Don Lewis Presents ‘Out of Africa: The Story of Homo Erectus’

Homo erectus is believed to be our common ancestor./ Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian National Museum of History

“We are all Africans,” said Dr. Don Lewis, who presented a lecture titled “Out of Africa” at the most recent Beer City Science Pub, co-sponsored by the Asheville Museum of Science and the Collider. 

“Any excuse for racial discrimination should end with this slide,” he added as he projected an image of the recreated face of an ancient African hominid. “Give this guy a haircut, dress him up, put him on a New York subway, and nobody would say very much, except he’s tall.”

Lewis said as a head and neck surgeon (otolaryngologist) in Illinois, his job is to keep people alive.

“Using the time and money that’s left over, I study people who are dead—long dead—there’s no hope at all of bringing them back. This is a story of human ambition, intrigue, and mystery.”

In his previous presentations about extinct primitive hominids such as Australopithecus (i.e. Lucy) and Neanderthals, Lewis dispels commonly held misbeliefs. He said prior to Homo Sapiens’ migration out of Africa, there were probably only 1,500 humans of any type on planet Earth at any one time. 

Cataclysmic events such as floods, volcanoes, and things that caused a bottleneck in evolution occurred.

“Extinction is the rule, not survival. At any time, over 90 percent of all mammals that have ever been here, at any time, are extinct.”

Homo erectus was tall, thin and due to their active lifestyle, more muscular than the average modern man. Their brains were only two-thirds to three-quarters the size of ours.

“These people existed for about two million years,” he said. “Our earliest ancestors date to 162,000 years ago. The people we directly came from existed about 50,000 years ago. We best not be too cocky, they lasted a long time. We are the only Homo genus alive on Earth, and we’re doing a pretty good job of taking ourselves out.”

In 1887, Eugene Dubois, a fairly new surgeon, and recently appointed professor of anatomy with a degree in geology had become familiar with the theories of Charles Darwin and subsequently the writings of Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, who was actually the first to form the Theory of Natural Selection.

“Dubois being a young, somewhat brash guy, without consulting his wife joins the army and asked to be posted in the Dutch East Indies,” said Lewis. 

“Did I mention that he married his wife only a year and a half ago, and he has a new child? Perhaps outwardly she compliantly said, ‘yes dear,’ but I imagine inwardly she said other things.”

Dubois with two engineers and a convict excavation team went in search of the “missing link.” His search resulted in the discovery of the fossilized remains of Pithecanthropus erectus, or the “erect manlike ape.” 

Lewis compared the skulls of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, with the former having a thick brow (supraorbital tori) and virtually no chin. Homo erectus was also the first to have a protruding nose. Lewis also displayed casts of skulls from examples of Homo erectus including Java Man, Peking Man, and others from Africa, eastern and western Europe. An average migration of only 12 miles per generation over 20,000years could account for relocation from Nairobi, Kenya to Beijing, China. 

Audience members were observed listening closely as they attended the imaginatively recounted tale of Dragon Bone Hill. It started in the early 1900s when Swedish researchers found an area of interest in Peking, China. Davidson Black, an anatomy professor, and amateur paleontologist learned that Chinese apothecaries used the ground bones of ancient human beings from Dragon Bone Hill in their recipe for an aphrodisiac. Black’s research involved the discovery of the first Homo erectus fossil specimen, titled Peking Man. 

Black conducted most of the studies until his death in 1934. Franz Weidenreich eventually replaced him and sent to the United States careful notes, photographs, measurements, drawings, and castings of the fossils.

“And now a story of intrigue, danger, and humans behaving badly. The Japanese were on the move. They had taken some of their coworkers, crucified some, summarily executed others, and tortured but not killed still others. Weidenreich had packed the original fossils for subsequent shipment to the United States. They were guarded on a transfer ship, and never seen again,” Lewis said.

The missing link was once again missing. 

While cranial reconstructions from the early 20th century were later proven to be inaccurate because they incorporated parts from both male and female specimens, a 1995 reconstruction of Peking Man’s skull by Gary Sawyer and Ian Tattersall is currently accepted to be the best available for study and research because it is comprised exclusively of parts that fit perfectly with Weidenreich’s castings of bones from the same gender. Lewis said there are some specimens previously labeled Homo sapiens that are actually examples of Homo erectus. A controversy was sparked in physical anthropology when some experts concluded the former are actually a subset of the same continuum encompassing the later.

“Like so many other things we do in life, we create divisions where they don’t really exist. It’s kind of like separating your physical body from your mental body, and your spiritual body. If you’ve got half a brain you know there’s no separation, but if you try to think of it all at once it’s like lying down on a dark night, looking up and thinking about all the stars. They go on forever, and pretty soon you get crazy because you can’t think about things that are that big,” he said.

In addition to being a clinical professor of surgery for the Medical School at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Lewis is a researcher in physical anthropology at the Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois. To find out more about the Asheville Museum of Science and programs at The Collider, visit their websites at www.TheCollider.org, and www.AshevilleScience.org.