In the latest issue:

Loathed by Huysmans

Julian Barnes

Too early or too late?

David Runciman

Short Cuts: ‘Parallel Lives’

Tom Crewe

Society as a Broadband Network

William Davies

Indefinite Lent

Thomas Jones

In 1348

James Meek

The House of York

John Guy

At the Movies: Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’

Michael Wood

Secrets are like sex

Neal Ascherson

Poem: ‘The Bannisters’

Paul Muldoon

Clarice Lispector

Rivka Galchen

Marius Petipa

Simon Morrison

At the Foundling Museum: ‘Portraying Pregnancy’

Joanne O’Leary

Caroline Gordon v. Flannery O’Connor

Rupert Thomson

Revism

Joe Dunthorne

Poem: ‘The Reach of the Sea’

Maureen N. McLane

Diary: Where water used to be

Rosa Lyster

How to set up an ICU

Lana Spawls

Follow the Science

James Butler

The Hadar HominidsJ.Z. Young
Close
Close
Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

The Hadar Hominids

J.Z. Young

2643 words
The Making of Mankind 
by Richard Leakey.
Joseph, 256 pp., £9.95, April 1981, 0 7181 1931 2
Show More
Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind: The Dramatic Discovery Of Our Oldest Human Ancestor 
by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey.
Granada, 409 pp., £9.95, April 1981, 0 246 11362 6
Show More
Show More

It has only been recently that anthropologists have realised that their best friends are volcanoes. The ash falling from a series of eruptions can produce sequences of fossils nearly as good as those that are normally formed by silt in the sea, and their dates can be accurately measured. Skeletons preserved in this way in the Great Rift Valley of Africa have revolutionised knowledge of man’s ancestry. The first were found by the Leakey family at Olduvai in Tanzania. Expeditions were then undertaken by teams from various countries to sites further north, around Lake Turkana in Kenya, in the Omo Valley, and at Hadar in the Afar triangle in Ethiopia.

These two books describe the results of recent excavations in which the authors have been major participants. Richard Leakey is, of course, the son of a famous father and mother. Of his many discoveries perhaps the most important is the skull cautiously named only by its museum number as KNMER 1470. Until recently it was believed to be the oldest known member of the genus Homo, living 1.8 million years ago. And then along comes Donald Johanson, a young American, finding, near Hadar in Ethiopia, a whole set of hominid fossils dating back nearly twice as far, to 3.5 million years. But the work of the two groups has been by no means separate. Johanson’s chief collaborator, Tim White, was earlier engaged with Mary Leakey on excavation of footprints made by still earlier hominids 3.75 million years ago at Laetoli in Tanzania. Differences arose, however, especially over the interpretation of the fossils from Afar. As so often before, questions of naming have been involved. Those who discover interesting specimens cannot resist the temptation to have a new name attached to their fossil. In this case, Johanson and White decided that all of the Afar bones belonged to a new species, Australopithecus afarensis. But oddly they nominate as the type specimen, not one of the bones they had found, but a similar jaw from Mary Leakey’s collection made 1000 miles away at Laetoli. This has upset many people including Mrs Leakey and her son. So once again in anthropology a quarrel over names is interfering with discussion of the facts.

Johanson’s book contains much description of his finds, but it is given in a style that many will find unattractive. Indeed, it is not clear whether the book is written by Johanson at all. According to the title page, the work is attributed to ‘Donald C. Johanson and Maitland A. Edey’. The latter is ‘a former editor of Life Magazine and Time Life books’. But we hear no more of him, in the Preface or elsewhere. The whole text reads in the first person singular – Johanson. Yet if the voice is the voice of a scientist, the clothes are the clothes of Time-Life. It does not encourage one to trust the historical summary when we are told that ‘Darwin lurked in his home like a timid and anxious turtle.’ If this is the treatment given to the past, how can we be sure of the authenticity of the many verbatim accounts of discussions between Johanson and White as to the naming of fossils.

The descriptions of the expeditions and finds in war-troubled Ethiopia are dramatic, and Mr Edey has written them up well. If you liked Life, this book is for you. But there is an absurd overemphasis on the importance of these discoveries. At several points it is hinted that they may be compared to the analysis of DNA. These are indeed the oldest fairly complete near-human remains, and Johanson and his colleagues are to be congratulated on finding them. They have worked hard in giving descriptions. But these bones do not reveal any new scientific principle, nor do they fundamentally alter our attitude to our origins. Unfortunately physical anthropologists are not in a position to produce ‘hard science’, like molecular biologists: perhaps they never will be.

Richard Leakey’s book costs exactly the same as Johanson’s but is worth many times more. His 256 pages cover far more than the 409 of the other authors’, and in very much better style. The production is excellent, and there are many beautiful and instructive colour photographs. Leakey deals with the history of the subject briefly, and his few words are to the point. He gives a careful and modest description of his family’s findings and of his own. There is a good colour photograph of Johanson, and a generous tribute to him for finding the ‘absolutely fascinating’ Hadar hominids. Leakey then describes Johanson and White’s interpretation of them as a new species and states his disagreement.

Leakey believes strongly that the study of anthropology can bring great benefits in ‘helping us to avoid a frightening future’. It can teach us the ‘unity of mankind ... regardless of creed or culture’. He discusses how proper consideration of the evidence shows that ‘the popular notion of the “killer ape” is one of the most dangerous and destructive ideas that mankind has ever had.’ To give the evidence, he carries the human story far beyond the Olduvai Gorge and through the entire later course of human history: his last picture is of Hiroshima. The evidence about the times of Palaeolithic and Neolithic man and the Agricultural revolution and beyond is much too complicated to summarise fully, but Leakey manages to cover a great part of it.

Perhaps the most interesting general conclusions to be drawn are about the increasing speed of evolution. The earliest evidence of undoubted hominids is the footprints from Laetoli. These were made by three individuals apparently walking calmly while the nearby volcano Sadiman poured out ash, which quickly filled their footmarks and then solidified. One person was walking ‘Wenceslas-like’ in the steps of the one in front, and a smaller individual, presumably a child, walked by their side keeping in step. Obviously these were not the first creatures to walk on their hind legs, and there has been much speculation as to when and why the habit began.

The fossils from Afar include the nearly complete skeleton Lucy and the bones of at least 13 individuals, the ‘first family’, who seem to have died together. These bones confirm that 3.5 million years ago there were hominids with feet quite like ours, though for some reason a little curved. Perhaps these early hominids used them to climb trees. They were only about four foot tall and had brains of ape size. This with other characters is the reason for saying that they are not yet humans – not members of the genus Homo, but to be assigned to the genus Australopithecus and a new species afarensis. Johanson believes that this was the stock that later gave rise both to true man, Homo, and to the two or three other species of Australopithecus, with brains only a little larger, which lived in various parts of Africa up to about one million years ago. Leakey prefers to remain agnostic as to the earlier origin of Homo. He believes that his skull KNMER 1470 is the earliest properly to be referred to our genus – not to Homo sapiens but to the species named by his father Homo habilis. The brain of this type is larger than anything known before, but still only about half the size of modern man’s.

Skulls with still larger brains begin to appear from about one and a half million years ago, not only in Africa, but in many parts of the world – for instance, Java and Peking. These are also not quite human in shape or size, and they are put into another species, Homo erectus. The earliest of them had brains little larger than Homo habilis, but later ones were two-thirds the size of modern man, a few even more. The earliest specimens that can be put in our own species, Homo sapiens, come from less than a quarter of a million years ago, and even they include Neanderthal man, still not quite like skulls of today. Truly modern human remains only appear from deposits later than 40,000 years ago.

So we have now quite a good series of specimens with brains of increasing size – but were they a continuous series, each evolving gradually from the one before? The conventional Darwinian belief that evolution has been continuous has recently been challenged by the theory of punctuated equilibria put forward by the Harvard biologists Gould and Eldredge. This is a new version of the view held for many years by the American geneticist Sewall Wright. He holds that new species arise from favourable changes in small isolated communities, perhaps occurring under special conditions in a small number of generations. This could possibly have happened with our ancestors. Small groups, perhaps isolated by Ice Age conditions, might quickly have developed such human features as long childhood and the elements of language. Such a group may have survived where others did not.

In its extreme form, this theory almost takes us back to the Garden of Eden origin for man, if not quite to a single Adam. There is certainly evidence that some new species have arisen quite suddenly. For instance, Dr Greenwood of the British Museum has shown that five new species of fish have been formed in Lake Nabugabob since its separation from Lake Victoria less than 5000 years ago. As with so many other evolutionary questions, this is partly a matter of deciding what is a new species. In studying a series of ancestors and descendants we cannot know whether the later ones could have bred with the earlier. So the acid test of infertility between groups is impossible, and in that sense the geologist has no way to define his species.

Moreover, in asking whether there have been sudden jumps in evolution we have to decide how big a change is a ‘jump’ and how fast is ‘sudden’. There will never be a sequence of fossil skulls sufficiently complete to show all the stages of human evolution. But with recent discoveries we already have evidence that there were a number of steps in the change from ape to man. Specimens with brains of several intermediate sizes have been found. They are fewer than would be wished but as more and more come to light they suggest a gradual change over the last three million years. Probably the increase has been faster during the last million. But these are very long times and it is difficult to see how we can ever have evidence as to whether there were sudden ‘jumps’, whatever that may mean.

Evolutionary ‘advance’ consists in finding new ways of life. The particularly human way is to live socially, passing information from person to person by language. This is really an entirely new form of biological inheritance – the obtaining of information as to how to live from many individuals and not only by genetic inheritance from two parents. It has already revolutionised, not only man himself, but the whole world. And it is continuing to do so at an ever-increasing rate. So presumably the ‘jump’ that made Man was the discovery of language: but how, when and why did it begin? Probably its proper use requires a long childhood, for instruction, and social behaviour to make use of the information. These could have depended on changes of hormones. Were they associated with new types of brain that allowed speech? Leakey and Johanson both touch on these questions, but we do not know the answers.

Sudden changes in climate might have been a factor influencing change. Neither of our authors discusses fully the recent evidence that during the Ice Ages there were sometimes very rapid changes. The ice of the Arctic retains certain chemical features that tell of the conditions when it was formed long ago. In one period, about 90,000 years ago, the weather became rapidly colder, going in less than 100 years from conditions like those of today to fully glacial. Other evidence from fossils shows that this event, however caused, was world-wide. Such a change would have a tremendous effect on human life today. It could have wiped out many of the early members of our species and left only a few intelligent, cooperative and resourceful groups.

But these are only speculations. Whether or not there were sudden jumps, the evidence is clear that some early human types continued for immense periods. This, of course, is a feature which the theory of punctuated equilibria would lead us to expect. Homo erectus lived for a million years, from at least one and a half to half a million years ago, with little structural change. Their brains probably became larger during this time, and of this we should be able to collect more evidence, since fossils of this type have been found in many parts of the world. Such details will not be so spectacular as finding ‘Lucy’ or ‘the first family’, but might be more useful.

The history of Homo erectus is particularly interesting because they were the first undoubted fabricators of implements, which were as conservative in manufacture as they were in structure. It is not known who made the very earliest crudely chipped ‘Oldowan’ tools of two million years ago. Homo erectus skulls, throughout their long history, are found associated with the rather better ‘hand-axes’ known as Acheulian. As Leakey puts it, ‘these introduce an element of symmetry and sense of purpose that previously was absent.’ The making of them suggests a capacity for ordered thought and instruction (though it by no means proves it). In any case, the techniques remained almost unchanged for a million years. For this immense period, these people continued to flake their hand-axes in almost exactly the same way. But there were gradual changes towards the end.

It is not known whether Homo erectus people were the ancestors of Homo sapiens: we badly need more fossil evidence for the long period from a million to 100,000 years ago. The archaeologists have evidence of new and more economical flaking techniques only in the Mousterian period, beginning less than 200,000 years ago. Changes in technique continued slowly throughout the later Palaeolithic period, but until 40,000 years ago essentially the same tool kit of a few types of axe and scraper was in use. It was only after this that finer and more varied instruments were made, such as fish hooks, arrows, daggers and needles. Even so, we have to deal with change over periods of tens of thousands of years.

The picture that emerges is of intense conservatism, but a very slowly accelerating pace of change. This surely is a major lesson to be learned from prehistory. Change has been proceeding at a continually increasing rate. And it still is. The biological reason for this acceleration is that the genus Homo has invented and increasingly perfected an entirely new method of obtaining and using information about the world. The essence of information is order: it is the opposite of entropy or chaos. By the use of information and intelligence, enormous numbers of humans have been created. Let us rejoice and be proud of our success and not be ashamed of ourselves as too many. What we should be ashamed of is that we do not use our intelligence to distribute resources properly and provide adequately for these multitudes. Richard Leakey points out in a moving last chapter that we need to do this to avoid the many great dangers that threaten. ‘The work ... described in this book surely demonstrates that Homo sapiens derives from a single stock ... With our global perspective comes a global responsibility ... both for other members of the human race and for the many forms of life with which we share our world.’ Such admonitions are not new but they are fundamentally important. It is good to find them so firmly stated as the conclusions to a study of prehistory.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 3 No. 11 · 18 June 1981

SIR: In his review of Lucy by Don Johanson and Maitland Edey (LRB, 21 May), Professor J.Z. Young asks: ‘how can we be sure of the authenticity of the many verbatim accounts of discussions between Johanson and White as to the naming of fossils?’ I fear that his worries are indeed justified.

The Granada edition is, with minor exceptions, a photographic reproduction of the original Simon and Schuster edition published in the United States. The exceptions, aside from the end papers and so on, are six pages of text that mention two people – Lord Zuckerman and an American named Jon Kalb – in a less than flattering light. The US edition is more forthright on these matters than the British edition, for which references to these two people have been altered. This is not, in itself, an unusual event even in non-fiction publishing, given the benevolence of our laws to those who imagine they have been libelled. Some of the changes, however, give cause for concern, as J.Z. Young suspected.

For example, the entire book is replete with verbatim conversations, but nowhere is it suggested that these might be ‘dramatised accounts’, although at least one of the changes made for the British edition concerns words reported in direct speech. I do not mean to imply that all of the many conversations in the book have been tampered with or recalled inaccurately, but it is worrying to discover that the mere threat of a possible libel could have been sufficient to provoke Dr Johanson, or perhaps Mr Edey, into altering the words spoken by somebody who is, supposedly, a character in a real-life story rather than a novel.

Jeremy Cherfas
Department of Zoology, Oxford

Vol. 3 No. 12 · 2 July 1981

SIR: In his review of Lucy and The Making of Mankind (LRB, 21 May), J.Z. Young comments that ‘Richard Leakey’s book costs exactly the same as Johanson’s but is worth many times more,’ and expresses concern about the emphasis placed in Lucy on one set of discoveries, and the reliability of the verbatim accounts reported therein. Jeremy Cherfas has taken up the latter point in your columns (Letters, 18 June): but what neither Young nor Cherfas has remarked on is the extent to which Lucy is an American book, white The Making of Mankind follows a strong British tradition. I suspect that the calm, authoritative tone of Leakey’s book will be as baffling to an American audience as the shrill excitement of Lucy is to a British reader, and this suspicion is strengthened by the news that the excellent TV series accompanying Leakey’s text has yet to be scheduled for screening in the US.

This echoes the difficulties Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has encountered crossing the Atlantic the other way: as disappointing as Lucy (to British eyes) in book form, Cosmos, although much acclaimed as television ‘over there’, is regarded as nothing much out of the ordinary by the BBC and has been held back for editing to suit the tastes of a British audience, even though the book has been available for several weeks. Hysterical breathlessness seems to be the vogue for ‘selling’ science in the US: happily, in spite of the parlous state of publishing in the UK, this is not the case here. Apart from any other implication of this dichotomy, it does emphasise the need for a London review of books; more seriously, it makes the point yet again that, in spite of the accident of a shared language, America, and American books, are really part of a culture as different from ours as, say, the French. Reviewers might find it worthwhile to approach books from over the water with this in mind.

John Gribbin
Brighton

Vol. 3 No. 16 · 3 September 1981

SIR: I was sufficiently intrigued by Professor J.Z. Young’s review of Johanson and Edey’s book Lucy (LRB, 21 May), and by Dr Cherfas’s letter which followed (Letters, 18 June), to get hold of copies of the edition published in this country by Granada and the one which Simon and Schuster produced in the United States. Professor Young, as well as Dr Cherfas, had expressed doubts about the authenticity of implied verbatim records of discussions which the book recounts, while Dr Cherfas specifically mentioned some references to myself.

I have now examined the two pages on which my name appears, and have tried to spot the differences between the two texts which Dr Cherfas noted. There are a few, but whether or not they may, as Dr Cherfas suggests, constitute libel, they hardly matter in relation to the fact that the two pages are little better than a concatenation of errors of commission and omission, and of invention. First, contrary to what Johanson and Edey state, when I started my inquiries into the subject, I did not set out ‘to prove that australopithecines were apes.’ My explicitly stated purpose was to check the measurements and indices of the fossil teeth as published by Dr Robert Broom with the corresponding dental dimensions and indices of apes and man. If, as Johanson and Edey write, it is the case that Dr Broom, one of Johanson’s heroes, but a man he could never have met (he died in 1951), declared himself to be ‘scornful of biometry’, he should have forborne from providing dubious and generally incorrect biometric data. That, however, was on a par with the way the eccentric Broom worked. Second, I did not try, and then fail, to meet a ‘challenge’ made by the late Professor Le Gros Clark to produce a ‘full set of chimpanzee teeth’. I dismissed the idea as unreal (Nature, 1950, Vol. 166), as fatuous as it would be to try to unearth a set of fossil teeth to match Dr Johanson’s. Third, ‘professional statisticians’ did not point out that my figures had not been ‘calculated properly’. It was I who pointed out a systematic error in certain calculations which, because they applied to both sides of the comparisons I was making, made little difference to the answers that emerged. A professional statistician (Dr Frank Yates FRS) then stepped in to point out where the late Dr Jacob Bronowski, an amateur statistician whom Le Gros Clark, my ‘challenger’, had enlisted as his supporter, was off-beam in his mathematical assertions.

Nowhere in the book do the authors of Lucy refer to the stream of more recent publications that embody the results of careful scientific and biometric study of fossil primate remains, and which provide no support for Johanson’s ex cathedra claims. If this omission was deliberate, it reveals a curious disregard for the established conventions of scientific exchange. If it was due to ignorance, the verdict must be ‘scientific incompetence’. A reviewer in another journal (the Listener, 9 July) depicts Lucy as mainly an account of Dr Johanson’s dispute with Dr Richard Leakey as to which of the two had found the oldest ape-like (or whatever) fossil. In a critical review of the subject which I wrote some years ago, I said that this kind of debate is less like scientific discourse than a public auction of anatomical speculations. Lucy makes it clear that ‘show-biz’ presentations are not going to display to the world what may in fact have been the physical steps in man’s descent. Johanson is only a recent recruit to the long line of fossil-hunters who, over the years, have been driven by divine inspiration to attribute to one of their fossil finds a unique significance in the story of man’s evolution. I fear that he won’t be the last.

Solly Zuckerman
Lord Zuckerman, University of East Anglia

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences