Lucy was the darling of the 1980s, but with Australopithecus sediba taking center stage, her fans are not happy.
Science gave Lee Berger, Sedi’s agent (4/10/2010), prominent coverage in a special issue on April 12, with six papers about the south African rising star, Australopithecus sediba, that made him famous. In the Introduction piece, though, Berger didn’t seem confident about what show it belongs to:
This examination of a large number of associated, often complete and undistorted elements gives us a glimpse of a hominin species that appears to be mosaic in its anatomy and that presents a suite of functional complexes that are different from both those predicted for other australopiths and those of early Homo. Such clear insight into the anatomy of an early hominin species will clearly have implications for interpreting the evolutionary processes that affected the mode and tempo of hominin evolution and the interpretation of the anatomy of less well-preserved species.
What’s clearly clear from the glimpse, in other words, is not the interpretation of this fossil, but rather the implications that evolutionists’ prior interpretations need revision.
Ann Gibbons in a related piece on Science made it clear Berger is trying to take Lucy down. “This suggests, as Berger has argued for years, that the South African species may knock the queen of australopithecines, Lucy—a member of Au. afarensis—off her long-held perch as the most likely ancestor of Homo.”
National Geographic is not happy about this doubt-casting on its cover girl. Brian Switek began with her theme jingle,
Everybody knows “Lucy.” For nearly four decades, this famous partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, dated to 3.2 million years ago, has been an ambassador for our prehistoric past, and her species has stood as the most likely immediate ancestor of our own genus—Homo.
How dare Lee Berger smite the reputation of the reigning superstar:
But in a spate of new studies, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand, and a team of collaborators have put forward a controversial claim that another hominin—Australopithecus sediba—might be even closer to the origin of our lineage, possibly bumping Lucy from the critical evolutionary junction she has occupied for so long.
This is intolerable. It must not go unchallenged:
Together, the papers on the teeth, jaw, limbs, and spine of Australopithecus sediba highlight the fact that this early human possessed a strange mixture of traits seen in both early australopithecines and Homo. These findings make the fossils a significant point of contention among those devoted to understanding where and when our genus evolved.
With sediba possessing features that seem pieced together from Au. africanus and even Homo habilis, hopes for a reconciliation seem grim. This pigeon-toed rising star does not make a better presentation:
No other known hominin walked like this, hinting that the way humans walk isn’t the outcome of an ever-improving evolutionary trajectory, but one result out of several possible alternatives that evolved among our ancient relatives.
NG doesn’t seem impressed with Berger’s attempted compromise. He thought sediba’s feet represented a “compromise locomotion of a hominin that had features of the foot that are adaptive for both upright walking and tree climbing.” Switek claims there is still “an enduring controversy” among all the handlers.
Because of all these varied skeletal clues, Australopithecus sediba is said to possess a “mosaic” of traits that mix the archaic and the derived. But are the ways that Australopithecus sediba resembles early Homo species true indicators of a close evolutionary relationship—or are they traits that evolved independently in both lineages?
Few scientists believe this question has even begun to be settled. Berger himself has more confidence.
Berger laughs off Lucy’s handlers for their “nostalgia” for previous scenarios. His bones are more informative, he contends, than the 1970-era trove with “fragmentary and disassociated record of a small number of bits and pieces, many of which have simply been cobbled together into the basket we call early Homo.”
Them’s fightin’ words. But then, Berger tried to knock out the previous designated replacement. He called Ardi, the Ethiopian jawbone (10/02/09, 6/22/2010) “shockingly bad,” in a transparent attempt to bolster the “glimpse” that sediba gives into the origin of Homo. Switek retorted with a swipe of his own: “Most other researchers, however, concur that the Ethiopian jaw is indeed Homo and that the trail of our own genus significantly precedes the Malapa [location of Au. sediba] finds.” Berger, not on the bandwagon, is undeterred.
Berger doubts that the new papers will convince those who disagree with him, but affirms that “across the body, head to toe, sediba has a remarkable number of shared derived characters with definitive members of the genus Homo, including H. erectus, Neanderthals, and humans,” thus underscoring a possible evolutionary connection.
Lucy has been waiting in the wings all this time. She never makes a reappearance while Berger, Switek and the other handlers fight it out. John Hawks comes in to offer his confusions, saying “little is known of early genus Homo species,” and the “story could be more complicated,” while he cautions the handlers “about interpreting more fragmentary human remains found elsewhere.” Another agent is simply gobsmacked by it all:
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Rick Potts is uncertain of how Australopithecus sediba might be relevant to the origin of Homo, especially since the earliest Homo fossils are hundreds of thousands of years older, but notes that the combination of features in Australopithecus sediba “is astonishing.”
Under the spell of astonishment, Potts dreams up a Darwinian vision. Au. sediba, he prophesies, represents “the highly experimental nature of evolution in the several hundred thousand years around the time of the origin of Homo.” Coming out of the trance, he admits he doesn’t know whether it’s the whole picture or the bits and pieces that carry more meaning. We need more debates, he thinks. Switek gives Potts the last word. “The hominin ‘is so curious in its totality,’ Potts says, ‘it might lead to some rethinking of how we classify fossil humans and place them in our evolutionary tree.’”
But then again, it might not.
We hope you enjoyed this rerun of I Love Lucy. Switek was unable to rescue the darling of TV documentaries from the surprise ratings of African Idol. National Geographic had invested so much public capital in Lucy shows after Don Johanson, with his flair for P.R., whisked her anatomy to superstar status. Now, NG is left with the prospect of a bad R.O.I., but Johanson couldn’t care less. He laughed his way to the bank years ago. Maybe he is secretly mentoring Berger on how to play the game.
Read Potts’ last line carefully. He said there “might” be some rethinking of “of how we classify fossil humans and place them in our evolutionary tree.” That’s a key line. The bones don’t classify or interpret themselves. They are useless without their handlers. The shamans of secular culture decide where they fit into the secular creation myth. Using their tools of divination, they place them into the tree vision Father Charlie sketched in his scriptures. Without help, the unwashed masses might just look at the bones as being nothing more than extinct ape bones. To crystallize the vision in the public mind, the handlers wow them with computer animation, send out superstars like Lucy to be an “ambassador for our prehistoric past,” and teach them spirituals to memorize.
The lemur bone connected to the ape bone,
The ape bone connected to the Lucy bone, [alternate version: Africanus bone]
The Lucy [or Africanus] bone connected to the Sediba bone,
The Sediba bone connected to the Habilis bone,
The Habilis bone connected to the Erectus bone,
The Erectus bone connected to the Neanderthal bone,
The Neanderthal bone connected to the Sapiens bone,
Now hear ye the word of Darwin!