Early Humans Refused to Be Classified
We humans like to classify things, and when we classify ourselves, we sometimes get into trouble. We create groups of “us” and “them” that breed conflicts. A fight of sorts is going on between paleoanthropologists, reports Science News1 May 22, over what to make of some skulls found in a cave in Romania. The skulls are blurring the neat categories most anthropologists had made to distinguish primitive and early modern humans.
The discovery last June, an Indiana Jones-like adventure involving cave diving into a tomb-like chamber and finding bones of cave bears and human skulls, has the makings of a good movie. But now that the skulls are in the lab, scientists are scratching their own skulls figuring out where to fit them in the human lineage. The problem is that they display both “primitive” and “modern” traits: modern cheek bones and no brow ridges, but heavy-set jaws and massive teeth. Named Oase (wah-see) after the cave in which they were found, the skulls also contain multi-ridged third molars larger than those of Neanderthals. These bones and another found in Portugal that displays “a potpourri of traits from both species” are causing some anthropologists to suggest that all these varieties of early humans interbred. That threatens to overturn favorite theories about human evolution:
The Oase skull’s strange combination of modern and archaic characteristics underscores scientific confusion about how to define anatomically modern humans, [Erik] Trinkaus [Washington U at St. Louis] adds.
“Paleontologists have created an artificial [anatomical] Rubicon that the Oase fossils violate,” he says. “The blend of traits on these specimens contradicts the existence of a straightforward evolutionary process [during the Stone Age] in which modern humans came out of Africa and replaced everyone else.”
In more serious jeopardy is the practice of classification itself. “One way to make sense of fossils such as the Portuguese child and the Oase skull is to stop assuming that each ancient Homo species existed on a separate branch of an evolutionary tree, says Trenton W. Holliday of Tulane University in New Orleans.”
1Bruce Bower, “Humanity’s Strange Face,” Science News Week of May 22, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 21, p. 328.
Is it possible to be racist with long-dead humans? There is a great deal of variation among people groups living today (Watusi and pygmy, etc.), yet they are all 100% human and it is very unPC to discriminate between them. Variation within a species can be quite pronounced. Anthropologists seem to be too quick to sort bones into evolutionary lineages without considering the environmental influences on anatomy, such as diet: chewing tough meat might accentuate brow ridges and teeth, for instance.
This long-fumbling practice of classifying human bones into separate species so as to weave a tale of evolution should be scorned for its phony discrimination. It’s not science; it is dogma looking for support. Primitive, my tooth. These deceased brethren could probably outrun and outsmart any modern paleoanthropologist on the trail of a cave bear. That takes brains, physical fitness, and complex DNA that is anything but primitive. Maybe the new paradigm is that humans have been devolving from highly intelligent, skilled, artistic hunters into lazy, obese, foolish storytellers.