Halfway human

Delson recreated the shape of SM3's skull using coordinates from some 200 points on its surface. He did the same for 23 other specimens-11 H. erectus, 10 modern H. sapiens, and 2 archaic H. sapiens. With this information, his computer program arranged the specimens according to their similarity, placing SM3 just about squarely between the erectus and modern humans-while even the archaic H. sapiens fell in among the erectus specimens.

Next, Delson told the computer that there were categories called "erectus", "sapiens" and "archaic", and asked it to find features that would force known members of each group closer together. Again the program lumped archaic H. sapiens in with the erectus specimens. And when Delson asked the computer to categorise the unknown SM3 it still ended up floating between the two main groups, though a bit closer to the erectus cluster. Delson therefore feels comfortable designating SM3 as an erectus, albeit a strange one. He suggests three possible explanations for her odd looks. She could have been an aberrant individual. She could be a member of a hitherto unknown population of Indonesian H. erectus with bulging foreheads. Or, he acknowledges, she could represent "a population evolving in the direction of modern humans". The last explanation is music to the ears of multiregionalists. "That is very daring for him to say," says Wolpoff. "If you thought Homo sapiens began in Africa, as I know [Delson] does, then something in Indonesia has no business evolving in that direction."

But SM3 doesn't even have to be the long-awaited missing link to be troublesome. The finding that she fits so poorly into existing species categories seems to highlight an ongoing problem in paleoanthropology. The experts still argue over what constitutes H. erectus, an enormous group that has been called "the muddle in the middle" because it spans more than a million years and includes many specimens, from Indonesia, Asia and Africa, that don't neces

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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