July 3, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Another Hominid Find Rocks the Charts

Another hominid skull dubbed OL 45500 has been reported in Science,1 a juvenile said to belong to Homo erectus.  Its classification is problematic because it exhibits a mosaic of features rather than fitting neatly into an evolutionary sequence.  The scientists state, “Although the cranium represents possibly the smallest adult or near-adult known between 1.7 and 0.5 Ma [million years ago], it retains features observed in larger Homo erectus individuals, yet shows a distinct suite of traits indicative of wide population variation in the hominins of this period.” 
    Commenting on this report, Jeffrey H. Schwartz in the same issue2 accepts their assessment, but satirizes the process of classifying ancient humans:

But this doesn’t clarify the question, “What is H. erectus?”  One is left primarily with the traditional approach to the genus Homo: H. erectus is not H. habilis, H. heidelbergensis, or H. sapiens, whatever they are.

Schwartz calls Homo erectus a “mythical” classification after reviewing the differences between the finds lumped into the name.  He ends, putting the name in quotes,

Does this exercise clarify the affinities of the new hominid fossil OL 45500?  Not yet.   But recognizing that “Homo erectus” may be more a historical accident than a biological reality might lead to a better understanding of the relationships not only of the Olorgesailie specimens, but also of those fossils whose morphology clearly exceeds the bounds of individual variation so well documented in the Trinil/Sangiran sample.  In the meantime, OL 45500 should remind us that hominid systematics must be an endeavor of testing long-entrenched hypotheses, especially when those who turn to these hypotheses acknowledge them as being problematic.

For more on the controversy over this fossil, see New Scientist and BBC News.

1Potts et al., “Small Mid-Pleistocene Hominin Associated with East African Acheulean Technology”, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5680, 75-78, 2 July 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1097661].
2Jeffrey H. Schwartz, “Getting to Know Homo erectus,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5680, 53-54, 2 July 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1099989].

New alleged human ancestor overturns previous ideas, adds to the confusion, leads to controversy, spoils the Darwin Party’s story — there is nothing new under the sun.  (See 02/27/2003 and 10/20/2003 headlines for more on Homo erectus.)

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Categories: Early Man

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