THE MATCH STICKS FOSSIL “H, ERECTUS”
By: Lazarus Kgasi, Junior Curator, Palaeontology, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History
Dr Ron J. Clarke and Dr Francis C. Howell were looking through the australopithecine collections at the former Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) in July 1969 when Dr Clarke noticed that some parts of a cranium from the Swartkrans species (SK 847) seemed to be significantly different from the robust australopithecine (paranthropus) that is known in great abundance from that site. Even though the specimen had previously been thought of as a paranthropus, the possibility that it might offer more proof of the second hominid — first reported from that site by Broom and Robinson in 1949 and referred to as Telanthropus capensis—then later assigned by Robinson to Homo erectus—came to Dr Clark’s mind.
The specimens in question, a lower jaw (mandible) SK 15 and the skull SK 847 were discovered by Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson at Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind in 1949. However, it was only identified by Professor Ron Clarke as belonging to Homo erectus, 20 years later. The Swartkrans fossil site, is a few kilometres from Sterkfontein. SK 847 is composed of three different parts, including elements of the face, the temporal bone, and the maxilla. Robert Broom had previously found the maxilla in 1949, though. The three parts belonged to the same individual and were part of their shared cranium, but they were unaware of this until professor Clarke found the other two pieces. It is still uncertain what sex this individual was. This finding is significant because it provides evidence that early Homo in southern Africa coexisted with early Homo erectus in East Africa and probably even survived afterwards. This fossil could also give evidence of the earliest uses of controlled fire.
Anatomical data from this specimen’s facial characteristics supports anthropologists’ contention that SK 847 does not belong to the australopithecine group. The face of SK 847 is relatively short and narrow, with a prominent brow ridge, thick supraorbital torus, a sharply sloping frontal bone, delicately curved cheekbones, rounded forward-projecting nasal bones, an obvious supratarsal sulcus, and a moderate constriction of the skull behind the eye socket. These traits stand in contrast to the typical robust australopithecine. Additionally, SK 847 had a narrow palate and a small temporomandibular joint that could only accommodate a small, short lower jaw rather than the normal huge mandible of a robust australopithecine. The cranium components were connected together with matchsticks.
We have learned that a protein rich diet accelerated brain growth. A meatier diet and higher caloric intake are frequently directly linked to an increase in brain size. Entomophagy, the increased ingestion of insect protein, has also been considered a potential explanation. The huge ape stomach is used to create fat by fermenting plant matter, which was replaced by dietary animal fat, allowing more energy to be transferred to brain expansion. It is also possible that H. erectus’ energy-intensive guts shrank in size as a result. This would have indirectly expanded brain growth while keeping the caloric needs of ancestor species the same. Due to its increased reliance on meat, H. erectus may have been the first species to utilize a hunting and food gathering strategy. Focusing on collaboration, division of labour, and food sharing, in stark contrast to earlier means of subsistence, hunting and gathering were practised. H, erectus used fire at least one million years ago. Research on burnt bones by Dr “Bob” Brain and his team who discovered stone artefacts and bone tools at Swartkrans, revealed that the bones had been cooked to temperatures beyond 200 degrees Celsius (390 degrees Fahrenheit), which is above the typical temperature of a natural bush fire. This may be evidence for the prolonged and regulated use of fire, but not necessarily for the starting of fire by Homo erectus (SK 847). Our predecessors’ ability to survive may have been greatly influenced by their usage of fire. They could cook and store food, and it may have also helped to develop language and civilization. It also gave them heat, light, shelter, and protection from predators.
Homo erectus was able to migrate from Africa to colder regions of the world thanks to tools and the management of fire. Cooking was made possible by the use of fire, increasing the variety and calibre of food available to Homo erectus. Additionally, it gave warmth and a way to fend off predators.
The discovery of Homo erectus in South Africa may have caused additional confusion for the average person on the street because they did not have the luxury of seeing this fossil or reading about it in non-scientific articles, as Africa is recognized for being a cultural and religious continent. It started with the astounding discovery of the juvenile australopithecine skull known as the Taung Child by Raymond Dart in the fall of 1924. Dart had discovered a human predecessor, but the scientific community was not prepared for such an apelike relative at that time. Dart took it personally because he was mocked and scorned at the time. Between the time he published his description of Australopithecus africanus and the time that it was accepted, more than 20 years later, he mostly retreated from the field of anthropology, leaving the defence of the fossil kid in the capable hands of his vivacious colleague, Robert Broom. Broom himself had mixed results in terms of gaining the support of the scientific community.
Identifying fossil species presents difficulties for palaeontologists of all kinds. Is there variation within one species, or are there two different species, if two individuals exhibit significant differences? Scientists who tend to classify hominids with similar characteristics together are referred to as lumpers. Broom, on the other hand, was a well-known example of a notorious hominid splitter, a scientist who went in the opposite direction. He also argued that australopithecines came in two fundamental subtypes: robust and gracile, and both walked erect. This theory has fared well over time. In 1938, he identified the robust australopithecine Paranthropus robustus based on the remains of two species.
One may anticipate Broom to be a Darwinian given his endorsement of Dart’s discovery of a human ancestor in Africa, but he was not. Broom believed that natural selection was insufficient to explain the variety of life on Earth. He believed that natural selection could not account for Shakespeare’s genius or the jewel-toned feathers of hummingbirds through random mutations.
Broom was aware that the scientific community did not support him. He was unconcerned. He was not the only one at the time to doubt the efficacy of natural selection. In the decades that followed, Darwin’s theory was accepted to varied degrees after the publication of The Origin of Species. Broom’s statement was written prior to the neo-Darwinian synthesis’s complete development, which would eventually merge elements of natural selection, genetics, mutation, population biology, and palaeontology.
The next time you are in Pretoria, make a point of visiting this amazing fossil at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History so you can learn how to control a proper campfire.