The strange days of yore

Today is not like the good ol’ days. In many ways things have changed for the better. For instance, in the good ol’ days, many paleontologists would find fossils but let nary a soul examine them; today, you can download high quality 3D models of many important fossils from both East and South Africa, completely for free!

Robert Broom’s (1938) account of the discovery of the first Paranthropus (or Australopithecus) robustus is also a reminder of the strangeness of the bygone days of yore:

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Wait for it …

In June of this year a most important discovery was made. A schoolboy, Gert Terblanche, found in an outcrop of bone breccia near the top of a hill, a couple of miles from the Sterkfontein caves, much of the skull and lower jaw of a new type of anthropoid. Not realizing the value of the find, he damaged the specimen considerably in hammering it out of the rock. The palate with one molar tooth he gave to Mr. Barlow at Sterkfontein, from whom I obtained it. Recognizing that some of the teeth had recently been broken off, and that there must be other parts of the skull where the palate was found, I had to hunt up the schoolboy. I went to his home two miles off and found that he was at the school another two miles away, and his mother told me that he had four beautiful teeth with him. I naturally went to the school, and found the boy with four of what are perhaps the most valuable teeth in the world in his trouser pocket. He told me that there were more bits of the skull on the hillside. After school he took me to the place and I gathered every scrap I could find; and when these were later examined and cleaned and joined up, I found I had not only the nearly perfect palate with most of the teeth, but also practically the whole of the left side of the lower half of the skull and the nearly complete right lower jaw.

What a wild time – Broom hunts down poor Gert, barges into the school, then makes the kid show him where he hacked the skull out of the rock. Poor, poor Gertie.

Maybe it was a different Gertie, but surely the reaction was the same.

Maybe it was a different Gertie, but surely the reaction was the same.

Of course, there was a lot at stake. I mean, brazen Gert harbored not just “beautiful teeth,” but “the most valuable teeth in the world.” IN HIS TROUSERS! And of course Gert was also the soul possessor of priceless intel – the source of the fossils. So maybe Broom was justified in this zealous abduction. And O! such prose in a Nature paper! WAS IT WORTH IT, DR. BROOM?

At Sterkfontein, a bronzed Broom considers the weight of his actions.

At Sterkfontein, a bronzed Broom considers the weight of his actions.

Of course, Gert wasn’t the last kid to discover an important human fossil. The game-changing Australopithecus sediba  was discovered when Matthew Berger, son of famed Lee Berger and only 9 years old at the time, saw a piece of a clavicle sticking out of a block of breccia. Both Gert and Matthew show that you don’t have to be a doctor to make amazing discoveries. What future fossil discoveries will be made by kids, and making my adult accomplishments pale in comparison?!

In-Cahoots FAIL

Two papers in the current issue of American Journal of Physical Anthropology on Homo floresiensis, our dear friend the supposed hobbit. I can’t help but present one sentence from each paper, out of context:

“Insofar as we can tell, LB1, who lived to be a mature adult female, did not suffer from LS [Laron Syndrome] and was not pathological.” (Falk et al. 2009, p. 61, my emphasis)

“As asymmetric craniofacial deformities are not typically seen in a skull with intentional artificial deformation, the aforementioned asymmetric deformities [of LB1] are likely to have been caused by some pathological or abnormal condition.” (Kaifu et al. 2009, p. 180, my emphasis)

Just a little funny that two independent papers supporting the new-species status of H. floresiensis seem to say opposite things. To be fair, when Falk et al. state that LB1 “was not pathological,” they mean that there is no convincing argument that a pathology or disease could cause a modern human skull to look like that of LB1. And Kaifu et al. are referring to the condition of “posterior deformational plagiocephaly,” a not uncommon and presumably non-debilitating phenomenon in recent and historic modern humans, as a result of a persistent application of non-uniform pressure to a child’s developing cranium (like consistently sleeping with one’s head in a certain position). But the ambiguity of words like “pathology” allow the two sentences above to be juxtaposed to make it look like each paper makes contrary arguments.

Nevertheless, the papers do underscore a problem with fossils selected to be the holotypes of new species. Clearly, there is something pathological about LB1, but the extent to which a given pathology undermines the species-status of H. floresiensis is debated. And selection of pathological specimens as holotypes has occurred before: the holotype of Ardipithecus kadabba, one of the earliest and more questionable early hominins, has a first molar socket which “is extensively altered by pathology” (Haile-Selassie et al. 2009, p. 164). And a lot of species, and even genera, have been erected around subadult holotypes, too, which can be problematic.

This is just one of myriad issues we get to deal with in human paleontology.

Falk D, Hildebolt C, Smith K, Jungers W, Larson S, Morwood M, et al. 2009. The type specimen (LB1) of Homo floresiensis did not have Laron Syndrome. Am J Phys Anthropol 140: 52-63.

Haile-Selassie Y, Suwa G and White T. 2009. “Hominidae.” In Ardipithecus kadabba: Late Miocene Evidence from the Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Haile-Selassie and Wolde-Gabiriel, eds.

Kaifu Y, Baba H, Kurniawan I, Sutikna T, Saptomo EW, and Jatmiko. 2009. Brief communication: “Pathological” deformation in the skull of LB1, the type specimen of Homo floresiensis. Am J Phys Anthropol 140: 177-185.