There is a lot of hype right now about the exciting new report of a species of Australopithicine from South Africa, which was just published in Science (the article is free to download, there’s also a podcast). And just in time for the Paleoanthropology meetings which begin on Monday in St. Louis – this should bring a lot of the press to the conference (To save you the trouble of searching, Berger is presenting Tuesday at 11:15).
(image taken from NY Daily News website)
The finds are exciting and interesting – a hominid with a lot of Homo traits, but the brain size of an Australopithicine (and a chimp). But s/he’s got nice brow ridges and cheekbones too. The fossil is less than 2 million years old, so there are Homo species living in other parts of Africa well before this one, but that doesn’t mean that an early family of Homo headed south and eventually became these guys. I expect lots of folks at the meetings will be debating it’s place on the family tree over coffee. Don Johansen has already said he thinks it should be considered H. sediba, not A. sediba. And the folks over at AiG (the creationists, not the financial debacle) say they’ll have a statement about the fossils out tomorrow, after they’ve looked over the article more carefully.
I have my own questions about the identifications, but since I’m not a paleoanthropologist I won’t publicly humiliate myself by asking them here (rather, I’ll wait until I get my hands on my paleoanthropoloigst friend and ask him about them – he won’t laugh at me). My main concern, at this point, is that the only adult they have is fairly incomplete – she’s got a nice long arm and a large portion of her skull, but her lower limbs are fairly scant. Those missing parts are important for understanding bipedalism and the sex, particularly since there is no adult male to compare the specimen to yet. But there are at least two more skeletons to be published, which is great. *sigh* I love the puzzle that is our evolutionary history!
But the point of this rambling post isn’t even about this debate on how to identify the species. The data is available and the discussion has begun. And I’m having fun following the experts around the blogosphere to see what they think. And for this I want to applaud Berger LOUDLY. I want to walk up and shake him by the shoulders and say ‘THANK YOU DR. BERGER! THANK YOU!’ Because the fossils were only uncovered in 2008. And paleoanthropologists have a Horrible habit of keeping their fossils locked up in their labs for years before anyone can look at them. For example, Tim White’s team found the fossils of Ardipithicus ramidus in the early 1990s, and didn’t publish them until 2009. I knew more about how annoyed people were with him than I did about the fossils. But this took less than two years!
By getting the fossils analyzed and published so quickly, is Berger going to get critiqued for his interpretations? Probably. But I tend to believe that the collective discussion is often more productive and more quickly productive than analysis in isolation. Science is a collective enterprise, and as such, we need to get our data published in a reasonable time. He’d probably get critiqued anyway, paleoanthropology is confusing and complicated. But if you get your data out in two years, you’ve got a better excuse for being wrong.
And speaking of getting data out in a reasonable time, I’ve got several more dissertation pages to write tonight, so I am off.