Apparently, these papers will be available for OpenAccess later this afternoon. While they are important in the details they provide (and I’m VERY happy to see them coming out), they are not surprising or earth shaking, with respect to our overall understanding of human evolution.


The paper will describe the usual mosaic of features of modern humans and apes in an upright, bipedal early hominid. This places a well described version of an “Australopith” pattern of walking pattern (which some people say is very modern, other say is very not modern, but is really just it’s own thing neither modern nor not modern) about a million years earlier than previously well described, but from other specimens already known from East and Central Africa and South Africa, this was already pretty much known about.

Had this find occurred about 12 years ago, it would be remarkable because of its age, pushing up against the moment of the last common ancestor of humans and chimps. But subsequent fossil finds have forced us to consider that this split is older, so there is still a million or three years between this recent find and when that split occurred.

If you remove the straw man arguments (that early hominids were “knuckle draggers” and so on) this find is unremarkable and does nothing to change our view of human evolution, however it is extensive (over 30 individuals are being described) and intensive (several different papers are being written on it and published together).

Someone does need to start asking the question: How can a major set of hominid fossils languish unpublished for 17 years. That, I’m afraid, is the most remarkable thing about this particular press event.

So, yes my title, “not all that interesting” is a bit snarky. I just want you to know that nothing I’ve read or heard so far changes what was already known, causes us to rethink human evolution, fills a gap that we didn’t already pretty much have filled.

What it DOES do, is provide rich and detailed analysis about a very important extinct species of hominid. It is actually very very interesting, but at a level that is mind numbingly specific and detailed. I promise you that when I tell you what is actually interesting about these fossils, after I’ve read all the papers and the monograph, I might have to lie to keep you from falling asleep. But I will be fully awake and enjoying it all.

Comments

  1. #1 Stacy
    October 1, 2009

    So would Ardi be considered another transitional fossil?

  2. #2 a lurker
    October 1, 2009

    “So would Ardi be considered another transitional fossil?”

    Yes. Greg is just saying that the usual “this changes everything” from the popular press is the usual exaggeration.
    But that does not change the fact that his is exciting.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2009

    Ardi may or may not be a transitional fossil. It depends on what it arose from and what arose from it.

  4. #4 Walter
    October 1, 2009

    What about National Geographic News:

    Oldest “Human” Skeleton Found–Disproves “Missing Link”

    Walter

  5. #5 bobh
    October 1, 2009

    Oh come on. Its obviously the missing link at last! This will shut the creationists up – not. Really I think it is exciting. What is the reason for the 17 year delay? Still better than the 17 minute delay some science “breakthroughs” receive.

  6. #6 Chris Hanson
    October 1, 2009

    I think that you’re under estimating the importance of the same old, same old. Isn’t it better if the publication comes out and says “hey, you guys were right” rather than “you shit heads didn’t know jack about human evolution until now”?

    On a separate line. Having only read the NY Times report on Ardi, is it possible that Ardi is a side branch that never made it to our current gene pool? Could Ardi be the Neanderthal of 4.4 mya? Co-existing with the hominid track, but dieing out without a substantial impact on the human line?

    Also, are there any unique traits to Ardi that would be adaptive to the environment of 4.4 mya but that were no longer adaptive by the time of Lucy? I find this interesting because it demonstrates a central tenant of evolution that the species doesn’t have the goal of becoming a modern human, but rather is adapting to its environment.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2009

    Chris: I’m not undersestimating its importance. It is very important. It is simply not overthrowing our views of human evolution, but that is much of what you’ll hear in the hype.

    All of the australopiths are sidebranches! (probably).

    Walter, I love that: “Disproves missing link”

    How about “Amazing fossil amazingly fails to uproot the human family tree!!!

  8. #8 Walter
    October 1, 2009

    Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s really National Geographic’s headline. They also use these: “New Fossils Distance Us From Chimps” and “Move over, Lucy. And kiss the missing link goodbye”

    What do you think of that.

    Walter

  9. #9 Jason Thibeault
    October 1, 2009

    The way I understand it, anything with an offspring is technically a transitional form between its ancestors and its offspring. It takes the population having a speciation event before that fossil you have, becoming a transitional form between basal form and more modern form. So, unless we have an unbroken line of fossils of every life form ever existing, we will never prove to creationists that evolution happened — as they say, our case “weakens” every time a new transitional form is found because now there are two missing links between the transitional and the two forms it transitions between.

    The goalposts as set by creationists are designed (intelligently) to always rise such that they cannot be met by the evidence at hand. No matter how good of an idea how evolution has shaped a species that we have by the fossil record, it is insufficient to disprove god-did-it-all-at-once in their eyes.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2009

    Only some things are trasnitional forms. It is a real concept with real meaning. The fact that it has been abused by creationists has made many biologists/palaeontologists to minimize it or define it out of existence, but I think there is a limit to how much we must stupefy ourselves to cover the the effects of the self-stupification of creationists.

    Please see this essay on transitional forms:

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2009/08/false_pearls_before_real_swine.php

  11. #11 Jason Thibeault
    October 1, 2009

    Erm. Sorry, that first sentence should read “the way I understand the creationist argument about transitional forms”, rather than the vague and ambiguous “it”. Never mind the total grammar fail in sentence 2. :S

  12. #12 Brandon Keim
    October 1, 2009

    “Someone does need to start asking the question: How can a major set of hominid fossils languish unpublished for 17 years. That, I’m afraid, is the most remarkable thing about this particular press event.”

    Very easily. The Middle Awash team spent those 17 years gathering another hundred A. ramidus fossils, plus thousands of plant and animal fossils from the same sediment layers, and analyzing them carefully. Their secrecy pissed a lot of people off, but I’ve heard several prominent paleontologists today express the equivalent of, “Oh, okay, so that’s what they’ve been doing. The secrecy was worth it after all.”

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/10/ardi-2/

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2009

    Brandon: That is a very nice post hoc explanaton, and it is 50% true. The other 50% is bullshit. I know many of the people on this team, some are friends, and I respect them all. I’m not blaming them for holding this up (note I say what we should “ask the question”) There are many reasons why this research, as well as research in Kenya and Tanzania and elsewhere has in many cases taken decades to get out (most people have no idea what is currently “not out” and not even being worked on). It is a huge issue in palaeoanthropology. I’m uncomfortable with saying that “it just takes time.”

    When a scholar’s entire career can go from start to finish before certain data are out and available then one can ask this question. A person who started his or her PhD on proconcul, for instance, in the 1960s when it was a big deal newish find would have retired before the fossils necessary to know whether or not it even had a tail were known from the museum collections in which they were stored for decades. I raise that as a typical but fairly innocuous example (because I can’t actually name a person who’s career of research was affected by that).

    Again, I’m not saying that those people are screwing up, but there are deep, important, systemic problems in the system.

  14. #14 NewEnglandBob
    October 1, 2009

    It is actually very very interesting, but at a level that is mind numbingly specific and detailed.

    That is the best level. Sound bites and headlines are the worst level.

  15. #15 a lurker
    October 1, 2009

    Did the team have the funding to bring in the additional people and resources it would have taken to cut the time needed to evaluate the fossils? I imagine that the time extracting the fossil from the matrix could not be speed up much though and the team was saying a decade ago that this was a very difficult extraction.

    Still the skeleton was first found in 1995 and this kind of delay is pushing it. Maybe someone should set up a rule of thumb suggesting how long is a reasonable time to study a fossil before letting outsiders take a crack at it.

  16. #16 Paul W.
    October 1, 2009

    Wow. I used to get a lot of shit for having Ph.D. students
    do 2 or 3 years of research before publishing anything, and then publishing several papers in a year or two.

    How on earth could anybody get a Ph.D. in a research environment where nothing gets published for a decade or two?

  17. #17 Joey Panto
    October 2, 2009

    Ayn Rand’s voice is channeled from beyond to refute a creationist who thinks Ardipithecus disproves Darwin.
    http://02e56fa.netsolhost.com/blog1/index.php/2009/10/01/ayn-rand-refutes-creationist-who-claims-

  18. #18 Jason Thibeault
    October 2, 2009

    Ayn Rand AND “channeling”? Way to get me to never click.

  19. #19 SplendidMonkey
    October 2, 2009

    Cover your ears kids, they’re going to talk about science!
    http://www.wcco.com/video/?id=67937@wcco.dayport.com

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    October 2, 2009

    OMG that was obnoxious. The way they did this legitimizes the anti-evolution position as though it had sufficient validity to form policy in the newsroom around it.

    Next time they talk about the “Miracle Flight” … the plane that crashed in the Hudson … I want a warning in front of the story.

  21. #21 Alan E DuPuis
    October 12, 2009

    They spent those 17 years collecting additional flora and fauna fossils that created a more comprehensive view of the ecological niche that Ardi lived in. However, 17 years is a bit long even taking that into consideration.

    More importantly, they stated that Ardi was a Biped that lived in the forest/jungle NOT savanna. They used the data gatherd during the 17 years to prove that statement.

    One of Ardi’s foot bone has a curious adaptation exclusively for moving about in trees. I am not a bone man and I do not remember the bone’s name. I do know it was not the big toe, one of the other four could be risen above the other toes and grasp limbs.