Paleo - limits of knowledge (was-Re: Questions about Cro Magnon)

Rod Hagen (
Fri, 24 Feb 1995 09:55:10 +1000

In article <3ie708$>,
(Patricia Lynn Sothman) wrote:

(a detailed and interesting reply to some good questions from David
Marcus Woodcock about Homo sapiens and the neanderthals)

One of the things which interests me is the adequacy and depth of our
current knowledge of human ancestry (both homo and pre homo). How "good"
do paleo-anthro's think the data is getting.

Looking (as an "informed layperson" - I'm a a person with a professional
background in social anthropology and sociology and some academic and
personal interest in biology) at posts such as Patricia's and at having
read some of the summary material (such as "Bones of contention" and
Harrison et als "Human Biology..An Intro to Human Evolution etc..., some
of Richard Leakeys stuff etc.), it strikes me that the field must be a
hard one. On the one hand, the "hard" data from fossils etc is very
difficult to come by, and must always leave you wishing for something to
"flesh out" the finds (pardon the excruciating puns).

On the other, approaches which seek to reconstruct the past (particularly
those involving questions of social interaction etc) using information
from contemporary hunter gatherer societies etc., are fraught with
difficulties. Its hard enough playing this game dealing with the present,
for living societies of living people!

And then, of course, there is the information from genetics - fascinating
and important, but again providing you with such a narrow sliver of a
window into the past.

Am I too pessimistic?

Taking the fossil record as an example, how fast are we moving towards a
situation where we have a substantial enough sample of human antecedents
to deal adequately with, say, the period between the arrival of homo
habilus and the present day (the last 2 million years?) ?

How big is the sample size today for each of H.habilus, ercetus, and the
various? archaic homo sapiens?

When I glance, for example, at the 25 listed archaic homo sapiens finds
listed in Harrison et al (p132) back in 1988, or the 23 h.erectus finds (p
127), I find myself wondering whether these are selections from a thousand
finds or a compilation of all of the avaialable information. If its the
latter (or even somewhere close to the latter), it strikes me that I would
be hard pressed to make secure generalisations about even contemporary
human form from a similarly sized sample of living people, with their
flesh and bones fully intact!

This would be particularly so if I had no way of knowing whether the
sample was drawn randomly or whether the process of "finding" itself
depended on artificial constraints inherent in the procedure (e.g -
finding particularly those who lived a particular lifestyle which
increased the chances of being sampled - in your case, a lifestyle which
was more likely to lead to fossilisation).

Simply put, the statistically educated bit of me winces when I see samples
of this size.

When I see stuff about A. afarensis etc I feel even greater forbodeing!

Please not that I am not being critical of paleoanthropology. It seems to
me that the less we know, the more the case is for finding out more and
the greater the laurels that should be heaped upon those who endeavour to
do so!

So, where do you today feel confident and where do the big uncertainties lie?

Rod Hagen