Olduvai Man and The Cradle of Mankind Controversy

Olduvai Man and The Cradle of Mankind Controversy

Trying to dig up controversial claims on the origins of mankind is akin to opening a can of worms. At stake is our own history and there are 3 ferociously opposing views.

The Story of Oldoway Man

Lets take the case of the discovery of Olduvai Man (also known as Oldoway man), in 1913, by Prof. Hans Gottfried Reck who was a German volcanologist and paleontologist. The discovery was made in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. He had discovered and excavated a modern human buried in ancient bedrock. From the circumstantial evidence he estimated the age at 150,000 years. The one difference it has comparing to modern humans is 34 teeth as opposed to 36.  This he thought was a sign of some primitivity and perhaps it made this site the cradle of mankind.

Such a date was against the prevailing narrative of the time and was off by around 50,000 years. This made it controversial and Reck knew this so he tried to look at alternative explanations. He couldn’t find any evidence of the overlying strata being disturbed, which would have indicated a recent burial. And after careful analysis he could not find any other explanations either.

World war 1 was just around the corner and this site soon fell from German to British hands. Reck was taken prisoner for some time. Unfortunately, all his notes got destroyed as well. The British weren’t interested in finding the cradle of mankind in Africa and were looking for a European origin. They had already found it in the Piltdown man (which would turned out to be an embarrassing stain on the integrity of archaeology – but that’s a story for another post).

In 1931, Reck revisited the site in a joint expedition with Louis Leaky (famous Archaeologist and Paleoanthropolgist). Leaky had initially been skeptical and this was the reason for his interest, his own estimate had placed the fossil at roughly 20,000 years old based on the evidence he himself had been gathering at a nearby site.

However, after their joint study of the site, Leaky came to accept Reck’s claim of it’s antiquity. In fact, the bedrock was even more ancient than Reck had thought. Both of these scientists and Arthur Hopwood, another paleontologist, sent a letter to Nature stating that they had confirmed the fossils to be 500,000 years old !

At the time, the Olduvai man was being kept in Munich, Germany. Unfortunately during bombings in World war 2 most of the bones except a skull were destroyed.

The Cradle of Mankind Controversy

There seem to be 2 vehemently opposing sides in the argument as well as one relatively cautious side.

It perhaps wouldn’t have been that much of a controversy. Now that mainstream science has put modern human origins back to 200,000 – 300,000 years. However, that wasn’t the accepted scientific position at the time of this discovery (although 0.5 million does not fit the bill even today).

One side of this argument is people who believe in ancient human origins and forbidden archaeology. Most of them are creationists who in some form or another deny evolution and see such finds (this one is only the tip of that iceberg) as evidence  that humans existed alongside the hominids. That humans existed as far back as other animals so they couldn’t have evolved from them. There is a group of fundamental Christian creationists and also one of fundamental Hindu creationists. Some of these Hindus creationists believe in human devolution as opposed to evolution and their estimates go well beyond (in the 100s of million to billions of years) what mainstream archaeology purposes. This view is contradictory to the Christian creationist view. However, both seem to use similar arguments to make their case.

The cautionary group also falls towards this side of the argument but they don’t deny evolution. They don’t endorse any particular views either. This group is only skeptical of a ‘scientific dogma’ or ‘orthodox view’ in the formulation of these theories.

The other side is some scientists and skeptics who deny there is any controversy at all. They claim that this is a resolved matter and the conspiracy theorists haven’t been doing their research properly. Yet, looking at the arguments from the other side, the matter doesn’t seem to have been conclusively resolved.

So, is Olduvai man the cradle of mankind?

Here’s what each side has to say:

Scientists and Skeptics
Forbidden Archeologists
1. Later investigation revealed that it was in-fact an intrusive burial from a higher layer, making it a much younger specimen. Reck and later Leaky were serious scientists and experts. Reck had made an effort to look at whether there was any evidence indicative of an intrusive burial but he found the overlying strata undisturbed.
2. It is very rare to find a complete skeleton from that time  as was the case with this one, especially with it being deposited in water. It is rare but not impossible. It could actually have been an ancient burial which would make it normal to find the complete skeleton.
3. At the time the researchers were unable to appreciate archaeological stratigraphy. That is untrue and contradicts their original report.  Archaeological stratigraphy was well established by that time and the researchers were experts in doing that analysis.
4.  later geological analysis of the sediment surrounding the skeleton showed that it contained red pebbles and limestone chips which were not otherwise found in the bedrock and were from a higher layer, hence it got there due to a geological fault. The archaeologist who conducted the latter analysis was biased because he was writing a book which this find totally contradicted. Reck and Leaky did not find these red pebbles and limestone chips in their original analysis and report.

Leaky faced a hostile peer review if he did not accept the later studies.

One article also claimed that later carbon dating revealed the age to be around 19,000 years old. However, I could not find their source for that claim and it does not appear to be present in the other more authentic skeptical arguments. If that is true it would be quite conclusive. But I do suspect from looking at other similar disputes the forbidden archaeologist would probably respond by saying that the time lapse between the find and carbon dating taking place means the sample is likely to have been contaminated with new carbon 14 and the results of carbon dating would thus be unreliable.

Summary

What we see in this argument is a clash of world views. Neither side is contending that Olduvai man has something to do with the origins of mankind. Although this is exactly what the initial controversy was about. That debate was among scientists who were working in the field. The debate now is different.

The forbidden archaeologist’s allegation is that there is an unconscious bias in archaeological science. They are making this case as only one example (out of many more) to show that power structures (i.e. peer review and influence of certain eminent scientists) coupled with orthodox views means some evidence is being suppressed and hence the truth continues to be illusive for the mainstream.

Then there are some who go one step ahead (fundamental Christians and Hindus) and use this doubt to support their own view. That step ahead is completely unjustified. Firstly, it does not make any logical sense and secondly, they are rejecting all the other evidence (from better documented cases) which contradicts their own view and which has been accepted by most scientists in the field.

What the skeptics are arguing is that there is no controversy at all and that everything is crystal clear. They allegate that the forbidden archaeologist are heavily biased because of their prior belief system. They are making things up from nothing. However, this does not seem to be true either. There does appear to be some substance here and just because people on the other side may take things a step too far does not automatically make their original argument completely invalid.

From my point of view there are 4 perspectives here:

  1. The pure scientist – They are working in their own very specialized areas, are up-to date on new data in their area of expertise. They may recognize the nuances, the plethora of various opinions and may be able to weigh up the pros and cons of each of those views in their particular area. There must usually be opposing views which they would be aware of.
  2. The skeptic – Some of these can also be scientists in the field. However, their skeptical world view is more broadly based than their own specialized fields. Their worldview is basically of scientific orthodoxy and consistency. This view is formulated mostly on looking at what the apparent majority opinion is among different fields. However, when the scientist also becomes a skeptic this view becomes self propagating (as explained in the next view).
  3. The metascientist (for lack of a better term) – Claims that due to systemic and humanistic issues there is an orthodox bias in archaeology. They feel prior views mean some evidence gets harsher treatment than others. As a result those observation which do not fit into the emerging theme of the day are more likely to be rejected than those which do fit into it. Such a process is also self propagating as this results in more and more evidence accumulating for particular themes as opposed to others. This makes it increasingly difficult to reject or question the validity of those themes.
  4. The religious – They have a prior world view. They seem to be using this and any other examples they find to indirectly support that existing view. A lot of them may have conflicting world views to each other but are still using this same example to justify how ‘science is wrong’. This line of argument seems totally unjustified. The argument is being made on empirical evidence so there should be no room to ignore other empirical evidence which goes against their world view. Taken the previous position, at best it claims that there is room for humans to be more objective and flexible. However, science as a framework seems perfectly valid and useful nonetheless.

What do you think? Are there more sides and what stance would you take?


References
  1. Oldoway man: a Middle Pleistocene Homo sapiens? (badarchaeology.com)
  2.  An Examination of the Research of Creationist Walter Brown (ncse.com)
  3. Oldoway Man – Abstract (nature.com)
  4. Leakey, L. S. B; Reck, H.; Boswell, P. G. H.; Hopwood, A. T.; and Solomon, J. D. 1933. “The Oldoway Human Skeleton.” Nature. (March 18) 131:397-398.
  5. Reck, H. 1931. “The Oldoway Skeleton from Tanganyika Territory.” Man (January) 31:10-11.
  6. Boswell, P. G. H. 1932. “The Oldoway Human Skeleton.” Nature (August 13) 130:237-238.
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Reck
  8. Forbidden Archeology’s Impact – By Michael A. Cremo
  9. Atlantis Rising Magazine – 120 November/December 2016 – By J. Douglas Kenyon
  10. Creationism: The Hindu View – A Review of Forbidden Archeology, by Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson. Badger, CA: Govardhan Hill Publishing. 1994. ISBN 0-9635309-8-4 (talkorigins.org)
  11. Oldoway Man, a false start for Africa. (steemkr.com/science/)

Fizan

I’m honing my skills as a Psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK. I've also always had a keen interest in physics, philosophy and fundamental issues.
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AuthorFizan

I’m honing my skills as a Psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK. I've also always had a keen interest in physics, philosophy and fundamental issues.

2 replies to Olduvai Man and The Cradle of Mankind Controversy

  1. Hi Fizan,

    This is an interesting article. I confess I have no idea what side I’d take, and no dog in this fight other than natural curiosity. I don’t know much about carbon dating, but gather it’s not a good way to try and date things beyond about 50,000 years? Do you know? If that is the case, the discussion about something being dated at 150,000 years would obviously have been based on other analytical methods or inferences. It seems just from this article like a lot of speculation without enough data points to really reconstruct things to such a degree that everyone can agree what the timelines are based on evidence.

    It does seem like, this article aside, all sorts of things are true about human nature: to your point it seems the received notion in science is often favored over a new idea, so when there are two ways to explain something based on limited evidence, the received notion might be favored for reasons of human politicking. Also there tends to be a certain inertia with an existing idea, and maybe even other ideas built off of it, so that changing one idea has implications on others, and all else being equal… it’s human nature not to revise entire structures. But of course science corrects, at least on the average, over time. Then there’s the religious view which isn’t always based on the same sorts of evidence science would use. That doesn’t help much in a case like this. I don’t honestly know what to make of it!

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I stand similar to where you do, I don’t know what to make of it for the most part. But I do feel it constructive to indulge in such a reflective exercise. More often than not we take a lot of things on face value, without appreciating the complexities. Especially when anything gets labelled science a layperson accepts it as fact and our world view these days is becoming more and more ‘scientific’. That isn’t a bad thing in my view. But I think it’s important to reflect on the human nature of science (esp. the unconscious human part) and realizing the actual complexities which occur in formulating coherent views. Which at times may divide minds in the same field. Such reflection would perhaps make scientific progress less biased (towards existing ideas) and more flexible. Science isn’t a doctrine by any definition. Researchers would then feel less pressured to pursue only the ‘right’ science and those who do venture into usual territory would have a less chance of being marginalized.

      With regards to carbon dating I’ve read similar stuff as well but I’m no expert in it so can’t say for certain.

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