Friday, September 22, 2006

Scientists uncover ancient skeletal remains

The skull of a 3-year old supposed female Australopithecus afarensis was found in Ethiopia in 2000 and has recently been plastered all over the media as another "missing link" between ape and man.

Could be...

But, I think a critical lens in which to view these type of discoveries is always appropriate.

There are many links that one can peruse to get the scoop on the fossil remains.

But something to bear in mind is that the media, for some reason or other, loves to embellish on these type of finds.

As the website Truth in Science reminds us:
Anyone reading the scientist's reports in Nature in detail finds a rather different story. Even the sex of the fossil is open to question: it is a "presumed female" based on the shape of its teeth. The fossil's anatomical features do not "lie squarely in between those of humans and other apes". The morphology, especially of the upper body is more similar to Chimpanzees and Gorillas than Humans. The brain size is roughly a quarter of what would be expected for a human of similar age.

The lower parts of the fossil are apparently more human-like than the other parts. These were mainly found separately to the upper body, and as the journal notes, "the pelvis, the lowest part of the back and parts of the limbs "are still missing". Furthermore, the only foot which has been found is still largely encased in sandstone, and requires months of painstaking work before its description is possible. At present we only have a limited ability to assess the human-likeness of the creature's lower half.

Though not clear in some news reports, the question of whether the ape walked on two feet or swung through trees is still debated. A commentary in Nature notes: "There remains a great deal of controversy regarding the posture and locomotion of A. afarensis. Most researchers accept that it could stand upright and walk on two feet, but whether it could climb up and move through trees is still disputed."

A concern of Truth in Science is that excellent scientific research is presented by mainstream media with far too much speculation and claimed certainty. Sometimes this occurs even in news articles within scientific journals. For anyone who does not have time to go back and read the original research articles, it is difficult to separate fact from speculation, resulting in false impressions of what is and is not proven by scientific evidence.

I've only seen the skull of this new find, but here are the bones of the famous "Lucy" fossil:

It's still unclear to me how they determine all that they proclaim about these fossils by examining a few bones that many times are not even found close together.


I guess I'll have to do some digging to get more answers.