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Planet Earth

Beware of British newspapers: fossils edition

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDecember 29, 2010 9:32 AM

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Several readers have pointed me to a headline in a British newspaper, Did first humans come out of Middle East and not Africa? Israeli discovery forces scientists to re-examine evolution of modern man:

Scientists could be forced to re-write the history of the evolution of modern man after the discovery of 400,000-year-old human remains. Until now, researchers believed that homo sapiens, the direct descendants of modern man, evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and gradually migrated north, through the Middle East, to Europe and Asia. Recently, discoveries of early human remains in China and Spain have cast doubt on the 'Out of Africa' theory, but no-one was certain. Professor Avi Gopher, a researcher from Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology, holds a pre-historic tooth at Qesem cave, an excavation site near the town of Rosh Ha'ayin The new discovery of pre-historic human remains by Israeli university explorers in a cave near Ben-Gurion airport could force scientists to re-think earlier theories. Archeologists from Tel Aviv University say eight human-like teeth found in the Qesem cave near Rosh Ha’Ayin - 10 miles from Israel’s international airport - are 400,000 years old, from the Middle Pleistocene Age, making them the earliest remains of homo sapiens yet discovered anywhere in the world.

The "hook" as far as the tabloid is concerned is implicit but straightforward: humans arose in the Holy Land! More broadly I think the recent changes in our understanding of human origins over the past year have unsettled the field enough that sensationalists have an excellent opportunity to populate the landscape with ludicrous claims. One of the beauties of Out of Africa was its elegant parsimony; extraordinary claims were easily dismissed and ignored. But now assertions once viewed as tendentious have to be addressed and examined. There is no single paradigm which so powerfully dominates our conception of reality that deviations from expectation can be ignored without even a superficial glance. This requires greater diligence on our part. Thankfully Brian Switek has reviewed the original paper on which the media accounts are based. A Fistful of Teeth – Do the Qesem Cave Fossils Really Change Our Understanding of Human Evolution?:

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As the authors themselves state, “Resolution of these alternative scenarios must await further discoveries of additional and more complete Middle Pleistocene remains from southwest Asia.” The identity of the Qesem Cave humans remains unclear, as do their origins. Even if they turn out to be early members ofHomo sapiens, this does not automatically mean that our species evolved in Israel first. Instead, such a conclusion would raise several alternative scenarios, including the possibility that there are as-yet-undiscovered deposits of early Homo sapiens fossils in Africa which document an earlier dispersal from Africa distinct from the one around 70,000 years ago. For now, though, the identity of the Qesem Cave humans cannot be conclusively determined. All the grandiose statements about their relevance to the origin of our species reach beyond what the actual fossil material will allow.

Carl Zimmer also observes the disjunction between substance and hype:

Nowhere in this conclusion do the authors say that these teeth belong to Homo sapiens. Nowhere do they say they have just doubled the age of our species. Nowhere do they say that our species evolved in the Near East, not in Africa. There are only some vague hints that the teeth might be “Skhul/Qafzeh-like.” Or they might be something else. While the paper itself is non-commital in its conclusions, it contains lots of good detail about the teeth, which is why it probably got accepted at the American Journal of Anthropology. Who knows how some reporter got the idea that scientists had discovered the oldest fossils of Homo sapiens. It does seem that one of the authors has played footsie with reporters, offering some tasty quote-bait.

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