Friday, September 29, 2017

Five Peculiar Fossils

Colin Barras of The New Scientist has a very short, very peculiar article on five hominin fossils that have been used to define new species and addresses the validity of each in very cursory fashion.  The strength of the article is in the links that it provides.  About Sahelanthropos, he writes this:
Features at the skull’s rear suggest it sat atop a vertical spine like that of a human, hinting that S. tchadensis walked upright. To make sure, other fossils will be needed – particularly from the legs. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a thigh bone was found with the skull, but this has not yet been discussed in a scientific paper. With so little evidence to go on, some are sceptical that S. tchadensis can really yet be defined as a hominin rather than some other form of ape – yet.
These are the least of its problems, as it is likely a surface find. Aside from this, when Wolpoff and colleagues examined the cranial base, here is what they found:
The prominence of the nuchal muscles, so important in head balance and loading, and shoulder movements, is enhanced by the significant development of the tuberculum linearum. The point is not that the TM 266 cranial rear and posterior portion of the cranial base was unlike hominids because the region looks like apes, but that TM 266 had a posture that is not upright because the region reflects nuchal functions similar to those of apes.

The foramen magnum - orbit plane angle does not directly address posture or locomotion in these hominoid primates (contra Zollikofer et al., 2005). Without a key postcranial element such as a pelvis or femur, none of these data provide compelling evidence for upright posture or obligate bipedal locomotion, and the various details of the nuchal plane argue against it. This functional implication has a phylogenetic consequence—by itself it is sufficient to disprove the phylogenetic hypothesis that TM 266 was a hominid.
This isn't skepticism. This is the door slamming shut.  It can be a surface find and still be a Miocene ape. In my recent piece for BioLogos, it did not occur to me to include this fossil since there are so many problems with it.  At this point, in Africa, the earliest reasonable evidence we have for hominins is Orrorin tugenensis

Read the whole (short) thing.

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