N.Y.A.S. @ Wenner-Gren 1/30/12

Our president, Dr. Leslie C. Aiello, remarks on the successful Monday evening talk by NYU’s Terry Harrison.

Terry Harrison’s Monday night talk on “The Earliest Human Ancestors” was one of the most successful Wenner-Gren/New York Academy of Sciences (Anthropology section) talks in recent years. We had a record number of attendees and if the questions at the end are any guide, the talk captivated even the social anthropologists in the crowd. The spirit of academic enthusiasm and camaraderie was helped along by a Thai buffet and wine reception preceding the 7pm talk, but the questions about (and interest in) seemingly esoteric fossils such as Ardipithecus  ramidus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and Orrorin tugenensis coming from our general anthropological audience were a pleasant surprise to the palaeoanthropology specialists among us.

Harrison emphasized the difficultly in recognizing human ancestors the further back in time that we go, and these African fossils, which date between about 4.5 million and 6 million years ago (the oldest currently known) present a big problem. How do you recognize an ape ancestor versus a human answer so close to the divergence date between these two lineages? It is not easy, particularly when you view the evolutionary tree from the bottom up (worm’s-eye view in Harrison’s terms) and realize the great variety of fossil apes that were alive just prior to the divergence of these two lineages. The big question is whether these old fossils, currently recognized is the first members of our lineage, are really on early branches of the human tree, or if they are fossil apes with nothing to do with the human lineage. Harrison tends to believe that at least the most complete of these early fossils, Ardipithecus, was one of these dead-end apes, but he realizes that this is not the current consensus view.

We can look forward to continued, lively debate on these and related issues and to future stimulating NYAS/Wenner-Gren evening meetings that are held monthly at the Wenner-Gren New York offices. Topics of the seminars range across the broad field of Anthropology and are open to all. Click here for upcoming events and we hope to see you soon at Wenner-Gren.

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