A press release came out on recently that made me double check the date to make sure it wasn’t April fools day. The release stated that two scientists, upon reexamining replicas of the famous Lucy fossils, recognized that one of the her vertebra fragments doesn’t quite look like the others. The scientists argue that this vertebrae, which is only a fragment, more likely belongs to a baboon than to the Australopithecus afarensis individual known as Lucy.
At first, I was in shock. Lucy was discovered 41 years ago, and dozens of scientists must have examined her bones by now, how could they have overlooked this detail? Has my entire life been a lie? After the shock came panic. I thought: people who doubt fossils, human evolution, science, you name it, might have a field day with this. I already receive frequent Twitter messages stating that I should check the facts, Neandertals never existed, etc. Now, I was afraid, they would add this slight error to their bag of nonsensical arguments.
But then, after the initial shock wore off, I began wondering, if this truly is a baboon vertebrae, what does this mean about paleoanthropology and our ability to identify fossils? I landed on one major conclusion: this is science. This exemplifies the scientific process in all it’s glory, everything we love about it, and everything that makes it challenging.
And science is, of course, a process. Science is not about data or claims that become more concrete because they have survived for decades. Science is about testing hypotheses, questioning assumptions, and thinking critically. Scientists are human, and humans sometimes make mistakes. The purpose of the scientific endeavor is to identify and correct those mistakes whenever possible.
That being said, here are a couple important things to keep in mind in this particular context:
- This baboon vertebrae accusation has not been confirmed. The scientists who made this call plan on presenting their findings at the upcoming Paleoanthropology Society meeting. Afterwards, we’ll see if they publish their argument and if other scientists agree.
- This doesn’t change Lucy. The the other 88 fossil fragments belonging to Lucy’s skeleton are still hers. This possible finding doesn’t change anything we know about Lucy, from her locomotion to her place in human evolution, she is still Lucy.
In conclusion, I welcome this study. I do, however, approach it with skepticism, as I believe any claims in science should be approached. Let us never take anyone’s word, or take anything on faith. Let us reexamine the data, revise our hypotheses if necessary, and question our findings. Because that is how we make scientific progress.