Zinj’s Golden! Birthday?

Zinj’s Golden! Birthday?

Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact date that Australopithecus boisei was found by Mary Leakey, but it was in July, 1959 and reported in August. Time to celebrate!

The discovery of Nutcracker Man in 1959 was the single most important paleontological discovery that jump started the science, quashed forever (except in weird and extreme circles) creationism, and paved the way for the next 50 years of jaw-dropping science.

We don’t know the exact date he was found, and like Africans everywhere he goes by a number of different names. Zinj seems to be the most used, a shortening of the initial scientific designation of Zinjanthropus boisei. “Zinj” is an Arabic contraction of “East Africa”. For most of my lifetime, though, it has been known as Australopithecus boisei.

And because Mary Leakey’s diaries and the entries in the National Museum in Nairobi differ by several days, we aren’t even absolutely sure of the exact date Zinj saw the sun for the first time in more than a million years. Possibly July 17, possibly July 25. And the actual announcement of the discovery wasn’t until August. (I read it in the “Weekly Reader” in October.) But good grief, you can’t fault a two million-year old creature for forgetting his date of discovery by a few days.

The Leakeys had excavated tirelessly Olduvai Gorge for 28 years before finding Zinj and were widely considered to be kooks. When the then Princess Elizabeth made a state visit to the colony of Kenya in 1954, Lewis Leakey was warned if he met the princess to “not say anything about that early man gibberish.”

Zinj was probably the 3rd or 4th early man skull to have been found, but the first to be reckoned as such. And shortly after the scientific community accepted its near million-year age, the other skulls that had been masquerading as chimp-like primates in South Africa were unmasked as true hominids. The science exploded.

Today we have nearly 10,000 early hominid remains and nearly 1,000 early hominid skulls or partial skulls. That’s quite a feat in less than twice the time the Leakey’s spent in finding the first!

And to think of the twists and turns in theory and application that Grandpa Darwin prepared for us, once these important pieces of evidence were unearthed! Shortly after the Zinj discovery, it was widely and near unanimously presumed by world science that hominid evolution was linear: old lemur to old ape to old chimp to old man to us.

We now understand that’s a grade schooler’s explanation of calculus. We know now there were at least 22 different kinds of early hominids. In fact, even today, there’s uncertainty where Zinj belongs. Most people think he’s an australopithecine, but there’s growing evidence to suggest he’s actually a paranthopus! Wikipedia is lobbying for that.

So happy birthday (or, rather happy unearthing?), Zinj! How amazing to see in my own lifetime your entire story from ungrave to exalted cradle of display: For today your actual self is on PUBLIC DISPLAY in the Nairobi Museum!

That gives me goose (or should I say, pterodactyl) bumps!