The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Hominin species as anthropological units


Anthropology, UNC-Charlotte

April 17, 2020 4:15PM, Diamond 4 Add to calendar

One of the most fundamental tenets of the Synthetic Theory is the basic reality of species. Yet since the 1980s, the number of extant primate species has approximately tripled. The number of extinct hominin species has risen dramatically as well. Some of the new hominin taxa sit on the species boundary: notably, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Others, such as Homo naledi or Homo georgicus, have their reality debated. The debate is more fundamental than “splitting” and “lumping,” because those practices are strategic, not capricious. Splitter and lumper narratives emphasize different aspects of human prehistory, notably producing narratives of diversity and extinction versus narratives of persistence and cohesion. Biologists working within the Synthetic Theory have long struggled to make zoological sense of hominin taxonomy, on the assumption that paleoanthropological species ought to map onto familiar zoological units, or species. In this paper I argue that paleoanthropological species are not zoological units at all, but “bricolage” in the task of constructing scientific origin narratives. (The term was popularized by Claude Lévi-Strauss to refer to the narrative elements brought together by a mythmaker in creating a compelling and resonant story.) Consequently arguing about the biological reality of Homo rudolfensis or Australopithecus prometheus is fundamentally misleading. Their reality lies not in the biological realm, but in the anthropological or biocultural; the mistake lies in conflating meaningful units of anthropological origin narrative with zoological species. Moreover, human ancestry and human diversity are connected, through the pseudo-taxonomic practices that produce both ancient species and modern races.