In these days of Out of Africa genomic hegemony, it is easy to forget that until recently, and despite Darwin and Huxley’s early intuition, the African origins of our lineage were controversial, and for a long time, even considered a fringe theory. It isn’t so long ago that multiregional evolution of modern humans was on equal footing with monogenesis, and even that wasn’t usually rooted in Africa. Howells’ 1942 survey of theories for the origins of humans did more than its fair share to modernize paleoanthropology, but Africa rates only three mentions and none of them as a candidate cradle for modern humans. By the mid-1970s, following two solid decades of massive fossil discoveries, and building on even earlier but initially discredited work by Dart, J. Desmond Clark (1975) could still say that the by-then obviousness of the African origin of humans was shocking to those of his generation. Extensive critiques of the Out of Africa model, Total African Replacement, as it was sometimes derisively called by critics, were published in leading journals into the 1990s (Frayer et al 1993).

The idea of an earliest ancestor from Europe remains attractive both to Western science and to the Western public. This week Graecopithecus was presented as a candidate. Unlike the recent Cerutti Mastodon claim, this one is appropriately cautious and does no more than describe “potential hominin affinities” of a fossil that has been known for over 70 years, along with some new dating. The claim may be muted and cautious, but after a slow start, the media coverage has been rather more enthusiastic. Clearly, even the remote possibility of a European origin to our lineage still captures the Western imagination.

From 1912 until the early 1950s, the orthodoxy of the European origin of humans was protected by the Piltdown finds, despite significant doubts, from the start, by a number of researchers. Not only was Piltdown attractive because it kept human origins in Europe, and away from other claimants such as Asia, with Dubois’s much maligned Java Man, but it conformed with key paleoanthropological and evolutionary expectations of the time. Because it confirmed that humans originated in Europe, it established that Europeans had had the longest time available to travel down the path of evolutionary progress and were therefore, as expected, the most advanced group. It fit perfectly with the big-brain first model of human development. If human intelligence was the key to human evolution and had driven the rest, then we should expect the first humans to have had a more modern cranial anatomy and more primitive post-cranial traits. This ruled out small brained but bipedal potential ancestors, such as the ones which were cropping up in Southern and East Africa by the 1920s, even with their more modern dentition. Interestingly, Darwin’s belief that the human moral capacity was the ultimate expression both of natural selection and of providence, should have suggested that the modern brain was a relatively late development, and should have made Africa’s small-brained bipeds attractive as potential ancestors. But Keith and his contemporaries were not Darwinians in our sense of the term. Or perhaps the lure of the European ancestor was just strong enough to defeat the need for theoretical consistency.

After even Hooton (1954) had grudgingly and bitterly acknowledged the Piltdown hoax, the making of the acceptance of the African origin of humans into normal science was only a question of time. The biblical logic of a middle-eastern origin, with the Skhul fossils at Mt Carmel, at first serious candidates, then merely proposed hybrids, compelled some for a while and offered a culturally and geographically acceptable face-saving compromise. But even that was a fleeting prospect. In the end, the need for a comforting narrative was no match for the weight of the evidence. It still isn’t.

References

Clark JD 1975. Africa in Prehistory: Peripheral or Paramount? Man, New Series 10:175-198.

Frayer DW, MH Wolpoff, AG Thorne, FH Smith, GG Pope 1993. Theories of Modern Human Origins: The Paleontological Test. American Anthropologist 95:14-50.

Hooton EA 1954. Comments on the Piltdown Affair, American Anthropologist 56:287-289.

Howells WW 1942. Fossil Man and the Origin of Races, American Anthropologist 44:182-193.

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