‘We don’t know from which creature humans and chimpanzees evolved’

US paleoanthropologist Tim White, a living legend in his field, has moved to Spain to continue his quest to uncover the distant origins of ‘Homo sapiens’

Tim White holds the skull of an African hominid in the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
Tim White holds the skull of an African hominid in the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.Ricardo Ordóñez

A pack of journalists crowded around Tim White on February 9, while he was having a drink on a sidewalk café in Burgos, northern Spain. The researcher, who is a genuine living legend in his field, was not expecting so much media attention, despite being responsible for discoveries that have changed the way that human beings see themselves. “The cameras came close to me, but then went straight past,” he recalls with a chuckle. It turns out they weren’t looking for him, but rather Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s main opposition Popular Party (PP), considered at that moment to be the country’s next prime minister.

For 50 years, Tim White has been answering one of the most-fascinating questions faced by humanity: where did we come from? In 1979, when he was still in his 20s, he was one of the paleoanthropologists who announced to the world the discovery of Lucy, the remains of an Australopithecus (a genus of early hominins) a meter tall, and that showed that, despite their small brains, human ancestors already walked upright more than three million years ago in what is now Ethiopia.

White, 71 and originally from California, has moved with his family to Burgos, Spain to join the National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH). His résumé is dazzling. Also in the 1970s, White excavated hominid footprints in Laetoli, Tanzania. They were presumably left there by a number of Australopithecus who were walking upright on the ash of a volcano some 3.6 million years ago.

People expected the oldest remains to resemble more and more those of a chimpanzee, but that’s not the case
Tim White

And in 2009, the researcher presented to the world the skeleton of Ardi, a female from another extinct species found in Ethiopia, Ardipithecus ramidus. The discovery suggested that human ancestors could walk upright 4.4 million years ago, as well as moving comfortably via tree branches thank to an enormous opposable toe.

Ardi was a revolution. The most-accepted theory during the 20th century stated that African simians, similar to chimpanzees, had made way for the Australopithecus, which in turn had evolved into humans. Ardi broke that chain. It was a creature in transition. “People expected the oldest remains to resemble more and more those of a chimpanzee, but that’s not the case,” White explains.

Human beings still don’t know where they come from. The scientist explains that there is a “black hole” in our knowledge of some six million years ago, when the evolutionary branch that led to humans separated from what would end up being chimpanzees. Fossils from that era have not been found. Ardipithecus like Ardi are the closest thing we have to our last common ancestor. “We don’t know from which creature humans and chimpanzees evolved,” White admits.

Ethiopia has been described as the cradle of humanity, but so has South Africa. In 1924, anthropologist Raymond Dart found the remains of the so-called Taung Child, the fossilized skull of a young Australopithecus africanus dating from 2.5 million years ago. Tanzania is also considered the origin of everything, and even Morocco, where human remains from 300,000 years ago have been discovered. For White, this competition between countries makes no sense. “The cradle of humanity is a concept that tourists love, but it’s absurd,” he says.

Cradle of humanity

The researcher points out that finding fossils depends, more than anything, if the conditions of the ground are adequate for preserving bones. “In Atapuerca [a prehistoric archaeological site in northern Spain] fossils would not be found if there were no holes in the limestone,” he explains. “It’s not that the hominids said, ‘Hey, let’s go to live in Atapuerca, there are holes in the limestone!’ No, hominids were everywhere, but that is where their remains are found. You can’t pick a single place and say that it is the cradle of humanity. That is done due to nationalistic pride, mixed with economic interests,” White argues. “The cradle of Homo sapiens is the African continent.”

The “big question,” the paleoanthropologist continues, “is what was there before Ardipithecus ramidus. With no fossil record, these are just conjectures. Ardipithecus is the closest we have to that common ancestor that we are yet to find. You could collect all of the known fossils of the oldest hominids and they would fit in a shoe box. It is not enough,” he complains. “I would love to find something like this, but we have looked at our levels of six million years and it’s not an adequate environment, there aren’t any of these primates. They must be in other parts of Africa, but that place is yet to be found.”

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