another missing link…

By Alison Campbell 05/04/2010

This morning’s NZ Herald carried a story from the UK Telegraph under the headline “Child’s skeleton missing link to man’s ape-like forebears.’ It could have been worse: the Telegraph‘s headline was ‘Missing link between man & apes found’ (sigh). I read the article & have to confess a certain amount of disappointment – because this seems to be another case of the press release pre-dating the actual scientific paper describing the remains. (A bit like all the hoo-rah surrounding ‘Ida’, really. And one has to wonder why this is so.)

The new fossil appears to be contemporaneous with Homo habilis, & in fact the story suggests that it may provide a link between habilis & the more ‘ape-like’ australopiths (an interesting idea, given that habilis is itself fairly similar to the australopiths in many ways). Regardless of this, it does sound like an interesting specimen, given that it’s described as ‘an almost-complete skeleton’ in the Telegraph story.

But some of the statements seem rather overblown – we’re told that the skeleton ‘will allow scientists to answer key questions… [such as] when they began walking upright on two legs.’  Yet we already know that the trend to bipedalism began much earlier than this (& may even have been a trait found in the most recent common ancestor between chimps and humans), so this is not really a biggie. And while the new fossil may well prove to fill some gaps in our knowledge of our family tree, it is not going to have us ‘rewrite the story of human evolution’! (Several of the experts quoted in the story qualify their statements with ‘may’ & ‘if’ &  ‘could’: they too will be waiting with interest for the actual release of the full scientific description of this find.)

I would love for this new fossil to be a clear window into our past. But I wish, oh how I wish, that press release and scientific paper could have appeared together, instead of the media flurry preceding the information that would let us make sense of it all. Not least because, by the time the actual paper comes out – later this week, according to the Telegraph release – the ‘yet another missing link’ idea will be firmly at the front of people’s minds, with all the polarisation of opinion that this implies. (Read the comments following the news story, to get a feel for what I mean.)