The Anatomical Record: A tradition of reporting what is new about things that are very, very old


“To be, or not to be, that is the question”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1600

The Anatomical Record has long had an interest in reporting findings on topics that are not only new but sometimes very, very “old”. The cover article in this month's issue, “The Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf?” by a team of paleoanthropologists led by Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago, carries on this tradition of telling us what is new—or maybe, not so new—about an intriguing fossil from our past.

This journal, and our parent organization, The American Association of Anatomists, have had long histories with the study of fossil material and their interpretations. Indeed, the first President of the Association (1888–1891) was the great Joseph Leidy, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and one often heralded as the father of American vertebrate paleontology. Perhaps no aspect of paleontology, however, has held as much allure and fascination as those bits and pieces that relate to our own kind and those of our ancestors, or purported ancestors. In recent years, The Anatomical Record has been at the forefront of bringing insightful studies — often those using the newest tools and technologies — to detailed examination of material from our hominid past. Some notable articles in this regard include: the study by the Swiss team of Ponce de León and Zollikofer (1999, 254:474) that used computerized re constructions and micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) analysis to assess the ossicles, cochlea and semicircular canals in their elegant study of the fossil Neanderthal from Le Moustier; the comparative re-assessment of the endocranial capacity of the Plio-Pleistocene australopith Sts 71, using new methods of three-dimensional CT, by an international team led by Glenn Conroy (2000, 258:391) of Washington University; a Special Issue devoted to reports and commentary on the remarkable skull of Sambungmacan 3, a member of the taxon known as Homo erectus, that was “rediscovered” in a Manhattan curio shop in 1999 (Laitman and Tattersall, 2001, 262:341; Márquez et al., 2001, 262:344; Broadfield et al., 2001, 262:369; Delson et al., 2001, 262:380; and a subsequent related report by Durband, 2002, 266:138); Antonis Bartsiokas' detailed histological study of early Omo 1 specimens from Ethiopia (2002, 267:52); re-assessments of the dural sinus drainage patterns in the robust australopithecine from Ethiopia, Omo L338y-6, by a team led by noted paleo-neurologist Ralph Holloway of Columbia University (2002, 266:249); the virtual study by CT-based 3D reconstruction of endocranial morphology of the matrix-filled cranium of the Eliye Springs hominid, an early member of Homo sapiens from Kenya, by an international team led by Gunter Brauer from the University of Hamburg; the study by the Spanish team of Antonio Rosas and Markus Bastir (2004, 278:551) on the morphology and variation in the mandibles from the pivotal Atapuerca hominids from the Sima de los Huesos Site in Spain; the provocative challenge to reliability of tests of the “Out of Africa” hypothesis for modern human origins by Brauer, Mark Collard and Chris Stringer (2004, 279:701); the high-resolution CT study of the cranium of Parapithecus grangeri, an early anthropoid primate, that provided insights into the evolution of primate sensory systems, by Elliot Bush, Elwyn Simons and John Allman (2004, 281:1083); the study by Gabrielle Macho and colleagues from England (2005, 283:310) that used finite-element approaches to assess the functional anatomy of one of the earliest stem species of hominids, Australopithecus anamensis; and the Italian team of Emiliano Bruner and Georgio Manzi's (2005, 285:643) CT-based assessment of the archaic Homo sapiens calvarium from Ceprano, Italy.

The insightful and probing study by Martin and colleagues in this issue continues this robust tradition by taking a very close look at arguably the most intriguing, proposed human fossil relative found in many years, the little people from the island of Flores in Indonesia. That group of people—advanced by its discoverers as a new species, Homo floresiensis—is diminutive in size and has been proposed as deriving from earlier Homo erectus ancestors (the famed “Java Man” or “Peking Man” fossils are in this group) by mechanisms of evolutionary dwarfing. Or have they? Martin and colleagues present a detailed challenge to the species claim for Flores, advancing evidence to support their hypothesis that the brains of the little people were diminutive not due to distinctive evolution along a species line, but due to microcephaly. Are the Flores hominids really a new species or microcephalic dwarfs? Within the pages of this month's Anatomical Record the arguments will unfurl.