New Fossil Human Species Thwarts Core Darwinian Predictions
The rewriting of the evolutionary narrative of human origins is proceeding at such an unbelievable pace that I am running out of new ways to introduce my comments on the latest findings. Just a few weeks ago, for Evolution News and ID the Future, I discussed the ongoing rewriting of human fossil history in Asia (Bechly 2018, 2019, Klinghoffer 2019). Now a new fossil species of our genus Homo from the Late Pleistocene of the Philippines has been described in Nature by Détroit et al. (2019), and guess what, the media again report this discovery as they’ve done in the past, saying that it “…May Rewrite Human History” (Joyce 2019), etc. I can hardly resist the temptation to say “I told you so,” or to jokingly remark, “Oops, they did it again.” Let’s instead have a closer look at the actual evidence and the implications of this new discovery.
Remains from Callao Cave
The digs were led by Dr. Armand Mijares from the University of the Philippines and the study conducted by Dr. Florent Détroit from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. In their Nature paper they describe the new species Homo luzonensis from 7 isolated teeth, 2 finger bones, 3 feet bones, and a thigh fragment. The remains were discovered in Callao Cave on Luzon Island, in the Philippines. These hominin fossils were recovered during excavations in 2007, 2011, and 2015, and have been radiometrically dated to a Late Pleistocene age of 50,000-67,000 years. A foot bone unearthed in 2007 was already described by Mijares et al. (2010) and similarities to Homo floresiensis and Homo habilis mentioned, but it was not yet named as a new species and an attribution to Homo sapiens was not ruled out. Last year the discovery of stone tools documented that hominins were present on Luzon since more than 700,000 years ago (Ingicco et al. 2018, Hawks 2018). That would predate the supposed origin of Homo sapiens and thus suggests an origin from a more archaic hominin form. This is also indicated by the anatomical character analysis of the Homo luzonensis fossils, which revealed similarities of several tooth characters and the curved shape of the toe with the ape-like genus Australopithecus rather than the human genus Homo (Stoddart 2019). Such curved toes are typical for those early australopithecines that were still adapted for climbing in trees rather than elegant bipedal walking.
The actual evidence for the establishment of a new human species may seem a bit thin. However, the strange combination of characters indeed suggests a new species, even though other researchers such as Dr. Bernard Wood are still skeptical. They emphasize that “it’s really at the lower end of the amount of evidence that you would want to base a new species” (Zimmer 2019). Nevertheless, distinguished paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who was one of the team of scientists that described Homo naledi, agrees that “No other known species shares the whole set of features found at Callao” (Hawks 2019c) and “Together, they represent a mash of features that are confusingly reminiscent of a huge range of other hominins, and together make for something new and hard to classify” (Hawks 2019b). In any case the discovery shows that the fossil history of humans was much more diverse and complex than previously believed. Paleoanthropologist Yousuke Kaifu from the National Museum in Tokyo is quoted in a National Geographic article (Greshko & Wei-Haas 2019) as saying that this new hominin “further highlights remarkable diversity of archaic (primitive) hominins once present in Asia, in a way beyond my expectation.”
A Mosaic Pattern
The mosaic pattern of primitive and derived characters in Homo luzonensis also shakes up the phylogenetic tree (Hawks 2019b). Actually, there is no well-established tree of fossil humans, as is nicely documented by the fact that John Hawks put question marks at almost every node in his most recent tree (Hawks 2019a). This embarrassing fact is mostly based on the problem that fossil humans show all kinds of strange combinations of characters that do not align well with a nested hierarchy. Even worse, they do not allow us to order human fossils in a gradually progressive and smooth transitional lineage from ape-like forms to modern humans. They also do not fall into a temporal cline from older primitive to younger derived forms. Some early australopithecines not only exhibit the expected ape-like features but also some very modern human characters, while some late representatives of Homo (e.g., Homo naledi) still have very primitive characters. Thus fossil humans do not form a transitional series like the famous horse series. They are a frustrating mess for evolutionists, and the new species from Luzon makes the situation even worse.
So what did scientists say about the potential affinities of Homo luzonensis? The authors of the original description refrain from saying anything about its relationships. Hawks (2019b) speculated about whether the SE Asian island hominins might be related to the elusive Denisovans. But in my view two arguments point against such an affinity: phylogenomic studies have shown that Denisovans are relatively modern members of the genus Homo, closely related to Neanderthal man, while the anatomical data suggest that the island hominins belonged to a much more primitive habiline grade (see below); furthermore, the small body size of the Flores and Luzon populations may suggest an already dwarf-sized ancestor, while the few Denisovan fossil remains (including the recently discovered first skull fragment, Jones 2019) document a large body size. Both arguments also point against an affinity with Homo erectus.
The Hobbit Man
The new discovery of course reminds one of another East Asian island hominin, the famous hobbit man, Homo floresiensis, discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Homo luzonensis not only shares with Homo floresiensis the estimated tiny height of less than 4 feet (1.2 meters), but also the strange (but different) mixture of primitive and derived traits, which may suggest a common origin from an early australopithecine-like form similar to the controversial wastebasket taxon “Homo” habilis that may rather represent an australopithecine according to many critical paleoanthropologists. It is interesting that the most recent phylogenetic analysis (Argue et al. 2017) of Homo floresiensis revealed that it is not a dwarf descendent of Homo erectus, as had become the majority view, but a descendent of an archaic African hominin close to Homo habilis. It should neither exist at that remote place outside of Africa nor at that late time more than 1.75 million years after the supposed extinction of such forms (Australian National University 2017). Likewise, Homo luzonensis was found at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Such a primitive hominin should not have been living on the Philippines at all, and certainly not just 50,000 years ago as a contemporary of modern humans. So much for the popular evolutionist myth that there are no out-of-place fossils thwarting Darwinian expectations.
Another obvious problem that bothers scientists is: How did this primitive man get there at all? Some have suggested that archaic hominins reached SE Asian islands like Flores, Luzon, and Sulawesi (Talepu site stone tools from 118,000 years ago, van den Bergh et al. 2016, Greshko 2016), as well as the Mediterranean island of Crete (Associated Press 2011, Davis 2018), accidently with driftwood during storms or tsunami events, while others say that these extinct humans were smarter than we thought and could deliberately build ocean-going rafts. Hawks (2018, 2019b, 2019c) agrees and remarks that this would better explain three independent colonizations of East Asian islands that could not all have been reached by land bridges. However, the earliest archaeological evidence for boat building (the famous Pesse canoe from the Netherlands) is only from the Mesolithic period, less than 10,000 years ago.
Last but not least, I would like to disagree with a critique of the new discovery that is, in my humble opinion, not warranted. Blogger and writer Dr. J.R. Miller is cited at Uncommon Descent (Anonymous 2019) with the claim that the Wall Street Journal article (Hotz 2019) strips its headline (“Fossil Evidence of New Human Species Found in Philippines”) of any meaning. He lists four quotes from the article to support his claim:
- “Small-jawed with dainty teeth, able to walk upright but with feet still shaped to climb, these island creatures were a mix-and-match patchwork of primitive and advanced features in a unique variation of the human form, …”
- “So far, the scientists haven’t found evidence that these creatures used tools to hunt or to process their food…”
- “The scientists also have been unable to isolate DNA from the bones and teeth that could be used to understand how closely they were related to other human species.”
- “The scientists also don’t know how these creatures reached the island.”
However, the first point actually confirms the status as a new species, and the other three points are mostly irrelevant to the claim in the Journal’s headline and the title of the scientific paper. I mention this because I think that skeptics of Darwinism should be careful not to cavil about new evolutionary studies, but should rather strive to accurately point out real scientific flaws and limits, and most of all show how an inference to the best explanation of all the scientific evidence indeed points against Darwinism.
Not Junk Science
This new discovery is highly interesting and by no means junk science. It confirms that the fossil evidence supports neither an unambiguous phylogenetic tree of fossil humans nor a smooth directional evolutionary trajectory from ape-like to human-like forms. Furthermore, the fossils occur at the wrong place and the wrong time. Therefore, we see three core predictions of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory again refuted by empirical data. That’s how good science is supposed to work according to the late great philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper (1963): Conjectures and Refutations! If a theory and its proponents stubbornly refuse falsification by an ever increasing body of substantial conflicting evidence, the theory degenerates into a textbook example of dogmatic pseudo-science. The neo-Darwinian theory of macroevolution has failed on all fronts, from mathematical feasibility, to theoretical plausibility and explanatory power, to empirical support.
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Photo: Callao Cave, by Ervin Malicdem [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.