Piece now in Nature, reposted here from the Agade List, on truth &
hype in the recent paper on Qesem cave.
The piece points to the skepticism previously expressed this week by
Brian Switek, which I noted earlier today; I wrote:
> Here is a nice skeptical view of the significance of these finds,
> posted a few days ago by the science writer Brian Switek. Switek
> doesn't dispute the importance of the finds, but only the
> hype, and lays out possible alternate interpretations:
> I've been looking for comments by the physical anthropologist John
> Hawks, but nothing has appeared yet -- maybe because Hawks himself has
> questioned the standard out-of-Africa model for different reasons for
> many years.
Predictable start for science reporting in the second decade of the
The discussion in Nature, signaled on the Agade list:
Human remains spark spat
Nature talks to the archaeologist behind controversial claims that
ancient teeth could rewrite human evolution.
A handful of ancient human remains from Israel garnered a huge burst
of media coverage this week, as claims that the finds could "rewrite
the history of human evolution" were quickly followed by a backlash
from the blogosphere.
Many of the initial reports were based on a Tel Aviv University press
release about a paper published in The American Journal of Physical
Anthropology by Israeli and Spanish scientists. The paper detailed the
discovery, in Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, of eight human teeth dating to
between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago. This makes them among the
oldest significant early human remains found anywhere in southwest
According to the paper, the teeth cannot be conclusively identified as
belonging to a particular species of human, whether Homo sapiens — the
first modern humans — Neanderthals, or other humans. But the press
release and some of the articles that drew on it state that the teeth
are evidence that Homo sapiens lived in the Levant as early as 400,000
years ago. This contrasts with the prevailing view of human evolution,
which suggests that Homo sapiens arose in Africa roughly 200,000 years
The discrepancy between the media coverage and the paper was seized
upon by science bloggers Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek, who objected to
the hype around the research.
Nature spoke to Avi Gopher, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University
and a co-author of the paper, about the discovery and its press
Do the teeth that you found in Qesem Cave really provide evidence that
Homo sapiens did not evolve in Africa?
We don't know. What I can say is that they definitely leave all
options open. There's been a tendency for people to get so accustomed
to the "out of Africa" hypothesis that they use it exclusively and
explain any finding that doesn't fit it as evidence of yet another
wave of migration out of Africa.
Were you surprised by press reports making claims that didn't appear
in your paper?
I told all the reporters I spoke to, to be very cautious what they
wrote. But that's what happens. [Gopher also defended the press
release as being worded "more sharply" than the paper but that "it was
But your paper clearly avoids saying the teeth came from modern
humans, although it points out traits that overlap with Neanderthal
characteristics. Is there enough evidence to link them with a specific
species of early human?
Teeth contain a lot of information. At this point we've gone as far as
we can on the level of basic analysis [looking at the shape and wear
patterns of the teeth]. Because we wanted to preserve the teeth, we
haven't yet tried to extract DNA or, for example, to dissect the teeth
to get information about diet.
What I've done, with Israel Hershkovitz, Ran Barkai, and my other
Israeli colleagues, is compare them to a large database of early human
teeth compiled by our Spanish collaborators. The best match for these
teeth are those from the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in northern Israel,
which date later [to between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago] and which
are generally thought to be modern humans of sorts.
If we were to take your teeth out and my teeth out and put them on a
table together with early human teeth, we'd find that some of our
teeth are very like some of the early human teeth. There is a range of
variation and no single unique trait that identifies a tooth
unambiguously as modern or archaic or Neanderthal. We offer the most
reasonable conclusion based on the statistical evidence: that they
represent the same population as the Skhul and Qafzeh finds, thus
pushing the date for that type of early man back to a much earlier
References: Hershkovitz I. , et al, Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. doi:
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