Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils

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9781515956020: Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils

Over the last century, the search for human ancestors has spanned four continents and resulted in the discovery of hundreds of fossils. While most of these discoveries live quietly in museums, there are a few that have become world-renowned celebrity personas. In Seven Skeletons, historian of science Lydia Pyne explores how seven such famous fossils of our ancestors have the social cachet they enjoy today. Drawing from archives, museums, and interviews, Pyne builds a cultural history for each celebrity fossil. These seven include the three-foot tall "hobbit" from Flores, the Neanderthal of La Chapelle, the Taung Child, the Piltdown Man hoax, Peking Man, Australopithecus sediba, and Lucy-all vivid examples of how discoveries of our ancestors have been received, remembered, and immortalized. With wit and insight, Pyne brings to life each fossil: how it is described, put on display, and shared among scientific communities and the broader public. This fascinating, endlessly entertaining book puts the impact of paleoanthropology into new context, a reminder of how our past as a species continues to affect, in astounding ways, our present culture and imagination.

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About the Author:

Lydia Pyne has a PhD in history and philosophy of science from Arizona State University. She has published articles and essays in the Atlantic, Nautilus, and Public Domain Review, and she is a contributing editor for Appendix: A Journal of Experimental and Narrative History. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2016 Lydia Pine

“Dad, I found a fossil!”

On August 15, 2008, nine-year-old Matthew Berger tagged along with his father, paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee Berger, on a field project in Malapa Nature Reserve in northern South Africa. The project was part of efforts to explore and map out known fossil sites and caves in the reserve, about forty kilometers north of Johannesburg. While puttering around the reserve with his dog, Tau, Matthew discovered what he knew to be some kind of fossil sticking out of a dark brown chunk of breccia rock. At first glance, the senior Berger thought that the fossil was simply a piece of a very, very old antelope—a common fossil in the area.

He picked up the block of rock containing the fossil and looked more closely, and realized that what he was looking at was a clavicle—a collarbone—of a hominin. He flipped the block over and saw a lower jaw encased in the same piece of breccia. “I couldn’t believe it,” Dr. Berger giddily recalled in a New York Times interview. “I took the rock, and I turned it [and] sticking out of the back of the rock was a mandible with a tooth, a canine, sticking out. And I almost died. What are the odds?”

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In April 2010, the fossils Matthew and his dad’s team discovered in excavations from Malapa were published in Science as a new fossil hominin species called Australopithecus sediba. Although the paleoanthropological community was basically in agreement that the fossils were truly spectacular specimens, the scientific name proved to be a somewhat controversial taxonomic assignment because the fossils showed primitive apelike traits as well as derived, or Homo-like, characteristics. (Many researchers thus argued that the anatomy of Sediba would be better ascribed to the genus Homo, not to Australopithecus.) The publication of the fossils was accompanied by numerous opinion pieces arguing about the best taxonomic status for the fossil—from Science to Nature to National Geographic to the New York Times.

Regardless of its taxonomy, to date, the Malapa site was undeniably a significant fossil locale, having yielded over 220 bone fragments that, when put together, can boast a total of six skeletons: a juvenile male, an adult female, and three infants that all lived around 1.9 million to 2 million years ago. When the fossil species was described in 2010, it was—and still is—tremendously exciting not only because Sediba lived during a time when both australopith species and early Homo roamed the greater African landscapes together, but also because the fossils were from multiple individuals with incredible archaeological provenience. These fossils represented an interesting time in our evolutionary history and constituted a sample of the species that was greater than just one individual—which, in turn, helps paleoanthropologists understand variation within fossil species.

Over the twentieth century, little did more to shape paleoanthropology’s emerging identity as its own scientific discipline than the fossil hominin discoveries from Europe, Africa, and Asia. Every new discovery inherently carried a certain prestige because the fossil discoveries offered the basis for creating hypotheses and explanations about what could be observed in the fossil record—new fossils could make or break definitions of species and every new discovery had the potential to rewrite the family tree. New fossils were imbued with social prestige in their original contexts—either accepted as ancestrally significant, like Peking Man, or dismissed, like the Taung Child.

As more and more fossil discoveries have entered the scientific record over the course of the last century, fossil collections are simply not as sparse as they were in earlier decades. (There are, for example, over four hundred Neanderthal individuals represented in the fossil record so far, compared with the very few specimens of the nineteenth century.) So, where does this leave twenty-first-century fossil discoveries? What would a famous fossil look like today? Flo and Homo floresiensis gave us one type of modern celebrity—contentious little hobbit that she is. The discovery of Sediba raised other questions: What historical patterns could or would other fossil discoveries follow? What historical patterns would they follow? What cultural expectations—and what scientific questions—would twenty-first century fossils now need be required to answer to?

“The dolomitic cave deposits of South Africa have yielded arguably the richest record of both hominin and mammalian evolution in Africa. Fossils were first recognized in these deposits in the early 20th century, but it was the discovery of the Taung child skull from the Buxton Limeworks in 1924 that led to the recognition of the importance of these cave sites,” Berger explained in a guide to the fossils and history of the Malapa region. Part of the reason that the Malapa specimens could catapult so quickly into the paleo limelight was due to the incredible paleoanthropological history associated with the Malapa—Sediba’s success is contingent, in no small part, upon the fossils’ South African legacy.

But Sediba’s renown is also a product of the fossil being in the right place at the right time and with a person to champion it, all the while pushing for a change in the paradigm of how paleoanthropology collects data and generates hypotheses. If the historical parallels are any indication, the life and afterlife of a fossil are made and remade by its contexts; its lasting celebrity is created over decades. While Sediba’s initial life history certainly sets it up to be The Next Big Thing, it’s not a foregone conclusion that a century from now it will still carry the same distinction it has today.

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Pyne, Lydia/ Kaye, Randye (Narrator)
Editorial: Tantor Media Inc (2016)
ISBN 10: 1515956024 ISBN 13: 9781515956020
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