A brief moment in the magnificent history of mankind

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

kenya_footprint.jpeg

Isn’t that beautiful? It’s an ancient footprint in some lumpy rocks in Kenya…but it is 1½ million years old. It comes from the Koobi Fora formation, familiar to anyone who follows human evolution, and is probably from Homo ergaster. There aren’t a lot of them; one series of three hominin trails containing 2-7 prints, and a stratigraphically separate section with one trail of 2 prints and an isolated single print. But there they are, a preserved record of a trivial event — a few of our remote relatives taking a walk across a mudflat by a river — rendered awesome by their rarity and the magnitude of the time separating us.

Here’s one of the trails:

trail.jpeg

(Click for larger image)Tessellated swath of optical laser scans of the main footprint trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E. Color is rendered with 5-mm isopleths.

It’s an interesting bridge across time. There they were, a couple of pre-humans out for a stroll, perhaps on their way to find something for lunch, or strolling off to urinate, probably nothing dramatic, and these few footprints were left in drying mud to be found over a million years later, when they would be scanned with a laser, digitized, and analyzed with sophisticated software, and then uploaded to a digital network where everyone in the world can take a look at them. Something so ephemeral can be translated across incomprehensible ages…I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering about the possible future fate of the debris of my life that has ended up in landfills, or the other small smudges across the landscape that I’ve left behind me.

And what have we learned? The analysis has looked at the shape of the foot, the angle of the big toe, the distribution of weight as the hominins walked across the substrate, all the anatomical and physiological details that can be possibly extracted from a few footprints.

prints.jpeg

(Click for larger image) Optical laser scan images color-rendered with 5-mm isopleths for footprints at both FwJj14E and GaJi10. (A) Isolated left foot (FUI1) on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E. (B) Photograph of FUI8 on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing good definition of the toe pads; the second toe is partially obscured by the third toe. (C) Second trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing two left feet. (D) Third trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing a right and a left foot. (E) Print R3 from GaJi10 (22), re-excavated and scanned as part of this investigation. (F) Partial print (FUT1-2) on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E; the heel area has been removed by a later bovid print. (G) Print FLI1 on the lower footprint surface at FwJj14E, rendered with 5-mm alternating black and white isopleths. (H) Inverted image of the toe area of print FUT1-1 with alternating 5-mm black and white isopleths. Note the locations of the pads of the small toes and the presence of a well-defined ball beneath the hallucial metatarsophalangeal joint. The first, third, and fifth toes are marked D1, D3, and D5, respectively.

The answer is that these beings walked just like us. The tracks are noticeably different from the even older footprints of australopithecines found at Laetoli, from 3.5 million years ago. The foot shape and the stride of Homo ergaster was statistically indistinguishable from those of modern humans, even though we know from the bones associated with these species that they were cranially distinct from us. This is not a surprise; it’s been known for a long time that we evolved these bipedal forms long ago, and that the cerebral innovations we regard as so characteristic of humanity are a relative late-comer in our history.

Remember, though, these are 1½ million years old, 250 times older than the age of the earth, according to creationists. That’s a lot of wonder and history and evidence to throw away, but they do it anyway.


Bennet MR, Harris JWK, Richmond BG, Braun DR, Mbua E, Kiura P, Olago D, Kibunjia M, Omuombo C, Behrensmeyer AK, Huddart D, Gonzalez S (2009) Early Hominin Foot Morphology Based on 1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints from Ileret, Kenya. Science 323(5918):1197-1201.

64 Comments

Am sure that if P. G. Williamson - who was the invertebrate paleontologist working alongside Richard Leaky back in the 1980s - was still alive, then he’d be elated by this news. Without a doubt, a most impressive hominid paleobiological find which merely emphasizes how early the trait for upright posture and walking did occur for the hominid lineage leading to us.

How do you know that a humanlike creature whose foot shape and gait size are statistically indistinguishable from modern humans made these tracks?

Were you there?

It could have been.. er.. dinosaurs dancing. Yeah! that’s it. Plant eating dinosaurs dancing in the garden!

1.5 million years ago.

No, wait, there was no 1.5 million years ago…

Um, I’ll get back to you on that.

Oh, no wait - I know the answer! “Here!”

No, No, that doesn’t make any sense either. You must be Satan.

(I had to get it in before the creobots started commenting)

I’m sure that there are equally young dinosaur footprints right beside them, evil-utionist!

Any dinosaur prints next to those??

Anyone? Anyone?

There’s no evolution here! It’s still a part of the footprint kind! And what of all the gaps between the footprints! Where is the slow, gradual transformation from one footprint to the other?!?!?!

(this was sarcasm, so back off)

harold said:

I’m sure that there are equally young dinosaur footprints right beside them, evil-utionist!

Ah, man, I was too slow…

Am sure that if P. G. Williamson - who was the invertebrate paleontologist working alongside Richard Leaky back in the 1980s - was still alive, then he’d be elated by this news. Without a doubt, a most impressive hominid paleobiological discovery which merely emphasizes how early the trait for upright posture and walking did occur for the hominid lineage leading to us.

As some of you may know, P. G. identified a classic example of evolutionary stasis in at least one freshwater gastropod lineage that he had studied from the Kobi Fora Formation.

More seriously, I love reading about stuff like this. Think of the hundreds or thousands of hours spent digging in the heat – one grain of dirt at a time – to make this sort of discovery.

And speaking of discovery, it’s interesting that yet again we have another major scientific find which *wasn’t* found by the Discovery Institute. Science is a verb. It’s not something which happens while blogging or lobbying a school board.

fasteddie said:

And speaking of discovery, it’s interesting that yet again we have another major scientific find which *wasn’t* found by the Discovery Institute. Science is a verb. It’s not something which happens while blogging or lobbying a school board.

This is the most poignant reality. This is, I think, the third *major* find on *human* evolution alone that I’ve read about on PT in the last two months. Let alone all the other stuff that is available elsewhere and stuff that none of us have time to read.

What new evidence have the ID/creationists developed lately? What predictions have they made that were rewarded with such a dicovery of this caliber? Anyone? Anyone?

KP said:

…read about on PT in the last two months.

Um, I meant ONE month

What predictions have they made

WATERLOO!!!!!!

One of the first gut wrenching pieces of @$*^% I ever saw or heard from scientific creationists was that damn fake human footprints alongside dino footprints @$*^%. Would someone please show the AIG @$*^%s what a fossilized human footprint looks like?

Mike said:

fossilized human footprint looks like?

Yeah, that’s a mistake. Well, there’s the likely propaganda ploy, isn’t it? Its not human, but they’ll insist that it is. The YECs will just insist that God’s changing radioactive decay rates to fool us.

Wow. That’s amazing. That means these guys must have been walking through outer space, before the Earth was created!!!

Mike said:

Yeah, that’s a mistake. Well, there’s the likely propaganda ploy, isn’t it? Its not human, but they’ll insist that it is. The YECs will just insist that God’s changing radioactive decay rates to fool us.

Or that it was the footprint of an individual wiped out in Noah’s flood and that all that flood sediment preserved this *perfect* fossil. Let them insist that it’s a human footprint. Then, by your statement above, they have to explain EITHER 1) how/why “humans” have been around for 1.5 million years or 2) why God likes to be a Deceiver w/r/t radioactive decay rate measurement.

Will someone be marketing casts of this? I’d like to buy one.

These are the african Paluxy prints

KP said: What new evidence have the ID/creationists developed lately? What predictions have they made that were rewarded with such a dicovery of this caliber? Anyone? Anyone?

Of course the Distortion Institute does a lot of field research and they do go looking for specimens. Looks like they have unearthed a specimen of nitwit among the Iowa legislators. They got him to introduce “academic freedom” bill there. See? That is the kind of background research they do.

As nice as this find is (and that strange fish), don’t you think it is a bit dishonest not to link your post to the actual researchblogging site? Why do you have all these peer-reviewed logos for your posts (which are nice) but you don’t have a single one registered at the actual site? http://researchblogging.org/blog/home/id/50 Do you agree that is either sloppy or dishonest?

Stevie said:

As nice as this find is (and that strange fish), don’t you think it is a bit dishonest not to link your post to the actual researchblogging site? Why do you have all these peer-reviewed logos for your posts (which are nice) but you don’t have a single one registered at the actual site? http://researchblogging.org/blog/home/id/50 Do you agree that is either sloppy or dishonest?

This post is cross-posted from PZ Myers’ home blog, Pharyngula, which is registered.

Is it just me, or do the anti-evolutionists tend not to post in threads related to obvious physical evidence and instead only stick with the more ephemeral topics, like anything regarding information theory or law?

I see evidence of pedicure.

“That’s a lot of wonder and history and evidence to throw away, but they do it anyway.”

It amazes me how the creationists claim to have an awe about the universe, but only in so far as it fits with in a pre-conceived structure in which to understand it. It is a worldview that does away with so much of our shared history. That is not awe at all, but social control.

Wheels said:

Is it just me, or do the anti-evolutionists tend not to post in threads related to obvious physical evidence and instead only stick with the more ephemeral topics, like anything regarding information theory or law?

It’s not just you. There’s physical evidence of novparl being very vocal in the Iowa thread above this one, but not a word here.

It might not be so much that physical evidence is like holding up the crucifix and the wooden stake – so much as Darwin-bashers are more drawn to political and philosophical controversies.

Speculative but makes sense – physical evidence is clearly not a matter of significant interest to them, the matter being one of ideology. The evidence is irrelevant at best and an annoyance at worst.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

Mike Wrote:

The YECs will just insist that God’s changing radioactive decay rates to fool us.

But as you probably know, OECs (old-style, like Hugh Ross) will insist that the decay rates are correct, and IDers will simply avoid the subject.

mrg Wrote:

Speculative but makes sense – physical evidence is clearly not a matter of significant interest to them, the matter being one of ideology. The evidence is irrelevant at best and an annoyance at worst.

Et tu, Mr. G.? Who is “them”?

In case any lurkers are relatively new to anti-evolution antics, on the X axis we have YECs, OECs IDers, etc. On the Y axis we have the activists (professionals, and amateurs like novparl), and the rank and file (~70% of adult Americans, split roughly equally between those who will not accept evolution under any circumstances, those who doubt evolution but might accept it if their misconceptions are cleared up, and those who accept evolution, ususlly in caricature form, but think it’s fair to “teach the controversy”).

Professionals do care about evidence. Like quotes, it’s their raw material to take out of context to perpetrate their scam.

KP Wrote:

It’s not just you. There’s physical evidence of novparl being very vocal in the Iowa thread above this one, but not a word here.

But with rare exception, like the occasional Paul Nelson drive-by, the professionals avoid all the threads on pro-science blogs and newsgroups. They prefer their own forums where they can delete inconvenient replies.

Remember, though, these are 1½ million years old, 250 times older than the age of the earth, according to creationists.

As a professor ranting against religion, you should be more precise. There are young earth creationists, gap theory creationists, and old earth creationists.

ashes said:

Remember, though, these are 1½ million years old, 250 times older than the age of the earth, according to creationists.

As a professor ranting against religion, you should be more precise. There are young earth creationists, gap theory creationists, and old earth creationists.

Thanks. It’s tiring being the only one trying to stop the foot-shooting. BTW, don’t forget the “don’t ask, don’t tell” IDers, who mostly (though grudgingly) admit OEC, and sometimes even common descent. I don’t know what’s more maddening, how anti-evolutionists downplay their irreconcilable differences, or how fellow “Darwinists” refuse to take advantage of it.

The folks who did this could probably make more money if they put together a “footprint-making kit” and marketed it as a toy.

Do you people think Bigfoot is real too based on similar “evidence?”

Dan said:

Don’t forget biogeography, particularly island biogeography. Much of the evidence in Origin of Species is derived from biogeography.

Good point!

KP said:

Now might be a good time to remind our creationist friends that finding a few fraudulent fossils does not negate the entire theory of evolution. If all the Tiktaalik specimens were fakes, there’s still Acanthostega, Panderichthys, etc. etc. that need to be explained. If all those fossils were fakes there is still plenty of evidence from biochemistry, molecular genetics, biogeography, and comparative anatomy for a common ancestry of tetrapods. Too many facts out there that require a unifying theory to explain them… Good luck with that.

Oh, and finding a few fake fossils also does not, suddenly, make the default assumption that Goddidit into truth.

There, Toidel, one more corroborating discipline to get educated in before declaring it all a fraud.

If all the Tiktaalik specimens were fakes, there’s still Acanthostega, Panderichthys, etc. etc. that need to be explained. If all those fossils were fakes there is still plenty of evidence from biochemistry, molecular genetics, and comparative anatomy for a common ancestry of tetrapods. Too many facts out there that require a unifying theory to explain them… Good luck with that.

Yep. Support of a theory isn’t based on the individual finds taken one at a time, it’s based on the overall patterns (nested hierarchy, geographic clustering, fossil series, lots of varieties of the same basic parts, etc.); patterns that are logical consequences of the core premises of the theory. Those patterns were noted and explained quite a while before the mechanisms of heredity were understood, and then it was noted that the way heredity works makes evolution pretty much inevitable unless there’s something wrong with scientists’ understanding of genetics.

IMO, discussions of why scientists accept the theory should focus on those overall patterns; descriptions of known mechanisms are part of the theory, but they aren’t the primary reason the theory is accepted.

Henry

Henry J said:

IMO, discussions of why scientists accept the theory should focus on those overall patterns; descriptions of known mechanisms are part of the theory, but they aren’t the primary reason the theory is accepted.

Henry

Indeed, this has proven most effective with some very religious close friends of mine. They have been fairly convinced by the arguments for a young earth, for example. So rather than argue that these are bogus pseudoscience (which they are, but that’s beside the point), I will do what I did above. “Ok, let’s concede for a minute that the earth might be young/certain fossils might be fake/whatever. The burden is then on creation scientists to explain ALL THIS OTHER EVIDENCE OUT THERE!” That evidence doesn’t go away even if you successfully refute part of Darwin’s theory.

So getting back to the original thread, 1.5 million year old footprints are an amazing find. By themselves they say a modest amount, but in the context of other evidence showing transition between early hominids and ourselves, they strengthen the theory immensely. Suppose next month _Science_ publishes a retraction that the footprints were fake or mis-identified stratigraphically. There is still other evidence out there that H. erectus 1) existed, 2) was different from us, but 3) walked like us (obligate bipedalism; see Spoor et al’s semicircular canal work).

That last bit is further fodder for our creationist friends.

I believe God made things so fast that (similar to the speed of light that he did create everything in six days and the earth aged accordingly. Science will figure it out and then amit God is real, but they still won’t know him because they don’t want to serve him. stevaroni said:

How do you know that a humanlike creature whose foot shape and gait size are statistically indistinguishable from modern humans made these tracks?

Were you there?

It could have been.. er.. dinosaurs dancing. Yeah! that’s it. Plant eating dinosaurs dancing in the garden!

1.5 million years ago.

No, wait, there was no 1.5 million years ago…

Um, I’ll get back to you on that.

Oh, no wait - I know the answer! “Here!”

No, No, that doesn’t make any sense either. You must be Satan.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 27, 2009 10:13 AM.

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