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Hype, Poetry, and Science

A fossil from Obadiah’s cave rewrites textbooks.


by Steve Abbott

Most of us are used to sensationalized headlines. It’s how the press sells copy, whether in print, on TV or online. They have to grab our attention with words and phrases that jolt us, even if they are often misleading. You’re probably used to thinking of this as a mostly political problem where journalists of one political persuasion attempt to mislead by emphasizing the parts of a story that are damning or unflattering to their political opponents. But the problem extends much further than that.

The Role of Hype

It’s especially prevalent in my field, physical anthropology, for various reasons.  Sensationalism plays a role here for sure, and it can come from the press trying to grab attention, or a researcher trying to make a name for him or herself.  Or, it can also come from an analyst full of their own importance; or it may just be a matter of a reporter with no training in the subject having not done their homework before presenting the facts.

In a cave where Elijah’s friends may have hidden, archeologists found the roof of someone’s mouth.
I take the Bible literally. As in, a real whale swallowed a real Jonah. Yet I try to learn from others.
Remember Steve’s The Exodus & the Volcano?  When Anat Harrel told me about this fossil, I asked Steve to interpret.
Dave Parks

In the last few years some truly astounding breakthroughs have been made in anthropological research.  Ground breaking work has been done in genetics, adding immense, rich layers of understanding to my field. One such genetic discovery was the typing and publication of the complete Neanderthal genome, making possible wholesale comparisons between them and us, right down to the color of their eyes and hair and to some of the diseases we’re prone to because we carry some of their genes in our makeup.  Another area where there have been dramatic breakthroughs has come in the form of new fossils. Two recent discoveries of people just like us at sites in Morocco and Israel both fell into the “dramatic” category because of how old they are and what they tell us about how our kind arose and spread out in the world.

Any resemblance to the work of dentists living or dead is strictly coincidental.

Rewrite the text books

But, as so often happens, some people attempted to sensationalize the public announcement of these two discoveries for their own reasons. Quite apart from the showboating, which we will come to in a minute, these finds really will cause a rewrite of the text books to include the new material discussing just how old we’ve learned our own species is.

They were us

In November of last year, the journal Nature published the first of these two discoveries.  It was made at a previously known site called Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.  In announcing their results, the researchers, after careful analysis, stated that the fossils they found there were “anatomically modern humans” – AMH for short – which means they were people with the same genes as us. They looked a little rougher maybe, but they were us.

But the real blockbuster was that these anatomically modern-type fossils were found in soil layers that were 300,000 years old.  That was a truly sensational announcement.  The oldest previously known anatomically modern human fossils were from the complete opposite end of the continent and were dated to around 250,000 thousand years ago (the shorthand is‘250kya’).  So this discovery pushed back the presence of people like us at least another 50,000 years.

The second discovery, published just a few weeks ago, described the analysis of a fossil discovery made in 2002.  This one was from an Israeli cave.  It was only the roof of the mouth and some of the teeth.  But that was enough for any expert analyst to see that this was also a person just like us and this specimen has been dated to between 177 kya and 194 kya.

Reset the clock

So now, getting back to accuracy and how the press can confuse things, here’s part of how The Times of Israel covered that announcement:

A jawbone found in a cave in Israel’s Mount Carmel region has reset the clock on human evolution.

The fossil, the earliest known record of Homo sapiens outside of Africa, was discovered in 2002 during an excavation of the prehistoric Misliya Cave. After 15 years of intensive research by an international team of multidisciplinary scientists, the unique remains of an adult upper jawbone, complete with several teeth, has been dated to 170,000-200,000 years ago.

“This has changed the whole concept of modern human evolution,” said Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The research was published Thursday in the prestigious Science magazine.

Poetic license

There are several misleading statements in these three paragraphs, including a misstatement of at least one key fact.  The discovery was not of a “jaw bone.”  That would be a mandible, the part of the mouth that contains the jaw.  This discovery was of a partial maxilla, the roof of the mouth and the associated upper teeth.

The Israeli fossil:

Here is that Israeli fossil:

But beyond that, the writer’s use of poetic license leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation.  Figuratively speaking it is true that the discovery “in a cave in Israel’s Mount Carmel region has reset the clock on human evolution.”  But all that statement really means is “we’ve added another 60,000 years or so and some new territory to what we previously knew about where and when modern humans existed.”

Pants down?

The worst distortion in this piece comes from Professor Hershkovitz, who, while attempting to put this discovery in context, has resorted to gross hyperbole.  By saying, “This has changed the whole concept of modern human evolution” he is creating the impression that everything we knew previously has been overturned.  It’s done nothing of the kind, but for various personal reasons some readers will take this to mean that those crazy anthropologists just can’t make up their minds and here they are caught with their pants down again.  But that isn’t what Hershkovitz meant.

Not a total rewrite of evolution

What Professor Hershkovitz was actually saying was just that we’ve now added about another 60,000 years, give or take, to the amount of time we already knew anatomically modern people (as opposed to Neanderthal or some other species) were in the area we now call the Middle East.  Will this cause a revision in the text books?  Yes, of course.  Does it add to our understanding of the evolution of modern humans?  Yes, of course, and that’s what he was referring to.  But it does not, as Hershkovitz’s statement would lead some layman to believe, rewrite the totality of our understanding of human evolution.

As consumers who depend on the press in a country where the press is vital to our survival, we have a responsibility to bring an informed awareness and a critical mind to our consumption of information being supplied to us.  Most of it, especially if it comes from a professionally vetted source, is honestly presented.  It undoubtedly has a slant, but any good news consumer knows how to read for slant.  But as this example shows us, even when a journalist is trying hard to be accurate, there is still room for error.  So it is up to us as readers and citizens to do our part as well; to be informed and critical consumers of information.  Especially in today’s web-driven world of unchecked sources.

Anatomically Modern Humans

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, so maybe it’s time to demonstrate. All the specimens illustrated here are from Africa. We do not yet have a complete cranium of the Israeli discovery to compare. Hopefully someday we will. Here are three well known Anatomically Modern Humans to give you a much clearer idea of who we’re talking about and how they track thru time:

  1. Herto (Ethiopia) dated to 195,000
  2. Florisbad (South Africa) 260,000 years old
  3. Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) dated to about 300,000 years ago
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The Days of Elijah - a story

The Days of Elijah – a story