Saturday, 18 March 2017

A 400,000 year old Portugese hominin - yet more hard evidence for the antiquity of humanity

My previous post commented on a recent study that showed not only the antiquity of indigenous Australian settlement, but that individual population groups had been present in the same area for tens of thousands of years. This of course falsifies the special creationist assertion that the entire human race descends exclusively from two people who lived six thousand years ago. Now, another paper provides more evidence for the antiquity of the human lineage. Portugese palaeoanthropologist João Zilhão, and his colleagues have published a paper detailing the discovery of a Middle Pleistocene hominin skull from Gruta da Aroeira in Portugal securely dated to around 400,000 years. The skull may well be ancestral to Homo neanderthalensis, and occurs along with stone tools, animal remains and evidence of controlled use of fire.

The original completely restored Aroeira 3 cranium in lateral view (A) and the virtual reconstruction and original fossil in inferior view (B) (also Figs. S4 and S5). (Scale bars, 5 cm.) Source

While there still remains much work to do with this latest hominim fossil, it is clearly a significant hominin discovery. It is the oldest hominin fossil discovered in Portugal, and one of the oldest in Europe. It is also one of the earliest hominin fossils to be linked with the Acheulean stone tool industry. The authors outline its significance at the start of their article:
We describe a recently discovered cranium from the Aroeira cave in Portugal dated to around 400 ka. This specimen is the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium of Europe and is one of the earliest fossils from this region associated with Acheulean tools. Unlike most other Middle Pleistocene finds, which are of uncertain chronology, the Aroeira 3 cranium is firmly dated to around 400 ka and was in direct association with abundant faunal remains and stone tools. In addition, the presence of burnt bones suggests a controlled use of fire. The Aroeira cranium represents a substantial contribution to the debate on the origin of the Neandertals and the pattern of human evolution in the Middle Pleistocene of Europe. [1] (Emphasis mine)
Nothing shouts an uninformed observer more than the person who confidently declares that there is no evidence for human evolution, and that the fossils discovered would barely fit on a billiard table. As the palaeoanthropologists Matt Cartmill and Fred Smith note:
Opponents of scientific biology are fond of dismissing that record as a pathetic handful of controversial fragments. If that were so, this book would be a lot shorter. An often-repeated creationist canard insists that all known human fossils would fit on a billiard table. This was probably true in the late 19th century but it has not been true for a hundred years. Known human fossils number in the thousands and represent the remains of hundreds of individuals. They are more numerous and better-studied than the fossils of any comparable vertebrate group, because the intense interest that people have in the bones of their ancestors has driven them to devote far more effort to collecting and studying fossil humans than (say) fossil horses or herring. Having seen most of the major collections of human fossils in the world’s museums, we can assure our readers that those collections can no longer be laid out on a billiard table. It would be hard to cram them all into a boxcar. [2]
Fossils such as the Aroeira cranium are not needed to "prove" the antiquity of the human lineage. As Cartmill and Smith note, we have already more than enough to answer that question in the affirmative. The questions palaeoanthropologists are now seeking to answer are framed around the pattern of human evolution, and fossils such as this cranium are likely to cast valuable light on the timing and pattern of human evolution. However, they do serve as splendid witnesses for the fact of human evolution, one that our community will eventually need to acknowledge and accept.


1. Joan Daura et al "New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal)" PNAS 2017: 1619040114v1-201619040.
2. Cartmill M, Smith F The Human Lineage (2009: John Wiley) p xi