Could a fossil found in Germany rewrite human history? ETSU professor says no

Brandon Paykamian • Oct 28, 2017 at 11:53 PM

Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

That’s what William N. Duncan, chairman of the East Tennessee State University Department of Sociology and Anthropology, said about a set of fossilized teeth found near the German town of Eppelsheim last year, which many have said could “rewrite” human history.

Once the news of Herbert Lutz’s find in Eppelsheim was announced last week, the discovery went viral, and many have claimed the 9.7-million-year-old fossil could change ideas about where humans originated.

But Duncan said he, like many other archaeologists and anthropologists, is skeptical. He said it’s important for people not to confuse hominins, the lineage containing humans and some of our closest ancestors and relatives, and hominoids, which include hominins, chimpanzees, gorillas and other apes from the past and present.

“The researcher suggested that they could be hominin teeth. Hominins are all of those species that are humans and our closest relatives after they branched off from other great apes, some time around 6 to 8 million years ago,” Duncan said. “The larger category we’re part of is hominoids, and that includes all of the great apes, and the lesser apes, actually – from gorillas, to chimps, gibbons and humans.”

Since Lutz and his team from the Natural History Museum in Mainz have only found a canine and a molar, Duncan said it is too early for people to know what species they came from. He said there needs to be more evidence to claim the teeth are from an early ancestor of humans.

It takes more than two teeth to rewrite the human story, Duncan said.

“You can tell a lot from teeth, don’t get me wrong, but you would have to find something that looks like it has some of the same locomotor adaptations, similar dietary features that you’d see from some of the later hominins, things like that,” Duncan said.

Duncan believes the teeth found by Lutz most likely belonged to an extinct monkey, similar to the pliopithecus, which was once found near Lutz’s excavation site in the 1820s. He said this is the most plausible explanation, considering the oldest human ancestors found so far have been in Africa, such as the most famous fossil of “Lucy,” an australopithecus which could be 2 to 5 million years old, and the 7-million-year-old sahelanthropus.

“It's probably grouped with the pliopithecoidea,” he said. “Those would’ve been old world monkeys, many of which are extinct now. That was before the branching off of the hominins from the other apes.

“But this (finding) was not part of any genus that stands today.”

Duncan said the likelihood of finding a 10-million-year-old human ancestor in Europe is highly unlikely.

“It would be extraordinary to find a hominin from 9.7 million years ago in Germany, because there’s never been anything like that,” Duncan said.

Though Duncan gave Lutz credit in the sense that he himself admitted his ideas about rewriting human history are speculative at this point, he said anthropology — and science in general — is a competitive field; a field in which the optimists and skeptics often find themselves clashing and keeping each other in check.

“The question many might have is why someone would say it has a connection to modern humans and our lineage if it most likely doesn’t,” Duncan said. “The answer is that there’s a long-standing tradition to find the earliest of whatever you’re talking about.”

“Some people are inherently more critical than others. Everybody likes to think they’re open-minded about new data — that’s an important part of science. You need to keep an open mind about things, but like I said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary data, and I haven’t seen that, so I’m skeptical.”

Duncan believes the discovery of what he and many others believe is an old world monkey is still important, though.

“It’s worth finding out about these things, even if they don’t directly inform us about recent human evolution,” Duncan said.

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