IS IT HOMO ERECTUS? PART II
A COUNTERPOINT by jim vanhollebeke 1998
The title of this article is misleading. A better caption might read, "A Refutation of the Supposed Insignificance of Certain Australian Hominid Fossils".
This discussion will not involve whether the Australian Kow Swamp fossils are Homo erectus. They are not and no scientists presently would say otherwise.
Neither will this argument be about Kow Swamp specifically but rather what it represents: a larger group of Australian hominids that have been discovered as long ago as the 1880s. These fossils include Talgai, Cohuna, Nacurrie, Coobool Creek, Kow Swamp, Willandra Lakes, and others.
All of these fossils which will be referred to as Kow Swamp type (KS type), share archaic features reminiscent of the much earlier H.erectus. Yet they are modern in terms of age - ten to thirty thousand years ago. Other much older human fossils in Australia have shown relatively little of this archaic leaning.
Scientifically, the KS types dont seem to "fit in" with their primitive features yet recent age. They have remained as odd footnotes in the world of Paleoanthropology. That their relevance has been ignored is regrettable enough but their rejection as a late chapter to the H.erectus story is unacceptable to this writer. Accepting these fossils for what they are has been a problem for many anthropologists. Part of this problem , possibly, is the fact that the present aboriginal population in this area of the globe, to varying lesser degrees has been known to exhibit some or all of the traits that make the Kow Swamp type so controversial. This would indicate an obvious line (or lines) of descent. This is not really surprising when the age (or lack thereof) of the fossils themselves is taken into consideration. obviously the specimens now preserved do not represent the very last of their kind. Direct descendants would have continued in Australias isolation for perhaps thousands more years. add to this the plausibility of additional (albeit diluted) continuity with subsequent dwindling KS type populations which may have altered the gene flow by assimilating with other (less primitive) groups.
It is not difficult to project this recent scenario to the present time and discover residual physical characteristics that reflect this varied ancestry. All well and good except for what could be construed as political implications. This can be a delicate matter in terms of race. As a matter of fact race cannot be discussed scientifically without caution and trepidation. This, however is not a matter of race per se and I should add that among contemporary populations of Australias aborigines are individuals whose racial identities can only be described (and have been) as archaic Caucasoid .
Returning to the fossils typified by Kow Swamp, they might be more acceptable if their primitive character pointed at the more recent Neandertal rather than H.erectus. This species has been considered to be extinct for at least a half million years. The KS type bones would therefore seem to be too archaic for their "young" age. Even the erectus-sapiens transitional hominids(H.sapiens Archaic) have been considered extinct for hundreds of thousands of years.
A new factor, however, is the shocking discovery that another (globally nearby) group known as Solo Man, previously thought to have been extinct for 200,000 years may actually have survived to as recently as 27,000 years ago. Solo Man was a large brained (1250 cc) late H.erectus population of Ngandong, Java. If this survival revelation proves correct we then would have (late) H.erectus co-existing with modern man in South-East Asia. This, of course, would make the present thesis all the more relevant.
Science and yes, the all powerful media have done next to nothing with the KS fossils in regards to publishing (where are you National Geographic?!). This disregard has resulted in a general lack of awareness of these arguably important anthropological discoveries.
This all goes back over 100 years to 1884 when the KS type Talgaii skull was unearthed. It took nearly forty years before anyone published anything on it at which time it was compared favorably to Piltdown. Piltdown Man ultimately became a major setback for evolution when it was proven to be an elaborate hoax. The striking Cohuna Skull was found in 1925 and basically ignored (to this day). Other Australian discoveries were announced and dismissed before they could achieve credibility. Reasons were given and/or invented: they were too "young", they were "deformed", they were undocumented, etc.. In 1972 a report in NATURE, "Discoveries of Late Pleistocene Man at Kow Swamp, Australia" (A.G. Thorne and P.G. Macumber), mistakenly gave the impression that the authors considered these fossil to be indeed, Homo erectus. A flurry of protest followed and the matter faded into obscurity - remaining so to this day.
The fact that these recent Australian hominids (early humans) are NOT Homo erectus does NOT dismiss them as important pieces of a complex puzzle. The case can be made for many of them being representatives (or relatives of) an archaic H. Sapiens (Heidelberg or even late Solo). Again for such fresh fossils this is ASTOUNDING stuff!
Around the Spring of 1997, Jim Foley creator of the extensive Talk Origins web pages on the Internet, published his WWW article, "Kow Swamp: Is It Homo Erectus?". He used as his main authority, the words of Doctor Peter Brown, Senior Lecturer in Paleoanthropology, University of New England, Australia. Dr. Brown is also author and creator of the exhaustive Internet website on Australian Paleoanthropology.
Jim Foley, in his website article, first draws upon a quote from (creationist-author) Marvin Lubenow who incorrectly asserts that according to generally accepted definition, Kow Swamp and the other robust Australian fossils qualify as being H. erectus. Foley then calls upon Dr. Peter Brown to comment and the dissertation begins. Dr. Brown uses the sixteen characteristics defining H. erectus listed by M. Lubenow and, one by one, compares the recent Australian hominids to H.erectus.
Good idea if done objectively. Dr. Brown prefaces his remarks with the theory that the Australian skulls are artificially deformed (which in some cases they may well be) hinting that these deformities are causing too much excitement, as it were. He then recites several differences between H.erectus and the archaic Australians. He mixes technically correct observations with prejudicial comment such as "nothing like Homo erectus"(emphasis his) which are improper and erroneous.
Dr. Brown continues by taking the stated characteristics numbered from 1 to 16 and discusses them individually.
These characteristics are:
(1.) Homo erectus skull low, broad and elongated.
Doctor Brown simply declares that (KS) crania are not low, which is debatable. he ignores the rest of the criteria and adds that these Australian skulls fall within the modern aboriginal range. Anyone should know that ranges overlap and extremes at either end can be deceptive. A simple viewing of photos can put this "modern" idea to rest.
(2.) H.erectus cranial capacity (brain volume) 750-1250ml.
Dr. Browns only comment here is to cite the largest of the KS samples WLH50 at (plus or minus) 1500 ml and the average for the KS-Coobool Creek males (l404 ml). He adds as an aside that modern Australian aborigines have a mean value of only 1271 ml implying that, if anything, these so called erectus-type fossils are less archaic than present day aborigines ! Of course he doesnt give mean values for the other groups under discussion and he certainly doesnt list any of the individual low scores such as Talgai and Cohuna (plus or minus l300 and l000 ml respectively). If he did, hed be falling within the H.erectus "range"(!).
(3.) H. erectus median sagittal ridge (top of skull-middle ridge)
Brown states that this skull characteristic still occurs in some modern males throughout Australia and is, therefore, not diagnostic of Homo erectus. I might point out that it is unwise to negate certain characteristics of H.erectus just because some modern aborigines exhibit them (to lesser degrees).
(4.) H.erectus has supraorbital (brow) ridges.
Dr. Brown counters that this distinction is only moderate in the Aussie samples and that , "a true torus is very rare". He then adds, "nothing at all like H.erectus". I dont think I need to address this remark. But I will. He is incorrect.
(5.) H.erectus, Postorbital (behind the eyes) constriction.
Brown concedes this feature to the KS specimens with his predictable BUT and speculation of how this superficial trait must have occurred. Not satisfied, he then adds that KS postorbital constriction is not outside "the range" of recent prehistoric aborigines (here we go again) and finishes with, "but less than in Homo erectus". Voila.
(6.) H.erectus receding frontal contour (sloping forehead).
Once again, Peter Brown points out that the modern aborigine crania has a more receding frontal contour as well. No different than Kow Swamp or Coobool Creek except those that may be deformed.
As mentioned earlier, there is a theory that could explain this characteristic in some individuals. It proposes that these ancient people purposely deformed their crania in a way that would remind us future humans of H.erectus. This theory has plausibility to the degree that artificial crania deformation has been documented in several primitive peoples in other parts of the world.
An alternative hypothesis, I might suggest, would be that when a population of late Homo erectus had a very large and rapid increase in brain size (through evolution spurt or hybrid-ization) its skull simply expanded, occasionally to an awkward proportion.
(7.) H.erectus occipital bun or torus (horiz. ridge along back of skull).
And, again he concedes this peculiarity is common at least among the KS type males but the "region is nothing like H.erectus". I will assume that he means the region is different than H.erectus and comment no further. If my assumption is incorrect then he is incorrect as well.
(8.) H.erectus, nuchal area extended for muscle attachment.
Dr. Brown admits there is a limited development here and not really significant. My knowledge in this area is limited at best and I must assume that he is correct.
(9.) H.erectus, cranial wall unusually thick overall.
He acknowledges this attribute but dismisses it as being a different pattern referring to one of his articles on Pithecanthropus (Javan Homo erectus).
I cannot imagine what this "pattern" is or its relevance to cranial wall thickness in general.
(l0.) H.erectus braincase narrower than the zygomatic arch.
Dr. Brown allows this feature and then argues that it is only natural to expect this in "a dolicochephalic vault with a well developed masticatory system".
Amazingly, he seems to have said, "what can you expect with such a Homo erectus-like skull?" !!
He then adds that this trait does not approach the Homo erectus condition.
What? Why, of course it approaches the condition. Hed just admitted it !
(11.) H.erectus, heavy facial architecture.
To this Dr. Brown qualifies his rebuttal with, "not what I (my emphasis) would describe as heavy". He does a little of the "maybe here yes-maybe there no", ending his statement with a definitive "VERY (his emphasis) marked contrast to Homo erectus". Yeah, right.
(l2.) H.erectus, alveolar (maxilla) prognathism.
On this characteristic, he merely asserts, "Big teeth, big palates - prognathic face."
Now how does this translate to anything but, "SO WHAT?"!
Next, he proceeds to discuss evolutionary trends in prognathism and floats off with random H.erectus- Sapiens teeth remarks.
(13.) H.erectus, large jaw, wide ramus.
Once more, he affirms, "large mandible due to large teeth SOMEHOW negating the erectus-like jaw. He then contends that the wide ramus characteristic of H.erectus is lacking in KS.
(14.) H.erectus, no chin.
His response, "this is what you would expect with larger teeth and greater alveolar development" which sounds yet again like, how could you have a chin with a muzzle like that ?!
(15.) H.erectus, teeth generally large
Naturally he must concede this.
and point out the differences.
(l6.) H.erectus, post-cranial bones heavy and thick.
Here Dr. Brown triumphantly states that this is not the case and that these bones are actually lightly built. My research in this area has only yielded statements that KS post cranial material is not large. There have been post cranial observations of gracile conditions in prehistoric human fossils from the Australian Lake Mungo region but these people were not of the KS variety and no one has proposed their inclusion.
Lest there be confusion here, the fossil record in Australia shows that there were two basic human populations in late Pleistocene Australia :
A. The older (yet more modern and gracile) group represented by excavations such as Lake Mungo
B. The much more recent (yet primitive and robust) group represented by the KS type examples.
Returning to postcranial bone size, latter day discoveries with regard to Homo erectus have changed the post cranial image to a more modern scenario as well.
So that concludes the sixteen points of general Homo erectus description. Doctor Brown feels that the KS bones are not H.erectus which is indisputable. So why has he gone to such lengths to conclude the obvious ? What is he really saying?
Shouldnt he have allowed that there do seem to be similarities between Kow Swamp and H.erectus that really must be more than superficial ?
And why does he go out of his way to put miles of distance between these unique fossils and H. erectus ?
Most people in this field of research have their theories and it is easy to rationalize against opposing facts, to "hang on" as it were. But the VIGOR that has been employed to deny these bones their due as important (and amazing) footnotes in the history of Homo Sapiens - escapes me.
One might say a coyote is not a wolf and be correct provided a further explanation is issued to clarify such a pronouncement. To further state that a coyote is nothing like a wolf enters the realm of misleading or (at the very least) erroneous information.
There is a distinct possibility that at some point archaic Homo Sapiens and late Homo erectus could have had the opportunity and capability to interbreed. It is feasible that populations such as Kow Swamp partially resulted from mass incidents of crossbreeding. Such episodes could have included situations less than social: spoils of warfare, kidnap-enslavement, rape etc..
With these possibilities in mind, one should not dismiss interspecies similarities as superficial or imagined (especially when the "species" are already so closely related).
The Australian fossils do show a relationship to Homo erectus. THAT is the further explanation that was needed to qualify the big question in Jim Foleys (and Peter Browns) article.
Yet the message seemed to be the exact opposite - no relation,"NOTHING like H.erectus".
The following section is illustrated. The graphic quality is not good but the evidence is and I think it comes through.
Look at "Talgai" and compare it to Javas Sangirin l7(H.erectus). Match WLH50(Willandra Lakes Hominid) to the late-erectus from Ngandong(SoloMan). Deformed craniums? The similarities are real and you can see them.
When the media (and world) can marvel at the pile of fragments they call the "Lucy skeleton"(Australopithecus afarensis), there should be a little awe available for this aberrant populace that never quite went extinct.
Sensationalistic ? YES - but true.
The Australian fossils are disregarded by most anthropologists and its a shame. Some, like Alan Thorne and Milford Wolpoff have recognized the importance of this group and reconciled the "irregularities". Others like William Howells , author of the highly relevant THE PACIFIC ISLANDERS (1973, Scribner) have stumbled into it and become strong advocates.
The story of Mankind is sketchy and full of speculation. Much of it, likely, is inaccurate and plenty of what we do not know would surely surprise us.
We must remain open to new ideas if we are ever to reach the right conclusions.
ILLUSTRATIONS & EXAMPLES