Who's your favorite hominin now?

A couple of weeks ago I gave some Google Trends statistics on search terms for fossil hominins. The winner then was “erectus”, with “Neanderthal” coming in a close second.

“Erectus” has an unusually strong search volume in Spanish, but I can’t find an obvious non-paleoanthropological focus for it other than porn. “Australopithecus” also has a strong Spanish language search volume, and that’s not an obvious porn search term. Or if it is, there are a lot of disappointed people leaving my site. So there’s something interesting about Spanish-language hominin searching.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to revisit the Trends page is Ardipithecus. What difference does a media storm make?

Google Trends volume for some hominins

There you see – Ardipithecus jumped through the roof, up to several times the volume of any of the most common hominins. That looks about equal in height above the baseline to the spikes we’ve seen for other big media stories about fossil hominins in the past; although the multi-year-view is not yet stretched out enough to do the direct comparison. Notice that Australopithecus also got a news bump – “Lucy” being mentioned in most of the “Ardi” stories – but didn’t get a comparable bump in search volume, since it’s not the new thing.

Will Ardipithecus establish itself among the leaders for good? I sort of expect it will. The anatomical information from Ardi is the best evidence we have from the first third of human evolution. When White and colleagues described it as an “adaptive plateau”, they were right – the dental features sat in relative stasis for two million years or more, as long as the duration of Australopithecus. We can’t be sure whether the postcranial story is as simple as the teeth, or whether there may be unexplored diversity there that may reveal a more complex phylogenetic story (the Orrorin femur hints at that). But whether or not Ardi is a hominin, it does something that no other comparably early discovery has: It’s provided enough material to justify a new chapter in textbooks.

So if Ardipithecus dips down below the big three, as I expect it will in the next couple of weeks, it will probably be back up there once it’s integrated into the academic cycle.