A new human-like species have been discovered in a burial chamber deep in a cave system in South Africa, BBC reported.
According to researchers, the discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single discovery of its type in Africa.
The scientists claim that the discovery will change ideas about our human ancestors.
The studies which have been published in the journal Elife also indicate that these individuals were capable of ritual behavior.
Photo National Geographic
The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong.
The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived.
Prof. Lee Berger, the scientist who led the team, told BBC that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.
He also said naledi could be thought of as a “bridge” between more primitive bipedal primates and humans.
The haul of 15 partial skeletons includes both males and females of varying ages – from infants to elderly. The discovery is unprecedented in Africa and will shed more light on how the first humans evolved.
Researchers have unearthed a new species of ancient human in the Afar region of Ethiopia.
The study, published in the journal Nature, says the research team discovered jaw bones and teeth, which date to between 3.3 million and 3.5 million years old.
It means this new hominin was alive at the same time as several other early human species, suggesting our family tree is more complicated than was thought.
The new species has been called Australopithecus deyiremeda, which means “close relative” in the language spoken by the Afar people.
The ancient remains are thought to belong to four individuals, who would have had both ape and human-like features.
The age of the remains means that this was potentially one of four different species of early humans that were all alive at the same time.
The most famous of these is Australopithecus afarensis – known as Lucy – who lived between 2.9 million and 3.8 million years ago, and was initially thought to be our direct ancestor.
However, the discovery of another species called Kenyanthropus platyops in Kenya in 2001, and of Australopithecus bahrelghazali in Chad, and now Australopithecus deyiremedaI, suggests that there were several species co-existing.
Australopithecus sediba, an early relative of humans, chewed on bark and leaves, according to fossil evidence.
Analysis of food trapped in the teeth of the two-million-year-old “southern ape” suggests it existed on a unique diet of forest fruits and other woodland plants.
The study, in Nature, gives an insight into the evolution of what could have been a direct human ancestor.
Other early African contemporaries had a diet suggesting a grassland habitat.
The first fossils of Australopithecus sediba, discovered in South Africa in 2008, were hailed as a remarkable discovery.
Teeth from two individuals were analyzed in the latest research, focusing on patterns of dental wear, carbon isotope data and plant fragments from dental tartar.
Australopithecus sediba, an early relative of humans, chewed on bark and leaves
The evidence suggests the ape-like creature ate leaves, fruit, bark, wood and other forest vegetation.
Dr. Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, led the research.
“We’ve for the first time been able to put together three quite different methods for reconstructing diet and gotten one cohesive picture of the diet of this ancient species and that picture is really quite different from what we’ve seen in other hominins (human ancestors),” she said.
“That’s exciting, we’re seeing a lot more variation among these species than we’d expected.”
Human ancestors from around this time period were probably exploring a wide variety of habitats.
Each species was finding its ecological niche a few hundred thousand years before the evolution of Homo erectus, which spread out of Africa into many different habitats around the world, heralding a milestone in human evolution.
Dr. Amanda Henry said Australopithecus sediba walked on two legs but probably also spent time foraging in the trees.
“It was still quite primitive; it had a very small brain; it was quite short and it had fairly long arms but it was definitely related to us,” she said.
Dr. Louise Humphrey of the paleontology department at London’s Natural History Museum said there was debate about the position of Australopithecus sediba in the human lineage.
“The question is, is this a great great grandad or grandma or is it a cousin?
“They were eating bark and woody substances, which is quite a unique dietary mechanism; it hasn’t been reported for any other human relative before.”
The animal may have eaten fruit and young leaves when food was plentiful, but turned to less nutritious food like bark when times were hard.
However, syrup beneath the bark may have provided a sugary treat.
Dr. Amanda Henry said: “A lot of people have turned their nose at the idea of eating bark but I always think that what they’re eating is probably not the course outer bark but potentially the softer inner bark where the sap is.
“And so if you think of maple syrup – it’s the sap of maple trees – then it could have been quite a tasty substance.”
The fossilized bones of a foot that were discovered in Ethiopia and dated to be 3.4 million years old gave scientists a fascinating new insight into the evolution of humans and our ability to walk.
The researchers say they do not have enough remains to identify the species of hominin, or human ancestor, from which the right foot came.
But they tell Nature journal that just the shape of the bones shows the creature could walk upright at times.
The fossil haul consists of eight elements from the forefoot – bones such as metatarsals and phalanges.
The specimens were pulled from clay sediments at Burtele in the central Afar region of Ethiopia, about 520 km north-east of the capital Addis Ababa.
It is a significant discovery because it demonstrates there was more than one pre-human species living in East Africa between three and four million years ago, each with its own method of moving around.
The other creature was the famous “Lucy” animal (Australopithecus afarensis), whose remains were first identified in the Afar in the 1970’s.
Lucy’s body was built for walking. Her big toe was aligned with the other four digits of the foot, and she had a human-like arch that allowed for very efficient locomotion.
The owner of the partial foot from Burtele was not afarensis; that can be said definitively.
The fossils indicate it had no arch and the big toe was opposed to the other digits, enabling the animal to grasp branches in a tree.
But the fact this creature could and would walk on the ground is evidenced by the nature of the bone joints. These were arranged such that the foot could push off, or toe-off – something only humans do as they walk, and something flat-footed apes cannot achieve.
The fossilized bones of a foot were discovered in Ethiopia and dated to be 3.4 million years
“If you look at the lateral metatarsal head along with the proximal toe bone, the phalanx – that particular joint is really unique in hominids,” explained team member Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University, US.
“You can see it’s a very different kind of a joint, because when you toe-off and push forward in that last phase of walking, your toes are highly flexed. In order to achieve that, you have to change the base of the phalanx and the metatarsal head – you have to change both sides of the joint. And it’s a highly characteristic type of change that we can pick out immediately,” he said.
The scientists can only speculate as to identity of the Burtele species. Without skull and teeth elements, a formal classification is impossible.
The team says the animal’s morphology is reminiscent in some respects to a 4.4 million-year-old creature known as Ardipithecus ramidus. Although, again, it is not ramidus.
“It may be a relic species that was lingering around until 3.4 or 3.3 million years ago, and which had its origins way back in Ardipithecus ramidus times,” suggested team leader Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie.
“But obviously we cannot put it into the Ardipithecus genus or call it a ramidus species because we do not have any craniodental elements associated with this foot.
“We’ve kept digging at the Burtele site; we have a few isolated teeth, but that’s all,” the Cleveland Museum of Natural History curator said.
It is, though, a remarkable thought that there were these two very distinct species effectively rubbing shoulders with each other 3.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia.
The landmark Lucy specimen unearthed in 1974 was found at Hadar, about 50 km from Burtele. Other remains of afarensis have been discovered closer still.
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