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New twist in 'fossil wars'


Only a few years ago American anthropologist Donald Johanson part of the team that uncovered the ape-woman "Lucy" in Ethiopia could dismiss South African australopithecines like the Taung child and Mrs Ples as an evolutionary side-show and dead-end.

The Sterkfontein cave complex and other South African sites began to look more like the cradle of anthropological studies than the cradle of humankind. Ethiopian and Kenyan fossils were more than a million years older than anything found here.

Compounding this, says the doyen of local palaeoanthropology, Phillip Tobias, was a subtle campaign to downgrade South African fossil sites in the 1980s, a side-effect of world protests against apartheid. Personal rivalry and ambition may also have been a factor.

Particularly since the arrival of numbers of American scientists on the scene, some feel, the study of human origins has become a fiercely competitive field where researchers are hell-bent on finding new species and talking up their finds.

And because it has replaced religious creation myths for many people, it arouses much deeper passions than, for example, specialist research on the evolution of horses or cats.

The new Southern African finds do not mean East Africa has dropped out of the picture. It restaked its claim to the earliest find this year when an Ethiopian student, Johannes Haile Selassie, working under Berkeley University's Tim White, unearthed the 5,5-million-year-old bone fragments of Lucy's possible ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus, in the Ethiopian Rift Valley.

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