Sunday, 2 January 2011

The oldest dentist in town

An Israeli archaeologist claims to have found a 400,000 year old human tooth, in a cave in Israel - and, fairly predictably, wild conclusions are now being drawn from the erstwhile molar.

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University found eight teeth in Qesem Cave. The team said the discovery challenges theories of the origin of humans.

Avi Gopher, who led the team, told Agence France-Presse that it calls into question the widely held view that modern humans originated in Africa.

But in an interview with, Gopher appeared to row back a little from the conclusions being drawn from his paper.

Do the teeth that you found in Qesem Cave really provide evidence that Homo sapiens did not evolve in Africa?

We don't know. What I can say is that they definitely leave all options open...

There is a range of variation and no single unique trait that identifies a tooth unambiguously as modern or archaic or Neanderthal.

So, there's not really any definite evidence that this tooth does come from a human population hundreds of thousands of years older than we would normally expect.

There's always new findings in archaeology ready to jump up and throw our preconceptions in the fire. This, I have the feeling, isn't one of them. For one thing, a population of early humans very close to Africa hardly begins to disprove the "out of Africa" theory.

For another, the Denisovan population, described only last week, shows just how much variation there is in ancient hominid populations, and that our ancestry may not be as homogeneous as we may have previously thought, given that the Denisovans appear to have contributed a significant proportion of DNA to present day Melanesian populations.

The tooth may well be homo sapiens, or not, but it seems that Gopher and his team, while content to take the plaudits for the discovery, don't want to state it unambiguously. Instead, they've left just enough room for their findings to be liberally interpreted, while still sitting on the fence.

Of course, it doesn't take much searching on teh interwebz to find those who will claim, given the historical significance of Israel, that it's all evidence of god's master plan, although it's been oddly ignored by the YECs.

I do notice that no DNA testing appears to have been done on the tooth. I think judgement will have to await those findings.

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