Australopithecus anamensis and the media

By September 4, 2019Media, Science

While I rarely, if ever, miss an opportunity to stick the boot into creationists, it is reporting of science in the mainstream media which also needs the occasional kicking to try to make them stop spouting abject drivel. Their latest efforts concern human evolution.

A nearly complete skull of Australopithecus anamensis has been found in rocks about 3.8 million years old from Ethiopia. Prior to this, the species was only known from fragments of jawbones, teeth, small parts of the skull and partial limb bones. This new specimen is the first to be found with the bones of the face largely intact. It has a braincase about the same size as a modern chimpanzee, wide cheekbones, a long protruding jaw, and large canines (although only one is preserved)1. This is a stunning discovery of a hominin skull which falls within the time interval where hominin remains, let alone complete skulls, are relatively rare. However, the people in the media who write the articles about such finds, and especially the headlines, often appear incapable of explaining this, such that it is extremely annoying.

In the ABC online article, the headline is almost acceptable as ‘Ancient fossil skull discovered in Ethiopia fills critical gap in human evolution’. However, as you wade through the facts early in the article, you come up with this: “…Australopithecus anamensis [is] the oldest-known species definitively part of the human evolutionary tree”1.  This is simply silly. It is difficult to understand what the author means by the nebulous term ‘human evolutionary tree’ as our evolutionary history extends back billions of years. In addition, it is also estimated that we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees about 6 or 7 million years ago2. Does the author mean ‘the oldest known species of hominin”? If so, then this is incorrect, as other species assigned to Ardipethecus, Orrorin and Sahelanthropus predate it. Hominins are all species on the human ‘line’ after the last common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees and bonobos3. Does the author mean “the oldest known species of australopithecine”? If so, then this is also incorrect, as Ardipethecus ramidus and other species predate it by a million years or so4. Further down in the text, the author gets it right in saying that Australopithecus anamensis fits between primitive hominins that lived more than 4 million years ago and Australopithecus afarensis, the species made famous by the Lucy skeleton1. However, this contradicts the silly ‘oldest-known species’ statement early in the article.

In the Guardian, the headline clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding of evolution with “Skull of humankind’s oldest-known ancestor discovered”. As I explain above, a statement such as this is simply ludicrous. However, in the second paragraph, the author gets it right by stating that it is the ‘oldest known member of the Australopithecus group (actually a genus). The author also states that A. anamensis and A. afarensis probably “coexisted for a period of at least 100,000 years.” Then ludicrously, the author states that this discovery “challenges the long-held notion of linear evolution, in which one species disappears and is replaced by a new one”5. To my knowledge this ‘linear evolution’ stuff has not been taught for many decades, and while linear depictions of the evolutionary process are ubiquitous in popular culture, they are simply an annoyance to scientists.

The fact that those stated to be science journalists or reporters are unable to grasp the terminology nor to understand the underlying concepts (i.e. evolution) of what they are supposedly reporting, is disturbing.



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