Ancient Alien TV Show vs What the...? vs Anthropology

I am pretty sure I know how the Ancient Aliens TV show got started.  A bunch of archaeologists were sitting around the fire in the evening on a dig somewhere just shooting the breeze and one of them says, “Hey, you know what would be really funny…”

We’ve all watched the show so don’t deny it and I have to admit it is funny.  One of my favorite episodes is the one where Aliens came to earth because they were looking for gold and they found it here.  However, they didn’t actually want to dig it up themselves so the most advanced life form to do their bidding was Homo erectus but H. erectus was not smart enough to dig gold for them.   So, they manipulated H. erectus’ DNA and bred Homo sapiens so we could operate the gold mines for them.   Very plausible and I am sure that’s the way it happened. 

Ancient Aliens TV Show

The Aliens show is very entertaining and I would not want to discourage anyone from watching it because it is great fun and you do learn a lot about how humans could not find their own ass with both hands if it weren’t for Ancient Aliens. 

However, I do think it does a disservice to legitimate Anthropology in some respects.  I think it increases the ‘eye roll’ effect and that’s too bad.   Discouraging legitimate lines of inquiry and speculation is about as anti-scientific as you can get.

When there are lines of circumstantial evidence for a particular hypothesis that is way outside the current norms of accepted doctrine poo-pooing the idea without some due consideration is being closed minded. Being close minded is antithetical to being a scientist. 

Alright stop it right now!  I saw that eye roll.  I am not going to launch into a spiel about some inexplicable event or rock carving that could be from an Ancient Alien.  There are not now nor have there ever been Aliens tooling around the earth in their space ships doing this and that.  Sorry but that’s my professional opinion.  And hey listen, I would love for there to be space ships with warp drive to take us all over and have adventures.  I am a huge syfy fan.  I love all that.  I mean come on, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ – I am Groot, I would like to be a part of that crew, they have the most fun for sure. Star Wars happened in a galaxy far, far away, so far away in fact they won’t be stopping by any time soon.  Look, I read ‘John Carter on Mars’ when I was 13 years old.  I love reading ‘The Expanse’ series and as of this writing I am reading the seventh book in the series ‘Persepolis Rising’ right now. I am on page 310.  I mean I really like syfy, it’s great fun but you know, but back in the real world…

The Expanse TV Show

As scientists back here on planet earth we have to deal with actual facts.  As the saying goes, ‘You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.’  And therein lies the rub doesn’t it.  Facts are the facts and they are all around us.  So as rational people we all look at the same facts and come to the same conclusions... right? 

Let me stop right here and get down to the point of this post. Everything always Changes.  There I said it.  The universe itself is in motion and change.  The galaxies expand and rotate, on earth the continents move around, mountain ranges grow and others weather away.  I mean stuff that when you look at it on the face of it seem involatile is actually changing.  Just like when I got stabbed in the back as a young man in college studying Anthropology.

Yes, it’s true, not in a literal sense of course but ouch, right in the back with a sharp Homo sapiens skull or should I say Cro-Magnon skull.  (I don’t think anyone uses the term Cro-Magnon anymore do they?)  That’s one stab.  Then there’s the time period for them, 35,000 to 50,000 years ago. Ouch, another stab and that’s the one that really hurts.  These dates were determined from two sites, one in France (1868) and one in Israel (1932). 

So, I am sitting there in a classroom and thinking yeah, 50,000 years ago is a long time ago but if H. erectus is over 1.9 million years ago and Neanderthals were thought to be as old as 300,000 at that time and Heidelberg Man was thought to be around 500,000 years ago well 50,000 doesn’t sound all that long ago. 

Was 50,000 years enough time to go from the beginning of our species to walking on the moon?  I felt uneasy about that at the time but questioning it was like hitting a brick wall. 

Well here’s another phrase for you, ‘The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.’  In other words, just because there were no known sapiens fossils found that dated before 50K years old did not mean there weren’t any, it simply means they had not been found yet.  At least that was my logic at the time and this was way before Ancient Aliens TV show. 

It wasn’t until the mid to late seventies that better dating techniques were used to reexam the bone fragments from the Israeli site and a new date of 100,000 years ago was established as the beginning for H. sapiens.  OK, this is more up my ally I thought.  100K is getting there. 

Then during the ensuing years Neanderthals were pushed back to 500K and now they are believed (from DNA analysis) to have split from Heidelberg Man as long as 765, 000 years ago.  Heidelberg Man himself has been pushed back to 800,000 and with mounting evidence of a 1.2 million years ago date.  So here we are at still the tender young age of 100,000.

Then in 2004 finds from 1974 and 1967 in the Omo National Park in Ethiopia were finally dated and they came in at 160K and 195K.  On the heels of that, DNA and the study of genetics created Mitochondrial Eve in 2009 and dated her between 152 and 234 thousand years ago.

So, a general consensus of opinion developed that indeed H. sapiens were 200,000 years old.  Now you are talking my language.  Except I was still thinking that with the Neanderthal and Heidelberg Man push back, H. sapiens will come in around 400K when it’s all said and done. (I will now admit I was wrong about that date but more on that in a sec.)

Then in 1996 a reexamination of H. sapiens teeth from a 1932 find in South Africa using electron spin resonance established a date of 259,00 years ago.  Now we are getting somewhere.  But we are not done yet.

In 2013 an African American man subscribed to a family tree website for testing and his DNA astonishingly tested for 338,000 years old.  A mind blower for sure.  His heritage is Western Cameroon so researchers went there and found 11 other men with the same 338,000 year old DNA in them.   Headline, “Scientists are baffled.”

And now for me we come to the final coup d’e’tat.  In June of 2017 stone tools and bone fragments from a cave site at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco were dated to 300-350,000 years ago.  And there it is, fist pump, high five, the bacon has come home.  Considering that the five different individuals the dating is based on didn’t magically appear from one day to the next I feel completed comfortable and vindicated with my 400K date as the beginning for H. sapiens.   I can now walk in the full light of the sun without the fear of being branded as an Ancient Alien devotee.  And why is that? Because at long last the cold hard ‘fact’ can be physically picked up and celebrated.

Which brings me back to being stabbed in the back.  I just made that up for dramatic effect. I don’t feel like I was stabbed in the back at all.  It is what it was, or something like that.  However, it does bring me back to the reason for this post and that is Homo sapiens traveled to North America between 200 and 140,00 years ago.  Eyes rolling all over the place I am sure.   Just let me explain myself before you strike up the Ancient Aliens band.

Pictures from a site 130,000 years ago in CA

Did I say 400,000 years ago as a date for the beginning of modern humans? Well I now admit I was wrong about that, I meant to say 500,000 years ago.

A January 25th article from CNN (and all the other major news sources) reports what is for me the breaking news for 2018 so far.  Anthropologists discovered fully modern humans in the Misliya Cave, in Israel.  The date for these modern humans is just about 200,000 years ago.  This means that now there is proof positive that modern humans left Africa 200,000 years ago which is about 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.  Not only that but Israel Hershkovitz, the study author, says “we now believe modern humans came out of Africa 250,000 years ago.” 

The CNN article goes on to say that the evidence is piling up pretty high that modern humans split off from Neanderthals and Denisovans as far back as 500,000 years ago.  Blows my 400,000 year old date right out of the water but just delights the heck out of me.

At this point we have quite a few things mixed into this stew.  Let me break it down for you.

  1. Ancient Aliens TV show not actually real (I know, sad).
  2. Greatest SYFY line ever, “Beam me up Scotty!”
  3. My favorite SYFY line, “It’s an anomaly in the space-time continuum.”
  4. Yippee, we are 500,000 years old.
  5. Modern human fossil remains dated to 120,000 years ago found in China
  6. A major ice age created a land bridge across the Bering Strait between 200,000 and 140,000 years ago.
  7. Modern humans traversed to North America leaving circumstantial evidence at several sites.

 Drop the mike and walk off the stage. 

I could just leave it here or I could go on and on. But let me just finish by saying that the timeline has been pushed back and back until we have now come to what will mostly likely be the final analysis of 500K for the beginning of modern man. Modern human bone fragments you can pick up and hold in your hand have been found in China dated to 250,000 years ago.  This to me means they were there long before that.  After all Homo erectus sites of 1.6 million years ago have been dated in China.  Given now that modern humans migrated out of Africa before 250,000 years ago they could have easily trekked to the frozen land bridge across the Bering Strait and traversed it between 200 and 140 thousand years ago and found themselves in North America.

For a North American site there is no actual fossilized hominin bone you can hold in your hand and say, “See! See!”  That definitive piece of the puzzle is not yet available… not yet.  Let’s think of the cave remains from Jebel Irhoud and the Misliya cave so recently dated.  And let’s not forget that for the last 50 years a push back for modern humans from 50,000 years old to 500,000 years old took place.  Everything always changes. 

The richness and complexity of our understanding of the human lineage has often gone through some pretty amazing changes.  However, I think we are really close now to having an excellent grasp on the big picture.  If only those Ancient Aliens would just give us the final clue.


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