Kate Wong at Scientific American has blogged an interesting piece about the new hominid fossils from South Africa that were reported in Science this week. She gives some background information about the find and passes along some thoughts from Donald Johanson, who discovered Lucy, who is inclined to classify the new fossils as Homo rather than Australopithecus.
The latest issue of Science contains two papers describing a previously unknown hominid species, dubbed Australopithecus sediba by its finders. Fossils found in a cave north of Johannesburg reveal a hominid species that shows an intriguing mix of anatomical features: some typical of australopithecines, and others more like members of the species Homo. The fossils date back to just under two million years ago. This puts them well after the famous Australopithecus afarensis specimen Lucy; two million years ago, Australopithecus shared the planet with early species of our own genus, Homo. The new species is described by its finders as possibly the best candidate to date for the immediate ancestor to our genus. It’s not clear yet whether A. sediba is on the evolutionary path that led to modern humans (perhaps via Homo erectus) or lies on a closely related side branch. Either way, this is a fascinating find.
The first of the fossils was discovered by the young son of Lee Berger, one of the paleoanthropologists (can you imagine being a 9-year-old traveling in Africa with your dad and finding something that spectacular? Or even being the parent and having your child hand you something like that? Wow). You can read more in the New York Times, among other places. The Science web site has a bunch of interesting things, including an article describing how anthropologists have reacted to the papers, an audio interview with Lee Berger, and of course the abstracts for the papers. You can download both papers in their entirety if you’re registered with the site (registration is free).