Another candidate for earliest, direct human ancestor

The cranium of Malapa Hominid 1, Holotype of A...

The head of Australopithecus sediba. Image via Wikipedia

In May 2010 EPN commented on a new find from the famous fossil-rich caves of north-eastern South Africa; a new hominin species called Australopithecus sediba. At least one of them fell into a deathtrap shaft, died and remained unchewed without bones being spread far and wide. Inevitably, near-complete skeletons of individual hominins are soon pored over by dozens of specialists in human evolution, as they were for the much older Ardepithecus ramidus found in sediments of Ethiopia’s Afar Depression (see Early hominin takes over Science magazine in the November 2009 issue of EPN). Now there are two near-complete, well-preserved skeletons of Au. sediba and the palaeoanthropological world is agog. Dating to about 1.98 Ma the specimens represent the same time as do far less impressive remains of H habilis from Tanzania that were found with associated rudimentary stone tools. The first hint (just a fragment of upper jaw) of any remains that might be tagged ‘Homo’ dates to 2.3 Ma and is from Ethiopia, as are the first undoubted stone tools going back as far as 2.5 Ma, though lacking association with a maker.

Five consecutive papers on Au. Sediba occupy 22 pages in the 9 September 2011 issue of Science and make for startling reading. The first concerns the shape of its brain case, and therefore crudely its brain, discerned by tomographic X-ray scanning (Carlson, K.J. et al. 2011. The endocast of MH1, Australopithecus sediba. Science, v. 333, p. 1402-1407). It isn’t any bigger than that of other members of the genus but shows ‘some foreshadowing of the human frontal lobes’ and other shifts from the basic ape model that the authors imply are en route to human features. The next considers the two pelvis regions (Kibii, J.M. et al. 2011. A partial pelvis of Australopithecus sediba. Science, v. 333, p. 1407-1411); again australopithecine-like in the small size of the birth canal but with a hint of the S-shape of humans. Most astonishingly well-preserved are the fragile bones of a complete hand (Kivell, T.L.  et al. 2011. Australopithecus sediba hand demonstrates mosaic evolution of locomotor and manipulative abilities. Science, v. 333, p. 1411-1417), which convincingly shows the long thumb and short fingers (for a primate) that characterise Homo and are essential for a precision grip and making things. Actually, the thumb is longer relative to fingers (60%) than in humans (54%), but Lucy’s (Au. afarensis) was a closer match. No tools that such a hand might have created and wielded were found with the fossils. Then there is the foot (Zipfel, B. et al. 2011. The foot and ankle of Australopithecus sediba. Science, v. 333, p. 1417-1420), which, again, mixes human and australopithecine features, giving ‘a unique form of bipedality and some degree of arboreality’. The fifth paper (Pickering, R. et al. 2011. Australopithecus sediba at 1.977 Ma and implications for the origins of the genus Homo. Science, v. 333, p. 1417-1420) is as remarkable for the precision of U-Pb dating of speleothem (cave carbonates), which at 1.977+0.002 Ma far exceeds the workhorse Ar-Ar method used for most other hominins, as it is for the absolute age that precedes that of undisputed remains of humans.

In short, for Australopithecus sediba there is an embarrassment of riches unmatched until those of the 1.5 Ma old H. erectus (‘Turkana Boy’) found at Nariokotome in NW Kenya. To some extent this throws a flock of peregrines in among the palaeoanthropology pigeons, as an account of a meeting earlier in 2011, at which the bones were grandstanded, shows (Gibbons, A. 2011. Skeletons present an exquisite paleo-puzzle. Science, v. 333, p. 1370). Naturally, the authors are making the most of their material especially, it seems, its finder Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, the last author in all the papers. Comparisons with more australopithecine remains were said to be needed. The soon-to-be-famous hand has been said to be essentially like others from the same genus. While the remains of the creature’s pelvis could imply that its evolution was more driven by a need for efficient upright walking than to birth big-headed babies, the ankle shows a primitive trait that would have forced Australopithecus sediba to walk strangely as the heel bone is small and angled unlike that in human feet, which is broad and flat. But all the species’s features are combined in two near-complete individuals, whereas for the rest of its contemporaries, predecessors and near successors in time speculation is based on fragments of several individuals, none more so than in the case of the earliest agreed human, near contemporaneous H. habilis, which barely stands up to taxonomic scrutiny (Gibbons, A. 2011. Who was Homo habilis – and was it really Homo?  Science, v. 332, p. 1370-1371). Some would say that it was only the associated stone tools that assigned ‘Handy Man’ to more elevated status than slightly large-headed australopithecine. The fact is; stone tools were around since 2.5 Ma, at least in Ethiopia, and this newly found being could have handled them and even made them with its palpable dexterity. Finding tools and skeletons together is almost as rare as hens with teeth…

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One response to “Another candidate for earliest, direct human ancestor

  1. Pingback: Australopithecus sediba: is she or is she not a human ancestor? |

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