I love scientific discovery. In fact, I can write in absolutist terms that all science makes me happy. But it is the science related to human origins that truly brightens my day. Especially when new fossil or DNA evidence becomes widely distributed that either fills in gaps in our knowledge or bolsters and confirms what we already know to be accurate.
When research is widely shared it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Often, it will take years of experimentation, modeling, hypothesis review and study to accept data brought forward by researchers. This elongated process is actually very healthy. It’s healthy because it allows not only the discoverers of the evidence to examine what they’ve found but also gives those secondary or tertiary scientists, reviewers and editors the opportunity to look at the evidence to review, compare and accept or disprove findings.
Looking backwards at our evolutionary origins is a search for truth about our past, current and future humanity. It gives the past dignity. It honors rational ideas and those who thought them up. The tools of evolutionary science also free us from magical thoughts or special creation speculation. These are two ignoble and un-evidenced views of our place in the universe that are unequal and cannot stand as competing ideas as to how nature operates or how science works to uncover the scientific principles, laws and theories that inform our knowledge.
The journal Science is reporting on new data from researchers at the Max Planck Institute who partnered with anthropologists at universities in London and Vienna. Their new research suggests that early australopithecines (in this case A. afarensis) certainly had the fine motor dexterity and the ability to make hand tools.
The results of this new research are based on the detailed examination of australopithecine hand bones. The findings indicate afarensis had fine motor skills more closely related to modern humans than simians. The researchers specifically looked at trabeculae bone, the spongy internal structure within each bone that indicates how bone is shaped and manipulated over one’s lifetime. It appears our early hominid ancestor had human-like fine motor skills more advanced than our modern higher primate cousins, including the Great Apes.
|Evidence from the Research|
Knowing the hand shape, the cognitive brain power and overall morphological ability of afarensis related to its ability to cut and shape tools offers us deeper insight and further proof that our distant ancestors were tool making millions of years ago.
Even the most primitive tool use, like say a chimp cleaning a stick and jamming it into a termite mound to catch insects for food, or the cupping of leaves to collect rain water to drink, shows cognition and clear understanding of cause and effect. So as we shine a light on the early hominids the research increases our understanding of how the shaping of rocks, the building of rock shelters at uncovered habitation sites, and the later making and controlling of fire, just to name a few human inventions, were all necessary advents which directly lead to our current societies and world cultures.
Now I’m pretty sure that Australopithecus afarensis, with its long arms and small brain (+/- 450cc), would not cognitively understand things like the Internet (my bet Neanderthals would have no issue) but since they probably didn’t think much far ahead than perhaps the next day or two, we can and should be humbled by their trials and tribulations on the African plains. They were food for other animals, they died early, lived naked and perhaps partially in trees, and had no ability for language to communicate.
As pure luck would have it based on the fossil record and mDNA evidence, as the Australopithecines became extinct one line had speciated and their progeny would eventually lead to the genus, Homo. And after many competing dead-ends eventually to us.
Our species, and consequently each of us, have won the life lottery just by being born. But it is our ancestors who we have to thank for buying the tickets (through their genome) that allowed unconscious and undirected evolution to lead to our current, reasonably aware and oft conscious species.