Will a new discovery rewrite human evolution?

The announcement of the discovery of some ancient human teeth in Israel has rapidly exploded into claims that this could “rewrite the history of human evolution“. So what exactly has happened here, and is this claim correct?

The source for all the stories is the press release issued by Tel Aviv University … (Not available online, but courtesy of Nature News, click here to see it) … it starts out like this …

Evidence was discovered pointing to the existence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in Israel as early as 400,000 years ago

This is the earliest evidence for the existence of modern man anywhere in the world : Up to now remains have been found of modern man from around 200,000 years ago only in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.

And then proceeds to go into the details and explains that some teeth have been found in Qesem Cave by Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of the Institute of Archaeology that are very old and apparently its an (to use the precise words in the press release) “undoubtedly an extraordinary archaeological discovery”

There is only one wee problem with all this, its not true.

Yes indeed eight very ancient teeth have been found, and yes they are 400,000 years old … but … as stated in the actual scientific paper published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology … they are not modern human teeth. Carl Zimmer has the paper’s abstract on his blog and also takes you through the details here … Brian Switek, the science writer, also pulls it all apart on his blog here.

Now published in Scientific American (click here) are the details of an interview conducted between Nature and Avi Gopher, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and a co-author of the paper, about the discovery and its press coverage. Here are a couple of the key questions from that …

Do the teeth that you found in Qesem Cave really provide evidence that Homo sapiens did not evolve in Africa?

We don’t know. What I can say is that they definitely leave all options open. There’s been a tendency for people to get so accustomed to the “out of Africa” hypothesis that they use it exclusively and explain any finding that doesn’t fit it as evidence of yet another wave of migration out of Africa.

Were you surprised by press reports making claims that didn’t appear in your paper?

I told all the reporters I spoke to, to be very cautious what they wrote. But that’s what happens.

So, when you read in the press that some discovery is about to rewrite our understanding of some scientific understanding … its always wise to be skeptical and check.

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