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February 14, 2009

A Chance to Speak With Darwin

Charles DarwinMany talks at this year's meeting start with a nod to Charles Darwin, often with the same famous photo of the great scientist in profile, to celebrate his 200th birthday. But paleoanthropologists talking in a session aptly called "The Origin of the Human Species" on Friday clearly felt a special bond with him.

Paleoanthropologist William Kimbel was the first speaker, and he began the session by saying that he was recently asked if he had a chance to go back in time to talk with Darwin, what fossil would he take with him. Kimbel said he would show Darwin a skull of the human ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, which is best known as the species that includes the famous partial skeleton of Lucy from Ethiopia. "I can imagine sitting at a table with Darwin, a little smile on his face," says Kimbel. "You can tell from the photos he's not a smiley kind of guy, but he would recognize that australopithecines were an intermediate between apes and humans." 

Indeed, Kimbel noted that when Darwin speculated that humans probably arose in Africa in The Descent of Man in 1871, there were no fossils of human ancestors from Africa--and only a Neandertal from Europe. Darwin thought we were more closely related to African apes than to Asian apes and urged geologists to explore Africa for fossils. But it wasn't until well after his death that the first fossil of a hominid was found in Africa, with the discovery of the Taung Child in 1924 in South Africa. Now, says Kimbel, there are between six and eight species of australopithecines, which lived 1.4 million to 4.2 million years ago, and much of the outline of early human evolution has been filled in with discoveries of even older fossils that lived soon after the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees diverged.
That set the tone, and the next speaker, paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, opened his talk saying, "Darwin didn't know about Georgia, but he would be happy there was another spot in the world to look at the history of our species." He went on to describe fossils of the earliest known humans to have left Africa.
Other speakers also paid homage to Darwin, prompting paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello, the symposium's organizer and president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, to note after the session: "Darwin would be happy we had all this new evidence. ... This is paleoanthropologists' birthday gift to Darwin."

--Ann Gibbons