Australopithecus sediba: is she or is she not a human ancestor?

English: Malapa Hominin 1 (MH1) left, Lucy (AL...

Australopithecus sediba 1 (MH1) left, Au. afarensis( AL 288-Lucy) centre and Au. sediba 2 (MH2) right. (credit: L. R. Berger, University of the Witwatersrand, via Wikipedia)

The remarkable find of two well-preserved skeletons of a 2 Ma hominin in a South African cave in 2008 and publication of their preliminary analysis in 2011  seemed set to shake up human origins research. There was a more or less complete hand – indeed an entire arm and shoulder – a lower leg with ankle bones, a near-complete head and lots more besides. Most was from one female individual, but significant bits from two others that allowed a well-supported reconstruction of the new species Au. sediba. The discoverer, Lee Berger of The University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (well he initiated the dig, but his young son found the first critical material) is so excited 5 years on that he uses hip-hop phraseology, she ‘got swag’, presumably assuming that means pretty cool (Gibbons, A. 2013. A human smile and funny walk for Australopithecus sediba. Science, v. 340, p. 132-133), but on the street there are other meanings and attitudes towards the phrase and unwary use is not advised.

More details now have emerged in a special issue  of Science introduced by Berger  in less fulsome language (Berger, L.R. 2013. The mosaic nature of Australopithecus sediba. Science, v. 340, p. 163). As the title suggests, the surprise lies in almost every critical part of the species. Although the spine shows curvature (lordosis) needed for an animal evolved from a quadruped to bipedality in order to balance when upright, the ankle bone is unlike the flat-based human one, being pointed as is that of chimpanzees. As a result walking would have involved an unusual and perhaps unsteady gait; the individuals did fall over into a death pit and one commentator thought the gait might have seemed ‘provocative’. An unusual knee bone is thought to be an evolved countermeasure to such exaggerated mincing.  Despite the very human-like hand, extremely long arms and shoulders remarkably like those of the favoured jacket of a star of the BBC series The Dragons’Den point to habitual clambering in trees. Authors of a report on dentition suggest a close similarity to that of the Au. africanus, living at the same time and also found in the same system of fossil-rich caves north-west of Johannesburg, South Africa. Controversially, the tooth team suggests a closer similarity of both to early Homo species than to earlier australopithecines in East Africa, which would shift the focus of human origins to southern Africa. Counter to that view is a find of 400 ka-older, putative human remains in Ethiopia. Yet they take the form of a lower jaw that resembles that of Au. sediba.

The emerging, more detailed picture is not tidy, as suspected from early examination of the Malapa hominins. One thing is for sure, the South African caves are being swarmed over, which paid dividends in 2011 just 15 km from the Malapa cave with another embarrassment of riches at Sterkfonein in the form of abundant foot bones of a currently un-named species of roughly the same age. Things are beginning to take on an element of national pride, with ‘The Birthplace’ at stake: Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia or South Africa?

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