100,000 year old child skeleton on National Geographic

National Geographic aired a special tonight about a recently-excavated child’s skeleton (they focused on the skull) from Grotte des Contrebandiers in Morocco, dated to around 108,000 years ago. So far as I know this material has not been fully published (aside from a brief blurb in Science). Hmm, a highly publicized TV special on a big hominid fossil discovery around/before the scientific publication, sounds familiar…

The program presented work of archaeologists, paleontologists, reconstruction artists, taphonomists, and lots of other people, hoping to figure out who the kid was and such. All in all it was pretty cool, I’d recommend checking it out if you didn’t see it. Or again if you did see it.

While I think it was a great program and the researchers involved are doing a terrific job, I had two main concerns: first, I wish they’d treated the topic of growth-n-development a little more. They noted that the child (5-6 years old possibly) looked really “modern” because of its flat face. But looking at it, it didn’t really have that flat of a face, especially for a child. They talked about how human-like (rather than Neandertal-like) the kid was, but they only compared it with adults – children tend to have relatively smaller faces and larger brain-cases than adults (right), so it’s no wonder it looked more like an adult human than the adult Neandertal from Amud (Israel) that they compared it with. It would’ve been great to see more comparisons with other late Pleistocene hominid kids, such as from Skhul/Qafzeh or La Quina. A future program, perhaps.
Second, they kept asking whether the kid was “a Homo sapien.” I know it’s counterintuitive for English-speakers, but “H. sapiens” is the singular and plural of humans’ scientific name. Silly, right, cuz it doesn’t even get paid twice as much. But you’ll have take that up with C. Linnaeus. I am a Homo sapiens. You are a Homo sapiens. Fifty people are a gaggle of Homo sapiens. I fail my students if they say “sapien” when referring to humans. Because it’s not very sapient of them.
Anyway it was a cool show. Check it out, dammit!
Figure credit: Fig. 2 from Bogin. 2003. The human pattern of growth and development in paleontological perspective. In Patterns of Growth and Development in the Genus Homo, eds. Thompson JL, Krovitz GE and Nelson AJ. New York: Cambridge University Press: 15-44.

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