I see Tanzania is today beginning a celebration of the Leakey discovery of the “Zinjanthropus“ fossil (now called Paranthropus). The find occurred 50 years and 1 month ago, on July 17, 1959. It’s a little hard to figure out the excitement today, remembering that Australopithecus had been known for 30 years. Maybe it was the proof a few years earlier that “Piltdown Man” was a forgery, or maybe Louis Leakey was a genius at publicity. At any rate, the finding triggered the interest in humanity’s African origins that persists to this day. I was still a school kid in those days, but I remember the news breaking. In one of the world’s most remote places, a human ancestor had been found that was well over a million years old. The thought conjured up quite romantic images in my imagination, and I was quite pleased to find myself twenty years later on the edge of Olduvai Gorge having tea with Mary Leakey. It was Mary by the way who actually found the fossil and ran to report her discovery. So I’m honoring the festivities in Tanzania today by pretending I’m in Arusha, drinking a cold Tusker, and joining the festivities.
This blog rarely has occasion to notice a 47-million year old fossil, but watching CBS News last night I heard Katy Couric declare the discovery of the long sought missing link between humans and animals (video here). The claim is absurd on its face even if you take the notion of a missing link seriously. That link is supposed to be THE fossil that connects humans with apes, so presumably it cannot be a fossil that is millions of years older than the apes. It seems to be quite a lovely fossil, but has nothing to offer this blog.
If you want a more detailed look at the story, check out Carl Zimmer's post here and the AP's debunking story is here.
Big paleontological news tonight at the release of a report on the finding of 1.8 million year old human-lineage footprint from Homo ergaster/erectus. (Press release here) It confirms the supposition that the human line was already walking very much as people do today. It is too bad we cannot hope to find a fossilized voice print somewhere.
I might as well steal a technique from the 24 hour news networks and report that there will be news. Next week, in Chicago, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the entire genome of the Neanderthal is expected to be reported. On a blog like this where hard facts are so difficult to come by, this kind of breakthrough in prehistoric genetics is likely to be a source of plenty of information, some of it maybe even relevant to Neanderthal speech ... although it is already clear that Neanderthals spoke something or other. For the preview discussion check out Nature's news here. (Thanks to Carl Zimmer who mentioned the news on Twitter.)