Looking at the last 25 years of paleontology

2 minute read

Discover magazine has been doing a series of retrospectives by scientists on the last 25 years of progress in science, in honor of the magazine's 25th anniversary. The current (July 2005) issue has paleontologists discussing what, in their views, were the most important finds of the last 25 years, and what they expect to be the most important of the next 25. Included in the group are several paleoanthropologists. Here are some snippets:

Richard Leakey:

The most important event in paleoanthropology during the past 25 years is the discovery of a fossil skull, 7 million years old, of an anthropoid that has been named Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The anatomy of this specimen forces a debate on what is most fundamental: What, if anything, distinguishes an early ape from an early hominid?

Chris Stringer:

The most important development was the coalescence of fossil and genetic data to show that our species had a recent origin in only one region -- Africa -- and that everyone traces their origin back to that continent. Regional differences lie in only a few genes that evolved during the last 100,000 years, as humans spread out and settled the areas where we find them today.

Christopher Beard:

During the last 25 years, the greatest advances in primate paleontology have been in charting the very beginnings of the anthropoid radiation . . . . My colleagues and I found the first of these dawn monkeys, which we named Eosimias sinensis, in China.

Richard Klein:

Archaeological and especially genetic advances over the next 25 years should clarify whether the modern human expansion was grounded in a quantum behavioral (cultural) advance, and if so, whether the advance stemmed from a genetic change that fostered the modern human brain.

My favorite is Tim White's response, partly because it generalizes more widely than the others, and partly because it is the change that underlies my efforts here:

I think that the most important development in paleobiology during the last 25 years was the networking of paleontologists and colleagues via the Internet. When paleontologists discovered that they could communicate quickly and economically across global distances, collaborations blossomed and intensified.

Of course, I wouldn't say, as he goes on to imply, that internet collaboration led to new discoveries of Ardipithecus....

The picks from non-anthro paleontologists are likewise a mix of entertaining and enlightening, with Mark Norell and Kevin Padian both citing the Liaoning fossils, while Jack Horner chose the recent T. rex soft tissue discovery, and many others were represented as well. In all, a chance for a little self-promotion and a mix of topics with some obvious predictions and some more interesting ones.