“Ardi,” the oldest known skeleton of a hominin, or member of the human family, has grabbed headlines around the world since her unveiling in Science Thursday. Not surprisingly, the press coverage of the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus has sometimes been sensational—and, in some cases, completely wrong. Some newspapers and broadcasters have misinterpreted the authors’ finding that Ardi did not look like a chimpanzee or gorilla. Based on this anatomy, the authors proposed that Ardi shows that humans did not evolve from a “chimpanzee-like ape.” By that, they meant that Ardi evolved from an ancient ape that didn’t look like a chimpanzee or gorilla does today and that humans have retained some of those primitive traits.
But the word “chimpanzee-like” sometimes got lost in translation. Even the first version of a press release from Kent State University, where co-author C. Owen Lovejoy is on the faculty, said “Man Did Not Evolve From Apes.” And some media were clearly confused. The Torstar News Service in Canada wrote: “Man didn’t descend from apes. What is closer to the truth is that our knuckle-dragging cousins descended from us.”
A radio announcer in Baltimore, Maryland, asked me in an interview Monday if it was true that we were not apes—or even primates—and that we had our own, separate lineage that was more ancient. The same question came up in a Facebook chat with me and my editor at Science, Elizabeth Culotta, and has popped up in other media.
Most disconcerting to the authors was the reporting on Ardi by the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, based in Doha, Qatar. A translation of the article written in Arabic starts with a headline that reads “Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory,” and the first sentence reads “American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong.” The article states that Ardi’s discovery “refutes the long-standing assumption that humans evolved from monkeys.”
Dr. Zaghloul El-Naggar, a professor of geology in several Arab universities (the article does not specify which ones), exclaims in the story that Westerners were beginning to “come to their senses after they used to deal with the origins of man from a materialistic perspective and by denying religions.” He goes on to claim that the age of Earth does not exceed 400,000 years, and that Ardi’s age of 4.4 million years is an exaggeration.
For the record, all of this is plain wrong. Ardi is a primate descended from more ancient apes, as are all humans and human ancestors. Apes in turn are descended from monkeys. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives— we share 96% of our DNA with them, and our lineages shared an ancestor sometime between 6 million and 8 million years ago, possibly earlier. The authors’ point is that the last common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees didn’t look like a chimp—which means that chimpanzees also have been evolving since the two lineages diverged. Finally, Ardi confirms rather than refutes Darwin’s prediction in 1871 that our progenitors lived on the African continent, as well as providing another link in the evolutionary chain from primitive apes to humans.