Another big surprise

The discovery from the Neanderthal genome that people outside Africa have such a muscular bloke in their distant ancestry (see Yes, it seems that they did…in May 2010 issue of EPN) ought to be quite enough of a shock for one year, but hard on its heels comes another. Animal bones from Ethiopia in sediments dated at more than 3.4 Ma show clear signs of having flesh cut from them with a sharp blade (McPherron, S.P. et al. 2010. Evidence for stone-tool assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 466, p. 857-860). The oldest known stone tools date back only 2.4 Ma (none were found at Dikika), and those associated with a known hominin (H. habilis) to half a million years later than that. No species of the genus Homo is known to have been living 3.4 Ma ago, so a likely candidate for making and wielding stone tools then would be Australopithecus afarensis: Lucy’s genus. In fact the infant A. afarensis named Selam (see ‘Peace’ (Selam) disturbed in October 2006 issue of EPN) was found a mere 300 m away from the cut-marked bones.

There are several problems that arise from these butchered bones, as regards their implications. Do hominin specialists reserve the genus Homo exclusively for tool makers? If so, do Lucy and Selam become H. afarensis? But without actual tools associated with the bones, it is impossible to decide whether they were specifically made to deflesh prey or carrion, or were just sharp, naturally occurring bits of stone that some creature with insubstantial teeth happened to use to snaffle a quick snack from competing carnivores. Even more intriguing, in the light of the immense rarity of hominin remains, was there some creature more advanced than A. afarensis roaming the stifling plains of Ethiopia’s Awash valley 1.4 Ma before the first known tool maker? The various Awash projects will run and run after this new and startling discovery.

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