#238: Totally a Chicago Story and Not Something I Wrote About Cavemen

November 4th, 2013

OK, I lied.

This is Chicagoana to the extent that I read it at Chicago’s own live weekly magazine, The Paper Machete during their Nov. 2 show, but mostly it’s about a fascinating study put out by researchers from the Republic of Georgia. Because I wanted to spend Sunday eating pizza and doing laundry instead of chasing down the last artisanal radish farmer in Schorsch Village or somesuch, here it be for your Monday storytime.

The scene is a packed former Prohibition speakeasy in Uptown. It’s Saturday afternoon and the place is already ragged with drunks. The smart set is there, booze in one hand, manuscripts in another, full sleeves of tattoos on each arm. A mandolin-led folk band whose website describes them as “hot-pickin’” provides the tunes.

A fluffy puppet bird completes his monologue. I walk up to a lonely mic.

 

The human race is going the way of the Brontosaurus.

For those of you who remember youths of sitting inside in air conditioning reading books about dinosaurs and Narnia, the Brontosaurus was a large, plant-eating dinosaur that never existed.

That was the big, plodding, long-necked, long-tailed colossal beast you always made the fat kid down the block play when your parents kicked you out of the air conditioning and made you go outside so you got the neighborhood kids to play dinosaurs. And it never existed.

What happened was in 1879, a man named Othniel Charles Marsh found the skeleton of an Apatosaurus – a species he had discovered two years earlier – without a skull. There was, however, the skull of a Camarasaurus nearby so, had a head, needed a head, Brontosaurus.

Scientists spotted that something was wrong by 1903 and confirmed it by the ‘70s, but by then the damage was done. King Kong knocked the stuffing out of a Brontosaurus on Skull Island, Fred Flintstone ate Bronto burgers and fat Joey down the street had to play the Brontosaurus over and over while you got to be a Triceratops and the kid who now lives in a tastefully decorated apartment with his longtime roommate spread his wings as a magnificent Pterodactyl.

But the Brontosaurus is gone. It never existed. And the same thing is happening to us.

In a study published in the October 2013 issue of the journal “Science,” researchers in the Republic of Georgia say they’ve found a site with five early skulls of the genus Homo – that’s us. That’s humans.

The thing about the early Homo skulls they found – yes, it’s funny, laugh it out. Get it out of your system – early Homos. It was in fact Adam and Steve.

But the thing about these skulls is that – if they had been found in different places – they would have likely been called different species, the researchers said.

Some – based on their size, bone structure, jaws, brain cavities, etc. – would have likely been called Homo habilis. Others, Homo erectus. But in the same spot, only separated by a few centuries 1.8 million years ago and with some bone similarities too nerdy to get into even here, the researchers suspect habilis and erectus might have been the same species all along.

We, human beings, our ancestors, might have gotten Brontosaurused.

The Creationist nutjob contingent has been surprisingly quiet on this. There were a few bits of noise, of course. A few “science wrong again” posts. One blog I read insisted this discovery brings down the entire “Darwin house o’ cards,” which is a bit like saying if I do 6 plus 2 wrong, it disproves the existence of the number 8.

For does it not say “On the SEVENTH day he rested”?

But that’s just me. I read Aesop’s Fables and didn’t think an actual talking rabbit raced a turtle.

I won’t waste too much more time on the Creationists, but they are working from a claim here that calling a 1.8 million-year-old skull one Latin name we made up instead of another Latin name we made up disproves the entire field of evolutionary biology as a concept, as a practice, as a science and you will burn in a fiery inferno with Hitler, Pol Pot and any monster who ever dared utter the words “Australopithecus africanus.” Sinner.

Back to the skulls.

To completely oversimplify beyond the point where the information retains any relevance or meaning – I’m a journalist, that’s what I do – the researchers behind this new paper think that the whole habilis/erectus kerfuffle happened because, in the past, other scientists basically called all the short, stocky fossils one species and all the tall, graceful fossils another one.

Think about that. They called short, dead, ancient people a different species! Who here, who here in this room is 5’ 6” or shorter? Raise your hands. Come on. Raise your hands. Where I can see them.

It’s OK to make fun of the short. It’s not like they’re people. Heh, they can’t vote.

The lead researcher even gave as an example how weird it is that “Danny DeVito, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal are the same species,” in a comparison I’m sure Mr. DeVito just loves.

“There are man-gods who move like the wind and thunder and then there’s you, Penguin,” said a noted anthropologist.

So if this paper is right, scientists for years have been taking all the caveman versions of Danny DeVito and all the caveman Liam Neesons and saying, “Nope. Not a chance. Apples and oranges, ‘Always Sunny’ and ‘Darkman.’”

It’s much more complicated than that, of course. There’s bone structures and fossil ages and phrases like “craniomandibular morphology.”

But the researchers looked at the variation between these five skulls found in Georgia, these skulls that they think would have been called two different species had they been scattered around the world and found no more difference than would exist between modern humans, between you and I.

And I think that’s beautiful.

I do think it’s beautiful to think of our early ancestors as unique individuals, some tall, some short, some stocky, some petite. It’s a nice way to think about them.

But more than that, what I find beautiful is the chance we have to rewrite our own history. We’re at a point where we can look back better than ever before and say, them dinosaurs had feathers. Homo habilis wasn’t a thing. Richard III had worms.

Yes, there will be mistakes. There will be gaffes the Creationists will jump on. Anything we think we know now could change tomorrow with the turn of a shovel anywhere on the planet.

But that’s where the beauty comes in. Our knowledge, our thoughts change and grow with every new bit of information we unearth. Ideas that can’t adapt to these changes die. Only their successors survive.

Our knowledge evolves too.

So our past is being rewritten, and not for the last time. Our imagined genealogy could go the way of Fred Flintstone’s Brontosaurus burgers. And I couldn’t be happier.

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