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Human evolution – the spats

1 January 2011

At www.pasthorizons.com/index.php/archives/12/2010/neanderthal-face-is-not-cold-adapted/ … is based on a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution that contradicts the long held belief that the noses of Neanderthals were adapted to extreme weather – the cold climate at the edge of a huge ice sheet. Apparently this is not so – and a spat has developed as the consensus paradigm is one of those cherished interpretations – deduced from very little evidence but with a nice ring as Neanderthals are firmly embedded into the Ice Ages concept.

At www.nature.com/news/2010/101231/full/news.2010.700.html another spat has broken out, this time the controversial findings (last week) surrounding some teeth found in Qesem Cave near modern Tel Aviv. The press release has upended a can of worms but the paper itself was published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology by Israeli and Spanish scientists. Some 8 teeth were found, dating between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago – the oldest human fossil remains in SW Asia. The teeth are not positively identified as belonging to any species – but the press release suggested they belong to early Homo sapiens that lived in the Levant almost half a million years ago. This would clearly contradict the consensus opinion on human evolution – and was bound to be denied. Most galling to some anthropologists is that it upsets the Out of Africa hypothesis in which sociology dictates the science. If the press releases were anywhere near factual this would light a bonfire under Out of Africa – and lots of anthropologists clearly do not like that. The best match of the teeth, it emerges, are teeth found in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in what is now northern Israel, and these have been dated between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago. They are generally regarded as modern human teeth but as in all these things a large dollop of guesswork is involved. In fact, the teeth are not necessarily modern which may imply they have some archaic characteristics. The piece then adds, modern teeth themselves come a in a range of size and typology and there may be no unique trait to distinguish archaic from modern or even from Neanderthal teeth. The researchers are only saying the closest match is with the teeth found in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves – or is that a rationalisation too far.

Spats immediately developed beyond Nature and the other establishment organs – particularly the science blogosphere. At http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2010/12/29/oldest-homo-sapiens-fossil-journalistic-vaporsense/ – the journalists responsible for the press release have become the target of the flak – we still think Out of Africa is real, goes the choir in the background. Supporters of the consensus theory contend that it is a non-story. This is reminiscent of the sort of thing said when Climategate broke – so the wagons are circling. Its a case of rubbish the reporters – and in doing so the research as well. What must be most frustrating for them is that the Out of Africa advocates had already successfully neutralised the Skhul and Qafzeh cave fossils by saying they were an early intrusion of Homo sapiens from Africa that subsequently vanished as Neandethals continued to dominate western Asia up until 30,000 years ago when eventually they were ousted by the Out of Africa migration they favour – the real Out of Africa migration came after the Skhul and Qafzeh fossils, around 70,000 years ago. The blogger at 'Loom' continued to get aeriated but it becomes clear that if the scientists that did the research had come out with a direct claim that the teeth belonged to Homo sapiens they simply would not have been able to publish their paper – it would have been squashed from a great height. We should think in terms of the researchers feeding the journalists the missing pieces of the jigsaw – the idea this find changes the whole picture of human evolution. The problem the Out of Africa people have is that their own theory is founded on very little evidence – mostly from tools rather than fossils or food debris. Like global warming, Out of Africa is politically charged – and sensitive. The comments at the end of the blog illustrate how difficult it is for people to get their heads around an alternative scenario.

At www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/12/a-fistful-of-teeth-do-the-qesem-cave-fossils-really-change-our-understanding-of-human-evolution/ is once again an attempt to dampen the effects of the research by ridiculing the expertise – of the journalists. It doesn't help when the newspapers involved include the Daily Mail, the Jerusalem Post and The Australian – rather than left of liberal hymn sheets. However, it emerges that it was not until 1950 that it was decided Africa was the place of origin of humans – probably because of research at Olduvai. The blog author claims it was confirmed by genetic and paleontological techniques. They dispersed Out of Africa around 70,000 years ago, he continues, and presents all this as unchallengeable factoids. The hypothesis is not a hypothesis – it has become a consensus and must therefore be right. Human brains work in funny ways but we can clearly expect further emotional defence of the Out of Africa theory as the weeks roll by. I just wonder what effect all this might have on our perspective of the Neanderthals – too often maligned as ape like hairy subhumans. If Neanderthals were really less stooped and their arms did not perhaps hang too far down their sides it might just be that these teeth could be accommodated in a such a species – without thinking in terms of modern Homo sapiens.

Another blogger at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/12/the-paradigm-is-dead-long-live-thee-paradigm/ is by somebody else on the defensive.

 However, at http://johnhawks.net/weblog of December 22nd, it is a reaction to the Denisova Cave tooth and finger bone found in southern Siberia – assigned to an otherwise unknown human species but related vaguely to modern Melanesians. He begins by saying there were hints of something interesting in the population structure in the ancestry of living people in Papua New Guinea. A deeper Pleistocene component, in fact, the point to make is that the Denisova gene sequence didn't really come out of the blue – it was anticipated by an analysis of genetic variations within living Melanesians. It is of course surprising there is a genetic link to a population in southern Siberia – but we know very little about Pleistocene populations in Asia or their migrations in history. Much more sober and thoughtful. It should also be remembered that a Melanesian genetic factor has been found among the early Americans – and they have origins in Siberia. Its beginning to warm up nicely now.

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