Posted by: paulgarner | May 26, 2009

Some palaeontological odds and ends

Main slab of the Darwinius masillae holotype fossil (specimen PMO 214.214)

Darwinius masillae holotype specimen PMO 214.214. Courtesy Franzen et al, PLoS One, under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

It’s time, I think, for a brief round up of some palaeontology items that have come to my attention recently.

First up is the unveiling of ‘Ida’, a new fossil primate, Darwinius masillae, from the Grube Messel in Germany (Franzen et al 2009). There’s no doubt that this is a magnificently preserved specimen and that it sheds new light on the morphology and mode of life of Eocene primates. However, the way in which this specimen was announced, and the sensationalistic claims being made about it, have been the subject of critical comment by creationists and evolutionists alike. Is this really the way that science should be done?

Earlier this month there were two more papers about Homo floresiensis (‘the hobbit’) in Nature. One described the species’ foot, suggesting that it is a mosaic of primitive and derived features (Jungers et al 2009). The other sought to explain how the species developed such a small brain if it represents a dwarfed version of early Homo erectus or Homo habilis (Weston and Lister 2009). Like the author of this paper (Wise 2005), I tend towards the opinion that specimen LB1 represents a distinct post-Babel human morphology rather than an individual suffering from a form of microencephaly. But was its ancestor H. erectus or some other form whose arrival in southeast Asia is yet undocumented by fossils?

Finally, if there’s any lingering doubt in your mind that Puijila darwini is indeed a walking pinniped and not a fossil otter (as some creationists have suggested), take the time to read Todd Wood’s recent howl of frustration post on the subject: ‘Puijila is not an otter’.


Franzen J. L., Gingerich P. D., Habersetzer J., Hurum J. H., von Koenigswald W. and Smith B. H. 2009. Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5):e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723.

Jungers W. L., Harcourt-Smith W. E. H., Wunderlich R. E., Tocheri M. W., Larson S. G., Sutikna T., Due R. A. and Morwood M. J. 2009. The foot of Homo floresiensis. Nature 459:81-84.

Weston E. M. and Lister A. M. 2009. Insular dwarfism in hippos and a model for brain size reduction in Homo floresiensis. Nature 459:85-88.

Wise K. P. 2005. The Flores skeleton and human baraminology. Occasional Papers of the BSG 6:1-13.


  1. If it (the “Hobbit”) is a distinct morphology, do you have any idea how quickly the morphology would have developed post-Babel?

    Using 2300 BC (roughly) as the Flood date, and then 100 years afterward to get enough people together to build Babel, you’re probably talking around 2200 BC for Babel (which is also Peleg’s time – earth splitting and all that).

    The splitting off of of Indonesia (where the Hobbit was found) is many thousands of miles away across land, and would also require significant boat travel to get there.

    Do you have any idea how quickly a people could have migrated the thousands of miles (and boat trips) to the Indonesians?

    It seems like we should be able to get a pretty decent age of these fossils – Babel around 2200 BC, plus 500 years for migrations across Asia and the ocean, plus how many generations (200-500 years?) to develop the miniature morphology. These fossil remains might be from around 1500-1200 BC?

    This is all back-of-the-napkin calculation on my part. Would you have some better and more informed calculations?

    • Several lines of evidence suggest that the Babel dispersion took place during the lifetime of Peleg. Whitmore and Wise (2008 p.452) estimate that Peleg was born 101 years after the flood and died 340 years after the flood based on the numbers given in the Masoretic text of Genesis. The somewhat larger numbers of the Septuagint text suggest 401 and 870 years respectively. These dates allow us to place some constraints on the time of deposition of the Pleistocene sediments in which post-Babel humans such as Homo floresiensis are found, although a precise chronology (and correlation with conventional dates) has yet to be worked out. For more discussion on this see Wise (2005).


      Whitmore J. H. and Wise K. P. 2008. Rapid and early post-Flood mammalian diversification evidenced in the Green River Formation, in: Snelling A. A. (editor), Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh and Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, pp.449-457.

      Wise K. P. 2005. The Flores skeleton and human baraminology. Occasional Papers of the BSG 6:1-13.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I want to make sure I understand your position on Puijila. You are saying that if, hypothetically, we had a living Puijila sitting in front of us, we should classify it with pinnipeds (seals, walrus, sea lions) rather than lutrinae (otters), or even Musteloidae (otters, weasels, etc.)?

    I’m interested in what you think, not what the Puijila authors think. Thanks

    • Yes, morphologically it’s a pinniped and not an otter or other mustelid.

  3. Thanks for the reply. Let me ask a slightly different question: If all we had were extant pinnipeds and extant musteloidae, would you still say that Puijila should be grouped with the pinnipeds, not the otters or other mustelid?

    • Yes. In fact, an extant otter (Lontra) and other musteloids were included in the cladistic analysis reported by Rybczynski et al, but Puijila did not cluster with them.

  4. well, i knew it was something other than an ancestor of mine!

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