Did the Fossil Skull Found in Africa Deserve Worldwide Headlines? Yes, But For Different Reasons Than Those Widely Reported. This Skull Undermines the Popular Theory of Darwinian Evolution
Fossil Finds in Africa:
More Monkey Business
by Bill Sardi
There is a lot of envious competition in the field of paleontology these days. There have been so many recent breakthrough fossil finds that it boggles the mind. Tim Friend, reporter for USA Today, called this the "discovery of yet another human ancestor."
Teams of bone diggers have been pulling out old fossils from their collections and conjuring up how to gain notoriety. They have now dug up yet another incredulous fossil, a skull from Chad in central Africa, that is causing quite a stir in scientific circles. In fact, it has been designated a whole new pre-human species, Sahelanthropos tchadensis.
Did This Fossil Warrant The Headlines?
There is so much uncertainty and speculation that surrounds this fossil that it is difficult to draw any conclusions, yet the news headlines herald this discovery as "one of the most sensational fossil finds in living memory," says Time Magazine. "This is one of the most important fossil discoveries in the past 100 years," according to Daniel Lieberman, biological anthropologist from Harvard University.
Fossil Fills Time Gap, So They Say
What would cause researchers to come to this conclusion? According to researchers, it is remarkably old, about 6 to 7 million years, so they say, and that makes it fill a 5 million year gap in time that has remained empty till now. The oldest ape fossils are dated back 7 to 8 million years and the oldest hominids (mammals that walk upright on two feet) are about 2 million years.
"It most certainly dates from very near that crucial moment in prehistory when hominids began to tread an evolutionary path that diverged from that of chimps, our closest living relatives," says Time Magazine. The fact the skull has ape and human characteristics makes it a missing link, an evolutionary mixed-breed. One researcher calls this fossil "the closest thing we have to a common ancestor." Lead paleontologist Michel Brunet says: "Sahelanthropus is the oldest and most primitive known member of the hominid clade, close to the divergence of hominids and chimpanzees."
There is a great deal of criticism aimed at Brunet and his colleagues for calling their fossil a new hominid species. The skull and brain are no bigger than a chimp's. "Features like a short face with a massive brow ridge, a mouth and jaw that protrude less than in most apes, and relatively small canine teeth make it clear that this creature was not a chimpanzee," says Time Magazine. In fact, "A lot more modern looking than anyone would have expected at so early an evolutionary stage," says Time. Some researchers believe this new fossil has more modern features than Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) which is dated between 3.6 and 2.9 million years.
Just A Female Gorilla?
But Sahelanthropus may in fact be nothing more than a chimp. "If the new skull is from a female rather than a male, the canines are 'less striking' and more in line with those of living and extinct apes," says Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, Columbia. Citing a similar fossil skull that was discovered in the 1960s and mistakenly accepted for two decades as that of a hominid before everyone agreed it was that of a gorilla, Brigitte Senut of the Natural History Museum in Paris says the recently found skull from Chad is nothing more than that of a female gorilla. "I don't think we can say it's a human relative, or even whether it's male or female," says Chris Stringer of the Human Origins Group at the Natural History Museum in London.
No Conclusive Proof It Walked Upright
Furthermore, the researchers only have a skull with few other bones from its relatives. The research team has only found two lower-jaw fragments and three isolated teeth they believe are from the same species. So they don't have much to work with to prove its sex and whether it walked upright. Ann Gibbons of Science Now says "This debate could be settled if Brunet finds skeletal bones that show that Sahelanthropus was bipedal — and hence a hominid." Time Magazine hesitatingly says Sahelanthropos "may have walked upright." Without proof of being bipedal, how does this fossil rate such headlines?
Specious Dating Methods Used
Science writers for the news media don't explain the assumptions many of these discoveries are based upon. A glaring problem is that of dating ancient fossils. If you buy into the evolutionary uniformitarian dating scheme (the fossil record ranges from the most simple forms of life in the deepest earth layers to the most complex life in the youngest surface rock beds), then you will have no trouble accepting what these researchers have to say. For decades now paleontologists have continually used circular reasoning to date fossils, an error repeated with the Sahelanthropus find. According to Michel Brunet and colleagues who found the ape-like/human-like skull in the sands of Chad, this fossil is 6 to 7 million years of age. It was dated by comparing the age of 42 species of surrounding animal and plant fossils (elephants, crocodiles, lizards) that have been dated in other geographical locations in this same ancient time period. The researchers repeatedly use the rock layers to date the fossils and index fossils to date the rocks.
Paleontologists usually attempt to corroborate their fossil ages with radiometric dating, calculations of decay rates of radioactive materials such as argon and potassium, which they attempted in this case. But again, these estimates are based upon assumptions of constant rates of decay. The flaws of radiocarbon dating are rarely pointed out to the lay reader. Unfortunately, Sahelanthropos was found in desert sand, not in between layers of volcanic ash which can be used to perform radiometric dating. So the researchers relied upon radiometric dating of similar animals found in other locations. Imagine a prosecutor in a court of law, before a jury, presenting extraneous evidence that was found far away from the scene of a crime. The case would be thrown out of court. Science reporters are slow to criticize anthropologists knowing their livelihood depends upon blockbuster news stories like Sahelanthropos.
Evolutionary Tree Flawed
The more remarkable back-door admission that has been squeezed out of evolutionists with the discovery of Sahelanthropos is that the current ape-to-man evolutionary tree displayed in biology textbooks is grossly in error. Time Magazine says "It could entirely demolish the idea of a tree, but rather that of a bush...with many species fighting for survival." "A hominid of this age should certainly not have the face of a hominid less than one-third of its geological age," says Bernard Wood of George Washington University.
"We've got it all wrong. There is no way you can shoehorn this discovery into any scenario that exists today," says Ian Tattersal, curator of anthropology American Museum Natural History, New York. But don't bet on any of those drawings of evolutionary trees pictured in textbooks being withdrawn anytime soon. Biology books have passed on evolutionary myths for decades, including pictures of mistaken missing links like Piltdown man (a fraud), Nebraska man (fossil consisted only of a tooth), and the Neanderthals (now considered a fully modern human who fabricated clothing, musical instruments and star maps and even mourned their dead).
Says Chris Stringer of the Human Origins Group at the Natural History Museum in London: "This discovery makes us realize how limited a view we have of human evolution. Questions in the world of paleontology are always complex and because evidence is usually incomplete, and there is little agreement about what key features characterize a distinct human ancestor." With statements like that, again one wonders why a picture of this fossil skull has been aired by every major news outlet on the planet.
Missing Link Finally Found?
While Sahelanthropos may be found to be a monkey, its combination ape and human characteristics pose it as a possible evolutionary intermediate, a fact that has Darwinian evolutionists salivating. "Even if it is a big monkey, it's even more interesting as a missing link," says Yves Coppens of the College of France. Yet the time frame in which a common ape-like ancestor evolved into Homo sapiens is being shortened. The current evolutionary scheme believes this occurred 5 to 7 million years ago. Sahelanthropos is dated close to that period. The oldest ape fossils from Asia are about 7 to 8 million years old.
Rapid Or Slow Evolution?
Evolutionary change, facilitated by genetic mutations, is supposed to take millions of years. Now evolutionists have to explain faster changes than the previously estimated rate of Darwinian evolution. Overlooking the fact that genetic mutations only give rise to negative traits and defects, neo-Darwinists speculate that "punctuated equilibrium" may have taken place, a rapid jump or genetic alteration that produces a new species spontaneously. Punctuated equilibrium has never been observed.
Similar To Modern Humans?
In its story on Sahelanthropos, National Geographic indicates humans share 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, but a recently completed human genome map startlingly discovered a very small human genome pool, not enough genes to explain the wide differences in characteristics between humans and lower forms of life.
Not Many Bones
It has been said that the total number of fossil bones used to substantiate evolutionary theories can be placed in a small box. Now the entire evolutionary scheme is about to be re-drawn based upon one skull. It hardly seems like enough evidence to alter ideas of man's origins.
Says Michel Brunet, the discoverer of Sahelanthropos, "It will never be possible to know precisely where or when the first hominid species originated."
- "A New Hominid From The Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa," Nature, Volume 418, pages 145-51, 2002.
- "Chad Dunes Yield First Member of Human Family," Science Now, July 10, 2002.
- "Father Of Us All," Time.com, Volume 160, No. 4, July 22, 2002
- "Fossil Find Confounds Human Family Tree," USA Today, July 11, 2002.
- "Seven Million-year-old Skull 'Just A Female Gorilla'," SMH.com.au
- "Skull Fossil From Chad Forces Rethinking Of Human Origins," National Geographic News, July 10, 2002
July 20, 2002
Bill Sardi [send him mail] is a health journalist who dabbles from time to time into current events. He is the author of the book The Iron Time Bomb. His website is www.askbillsardi.com.
Copyright © 2002 Bill Sardi Word of Knowledge Agency, San Dimas, California. Not for commercial reproduction without permission of the author.
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