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Origins of Modern Man Gets Crowded: Fossil Find Reveals New Species of Early Human

Make room, Lucy! A fossil of a 3.4 million-year-old hominin has been found by researchers who say this could be an entirely new species of early human, previously unknown to history.

This new and distinct hominin is thought to have lived side by side with Australopithecus afarensis (commonly identified with the well-known skeleton “Lucy”), reports an article by Nature, and was one of several diverse species of hominins living in the northern region of Ethiopia between 3.3 and 3.5 million years ago.

The teeth and jawbones found in the Woranso-Mille area of northern Ethiopia were recovered in 2011 and the tail end of a long dig.

Dubbed Australopithecus deyiremeda from the local Afar language meaning ‘close’ and ‘relative’, the remains were uncovered only 35 kilometers (22 miles) from where Lucy and other A. afarensis fossils were found, at Hadar.

A study published by the research team reveals that the A. deyiremeda in Afar were distinct from the other contemporary species, such as Lucy’s A. afarensis in Hadar, and a third species, Kenyanthropus platyops, living near Lake Turkana, Kenya. 

(Nature notes that the two species are thought to have overlapped, “although Lucy herself may have lived too recently” to see a Deyiremeda).

Jawbones in Ethiopia reveal an ancient past: A 2.8 million-year-old fossilized jawbone from Ledi-Geraru research area in Ethiopia, 2013. The specimen is the bone of one of the very first humans – it represents the oldest known human genus Homo – and comes from a time when humans split from the more ape-like ancestors, Australopithecus. Representational image. Credit: Brian Villmoare

The species differed quite substantially. The newly found A. deyiremeda jaw is beefier and has smaller teeth than A. afarensis, while K.platyops fossils have flat faces, writes Nature.

The fossilized skull of Kenyanthropus platyops. Public Domain

Palaeoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and co-author of the study Yohannes Haille-Selassie tells Nature, “We’re convinced this is different from all the species we know.”

Haille-Selassie says the vital question in all of this is which of these species gave rise to the genus Homo, and modern humans.

Fred Spoor, palaeontologist at University College London, has written an article titled “Palaeoanthropology: The middle Pliocene gets crowded,” suggesting that the diversity of species demonstrated in Ethiopia between 3.5 million and 3.3 million years ago might have been as varied in later evolutionary periods.

However, just because the various species coexisted does not mean everyone got along. Spoor tells Nature, “We shouldn’t suddenly think they stood at the Awash River, shook hands and said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Instead, he supposes that both A. deyiremeda and A. afarensis “have been able to thrive side-by-side because they might not have directly competed for food, shelter and territory,” writes Nature.

Side view of Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), replica. Wikimedia Commons

The A. deyiremeda discovery comes soon after the recent dating of the South African Australopithecus creature “Little Foot” to 3.67 million years ago, and the incredible find of two-million-year-old preserved Australopithecus sediba tissue from an ancient cave near Johannesburg.

The skull of Little Foot, a proto-human found in the 1990s (University of Witwatersrand photo)

As technology advances and science is able to more precisely date new (and older) finds, we will learn much more about the ancient origins of our human species, and how the story of our evolution isn’t a straight line from ape to modern human, but a rich and diverse jumble of lineages, families, and neighbors.

Featured Image: Casts of the jaws of Australopithecus deyiremeda, a new human ancestor species from Ethiopia, held by principal investigator and lead author Yohannes Haile-Selassie of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of Laura Dempsey

By Liz Leafloor, Ancient Origins

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