First Americans?

Scientists used new DNA screening tech to study caves in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia, and Spain. What they found wasn’t a big surprise. What’s exciting about the news is that we now have another tool for unraveling our family history.

We’ve been pretty sure that nobody lived in North America until about two dozen millennia back. That may change, if scientists who say they found 130,000-year-old tools in San Diego County, California, are right. Quite a few other scientists are dubious, understandably.

I took a longer look at what we’ve been learning about Homo naledi. They’re folks who don’t look like humanity’s current model. We found their remains in a cave they probably used as a crypt.

Since you may be reading my stuff for the first time, I’ll review why I think truth is important. All truth, not just the bits I grew up knowing about. Also why I take the Bible seriously, but not ‘creation science.’ (March 31, 2017)


Embracing Truth: ALL Truth

If some states had banned lessons about post-Copernican astronomy in schools, or grudgingly allowed its mention as an alternative belief in the required ‘flat Earth’ curriculum, I’d most likely be writing about that.

Interestingly, even the most fervent ‘Bible believers’ I’ve known drew the line at rejecting Earth’s shape. (March 24, 2017)

About Sacred Scripture, I take the Bible very seriously: all of the Bible, not just the parts I like. That’s ‘Catholicism 101.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

Wondering about God’s creation, including how we got started, is part of being human. It’s what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 279289)

Scientific discoveries are opportunities for greater admiration of God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Deciding that God’s work must conform to assumptions made a few centuries back makes no sense at all. Not to me.

Particularly since those assumptions were largely based on lockstep-literal reading of poetry written by and for folks familiar with Sumerian and Babylonian cosmology.

I might as well reject what our Lord said, or decide that Minnesota doesn’t exist, because my home state isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Not once. (April 21, 2017)

God gave us brains and curiosity. I’m quite convinced that the Almighty isn’t offended if we use them. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 1704, 17301731)

This should be obvious, but truth cannot contradict truth. (Catechism, 159)

What we learn cannot interfere with an informed faith.

Using our brains does, however, sometimes mean learning something our great-great-grandparents didn’t know. That’s been happening pretty often lately.

Charles Dawson and the Piltdown Legacy


(From John Cooke, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Charles Dawson is second from the right in back, next to a picture of Charles Darwin.)

Credit where credit is due. Charles Dawson successfully scammed many, but not all, scientists; and apparently did it solo. (August 26, 2016)

That’s not how I’d want folks to remember me.

He wasn’t the first fellow with a fake fossil. I’ll get back to that.

I don’t know why Charles Dawson faked the Piltdown Man skull. He apparently could have made significant contributions to archaeology and paleontology: assuming that parts of his Hastings Castle research was honest.

Dawson said he found parts of a skull, skull, assorted teeth, and “primitive tools” in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown, East Sussex. That was in 1912.

Four and half decades later, scientists using newly-developed tech like fluorine absorption dating confirmed what Marcellin Boule, F. H. Edmonds, and other scientists, had been saying. Piltdown Man is a hoax.

Adding patina to a 500-year-old orangutan jaw and medieval human skull, and filing fossilized chimpanzee teeth to fit expectations, Dawson had shown English-speaking scientists in 1912 what they wanted to see: a British “missing link.”

I don’t know how much we’d have learned by now, if attention hadn’t been diverted from real evidence like the Taung Child and Peking Man, to Dawson’s fake.

Lost time and wasted effort wasn’t the only problem. Folks who desperately want God to follow the cosmology of ancient Mesopotamia and Ussher’s timeline probably still use Piltdown Man as “proof” that science is a Satanic plot.

Never mind that that scientists exposed the Piltdown Man fraud.

An Honest Mistake, Hoaxes, and the Regrettable Bone Wars


(from Amédée Forestier, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Forestier’s imaginative 1922 illustration of H. haroldcookii, modeled on the Java Man.)

In 1917, rancher and geologist Harold Cook found a tooth in Nebraska. In 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn said that the tooth was from an anthropoid ape. Osborn called his North American ape Hesperopithecus haroldcookii, after the tooth’s discoverer.

Amédée Forestier made a picture of “Nebraska Man” for Illustrated London News. Osborn apparently called the illustration “a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and undoubtedly inaccurate.”

Most scientists were dubious, at best, about the tooth being from an ape.

Field work in 1925 and 1926 uncovered other parts of the critter. The tooth came from a now-extinct North American peccary.1 Then W. K. Gregory announced that Hesperopithecus was most likely not an ape or a man.

I’m guessing W. K. was William King Gregory.

I’m pretty sure Osborn’s 1922 announcement was an honest mistake. Peccary teeth aren’t all that different from human teeth, for one thing.

Not-so-honest claims didn’t waste as much time as the Piltdown Man, happily.

The 1866 Calaveras Skull started as a shopkeeper’s and miner’s practical joke.

They convinced a geologist, a professor, and some theosophists that a thousand-year-old skull was about a million years old. The Smithsonian’s William Henry Holmes examined the skull around 1900. He pointed out that the skull was shaped like today’s version.

Scientists had realized that change happens by then, so a million-year old skill with contemporary features was as out of place as a cell phone in Lincoln’s White House. Fluorine absorption dating eventually pegged the skulls age at about a thousand years.

The Cardiff Giant, “discovered” by William C. “Stub” Newell in 1869, was declared genuine by some theologians.

Yale palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh called it “a most decided humbug.”

He was right.

A New York tobacconist and atheist, George Hull, had paid to have the Cardiff Giant carved from a block of gypsum. The idea was to win a “Biblical” argument about “giants” and Genesis 6:4.

I don’t think that proves that all tobacconists are atheists, or that atheists aren’t honest. I do think the Cardiff Giant’s fame shows that folks like novelties.

P. T. Barnum tried to buy the Cardiff Giant, but had to settle for hiring someone to make a copy. The Giant was a curiosity at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, where it drew almost as big a crowd as it did while stored in a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, barn.

It was a coffee table in an Iowa publisher’s basement rumpus room for several years, and is currently one of a museum’s exhibits in New York state.

About Genesis 6:4, I’m not sure why some English translations of the Bible used “giants” instead of transliterating Nephilim, נְפִילִים‎. Nephilim may be related to “descendants of the Anakim” mentioned in Numbers 13:22.

Nephilim and Anakim show up elsewhere, too. I talked about the Bible and why I don’t expect Sacred Scripture to discuss science that we’ve learned recently earlier.

One more fake fossil, and a 19th-century rivalry, and I’ll get to DNA and real fossils.

National Geographic should have known better when they published a piece about Archaeoraptor in 1999. That critter was correctly identified in 2002.

I’m not sure which part of the 1877-1892 Bone Wars did more damage: Marsh and Cope’s mutual and very public squabbling, or reports of dynamite and sabotage.2


1. DNA in Cave Sediment


(From Science, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The researchers also found the DNA of many animals – some of them extinct”
(BBC News))

DNA of extinct humans found in caves
BBC News (April 28, 2017))

The DNA of extinct humans can be retrieved from sediments in caves – even in the absence of skeletal remains.

“Researchers found the genetic material in sediment samples collected from seven archaeological sites.

“The remains of ancient humans are often scarce, so the new findings could help scientists learn the identity of inhabitants at sites where only artefacts have been found….”

The researchers found Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, which wasn’t a big surprise. One of the sites was the Denisova Cave. What’s important is that now we can tell which part of humanity’s family lived in places where all we’ve found so far are the stuff they left behind.

Scienitsts knew that DNA binds with parts of cave floor sediment, so they checked seven caves we knew had been used by Hominins.

That’s the taxonomic tribe that includes Siamangs, Bornean gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and us.

Scientists started rethinking primate taxonomy, again, around the 1960s. (September 23, 2016)

The scientists analyzed sediment from sites in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia, and Spain, ranging from 14,000 to 550,000 years old.

Even samples that had been stored at room temperature for years held enough mitochondrial DNA for analysis.

Besides hominin DNA, the scientists found genetic material from woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, cave bears and hyenas.

We’ve learned quite a bit since Friedrich Miescher’s and Nikolai Koltsov’s research. We’ve also uncovered new questions, like what most of our noncoding DNA does; if anything. (March 31, 2017; March 10, 2017; January 13, 2017)

Fossils, Swamps, and Us


(From MPI For Evo Anthro / J. Krause, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The remains of Neanderthals had previously been found at Vindija Cave in Croatia”
(BBC News))

Fossil evidence of our origins, and our tools, have often been in caves. Learning to isolate DNA from cave sediment should be a big help to scientists studying our past.

We’ve found fossilized insects in amber and critter-shaped hollows in volcanic ash, but most fossils form when a critter dies and gets covered in mud and silt. That’s why we’ve found so many fossils of critters with shells of critters that lived in water.3

We need water, so we generally camp or settle near fresh water.

We can even live on or near places with muddy water. But marsh and swampland isn’t our idea of prime real estate. Aside from that, our habitat seems to depend on where our most recent ancestors settled.

We’ve moved around a lot since the first of us headed for the horizon.

By now we’re living year-round on every continent except Antarctica, and have semi-permanent settlements there.

Since 1998 we’ve had about a half-dozen folks living and working in the ISS.

My guess is that our travels have barely started, and that’s another topic. (February 17, 2017; September 30, 2016)

Caves and Being Human


(From Steward Finlayson, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“Our cave,” “turn right,” or something else.)

We’ve used caves for shelter and storage for at least a million years. We still do, although what we’re storing has changed.

These days we have ‘wine caves‘ and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Places like the Atchison Storage Facility, Marengo warehouse, and SubTropolis are good for storing food, equipment, and documents — traditional or digital.

Since we’re human, we also create reflections of the truth and beauty that surrounds us. (July 17, 2016)

We’ve been doing that for quite a while now.

Someone created paintings in the Cave of El Castillo and Pettakere cave, 35,400 or more years ago. We don’t know who, or why.

We also don’t know why someone carved what looks like a tic-tac-toe grid on the wall of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar more than 39,0000 years ago; or a wave or chevron pattern onto a shell, about a half-million years back. And that’s yet another topic.4


(From Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(“A shell found on Java in the late 1800s was recently found to bear markings that seem to have been carved intentionally half a million years ago. The photograph is about 15 millimetres wide.”
(Nature))

2. Cerutti Mastodon Site, San Diego County: Early Americans?


(From Kate Johnson, San Diego NHM, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Experimental breakage was able to re-produce the same patterns seen at the ancient site”
(BBC News))

First Americans claim sparks controversy
Paul Rincon, BBC News (April 26, 2017)

A study that claims humans reached the Americas 130,000 years ago – much earlier than previously suggested – has run into controversy.

“Humans are thought to have arrived in the New World no earlier than 25,000 years ago, so the find would push back the first evidence of settlement by more than 100,000 years.

The conclusions rest on analysis of animal bones and tools from California.

“But many experts contacted by the BBC said they doubted the claims….”

One of the puzzles, aside from whether this is an archaeological or a palenotological site, is why someone would have been breaking mammoth bones.

The scientists didn’t find evidence that the purpose was getting meat. They suggested that maybe the folks were extracting marrow, or maybe getting material for non-stone tools. Those were big bones.

This may be another ‘Nebraska Man’ situation, where scientists make an honest mistake.

It could be a hoax, but that seems unlikely. A whole lot of folks are involved in the research, and they’d all have to agree to sabotaging their careers. Besides, the paper appears in Nature, one of the most well-respected peer-review journals around.5

About folks arriving in the Americas “no earlier than 25,000 years ago,” that’s about right; although there’s already evidence of slightly earlier arrivals.

Folks living near the west coast 130,000 years back is quite a jump: and will take a lot of work to verify. Or disprove. I don’t see that it’s impossible, though.

Folks who look about like us have been around for something like 200,000 years, and humanity started moving out of our homeland much earlier.

By Land; or, Maybe, by Sea

The obvious way of reaching the Americas from Asia is by walking. The connection between Asia and North America has been above water intermittently ever since the current ice age started, some two and a half million years back.

Hunting on that land bridge wouldn’t be very good, so how folks would support themselves on the trip is a reasonable question.

Another possibility is that folks arrived in the Americas by sea. Folks who look like us were living at Pinnacle Point between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago. We still do, for that matter. The caves are near Mossel Bay, a harbor town that about 130,000 folks call home.

Some scientists say folks moved to the Pinnacle Point caves because the site gives access to shellfish, whale, and seal. If they’re right, it will mean rewriting assumptions about when “modern” behavior started, but we should be used to that by now.

I think it’s likely enough that folks who had developed seaworthy vessels for hunting whales would eventually wonder what’s over the horizon.

It’s what we’ve been doing for at least the last 1,900,000 years, and explains why European explorers nearly always found that someone else had gotten there first.6

Stone Tools, or Maybe Just Rocks


(From MPK-WTAP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Tools found at the Lomekwi site near Lake Turkana, Kenya, a few years back.)

A Vanderbilt professor of anthropology, religion, and culture, says that the stone tools found at the California site aren’t tools.

Tom Dillehay told BBC News he thinks they’re rocks that just happen to look like tools, and that the mastodon bones just happen to look like they’d been broken by the rocks. He may be right.

Natural processes could, in principle, have shaped rocks to look like stone tools, and deposited them with bones that look like they’d been shaped by someone using the rocks.

Tools made by outfits like Black & Decker and Weber are obviously artificial. Even tech that’s been around for a few million years, like the mezzaluna, often has a manufacturer’s mark on it these days. We’ve tweaked the design, of course.

Early technology, like the tools in that photo, doesn’t always have that obvious ‘made by people’ look. Those tools are about 3,300,000 years old, most likely made by the folks we call Kenyanthropus, whose remains we found nearby.

They’d most likely have had a terrible time trying to fit into today’s world. But I’m inclined to think of them as “folks,” since they’d already started acting like people.

I don’t assume that looking just like me is what defines being “human.” (January 13, 2017; October 28, 2016; August 26, 2016)


3. Updating Humanity’s Geneology: Homo Naledi


(From John Hawks, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Homo naledi has much in common with early forms of the genus Homo”
(BBC News))

Primitive human ‘lived much more recently’
Paul Rincon, BBC News (April 25, 2017)

A primitive type of human, once thought to be up to three million years old, actually lived much more recently, a study suggests.

“The remains of 15 partial skeletons belonging to the species Homo naledi were described in 2015.

“They were found deep in a cave system in South Africa by a team led by Lee Berger from Wits University.

“In an interview, he now says the remains are probably just 200,000 to 300,000 years old….”

We weren’t all that sure about how old the Homo naledi remains were after when Lee Berger’s team reported results of their in 2013 and 2014 field work. The new numbers for their age come from very recently done lab work. That research hasn’t been published yet.

What we can be sure about is that the folks don’t look quite like anyone else. Based on different parts of their bodies and heads, they have lived anywhere from three million to a few hundred thousand years ago.

Berger’s team found parts of 15 individuals in the Rising Star Cave. That’s in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cradle of Humankind.

I’m not sure why UNESCO picked a place in southern Africa for its Cradle of Humankind site.

Maybe it’s because the Olduvai Gorge site in the Great Rift Valley has been thoroughly studied as our “cradle,” starting with Mary and Louis Leakey’s research in the 1960s.

Maybe UNESCO figured folks in South Africa needed more of an economic and political boost than Tanzania. There was more than one reason, likely enough.

Folks have been living in eastern and southern Africa for well upwards of 2,000,000 years. Someone had worked the bugs out of using fire in southern Africa about 1,000,000 years back, and that’s yet again another topic.

The Taung Child’s skull was uncovered in a South African quarry in 1924, studied, and largely ignored until scientists confirmed that Piltdown Man was a hoax. That was in 1953. (August 26, 2016)

These days we realize that Australopithecus africanus, our name for the Taung Child’s people, the recently-discovered Homo naledi, and other folks who don’t look at all British, or even European, are part of humanity’s family tree.7

Those of us who prefer taking reality ‘as is,’ that is: even if, particularly if, it means learning something new. (April 28, 2017; September 30, 2016; August 28, 2016)

Homo Naledi, 2015

Lee Rogers Berger is more flamboyant than many paleoanthropologists.

I don’t see a problem with a scientists having ‘style,’ or making results of research open access projects. But then, I’m not quite the button-down type myself; and don’t see a point in keeping ‘riff-raff’ from gaining knowledge.

That’s Dr. Berger in the photo, with a reconstruction of Australopithecus sediba. Dr. Berger’s son, Matthew, discovered the first A. sediba fossil. Those folks lived in southern Africa somewhere between 1,780,000 and 1,950,000 years back.

Dr. Berger’s team announced their discovery of Homo naledi, along with what they’d been learning, in 2014 and 2015.8

They figured the H. naledi fossils might have been as much as 3,000,000 years old — or — be comparatively recent. They lacked our our pointed chins, had less room for a brain and a lot of bone over their eyes.

On the other hand, H. naledi teeth and feet look a lot like the current human model’s.

Maybe H. naledi picked up the custom of interment from Homo sapiens. Maybe.

If the H. naledi remains were interred, that’d give them what’s still thought of as as a very ‘modern’ behavior. We’re the only folks many scientists are sure bury our dead.

Most of us, anyway. Not all do. I’ve discussed end-of-life customs, Neanderthals, and bias, before. (January 13, 2017; November 11, 2016; September 23, 2016)

Dinaledi Chamber, 2015: (Second) Discovery


(From Paul H. G. M. Dirks et al; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Cross-section sketch of Dinaledi chamber.)

Rising Star Cave is one of many limestone caves in that part of Africa. Besides the area’s interest to scientists, it’s a good place to go caving.

That’s how the “Dinaledi Chamber” fossils were found, back in 2013. Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, recreational cavers, found a shaft about 12 meters, 39 feet, deep by about 20 centimeters, not quite eight inches, wide on average.

The shaft was nearly vertical, and led to an underground chamber. Fossil bones, lots of them, littered the chamber’s floor. Hunter and Tucker apparently figured the bones were what was left of another caver who had gotten into the chamber, but not out.

That was a reasonable guess, particularly since they also noticed some survey pegs. Dr. Berger’s team later found records of cavers who had been there in the early 1990s: and made it back out again.

The chamber is about 80 meters horizontally and 30-odd meters down from the cave’s current entrance. The last leg of the trek to the chamber’s shaft entrance involves a 15 meter climb — after climbing down another slope and through a narrow passage.

The Dinaledi Chamber isn’t the sort of place 15 folks, from kids to adults, would ‘just happen’ to wander into.

Even if they lived three million years back, I doubt that folks like us would be all that comfortable in dark, enclosed spaces. Apart from adolescent and young-adult males.

We get a bit crazy around that age, if we’re anywhere near humanity’s 50th percentile. Crazier than at other parts of our lives, at any rate.

Hands, Feet, and Humanity’s Story



(From Peter Schmid, via Thinkstock/BBC News, used w/o permission.

The 15 individuals whose bones were in the Dinaedi Chamber were men, women, boys, girls; infants and elderly, and a fair spread of ages between, when they died. That’s enough to get a pretty good idea of what their sort of folks were like.

Their hands were a bit more curved than ours, for one thing; but closer to the current human model than, say, a gibbon’s.

Apart from their teeth and feet, they were a bit like Australopithecus, our name for hominins who lived between 4,000,000 and 2,000,000 years ago.

The most famous Australopithecus these days is probably “Lucy.” Since SRGAP2, a uniquely-human gene, had been around for about 200,000 years when she lived, I’m guessing that she’s a “who:” not a “what.” (September 23, 2016)

Besides H. neladi bones, scientists found fossilized remains of “micro-mammals” in the Dinaledi Chamber. Those were critters a whole lot smaller than we are. They didn’t find any bones from mid-sized critters.

The Homo naledi bones got there somehow. It’s very unlikely that all those folks wandered in accidentally.

Predators sometimes bury or leave bones in more-or-less one location, but these didn’t have claw or tooth marks. Besides, no known predator selectively buries human or human-like bones.

There’s no sign of flooding that would deposit remains there.

The least-unlikely explanation for how the bones got there is that someone dropped them down the shaft.

I suppose it’s remotely possible that all 15 might have been fleeing something. I’m not sure what would be so scary that 14 of them would keep going after the first one fell down the shaft, but it’s remotely possible.

I’ll close with a look at reactions to Homo neladi’s discovery, back in in 2015; and another look at faith and science.

“Wonderful Things,” and Rethinking What “Human” Means


(From National Geographic, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Homo naledi may have looked something like this”
(BBC News))

“…Marina Elliott … described how she felt when she first saw the chamber.

“‘The first time I went to the excavation site I likened it to the feeling that Howard Carter must have had when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb – that you are in a very confined space and then it opens up and all of a sudden all you can see are all these wonderful things – it was incredible,’ she said.

“Ms Elliott and her colleagues believe that they have found a burial chamber. The Homo naledi people appear to have carried individuals deep into the cave system and deposited them in the chamber – possibly over generations.

“If that is correct, it suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour and possibly symbolic thought – something that until now had only been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.

“Prof Berger said: ‘We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?

“‘Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?’

“Prof Berger believes that the discovery of a creature that has such a mix of modern and primitive features should make scientists rethink the definition of what it is to be human – so much so that he himself is reluctant to describe naledi as human.

“Other researchers working in the field, such as Prof Stringer, believe that naledi should be described as a primitive human. But he agrees that current theories need to be re-evaluated and that we have only just scratched the surface of the rich and complex story of human evolution.”
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (2015))

There’s a lot going on here.

I liked the reference to Howard Carter. That echoes my perception of this universe: filled with “wonderful things,” for those who take time to notice. (September 30, 2016; December 16, 2016)

I think that Professors Berger and Stringer are right — we need to reconsider what we mean by “human.”

Unlike Berger, however, I see Homo neledi as ‘human’ — most likely.

Those folks weren’t as big as the average person today, around five feet tall. Their brains were around 500 cubic centimeters, compared to 1,200 cubic centimeters for today’s model. Our fingers are straighter, and we’re probably smarter than Homo neledi.

But it looks like they interred their dead, a very ‘human’ action. I don’t think I’m ‘more human’ than someone with a lower IQ — and my family history strongly disinclines me to reject folks based on appearance.

About the artist’s representation of Homo neledi, I think the nose may be a best-estimate. That piece of the skull apparently hadn’t been found yet.


“Dragon Pterodactyles … with Vampire Wing”


(From Thomas Hawkins; via The Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania; used w/o permission.)
(Front piece of “The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri…,” Thomas Hawkins (1840))

Hawkins’ prose was colorful, grandiose, flamboyant, and rhapsodically replete with sesquipedalian loquaciousness: by today’s standards. Here’s part of his assertion that “grim Monsters” and “Dragon Pterodactyles … with Vampire Wing” were Satan’s work:

“…’Adam,’ the Lucifer and Protagonist of Antiquity, doing mis-prision against Sovereignty, turns the weapons of Loyalty upon his Liege, and plunges them into the Bowels of his Mother Earth. Forsaken of Angels, groaning, she bringeth forth grim Monsters, which ravage her Garden, the Locusts that consume it away….

“…Then a Vision of Abysmal Waters, swarming with all wondrous creatures of Life, and gelid Swamps with amphibious things , and Dragon Pterodactyles flitting in the hot air with Vampire Wing….”
(“The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri,” Thomas Hawkins, Thomas; pp. 4, 5 (1840))

Thomas Hawkins was an English fossil collector and dealer. His “brute Savages haunting Eldritch Caves” probably influenced attitudes toward “cavemen” in the early 20th century.

Calling Hawkins “eccentric” may be accurate. However, today’s ‘science’ documentaries might seem just as crazy if they’re viewed in the last decade of the 22nd century.

Thomas Hawkins and geological spectacle
Ralph O’Connor; Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, Volume 114, Issue 3 (2003) via ScienceDirect

“The lurid geological writings of the Glastonbury collector Thomas Hawkins (1810–1889) are often dismissed as the outpourings of a lunatic. When analysed within their literary context, however, they reveal conscious strategies for awakening the public’s visual imagination….”

“Lurid geological writings” are one thing. Selling artistically-restored fossils as the real thing was a bad idea in the mid-1800s, and still is. The problem isn’t fossils, it’s fraud. (Catechism, 24082409)

Much of an ichthyosaur fossil collection Thomas Hawkins sold to the British Museum in the mid-1800s was real, but the tail wasn’t.

Folks at the British Museum, realizing that they’d been sold a not-entirely-real fossil, sued. When the dust settled, the Hawkins ichthyosaurs stayed on display, with the reconstructed parts marked by a lighter color.

I like to think this wasn’t quite fraud; maybe more like an enhancement or reconstruction. These days, museums routinely make filled-in parts of their fossil displays a different color, so folks can tell what’s original and what’s not.

That wasn’t the first fake fossil. The earliest I know of were described in Johann Beringer’s 1726 “Lithographiae Wirceburgensis.”

The fraudsters were two of his colleagues who had planted carved stones — with writing on them, yet — that exactly matched what Beringer expected to find.

I don’t think that makes science wrong. It does show that scientists are human, and that being rationally dubious can be a good thing. I’ve talked about hubris, asking questions, and phlogiston, before. (March 24, 2017; December 9, 2016; July 31, 2016)

Assumptions, Knowable Physical Laws, and Tennessee v. Scopes

The Scopes Monkey Trial didn’t help settle a long-standing difference of opinion.

Folks with one set of assumptions still believe that Christianity demands ignorance. I don’t think so, but William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Scopes’ testimony arguably reinforces that belief.

Folks with another viewpoint still cling to belief in a long-dead Calvinist’s timetable,

I’m a Catholic, so I think God is large and in charge, creating a universe which follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301)

The Catholic version of faith is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

That’s the whole truth.

Truth can be expressed many ways; including words, “the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality;” and “the order and harmony of the cosmos.” (Catechism, 2500)

We can learn a bit about God by noticing “the world’s order and beauty,” which reflects God’s infinite beauty. (Catechism, 3132, 341)

A thirst for truth and happiness is written into each of us, which should lead us to God. (Catechism, 27)

We’re told that the universe is “in a state of journeying,” “in statu viae,” toward an ultimate perfection; but isn’t there yet. (Catechism, 302305)

I’m okay with that. Even if I wasn’t, my opinion or preference wouldn’t matter much; except maybe to me.

“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
(Psalms 115:3)

I’m also okay with that.

Living in a Changing World, and Loving It

What we know about this universe has changed quite a bit over the last few centuries. That’s not even close to thinking that reality has changed since, say, Aristotle’s day.

Aristotle was quite sure that Earth was in the center — more like ‘at the bottom’ — of the universe, and unique. Aristarchus of Samos suggested that Earth goes around the sun, and suspected that stars were other suns. That’s a bit shy of two dozen centuries back now. (March 24, 2017)

About 740 years ago, some European academics said Aristotle’s ideas must be right: because Aristotle said so.

They were really big fans of Aristotle.

The Church reminded them that God’s God, Aristotle’s not. I’ve talked about Proposition 27/219 of 1277 before.

Meanwhile, folks like St. Albertus Magnus and St. Hildegard of Bingen were helping lay foundations for today’s sciences. (April 28, 2017; December 9, 2016; November 6, 2016)

Since I think God is the source of all truth, and created everything, studying this universe and using what we learn is okay. (Genesis 1:131; Catechism, 156159, 2465)

Science and technology are part of being human. Learning about this wonder-filled creation is what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 22932295)

These days, that means living in a world where much of what I learned in high school science classes is seriously outdated.

I like living in a world where we’re finding the answers to some questions, often raising more questions in the process.

Folks who don’t like living in a changing world, not so much.

More about humanity’s long story:


1 Nebraska Man, peccaries, and artistic license:

2 Science, silliness, and the Bone Wars of Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh:

3 Branches of the family tree, the recent DNA research, and a little background:

4 Art and being human:

5 Settling the Americas, what we’re learning:

6 Caves and the sea:

7 Homo naledi and related topics:

8 News and papers from 2015:

  • New human-like species discovered in S Africa
    Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (September 10, 2015)
  • Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa
    Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Lee R Berger, Eric M Roberts, Jan D Kramers, John Hawks, Patrick S Randolph-Quinney, Marina Elliott, Charles M Musiba, Steven E Churchill, Darryl J de Ruiter, Peter Schmid, Lucinda R Backwell, Georgy A Belyanin, Pedro Boshoff, K Lindsay Hunter, Elen M Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, James du G Harrison, Rick Hunter, Ashley Kruger, Hannah Morris, Tebogo V Makhubela, Becca Peixotto, Steven Tucker; eLIFE (September 10, 2015)
  • Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa
    Lee R Berger, John Hawks, Darryl J de Ruiter, Steven E Churchill, Peter Schmid, Lucas K Delezene, Tracy L Kivell, Heather M Garvin, Scott A Williams, Jeremy M DeSilva, Matthew M Skinner, Charles M Musiba, Noel Cameron, Trenton W Holliday, William Harcourt-Smith, Rebecca R Ackermann, Markus Bastir, Barry Bogin, Debra Bolter, Juliet Brophy, Zachary D Cofran, Kimberly A Congdon, Andrew S Deane, Mana Dembo, Michelle Drapeau, Marina C Elliott, Elen M Feuerriegel, Daniel Garcia-Martinez, David J Green, Alia Gurtov, Joel D Irish, Ashley Kruger, Myra F Laird, Damiano Marchi, Marc R Meyer, Shahed Nalla, Enquye W Negash, Caley M Orr, Davorka Radovcic, Lauren Schroeder, Jill E Scott, Zachary Throckmorton, Matthew W Tocheri, Caroline VanSickle, Christopher S Walker, Pianpian Wei, Bernhard Zipfel; eLIFE (September 10, 2015)

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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