| Style over substance|
| Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
“”What happened is that a small set of large crania were taken from a much larger sample of varied crania, and given the name, "Boskopoid." This selection was initially done almost without any regard for archaeological or cultural associations -- any old, large skull was a "Boskop".
|—Professor of anthropology John Hawks|
Boskop Man (Homo capensis) was an alleged (and now discredited) group of hominids thought to date from 10,000 years ago. Named after Boskop, South Africa, they were thought to have had remarkably large brains (1,800-2,000cc typical) and childlike facial features, and were all super-evolved geniuses, with an IQ of 150, compared to us mere nose picking Cro-Magnons.
Unfortunately, they turned out to be a figment of anthropologists' imaginations, based on completely spurious speculation from a tiny number of severely biased samples. The term "Boskop Man" is no longer even in use by anthropologists.
The extraordinary claim
In autumn 1913, two farmers in Boskop, South Africa found hominid skull fragments while digging a drainage ditch. They brought the find to Frederick W. FitzSimons of the Port Elizabeth Museum. The skull came to the attention of paleontologist S. H. Haughton, who reported the skull was at least 1,832cc — 25% larger than that typical of normal modern-day humans. Scottish scientist Robert Broom got "the very remarkable figure of 1,980 cc."
It was suggested that the very large Boskop skull was an aberration, caused by hydrocephalus or some other disease. However, the skull had a face taking up one fifth of the cranium size — comparable to a Cro-Magnon child, not the one third of the cranium taken by an adult Cro-Magnon face. The nose, cheeks, and jaw were all childlike.
Nearly a century after the find, the claimed Boskop race was brought back to public attention in neuroscientists Gary Lynch and Richard Granger's 2008 book Big Brain, and in a 2009 Discover article reprinting an excerpt from the book. Lynch and Granger start from "25% bigger brain," extrapolate from there with their neuroscience knowledge and spend two-thirds of the excerpt on fanciful extrapolation concerning the life of the Boskop.
The reality of the situation
The Discover excerpt presents 1920s-era anthropology as if it were the state of science today. Lynch and Granger are experts in neuroscience, with a long list of publications on memory, cortical organization, and chemical regulation of brain activity. However, neither is an anthropologist or archaeologist — they were speculating well outside their expertise. Paleoanthropologist John Hawks notably bludgeoned their foolishness into the ground.
The "Boskopoid" race, or the "Middle Stone Age Physical Type", was a commonplace of anthropological thought concerning the people of the area from about 1915 to 1930. Anthropologists had tried to apply racial categories such as "Negroid," "Bushman," "Hottentot" and "Strandloper." But distinctions between these groups did not appear to extend far into the prehistoric past. Anthropologists accordingly constructed a "Boskopoid" type, for those with later "Bush" or "Strandloper" resemblances.
In fact, a small set of large skulls were taken from a much larger varied sample of skulls, and branded "Boskopoid." Any old, large skull was a "Boskop" — all between 1700cc and 2000cc, which is large but within the known range for adult homo sapiens sapiens males. Thus, the sample was hugely biased.
Ronald Singer at the University of Cape Town reviewed the evidence as of 1958 and concluded there was no reason to maintain that any such "big-headed, small-faced group" had existed. In a famous paper, he bludgeoned home the degree of social construction that was happening here:
I propose only to indicate how, on the basis of an isolated cranial fragment found 40 years ago near the surface in a dubious geological horizon, unassociated with implements and fauna, there has been developed conjecture after conjecture, speculation on speculation, until today one finds physical anthropologists who have not only constructed a 'race' around this skullcap, but who also detect occasional features of this 'race' in the faces of living South African individuals.
It is still a failing among not a few anthropologists that they feel it incumbent upon themselves sooner or later to plant an evolutionary tree, to construct ancestral branches, to designate apparently unusual features in a skull as 'primitive' or pre-this or pre-that, and to plan vast migratory routes of so-called prehistoric 'races' which are represented only by odd skulls.
The sci-fi trope
So the Boskops had been consigned to the trash can of science. But as sometimes happens, the idea was kept alive in popular culture. Loren Eiseley included an essay on Boskop Man in his 1958 collection The Immense Journey. Eiseley conjectured that the Boskops had large brains and small faces and were therefore, as evidenced by their pedomorphism, more highly evolved than Cro-Magnons. They were therefore the "Future Man."
Horrifyingly for their claim to be doing anything resembling science, Lynch and Granger actually referenced Eiseley's ridiculous teleological puffery in their own work.
- Gary Lynch and Richard Granger. "What Happened to the Hominids Who May Have Been Smarter Than Us?" Discover. 2009 December 28.
- John Hawks. "The "amazing" Boskops." john hawks weblog. 2008 March 30.
- John Hawks. "Return of the "amazing" Boskops." john hawks weblog. 2010 January 4.
- Singer R. "The Boskop 'race' problem." Man, 58:173-178.
- Man of the Future (Loren Eiseley)