A team of researchers unveiled Thursday research findings on the skeleton of a hominid who is now being touted by some as the earliest known human ancestor of modern-day man.
The multinational team of 47 researchers, who have been studying the bones of "Ardi" since they were discovered in 1994, presented the oldest known skeleton of the "potential human ancestor," calling it by far the most complete among those of the earliest specimens found.
The skeleton, found in Ethiopia and thought to be 4.4-million years old, includes most of the skull and teeth, as well as the pelvis, hands, and feet - parts that the researchers say reveal an "intermediate" form of upright walking, considered a hallmark of hominids.
"This species … resolves many uncertainties about early human evolution, including the nature of the last common ancestor that we shared with the line leading to living chimpanzees and bonobos," commented team member Tim D. White, director of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
"The most popular reconstructions of human evolution during the past century rested on the presumption that the behaviors of the earliest hominids were related to [or even natural amplifications of] behaviors observed in these living great apes (Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas … our closest living relatives)," added anthropologist C. O. Lovejoy of Kent State University. "Ardipithecus ramidus nullifies these presumptions, as it shows that the anatomy of living African apes is not primitive but instead has evolved specifically within extant ape lineages."
Simply put, this means the new skeleton reverses the common understanding of human evolution. Rather than humans evolving from an ancient chimp-like creature, "Ardi" provides evidence that chimps and humans evolved from some long-ago common ancestor - but each evolved and changed separately along the way.
"This is not that common ancestor, but it's the closest we have ever been able to come," White told The Associated Press.
Following Thursday's announcement, some critics of evolution theory used the latest buzz to point out that "faith" is required to believe pro-evolution scientists who are themselves unsure about many things and constantly changing what they believe to be true.
"'Six months ago, we would have said our common ancestor looked something like a chimp,'" Christian preacher Ray Comfort cited White as having said. "'Now all that has changed.' Sure has. And it will change again, and again, and again. I know, 'that's what real science does.'"
Comfort, who has been drawing attention and controversy this past week for his plan to distribute tens of thousands of anti-evolution books to university students, said he needs "hard evidence," and for him, that comes from Christianity.
"I know where we came from (on the highest Authority), I know why we are here and I know where I am going after death," he stated Thursday.
"[I]t's hard to argue with the sort of devotion that evolutionists have," Comfort added, calling the findings of the Ardi researchers a "faith matter."
While 44 percent of Americans would likely side with Comfort, believing that God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years, there are almost as many (36 percent) who believe that man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but that God guided the process, including man's creation.
The latter group, which includes theistic evolutionists and evolutionary creationists, argue that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.
"We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests," state signers of the Clergy Letter Project, which has been endorsed by over 11,000 ministers.
"To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children," they add in their open letter concerning religion and science .
Many Christian denominations and bodies such as the United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches USA have issued similar statements.