Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teeth: Human, Very Old, and in an Unexpected Place

People who look pretty much like the folks you see in the papers and on television today may have been around longer than we thought. A lot longer.

Really Old Teeth: New Facts to Chew On

"400,000 year old teeth challenge evolutionary theory"Anne Barker, ABC News Online (December 29, 2010)

"ELEANOR HALL: Israeli archaeologists say they've uncovered evidence that could challenge the accepted theories on human evolution.

"A team from Tel Aviv found human teeth that they estimate are 400,000 years old: twice as old as any previous finds.

"But they say they can't be sure of the significance of their discovery until further tests are done as Middle East correspondent Anne Barker reports.

"ANNE BARKER: The accepted theory among evolutionary scientists is that homo sapiens originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago and gradually migrated around the world.

"And until now the earliest human remains were found in eastern Africa.

"But now Israeli archaeologists have uncovered a set of teeth that they believe are twice as old and if so would force a complete rethink of the whole concept of human evolution.

"AVI GOPHER: This conclusion may be of great importance because it may be a first hint at changing some of the paradigms we are used to think about, used to use in terms of human evolution.

"ANNE BARKER: Professor Avi Gopher at Tel Aviv University heads the team which was excavating the Qesem Cave, a prehistoric site in central Israel that was discovered 10 years ago where they found eight teeth believed to be 400,000 years old.

"AVI GOPHER: The dating of the cave shows that the presence of homo sapiens in this part of the world is earlier than any other evidence we have to date.

"The earliest we know until now is Homo sapiens found in eastern Africa dated to around 200,000 years.

"That means that we have to rethink the basic reconstructions we have for human evolution and spread.

"ANNE BARKER: Professor Gopher says more research is needed to confirm the remains are the earliest evidence of the existence of modern man.

"But scientists have already done a morphological analysis of the teeth which included CT scans and X-rays that indicate their size and shape are very similar to those of today's humans.

"And he says other findings suggest that whoever it was who lived in the cave were hunters who used fire and shared animal meat, all of which are consistent with modern man...."

The Lemming isn't all that surprised at this news. Folks who make a serious study of life on Earth have generally been discovering that things happened earlier than they thought.

This is a pretty big jump, though, in terms of time: from 200,000 years back being as early as folks looking pretty much like us were around; to 400,000 years back. The shift from west Africa to the east end of the Mediterranean isn't such a big shift, though. It's walking distance. If you're willing to spend a few years on the hike.

Human Origins, Teeth, Writing Headlines, and Accepting Change

Another article, from Monday:
"Researchers: Ancient human remains found in Israel"
Associated Press, via (December 27, 2010)

" Israeli archaeologists said Monday they may have found the earliest evidence yet for the existence of modern man, and if so, it could upset theories of the origin of humans.

A Tel Aviv University team excavating a cave in central Israel said teeth found in the cave are about 400,000 years old and resemble those of other remains of modern man, known scientifically as Homo sapiens, found in Israel. The earliest Homo sapiens remains found until now are half as old....

"...The prehistoric Qesem cave was discovered in 2000, and excavations began in 2004. Researchers Gopher, Ran Barkai and Israel Hershkowitz published their study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology."

The Lemming thinks that phrase, "challenge evolutionary theory," in the ABC article should be taken with a grain of salt. Make that a few pounds.

Yes, the evolutionary theories that have folks looking like us starting in Africa about 200,000 years back may be due for an overhaul. At least.

But the general idea that homo sapiens sapiens didn't always look like we do now? And that if you go back far enough, our ancestors looked different enough to have another tag in the 'species' column? The Qesem cave finds don't change that.

The Lemming recognizes that news is written to sell newspapers. Or, these days, to attract visitors to websites. That "challenge evolutionary theory" thing in the headline was, the Lemming suspects, calculated to attract readers who are still wrangling over the preferred realities of Darwin and Ussher.

The idea that change happens, and that it's okay, is something the Lemming accepts. At any rate, change happens: and I've got the choice of dealing with it, or being miserable. It's not such a hard choice.
What, No Rant About Godless Science?
If you've been following this blog, you've probably learned that the Lemming is a practicing Catholic. Which doesn't mean what some folks in America apparently think it does:Bottom line, I believe that God exists. I also acknowledge that He's smarter and stronger than I am. More patient, too. And I'm inclined to take the world as it is: not as I'd like it to be.

Moving along.

One reason the Lemming wasn't all that surprised at the idea that folks who look "human" have been around longer than we thought is that 'things happened earlier.' Like I said, the time of the earliest known modern humans, fish, or whatever, has generally been getting pushed back as we learn more.

Another is that archeologists/paleontologists (the distinction seems to be getting blurred) found a kitchen in the same general area - that folks used some 800,000 years ago. They didn't have a dishwasher, freezer, or microwave oven: but they did have an area that was designed around the tasks of preparing food.

Related posts:More related posts:


Brigid said...

Extra punctuation: "big shift, though:. It's"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. Raised a practicing Catholic and one of my childhood ambitions was to become a paleontologist. Because dinosaurs are way cool.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Got it: fixed! Thanks.

Dinosaurs: way cool, indeed. I've suspected that some of the anti-evolution/science feeling among Christians - including some Catholics - isn't entirely rooted in rejection of 19th-century secularism.

Over the last half-millennium, we've learned that creation is BIG: particularly in the last century.

Not just in physical size, but in the depths of time involved.

The universe is not a cosy little place, a few thousand years old. Or, if it is, there's something seriously wack about the evidence we have.

Since I'm inclined to take reality as I find it, instead of insisting that the universe conform to my preferences, my take on the scale of things is: "God thinks big: I'm okay with that." ("God's Creation: He Seems to Think Big," A Catholic Citizen in America (September 23, 2010)

Clearly, not everybody sees it that way.

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