7 Celebrity Fossils That Signify the Evolutionary Narrative of Humanity

Questions about Darwinism and cultural touchstones abound.

By Rhonda FanningNovember 25, 2016 9:30 am

This story originally aired and published on Aug. 16, 2016.

Lucy, Flo and the Old Man are not content to rest in museum collections. Sure, they’re known for their places in the evolution of humanity, but they, too, have their own Facebook and Twitter followers. They’re also known for something more: they have a role in the evolution of the evolution narrative.

Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils” explores the stories of some of the world’s celebrity skeletons. These fossils may tell us more than where we’ve been – they may tell us who we really are.

Texan Lydia Pyne, who has a Ph.D in history, wrote the book, which looks at the Old Man of La Chapelle (discovered in 1908), Piltdown Man (a hoax discovered in 1912), Taung Child (discovered in South Africa in 1924), Peking Man (discovered in the 1920s and 30s), Lucy (discovered in 1974), Flo (discovered in 2003) and Sediba (discovered in 2008).

Pyne says the philosophy of science informs her look at how these fossils have stolen our hearts.

“They’re completely captivating public audiences – whether it’s newspapers and the Old Man of La Chapelle neanderthal, or whether it’s Twitter followers following Sediba,” Pyne says. “I think that there really is this sort of blending of science and popular culture that catapults a skeleton to becoming a celebrity.”

On how she chose the seven:

“When I finally sat down and said, Okay, these are the seven that I want to write about – what was really important to me was that they were all famous in different ways.”

On the Old Man of La Chapelle:

“The Old Man was famous because it was the first kind of species that really made a Homo sapiens look at themselves and sort of cast it as this other in the evolutionary narrative.”

On the overarching theme of Darwinism and the Taung Child:

“There are these questions of Darwin throughout the seven skeletons. One of my favorite examples of that actually was from the Taung Child … when his discoverer Raymond Dart is rummaging around through this crate of fossils in his full Edwardian get-up for a wedding … he finds the skull and he describes it as sitting there daydreaming about becoming an instrument of Darwin’s hands to bring the study of evolution back to Africa.”

On Piltdown Man:

“(It was the) longest perpetrated hoax in the history of science across disciplines. It’s actually been a hoax longer than it was ever a ‘fossil’ – that science ever looked at the fossil as a legitimate ancestor. What I think the story of Piltdown does is that it really reinforces science as a self-correcting process. There was a lot of pushback – even when Piltdown was first discovered that something was a little odd, or something doesn’t quite make sense, or that there’s something a little hinky about the fossil.”

On what Pyne wants the reader to take away from the book about how we think about our own evolution as a species:

“One of the themes that I explore in the book is how museum displays have changed over time, and how those changes reflect how we’re thinking about these species as characters in the broader evolutionary narrative. … These species and these skeletons are important parts of the evolutionary story, but they’re also important cultural touchstones. They’re important cultural things for how we identify and think about evolution.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.