Thursday, June 18, 2009

Study Links Humans to Orangutans

Humans are more closely related to orangutans than they are to chimpanzees, according to a new study conducted by Pitt and University of Buffalo researchers. Jerry Schwartz, professor of anthropology at Pitt, says people share 28 unique physical traits with orangs while sharing only two with chimps and gorillas. They also studied the similarities of orangutans to Australopithecus -- an ancestral human genus -- and found that the apes share eight unique traits with the fossilized humans, whereas chimps and gorillas share only those traits found in all great apes.

DNA testing often concludes that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees in terms of genetic makeup, but Schwartz says this method of testing is too often unchallenged. "As people became more in love with the supposed objectivity of DNA sequencing, and then taking this data that you didn't touch, and putting it into a computer and letting a computer tell you what the answer was, and the love affair people have with DNA as the supposed blueprint of life, everybody just fell over dead," says Schwartz. "There's only one or two features humans share uniquely with chimps... If you accept the molecular conclusion of human-chimp relationships, you have to reject anatomy or physical features as being revealing."

Schwartz suggests that humans and orangutans have a common ancestor that lived aeons ago -- when the Earth's landmasses looked much different than they do now. "In the Eurasian continent, there was a widespread early group of higher primates that gave rise to different fossils we now recognize as relatives of orangutans. Then the African [tectonic] plate met the Eurasian plate and there was the opportunity to migrate into Africa, and that's where human evolution began," says Schwartz. He proposes a new grouping for this family -- "dental hominoids," named thus for the striking similarities in their jaws and teeth. The group would include hominids, or humans and their ancestors, and orangs and their ancestors as well.

Schwartz says he hopes people can overcome the assumptions and unverifiable data that have culminated in the pervasive belief in chimpanzee ancestry. Says Schwartz, "The best would be for some people to think about alternatives and about the dogmas that are in place, and about the deeper question of how one really goes about trying to understand evolutionary relationships."

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