Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Fossil Chronicles

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

Dean Falk
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Fossil Chronicles
    Book Description:

    Two discoveries of early human relatives, one in 1924 and one in 2003, radically changed scientific thinking about our origins. Dean Falk, a pioneer in the field of human brain evolution, offers this fast-paced insider’s account of these discoveries, the behind-the-scenes politics embroiling the scientists who found and analyzed them, and the academic and religious controversies they generated. The first is the Taung child, a two-million-year-old skull from South Africa that led anatomist Raymond Dart to argue that this creature had walked upright and that Africa held the key to the fossil ancestry of our species. The second find consisted of the partial skeleton of a three-and-a-half-foot-tall woman, nicknamed Hobbit, from Flores Island, Indonesia. She is thought by scientists to belong to a new, recently extinct species of human, but her story is still unfolding. Falk, who has studied the brain casts of both Taung and Hobbit, reveals new evidence crucial to interpreting both discoveries and proposes surprising connections between this pair of extraordinary specimens.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94964-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    No subject provokes as much curiosity, argument, and dogma as the origin of humans. From the child who asks, “Where did I come from?” to religious leaders who maintain traditional beliefs about creation and our role in the cosmos, human origins is a topic of keen concern. Most, if not all, cultures have origin stories. So do the scientists who study human evolution, which is one reason why our academic field, known as paleoanthropology, can be particularly acrimonious. This is nothing new. In the late nineteenth century, naturalists staunchly defended their particular theories about human origins, despite contradictory finds that...

  6. ONE Of Paleopolitics and Missing Links
    (pp. 5-19)

    Shortly before Christmas 1912, a remarkable fragmentary skull was presented at a widely attended meeting of the Geological Society of London. The discovery had been made by Charles Dawson, a solicitor and an amateur geologist and archaeologist who had recovered seven pieces of the skull during the preceding four years from a gravel pit near Piltdown Common, in East Sussex. From 1913 to 1915, additional skull fragments appeared at Piltdown and two other nearby locations, including some from at least one other individual.

    Because the unprecedented fossil appeared to be a “missing link” that was intermediary between apes and humans,...

  7. TWO Taung: A Fossil to Rival Piltdown
    (pp. 20-39)

    Not one to dwell upon life’s disappointments, Dart began improving the abysmal conditions in the Department of Anatomy at Wits as soon as he and Dora had settled in Johannesburg. In order to assemble an anatomy museum with bones and fossils of various animals, Dart offered a prize of five pounds to the student who collected the most interesting specimens during the July 1924 vacation. Although the students did not award the prize to the most avid collector, Josephine Salmons, she later brought Dart a rare monkey fossil that ultimately led to a much richer prize. The little baboon skull...

  8. THREE Taung’s Checkered Past
    (pp. 40-58)

    The valentine from London was the February 14, 1925, issue ofNature, which Dart did not receive until near the end of the month. Its contents were, to say the least, deflating for Dart on the heels of Taung’s positive debut. The editor had invited four scholars from the “British scientific establishment” to express their opinions about the fossil from Taungs, which they also did simultaneously in another prominent journal, theBritish Medical Journal.¹ Significantly, three of the four were members of the Piltdown committee: Sir Arthur Keith, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. (The fourth was W....

  9. FOUR Sulcal Skirmishes
    (pp. 59-75)

    In the face of discoveries of hundreds of australopithecine teeth and fossilized fragments of bones, along with a handful of relatively complete skulls and isolated natural endocasts that accumulated during 20-some years following Dart’s announcement of Taung, scientific luminaries who had once opposed his views concluded that he had, indeed, been right aboutAustralopithecus africanusbeing an upright-walking forerunner of humans. Some even allowed that he had been right about Taung’s brain being advanced compared with an ape’s—but not for the reason that Dart had given.¹ Dart’s story shows that paleoanthropologists during the first half of the twentieth century...

  10. FIVE Once upon a Hobbit
    (pp. 76-108)

    On the afternoon of October 27, 2004, I was sitting at the computer in my study. The phone rang. When I answered it, a man said, “I’d like to speak with Dean Falk.”

    “Uh, this is she.”

    “My name’s David Hamlin, and I’m from the National Geographic Society,” he replied.

    Because telemarketers make me grumpy, my response was a suspicious, “Yes?” As I contemplated hanging up, he added, “And I’m not selling yellow magazines.” Hamlin explained that he was a film producer with National Geographic Television and that he had been wanting to talk with me for months. But he...

  11. SIX Flo’s Little Brain
    (pp. 109-134)

    We were keenly aware that LB1’s virtual endocast would give us the first clear snapshot of the cerebral cortex of Hobbit (also known as Flo). While I was in St. Louis, my Mallinckrodt colleagues and I intended to lay the groundwork for future comparative research on LB1’s brain that would be carried out with Mike Morwood’s team. An obvious first step was to get an initial peek at how LB1’s virtual endocast compared with those from chimpanzees, certain other fossil hominins, and humans. This would be a highly visual endeavor and therefore perfect for the film. Our anticipation was almost...

  12. SEVEN Sick Hobbits, Quarrelsome Scientists
    (pp. 135-160)

    Discoveries of new hominin species that challenge scientific and religious dogma have traditionally been greeted with skepticism by both scientists and laymen.¹ This trend began in 1856 when fossilized bones from a Neanderthal skeleton were unearthed by workers quarrying for lime in a cave near Düsseldorf, Germany.² The remains were highly unusual and included a thick, oddly shaped skullcap with massive brow ridges. When the discovery was first announced, the skeleton was described as representing a hitherto unknown human race of great antiquity.³ It would be three years before Charles Darwin publishedOn the Origin of Species, however, so many...

  13. EIGHT Whence Homo floresiensis?
    (pp. 161-187)

    A few scientists continue to insist that Hobbit was a pathological human rather than a new species, but their numbers are dwindling. If Hobbit was simply a sick human, the malady she had is unknown to modern medicine. As Bill Jungers and Karen Baab, of Stony Brook University, put it, “There are no known sick humans that look likeHomo floresiensisbecause no known illness reverses the evolutionary changes of a species. The hobbits therefore cannot be a diseased sub-population of healthy humans.”¹ This goes a long way toward explaining why most scientists now seem to accept thatHomo floresiensis...

  14. NINE Bones to Pick
    (pp. 188-198)

    Because I have had the good fortune to study the endocasts of Taung and Hobbit, I have gained a perspective not only about their brains but also concerning the paleopolitics and theoretical tensions that have dominated paleoanthropology since 1925. For this reason,The Fossil Chronicleshas focused primarily on a comparison of the discoveries and impacts ofAustralopithecus africanus(in the 1920s) andHomo floresiensis(in the first decade of the twenty-first century). It is important to keep in mind, however, that these two species are part of a larger framework of significant hominin finds that have come to light...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 199-226)
    (pp. 227-230)
    (pp. 231-252)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 253-259)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 260-260)