'Wait, That Can't Be Right,' Scientists Say
FEBRUARY 17, 2011 | ISSUE 47•07
Researchers say their goat-human evolution theory, on second thought, does feel a little off.
NEW YORK—An international team of anthropologists announced Monday it had traced the lineage of Homo sapiens back to a single large Pliocene-era goat.
"We have mapped out each of the diverse branches of the human family back to the dawn of our species," Douglas Ochs of Columbia University said, "and found that the common ancestor of all living humans was an immense and cognitively advanced goat that roamed the earth 3.4 million years ago, foraging for…uh…"
"Hmm," added Ochs, pausing for a moment. "You know what? Now that I'm actually saying it out loud, it's starting to sound a little weird. Am I…is this the right research paper?"
After staring down at his notes and then quickly shuffling through some files, a visibly flustered Ochs called for aides to cut the looping CGI animation projected behind him, which showed several horned proto-humans covered in thick full-body coats of mohair walking across an African savanna.
Anthropologists claim the early human pictured above "subsisted largely on...wait, is that really the right picture?"
"If everyone could just give me a minute—this all made sense when we started the conference," Ochs said. "Kevin, can you hand me that folder?"
Funded by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution, the 17-year inquiry into the origins of the human race brought together 12 top anthropologists from around the world to pursue the single-large-goat theory, which participants in Monday's presentation assured audience members "felt more plausible when we came up with it, really it did."
The landmark study culminates in this week's release of a 270-page report explaining the structure of prehistoric humans' short, upturned woolly tails and identifying the roots of early Indo-European† language in goat bleating, which, Ochs stated, "maybe [they] should have double-checked real quick" before the paper went to publication.
"There may be some slight inconsistencies in a few of our results, but I assure you these bone samples and behavioral analyses are all, well…look, I'm not going to stand here and tell you they're not a little ridiculous-looking," said Regina Hubbard-Price, associate director of the American Anthropological Association. "Obviously, with hindsight, yes, it's somewhat odd that our theory presupposes complex hunter-gatherer societies composed of large, 250-pound bipedal goat-men. But a lot of thought went into this, I swear."
"Maybe we should have listened to Cliff [Geertz] back at the beginning when he kept emphasizing that humans don't look like goats," Hubbard-Price added.
As their colleagues huddled together and whispered behind them, researchers from Australia and Japan explained how one 6-foot-tall goat with a hominid skeletal structure spawned numerous goat-human hybrids over a period of 1.8 million years. In a series of PowerPoint slides, they then showed that our ancestors used their prehensile upper lips to perform basic agricultural tasks and stomped out crude pottery with their cloven feet, theories that team members stopped reading aloud to the assembled audience almost immediately after reaching the words "cloven feet."
"Okay, so I'm reading this now, and it says, 'After trotting out of Africa nearly 2 million years ago, our earliest ancestors used their strong hooves and hindquarters to climb up steep mountain slopes in search of delicious moss,'" said British anthropologist Oliver Cranmore, reading from the report and shaking his head. "The thing is, I think I actually wrote that part. And I remember feeling very confident and excited about it at the time. This is weird."
After opening the floor to questions, researchers said they were now able to pinpoint what should have been warning signs that their findings were problematic, such as the moment 10 years ago when none of them could account for why present-day humans don't have horns, or the realization in the spring of 2004 that goats today exhibit virtually no humanlike characteristics whatsoever.
In spite of such incongruities, most of the scientists maintained that much of the physical evidence appeared to corroborate the goat- human connection, from countless Paleolithic cave paintings of goats, to the fact that many of man's earliest gods and demons took the form of goats, to colleague Lou Samedi's narrow, pointy beard.
"You know what? This might actually still be right," said University of California professor Han Choi, leafing through printouts of data. "Some male goats can reach almost 160 pounds, and that's pretty close to a normal-sized man."
"So, if you think about it," Choi added before trailing off. "Hold on, sorry."