Paleoanthropologists ‘pull their punches’ to get published

Allan Krill

As a geologist with much experience finding fossils, I am certain that Lucy is a hoax, analogous to Piltdown Man: Graduate student Tom Gray planted fake Lucy fossils, playing the role of Charles Dawson. Professor Don Johanson played the role of Arthur Keith — thrilled to discover these important fossils, and then keeping the hoax hidden from public view for decades. This is an example of kayfabe among key participants.

By reading Johanson's popular books, geologists will realize that his story of this fossil discovery is not believable. But no one in paleoanthropology (except geologist Jon Kalb in his memoir) will challenge it. The Lucy story helps to discredit the alternative story  that humans were created by divine intervention. 

The behaviour of scientists and the media with regard to Lucy is known as 'suspension of disbelief' (Wikipedia): People willingly suspend their inclination to disbelieve. We want to enjoy a good story, and don't want to spoil it.

In 2015, Marc Meyer noticed that the bones of Lucy included a neck bone from a baboon. Many of Lucy's bones are less distinctive, and they should now be chemically analyzed, to test the claim that they really came from the same location and belong to the same creature. It was a simple fluorine analysis that showed Piltdown bones to belong to two modern creatures, a human and an orangutan. That method can reliably show if bones are modern and not fossils. Fossil bones will have absorbed fluorine after thousands of years of burial. Fluorine analysis can also show if the Lucy bones are from different sedimentary rocks than the 3-million-year-old ground where they were found. No one has ever requested a chemical test of Lucy bones.

Meyer could have followed up his baboon-discovery with a 'knock-out punch' to Lucy. He could have pointed out the need for chemical tests of the other bones. But following the practice of kayfabe in paleoanthropology, he 'pulled his punches'. He did not demand chemical testing of the Lucy bones, or point out that such testing would have exposed this mistake decades ago.

Instead, Meyer wrote in the abstract of his paper and again in the conclusions: "This work does not refute previous work on Lucy or its importance for human evolution, but rather highlights the importance of studying original fossils, as well as the efficacy of the scientific method."  I think he had to maintain kayfabe by including that sentence. Otherwise, his manuscript would not have been accepted for publication.