Denyse O’Leary’s “Friend” Visits Lucy

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our australopithecine dead. – from the Australopithecine version of Henry V

Over at UD Denyse mentions a friend who visited Lucy. The friend was not impressed.

So, I sacrificed a few brain cells for you, my dedicated readers, and will fisk it. Says Denyse:

A friend writes:
“I actually went to see Lucy yesterday and it was very revealing. Not only was I underwhelmed with the incompleteness of Lucy’s skeleton, but I was struck with the admissions from the video playing with Donald Johansen admitting that he found Lucy’s bones over the course of an entire hillside, and that if there were one more rainstorm, her bones may have been washed away never to be seen again. So what happened in the prior rainstorm to transport her bones from somewhere else? This makes me skeptical that Lucy represents one individual, or one anything. Who really knows.”

Oh, for the love of Pete! Paleoanthropological finds are handled the same way archaeological finds are. The location of each bone is precisely mapped in relation to a datum point. The stratigraphy of the site…is… thoroughly…hey, hold the phone! This sounds really familiar!

Not only was I underwhelmed by the incompleteness of Lucy’s skeleton, but I was also struck by admissions at the exhibit that, in my mind, cast serious doubt on whether we know for certain that Lucy’s bones are from a single individual from a single species.
In a video playing at the exhibit, Johansen admitted that when he found Lucy, he “looked up the slope and there were other bones sticking out.” So this was not a case where the bones were found together forming a contiguous skeleton, but rather they were scattered across a hillside. At one point, Johansen even says that if there had been only one more rainstorm, Lucy’s bones might have been washed away, never to be seen again. This does not inspire confidence in the integrity of Lucy’s skeleton or its proper reconstruction: If the next rainstorm could wash Lucy away completely, what happened during the prior rainstorms to mix-up “Lucy” with who-knows-what? How do we know that “Lucy” doesn’t represent bones from multiple individuals or even multiple species?

Aww, Denyse and Casey are friends. I wonder why she didn’t attribute Casey properly? Perhaps she was afraid the DI would expel him for visiting an evolution exhibit? Been there, done that.
Well, this is a little awkward…I had set aside some time to do another long post on the subject. Now I have no material left to write about. Umm, hmm, guys I’m sorry for getting your hopes up…I feel really embarrassed…
Hey, I know there are a couple of silly comments on Denyse’s post, so let’s look at them.
Domoman, in a fit of confusion says:

Nice, nice. I haven’t had much respect for Lucy. I actually read in an article that they did some sort of 3D x-rays or something and found out it’s likely that the had wrists like an ape.

I think Domoman is confusing the recent news that Lucy has been CT scanned with Tocheri’s study of the wrist of Homo floresiensis but I could be wrong. At Any rate, one of the earliest studies of the wrist morphology of Australopithecus afarensis is that of Henry McHenry. In The Capitate of Australopithecus afarensis and A. africanus McHenry looked at the capitate of both A. afarensis and A. africanus. McHenry came to three conclusions based on that study:

1.) The capitate bones of Homo sapiens and Pan are very different morphologically, but there is very little difference between Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus in the shape of the capitate.
2) The Australopithecus capitate is intermediate in form between Homo and Pan but closer to the former. [bold mine – afarensis]
3) The capitates of A. afarensis and A. africanus are nearly identical which is one indication that A. afarensis is not postcranially distinct from A. africanus.

That was in 1983. In 2008 Tocheris et al published a review article on the evolution of the hand in the Journal of Anatomy (Domoman may be thinking of this article rather than the H. floresiensis article but the H. floresiensis paper got a lot more play in the media). They note that in a number of traits the hand of A. afarensis is similar to that of the LCA of Pan-Homo but that in others it is derived with respect to the Pan-Homo LCA. In other words it’s kind of intermediate between the two.
jpg564 says:

I recall seeing Johansen and Richard Leakey on Nova years ago discussing the Lucy fossil, and debating (or was it just arguing like in the Monty Python skit?) about where Lucy fit in the evolutionary chain. Johansen had his tree of life poster not surprisingly showing Lucy in the main trunk leading to modern humans. Leakey, of course, disagreed, his rendition showing Lucy on a dead-end branch. No actual evidence was ever presented or even discussed in support of their respective positions, just two conflicting opinions. I was almost embarrassed for them. It must have been in the seventies, maybe early eighties when it aired. Anyone else recall seeing it?

Leakey didn’t actually have a “tree of life poster”. Famously, he drew an X over Johanson’s. jpg564 is referring to the appearance of Johanson and Leakey on Cronkite’s Universe – courtesy of Google Book Search you can read about that episode here. Suffice to say, one can hardly expect Johanson and Leakey to give all the scientific details pertaining to human evolution on an hour long popular science TV show. If jpg564 wants the actual evidence perhaps he should actually read the scientific literature on human evolution.

2 Responses

  1. Well of course Lucy had the wrist of an ape. Considering her evolutionary history, a skink wrist was right out of the question. 🙂

  2. “Plagiarism is basic to all cultures.” — Pete Seeger, folk singer.
    “Plagiarism, coupled with quote mining, arguments from personal incredulity (and other logical fallacies), and outright lies, is basic, nay essential, to all creationist/ID writings.” — (((Billy))) The Atheist, blogger.

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