October 07, 2006

An emotional attachment to robust australopithecines.

My Stone Age of Africa class this semester is devoting a great deal of lecture and reading time to the subject of hominid (or, as primatology vogue would apparently have it, hominin) evolution and the various species and genera that pop up in the fossil record after about 5 million years ago. For those of you whose interests do not encompass the critical question of whether H. rudolfensis really constitutes a separate species from H. habilis, I will give you a short and to-the-point summary which looks like this:

  • At some date which is not important to you, there were Australopithecus dudes who were kind of apey but not as apey as the dudes who came before them.
  • At some later date they split up into Homo dudes (no, really) who were less apey still, and Paranthropus dudes who had really enormous teeth and weird snubby faces.
  • At yet another date the Paranthropus dudes went extinct and the Homo dudes got bigger brains and better tools and invented partisan politics and multivariable calculus.

That's about it, really, save a century of people arguing about what to call them. The Australopithecus dudes, who were skinny little buggers with fragile heads, got dubbed the gracile australopithecines. The Paranthropus dudes, who as I mentioned had big clunky heads and teeth, got dubbed the robust australopithecines. Homos, I guess, are just Homos.

For reasons I can't really elaborate, the robust australopithecines hold a special fascination for me. It could be that they're a slightly pathetic evolutionary dead-end; on family trees of human ancestors they're usually drawn as three little stubs way off to one side, with some apologetic notes about disputed nomenclature, fading into nothingness by a million and a half years ago. Homo and Australopithecus turned into all sorts of exciting species, but Paranthropus didn't turn into anything but dead. It could be that they were physically weird; they had big sagittal crests (think a mohawk growing out of your skull), wide flat gorilla faces, and jaws that could chew the fuck out of you for one thing. It's been suggested that they were primarily vegetarian, and the teeth and jaws were for grinding up leaves. It's been suggested rather hysterically that they were scavengers and bone-crushers, but they didn't really have the canines for it. They walked upright. They probably used fire. They might have used tools. And there's no really pressing reason why we couldn't have been descended from them instead of from Homos, if they just hadn't gone extinct.

That's the thing that gets me, I think. If we (meaning the Homos) ate more meat and they (meaning the robust australopithecines) ate more plants, and they went extinct and we didn't, it was probably only because we lived on the plains and they lived in the forest and when the weather got colder and drier (which it did), the plains spread out and there weren't enough leaves for them to make good. If it had gotten warmer instead, the forest would have spread out and we'd have had to grow some bigger teeth or go extinct ourselves. It's sheer luck of the climatological draw, and you know I always root for the loser. I've adopted these poor bastards like they were personal friends. I scribble angry notes in the margins of articles that cast doubt on their tool-making capacity. When we look at fossils I spend longer at the table with the robust skulls than the one with the gracile skulls so that they know I like them better. I talk them up to my friends. I take them on walks -- okay, no, I don't. But I put little stars by their names on evolutionary trees so they don't look so pathetic.

Adopt a weird, extinct, not-quite-ancestral hominid species of your own today! They can't talk about you behind your back, because even if they had verbal language they're presently missing the soft tissue necessary for vocalization. You'll always be able to find them, because they're really fucking weird-looking! And they won't steal your bacon-and-egg sandwiches because they'd rather have a mouthful of grass to chew on! Best of all, you'll never have to look at pictures of their kids, because they died without having any!

Metaphorically speaking, anyway.

Posted by dianna at October 7, 2006 11:02 PM

Somewhat related, there's a book that won the Hugo Award a couple of years ago called Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer. The high-concept involves a parallel universe where Neanderthals became the dominant species while Sapiens went extinct, and then someone invents a way to cross over and a novel's worth of hi-jinks ensue.

Before you correct me, I realize that Neanderthals were just a bunch of Homos, too, and weren't any more related to the Paranthropus dudes than we are. Nonetheless, work along similar lines. Also, I haven't read the book yet, but it is sitting quite attractively on my bookshelf pleading to be read with its big doe eyes and sloping forehead.

Posted by: Zach at October 8, 2006 12:11 AM

I feel like anyone with an anatomical commitment to habitual bipedalism is a friend of mine.

and THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is the sum total of what I retained from my own anthro course.

Posted by: didofoot at October 8, 2006 12:05 PM