Why was paleoanthropology so boring in 2008?

The year isn’t quite over yet, but when I went looking at my annual predictions for the year (thinking mostly about what I should write this time around), I realized that paleoanthropology has been almost devoid of interesting news.

It’s not just the lack of Sahelanthropus and Ardipithecus – those have been vaporware for years now. The thing is that there’s been almost nothing else.

That’s tough for me, in that I really like to get new results and do quick analyses of them here. If you’ve been reading for more than a year, you’ll remember many times when I’ve had the real story behind the story within a day of a report being released. But this year, there have been very few chances to do that – the Neandertal mtDNA genome in August, the Howieson’s Poort dating paper, the non-existent Late Pleistocene African population crash, and the Flores tooth kerfuffle.

I’ve looked. Those are really scraping the bottom. If I want to go much wider, I’m down to Lascaux’s fungus problems. Really.

I was reminded of this as I was looking through the year-end Discover list of 100 science stories of 2008. There are only three that are paleoanthropology-related. Number 8 is a mash-up of every Neandertal-related science story of the year (they title the short piece, “They’re Just Like Us”). That’s really not so many stories; just the mtDNA sequence, the Gibraltar seafood story, and the analysis of Neandertal development by Marcia Ponce de Léon and colleagues. If we hook on the press that has gone to the Neandertals, that’s about the maximum excitement for the year.

The only new hominid fossil making the list was at number 76, the mandible from Sima del Elefante, billed as the “earliest European.” Of course, that first made the news in July, 2007! Whooo-hoo!

And at number 85, Discover includes various hobbit-related stories. News? Not very new news.

So what’s the deal here? What gives?

It’s not just a general science news slowdown. There have been plenty of new and interesting stories about human genetics and biotechnology in the last year – I’ve covered many, but there are more than I can track. And Discover itself notes a bunch of stories in Holocene archaeology. That also tends to suggest that the election and economy haven’t driven science news away.

Nope, it’s really paleoanthropology. There’s something really awry here. We’ve had few new fossils (the Gona pelvis being a notable exception), and although there have been many new archaeology papers, very few have hit the category of “news.”

This is a big opportunity for enterprising science writers to find the stories in paleoanthropology that aren’t hitting the headlines. What is happening behind the scenes? Where is the field going, beyond waiting for new fossils? A lot of stories are waiting to be told, but the young scientists involved may not know how interesting their stuff really is.

UPDATE (2008-12-11): I missed number 10 in the Discover list, which was a compilation of stories about the peopling of the Americas. I would normally have counted this one, but honestly I missed it because I scanned the page visually as an advertisement, not s story! It has been an eventful couple of years for the origins of New World peoples.