Out of Africa

Image Courtesy of AAAS/Science

Earlier this week a team of archaeologists led by Hans-Peter Uerpmann published this paper in the journal Science, in which they describe their finding of stone tools in the Arabian peninsula dating to about 125,000 years ago. That’s 50,000 years before modern humans were thought to have left Africa, and a significant finding for anyone interested in what it means to be a human.

This article at Fox News describing the new paper does a very nice job of telling a tight story about ancient human movements, and there is quite a bit positive to be said for it.  It describes clearly the method used to find the age of the tools.  It describes the possible historical geographic routes out of Africa. And it limits its scope to the Arabian peninsula rather than speculating about human dispersal more widely, which would be tempting to do.

But in trying to tell such a tight story the article may do some disservice to the science itself.  For one thing it is very credulous about the paper, not mentioning that only tools (no fossil bones) were found, and that it is not certain that the toolmakers are ancestral to modern humans.

They also take a very “new evidence replaces all old evidence” approach.  But the “old evidence” is largely genetic and not necessarily in direct conflict.  The Fox story omits any description of the genetic evidence, yielding a tight, unambiguous (if incorrect) story.  But I’m not sure if omitting it is better or worse than the BBC coverage of the paper, which does a nice job of explaining the genetic evidence itself but then allows the papers’ authors to dismiss the evidence outright with a wave of their hand.

But perhaps most frustrating for me is something common to all coverage of this paper and nearly all papers about early human movements, which is the implicit idea of how we left Africa.  “Migration.”  We seem to think of humans leaving Africa as some kind of wagon caravan to the Old West, or perhaps a mass exploration, or a conquest of new land, or even worse as if ancestral Africa was some kind of hard-walled prison from which ancient modern humans were trying to escape.  We fail to appreciate that ancient humans were just like every other living organism: wherever they could reach and survive, they would exist.  And even if it is less romantic a notion, to me it is far more interesting.

Chris Nasrallah

About Chris Nasrallah

No one really knows Chris's back story. Some argue he was raised by wolves in the Arctic tundra. Others suggest that he was the product of a fateful meeting between Barbarella and Gonzo the Great. While Modern Science may never resolve the question of Chris's true origins, he was probably born in Ohio.
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2 Responses to Out of Africa

  1. Jenny Oh Jenny Oh says:

    Another great critique of news coverage! I only had one suggestion in regards to links; you could make your hyperlinks more searchable by avoiding hyperlinking generic words like “this” or here” and “article” and citing more specific terms like, “Hans-Peter Uerpmann published this paper” as your hyperlink. Great job!

  2. Andrea Kissack says:

    Interesting comparison of news coverage, gets at how a journalist’s intended audience changes the presentation.

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