Skulls and Skullduggery
Like most people, I''ve been quite upset by the corporate and
accounting firm frauds, not to mention the severe contraction in
my stock portfolio''s value. In the same vein, I was shocked by
recent allegations of impropriety on the part of the authors of
several papers from my old stomping grounds, Bell Labs. Then I
read in last Sunday''s New York Times of scientific misconduct at
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A team of 15 authors
from that lab reported in 1999 that they had synthesized a new
element, number 118, in their cyclotron. The claim was later
withdrawn and now the lab''s director has announced that an
individual had "massaged" the data.
With all this depressing news, let''s talk about fraud in a much
lighter vein. Actually, "fraud" is too strong a term here - I''m
talking hoaxing. An article titled "Crop Circle Confession" in
the August 2002 Scientific American is the "confession" of one
of the hoaxers, Matt Ridley. Ridley points out how easily
people, even so-called experts, can be fooled by the simplest of
tricks. The "crop circle" is a circular area of flattened crops,
wheat being one example. Back in 1978, there was a big to-do in
Britain about the sudden appearance in the UK of crop circles in
farmers'' fields. The Scientific American article has a picture of a
field containing several such crop circles, one 35 feet in
diameter. The circles are connected by straight paths and there
are arcs of flattened crops in a fancy design. This photo is of a
site in Hubbard, Oregon in 1998. The crop circle phenomenon
has crossed the ocean and spanned our continent.
I recall reading about these circles many years ago. The crop
circles were considered quite mysterious and explanations for
their origin ranged from extraterrestrial beings to tornado-like
localized winds. Because of their size and sudden, sometimes
overnight, appearance, the "experts" ruled out the possibility that
they were of manmade origin. There was even "cerealogy" - the
study of crop circles. And, for a modest fee of only a couple
thousand dollars, one could join weeklong tours visiting crop
circles in the UK.
Mr. Ridley, however, was a skeptic and in 1991 decided to see
just how hard it would be to make a crop circle. So it was off to
a field late one night with an accomplice, a Texan by the way.
Planting one end of a rope to the ground with a spike, and
holding the rope low to the ground by tramping on it, they were
able to make a respectable circle of flattened wheat just by
walking around with the rope held taut. Their efforts were
rewarded when a local farmer excitedly called the authorities to
report the circle. Ridley improved his technique in further circle
making and found that, by simply dragging a plank around held
by a couple of ropes, they could make a very neat circle in under
an hour. He also showed that by treading the right path, the
circles could easily be made without obvious signs of footprints.
Incredibly, when two fellows stepped forward to announce they
were responsible for the original crop circles in 1978, the media
dismissed them as frauds! I gather that Ridley himself had
written articles expressing the view that all the crop circles were
manmade. In fact, some experts even claimed to be able to
distinguish "genuine" circles from those made by pranksters.
Ridley''s articles were termed "government disinformation" by
the media and it was speculated that he was a member of the UK
intelligence community! The moral to the story is that it doesn''t
take much to deceive even presumably rational people such as us
scientists. And the media aren''t anxious to let go of a good story!
Well, enough deception and skullduggery. On the other hand,
let''s drop the duggery but keep the skull. One particular skull
has been in the media headlines this past week. It''s the skull of
an individual given the name of Toumai. You can see a picture
of Toumai''s skull on page 48 of the July 22 Newsweek; perhaps
you read about him in last Sunday''s New York Times. The name
Toumai means "hope of life" in the Goran language of the Sahel
desert in Africa. Toumai lived 7 million years ago and its skull
was found in Africa in Chad. But there''s another skull in the
news and it''s featured in the pages of the August 2002 National
Geographic. This skull belonged to a younger guy who lived in
what is now the republic of Georgia almost 2 million years ago.
Both of these skulls have rocked the current theories on our
human origins and development.
At 7 million years, Toumai is a million years older than any
known hominid fossil. But that''s not the only startling aspect of
Toumai. Newsweek quotes Harvard paleontologist Daniel
Lieberman, also the author of the Times article, as calling
Toumai "probably as close to the common ancestor of chimps
and human beings as we''ll ever see". One of the striking things
about Toumai is that, while it resembled a chimpanzee with its
small brain, its face has features that are more like a human than
any other fossil found in the next 4 million year period prior to
the finding of fossils like the famous Lucy. Lucy was considered
to be one of our earliest human ancestors. Toumai may well
show that humans or creatures with human features were around
twice as long as we had thought.
Another striking thing is that Toumai was found in Chad, some
1,600 miles from the East African Rift Valley. The Rift Valley
is where almost all the oldest human fossils have been found.
South Africa has also yielded very important old fossils. Both
sites have been heavily explored, if only because the conditions
in these locations are so ideal for the preservation of fossils.
Lieberman likens the current situation as being like the drunk
who searches for his lost keys under the lamppost because the
light is better there. His point is that Africa is a big place and
there are more "lampposts" to explore. The French and Chad
team had been digging and toiling in central Africa under harsh
conditions for twenty years and their finds have now
revolutionized the field of human evolution.
Now that we''ve disrupted our thinking about the earliest humans,
let''s go to the ruins of a medieval town called Dmanisi in
Georgia. Note that this is not just around the corner from Africa.
The Geographic article, by Gouran Tsibakhashvili, doesn''t give
the skull found in Georgia a name but let''s call it George. A
reconstruction of George''s face graces the cover of the magazine.
He was a toothy guy with a flattish nose, not bad looking, and
lived some 1.75 million years ago. The prevailing view has
been that it took a big-brained Homo erectus to migrate out of
Africa and have the wits to survive the long journey to a different
However, George''s brain was only about half as big as Homo
erectus'' brain, which was about the same size as our own brains.
That''s upsetting to paleontologists. In fact, one scientist is
quoted in the Geographic article as saying, "They ought to put it
[the skull] back in the ground." Here we have this half-brained
guy making it all the way to what was to become the USSR.
Whatever his cranial capacity, he was a real pioneer. Naturally,
the question arises as to whether George was actually as "smart"
as Homo erectus in spite of the smaller brain. Or was George
actually a Homo erectus?
George had companions. Parts of six other individuals have been
found in the same site in Dmanisi. George was apparently a
teenager and his jawbone was somewhat pronounced, I would
say. However, another jawbone found at the site was truly huge.
This raises the question as to whether all the individuals living
there were of the same species. Or could the same species
include individuals with a wide variety of shapes and sizes? The
article notes that Shaquille O''Neal and Danny DeVito are both
In fact, there are those who suggest that the classification of our
human ancestors into all these different species is a bunch of
hogwash. They would say that Homo erectus, Neandertal, Homo
habilis and the whole lot are all just one species, Homo sapiens.
Those espousing this view are definitely in the minority but who
knows, Toumai and George might start a trend in their direction.
We need more skulls and bones. I''m tempted to go out in my
own backyard and start digging but, realistically, I barely have
enough energy for a round of golf.
Allen F. Bortrum