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The 'missing link' - scientists discover our 'earliest' ancestors

  • 06-04-2010 1:16pm
    Registered Users Posts: 962 ✭✭✭

    Don't look now, it's Ida mark 2! The UK Telegraph on Saturday published an exclusive story about new Homo habilis-like fossils from South Africa (link to article).


    The new species of hominid, the evolutionary branch of primates that includes humans, is to be revealed when the two-million-year-old skeleton of a child is unveiled this week.

    Scientists believe the almost-complete fossilised skeleton belonged to a previously-unknown type of early human ancestor that may have been a intermediate stage as ape-men evolved into the first species of advanced humans, Homo habilis.


    Palaeontologists and human evolutionary experts behind the discovery have remained silent about the exact details of what they have uncovered, but the scientific community is already abuzz with anticipation of the announcement of the find when it is made on Thursday.


    The find is deemed to be so significant that Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has visited the university to view the fossils and a major media campaign with television documentaries is planned.

    Normally the big science journals have an embargo on mainstream news articles appearing before the actual science papers are published. That would seem to have been breached by the Telegraph's scoop, letting speculation run ahead of the facts. Throw in a flamboyant politician and a lavish media campaign, and it looks as though science could take a back seat over the coming days and weeks. As with Ida, it could be months before we have an idea of the real significance.


  • Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭Galvasean


    Have they learned nothing from the Ida farce? Once again science takes a back seat to media/showbiz.
    As Darjeeling said, it will be quite some time before we learn of the actual significance of this discovery, but for the time being we have to put up with tabloidy 'missing-link found!" headlines.

  • Registered Users Posts: 962 ✭✭✭darjeeling

    At least I suppose we know that any fairly complete hominin fossil of that age is going to be interesting, and tell us something we didn't know about human evolution.

    Roll on Thursday.

  • Hosted Moderators Posts: 11,362 ✭✭✭✭Scarinae

    This is the same one, I came on here to post it and found I'd been scooped!

    So this new fossil is called Australopithecus sediba and is from about 1.9 million years ago

    If the Telegraph has broken the embargo, doesn't that mean that they will be blacklisted by Science magazine? I was under the impression that breaches of the embargoes are taken pretty seriously, they must have really thought it was worth breaking

  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 10,079 Mod ✭✭✭✭marco_polo

    Interesting blog on the breaking of the Embargo here.

    Comments at the bottom include an email response from the journalist in question, claiming that he did not use any information from embargoed sources, and so did not break the embargo. The statement science issued to other journalists seems to pretty much agree, although they are certainly not happy about it, not sure that there is any further action that the can take.

    Richard Gray responded to this post by email:

    I liked your piece on the Australopithecus sediba story and Science embargo and thought I would throw in a bit about what happened from our end.

    We were first told about the find several weeks ago by a very reliable source who gave us details about what had been found and that there was due to be an announcement in April. I then started making enquiries about the story to other people in the palaeoanthropological world about what they knew and had heard, before approaching Professor Berger himself two weeks ago. For the record, he did not speak to me and said the story was going to be appearing in Science. His press office also mentioned they would be having a press briefing on the day of the Science publication.
    He was clearly right to not want to talk about it, as doing so would have endangered the publication of his paper under Science’s embargo policies.

    Last weekend, we decided we had enough to run a story from sources that had not come from embargoed information and so published.

    We did not receive any embargoed press releases on this paper or the find until Monday morning and gathered information about the story in a perfectly reasonable journalistic manner. On Saturday evening I also checked to see if there were any embargoed press releases on Eurekalert and could find none.

    Can this be an embargo break if no official embargo has been issued?

    Should Science be able to put an embargo on information that has not come from them and has been obtained from other sources?

    Does this mean that if I speak to any scientist who is hoping to have a paper in Science in the future, then I am prevented from publishing anything about this until it appears in Science?

    Ginger Pinholster emailed me on Sunday night. They are currently discussing with reporter-advisors about what to do (although I suspect I may be in line for a Eurekalert account suspension). For the reasons I outlined in my last email, I feel this will be unjust, but I do appreciate the frustration that other journalists have when a story breaks early.

    On a personal note, I feel it is sad that publications like Science and Nature are trying to stifle good old-fashioned “scoops” with their dictatorial embargo policies. It is leading to an ever increasing tide of churnalism.

    I have separate issues with the quality of press release that is also now allowed on Eurekalert, but that is perhaps another issue for another time.


    April 8, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Also includes this note from Science to other reporters :
    SPECIAL NOTE: Registered reporters, it is acknowledged that several media outlets have run “teaser” type stories based on portions of information related to fossil research described more fully and accurately in this press package. The teaser articles, appearing prior to the release of the Science Press Package, unfortunately may in some cases over-state the forthcoming research, and thus are a disservice to the goal of communicating science accurately, thereby promoting public trust in the integrity of science.

    These articles do not reference Science, however, and are not based upon the peer-reviewed version of this research. The Science embargo, detailed below, remains in effect. The SciPak team wishes to commend all journalists concerned with the accurate communication of research news.

  • Registered Users Posts: 962 ✭✭✭darjeeling

    Another find that frustratingly won't slot conveniently into what the textbooks show as the family tree of proto-humans.

    The fossils are two largely complete skeletons of an adult female and juvenile male (probably) hominin buried together in a cave in Malapa, South Africa, and dating from about 1.8 to 2.0 Mya. It's possible they were mother and son. The male has a substantially complete skull, whereas the female doesn't. The female has a full right shoulder and arm, down to the finger tips.

    These individuals were quite small (~1.3m) and had long tree climbers' arms like those of modern orangutans. They were bipedal, with longer legs and a more Homo-looking pelvis than earlier Australopithecines, though still relatively primitive feet. Cranially, they retained the Australopithecine small brain - smaller than in any fossil classed as Homo - but didn't have the robust jawbones of earlier Australopithecines, and had small teeth apparently closer to those of Homo erectus than the earlier H. habilis.

    These particular two lived too late to count as human ancestors. Earlier fossils dating back to 2.33Mya have been classed as H. habilis (though the species is disputed), while H. ergaster / erectus fossils roughly contemporaneous with these new Malapa ones are much larger and have many more modern adaptations, including a much larger brain size.

    Various experts fit the new fossils into the record in different ways. Donald Johansen (who found both the 3.2Mya Lucy and the earliest H. habilis) thinks they may have descended from early H. habilis around half a million years earlier, and that they moved over time from East to South Africa. Tim White (who found an alternative Australopithecus-Homo intermediary, Au. garhi) thinks they're just a later stage of South African Au. africanus, on a different evolutionary branch from Homo. The paper's authors think that ancestors of these fossils, and not H. habilis, may be the intermediaries between Au. africanus and H. erectus.

    One issue highlighted by scientists is that the only skull is from a juvenile, and may not show more distinctive features that would be present in an adult.

    As for naming, Johansen says he'd call it Homo, whereas the authors thought Australopithecus sediba more appropriate, given the small brain and relatively primitive post-cranial skeleton.

    Here's some links saying a lot more, and probably getting it a lot more right than me.

    Science podcast Interview with author Lee Berger.

    Nature news article - free, and very similar to the subscriber-only Science editorial commentary.

    MSNBC's Alan Boyle - with an interpretation by Donald Johansen.

    John Hawks' blog

    Bran Switek's blog 'Laelaps'

    Elsewhere, the Telegraph, which came out with the 'missing link' exclusive that now looks a bit hollow, today has no story. [Edit: actually they do - it was filed under Health, not Science. Nothing exclusive in it this time though.]

    Meanwhile, the UK Times today goes with:
    Discoveries point to age of Tarzan and Jane WTF?


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  • Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭Galvasean

    darjeeling wrote: »
    These particular two lived too late to count as human ancestors.

    Just thought I'd highlight that because the media are already running around with 'missing-link found' nonsence.
    ROFLcopter @ the UK Times' headline.

  • Closed Accounts Posts: 20,759 ✭✭✭✭dlofnep

    Scientists in South Africa say they have discovered a potential missing link in the evolutionary chain, after they claim to have found the fossilised remains of our earliest ancestors.

    Australopithecus sediba, whose remains were discovered in a South African cave three years ago, had a long thumb and relatively short fingers like modern man, and a brain shaped more like that of a human than a chimpanzee.

    Until now it was believed that our earliest identifiable ancestors were Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis, fossils found in East Africa. But the newly discovered creature, described in five papers in the journal Science today, is several hundred thousand years older.

    Prof Lee Berger, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said: “The many very advanced features found in the brain and body, and the earlier date, make it possibly the best candidate ancestor for our genus, the genus Homo.”

  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators, Society & Culture Moderators Posts: 60,159 Mod ✭✭✭✭Wibbs

    Not another one! :D

    Rejoice in the awareness of feeling stupid, for that’s how you end up learning new things. If you’re not aware you’re stupid, you probably are.

  • Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭Galvasean

    Great find, but by golly I do dislike how every time something vaguely human looking is found the phrase 'missing link' is bandied about :pac:
    Here's a link to the peer reviewed paper: