Who you aren’t

In 1912-14, some skull fragments were collected from a gravel pit near Piltdown, Sussex, England. They consisted of half an orangutan’s jaw, with both the rear socket and the front end with its giveaway canine teeth conveniently missing, an orangutan tooth which been filed to look human, and a couple of pieces of the back end of a modern human braincase; no facial pieces were included. All of them had been painted to match colors.

The hoax succeeded: the presumed creature was scientifically dubbed Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn man”), and became more generally known by its location-based popular name, Piltdown Man. It was particularly supported by the British scientific and science-supporting establishments, as the “original man” could now be safely and satisfyingly said to be a true British item – and if you think that wasn’t a big deal in 1914, then you’re not paying attention.

People eagerly threw in to reconstruct the presumed creature, which is to say, inadvertently fabricating it: making up something that fills in the gap and hits a completely imaginary midpoint among these few pieces. The net effect was to reconcile the two modern species’ skull features into a smooth-blend apeman gestalt, including a high and rounded (if smaller) human-style cranium, a projecting muzzle, and a human tooth-row. That resulted as well in a presumed similarly-intermediate body, a short-legged burly fellow who could not quite stand up straight, who kind of forward-leaned along and loped ahead with a back-and-forth motion.

The hoax’s long-term success relied on the technology of the time, limited to confocal microscopy, but as I see it, even more so on the aforementioned drive to seek “dawn man” in one’s own nation and certainly (what? ack! no!) not in Africa, and the proprietary behavior toward all fossil human remains, more suited to sacred relics than to scientific specimens, which limited access to direct observations. Notoriously, the inner surfaces of the braincase pieces were carefully examined and proclaimed to be “obviously” primitive and proto-human, when you can look at them yourself to see completely ordinary modern human features. By the 1920s, evidence from Africa kept mounting and pointing insistently at Australopithecus as the key group to consider, but it wasn’t until 1954 that a younger scientist was able to break the generational and status barriers actually to look at the pieces without reverence and instantly to spot the hoax.

All the interesting personalities and historical details are too much to list, and the whodunit qualities of the event are so tempting a distraction that they interfere with learning something important. Never mind whodunit. I’ll keep this post to the two things that I think students absolutely must learn.

First, that the origin of our one species’ body concerns distinct and separate changes at very different times, not a constant tuning of all parts of the body until they all arrived “here.”

  • Human bipedalism is a common feature of all known members of Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and Homo. Furthermore, complex modes of locomotion observed in other apes (brachiation, knuckle-walking) are their own derived activities and not to be mistaken for “precursor” modes at all.
  • The flat, chin-down human muzzle is a common feature of all known members of Homo. Homo sapiens has the most “weak,” childlike mandible of the bunch, but that concerns the underside of the jaw and doesn’t affect the cranial posture. The face is not thrust forward in a chimplike fashion for any of these species. Neither are the eyesockets bulging out past where ours do – instead, our forehead bulges out and overlaps them from the top, right in the same place.

Second, the Piltdown hoax is where the entire cave-man imagery comes from. You have a guy who’s physically half-a-person, with his bad posture and stereotyped village-idiot head. This physical imagery implied and was swiftly joined by an equally fictional behavioral profile. He puzzles his way through ordinary people-stuff in a haze of confusion and startled discovery, a true “dawn man” whose bad habits are lamentable but forgivable, who can’t be expected to do anything right but whose occasional triumphs herald the arrival/completion of our own excellence.

The whole idea is a love-letter to ourselves, and it’s nothing but a pile of steaming hyena shit … which has smeared itself onto popular imagery and understanding so deeply that sandblasting it off the students is the work of a whole curriculum. That is the problem.

In miniature, it resulted in the complete divorce between the already not-very-friendly disciplines of physical anthropology and zoology, such that the latter scientists abandoned their interest in primates as a whole let alone humanity. Philip Hershkovitz, my boss at the Field Museum in the late 80s, was the last mammalogist who specialized in primate systematics, and he was 79 the day he hired me. To this day you’ll have to look damn hard to find a designated biologist in a biology department who studies primate anatomy and phylogeny in a straightforward zoological context, especially in the United States. In my jaundiced moments, I complain that physical anthropology still tends to adopt biological insights with a curious and insular spin – but the colleagues who put the lie to this are fortunately becoming more common.

At the larger scale, we’re talking about the whole apeman meme, which as such is arguably one of the most successful of modern times. Even a cursory list of pop culture examples would fill a coffee-table book. Everyone “just” knows there were apemen, or cavemen, who stood(-ish) like that, walked like that, grunted like that, used very basic tools like that (probably badly), and behaved disgracefully and amusingly. It’s sunk in so deep that when you show students the skulls of all known species of Homo, they won’t see that our flat-face muzzle and chin-down head posture is present throughout all of them, or given the skeleton of Homo ergaster, that the legs are as gracile and lengthy as ours. When they look at skulls of Homo neanderthalensis, who more than anyone has shouldered the burden of this false concept, they won’t even see that the brain is larger than ours. Their search-image is already established as Piltdown Man and that’s what they “see.”

In other words, the Piltdown hoax is still succeeding. It’s so prevalent that even many modern reconstructions maintain it, not in the anatomy any more, but through posture and posing: to pitch the various species’ stances unnecessarily hunched because they’re stooping to do something, to thrust the head unnecessarily forward in a position which is possible but not actually “at rest” because they’re presumably craning their necks to see something, and if they’re running, to capture the legs in some non-gracile position that isn’t either full extension or full knee-up flexion.

Way, way too much of educating college students about human origins is necessarily devoted to removing the caked-on effluvia of this single fallacy. I need to write a kids’ book called Not an Apeman.

I hasten to add that the excellent and fun point provided by the scholars sometimes known as the Kinks is not what I’m criticizing, although the same word is used.

Next: 2 x 2 x 2

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3 thoughts on “Who you aren’t

  1. Pingback: Who you are | Man nor Beast

  2. Pingback: Who are you | Man nor Beast

  3. Pingback: Ape, man | Man nor Beast

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