; so we know that the toolmakers were depending on meat.

Second, we actually have quite a lot of fossils from this time period. The entire South African A. africanus fossil record, with the exception of a few early specimens like STW 573, come from this "gap." A fairly extensive record of the appearance and evolution of early robust australopithecines comes from this time period in East Africa.

And, here and there, a few specimens look Homo-like. Wilford's article discusses AL 666-1. To this we can add the Uraha mandible, Omo 75-14, an additional series of teeth from Omo, and possibly the Bouri BOU-VP 35/1 skeleton.

Properly considered, the rarity of early Homo in these contexts is not a problem; it is information. Wilford quotes Philip Rightmire to this effect, and we can easily expand on the basic concept. Early toolmakers did not undergo an immediate geographic expansion upon their origin. They spread across a relatively narrow strip of East Africa and stayed there for more than a half-million years. They were initially rare. That means that their adaptation was not immediately a barnburner of a success -- the early toolmakers took a while to perfect the adaptation of later Homo.

The middle part of the article takes in another reason for disagreement: whether H. habilis and H. erectus were ancestor-descendant:

Several scientists, notably Dr. White of Berkeley, took issue with the interpretation seeming to imply that evidence for the two species overlapping in time and exhibiting variable sizes was new. That, he said, had been recognized for a couple of decades.
Dr. Kimbel, who was not involved in the new research, defended the authors, saying that they had not "meant to imply that habilis could not have been ancestral to erectus, presumably on the basis of their being contemporaneous at Turkana," the site in Kenya where the fossils were found.
Susan C. Anton, an anthropologist at New York University who was a member of the Spoor-Leakey team, said, "My money is still on habilis as the potential ancestor, but there is a lot of room for additional knowledge, given the dearth of fossils."

None of these statements really disagree with each other. If anything, this particular question may have gotten easier to resolve lately, not as a consequence of new fossils, but as a result of new dates for many of the old ones. Susan Anton is later quoted saying that anagenesis "is the only option that is no longer on the table," and it seems to me that this is the clearest statement most likely to invite some hypothesis testing. But it is fairly clear that this problem cannot be resolved in terms of earlier fossils: I don't think there's any compelling evidence of H. erectus before 1.6 million years ago.

There is one significant word that doesn't appear in the article -- an absence that is especially interesting considering the quoted scientists:


Remember, the dominant theme is about complexity and bushiness. And yet, here's that forgotten branch of the family tree; the one that was supposed to clarify everything by providing a different ancestor for KNM-ER 1470 from other H. habilis specimens, the one that showed a distinct line leading to Homo originating in the Early Pliocene.

I think our bush may have been pruned.