'Forget Piltdown - We've Still Got the Oldest.' (Discovery of the 'Boxgrove Man')

Article excerpt

'Boxgrove Man' was one of the sillier fictions of the year. In the unusual (but probably temporary) absence of royal and ministerial scandals, and with the proximity of a generally tedious Euro-election in mind, journalists not only broke open the champagne over the discovery of 'Boxgrove Man', but seem to have drunk most of it on sight before writing their copy. The TV crews had a field day, and accorded Boxgrove Man the same degree of importance that Indiana Jones ascribed to the Lost Ark. Once again, the public was left in no doubt that archaeology is about Great Discoveries, and that human palaeontology is about finding the oldest scrap of human bone. Newspapers did little better. The Times weighed in with the front page headline 'Europe's first man was a 6' prehistoric heavyweight' (as though anyone apart from Creationists expected the first European to be 'historic'). Even Norman Hammond, customarily one of the better archaeo-hacks, wrote of how Boxgrove illuminates the 'life of the first Britons'. 'The discovery is a triumph for British archaeology' proclaimed The Independent before settling into it's-great-to-be-British-mode: the Austrians and Italians may share the Ice Man, the French and Germans may have their (dead-end) Neanderthals, but we, the English, now have the oldest. 'A moment like this', wrote the correspondent, 'is not one for chauvinism. But every Englishman may walk a little taller in the recognition that he is descended from such a striking creature'. (By the same token, the Welsh may perhaps walk a little shorter in the knowledge that the 'first Welshman' from Pontnewydd (Green 1981) was probably a dead-end Neanderthal.) Forget the football results or the trade figures, goes the message; we can still walk tall on our package holidays because our bit of bone is older than theirs.

Why are we and the public served such codswallop? A little sobriety would not go amiss. Boxgrove is a wonderful, world-class site; however, the hominid tibia shaft tells us little that we did not know already either about the site, about the European Palaeolithic, or even about human evolution in general. The find may or may not be half a million years old, give or take a generous standard deviation or two; it may be male, but the amount of hominid sexual dimorphism by the Middle Pleistocene is slight; the find is not 'a triumph of British science', since it was fortuitous; if there is a triumph, it lies in the meticulous achaeological and environmental investigations directed there by Mark Roberts over the last decade and more (and largely ignored by the media in their stampede for the leg-bone). The find itself adds little to our overall knowledge of Middle Pleistocene hominid post-cranial anatomy. It may or may not be 'the first European': Mauer is undated but almost certainly in the same time range, and Dmanisi in Georgia (on the fringe of Europe as now defined and also a member state of the CSCE) is almost certainly older. Worst of all is this nonsense of 'Boxgrove Man' being the first Briton or Englishman. Who could seriously claim that the 'English' are direct descendants of an individual who died some half-a-million years ago in what is now Sussex? That would be as ludicrous as arguing that Mauer was 'the first German'. …