Creationist Arguments: Homo habilis

Despite its importance, Homo habilis is often ignored by creationists. The one exception is the fossil ER 1470, which is too well-known to be totally ignored. Creationists disagree on whether 1470 is an ape or a human. The other habilis fossils are rarely analyzed, but the few creationists who do mention them are in agreement that they are all apes.

The skull ER 1470 was discovered in 1972, and publicized as both amazingly humanlike, and extremely old, at nearly 3 million years. Creationists eagerly seized on the statement of Richard Leakey, its discoverer, that 1470 "wipes out everything we have been taught about human evolution [this proved to be wrong], and I have nothing to offer in its place". Creationists sometimes give the impression that it is a modern human skull. But despite some modern traits, it has a number of australopithecine features, and a brain size of only about 750 cc (compared to the modern human average of at least 1350 cc). Gish (1979) points out its small size, but states that its age and sex are unknown, presumably seeking to imply that it might belong to a child. That is not probable, as can be seen from comparative photos (Weaver 1985). 1470's face is very robust, and as large as that of a modern Cro-Magnon skull, despite a much smaller brain size, and the cranium has a markedly different shape. There is also other evidence that it was an adult.

Curiously, as a debating tactic to discredit other hominid fossils, creationists often accept 1470 as human, even though many of them reject larger-brained erectus specimens as apes. But if 1470 is human, one could then make a strong case that the very similar but smaller skull ER 1813 is also human. Creationists, however, are unlikely to find the idea of a human with a brain size of 510 cc very appealing.

Gish in 1979 tentatively accepted 1470 as fully human. By 1985, he seemed to have reversed that opinion, and was suggesting that it should be placed in the genus Australopithecus (as have some scientists). His reasoning for this is that another habilis fossil (OH 8, a set of foot bones) had been claimed by Oxnard and Lisowski to be not as humanlike as previously thought. This is used to justify placing all habilis fossils, including 1470, into the australopithecines. The OH 8 foot, of course, did not belong to 1470, and may not even have belonged to the same species, so it is irrelevant to determining 1470's status. Gish implies that his earlier evaluation of 1470 was based on preliminary information, but the photos and descriptions on which Gish based his earlier opinion were published as early as 1973. Gish gives no new information about 1470 that would justify reclassifying it from a human to an ape.

If 1470 was an ape, it would be a truly extraordinary one. The brain is far larger than that of any ape, with the possible exception of extremely large male gorillas. The braincase is far more rounded and gracile than that of any ape, and the brain has a human rather than an apelike pattern (Tobias 1987).

Cronin et al.(1981) list nine features of 1470 which are either shared with A. africanus, or intermediate between africanus and other H. habilis specimens. Gish lists some of these in support of his contention that 1470 is australopithecine, but, in a fine example of selective quotation, failed to include another section from the same paragraph listing other features of 1470 that are generally associated with the genus Homo. Similarly, Gish (1995) quotes a passage from Bromage (1992) stating that 1470's face would have jutted out considerably, like that of an ape, but ignores the next paragraph, which states "... ER 1470 is Homo in many respects and it has a phenomenally large brain for its time".

Lubenow (1992) does the opposite. He quotes a report in Science News (Nov 18, 1972) which says that the braincase of 1470 is remarkably reminiscent of modern man, but ignores the statement, a few sentences prior, that "The skull is different from Homo sapiens, says Leakey ...".

Lubenow concludes that 1470 is fully human. So two of the foremost creationist experts on paleoanthropology are both certain that 1470 is not intermediate between human and ape, yet one of them thinks it an ape, and the other thinks it is a human! There could be no more convincing demonstration of its transitional status.

Although 1470 is usually placed in the genus Homo, it is definitely not a modern human. There is ample evidence of this:

"The endocranial capacity and the morphology of the calvaria [braincase] are characters that suggest inclusion within the genus Homo, but the maxilla [upper jaw] and facial region are unlike those of any known form of hominid." (Leakey 1973)

"From the size of the palate and the expansion of the area allotted to molar roots, it would appear that ER 1470 retained a fully Australopithecus-sized face and dentition." (Brace et al. 1979)

"KNM-ER 1470, like other early Homo specimens, shows many morphological characteristics in common with gracile australopithecines that are not shared with later specimens of the genus Homo" (Cronin et al. 1981)

"There is no evidence that this cranium particularly resembles H. sapiens or H. erectus according to either phenetic or cladistic evidence. Phenetically, KNM-ER 1470 is closest to the remains from Olduvai [considered apes by creationists] referred to H. habilis. (Wood 1991)

"Ignoring cranial capacity, the overall shape of the specimen and that huge face grafted onto the braincase were undeniably australopithecine." (Walker and Shipman 1996)

In fact, the face and palate of 1470 are so large that until the braincase was assembled, Richard Leakey thought, judging from the facial bones, that 1470 was a robust australopithecine (Walker and Shipman 1996).

In view of these differences, on what evidence does Lubenow claim that there is no compelling morphological reason not to assign ER 1470 to H. sapiens? None, apparently. It appears to be solely his own opinion, and is unsupported by any qualified scientist.

Shortly after 1470 was discovered, anatomist A. Cave said in an interview that it was "As far as I could see, typically human" (Hillaby 1972). Creationists interpret this to mean that it was the skull of a modern human; in fact, Bowden (1981) thinks it "probably the most convincing evidence" of this. More likely is that Cave was merely saying that the skull belonged to, and had features typical of, the genus Homo. However without further context, which Hillaby does not provide, it is impossible to determine what Cave meant. Cave's assessment occurred soon after 1470 was unveiled in London, and was almost certainly based on only a short look at the fossil, rather than detailed study.

Another fossil which Lubenow considers human is ER 1590, consisting of cranial fragments and teeth of a child of about 6 years. It is not complete enough for the brain size to be directly measured, but it seems to be very close in size to 1470. However this child had teeth which were larger than those of Homo erectus, which are in turn larger than those of Homo sapiens. In addition, the sequence of tooth development has little resemblance to that of Homo sapiens (Wood 1991).

Although Lubenow considers 1470 to be human, he would place the smaller habilis fossils such as OH 24, ER 1805 and ER 1813 in the australopithecines. The largest of these has a brain size of about 600 cc (1470 is 750 cc), hardly enough to constitute "the significant gap" that Lubenow says separates australopithecines from humans. And Lubenow does not mention that there are two other habilis skulls (OH 13 (650 cc) and OH 7 (680 cc), neither of which are adult), that fall squarely into the middle of this gap.

To support his claim that 1470 is human and other habilis fossils are apes, Lubenow quotes from a paper by Dean Falk (1983), which states that the endocast of 1470 has a human pattern, while that of 1805 is apelike (these were the only fossils discussed by Falk). However Tobias (1987) shows that other habilis fossils such as OH 7, OH 13, OH 16 and OH 24 (which creationists consider apes) all share many advanced features with ER 1470.

ER 1813 ER 1470 ER 1813 (510 cc) also has many of the same features that many creationists use to justify calling 1470 a modern human. It is lightly built, with a rounded skull and no sagittal crest, modest eyebrow ridges, and a small amount of nasal prominence (Day 1986). This is combined with a jaw and teeth that are similar to but larger than those of modern humans. Another transitional fossil! Because its brain was far smaller than any human, creationists have no choice but to call this an ape, despite the fact that 1470 looks more similar to 1813 than it does to a modern human skull.

In fact, despite its larger brain size, Cronin et al.(1981) consider 1470 to be more primitive, with more australopithecine features, than 1813. The teeth of 1470 (as inferred from the sockets) were australopithecine-sized, while 1813 had smaller, Homo erectus-sized teeth (Klein 1989). Other scientists (reviewed in Wood 1992) consider 1470 to belong to the same species as either OH 7 or 1813. OH 62 also closely resembles 1470 (Johanson et al. 1987). Sorting out the exact relationships of these fossils is very difficult, but it is clear that all of them are fairly similar, with a mixture of Homo and Australopithecus features. There is no "significant gap" separating 1470 from the others.

The anti-evolutionist writer Richard Milton has a different argument against the validity of H. habilis:

Indeed, one of the ironic aspects of the discovery of Homo habilis is that while Darwinists concentrate their attention in interpreting finger bones and vertebrae at Olduvai Gorge, attempting to establish the creature's credentials as a missing link, they appear to have overlooked the fact that only a few hundred miles to the east, in the forests of Zaire, are the Mbuti people who are on average only four feet six inches tall and who, in stature, brain capacity, and even way of life, are comparable to Homo habilis. (Milton 1997)
This is a startling claim, and would certainly be the death knell for habilis if it were true, but it isn't, and Milton offers no evidence or references to support it. He made the same claim in an email debate I had with him in 1997/98, but again supplied no references, and refused to do so even though he was repeatedly asked for them.

Milton's claim is, in a nutshell, nonsense. (See my brain sizes page for more details)

Related links

Homo habilis: is it an invalid taxon?

The problem of non-ancestral "ancestors" , by Jim Moore (discusses the common creationist argument that H. habilis is not a valid species)

See also the Homo habilis section of the email debate between myself and Richard Milton.

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

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