Our ancestors from Jozi

2013-04-12 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Our closest, earliest ancestors lived near Johannesburg on the savannah of the Highveld — and not in east Africa.

This claim emerges from the latest research led by Professor Lee Berger, paleontologist at the Institute of Evolutionary Studies at the University of Witwatersrand.

The ancestor, Australopithecus sediba , is a small hominin species that lived 1,977 million years ago near Sterkfontein and was taxonomically described in 2010.

The deductions were made by a team of 26 scientists and 16 institutions after studying the fossillised bones and are being published today in the journal Scienc e.

After comparing the teeth of Au. sediba with more than 340 other fossils, the team deduced that this species is closer to humans and other hominins — like the skulls of “Mrs Pless”, which were also found at the Cradle of Mankind — than to Lucy (Au. afarensis), which was found in East Africa.

This creates a new epicentre of human evolution in South Africa, which is not linked to the evolution linked to Lucy.

The way in which the hominin that died in the Malapa cave system grew is also closer to that of the younger Homo erectus ,which is linked directly with humans.

Berger told sister paper Die Burger : “From head to toe this fossil is one with unique characteristics that are closely related to our own genus ­[Homo], but there are also older characteristics.

“It is a mosaic fossil, which is a wonderful example of evolution. It is a strong candidate for one of our ancestors and this will tell a different story to the one which had been told for the past 40 years over human origins in East Africa.”

The team has compiled the fossil’s bones to create a complete anatomy of the species, ensuring that they are also the most studied bones of a single hominin in the world.

Berger said he was sure a very critical review of the team’s work would follow the announcement, but he welcomed the debate.

He pointed out that almost every bone they found was unique. The team worked on the fossillised bones of a young woman, a 13-year-old boy and the shin bone of a third individual.

Earlier, Berger had told BBC News the bones were located within a metre or so of each other, suggesting they died at the same time or very soon after one another.

It was entirely possible the young woman was the mother of the boy, or that they belonged to the same troop.

The scientists speculate the creatures fell into the cave complex while searching for water. A flash flood then likely swept their bodies into an underground pool, where their bones ended on the remains of other dead animals, including a sabre-toothed cat, antelope, mice and rabbits. Berger said the fact that none of the bodies appears to have been scavenged indicated that all died suddenly and were entombed rapidly.

The team has excavated some 300 fossils with several more entombed in the calcified sediment that formed at the bottom of a pool. Berger said the finds at the Malapa cave complex were likely to keep scientists busy for many years.

A laboratory is being built over the pit to establish one of the world’s foremost paleontological excavation sites.


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