Fossil Men
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Fossil Men

The Quest for the Oldest Fossil Skeleton and the Battle to Define Human Origins

Kermit Pattison

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eBook - ePub

Fossil Men

The Quest for the Oldest Fossil Skeleton and the Battle to Define Human Origins

Kermit Pattison

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About This Book

"Riveting.... Pattison's uncanny ability [is] to write evocatively about science.... In this, he is every bit as good as the best scientist writers." — New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

"Brilliant.... A work of staggering depth."— Minneapolis Star Tribune

A decade in the making, Fossil Men is a scientific detective story played out in anatomy and the natural history of the human body: the first full-length account of the discovery of a startlingly unpredicted human ancestor more than a million years older than Lucy

It is the ultimate mystery: where do we come from? In 1994, a team led by fossil-hunting legend Tim White uncovered a set of ancient bones in Ethiopia's Afar region. Radiometric dating of nearby rocks indicated the resulting skeleton, classified as Ardipithecus ramidus —nicknamed "Ardi"—was an astounding 4.4 million years old, more than a million years older than the world-famous "Lucy." The team spent the next 15 years studying the bones in strict secrecy, all while continuing to rack up landmark fossil discoveries in the field and becoming increasingly ensnared in bitter disputes with scientific peers and Ethiopian bureaucrats. When finally revealed to the public, Ardi stunned scientists around the world and challenged a half-century of orthodoxy about human evolution—how we started walking upright, how we evolved our nimble hands, and, most significantly, whether we were descended from an ancestor that resembled today's chimpanzee. But the discovery of Ardi wasn't just a leap forward in understanding the roots of humanity--it was an attack on scientific convention and the leading authorities of human origins, triggering an epic feud about the oldest family skeleton.

In Fossil Men, acclaimed journalist Kermit Pattison brings us a cast of eccentric, obsessive scientists, including White, an uncompromising perfectionist whose virtuoso skills in the field were matched only by his propensity for making enemies; Gen Suwa, a Japanese savant whose deep expertise about teeth rivaled anyone on Earth; Owen Lovejoy, a onetime creationist-turned-paleoanthropologist with radical insights into human locomotion; Berhane Asfaw, who survived imprisonment and torture to become Ethiopia's most senior paleoanthropologist; Don Johanson, the discoverer of Lucy, who had a rancorous falling out with the Ardi team; and the Leakeys, for decades the most famous family in paleoanthropology.

Based on a half-decade of research in Africa, Europe and North America, Fossil Men is not only a brilliant investigation into the origins of the human lineage, but the oldest of human emotions: curiosity, jealousy, perseverance and wonder.

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Chapter 1
The Roots of Humanity
Tim White had endless patience for pursuing human ancestors but limited patience for their living descendants. In October 1981, the skinny fossil hunter labored over a line of Land Rovers and trailers in the eucalyptus-shaded driveway of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, the highland capital of Ethiopia. A crew of Ethiopians and foreign scientists were packing the vehicles with tools, jerrycans, pickaxes, shovels, sieves, and provisions to sustain an expedition for two months in the desert. White dropped to his hands and knees to check the suspension of an overloaded bush car, rose to second-guess how his companions loaded sacks of flour and sugar, and inserted himself in every detail of the mission because they had to get all the logistics right to maximize the odds of success—finding the apelike creatures who begat us.
White was an anthropology professor from the University of California at Berkeley, and at age thirty-one had already made headlines around the world. He had named the oldest species of human ancestor, reconstructed the most ancient skull, and excavated fossil footprints that showed the earliest evidence of upright walking. In this mission, he hoped to find something even older, although just what he couldn’t be sure.
White was not the clubbable sort of academic. On the hunt for fossils, he became a sinewy human bullwhip—get moving, get it right, or get the hell out of the way. He swore. He railed against enemies. He took delight in mimicking the follies of adversaries and burst into madcap laughter. He knew how to run chainsaws, fix engines, skin snakes, and survive in the wilderness. The son of a California highway worker, he grew up a blue-collar mountain boy and had bulled his way into academia and the frontiers of his science. One graduate school instructor—now estranged—once remarked that young Tim carried not just a chip on his shoulder but a log. Shortly before he flew to Ethiopia, the Berkeley anthropology department issued a stern warning to White about “actions which would diminish collegiality in the department” after an investigation found evidence of his “sarcasm, verbal abuse and rudeness.” Yet even detractors had to admit that his monastic devotion to fossils made him, in the words of one mentor, “the best in the business today.”
In only a few years since graduate school, White had amassed a publication record that rivaled the giants of his profession. He could recite from memory the catalog number and the anatomical minutiae of every major specimen in the human fossil record—and lament the careless mistakes of whoever cleaned it. He began his career in Kenya as an assistant to Richard Leakey, the scion of the world-famous fossil-hunting family, but their relationship soured after White accused his boss of scientific censorship and stormed out of his office. Next, White moved to the camp of Mary Leakey, the caustic, cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking matron of the Leakey clan. They worked side-by-side excavating the famous Laetoli footprints, which proved that human ancestors walked upright by 3.6 million years ago. But White grew critical of Mary’s field techniques and her views about the human family tree and she grew tired of his hectoring. They parted on bad terms.
Then White distinguished himself as the most dogged member of the team that reconstructed the most famous human ancestor ever found—Lucy, the petite skeleton of a 3.2-million-year-old upright walker with a small brain and an apelike snout. The skeleton had been discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by American anthropologist Don Johanson, who enlisted White as the expert he most trusted to help unlock the secrets of his newly discovered trove of bones and teeth. Colleagues watched in awe as White rummaged through unsorted crates of rubble, picked out fragments, and pieced together a fossil tooth. Born color-blind, White was acutely sensitive to bone geometry and obsessive about detail. No watchmaker was more exacting. “He’ll go far beyond the nth degree to verify everything and anything—to the point where you think it’s somewhat pathological,” said colleague Steve Ward.
Some skeptics dismissed Lucy as an extinct ape or dead-end lineage. In the end, White’s view prevailed: she represented a previously unknown species of human ancestor, or hominid, the family of creatures on our side of the split from the apes.* White and Johanson named her species Australopithecus afarensis and declared it the direct ancestor of all subsequent members of the human family. In 1981—not long before this expedition getting underway in the embassy driveway—Johanson had published the book Lucy, which catapulted the world’s oldest skeleton into a household name and proclaimed her “the beginnings of humankind.”
Except Lucy couldn’t truly be the beginnings of humankind. There had to be older creatures that would reveal how our peculiar primate lineage split from the other African apes, started walking on two feet, and began an evolutionary journey unlike any other creature in the animal kingdom. Whatever came before Lucy remained hidden in the Dark Ages—a blank spot in the human fossil record beyond 4 million years ago known as “the Gap.” Lucy and Australopithecus afarensis seemed to appear out of nowhere. White wanted to find a window into the gap—and that meant taking this mission where few dared to go.
The destination was a little-known territory reported to be littered with bones up to 6 million years old. It lay down in the Afar Depression, the same massive valley that had produced Lucy, a place of scorching heat, wild animals, and gun-wielding nomads. The local tribes had a centuries-old reputation for killing and castrating intruders. In recent years, this remote lowland had become a battleground between Ethiopia’s military government and insurgents. Troops had massacred hundreds of Afars—and one foreign anthropologist. With the exception of a brief reconnaissance to prepare for this mission, no fossil expedition had ventured there for the previous four years.
The U.S. embassy compound, perched on a mountain slope above the Ethiopian capital, was a beleaguered Cold War outpost in the midst of a hostile Marxist dictatorship. Huge portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin loomed over the central square of the city. The American ambassador and half of his staff had been expelled. Only a skeleton crew remained at the embassy, many of them undercover CIA employees. In the driveway, a U.S. Marine guard in camouflage fatigues leaned against the pole of a basketball hoop and shot the breeze with the scientists as they loaded their cars. An American newspaper correspondent perched in the open rear door of a vehicle and scribbled in his notebook. The resumption of research in the land of Lucy was big news back in the United States.
“With Lucy, you have a creature with a brain size a third as big as modern humans, and yet is walking fully on two legs,” White told the reporter. “Is that adaptation a very long one, or does Lucy represent just the beginnings of that trend? . . . The thing that really set humans apart from the apes was this peculiar form of walking around.”
Daniel Huffman
Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, had theorized that humans evolved big brains, tool use, and erect walking simultaneously, as a package. But a series of discoveries had destroyed that theory, culminating with Lucy, who showed that upright walking came at least one million years before big brains or stone implements. Like many anthropologists, White suspected our odd form of locomotion was perhaps the original distinction that sent our ancestors on their own evolutionary path. “The question is,” White said as he loaded the cars, “how far back does that adaptation go?”
The answer waited in the desert.
THE ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT HAD PROHIBITED AMERICAN EMBASSY PERSONNEL from traveling outside the capital. The scientific team, however, had won permission to explore the Afar Depression, thanks to two of White’s companions, one an old-school English archeologist, and the other an Ethiopian student who had survived imprisonment and torture.
Desmond Clark, the leader of the expedition, supervised the loading while dressed in a khaki safari suit. He seemed like a character from central casting who strode through the field with a cane and uttered Jolly good show! God bless, old boy! Bloody awful people! without a hint of irony. He was erudite, impeccably polite, and a bit nostalgic for the days when when the sun never set on the British Empire. He packed his bush car with a leather case of stainless steel cups; no matter how far from civilization he ventured, Clark invariably found time—and scarce water—for evening cocktails with his wife, Betty.
Clark was an archeologist at Berkeley, then one of the leading human origins programs on the globe. He specialized in early stone tools, not old bones, and he had invited White to lead the fossil side of the expedition despite colleagues who warned that the cocksure young man could be, to soften it with British understatement, a bit difficult. By some accounts, White had arrived in their department like a grenade tossed into a small academic pond. But Clark saw great potential in his protégé. As an empirical scientist, Clark had been perturbed by the “mass of rather airy fairy model building” that had permeated his corner of academia in recent years—and he found a like-minded skeptic in White, a discovery-hungry fossil man with zero tolerance for nonsense. Young Tim was a damn fine scientist with the grit to survive in a place like Ethiopia, where life could be bloody awful.
Clark had spent nearly half a century on the continent. Born in England, he was shipped off to boarding school at age six, and learned Latin, rugby, and rowing. After studying archeology at Cambridge, he took a position in 1938 at the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum near Victoria Falls in what was then the colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Clark rowed on the Zambezi River, taking care to avoid truculent hippos and crocodiles, and drank with the expats in the boat club. During World War II, he served in an ambulance crew as the British army expelled the Italian fascist forces from Ethiopia and Somalia. When soldiers dug trenches, garbage pits, and latrines, Clark dropped into the holes and picked up ancient stone tools. By the end of the war, he had filled a couple dozen gasoline containers with artifacts, which became the basis for his doctorate and a major work, The Prehistoric Cultures of the Horn of Africa. Clark began his career as an “Africanist” at a time when most scholars dismissed the world’s second-largest continent as a backwater of human evolution.
In 1961, he joined the faculty at Berkeley. His arrival coincided with the dawning of a new paradigm of human origins. Biochemical studies were demonstrating a close and jarringly recent relationship between humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas (two apes indigenous to the continent). New fossil discoveries were providing hard evidence of primitive human ancestors in Africa with apelike traits—and far older than fossils from Europe or Asia. Scholars were showing that stone tools in Africa were much more ancient than those elsewhere. Clark argued that the continent represented not only the birthplace of the human lineage but the seedbed of “just about every significant biological and cultural advance” including upright locomotion, stone tools, animal butchery, brain expansion, and more—a view that later became conventional wisdom. Without Africa, argued Clark, there would be no prehistory, no civilization, and no humanity. And no single place would better document the early chapters of the human story than the destination of the 1981 expedition—the Afar Depression.
“If we find hominids,” Clark said as his crew readied the cars, “that would be marvelous.”
Getting to that point had not been so marvelous. In recent years, Ethiopia had been racked by revolution, making fieldwork almost impossible. Until 1974, the country of 30 million, mostly peasant farmers, was ruled by a man whose grandiose titles trailed his name like a retinue of royal attendants—Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. (Before being crowned, he was a nobleman named Ras Tafari, who inspired Jamaican Rastafarianism.) The national constitution declared him a direct descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem, and few dared question the myth. In the streets, Ethiopians threw themselves onto the ground when he passed in one of his limousines.
Clark met the emperor once. Haile Selassie recognized that prehistory research brought prestige to his country in the eyes of the world, and in 1971 he had invited delegates of a scientific conference to his palace where liveried butlers served glasses of tej, an alcohol made from honey. (“You could drink quite a lot of it and it didn’t seem to worry you at all,” recalled Clark, “but then it later hit you rather suddenly.”) The grand doors of the throne room opened and royal attendants ushered each delegate down a pillared hall to stand before the throne. The frail old monarch sat in robes like a soft-spoken aesthete and cradled a small dog in his lap as he exchanged a few pleasantries with the archeologist. It reminded Clark of an audience with a medieval king.
It was a last glimpse of a vanishing world. Ethiopia’s ancien régime was dying. The monarchy had endured two millennia but by the 1970s observers sensed the emperor had gone senile. The bureaucracy he had built to prevent intrigue also forestalled progress; the competing security services founded to keep eyes on one another became nests of plotters. In 1972, the government tried to suppress news of famine in the northern provinces to avoid embarrassment. By the time foreign aid arrived the following year, one hundred thousand people had perished. The scandal destroyed the monarchy’s last vestiges of legitimacy. Soldiers mutinied, students demonstrated, and workers went on strike. In September 1974, a group of military officers staged a coup. Haile Selassie was arrested in his palace, denied the dignity of departing in one of his many limousines, and stuffed into the backseat of a Volkswagen. The eighty-three-year-old monarch died while under arrest—maybe of natural causes, maybe smothered in his bed, depending on who you believed—and his body was discovered years later hidden beneath a toilet in the palace. On November 23, 1974, the military government executed fifty-nine senior officers and cabinet ministers from the old regime. The following day, a foreign expedition discovered Lucy down in the Afar Depression. Fossil bones were harvested in the Afar lowlands while corpses piled up in the highland capital. A secretive military committee called the Derg eventually came under the command of the most ruthless revolutionary—Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Under the emperor, Ethiopia had been a staunch Cold War ally of the United States. Under the Derg, it declared itself a socialist state and swung to the Soviet bloc. The archeologists and anthropologists who had been welcomed by the emperor suddenly fell under suspicion...

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