My Broken Chair, Tim's Broken Heart

Tom Buffalo

Writer’s comment: Creative writing blends imagination and reality. It provides an opportunity to cast aside all inhibition and replace the void with limitless self-expression. Freedom drives creative writing. In his introductory anthropology class, Professor Rodman gave his students this freedom. He provided them with a working knowledge of anthropological terms and theories, then allowed them to write in a style and direction they chose. “My Broken Chair, Tim’s Broken Heart” is a reflection of how the freedom to explore and write creatively can transform a student’s indifference toward a subject like anthropology to appreciation and fascination. My intent was to incorporate scientific fact with light-hearted fiction so that any reader—whether reading for personal pleasure or scientific insight—could enjoy this essay.
—Tom Buffalo

Instructor’s comment: Tom Buffalo wrote his essay in response to an assignment in the course “Introduction to Human Evolutionary Biology.” The class had read Lucy by Donald Johansen and Matiland Edey, which provides a dramatic and scientifically thorough account of the 1974 discovery of a 2.6 million year old human relative named Australopithecus afarensis, popularly called “Lucy.” This account presents Johansen and Edey and their young colleague Tim White as colorful, lively characters. Tom was asked to write in a similar style about Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.6 million year old fossil that may be related to Lucy and to us. Unlike Lucy, A. ramidus is known to the world only from a brief initial report and a few black and white photos. Tim White, now a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley, has been working for years on the analysis of those original pieces and more fossil parts behind closed doors. White’s findings may greatly influence our understanding of hominid origins, especially of the time of our differentiation from apes. The world wants to know: Did A. ramidus walk upright like Lucy and like us, or was she more like a chimpanzee? In his imaginative account, Tom Buffalo “discovers” new material that provides an answer.
—Peter S. Rodman, Department of Anthropology

Darkness loomed above. I sat motionless and stared upward into the starry night sky, completely oblivious to the splendor provided by the constellations and the Milky Way galaxy, instead deeply engrossed in thoughts of an academic and ideological dilemma that had tormented me for months. My body remained still as my mind attained a trance-like state. The words “Ardipithecus ramidus” and “hominid” swirled around aimlessly in my head as they hid behind an anthropological and historical logic I could not come to terms with. Then, it happened. My chair broke. In one glorious motion my legs came up from underneath me, my butt met rather painfully with the hard turf below, and reality set in. Reality consisted of me, lying completely immobile on my back, outside my tent, at 2:00 A.M., on the site of a paleo-anthropological dig near Hadar, Ethiopia. At a time such as this, one thought seemed resoundingly clear: “This hurts!” This notion of pain was not in reference to my sudden introduction to the unforgiving Ethiopian soil. Rather, the hurt referred to my confusion as to why Tim White, famous anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, insisted that his fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus represented a hominid. However, Ardipithecus ramidus should have been catalogued in the phylogeny of primates outside the family Hominidae, within the superfamily Hominoidea. It simply hurt me to consider Ardipithecus ramidus a hominid when evidence I discovered just a few months earlier clearly ranked the fossil in the clade of chimpanzees and gorillas.
         My fascination with Ardipithecus ramidus and the story about my astounding discovery can be traced nearly six months prior when I read a short passage from Getting Here, an account of anthropological history by renowned anthropologist, William Howells. In his book, Howells (1997) writes that, “Ardipithecus ramidus, found in Ethiopia…is given a whole new genus because of its mixture of chimpanzee and hominid traits in the teeth and fragments of armbones, while there are hints only, in parts of the skull, of its being biped” (p. 84). This passage provoked my interest and I contacted Howells to learn more. Howells directed me to Tim White, the anthropologist who discovered Ardipithecus ramidus. White informed me that his fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus did indeed represent the earliest hominid found to date. White’s comments intrigued me further. I arranged a flight to Ethiopia and then traveled to Hadar to discover more fossils and learn all I could of this amazing “missing link.” However, the evidence I uncovered in Ethiopia regarding Ardipithecus ramidus and its place in the phylogeny of primates would shock White and the rest of the anthropological world.
         I remember the day of my discovery quite distinctly, although the clarity of the day should come as no surprise considering it is not every day one finds evidence that displaces the missing link of human evolution. I awoke that morning and went for my usual early-morning jog. This jog served as an opportunity for some exercise before the temperature reached the blistering 110 degrees it always tended to reach in mid-afternoon. This jog also served as an opportunity to do some flash-survey work of new locations for possible digs. Prior to this day, most of our digging had been done to the north of camp; therefore, I decided I would venture south and see what promise this direction held, if any. Approximately 5 miles from the outset of my run, the asperity of the terrain increased. However, energy and vitality overcame me that morning as I decided to heighten the intensity of my workout. The rugged terrain thus became an obstacle course as I bounded over rocks and maneuvered around bushes. That morning my energetic spirit would prelude my downfall, literally. Not more than 20 yards following my conscious decision to transform the terrain of the Ethiopian desert into the spring training camp of the Dallas Cowboys did my legs start to tire and grow heavy. Yet, determination pushed me onward. I continued to jump and dodge my way through the increasingly unrefined terrain. As all good things tend to do, my up-tempo workout came to a tragic end as I inaccurately negotiated the correct height of one rock and tripped quite dramatically. My last memory embodied the ground approaching my face at a rate much faster than any sensible human being would hope for.
         Several hours after the fall had knocked me unconscious, I awoke, caked in a profusion of dirt and dry sweat. I managed to hoist myself up to a sitting position and quickly checked my limbs for any breaks. Luckily, none were discovered. I did, however, notice a rather large and throbbing bump on my head. When I realized a bump constituted the only repercussion of my reckless attitude that morning, a flood of relief pervaded me. It was probable that I also acquired a slight concussion, as well as the bump. I scanned my surroundings in an attempt to discern my location. During my unconsciousness, the day had progressed to mid-afternoon and the fierce desert heat had set in. Tears saturated my eyes because of the intensely high temperature. The fall left me unaware of my location and the surrounding topography’s redundancy gave no clear indication as to which direction needed traveling in order to return to camp. Characteristic of the Ethiopian desert, the only type of visible landmark consisted of a rock, a bush, another rock, another bush, an exposed fossilized primate pelvis, another rock, another bush…wait! An exposed fossilized primate pelvis! The thought that this fantasy resulted from the concussion, combined with the dirt and tears that obstructed my vision, caused me to frantically wipe my sight clear with the base of my shirt. Yes, the pelvis remained! I clambered to my feet and scrambled toward the pelvis. The obstacles en route to my discovery provided treacherous hurdles that nearly produced part two of my disastrous tumble from earlier that morning. Luckily, I reached the pelvis unimpaired. I stopped ten yards from the fossil and approached it slowly, with reserve, as though it were a coiled cobra snake. I could not believe my eyes. Upon reaching the fossil, I placed my hands on it and followed its contours with my fingers. Simply marvelous! Perhaps I merely felt the concussion escalating, but a feeling inside signaled to me that this pelvis was special.
         I will save the details of how I managed to navigate my way back to base camp and return to the pelvis with other members of the research team, as they are insignificant compared to my discoveries regarding the fossil itself. Using precise excavation methods, we unearthed the partially exposed pelvis, which consisted of one complete iliac blade and a very small portion of the other. In addition to the partial pelvis, we uncovered one femur completely intact! It was a truly remarkable discovery. Overpowering impatience compelled me to leave the other team members at the site to search for other fossils as I returned to base camp with the pelvis and the femur to begin my inspection. These fossils held peculiar qualities. I could feel it.
         The following months proved consequential for the fate of the pelvis and the femur. My analysis uncovered impressive details pertaining to the fossils’ origins. Radiometric testing of nearby earth samples dated the strata surrounding the fossils’ locale at nearly 4.5 million years old. This news brought further excitement, especially to me, because White’s fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus dated approximately 4.5 million years old as well (Howells, 1997). Therefore, with the radiometric dating of the fossils confirmed, I ascertained that my partial pelvis and femur belonged to Ardipithecus ramidus!
         Following my discovery, which indicated that the pelvis and femur belonged to Ardipithecus ramidus, I set out to learn more about this missing link in the evolution of man. However, throughout my inspection, I encountered peculiarities about the fossils that led me to believe that perhaps White incorrectly classified Ardipithecus ramidus as a hominid, and thus it did not belong in the ancestry of the modern human. To begin, according to Howells (1997), the defining feature of a hominid is bipedalism, or upright, two-limbed walking. Howells (1997) also noted that certain cranial characteristics prompted some to infer that Ardipithecus ramidus was bipedal. My analysis of the pelvis and the femur caused me to accept that Ardipithecus ramidus was in fact not bipedal at all, thus disqualifying him from being a hominid! For example, although I obtained only half of the pelvis in the form of one complete iliac blade, it was evident that the iliac blade itself was actually very slender when compared to the iliac blade in the skeleton of a modern-day human. In fact, when compared to the iliac blade in the skeleton of a modern-day chimpanzee, the iliac blade of Ardipithecus ramidus bore a striking resemblance to that of the chimp. A wide and broad iliac blade helps to construct the bucket-shaped pelvis of a hominid. A bucket-shaped pelvis is essential to bipedalism because it allows for an upright center of gravity (Howells, 1997). Oddly, the iliac blade of Ardipithecus ramidus resembled that of the modern chimpanzee, notorious for quadrupedal locomotion. Perhaps this one chimpanzee-like characteristic in the pelvis of Ardipithecus ramidus could be offset with other hominid-like characteristics? I analyzed my fossils with greater scrutiny to expose more truth.
         My inspection of the femur revealed further discontinuities in White’s proposal and my doubts grew about the bipedal nature of Ardipithecus ramidus. The fact that the valgus angle (Rodman, 2001) in the femur was not oblique caught my attention. Just as a bucket-shaped pelvis aids in the mechanics of bipedalism, so does an oblique valgus angle in the femur (Rodman, 2001). Essentially, when the valgus angle is oblique, the femur angles out from the knee, and the portion of the femur that fits in the socket of the pelvis lines up directly over the outer condyle of the knee (Rodman, 2001). This oblique alignment of the femur over the knee is referred to as knock-kneed morphology, and it allows for straightforward, smooth, upright walking (Howells, 1997). Knock-kneed morphology is essential to the mechanics of bipedalism. When the valgus angle is not oblique, the femur does not angle out from the knee and the portion that fits into the socket of the pelvis lines up directly over the inner condyle of the knee (Rodman, 2001). This is the case in modern chimpanzees and contributes to their awkward, side-to-side, upright walking motion (Howells, 1997). I compared the valgus angle of Ardipithecus ramidus with the valgus angle of the modern human. Then I compared the valgus angle of Ardipithecus ramidus to the valgus angle of the modern chimpanzee. My findings indicated the valgus angle of Ardipithecus ramidus was not oblique, thus making this quality also similar to that of the chimpanzee.
         I had discovered two acute elements of the pelvis and the femur crucial to the mechanics of bipedal locomotion in hominids not present in the pelvis and the femur of Ardipithecus ramidus. My frustration grew. Here I ventured enthusiastically into Ethiopia to learn of man’s oldest ancestor, yet the harder I looked, the more evidence I uncovered which discredited White’s assertion that Ardipithecus ramidus was a hominid. I continued my analysis, hoping to find a quality that redeemed the pelvis and femur and classified Ardipithecus ramidus as a hominid. I then thought of another pelvic element that characterizes bipedalism, the sacrum (Howells, 1997). The sacrum is the point where the backbone attaches to the pelvis. In hominids, the sacrum is long and robust. A long, robust sacrum suggests that the spine angles back sharply above the pelvis (Rodman, 2001). This sharp angle of the spine allows for upright posture and a balanced center of gravity (Howells, 1997). Surely, if the sacrum were long and robust in Ardipithecus ramidus, it would denote bipedalism. I examined the pelvis further and to my dismay discovered the sacrum lacked length and robustness. I again compared my fossil to the skeleton of a modern chimpanzee and witnessed the astonishing similarities in the sacrum of the two creatures. In Ardipithecus ramidus the sacrum was short and not robust. This type of sacrum indicated that the lumbar support of Ardipithecus ramidus leaned in front of the pelvis, a clear sign of quadripedalism (Howells, 1997).
         Now my story has come full circle. As I lay there, on my back, in front of my tent, at 2:00 A.M., the words “Ardipithecus ramidus” and “hominid” continue to swirl about inconclusively in my thoughts, never seeming to unite logically. I recall the events of the past couple of months and am convinced that Ardipithecus ramidus was not a hominid, because it lacked bipedality. The slender iliac blade, similar to the iliac blade of a chimpanzee, failed to constitute the bucket-shaped pelvis that characterizes many bipedal hominids. The small sacrum found on Ardipithecus ramidus implied a lumbar spine that extended in front of rather than over the pelvis, as in many hominids. Also, the valgus angle of the femur was not oblique, which suggested that Ardipithecus ramidus’ knees were straight. Straight knees correspond with an awkward, upright walking style, as seen in the modern-day chimpanzee. Instead, based on the similarities to the skeleton of the modern-day chimpanzee, I will just have to accept that Ardipithecus ramidus was not a hominid, but simply a hominoid ancestor in the clade of chimpanzees and gorillas. Now, however shall I reveal the news to Tim White? Maybe if he pays for my broken chair, I won’t say anything that will break his heart.


Howells, W. (1997). Getting Here. Washington, DC: Compass Press.

Rodman, P. S. (2001). Primate history in one easy lesson (Anthropology 1 lecture notes, January 16, 2001). University of California, Davis.