Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Smithsonian: Discovering Our Ancestors

The March issue of The Smithsonian Magazine has a large spread on the recent advances in human origins, including a large article on the discovery and identification of Ardipithecus ramidus by Ann Gibbons. One of the striking things about the find is the locale in which it took place: literally a palaeoanthropologist's dream come true. Gibbons writes:
As we wait for the Alisera to arrive, White explains that the team returns to this hostile spot year after year because it’s the only place in the world to yield fossils that span such a long stretch of human evolution, some six million years. In addition to Ardi, a possible direct ancestor, it is possible here to find hominid fossils from as recently as 160,000 years ago—an early Homo sapiens like us—all the way back to Ardipithecus kadabba, one of the earliest known hominids, who lived almost six million years ago. At last count, the Middle Awash project, which takes its name from this patch of the Afar desert and includes 70 scientists from 18 nations, has found 300 specimens from seven different hominid species that lived here one after the other.
It is the palaeoanthropological equivalent of the Liaoning shale fossil beds in China that have yielded so many dinosaur remains. Her description of what the remains of Ardipithecus represent is evocative:
One thing that is clear is that these early fossils belong in a class by themselves. These species did not look or act like other known apes or like Lucy and other members of Australopithecus. They were large-bodied ground dwellers that stood up and walked on two legs. But if you watched them move, you would not mistake them for Lucy’s species. They clung to life in the trees, but were poised to venture into more open country.
Becoming human, one slow step at a time. It is a pity that we do not have any more remains of Ardipithecus kadabba, which preceded A. ramidus by around a million years. What kind of individual would that be? Would he or she walk upright? Would we see any incipient hominid characteristics? At this point, quite literally, only God knows.
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