Georgian Fossil Hunter David Lordkipanidze on Curiosity, Creationism, and Chimpanzees
Professor Doctor David Lordkipanidze, a paleoanthropologist from Georgia, rocked the scientific world when he discovered 1.8 million-year-old skulls that probably belonged to the first humans who walked out of Africa. In Manila, he spoke to Esquire about the intense and competitive field of fossil-hunting.
ESQUIRE: When you were a kid, what drew you to paleoanthropology?
DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: My father was an archeologist who was excavating sites connected with Golden Fleece history in Colchis, Georgia. I spent my childhood in archeological digs. This was one of the reasons why I was in interested in science. And later, I started being interested in anthropology. I read Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind. It was a very popular book about paleoanthropology, and I fell in love with the subject
ESQ: You made your big discovery of the Dmanisi fossils in 1991, when there was a lot of political turmoil in Georgia. How was your discovery received?
DL: I was getting my PhD in Russia. When I finished, I came back to Georgia and started to work in the site in Dmanisi, and it was really incredible. Immediately, in the first season, we found a jaw. I would say that it had international attention more than national (laughs). Internationally, it was a very big sensation in the scientific world. There were also a lot of doubts, not everybody accepted it.
ESQ: How did you find the funding to sustain such a long-term project?
DL: You know, I love this subject, if you ask me why I decided to do it. I was a big fan of crime stories from my childhood. When you are doing excavations and later finding things and trying to investigate, it’s like a reconstruction of the past or of the crime scene. It’s big fun to do it. But if you want to do anything high standard you need to do work internationally. So I had this privilege to be connected to international institutions. I don’t think science should have borders.
ESQ: You mentioned that there are more paleoanthropologists than human fossils. The competition must be really intense.
DL: Yes, very. If you look at the history of this field, all African discoveries have been done by American, British, French scientists. In our field it’s a competition because there are not many finds.
ESQ: You said that people were skeptical about your discovery at first, in what way?
DL: Nobody had heard about Georgia before. That’s also why it was difficult to imagine that out of Africa you could have some old fossils. Second was also that Georgian scientists had no international reputation. Later, we found those skulls and published in Science magazine in 2000. So I would say that, since then, there are no [longer any] doubts about the importance of the find.
I don’t think science and religion are enemies. I think science and religion can be synergized. If you believe in God, you could simply say that it’s God’s will to have evolution.
ESQ: How many skulls have you found so far?
DL: At the moment we have already five skulls. And we have thousands of animal bones and stone tools. There’s no other site like this in the world where you have everything. And also there is huge potential, since only ten percent of the site has been excavated.
ESQ: What was the most recent significant discovery from there?
DL: Now, we’re at the level of research. You can’t just simply claim a new skull. You need time to study and to present to the world what is new.
ESQ: So your theory was that these hominins left Africa because they were curious? Could it be maybe they were driven out or there was a scarcity of resources?
DL: No, I don’t think that they were squeezed out. Nobody pushed them out. That’s exactly what makes these people closer to humans, they were not restricted to a small territory like specialized animals. They were competitive, wanted to conquer new worlds. Curiosity is one of the reasons why they went out. After millions of years, humans became the dominant species. It took a long way to be the leader of the ecosystem in nature.
ESQ: What kinds of tools were found there?
DL: Stone tools. If you will look you will think they’re just smashed rocks. But in reality they are reworked tools. Mostly they are flakes for cutting meat. You can see big pebbles which they were using for throwing. If you ask me who were these guys at that time, they were quite dangerous. They could fight. They were carnivores, belonged to groups, they could be well organized. They were getting competitive.
ESQ: In the Philippines, many people still believe in creationism. Have you ever gone up against people who are anti-evolution?
DL: I lecture in many different auditoriums. I was invited to lecture on the story of human evolution in the Vatican. We are showing evolution with facts. And we leave it up to people to decide why it happened.
ESQ: So even in the Vatican, people have been open to evolution?
DL: Yes, it’s a science. We are communicating scientific facts. And I don’t think science and religion are enemies. I think science and religion can be synergized. If you believe in God, you could simply say that it’s God’s will to have evolution. I like this approach. I never had any real fights.
ESQ: You know the famous illustration of Darwin’s theory, the chimp that straightens up into a man? Is that still accurate?
DL: No, never. You know I think this is one of the biggest mistakes which people talk about. Nobody says that we are apes, or that we have descended from great apes. We could say that we humans and great apes have common ancestors, a relationship more like a cousin or relative—but not like grandparents to the child. So that’s it. One of the keys now to the world is developing our molecular biology studies, so that one day we can tell the genetic information of the Dmanisi fossils.