Vol.2: Genesis and Early Man

Part IV



Chapter 1. The Problems in Determining the Age of a Skull
Chapter 2. The Factors Influencing the Shape of a Skull

Publishing History:
1957 Doorway paper No.9, published privately by Arthur C. Custance: original title: “The Influence of Diet, Habits, Disease, Climate, and Other Environmental Pressures in Modifying the Human Skull and Its Bearing on the Theory of Human Evolution.”
1975 (revised) Part I in Genesis and Early Man, vol.2 in The Doorway Papers Series, published by Zondervan Publishing Company
1997 Arthur Custance Online Library (html)
2001 2nd Online Edition (corrections, design revisions)

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Chapter 1

The Problems in Determining the Age of a Skull

One and the same piece of evidence will assume totally different aspects according to the angle — paleontological or historical — from which we view it. We shall see it either as a link in one of the many evolutionary series that the paleontologist seeks to establish, or as something connected with remote historical action. . . . Let me state clearly that for my part, I have not the slightest doubt that the remains of early man known to us, should be judged historically.
A. Portmann, Das Ursprungsproblem,
Eranos-Jahrbuch, 1947, p.19.

PRIOR TO MORE recent developments of techniques for dating by means of radioactive materials, there were fundamentally only two methods of estimating the age of a fossil. The first was the geological level at which the specimen was found. The second, applying more particularly to human fossils, was the general appearance: whether apish and “primitive,” or essentially like modern man. These two criteria are still largely applied, since the majority of the more ancient remains of early man are completely fossilized and C-14 methods of dating cannot be used.
But it has long been recognized that if the fossil remains of early man are arranged according to their degree of primitiveness, the order will be found to contradict the series arranged on the basis of antiquity as established by the levels at which they are found. This led Franz Weidenreich to formulate the following rule: (1)

In determining the character of a given fossil form and its special place in the line of human evolution, only its morphological features should be made the basis of decision: neither the location of the site

1. Weidenreich, Franz, “The Skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis: A Comparative Study on a Primitive Hominid Skull,” Paleontologica Sinica, N.S.D., no.10, Whole series, vol.127, 1943, p.1.

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where it was recovered, nor the geological nature of the layer in which it was embedded is important.

More recently, Leigh van Valen, (2) of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, in reviewing Evolutionary Biology by Theodosius Dobzhansky et. al., notes that “three of the contributors (all paleontologists) conclude that stratigraphic position is totally irrelevant to determination of phylogeny and almost say that no known taxon is derived from any other. . . ” It certainly seems brash, therefore, of the proponents of an African genesis for Homo sapiens to keep putting man’s beginnings further and further back on the basis of the estimated age of the strata in which the fossils are being found.
Now the view held by Weidenreich had become necessary because, if read in any other way, the record had begun to make evolutionary nonsense. On the one hand we had modern types in levels earlier than those in which their supposed ancestors were to be found; and on the other hand in some of the very latest levels, primitive types which “belonged” at the very beginning of the series. Thus Robert Braidwood had written: (3)

There are one or two early finds of pre-modern types that we need to catch up on. Like Piltdown, there was another questionable find made long ago in England. This was a skull and skeleton (badly broken), found at Galley Hill in gravels of the second interglacial period. The bones looked almost too modern to be so old, for the time is that between the second and third great glaciations of the Ice Age (about 275,000 years ago). But in 1935 the bones of a similar premodern skull appeared in gravels of the same geological age at Swanscombe in England. Also, an equally early skull although rather less modern in appearance, turned up in Steinheim, Germany. So it seems pretty certain that a partially modern type of man was already alive a long time ago. In fact these men were alive even before the main Neanderthal group.

For the sake of the reader who has a good general idea of accepted anthropological views regarding fossil man, and to whom such terms as Neanderthal Man are familiar in a way, but yet who has no exact mental picture of the sequence in which these types are usually ordered, it may be helpful to give a very brief summary of the picture as seen until recently by anthropologists as a whole.
During the ice age, the alternating cold and warm periods are believed to have witnessed the appearance and disappearance of various types of fossil man. Some were cold weather types, some warm weather types. This accounts for the waves which came and went. These “waves” are

2. van Valen, Leigh, book review in Science, vol.180, 1973, p.488.
3. Braidwood, Robert, Prehistoric Men, Natural History Museum, Chicago, 1948, pp.25, 26..

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of course an assumption only. The actual remains known are very small, but it is supposed that such finds as we have represent only a tiny proportion of the population at any one period. Neanderthal Man lived in caves, and in popular imagination came to represent the cave-man type, slouching, apish, low browed, and not very intelligent; yet he was a tool maker, and therefore truly human. It is a moot point whether he became extinct with the coming of modern man (Cro-Magnon), or whether he was absorbed into this new race that displaced him. But long before the appearance of Neanderthal Man, other more primitive types, such as the Far Eastern specimens represented by Pithecanthropus erectus, and Sinanthropus, etc., had been roaming about only to disappear with the passage of time. So that although Neanderthal Man was primitive enough (especially as reconstructed for museum display purposes) he was quite advanced when compared with those who had preceded him by thousands of years, and his skull was much larger.
This was a nice orderly arrangement. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, fossil remains kept on cropping up, which came from levels antedating those in which Neanderthal Man had been customarily found, but which instead of being more primitive (as required by the scheme), were actually quite modern in appearance — in fact, were virtually indistinguishable from present European types. These were obviously displaced somehow, and because they did not fit, they were laid aside “for further consideration.” But this trend persisted, and from time to time further out-of-order specimens kept on turning up. Yet the circumstances were always such that the finder, when challenged, could not completely satisfy the experts that he really had found the specimen in the levels he claimed. In some cases, the find had occurred when the excavator was quite alone and had no other witness.
At last, in the summer of 1947, Mlle. Germaine Henri-Martin from a cave at Fontechevade near the village of Montbrun, in France, brought to light a modern-type fossil from a level well below that at which Neanderthal Man was customarily found. (4) All the circumstances of this find were such as to guarantee its acceptance by anthropologists everywhere. In fact, the bones came from an undisturbed level sealed below a thick layer of stalagmite that in turn underlay the Neanderthal level in this area. There could never be any argument as to the validity of this find. Modern man here preceded his one-time supposed predecessors.

4. Eiseley, Loren, “The Antiquity of Modern Man,” Scientific American, July, 1948, pp.16-19.

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G. Heberer has given a short and instructive summary of the present state of our knowledge of Homo sapiens. (5) First, we know that modern types were contemporary with Neanderthal Man; secondly, the two types sometimes appear intermingled in a single deposit; and, finally, before the appearance of Neanderthal Man there existed individuals, more like modern man than the Neanderthals were themselves.
What this really boils down to is that instead of a nice orderly series of fossil specimens, passing from very primitive to quite modern types, we in fact find the record supports no such pattern. Some of the lowest levels present us with fossil remains that are to all intents and purposes completely modern in appearance, while some of the latest levels throw up specimens which nicely fit the preconceived picture of what the earliest representatives of man are supposed to have looked like. Naturally there had been some tendency to disregard these misfits by questioning whether the levels at which they were found had been correctly reported — until Fontechevade.
At the Cold Spring Harbor Symposia of Quantitative Biology in 1950, devoted to the subject of The Origin and Evolution of Man, T. D. Stewart presented a paper dealing with this problem, in which he quoted Henri Vallois, a European authority on this latest find: (6)

The interest of the Fontechevade discovery is that it clarifies the problem. In contrast to earlier finds of human remains we have here in effect, a specimen which is well dated and found in a stratigraphic context which allows of no dispute: this is the first time that man certainly not Neanderthal, although earlier than the Neanderthals has been found in Europe under such conditions. Now this type . . . taking all its characters together, aligns itself with the Swanscombe form. . . .
To this extent the problem is clarified: in and before the last interglacial period there existed in Europe and probably elsewhere, men with less “primitive” cranial features than those of the succeeding more advanced cultural period — the Neanderthal man of the Mousterian Age.

Not only do we find this kind of reversal in which the modern precedes the ancient by appearing far too early in the geological strata, but we also find the opposite, in which very primitive specimens are found in the very latest geological strata. Thus Rhodesian Man, whose skull is illustrated in Fig. 6 (d), and who, as A. L. Kroeber

5. Heberer, G., “Der Fluor-test und-seine Bedeutung fur das Pra-sapiens problem,” Forschungen und Fortschritte, 26th Annual Report.
6. Vallois, Henri, quoted by T. D. Stewart, “The Problem or the Earliest Claimed Representatives of Homo sapiens,” in The Origin and Evolution of Man, being the Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, vol.15, 1950, p.101..

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rightly points out, is more primitive than Neanderthal, (7) nevertheless comes from a cave deposit at Broken Hill, in Northern Rhodesia, which is of unknown date, but which according to Alfred Romer is “not improbably late Pleistocene,” and therefore belongs to the most recent period. (8) For a similar reason the South African man-like apes found by Dart and Broom, and termed the Australopithecine, are by some of the best authorities rejected as possible ancestors of man because they too come from geological levels which are far too late in the Pleistocene. (9)
At the risk of being tiresomely repetitive, it must be pointed out once more that dependence upon morphology to establish the correct sequence for a series of fossils had seemed the only reasonable course. The fact is that modern man was continually being found in rocks older than those in which his ancestors appeared. This made man older than his forebears, which is ridiculous. But it is only ridiculous if we insist that the more primitive forms are his forebears. Evolutionary theory demands that this is so, and consequently has to arrange the series according to morphology or physical appearance.
On the other hand, dependence on morphological details can be equally misleading. One of the best authorities in England, S. Zuckerman emphasizes the fact that such characters may be the result of factors which have nothing whatever to do with the geological age or the supposed relatedness of the fossil to earlier animal forms. Zuckerman put it this way: (10)

Some students claim, or rather assume implicitly, that the phyletic relations of a series of specimens can be clearly defined from an assessment of morphological similarities and dissimilarities even when the fossil evidence is both slight and non-continuous geologically. Others, who in the light of modern genetic knowledge are surely on firmer ground, point out that several genes or several gene patterns may have identical phenotypic effects, and that when we deal with limited or relatively limited fossil material, correspondence in single morphological features, or in groups of characters, does not necessarily imply genetic identity and phyletic relationship.

For the sake of those readers to whom some of these terms will be unfamiliar, Zuckerman is saying in effect that there is no justification for arranging a series of specimens simply because they look as though they might be so related, particularly when the geological levels from which they came are of uncertain age. For, as he points

7. Kroeber, A. L. Anthropology, revised edition Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1948, p.99.
8. Romer, Alfred, Man and the Vertebrates, University Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948, p.214.
9. Ibid., p.187.
10. Zuckerman, S., “Morphological Series of Hominid Remains,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol.81, 1951, p.57.

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out, modern genetics has shown that quite unrelated species may now and then give rise to forms quite similar in structure, so that mere similarity is no guarantee that the specimens have anything in common genetically. Morphology can be totally misleading. We shall return to this point later on.
The manner in which this dependence upon physical appearance can distort the interpretations of an able scholar is well illustrated in the case of Weidenreich’s handling of certain Far Eastern specimens. Speaking of this, William Koppers from Vienna remarked how Weidenreich established a chronological order of hominid remains beginning with the cranium of Piltdown Man, which now that the fake jaw has been disposed of, appears to be a genuine fossil of early geological age. He then established a morphological series of hominid remains in which he ends with Piltdown Man, because the cranium early though it is, is quite modern in appearance. Koppers does not say how the reconciliation is effected. (11)
In the earlier days of anthropology, such problems never existed. For as far as the public was aware, the finds did indeed fit into a fine series. However this appearance had often been neatly secured by the simple expedient of removing from the record any skulls which did not suit the arrangement. Koppers may be quoted again in this connection: (12)

It should interest the wider public to know that in the same context, the distinguished anthropologist Broom, frankly acknowledges that sapiens-like remains from early times have shown a strange tendency to disappear. He quotes the discoveries made at Ipswich in 1855 and at Abbeville in 1863 as special examples, and offers the following explanation: “During the latter half of the nineteenth century every apparently early human skull that was found, if it was not ape-like, was discredited, no matter how good its credentials appeared to be.”

Thus with the passage of time, the situation has become more and more embarrassing as fossils have continued to appear which can neither be hidden from the public, nor introduced sensibly into the series. Today each new find seems to create more problems than it solves. Evidently a basic premise is at fault somewhere. This premise is that human forms must be derived from animal forms and transitional forms must therefore be provided. The time scale is rearranged accordingly to agree with the assumed scale of evolutionary development. Suppose we allow the levels in which the fossils are found to speak for themselves in each instance, is there then any

11. Koppers, Wilhelm, Primitive Man and His World Picture, Sheed and Ward, London, 1952, p.221.
12. Ibid., p.238.

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other explanation for this peculiar mixing of forms, this morphological contradiction of evolutionary theory?
In view of all that has been said thus far, it becomes evident that of the two systems of establishing which fossils in any series are the earlier ones, the only valid one is to fall back upon the supposed geological age at which each fossil was found. While there may be some disagreement as to the exact age in any given case, the general order is likely to be reasonably well established. But in doing this we have lost the nicely graded series entirely. How are we then to account for those forms which look so primitive and which although found in the wrong order, in many respects approach so closely to the ideal “missing link” type?

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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