Great Moments in Science Writing: The Alpha Cavewoman Fiasco

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It's a poster for a fantasy movie, not a documentary.

If a news story about human evolution mentions Raquel Welch or One Million Years B.C. in the lead paragraphs, you should lower your expectations for the rest because it is shallow and hackneyed. If it mentions The Flintstones, you should probably skip the rest because it is juvenile. But if it mentions both Raquel Welch and Wilma Flintstone twice in the first six paragraphs, you should sigh with relief: because you will never read anything more stupid in the rest of your life.*

Kudos to Paul Harris and Fiona MacRae of the Mail Online, then, for establishing that standard with this journalistic masterpiece:

A study has found evidence of ‘alpha cavewomen’ roaming the plains and calling the shots while the menfolk slobbed at home.

The discovery could put paid to the belief that cavemen were the aggressive, violent go-getters in the relationship between the sexes.

It also raises the intriguing possibility that Fred Flintstone, the eternally henpecked half of the cartoon partnership with Wilma, might actually have mirrored life on Earth all those centuries ago.

Yes, “all those centuries ago”—certainly the preferred way of describing events dating back roughly two million years.

What impresses me is that essentially none of the “facts” presented in those three paragraphs is supported in any way by the source material—the new report “Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins” in Nature (02 June 2011) by Sandi R. Copeland, Matt Sponheimer and their colleagues. Ewen Calloway provides a far less loopy story on the discovery for Nature News, and anthropologist Margaret J. Schoeninger offers commentary. Read either of those for a more informative discussion.

In brief, the scientists were looking for information about how widely those ancient ancestors of humanity called australopithecines wandered in the course of their lives. To that end, they looked at the relative amounts of two strontium isotopes in the teeth of two groups of fossil remains from caves in South Africa. Those strontium ratios were characteristic of the differing soils in the two areas, and of the differing types of vegetation that grew in them; the australopithecines in each locality would have ingested that strontium and tucked it into their tooth enamel when they were young.

What the studies revealed was that at each location, the teeth from bigger specimens (presumably the males) tended to have local strontium signatures whereas the teeth from smaller specimens (presumably the females) had isotopes from elsewhere. The researchers’ conclusion, as they wrote in the abstract to their article, was that “females were more likely than males to disperse from their natal groups. This is similar to the dispersal pattern found in chimpanzees, bonobos and many human groups, but dissimilar from that of most gorillas and other primates.” In other words, the sexes may have had very distinct foraging habits that led to the females resettling in new communities while the males generally stayed put.

So let’s review some of the ways in which the Mail Online piece flies off into its own bizarre, pop culture-inspired fantasy:

  • The study focused on australopithecines, not modern humans, Neandertals or any other member of the Homo genus. I’m happy to consider them to have been people, but they weren’t human. The females in question weren’t Raquel or Wilma; they were Lucy.
  • The words “alpha cavewoman,” notwithstanding the Mail’s use of quotation marks around the phrase, are nowhere to be found in the study.
  • Nothing in the study implies that the wandering women were “very much the boss,” “calling the shots” or “aggressive, violent go-getters,” nor that the women were the ones “who went out clubbing, so to speak—reversing the popular conception that it was the bloke who bashed the girl on the head and dragged her home by the hair.”
  • Similarly, nothing in the study would suggest that the men were “henpecked” or “slobb[ing] at home.”
  • And it is safe to say that nothing in the sentence “A couple more millennia would have to pass before female independence re-emerged with the bra-burning liberation of the Swinging Sixties” is appropriate or accurate—including the woefully ignorant misuse of “millennia” to mean millions of years.

Otherwise, well done.

To be fair, once the Harris and MacRae article gets this faux controversial gender-baiting out of the way, it abruptly drops into a more responsible mode of journalism, one that might be practiced by someone who had read the Nature paper and hoped to be something other than a hack. That shift is so sharp as to suggest that the last two-thirds of the article was written first, but that someone—perhaps Harris, perhaps MacRae, perhaps an editor in the mix—then said, “Nobody wants to read this dry stuff. Here, let me punch it up for you.” So very helpful.

It’s too bad that the Mail’s “battle of the sexes” version of the Nature paper missed the real story: that, as Schoeninger put it in her commentary, “These results have implications for understanding australopithecine diet, group size, predator avoidance and home-range size.” Why did the females need to wander farther afield than the males? And how did those australopithecines survive the threats from predators and from giant baboons, which also would have been foraging across those open woodland savannahs and would have matched or exceeded our ancestors in size?

*This guarantee does not apply if you read “creation science” texts, of course. I can’t be responsible for acts of masochism!

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