Ardi: The Missing Link? (Part 2)

"The fossil evidence Darwin could only have dreamed of..."

In my previous post, I covered a few points about the documentary titled “Discovering Ardi” that aired on the Discovery Channel this past Sunday evening, October 11, 2009. In that post I gave a brief summary of the research that has taken place over the roughly 15 years since its discovery. The documentary was two hours in length and probably could have covered all of the information in about one hour. That aside, the first half of the documentary details out Ardi’s discovery and research while the second half is mainly devoted to Ardi’s public relations preparation.

The research team hired J.H. Matternes to sketch out Ardi’s skeleton. One problem here is that they don’t have a complete skeleton. They have a partial skeleton which lacks most of the central structure. The hands feet and skull comprise the majority of Ardi’s fossil remains. There is only part of the pelvis and essentially no upper torso fossil bones. This means that Mr. Matternes had to fill in the gaps when he was creating the sketch of Ardi’s skeleton. This is where some other statements in the documentary bothered me.

Owen Lovejoy, the project biologist made a statement concerning J.H. Matternes, which is as follows:

He is the equivalent of a super-computer, into which years and years of primate structure have been poured and recorded and out of which comes an almost perfect image.
Following this comment by Lovejoy, Matternes said, “My job is to interpolate from what is there and what is missing.” Then Lovejoy adds:

We can take something like a partial foot and describe and interact with him (Matternes), as to what’s present, what’s missing and then based on our joint anatomical knowledge, replace the missing part.
What really bothers me about this is that an hour was just spent describing how Ardi was completely astounding in physical structure, that she was unlike anything they had before seen. Matternes and Lovejoy may have years of familiarity with primate anatomy, but they are completely unfamiliar with what Ardi’s missing skeletal anatomy might have been. It seems to me that they assume too much in their ability to “fill in the gaps.” For example, if Ardi’s feet would not have been discovered, would they have sketched them the same? Almost certainly not. I understand their desire to try and complete the picture, but the statement that Matternes can produce “an almost perfect image” and that using their knowledge they can “replace the missing part” is going beyond what the evidence can bear.

Then there was an interesting point brought out towards the very end of the documentary. Owen Lovejoy stated:

As we track humans back through time into the fossil record and all of our individual special characteristics begin dropping out, when you get to the very bottom, it is simply bipedality that becomes the defining character of being human.
He also noted that bipedality “is a terrible form of locomotion.” Owen Lovejoy is most certainly correct that bipedality is not the fastest or most efficient method of locomotion. The documentary really emphasized bipedality as the defining characteristic of humans also. What really bothered me is the lack of honesty in this statement. Humans are not the only animal that walks upright on two legs. Therefore, the statement that bipedality is the only thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is simply not the case. What about Ostriches. Do they not use bipedality as their form of locomotion? Emus, closely related to Ostriches also use bipedality as their method of locomotion. Kangaroos use bipedality as their primary form of locomotion. There are other animals that use bipedality at times, such as penguins when they are on land. Before someone comments on this, I also realize that humans are the only animals that walk completely upright, but we aren’t the only ones that use bipedality.

One question that I know many people are asking is why did it take them 15 years to release this information if it was so revealing and ground breaking? The answer is not extremely simple. One reason is the public relations campaign that had to be prepared. They couldn’t simply release the research. They needed accompanying sketches and digital renditions of Ardi in her habitat.

Another reason is the condition of the bones. They were so fragile that the researchers removed them with clumps of dirt in plaster molds. Then in the controlled setting of a lab, they slowly and carefully removed the fossil bones from the dirt. After they were removed from the dirt, they then had to be reconstructed because of the poor condition of the fossils. The article published in the 2 October 2009 edition of Science. written by Ann Gibbons noted this very problem:

It was the find of a lifetime. But the team's excitement was tempered by the skeleton's terrible condition. The bones literally crumbled when touched. White called it road kill. And parts of the skeleton had been trampled and scattered into more than 100 fragments; the skull was crushed to 4 centimeters in height. The researchers decided to remove entire blocks of sediment, covering the blocks in plaster and moving them to the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa to finish excavating the fossils.
In short, the fossils are in such bad condition that many researchers are skeptical that it can be claimed with any measure of confidence that Ardi walked bipedaly. Ann Gibbons notes this point too in her article, “However, several researchers aren't so sure about these inferences. Some are skeptical that the crushed pelvis really shows the anatomical details needed to demonstrate bipedality.” Who are these skeptical researchers? Paleoanthropologist Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, Columbia; Paleoanthropologist William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York; Paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

If that’s not enough to make someone skeptical, then consider this tidbit also from the Science article:

By March of this year, Suwa was satisfied with his 10th reconstruction. Meanwhile in Ohio, Lovejoy made physical models of the pelvic pieces based on the original fossil and the CT scans, working closely with Suwa. He is also satisfied that the 14th version of the pelvis is accurate.
They went through 14 versions of the pelvis and then want everyone to believe they have solid evidence that Ardi represents the connection between humans and chimp/ape primates. I think Ardi is destined to go the way of Ida as far as sensational “missing link” claims are concerned.

What'd you think? 


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