Last week for Fossil Friday I posted some musings about Homo habilis and its controversial attribution to our genus. This week we will have a look at another disputed relative, Homo rudolfensis. Alexeev (1986) described the new species Homo (Pithecanthropus) rudolfensis from a single skull (KNM-ER 1470) discovered in 1972 by Richard Leakey at the 1.9 million year old Koobi Fora locality of the Turkana Lake (formerly known as Lake Rudolf) basin in East Africa (also see Wood 1999). The material was previously considered to be conspecific with Homo habilis, which is a hypothesis still entertained by some modern experts. However, the skull differs from Homo habilis in its flat face and larger brain volume as well as the more robust-australopithecine-like cheek teeth. Unfortunately, no associated postcranial remains are known yet (Berger et al. 2015), so that the most distinctive characters of the genus Homo and those for bipedal gait are unknown (Tuttle 2006: 253).
A New Digital Reconstruction
As for Homo habilis, Wood & Collard (1999a, 1999b, 2001) and Collard & Wood (2007, 2015) indeed advocated for transferring H. rudolfensis to the genus Australopithecus, which had already been suggested by other researchers (i.e., Walker 1976 and Lieberman et al. 1996). Walker & Shipman (1996) pointed out that “1470 might have a big braincase, but morphologically it was just an australopithecine.” A new digital reconstruction of the skull by Bromage et al. (2008) showed that it was somewhat less flat and the brain volume somewhat smaller, which made it even more similar to australopithecine skulls. Nevertheless, the latter study retained this species in the genus Homo. A co-author of this study was German paleoanthropologist Friedemann Schrenk, who at my university, Tübingen, was known by the sneering nickname the “Möllemann of German paleontology.” That was because he shared a notorious proclivity for PR stunts and media hype with the late German politician Jürgen Möllemann. He discovered a hominin mandible (UR 501) in Malawi, which he attributed to Homo rudolfensis and with an estimated age of 2.4 million years this would be much older than the holotype. Of course, publications on an early Homo make for much more sensational press releases than just another ape-man.
Anyway, Leakey et al. (2001) and Lieberman (2001) noted several striking similarities in the facial architecture of the newly described hominin Kenyanthropus platyops and the 1.6 million year younger H. rudolfensis, who could be a late survivor of the australopithecine-like Kenyanthropus lineage rather than an early Homo. The phylogenetic analysis by Cameron & Groves (2004) strongly confirmed the reclassification as Kenyanthropus rudolfensis by Cameron (2003). Cela-Conde & Ayala (2003) agreed that Homo rudolfensis (and H. habilis) should be grouped with Kenyanthropus platyops, but instead proposed to include all three within the genus Homo. That would place the origin of our genus 3.5 million years ago, in stark contradiction to all other experts and the unequivocal empirical evidence from the fossil record.
Prat (2007) compared the four suggested alternative hypotheses: H. rudolfensis is conspecific with Homo habilis; H. rudolfensis and H. habilis are both distinct species of Homo; both species belong to the genus Australopithecus; or H. rudolfensis belongs to the genus Kenyanthropus. Prat came to the conclusion that Homo rudolfensis is distinct but her cladistic analysis suffers from several flaws. This is evident from the fact that the inclusion of the holotype of Kenyanthropus platyops did not just influence the polarity of some characters but produced a totally different tree topology with hardly any similarity to the tree recovered by excluding this taxon. The confidence level in any such highly unstable analyses should be very low for reasonable and unbiased scientists. However, having two early species of Homo is of course a highly desirable result for evolutionist paleoanthropologists, and so it is hardly surprising that almost all subsequent publications maintained the attribution of these two species to the genus Homo.
Awaiting Better Evidence
More recently, a more ancient origin of our genus has indeed been claimed by the discovery of a 2.8 million year old human mandible at Ledi-Geraru in the Afar region of Ethiopia, which was attributed to an early Homo (Villmoare et al. 2015). But this fossil combines primitive australopithecine traits with more derived features of later Homo, and it also suffers from the absence of any other cranial and postcranial characters that could support this claim. Considering the checkered history of grandiose claims and controversies in paleoanthropology, some caution may be wise until more and better evidence is found.
- Alexeev VP 1986. The Origin of the Human Race. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 360 pp. https://archive.org/details/originhumanrace/page/1/mode/2up
- Berger LR, Hawks J, de Ruiter DJ et al. 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife 4:e09560, 1–35. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09560
- Bromage TG, McMahon JM, Thackeray JF, Kullmer O, Hogg R, Rosenberger AL, Schrenk F & Enlow DH 2008. Craniofacial architectural constraints and their importance for reconstructing the early Homo skull KNM-ER 1470. Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry 33, 43–54. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17796/jcpd.33.1.8168115j12103nut
- Cameron DW 2003. Early hominin speciation at the Plio/Pleistocene transition. HOMO 54(1), 1–28. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1078/0018-442X-00057
- Cameron DW & Groves CP 2004. Bones, Stones, and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins. Academic Press, Burlington (MA), xi+402 pp.
- Cela-Conde CJ & Ayala FJ 2003. Genera of the human lineage. PNAS 100(13), 7684–7689. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0832372100
- Collard M & Wood B 2007. Defining the Genus Homo. pp. 1575–1610 in: Henke W & Tattersall I (eds). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. 3 vols. Springer, Berlin, 2069 pp.
- Collard M & Wood B 2015. Defining the Genus Homo. pp. 2107–2144 in: Henke W & Tattersall I (eds). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. 3 vols. Springer, Berlin, xliii+2624 pp. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-39979-4_51
- Tuttle RH 2006. Are Human Beings Apes, or are Apes People too? pp. 249–258 in: Ishida H, Tuttle R, Pickford M, Ogihara N & Nakatsukasa M (eds). Human Origins and Environmental Backgrounds. Springer Science, Boston (MA), x+282 pp. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-29798-7_19
- Leakey MG, Spoor F, Brown FH, Gathogo PN, Kiarie C, Leakey LN & McDougall I 2001. New hominin genus from eastern Africa shows diverse middle Pliocene lineages. Nature 410(6827), 433–440. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/35068500
- Lieberman DE 2001. Another face in our family tree. Nature 410(6827), 419–420. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/35068648
- Lieberman DE, Wood BA & Pilbeam DR 1996. Homoplasy and early Homo: An analysis of the evolutionary relationships of H. habilis sensu stricto and H. rudolfensis. Journal of Human Evolution 30, 97–120. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1006/jhev.1996.0008
- Prat S 2007. The Quaternary boundary: 1.8 or 2.6 millions years old? Contributions of early Homo. Quaternaire 18(1), 99–107. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/quaternaire.1313
- Villmoare B, Kimbel WH, Seyoum C et al. 2015. Early Homo at 2.8 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Afar, Ethiopia. Science 347(6228), 1352–1355. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa1343
- Walker A 1976. Remains attributable to Australopithecus in the East Rudolf succession. pp 484–489 in: Coppens Y, Howell FC, Isaac GL & Leakey REF (eds). Earliest Man and Environments in the Lake Rudolf Basin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (IL), 640 pp.
- Walker A & Shipman P 1996. The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins. Knopf, New York (NY), 368 pp.
- Wood B 1999. Homo rudolfensis Alexeev, 1986: Fact or phantom?. Journal of Human Evolution 36(1), 115–118. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1006/jhev.1998.0246
- Wood B & Collard M 1999a. The Human Genus. Science 284(5411), 65–71. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.284.5411.65
- Wood B & Collard M 1999b. The changing face of genus Homo. Evolutionary Anthropology 8(6), 195–207. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1999)8:6<195::AID-EVAN1>3.0.CO;2-2
- Wood B & Collard M 2001. The meaning of Homo. Ludus Vitalis 9(15), 63–74. http://profmarkcollard.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Wood-and-Collard-2001.pdf