The Hadar Hominids

J.Z. Young

  • The Making of Mankind by Richard Leakey
    Joseph, 256 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1931 2
  • 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, ISBN 0 246 11362 6

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.

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