This is the question that writer, historian, and avid rock climber Lydia Pyne excavates in her new book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils. The answer, she insists, is not just important for scientists. It also teaches us important lessons about our own origins as a species. [Meet a new species of human ancestor.]
When National Geographic caught up with Pyne at her home in Austin, Texas, she explained how the creator of Sherlock Holmes was implicated in an archaeological hoax in Britain; how a Beatles song inspired the name of the world’s most famous fossil; and why an exciting discovery story is a key component of the celebrity fossil. [Find out why the theories of how we became human are all wrong.]
Your book is about seven “celebrity fossils.” Explain that term and how some fossils become icons.
I was interested in the question of why some scientific discoveries become famous and others don’t. Specifically, why some fossils become so well known, like Lucy or the Hobbit, and what happens to these fossils in their lives after their discoveries that gives them this cultural cachet. I felt that it couldn’t just be that they were scientifically important. There are so many fossils that are scientifically important, yet they don’t reach this kind of household name recognition.
Celebrity fossils answer a specific question that is interesting to the scientific community at the time that they’re discovered, so they are immediately relevant. They almost always have a fantastic story—usually a first person narrative—about their discovery, and a successful media and museum life. In the 21st century, fossils that have images and are available in the public domain, so they are easy for journalists and media to access, are going to be more easily known than fossils that are harder [to see].
“Lucy” became the subject of an international bestseller and a museum show that rivaled Tutankhamun in popularity. Explain how she got her name—and why she became “one of the twentieth century’s most iconic fossils.”
Lucy got her name from the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which was playing at camp the night she was discovered in November 1974 in northern Ethiopia at a site called Hadar. Today her scientific name is Australopithecus afarensis. The "Afar" part of her name comes from the region where she was discovered. A couple of weeks after the discovery, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and his team held a press conference in the capital of Ethiopia, where the fossil was already referred to as “Lucy.” So even before she gets a scientific name or is studied thoroughly by scientists, she has this persona, this identity.
These days Neanderthals get good press. But it was not ever thus, was it? Tell us about the Old Man of La Chapelle and how the way we see ourselves can change over time.
The Old Man of La Chapelle was discovered in France in 1908 by French archaeologists and pre-historians Amédée and Jean Bouyssonie, with their colleague, Louis Bardon, who had been tasked with conducting a prehistoric survey of that region in France. During excavations in the cave of La Chapelle, they find this buried Neanderthal. It’s amazing because it’s the first Neanderthal that’s been found in situ, in this archaeological context. They excavate it and send it to Paris for study by expert Pierre Marcellin Boule, who spends a couple of years studying it.
In 1911, Boule publishes this massive, incredibly detailed tome in which he reconstructs the Neanderthal fossil as being this hunched, brutish, troglodyte-like figure. This became associated with the image of Neanderthals but, in recent decades, a lot of archaeological research has gone into rehabilitating the image of Neanderthals, giving them their proper cultural space.
Finding the “missing link” between humans and primates was an obsession of fossil hunters. Tell us about the Taung Child and the remarkable story of its discoverer, Raymond Dart. You saw it, didn’t you?
I was ecstatic when I had the chance to see it! It was a fantastic experience. The fossil was found in 1924 by anatomist Raymond Dart, who was working at the medical school at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The fossil came to him by way of fossils that had been collected out of mines in the Taung region of South Africa. Dart is rummaging through this crate of fossils one day when he finds this amazing fossilized braincase: a face and a little mandible, all encased in this chunk of rock. What makes this such a fantastic origin story is that, as he describes it in his autobiography, Dart and his wife were hosting a wedding at their house. He was supposed to be the best man, but he gets so caught up in looking at this crate of fossils that the groom has to drag Dart away from his study. [Laughs.]
Later, he submits a publication to Nature which puts out his idea of the evolutionary interpretation of this fossil. He describes this as a small-brained bipedal hominid ancestor—a theory that was very much not in vogue at that point in the history of paleoanthropology. The intellectual establishment was keen on the idea that big brains evolved first in the human ancestral story, so they weren’t very interested in what they called a “fossil-baboon.” Consequently, Dart has an uphill battle before the Taung Child was accepted as a legitimate human ancestor.
We are all familiar with art forgery. But I suspect some of our readers will be surprised to learn that there has also been a famous case of fossil forgery. Tell us about the Piltdown Man hoax.
The Piltdown Man, as he was called, was discovered in February 1912 by Charles Dawson, in East Sussex, England. It was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, which roughly translated as Dawson’s Dawn Ape. The discovery spoke to the big question confronting British paleoanthropology. Fantastic sites of paleoanthropological importance had been found in England. But they hadn’t found the remains of what they called Ancient Man, this missing link.
[Laughs.] Exactly. A popular publication put out in the 1940s describes the Piltdown Man as “the Oldest Englishman.” The fossil is studied for a couple of years and almost universally accepted by the establishment. There are a couple of detractors, mostly in the U.S. at the Smithsonian Institution, who weren’t convinced that the provenance of all the pieces of Piltdown Man belong together. But it’s not until the late 1940s to early 1950s that a series of scientific analyses—chemical, radiometric tests, and, specifically, a fluorine test—become available to determine whether all the bone pieces belong together.
And it’s discovered at the Natural History Museum in London that they do not belong to the same individual: The braincase belongs to a modern human; the mandible is from an orangutan. It was this brilliant hoax of the first proportion and the longest perpetrated hoax in the history of science. For 40 years Piltdown Man existed as a legitimate fossil, which had a huge influence in the direction of paleoanthropology.
We still don’t know who did it. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, has been suggested as one of the perpetrators of the Piltdown hoax. But about two weeks ago a brilliant paper put out by a scientist at the Natural History Museum in London, proposed Charles Dawson, its discoverer, who was desperate for scientific recognition, as the prime suspect.
“Paleo-noir” is a new crime genre for me. Take us inside the intrigue surrounding Peking Man—and explain how it became a symbol of China and its cultural history.
This refers to a series of individuals that were discovered at the site of Zhoukoudian, just outside Peking (Beijing), China, in the 1920s and early 1930s, by an international team of researchers working at a laboratory in Peking. The species were originally described as Sinanthropus pekinensis. Now researchers attribute most of the fossils to Homo erectus. When the fossils were discovered, it was a point in the history of Chinese paleoanthropology when China was kicking off its own program. It had a lot of trained Chinese scientists, who were working with international collaborators. The site at Zhoukoudian was massive, so it was this amazingly complex undertaking to excavate and recover material. Some of the scientists described sending cartloads and even trains full of fossils back to Peking for lab analysis.
In the 1930s, archaeologists become nervous about what would happen to the fossils if the Japanese Army invades. Casts of the fossils were made and at the beginning of World War II the fossils were wrapped up and prepared for shipment to the Natural History Museum in the U.S. under armed guard by the Marines. But the fossils are never heard of again. It’s been this fantastic mystery that the fossils have never been recovered, though for decades people have been trying to figure out where they are.
There don’t seem to be any clear suspects. It was so chaotic at that point to try to get the fossils out of Beijing that nobody is sure where they are. There was one theory that they had been left somewhere, which was then paved over as a car park. Another theory was that they had gone down with a ship on the Yangtze River. For decades people would claim to have found them in some marine footlocker somewhere. This was actually an episode of Hawaii Five-O in the 1970s, where they claimed to have found Peking Man on the island of Hawai’i! [Laughs.]
Tell us how a fossil named the "Hobbit" became a game-changer for our understanding of human evolution.
The Hobbit, or Flo, as she is better known, was discovered in 2003 on the island of Flores, in Indonesia. Her species name is Homo floresiensis, and, standing upright, she measures just 3’3” tall, even though she was full-grown. When researchers published the discovery of Homo floresiensis in 2004, it was just as the entire world was riding this Lord of the Rings craze. The trilogy was out, everybody was primed to think about hobbits, so all of a sudden it’s like science is giving us this hobbit. It caught the public imagination in a way that other discoveries might not have. It became this story where media interest and pop culture help propel something that is also scientifically interesting. These fossils were so late in the Pleistocene that scientists couldn’t believe what was happening. It was such a fantastically different and unexpected discovery that for a long time scientists have been trying to figure out what to make of that.
You obviously feel passionate about this subject, Lydia—but why should the rest of us care about "dem bones"?
It comes back to the question of why do some scientific discoveries become famous and not others? What strikes me is that we have the ability, as museumgoers and participants in culture, to shape how these scientific discoveries are received. That was an incredible realization—That the celebrity of a scientific discovery depends to a huge extent on the audience, regardless of whether it’s strictly inside or outside of the scientific community.
Another reason is that they give us characters, names, and a sense of familiarity to think about human evolution. Lucy is Lucy, regardless of what species she was ultimately assigned to. That cachet holds true today. She became a fossil we personified and anthropomorphized. And there is a lot of value in that.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.