All About Ardi: Finding A Cultural Place

(This was previously published as an article in the satirical Bent Trowel, 2009.)

Raymond Dart, holding Taung Child.  Courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, Raymond Dart Archive.

Raymond Dart, holding Taung Child.  Courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, Raymond Dart Archive.

Fossil celebrities are nothing new.  Paleoanthropology’s history is jam-packed with fossil specimens that catapulted their associated researcher and research agenda to fame, glory, mystery and intrigue, as well as intellectual fortune.  In 1856, Neanderthal fossils found in Europe raised questions about the antiquity of Homo and provided a substantial empirical backdrop to Charles Darwin’s publication three years later of On the Origin of Species.  In 1924, the Taung Child put South Africa and Raymond Dart squarely on the map for paleoanthropological research.  Twenty-three years after the original description of the Taung Child, Mrs. Ples – an australopithecine crania found by Robert Broom and John Robinson – was described in the anthropological literature and, in 2004, was even listed as one of South Africa’ “Top 100 South Africans.”  And, of course, who could forget Lucy – arguably, the most famous of all fossil specimens?

Why the preoccupation with a single fossil?  Why do certain fossils get such intellectual “clout?”  Why are some of these celebrity fossils the stately orators of paleoanthropological knowledge, a la Sean Connery and Orson Wells, and other fossils and research paradigms dragged through the equivalent of a paleoanthropological National Enquirer?  Several reasons. 

Fossils become intellectual shorthand for referring to interpretations about hominin evolution (“bipedality that is more like Lucy, and less like a hominoid,”) patterns in artifacts (“the Klasies pattern” in terms of heads and hooves being overrepresented in a faunal assemblage), or particular ways of thinking about things (progress, nationalism, and a whole twaddle of other interpretive dilemmas that front paleo research.)  In a competitive field, it’s almost impossible to make a name for one’s self without the help of  some tangible object for association.

In October 2009 a new celebrity hominin locomoted its way onto the evolutionary stage.  Dr. Tim White’s newly published descriptions of  Ardipithecus ramidus stunned the paleoanthropological world – both his finds themselves, and the record-breaking seventeen years it took to publish them.  Overnight, the fossil, nicknamed Ardi, became the twenty-first century’s darling of paleoanthropology. 

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The Ardipithecus Ramidus (ARA-VP-6/500) skeleton. This composite image shows the approximate placement of the fossils recovered. Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5949/64/F3

The Ardipithecus Ramidus (ARA-VP-6/500) skeleton. This composite image shows the approximate placement of the fossils recovered. Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5949/64/F3

What about Ardi?  What sort of fossil celebrity is she?  Ardi’s publication was met with a slew of documentaries, press releases, photos, and the scientific equivalent, of rumors of mystery and intrigue.  (Sadly, no T-shirts are available yet.  I proudly display my paleoanthro geekiness with a T-shirt that I picked up at Houston Natural History Museum’s Lucy exhibit – a print of Australopithecus afarensis and the slogan “I (heart) Lucy.”) 

Ardi’s physical description is pretty straightforward – about 4 feet tall, 110 pounds.  An Irene Dunne of the Pliocene world.  She had an innovative locomotor pattern – Ardi was bipedal and walked with her open palms on the ground.  “Ardi was not a chimpanzee, but she wasn't human," stressed White, who directs UC Berkeley's Human Evolution Research Center. “When climbing on all fours, she did not walk on her knuckles, like a chimp or gorilla, but on her palms. No ape today walks on its palms.”  Ardi's successor, Lucy, was much better adapted for walking on the ground, suggesting that "hominids became fundamentally terrestrial only at the Australopithecus stage of evolution,” he said. [1]

What does a celebrity fossil accomplish?  Sure, it gives the public a “face” with the scientific name, it gives the discoverer his 15 minutes (or more) of fame, and it is a focusing point for how theory, evidence, and interpretation come and have come together for fossils.  Dart’s early twentieth-century australopithecines were originally interpreted as bloodthirsty member of an Osteodontokeratic (ODK) Culture.  A hundred years later, more or less, paleoanthropology could regard Dart’s findings as a sociological “artifact” of “South Africa Between World Wars and in a Time of Self-Identity.”  The fossils and their interpretations become markers, if you will, of  the way and manner in which researchers relate to the world around them.  Ardi’s Pliocene interpretation is one of pair-bonded primates, with little sexual dimorphism, and the potential for food and resource-sharing.  Rightly or wrongly in terms of its empirical evidence, the celebrity fossils and the interpretations of celebrity fossils serve as socio-cultural barometers.

For all of the media hype, Ardi’s place in scientific circles is yet to be determined.   Although the Smithsonian lists Ardi as one of the great scientific moments of this decade (along with the sequencing of the human genome and evidence of water on Mars)[2] there still hangs the question of whether Ardi will replace, augment, or complement  Lucy as a celebrity fossil.  Celebrity fossils are fixed cultural points and they are also unique objects of historical contingency. No fossil will ever fill the need and cultural space available that a fossil had in 1974, when Lucy was discovered. Lucy serves as an icon, Lauren Bacall-like, for a golden age of paleoanthropology.   Ardi’s cultural place, here in the early twenty-first century, can enjoy the surrounding media circus of press releases and NOVA documentaries.  Its icon-ness, however, is yet to be determined. 

 

[1] http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/10/01_ardiskeleton.shtml

[2] http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2009/12/01/a-decade-of-great-moments-in-science/ (Accessed 3 December 2009.)