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Tracing Back Evolution of Homo Sapiens: A. Sediba a Missing Link?

April 13, 2010

By now most of us must have read, heard or seen the pictures of human-like skeletons which were discovered in Malapa caves in South Africa. The skeletons were first noticed by palaeontologist Lee Berger’s 11 year old son Mathew (who was listed as one of the authors in Science article but later withdrawn) in the caves of South Africa. These skeletons, one juvenile (male) and other adult (female), ages back  to 1.95-1.78 million years and possibly might be of mother and son who got buried in a cave while searching for water and the fossils were preserved. The fossil of male is preserved extensively which will provide great insight and more detailed information.Reading some articles, I understood why this discovery is being considered path-breaking in understanding how we evolved from apes to what we are now.

We deviated from apes and chimpanzees sometime 7 million years ago and then evolved into species named as Australopithecus. From Australopithecus to Homo Erectus there is a huge void and we dont know how we exactly evolved from there onwards. Australopithecus Sediba (Sediba comes from seSotho language which means fountain or wellspring), as researchers have named this new species, might fill in the missing information as the attributes of these skeletons fit in between that of Australopithecus (A. Africanus to be specific) and Homo Erectus and thus they claim that A. Sediba is the most closest ancestor to Homo species , the claim which many scientists find debatable. It has certain features which are very primitive such as long arms, very small body structure while the advanced traits similar to Homos include long legs (well suited for running), evolved pelvic structure, small teeth and facial features closer to Homo species.Some scientists feel, that this newly claimed species might just be a dead end branch of Australopithecus. But nevertheless, it’s an important discovery and even if it’s not a missing link, it just adds some more information to understand our evolution process and new scientific information is never bad. Here is an Abstract of the paper about this discovery published in Science on April 9th:

Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa

Lee R. Berger,1,2,* Darryl J. de Ruiter,3,1 Steven E. Churchill,4,1 Peter Schmid,5,1 Kristian J. Carlson,1,6 Paul H. G. M. Dirks,2,7 Job M. Kibii1

Despite a rich African Plio-Pleistocene hominin fossil record, the ancestry of Homo and its relation to earlier australopithecines remain unresolved. Here we report on two partial skeletons with an age of 1.95 to 1.78 million years. The fossils were encased in cave deposits at the Malapa site in South Africa. The skeletons were found close together and are directly associated with craniodental remains. Together they represent a new species of Australopithecus that is probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. Combined craniodental and postcranial evidence demonstrates that this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other australopith species and thus might help reveal the ancestor of that genus.

Listen to Lee Berger talk about his discovery


Sources:  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=south-african-hominin-fossil&page=2 by Kate Wong

http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=more-on-australopithecus-sediba-the-2010-04-09 by Kate Wong
http://www.sciencemag.org/extra/sediba/ Science

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