Friday, June 01, 2012

6000 Skulls

I just spent the day trying to really get my head around human evolution at the Hall of Human Origins in the National Museum of Natural History. I think I'm getting it. Australopithecus died out. Homo heidelbergensis is probably the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. Homo erectus lived a long time and was pretty dang tall.

The biggest thing I'm pondering as I walk away is how all that we know about early humans is based on 6,000 skulls. That seems like a low number. On the one hand, the number doesn't bother me. 6,000 is a pretty hefty count for any collection of specimens. Even just 1 piece of evidence is something that science must deal with, as long as it is authentic. And 6,000 is a lot more than 60 or even 600.

On the other hand, that seems like such a small number to answer the question, "Where did we come from?" In my day-to-day world, people don't believe in human evolution. I don't see them being convinced by this amount of evidence. Sure, I could try to argue with the reliability of the skulls we do have or the promise of future finds or the difficulty of fossilization. Those science-y arguments don't work well for the non-science-y people I'm thinking of. Human evolution asks them to overturn much of their worldview, and I don't think 6,000 data points are enough for them to do that.

(And I just realized that the number of currently known skulls is equal to what most of my people believe to be the age of the Earth. How crazy is that?)

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