Our View

Man’s evolution may have been simpler than believed

By From page A10 | October 25, 2013

The issue: Skulls found in Georgia help trace the tree of man

Some 1.8 million years ago, one of our ancestors roaming around what is now the country of Georgia had the misfortune to encounter a large carnivore — perhaps a saber-toothed tiger or a giant cheetah, now extinct.

Our ancestor, unfortunately for him but fortunately for modern scientists, finished a distant second in the contest and was dragged off to a cave to become dinner for this carnivore and perhaps several others as well.

THAT SKULL AND four other sets of skulls and bones suggested the cave was a kind of larder for the carnivores. But “Skull 5,” as it became known, suggests that the evolution of man out of Africa might have been simpler and more straightforward than previously thought. This news comes from study published in the journal Science’s Oct. 18 issue.

If the skull and brain case had been found at widely separated locations, the tendency would have been to think of them as separate species, making the tree of man look more like a dense bush.

Before his unfortunate encounter, the owner of Skull 5 was a little short of five feet tall, with a small brain case — a third the size of a modern human’s — a long, ape-like face and a massive jaw with big teeth.

The significance of the discovery, aside from the fact that mankind’s ancestors probably left Africa for points north much earlier than thought, is that the difference among the hominids’ remains is not particularly greater than the difference among modern humans’ remains.

That would mean that humans may have evolved from only one or two species and that science hasn’t allowed for wide differences within individual species. David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum, noted that although there are wide variations among Danny DeVito, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, they are all Homo sapiens. The three may not appreciate the comparison, but it illustrates the point.

SOME SCIENTISTS think Skull 5 came along as hominids were making the transition from Homo habilis to Homo erectus, with legs getting longer and hips narrower because they were increasingly walking erect instead of scrambling about on all fours. Others think that might be pushing the evidence a little far.

Based on these findings, the evolution of man may have been much more of a straight line — except, of course, when it was interrupted by hungry carnivores that were bigger and stronger and had sharper teeth.

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