The ultimate iPhone app: a truly retro makeover

Now that the Neanderthal genome has revealed that non-Africans have a bit of the old chap inside us (see Yes, it seems that they did… in EPN May 2010), why not seek your inner Neanderthal? The famous Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has released an application for iPhones, its first ever venture into ‘apps’, that allows users to morph their faces to resemble how they might have looked as a male or female H. neanderthalensis, H. heidelbergensis or even tiny H . floresiensis. The ‘app’ is called Meanderthal, which is especially apt as that neologism is street slang for a sad individual who roams supermarket aisles with a mobile phone welded to his or her ear.

Male relative of ‘Lucy’
Many people know of the amazing skeleton of a possible ancestor to humans discovered in NE Ethiopia by Donald Johanson in the late 1970s, and they know why it was dubbed ‘Lucy’. That type specimen of a female Australopithecus afarensis still figures in the media, but little appears concerning males of the species. That is not surprising for they are represented by only fragmentary and ambiguous remains. So a report on a 40% complete fossil male A. afarensis that includes limb and pelvic bones, and those of the neck, shoulder and arm is sure to cause a stir (Haile-Selassie, W. and 8 others 2010. An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, v. 107, p. 12121–12126. doi/10.1073/pnas.1004527107). For starters, he is very big indeed compared with ‘Lucy’, standing between 1.5 and 1.7 m tall, and fragments of other individuals suggest that some males were larger still and within the modern human range. The conclusion must be that A. afarensis was sexually dimorphic: big males and diminutive females, which is the norm for chimps, orang utans and gorillas. Legs longer than arms suggest an upright walking posture, but the shoulder assembly is more gorilla-like than human. Yet ribs that indicate a barrel chest show a more human form than would other great apes. The authors suggest that the lack of consistent resemblance to any one of the living hominids may indicate that the last common ancestor that we share with the others may not have closely resembled any of the living forms. The big problem with the find is its antiquity: at 3.6 Ma it is a lot older than ‘Lucy’. Without teeth or at least part of a skull, assigning it to the same species carries no certainty.

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