Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New 3.6 Million Year Old A. afarensis Remains

Science Daily reports that Yohannes Haile-Selassie's team in Ethiopia have found the remains of a 3.6 million year old Australopithecus afarensis individual that preserves enough of the post-cranium (below the head) to determine that bipedalism had completely taken hold of this species by this time. Of the individual, which is taller than Lucy (AL-288), he says this:
"As a result of this discovery, we can now confidently say that Lucy and her relatives were almost as proficient as we are walking on two legs, and that the elongation of our legs came earlier in our evolution than previously thought," he said in a statement. He explained, "
"All of our understanding of Australopithecus afarenis' locomotion was dependent on 'Lucy.' Because she was an exceptionally small female with absolutely short legs, this gave some researchers the impression that she was not fully adapted to upright walking. This new skeleton falsifies that impression because if 'Lucy's' frame had been as large as this specimen, her legs would also have been proportionally longer."
There is, thus, considerable variability in A. afarensis (this may yet revive the multiple species hypothesis that was put forth in the late 1970s about this material) This finding is expected, however, if the tracks at Laetoli are those of A. afarensis. We have good evidence that those are the tracks of a completely bipedal hominid.

If Ardipithecus ramidus ('Ardi') represents an ancestor to Australopithecus afarensis, then a considerable amount of evolution in bipedality occurred within 800 k years. A check of PNAS reveals that the paper is not out yet, but should be in a few days. Within the context of the debate concerning Ardipithecus' place on the fossil bush and the status of the reconstruction, it is important to remember what Owen Lovejoy wrote concerning Ardipithecus:
Ardipithecus ramidus now reveals that the early hominid evolutionary trajectory differed profoundly from those of our ape relatives from our clade’s very beginning. Ar. ramidus was already well-adapted to bipedality, even though it retained arboreal capabilities. Its postcranial anatomy reveals that locomotion in the chimpanzee/human last common ancestor (hereafter the CLCA) must have retained generalized above-branch quadrupedality, never relying sufficiently on suspension, vertical climbing, or knuckle walking to have elicited any musculoskeletal adaptations to these behaviors.
It is clear that, by 3.6 million years ago, those arboreal tendencies were gone. While it is still being debated whether or not Ardipithecus developed bipedality in the forest or in the forest fringe, the dessication of the landscape continued during the late Pliocene, and the remains of Kadanuumuu strongly suggest that early A. afarensis had completely adapted to this landscape.

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