There’s news buzzing about the fossilized remains of a human-like child, from 3.3-million-year-ago. The remains have been unearthed in Ethiopia’s Dikika region and are believed to be of a female Australopithecus afarensis bones are from the same species as an adult skeleton found in 1974 which was nicknamed “Lucy.” As of now, these remains are the oldest known skeleton of young human ancestor. The skeleton was discovered in 2000 and the discoverers have spent five painstaking years removing what fossils they have now from sandstone, and the job will take years more to complete because there’s more in there.
Here’s a collection of the news sources running stories on this:
- BBC News’ “‘Lucy’s baby’ found in Ethiopia“
- CNN’s “Skeleton sheds light on ape-man species“
- Max Planck Society Press Release, “Meet the Earliest Baby Girl ever Discovered!“
- National Geographic News’ ““Lucy’s Baby” — World’s Oldest Child — Found by Fossil Hunters“
- Nature News’ “Little ‘Lucy’ fossil found“
- The New York Times’ “Fossil of Child, Age 3 Million, Offers New Insights“
- The New York Times’ “Little Girl, 3 Million Years Old, Offers New Hints on Evolution“
The discovery has been published in the September 21st 2006 issue of Nature… there are actually two reports in Nature, one that overviews the geological and palaeontological context and the other that overviews the anatomical and evolutionary implications of the finding. Here’s the link and abstract to the first paper:
Understanding changes in ontogenetic development is central to the study of human evolution. With the exception of Neanderthals, the growth patterns of fossil hominins have not been studied comprehensively because the fossil record currently lacks specimens that document both cranial and postcranial development at young ontogenetic stages. Here we describe a well-preserved 3.3-million-year-old juvenile partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis discovered in the Dikika research area of Ethiopia. The skull of the approximately three-year-old presumed female shows that most features diagnostic of the species are evident even at this early stage of development. The find includes many previously unknown skeletal elements from the Pliocene hominin record, including a hyoid bone that has a typical African ape morphology. The foot and other evidence from the lower limb provide clear evidence for bipedal locomotion, but the gorilla-like scapula and long and curved manual phalanges raise new questions about the importance of arboreal behaviour in the A. afarensis locomotor repertoire.
And here’s the details of the second paper:
Since 1999, the Dikika Research Project (DRP; initiated by Z.A.) has conducted surveys and excavations in badlands that expose Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments south of the Awash River in Ethiopia, between surrounding hominin localities at Hadar, Gona and the Middle Awash region. Here we report our geological mapping and stratigraphic measurement of the DRP area, and the context of a remarkably well-preserved skeleton of the earliest known juvenile hominin at the Dikika DIK-1 locality. Our mapping of the DRP area permits a complete definition of the hominin-bearing Hadar Formation and provides a cohesive structural and tectonic framework defining its relationships to adjacent strata. Our findings reveal the basin-scale tectonic, depositional and palaeoenvironmental history of the area, as well as a clear taphonomic and palaeontological context for the juvenile hominin. Such data are crucial for understanding the environmental context of human evolution, and can be integrated into larger-scale tectonic and palaeoenvironmental studies. Our basin-scale approach to palaeoenvironments provides a means to elucidate the complex geological history occurring at the scale of temporally and geographically controlled fossil point localities, which occur within the rich tectonic and depositional history of the Awash Valley.
One of the authors of the paper, Fred Spoor a professor of evolutionary anatomy at University College London, describes with Zeresenay Alemseged (lead author) of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the fossil,
- The lower body is very human-like while the upper body is ape-like.
- The shoulder blades resemble those of a gorilla rather than a modern human.
- The neck seems short and thick like a [non-human] great ape’s, rather than the more slender version humans have to keep the head stable while running.
- The organ of balance in the inner ear is more ape-like than human.
- The fingers are very curved, which could indicate climbing ability, “but I’m cautious about that,” Spoor said. Curved fingers have been noted for A. afarensis before, but their significance is in dispute.
If you don’t know much about A. afarensis there is much debate about its arboreal behavior and abilities, but there is a general concensus that entists it stood upright and walked on two feet. The ability to climb into trees and move about would require anatomical equipment like long arms, and A. afarensis had arms that dangled down to just above the knees. The question is whether such features indicate climbing ability or just evolutionary baggage.