Another day, another update, and this time we’re off to Woranso-Mille in the Afar region of Ethiopia, one of the best known hominid fossil-bearing sites in the world, from where we recently had news of a find dating from a period, 3.5 million to 3.8 million years, which has thus far produced little in the way of finds…

The cache included several complete jaws and one partial skeleton, and was unearthed at Woranso-Mille in the country’s Afar desert. The remains were recovered 30km from the site where “Lucy” – one of the most famous human ancestors – was found. The fossils come from the right time period to shed light on the relationship between the “Lucy” species, Australopithecus afarensis, and an even older species called Australopithecus anamensis.

Dr Yohannes Haile-Selassie, one of the team’s leaders, told the BBC: “One of the reasons why this discovery is really important is because it serves as a time frame that we know nothing about in the past and that’s what makes it really significant.” He added: “We have a record of about six million years of early human evolution in Ethiopia, but there are also small gaps here and there and this one happens to be one of them.”

As I mentioned above, the Afar region has played a spectacular part in the search for fossils that give us an idea of exactly who some of our ancestors were, even though it’s still not clear how or even precisely when species Homo evolved from the australopithecines. Here’s some additional comment detailing the role and significance of the Woranso-Mille site and the recent discoveries…

The Afar Depression of Ethiopia has yielded early hominid fossil remains spanning the last 6 million years. This has placed Ethiopia in the forefront of paleoanthropology, the study of human physical and cultural evolution. Ethiopia is known to the world as the cradle of humankind, with a minimum of 12 early human species known from the country, including the earliest hominid Ardipithecus kadabba at 5.8 million years ago, and Homo sapiens idaltu, the earliest anatomically modern human at 160,000 years ago. (n.b. but click here for reference to even older H. sapiens at 196,000 bp)

For the last four decades, numerous local and foreign scientists have carried out fieldwork in the Afar region, searching for fossil remains of the earliest human ancestors. Major areas that have been extensively explored, and have yielded early hominid fossil remains include Hadar, Middle Awash, Gona, and Dikika, all located in the Afar Regional State. The Afar region still has unexplored areas of palaeoanthropological interest. As a result, new exploratory programs are being developed and new palaeontological sites identified.

The palaeontological significance of the Woranso-Mille study area has been demonstrated by the discovery of more than 1,900 vertebrate fossil specimens in three years of fieldwork. These fossils include a number of hominid remains from different time horizons. However, the study area has not been fully explored. Preliminary survey in some areas shows that there are fossiliferous deposits as old as 5 million years ago. However, the project has not yet intensively concentrated on these areas. During the coming field seasons, the Woranso-Mille project plans to systematically collect more fossils from already designated vertebrate localities and to find new areas with fossils of older age.

There don’t appear to be any images available just yet of the new specimens, but I’m sure some will be published in the near future, and it seems likely that yet more finds will come to light – those 5 million year-old deposits sound interesting, but for the time being, it would seem that congratulations are in order to the archaeologists on-site, working in what must be some pretty challenging conditions.

image: artist’s impression of A. anamensis from AMNH

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