The Morning File: Bring back the 1.8-million-year-old small brain


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There's a new study describing the discovery of a 1.8-millon-year-old skull resembling that of a human's, which boggles the mind -- and not just because it's so hard to imagine what those people did to pass the time before Wi-Fi.

The find was made in Georgia, and not our Georgia -- the Georgia that's over in Asia as part of the former USSR. So this long-in-the-tooth, small-in-the-brain ancestor is unlikely to be a close relative of yours -- more like the cousin you never knew you had who contacts you via Facebook.

Such things never seem to turn up close to Pittsburgh, for some reason. We make a big deal out of the old finds at the Meadowcroft site in Washington County, when there's no evidence that anyone even lived there 20,000 years ago. It might as well be Seven Fields, by comparison to Dmanisi, Georgia.

Researchers say the Georgian skull serves as evidence of early immigration out of Africa, which sounds like a long trek. It puts in perspective some of these complaints people have that they may need to walk a couple of extra blocks around Downtown if the bus routes are realigned.

(One imagines an old Georgian father saying to his son, "Don't you tell me you're too tired to walk across the forest to kill a saber-tooth and bring it home. When I was young, my family walked here from Africa, and you don't want to know how many more scars my dad would have put on me than I already have if I'd whined.")

The research on the skull focuses on its connections to finds elsewhere, suggesting there was one species of pre-humans at the time, even if they were widely scattered and might look different from one another. Study author David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgia National Museum, said it stands to reason, considering that a lot of today's humans don't look alike either.

"Danny DeVito, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are the same species," Mr. Lordkipanidze noted.

The Morning File actually had never before considered the possibility that Danny DeVito and Shaquille O'Neal could be part of the same species, any more than, say, a fish and a kangaroo would be. That would be like pretending this author has the same body structure and cellular components as Channing Tatum.

The skull was from a DeVitoish male, in that it was a bit under 5 feet tall. It had a massive jaw, big teeth and a small brain, implying that it may have been an organizer of the first Tea Party meeting.

The description makes us wonder if evolution is really all it's cracked up to be. A massive jaw would make it much easier to eat a Primanti's sandwich, for just one example. With a smaller brain, we'd be able to just focus on feeding and warming ourselves instead of wasting time on troublesome questions such as:

• If Clint Hurdle, Dan Bylsma and Mike Tomlin all have basically the same job, how come one of them dresses for work in the same uniform as his players, another puts on a suit like he's going to court and the third looks like he's about to dash to 7-Eleven for a snack and pop?

• If we put all of our recycling items into the same bag, does that mean a can, bottle and paper always end up being part of the same future item, like some giant scratch-your-head art display at the Mattress Factory?

• If no one had come up with pi, and we didn't know the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, would we really feel like something was missing from our lives?

• If Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor fell off the face of the Earth and didn't make a sound, would anyone notice?

Certainly, no one was thinking about such things nearly 2 million years ago, whether they lived in Georgia or in Georgia. There were more important things like shelters to be made and animals to be slaughtered and where to find the money for new shoes for the kids after making them walk thousands of miles from one continent to another.

And they had some worries we typically don't have. The prehistoric skull found near Dmanisi had been separated from its jaw, apparently because that particular ancestor had been mauled by some wilder, stronger carnivore.

Quite possibly, that would be even worse than being somewhere where the Wi-Fi doesn't work.

intelligencer

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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