Saturday, 3 May 2008

Much Ado About Afarensis

Lucy looks like this in the National History Museum in London

Joel Kontinen

I recently wrote three articles about our supposed evolutionary grandmother Australopithecus afarensis, better known as Lucy. You can read them here , here and here . One of the posts, which was about the UNESCO popular science newsletter A World of Science that used the species name Praeanthropus afarensis instead, generated some ado in blog discussions.

Blogger Afarensis took issue with my interpretation of the name change and posted “An Open Letter to Creationist Joel Kontinen” on his site, explaining that the UNESCO article actually used the correct form of Lucy's name.

Evolutionists believe apes and man have a common ancestor and view the entire fossil record from this perspective. They would thus expect to see some shared or similiar features in creatures that fit their paradigm. Since most but not all paleoanthroplogists who study human ancestry are evolutionists, they also get the privilege of naming the skulls they find.

Blogger Afarensis seems to thinks that Lucy and humans have so much shared features that calling her pre-human is justified. He points out that he did not like the study conducted by Yoel Rak and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University that I quoted. He said it “was full of baloney”.

Indeed, Rak’s conclusions suggest that Lucy is not our ancestor. Yet it was not the first study to call in doubt Lucy’s human-like features. Way back in 1983, Stern and Sussman published a paper called The locomotor anatomy of Austrapithecus afarensis in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. They stated that Lucy’s fingers and toes were curved like those of many other apes. “There is no evidence that any extant primate has long, curved heavily muscled hands and feet for any purpose other than to meet the demands of full-time or part time arboreal life.” Translation: Lucy preferred trees to open Savannah. More recently (2001), Tattersall and Schwartz in their book Extinct Humans also paid attention to afarensis’ long arms.

An interesting ingredient in the debate was the finding of the “Lucy child” in 2006. Its hyoid bone suggested that it could not speak. Its fingers were of the curved kind and its shoulderblade resembled that of a gorilla. In other words, it did not look like a pre-human.

Incidentally, I had a pet vervet monkey for two years when I lived in Kenya some time ago. The proportions of a vervet monkey’s arms more or less matched those of Lucy and the two simians are almost of the same size, as well. While the monkey’s hands resembled my hands, only an a priori commitment to evolution could have caused me to regard it as a relative. The differences were all too great.


Afarensis. 2008. An Open Letter to Creationist Joel Kontinen.

Line, Peter. 2005. Fossil Evidence For Alleged Apemen –Part 2: Non-Homo Hominids. TJ (Journal of Creation) 19:1: 33-42.

Wieland, Carl. 2006. The ‘Lucy Child. ’More good news for creationists. You can read it here.