WHEN TIM WHITE’S TEAM OF FOSSIL hunters, sifting the dust of the Ethiopian badlands, spotted a molar from a previously unknown human ancestor—the oldest ever discovered—Indiana Jones would, at the very least, have broken out his flask. White, however, commanded his team to stay cool. “When excitement dominates,” says the dispassionate anthropologist, “you can trample something.”
White’s sangfroid paid off. Months of careful digging at the site uncovered skull fragments, arm bones and teeth of 17 individuals from a protohuman species—dubbed Australopithecus ramidus—that surrounding rock formations indicate lived 4.4 million years ago. Announcing the discovery this September in the British journal Nature, White, 44, argued that he and his colleagues may well have found the long-sought missing link between humans and apes. “This species is the oldest known link in the evolutionary chain that connected us to our common ancestor with the living African apes,” he says.
It is the most breathtaking discovery by fossil hunters since 1974, when a partial skeleton, nicknamed Lucy, was unearthed about 50 miles north of White’s dig. Lucy, a mere 3.2 million years old, had an ape-like skull but walked on two legs like a human. Since White’s team has yet to find a hip joint, a knee or a foot, they cannot say for sure whether A. ramidus also walked upright. But White contends that the arm bones they found “are not the arms of a knuckle-walker.” A. ramidus, about 4’6″ tall and with a brain the size of a Softball, is believed to have hunted on two feet for worms and small animals.
White’s curiosity about hunters and gatherers developed early. Growing up in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., the eldest son of Robert White, now a retired highway superintendent, and his wife, Georgia, a homemaker, he explored dozens of ancient Native American campsites near town and made a record for the county museum of all the arrow tips and pottery shards he found. He also kept home terraria, which he filled with snakes and lizards. “It was not unusual to come home and find he had his pet rattlesnake out for exercise,” says his father.
After graduating from the University of California at Riverside in 1972, White enrolled in a doctoral program in paleoanthropology at the University of Michigan. In 1975, he joined the famed anthropologist Richard Leakey on an expedition to Tanzania and two years later helped Richard’s mother, Mary Leakey, analyze fossilized footprints of hominids she found there. He subsequently collaborated with Don Johanson, head of the Lucy team, on research proving that those footprints were made by members of Lucy’s species.
Now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, White makes no secret of his disdain for many of his fellow paleoanthropologists. Even relations with the Leakeys and Johanson are strained. “This is a field where personality dominates and there’s a lot of showmanship,” says White. “I’m not interested in it.”
“Lots of people hate him because he’s so critical,” says Berhane Asfaw, who with Gen Suwa shares credit for the recent findings. “But when he plans something, he gets it done.”
In Berkeley, White drives a 1966 Chevy pickup he has had since high school. He owns a stucco house he remodeled himself but spends so little time there—”I live in my office”—that he needs a neighbor to help care for his cat Cotton. In recent years, White has spent six months annually traveling—mostly to the Afar region of Ethiopia, where the primordial terrain is ideal for fossil hunting but forbidding to most humans. “When it rains, mud clings to your feet so you can’t pick up your leg,” White says. “When it doesn’t rain, the mud turns to dust so thick you have to stop every half hour to clean your glasses.”
Though White, a lifelong bachelor, says he hopes someday to find “a special kind of woman to go out into the Afar” with him, he has no regrets about the harsh life he has chosen. “There is nothing like the discovery of things that are one-of-a-kind,” he says. “They are more precious than diamonds or gold.”
LAIRD HARRISON in Berkeley