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Hominid Wrangling Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Kate Wong
Final Report

In 1974, paleontologists working in the badlands of Hadar, Ethiopia, unearthed the partial skeleton of a woman who lived more than three million years ago. Her anatomy makes it clear she was an intermediate evolutionary step between modern humans and our common ancestor with modern apes. Given the name Lucy, and assigned to the species Australopithecus afarensis, she became the oldest known human ancestor. Her appearance, however, hinted that even more ancient relatives remained to be discovered. Ann Gibbons, a longtime writer for Science, chronicles the fiercely competitive quest to discover them in her book The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (Doubleday, $26).

The quest would drag on for a couple of decades before two hominids predating Lucy finally came to light, pushing back the dawn of humanity to 4.4 million years ago. But the real fireworks began in late 2000, when maverick scientists Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris unveiled Orrorin tugenensis, a six-million-year-old creature that they believe is the earliest hominid on record--and more closely related to modern humans than the much younger Lucy. The fossils came from Kenya's Tugen Hills, long the subject of a turf war between Pickford, and Richard Leakey, a rival researcher who led the National Museums of Kenya for two decades. It was a sweet victory for the embattled Pickford, who had gone to great lengths to circumvent the Leakey Foundation and the National Musems of Kenya, which until recently controlled all of the permits for paleontological research in the country.

Orrorin's status as ur hominid has not gone unchallenged. In 2002, another team, led by Michel Brunet, announced that it had retrieved a spectacularly complete skull from the shifting sands of Chad's Djurab Desert. At nearly seven million years old, this specimen, dubbed Toumai, is presently the oldest putative hominid. But Pickford and Senut argue it is a gorilla ancestor, much to Brunet's vexation.

Gibbons deftly weaves together the research and the human story. She conveys a very real--and uniquely objective--sense of the infighting that plagues paleoanthropology. Indeed, her account of these rivalries is likely to elicit squirms of regret among her sources for exposing the discipline's dark side. While the science alone is compelling enough to carry the book, Gibbons rightly notes in her acknowledgements that it would be impossible to separate the personal politics from the research results. "The science lurches forward," she observes, "despite the foibles of the individual scientists."

Kate Wong is editorial director of ScientificAmerican.com.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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