News >> Browse Articles >> Science


Missing Human Evolutionary Ancestor Discovered in Africa

Missing Human Evolutionary Ancestor Discovered in Africa

Jason Mick

August 03, 2010

When you talk to a biochemist or biologist at a university level these days about the “evolutionary debate” they’re likely to laugh; after all if you are knowledgeable modern scientist, you know that the vast body of molecular, genetic, fossil, anatomical, and field biology evidence all points to the same thing — that organisms evolved via natural selection and genetic drift over the last 3 billion years.  

More evidence may not convince skeptics, but for those interested in science an incredible discovery was made this year.  Paleontologists digging in South Africa have unearthed a pair of partial hominid skeletons that represent a new species on the human evolutionary tree.  

Scientists have named the creatures Australopithecus sediba.  The species lived in Africa less than 2 million years ago.  In contrast with “Lucy”, the 3 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil found in Ethiopia in 1974, the new skeletons are taller and are less ape-like in facial structure.

Researchers estimate that the pair lived between 1.78 and 1.95 million years ago.  They walked upright, like later hominids and had long forearms and short fingers.  They also had very long legs, which the paleontologists believe were conducive for running across the African wilderness, which would be a key to escaping predators and finding food.

Dr. Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and Dr. Paul Dirks from Australia’s James Cook University led the team that found the pair in a collapsed cave in South Africa’s Malapa cave complex.  

They speculate that our unfortunate ancestors died quite young.  One skeleton, a male, appeared to be only 10 and 13 at his time of death, while a second, a female, appeared to be in her late 20s or early 30s.  It is thought that the pair was searching for water, and likely fell into the cave on accident, receiving fatal injuries.

The pair did have some ape-like features, according to Dr. Berger.  He says their brains were “remarkably small” based on the skulls discovered and states, “they could still climb trees [and] they were very competent walking … on the ground.”

The fossils have smaller teeth and advanced pelvises, though, hallmarks of human evolution.  Still Dr. Berger prefers that people don’t call them a “missing link”, which he feels is an outdated term.  He remarks, “I don’t like the use of that term.  [It’s a] Victorian-era [term that] implies some (specific) chain of evolution.”

He does say the fossils will offer an incredible contribution to understanding how humans evolved into our current form.  The truly exciting part, he revealed, is that there are several other partial hominid skeletons that were discovered, but have not yet been unearthed.  In addition to the hominids, a saber-toothed cat, a brown hyena, and a wild dog were also found among the remains.

Dr. Berger and Dr. Dirks co-authored two journal papers on the discovery in the prestigious AAAS journal 
Science.  The papers can be found here and here, respectively.

Some skeptics in the U.S. and abroad continue to denounce paleontology.  For most, it’s due to religious reasons, as they find the idea of evolution “sinful” due to its contradiction of literal interpretations of text found in The Torah, The Bible, and The Koran, and other religious works.  

The name itself represents a perhaps humorous double meaning in terms of scientific theory and religious beliefs.  In the local language Sotho “sediba” means “spring.”  However, many note its close similarity to the word “sebida”, which means “sin” in Sumerian.  In Sumerian “sebida” refers,  more specifically, “a religious sin that entails the anger of the gods and a stain upon the soul.”  To some, that’s exactly what the new skeletons represent, and perhaps researchers thus used the name to both describe what they feel the skeletons represent (the “spring” from which man sprung) and to poke a bit of fun at these in the public who are abandoning the scientific process.

_© 2009, DailyTech.

InsideTech School Finder

Save time in your search for a degree program. Use InsideTech's School Finder to locate schools online and in your area.