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Near-complete Australopithecine Fossil Found in South Africa

In what follows I alternate the original paragraphs of the [unsigned] Answers in Genesis Article with my own comments. The latter are in italics. Dr Colin Groves

Newspapers around the globe have been proclaiming the news of the recent fossil find in a South African cave of a nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton. Evolutionists are hailing the find as an important step to understanding the evolution of man, as this is supposed to be one of our earliest ancestors. They claim that it lived approximately 3.2 to 3.6 million years ago. This four-foot-tall "hominid" supposedly both swung from a tree and walked upright.

Evolutionists believe that somewhere around five million years ago, or longer, the ancestors to modern man branched off from the apes and other primates. Some claim the earliest is Australopithecus while others say that Australopithecus was nothing more than an ape, not related to humans at all. In Marvin Lubenow’s book, Bones of Contention, he clearly shows that the australopithecine fossils are ape fossils and not those of any human ancestor.

It is untrue to say that "Some claim... while others say...". The only "evolutionist" [N.B. a term I do not accept in the present context, but let it pass for now] who has expressed the slightest doubt that Australopithecus is part of the human clade is Charles Oxnard, and he has been moving further and further from the "non-human" view of Australopithecus over time (see below). Note that I express this in terms of the human clade: whether one or more species of Australopithecus was a human ancestor or not is of less moment than whether their affinities were or were not with the human line.

It is also not true to say that Lubenow "clearly shows that the australopithecine fossils are ape fossils". Lubenow 5 contents himself with saying "It is beyond the scope of this book to give extensive coverage to the australopithecine fossil record. It is also unnecessary", followed by a citation from Oxnard (p.166).

Dr Lubenow also furnishes this explanation of the term "hominid":

The word is used by the evolutionist community to mean 'humans and their evolutionary ancestors.' It includes the genus Homo, the genus Australopithecus, and all creatures in the family Hominidae. As an evolutionist term it is meaningless in a creationist worldview. The creationist counterpart would be the term human. I use the term human to refer to those who are descendants of Adam (p. 12).

Therefore, the term "hominid" is an invalid and meaningless term. "Human", would include only members of the genus Homo, such as Homo erectus, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens, which Lubenow shows are all modern humans. Starting from a Biblical framework, all these are descendants of Adam, through Noah. All of the other so-called hominids, such as the australopithecines, may be nothing more than extinct apes or ape-like creatures.

The word "hominid" is shifting its meaning. There is an increasing trend towards placing chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans in the Hominidae, on cladistic grounds.

I will not go into a detailed critique of Lubenow here, as I have gone some way towards this elsewhere, 6 except to note that he does not do what is claimed for him. Instead, he misunderstands evolutionary theory, argues from semantics and, like all creationists, surveys a few [very few] of the various expressed opinions and selects solely the ones he agrees with to be "the truth".

The paleoanthropologist Dr Sigrid Hartwig-Scherer, of the University of Munich, regards australopithecines, modern apes and humans as separate basic types. Anatomist Dr Charles Oxnard performed detailed analysis of different bones of Australopithecus africanus and concluded that it did not walk upright in the human manner and was more distinct from both humans and chimpanzees than these are from each other. More recently, 1 Oxnard made the following comments about the australopithecines, including "Lucy":

It is now recognized widely that the australopithecines are not structurally closely similar to humans, that they must have been living at least in part in arboreal [tree] environments, and that many of the later specimens were contemporaneous [living at the same time] or almost so with the earlier members of the genus Homo. 2

Oxnard, an evolutionist, is one of several experts who do not believe that the australopithecines were on the human line.

The constant misuse of Oxnard’s work by creationists illustrates the point I made above: that, without actually considering the merits of different arguments, they select one that can be made to support their own views, and parade it as "the truth". In fact, Oxnard is the only professional palaeoanthropologist who argues that australopithecines might not be part of the human clade. Even he, however, has moved away from the view of his former mentor, Lord Zuckerman, that australopithecines should be excluded from the human clade. In what seems to be his latest publication on the matter 7 he considers the functional anatomy of the Sterkfontein pelvis (referred to as Australopithecus africanus), concludes that it belonged to a creature that was most likely bipedal but not in the modern human fashion, and puts forward four possible explanatory models:

bullet mosaic evolution (australopithecines were evolving towards human bipedalism, at different rates in different anatomical features);

bullet parallel evolution (australopithecines shared a basic bipedalism with human ancestors, but subsequently diverged and evolved along their own lines);

bullet convergent evolution (both humans and australopithecines became bipedal, but independently from a non-bipedal ancestor);

bullet and a fourth model, in which they have been misinterpreted, and were not bipedal at all.

The last model he rejects; the other three he considers in turn, concluding that "Maybe the most probable possibility is a combination of mosaicism and parallelism" (p.31).

Oxnard is an open-minded scientist, willing to change his mind as evidence accumulates. His attitude would be a good one for creationists to emulate.

The long-accepted view that australopithecines were partly arboreal is undergoing revision, incidentally. A good exposition of the revised model is by Bruce Latimer 8, whose conclusion is worth quoting here:

Dramatic morphological specializations to terrestrial bipedality are apparent in the lower limb of Australopithecus afarensis. By this time, striking alterations had also taken place in the upper limbs of these hominids. The resultant total morphological pattern that characterizes Australopithecus afarensis indicates that natural selection not only failed to maintain arboreal behaviors in these hominids but, in fact, acted to inhibit such behaviors (p.175).

At the recent Dual Congress of the International Association for the Study of Human Palaeontology and the International Association of Human Biologists, held in South Africa from 28th June to 4th July, 1998, and attended by some 750 professional palaeoanthropologists and human biologists, there was much discussion of australopithecine locomotion, and delegates were given the opportunity to inspect some of the South African original fossils. The overwhelming consensus was in favour of Latimer’s model, although I should point out in fairness that advocates of the "part-arboreal" model were not present at the Congress. The issue has not been settled by any means.

The method used to date the fossil is also questionable. It is a form of paleomagnetism. Evolutionists measured the magnetic orientation of certain minerals, such as magnetite, found in the layers of rock and assigned particular orientations to certain time periods. When they discover a fossil such as this one from South Africa, they determine the direction of the magnetic orientation of the minerals from the surrounding rock and match it to that which has already been assigned to a specific time period. However, there is evidence that that the magnetic field has reversed extremely rapidly over periods of only a few days, as shown by patterns in a thin lava flow. This is documented from secular geophysical sources in the article The earth's magnetic field: evidence that the earth is young by Dr Jonathan Sarfati (Creation 20(2):15–17).

That the earth’s magnetic field may take quite a short time to reverse has no relevance to whether it is a useful dating tool or not. It is true, however, that the dating of the new fossil is far from established. For the palaeomagnetic technique to give reliable results, some "peg" - either faunal dating or, better, an absolute date - must be used. Recently, the absolute dating method of Electron Spin Resonance has been successfully applied to the South African australopithecine-bearing deposits. These have not yet been published, so I cannot comment further.

At this time, we would venture to say that the fossil in question is nothing more than another extinct ape that has nothing to do with the origin of man and that the dating method used is highly questionable. We should carefully look at the original paper 3 when available, rather than rely on media sensationalisation. Indeed, young-earth creationists look forward to the thorough examination of this fossil find. Because it is apparently fairly complete, it could settle the irrelevancy of australopithecines to human origins once and for all. In particular, X-ray analysis of the semicircular canals will probably show that this specimen did not walk upright like humans — just as has been shown with Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus robustus and Homo habilis.4

This is a vast oversimplification of the Spoor et al. paper. Their findings are in fact the subject of a lively controversy 9, exactly as one would expect and hope in science. If one wishes to cite the semicircular canal data, one should acknowledge the existence of a controversy, and attempt to disentangle the (extremely complex) issues involved. This is not usual creationist practice, and misleads the lay audience as to the very nature of science.


1. C.E. Oxnard, Nature 258:389–395, 1975.

2. C.E. Oxnard, The Order of Man, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1984.

3. R.J. Clarke, South African Journal of Science 94:460–463, 1998; cited in a brief report by Henry Gee, ‘The face of Cinderella’, Nature 396(6711):521, 10 December 1998.

4. F. Spoor, B. Wood and F. Zonneveld, ‘Implications of early hominid morphology for evolution of human bipedal locomotion’, Nature 369(6482):645–648, 1994.

5. M. L. Lubenow, Bones of Contention: a Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992.

6. C. Groves, ‘Post-modernism in pseudoscience: a creationist's’s deconstruction of Gish’, The Skeptic, Spring 1993, 20-22.

7. C. Oxnard, Human Fossils: Thinking about the evidence, Centre for Human Biology Resource Paper, no.1, 36pp., Centre for Human Biology, University of Western Australia, 1991.

8. B. Latimer, ‘Locomotor adaptations in Australopithecus afarensis: the issue of arboreality’, pp.169-176 in Origines de la Bipédie chez les Hominidés (Cahiers de Paléoanthropologie), Editions de CNRS, Paris, 1991.

9. W. Graf & P-P. Vidal, ‘Semicircular canal size and upright stance are not interrelated’, Journal of Human Evolution, 30:175-181, 1996; F.Spoor, B.Wood & F.Zonneveld, ‘Evidence for a link between human semicircular canal size and bipedal behaviour’, ibid., 30:183-187, 1996.

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