While working on a story for @natgeo on #CharlesDarwin, “Was Darwin Wrong” I was able to photograph this ape hand. The human hand is a marvel of dexterity. It can thread a needle, coax intricate melodies from the keys of a piano, and create lasting works of art with a pen or a paintbrush. Many scientists have assumed that our hands evolved their distinctive proportions over millions of years of recent evolution. But a new study suggests a radically different conclusion: Some aspects of the human hand are actually anatomically primitive—more so even than that of many other apes, including our evolutionary cousin the chimpanzee. The findings have important implications for the origins of human toolmaking, as well as for what the ancestor of both humans and chimps might have looked like. Humans and chimps diverged from a common ancestor perhaps about 7 million years ago, and their hands now look very different. We have a relatively long thumb and shorter fingers, which allows us to touch our thumbs to any point along our fingers and thus easily grasp objects. Chimps, on the other hand, have much longer fingers and shorter thumbs, perfect for swinging in trees but much less handy for precision grasping. For decades the dominant view among researchers was that the common ancestor of chimps and humans had chimplike hands, and that the human hand changed in response to the pressures of natural selection to make us better toolmakers.
But recently some researchers have begun to challenge the idea that the human hand fundamentally changed its proportions after the evolutionary split with chimps. The earliest humanmade stone tools are thought to date back 3.3 million years, but new evidence has emerged that some of the earliest members of the human line—such as the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi”)—had hands that resembled those of modern humans rather than chimps, even though it did not make tools. Words by #michaelbalter of #ScienceMagazine.