NEW FOSSIL FIND -- SEDIBA -- SHOWS COMBINED TRAITS OF APELIKE AND HUMANLIKE FEAURES
An apelike creature with human features, whose fossil bones were discovered recently in a South African cave, is being greeted by paleoanthropologists as a likely watershed in the understanding of human evolution. The discoverer of the fossils, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says the new species, known as Australopithecus sediba, is the most plausible known ancestor of archaic and modern humans. Several other paleoanthropologists, while disagreeing with that interpretation, say the fossils are of great importance anyway, because they elucidate the mix-and-match process by which human evolution was shaped. Dr. Berger’s claim, if accepted, would radically redraw the present version of the human family tree, placing the new fossils in the center. The new species, in his view, should dislodge Homo habilis, the famous tool-making fossil found by Louis and Mary Leakey, as the most likely bridge between the australopithecenes and the human lineage. Australopithecenes were apelike creatures that walked upright, like people, but had still not forsaken the trees. Dr. Berger and his colleagues present this claim in five articles in the current issue of Science that describe various aspects of the new fossils. As is common in the field of paleoanthropology, the discoverer of a new fossil is seeking to place it as close as possible to the direct line of human descent, while others are resisting that interpretation. The principal significance of the new fossils is not that Australopithecus sediba is necessarily the direct ancestor of the human genus, other scientists said, but rather that the fossils emphasize the richness of evolutionary experimentation within the australopithecine group. Besides two skulls reported last year, researchers led by Dr. Berger have since retrieved an almost complete right hand, a foot and a pelvis. The bones are especially well preserved because their owners apparently fell into a deep cave and a few weeks later were swept into a sediment that quickly fossilized their bones. The rocks above the cave have gradually eroded away, bringing the fossils to the surface, where one was found by Dr. Berger’s 9-year-old son, Matthew, in 2008, while chasing his dog. That fall into the cave happened 1.977 million years ago, according to dating based on the rate of decay of uranium in the rock layer that holds the fossils. In the articles in Science, Dr. Berger’s team describes novel combinations of apelike and humanlike features in the hand, foot and pelvis of the new species. The hand, for instance, is apelike because it has long, strong fingers suitable for climbing trees, yet is also humanlike in having a long thumb that in combination with the fingers could have held tools in a precision grip. A cast of the inside of the skull shows an apelike brain, but one that had taken the first step toward being reorganized on human lines. This mixture of apelike and humanlike features suggests that the new species was transitional between the australopithecines and humans, the researchers said at a news conference on Wednesday. Given its age, Australopithecus sediba is just old enough to be the ancestor of Homo erectus, the first species that paleoanthropologists agree belonged to the human ancestry and which existed 1.9 million years ago. The new fossils display the modular way in which evolution operates: they have mostly known features but in novel combinations that have never been seen before. Both Dr. Bernard Wood (George Washington U) and Dr.Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History) see Dr. Berger’s discovery as pointing to the great variety of australopithecine apes, from which it will be very difficult to select the particular species that gave rise to humans. Dr. Tattersall believes the leap to humans may have been brought about very suddenly, perhaps by a few critical genetic changes, which is why the transition is so hard to trace in the fossil record.