Early Man Fossils: KNM-ER 1470

KNM-ER 1470 (Kenya National Museum - East Rudolf)

In 1967, at the age of 23, Richard Leakey the son of Louis and Mary Leakey discovered a rich collection of fossils east of Lake Rudolf in northern Kenya. More than 40 Australopithecines and many stone tools were found on that site. Of particular interest was the skull KNM-ER 1470 found in 1972.

It has a very modern appearance and a brain capacity of 800 cc, within the human range. The skull was reconstructed from hundreds of pieces, and had a Australopithecine slant to the face. This reconstruction has been questioned by those in the field. As it turns out, there is no reason for the skull to not be classified as Homo sapiens (true humans) based on morphology (Lubenow 1992, 165).

What makes this find interesting is that it was found under a three foot layer of volcanic ash, the KBS (Kay Behrensmeyer Site) Tuff. Since the ash lends itself to the potassium-argon method of radiometric dating, it is assumed that the stone tools found in that location and the Australopithecine fossils found above and below the Tuff can be dated.

In 1969 the first attempt at dating placed the age of the Tuff at 212 to 230 mya (Millions of years ago) - early dinosaur times. Since this did not square up with evolutionary theory (i.e. fossils are the final authority) it was assumed that this was an erroneous date. Researchers than concluded that whole-rock samples from these sedimentary rocks that showed signs of weathering or alteration should be removed from the samples to get an accurate date. More samples of "fresher" pumice lumps and feldspar crystals were supplied by Leakey and an age of 2.61 +- .26 mya was established (Lubenow 1992, 250).

Before the skull was found the Tuff was dated at 2.6 mya, but because of the modern appearance of the skull, Richard Leakey commented, "Either we toss out this skull or we toss out our theories of early man. It simply fits no models of human beginnings" (Lubenow 1992, 162, 249). What followed next is decades of wrangling over the date and interpretation of the find. Several radiometric studies have been performed with the final pronouncement being 1.88 mya, largely calibrated by a fossilized pig sequence from Southern Ethiopia. In the final analysis, it is not radiometric dating, but the fossils in an evolutionary framework that wins out.

References:
Lubenow 1992, 161-165, 247-266
Gish 1985, 164-174
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