Last September 2011, the announcement of a fossil discovery touted as a missing link in the evolutionary ancestry of humans in South Africa by Lee Berger created a blaze of media hype. National Public Radio (NPR) ran an article entitled “Examining Ancient Fossils for Clues to Human Origins”.
The Wall Street Journal chimed in with “Fossil Trove Sheds Light on a Stage of Evolution”. The Boston Globe speculated with the title “Skeleton could be human relative”; TIME with “Rethinking Human Origins: Fossils Reveal a New Ancestor on the Family Tree”. New Scientist ran the article: South African fossils halfway between ape and human.
Australopithecus sediba is the official name given to the human-like fossils. In a naming competition in South Africa, the name Karabo, meaning “answer”, won.
Karabo was first discovered in 2008 by Berger’s none-year-old son, Matthew. Since then, more fossil remains have been uncovered within the same area, one in particular embedded in sandstone. Using latest CT scanning technology “we have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen+ in such completeness in the human fossil record,” says palaeontologist Berger in an interview with ScienceDaily last week.
In an unprecedented project to provide public access to specific fossils worldwide, Berger is developing a state-of-the-art interactive laboratory from the University of Witwatersrand laboratory in South Africa. From the perspective of several cameras, viewers will be given “a glimpse into every aspect of the lab work and will be able to switch between camera angles, including microscopic images”, according to an AP article published on Gulf News.
Berger was scheduled to announce the revolutionary project from the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai, China last Friday on the 13th of July. “We’re trying to demonstrate the global reach of South African science,” Berger said.
Berger’s announcement of the global reach effort, however, failed to capture media coverage. This time, Berger’s announcement was not covered by The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Time, the New Scientist, not even NPR. There is a reason: the declared missing link status of Karabo has since come under fire.
Just as soon as the excited started in 2011, questions started to circle around the ultimate question: does the fossil evidence really point to Karabo as an ancestor to humans?
Paleontologists Timothy White of the University of California, Berkley, and Ronald Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Institute for Human Evolution in Germany in an article published in Science refuted the claim that A. sediba represents a transitional species on the way up: “Given its late age and Australopithecus-grade anatomy, it contributes little to the understanding of the origin of genus Homo.” Picking up on the story, Time simply reported that “Tim White … believes A. Sediba bears no relationship to modern humans.”
Anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University noted, “Just because it shares a bit of anatomical morphology with Homo does not mean it is Homo or ancestral to Homo.”
Writing in The Telegraph (UK), science writer Tom Chivers entitled his article “Australopithecus sediba: can we stop calling it a ‘missing link?” concluding “What it is not, however, is a ‘missing link’.”
On top of the new problem list is the estimated dating of Karabo. Donald Johanson paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University and founder of the Institute of Human Origins at the University of California, Berkley, noted in The New York Times that the dating “places the origins of Homo firmly in eastern Africa… prior to the dating of A. sediba.” Presuming the dating is correct, then, this means that humans-like species came before Karabo; therefore the Karabo would indicate upside down evolution.
Surprisingly, even Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times picked up on the same problem: “But the age of the fossils presents a problem. The researchers’ isotopic and magnetic dating showed the fossils were 1.977 million years old, about 300,000 years younger than a Homo habilis fossil that should have been their junior.”
Professor of Human Origins at George Washington University, Bernard Wood, concluded that the original reports are “a watershed in our understanding of human evolution, even if only to demonstrate that things are pretty complex”. Rather than clarifying human origins, Karabo complicates any presumed line of human evolution ancestry.
Ian Tattersall, paleoanthropologist and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, resigned to the fact that the fossil record evidence will never show the “leap to humans” as anticipated by Charles Darwin.
Missing links have long been a problem for the evolution industry to demonstrate that man’s arrival on earth was simply the result of evolutionary forces. Eminent evolutionary paleontologist Steven Gould noted in The Panda’s Thumb: “The fossil record had caused Darwin more grief than joy.”
Without missing links with “slight, successive” changes, the evidence would be “fatal to the theory of evolution through natural selection” Darwin declared in The Origin of Species.
News for Karabo got even worse after Berger’s 2011 announcement. In the months following, paleontologist Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published a critique on the Karabo fossil in the journal Nature. Rejecting the contention that Karabo is a human ancestor, Spoor wrote that the “evidence seems at odds with the idea that A. sediba was involved in the first appearance of Homo… In spite of certain human-like characteristics – many of which are consistent with tree dwelling – the overwhelming evidence is that Au. sediba was a type of Australopithecine and thus an extinct ape rather than a human ancestor.” Karabo has since been unlinked as a human ancestor.
After more than 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species by Darwin, evidence for human ancestors in the fossil record continues to plague the evolution industry.
Like the Piltdown man, ascribing fossils to human ancestry has been tricky and, at times, even blatant fraud. With the technological advantages now available, the evolutionary value of Karabo has been clearly identified within a few weeks rather than years, or even decades. After promoted as evidence for evolution in the British Museum of Natural History in London, it took more than four decades to uncover that the Piltdown man fossil was simply a manufactured fraud sculptured from the skull of a man and a jaw of an orangutan.
Today, scientists are finding the words of D. V. Ager, past president of the Geological Association, to be even more in vogue: “It must be significant that nearly all the evolutionary stories I learned as a student … has now been ‘debunked.’”
Berger’s latest Karabo announcement in Shanghai was not a déjà vu event to re-capture the initial 2011 massive media hype for good reasons: confidence in the Karabo as the missing link human ancestor has since been irreparably undermined.
While evolution was once considered a theory in crisis, now the theory of evolution exists only as a philosophy unsupported by cohesive scientific evidence.