March 29, 2012
Fossil Discovery May Mean Multiple Human Ancestors
A 3.4-million-year-old fossil foot found in eastern Ethiopia appears to settle a long-standing debate about whether there was just one line of hominins 3 to 4 million years ago, scientists said on Wednesday.
The fossil record for that period had been virtually limited to the species Australopithecus afarensis, the early human ancestor made famous by the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy skeleton.
However, research on the new specimen, which was found in February 2009 in an area locally known as Burtele, indicates that more than one species of early human ancestor existed during the late Pliocene of Africa, and that these species had different methods of locomotion.
Researchers have openly questioned whether Au. afarensis was the only living hominin 3 to 4 million years ago. Lucy's bones provided evidence that she and perhaps other early hominins may have walked upright, but whether or not she was the sole hominin species in her particular geologic time scale has been the subject of much debate.
"There was indeed more than one early hominin species during that time," said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, head of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and lead author of the current study.
Haile-Selassie and a team of anthropologists and geologists report finding the partial skeleton of a foot that belonged to an early human ancestor that was neither Au. afarensis nor another hominin called Kenyanthropus platyops, a creature that some paleoanthropologists argue was a second hominin that lived at the same time as Au. afarensis.
Descriptions of Kenyanthropus platyops led some scientists to question whether only one hominin inhabited Africa's upper regions 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago, mainly due to the distorted nature of the specimen used as the basis for the original published description of Kenyanthropus platyops, said Haile-Selassie.
"Tim White, (a member of the research team who began uncovering Lucy in 1973), argued that Kenyanthropus platyops is a Kenyan version of Australopithecus afarensis and that the subtle differences between the two could be subsumed into an intra-specific variation,” Haile-Selassie said.
In other words, he argued there was no evidence that a second hominin existed during the time of Au. afarensis. However, Haile-Selassie and his team may have found proof of at least two hominin species.
In Woranso-Mille, a relatively new paleontological site located in the central Afar region of Ethiopia, researchers discovered a 3.4 million year old partial foot skeleton that does not match the contemporaneous Au. afarensis in form or shape.
Moreover, the skeletal remains infer locomotor adaptations more similar to an earlier, 4.4 million year old hominin, Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered by a research team led by White in 1992-1993 in the Middle Awash valley in Ethiopia.
"The Burtele foot differs from Australopithecus afarensis largely by possessing an opposable great toe," said Haile-Selassie, adding that the Burtele toe is more like that of Ardipithecus ramidus, inferring similar characteristics for walking, running and jumping.
"This partial pedal skeleton is unique in providing important evidence bearing on the functional morphology and proportions of several early hominin foot elements," the researchers write in their report, entitled "A new hominin foot from Ethiopia shows multiple Pliocene bipedal adaptations."
Carolyn Ehardt, program director for Biological Anthropology at the National Science Foundation, noted that research findings such as this raise appreciation for the complex processes that "shaped the evolutionary history of our species."
"We become increasingly aware of the fact that the evolutionary history of hominins is not unlike that of other groups of organisms in the potential for morphological and behavioral diversity and multiple adaptive pathways characterizing those life-forms during particular evolutionary time periods," she said.
The Burtele foot has some skeletal ratios that fall within the human and gorilla distribution, but outside those of chimpanzees. For instance, the metatarsal of the fourth toe is longer than that of the second toe, a condition seen in some monkeys and Miocene apes.
"Unfortunately this ratio is unknown for both Ardipithecus and Australopithecus," said Haile-Selassie.
"But, the finding could indicate the primitive condition for the human family."
The researchers say identifying and naming the species to which the Burtele foot belongs will have to wait until the recovery of more fossils, although they are certain it does not belong to the species of Lucy, Au. afarensis.
"It is probably descended from something like Ardipithecus ramidus," said Haile-Selassie.
The analysis is published in the March 29, 2012 issue of the journal Nature.
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