In the second week of August, my e-mail inbox started filling up with copies of newspaper articles, sent to me by my readers, about a new fossil find in Africa. Actually, one of the articles was sent to me by Doug Kenyon, the editor of Atlantis Rising. I took that as a hint he would like to see me devote a column to the story. So here goes.
Is the ancient apeman Homo habilis (let’s call him Habs for short) a human ancestor or not? That is the question.
According to scientists connected with the recent fossil find in Africa, the answer to that question is no. That is quite something, because for a long time, we have seen Habs taking his proud place in the line of little ape men that get progressively bigger and more human-like in museum displays and textbooks all over the world. Probably those displays and textbook illustrations will remain uncorrected for a long time, but if the latest discovery is accepted, Habs no longer belongs in the direct line of human ancestors.
What exactly is this new discovery? In 2000 (as reported in the August 9 issue of Nature), Meave Leakey and some other researchers found an upper jaw of Homo habilis east of Lake Turkana in the Kenya. The jaw turned out to be about 1.44 million years old. The most recent Homo habilis bones previously discovered were 1.65 million years old. That fit in nicely with the idea that Homo habilis gave rise to Homo erectus, who gave rise to modern humans. According to most researchers, Homo erectus emerged in Africa about 1.8 million years ago. So the new discovery shows that Homo habilis and Homo erectus coexisted for almost almost half a million years. And in the New York Times (August 9), Meave Leakey says, “Their co-existence makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis.”
But if that is true, what about the whole theory of human evolution? Scientists were quite defensive about the new discovery, which tends to show that evolution is on shaky ground and is in danger of losing whatever public support it still enjoys (Gallup surveys have shown the vast majority of the American people do not accept the theory of evolution as it is taught by its scientific proponents). In an Associated Press report by Seth Borenstein (August 9), Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University, said she thought anti-evolutionists would be mistaken to seize on the admission that the evolutionary link between Homo habilis and Homo erectus no longer exists. I think not. Anton added, “This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution.” Oh, yes it is, Susan. “It is refining some of the specific points.” Oh sure. Removing one of the major links in the human evolutionary chain is just a “refining” of a specific point!
In a report from MSNBC.com (August 8), we find Bill Kimbel of the Institute for Human Origins at Arizona State University striking a similar note: “All the changes to human evolutionary thought should not be considered as a weakness in the theory of evolution, Kimbel said. Rather, those are the predictable results of getting more evidence, asking smarter questions, and forming better theories.”
Well, let’s look at the current state of affairs in human evolution. It is a huge mess. Some scientists think that modern humans arose once in Africa, and spread from there all over Eurasia, replacing all the other Neanderthals and Homo erectus populations already there. Another group of scientists says different groups of modern humans evolved separately from Homo erectus and the Neanderthals in different parts of the world, more or less simultaneously. Some scientists say that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, and others say they did not. Some say that Homo habilis gave rise to Homo erectus, and now some say that Homo habilis did not give rise to Homo erectus. Going back further, some scientists say that Australopithecus gave rise to the genus Homo, and others suggest that another hominin, Kenyanthropus platyops (discovered by Meave Leakey) may have been the ancestor of Homo.
In light of this, let me suggest something. If as scientists working with a certain theory find as time goes on that new evidence results in further and further complications and contradictions, one might consider that there is something wrong with the basic theory that humans evolved from more primitive apelike ancestors. Scientists are finding as they discover more and more fossils that the evolutionary picture breaks down, and instead we find more and more examples of coexistence. Many scientists used to think humans evolved from Neanderthals. Now most of them believe humans coexisted with Neanderthals. Many believed that Homo erectus evolved in a linear way from Homo habilis. Now they are saying the evidence shows that Homo habilis and Homo erectus coexisted in the period from about 1 to 2 million years ago. The basic pattern that emerges is one of coexistence rather than evolution.
And if we really look at all the evidence, we find examples of fossils that show that humans like us coexisted in Africa with both Homo habilis and Homo erectus. In other words, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens were all coexisting. Let me give a few examples from my book Forbidden Archeology (FA), in which you can find the detailed reports, complete with bibliographical references.
In the year 1914 the German scientist Hans Reck announced the discovery of a fairly complete human skeleton, of modern type, in Bed II of Olduvai Gorge (see FA, pp. 628-649). According to modern geologists, Bed II of Olduvai Gorge is from 1.15 to 1.7 million years old. This is within the age range for both Homo habilis and Homo erectus.
Reck’s original report says the skeleton was found solidly embedded in the rock of Bed II, with no sign of intrusion from some higher more recent level. The skeleton was taken to a museum in Germany. Most of the skeleton, except for the skull, was lost during bombing raids in World War II. In 1974, the German archaeologist Reiner Protsch published a radiocarbon age for a bone fragment he claimed was from the original skeleton. The age was about 16,000 years. There are three problems with this age: (1) it is not certain that the bone fragment really was from Reck’s skeleton, (2) the method Protsch used did not adequately take into account the problem of contamination of the bone with recent carbon, which would cause the test to yield a falsely young age, and (3) a few years ago, Protsch was removed from his position at a German university after it was shown that he had falsified dozens of radiocarbon dates over the course of his career.
In 1973, Richard Leakey published a report about two femurs (thigh bones) found at Lake Turkana in Kenya. Richard Leakey said in the science journal Nature (1973, vol. 242, p. 450) that the thigh bones (the ER 1481 and 1472 femurs) “cannot be readily distinguished from from H. sapiens if one considers the range of variation known for this species.” It was given an age of about 1.8 million years. In 1977, French researchers announced the discovery of a humerus (upper arm bone) at the Gombore site in Ethiopia. According to the report, the site was about the same age as lower Bed II at Olduvai Gorge (about 1.7 million years). This is within the date ranges of both Homo habilis and Homo erectus. B. Senut said in a paper published in the book Primate Evolutionary Biology (1981, p. 91) that the Gombore humerus “cannot be differentiated from a typical modern human.”
Evidence for an anatomically modern human presence goes back even further in Africa. At Laetoli, in Tanzania, Mary Leakey found dozens of footprints arranged in three parallel tracks. In her original report, published in National Geographic (1979, vol. 155, p. 453) Mary Leakey said the footprints were “exactly the same as ours,” an opinion later confirmed by other researchers such as footprint expert Louise M. Robbins and physical anthropologist Charles Oxnard. In 1967, Bryan Patterson and W. W. Howells announced the discovery of a humerus (upper arm bone) at the Kanapoi site in Kenya. The bone was found in Pliocene lake sediments about 4.5 million years old. In a report published in Science (1967, vol. 156, pp. 64-66), Patterson and Howells characterized the Kanapoi humerus as like that of a modern human being, a judgment later upheld by other researchers such as Henry M. McHenry and Robert S. Corruccini who said in a report published in Folia Primatologica (1975, vo. 23, p. 240) that “the Kanapoi humerus is barely distinguishable from modern Homo.”
A final blow: There have always been some scientists who do not believe that Homo habilis deserves to exist as a taxonomic (hierarchically organized) species. For example, anthropologist C. Loring Brace said in a paper published in the book Primate Ecology and Human Origins, edited by I.S. Bernstein and E.O. Smith (1979): “Homo habilis is an empty taxon inadequately proposed and should be formally sunk.” T. J. Robinson argued that Homo habilis derived from a mixture of skeletal elements belonging to Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus, according to Bernard Wood (Nature, 1987, vol. 327, p. 187).
Poor Habs. Not only is he not a human ancestor, but he may not have existed at all.
Michael A. Cremo is author, with Richard Thompson, of the underground classic Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race. His latest book is Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (see www.humandevolution.com).