Fossil human ancestors of South Africa


This video is called Australopithecus Afarensis.

Today, there was a visit to the natural history museum by a delegation from the Transvaal Museum in South Africa, for contacts especially on palaeontology.

The delegation included computer database specialist Klaas Manamela, working at the museum since 1997.

And director and palaeontologist Dr Francis Thackeray, who lectured (in English, after introductory sentences in Afrikaans) on ‘Mrs Ples and our distant relatives on the African continent’.

Mrs Ples is the nickname of an ancient hominid fossil, discovered in 1947 in Sterkfontein in the Transvaal region of South Africa.

Both parts of the nickname are outdated now, as the fossil was nicknamed Mrs because it was first thought to be female, and now it is thought to be male.

And ‘Ples’ stood for Plesianthropus, the original scientific name; while the fossil is now considered to belong to the species Australopithecus africanus.

In 1871, in a book called “The Descent of Man“, Charles Darwin had suggested “our early progenitors lived on the African continent”.

He thought so, as the closest relatives of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, lived in Africa.

In the twentieth century, Darwin would be proved correct by discoveries in South Africa, later also in other countries like Kenya.

The Mrs Ples skull was discovered after explosions by gold mining dynamite, which had damaged it.

It had a volume of about 485 cc, not really bigger than a chimpanzee.

Until 1994, there was Apartheid rule in South Africa.

That meant less international scientific contacts.

Also, it was illegal to teach evolution in schools, because of creationist Christian influence on the government.

In 1994, a poll found out only about 5% of South Africans knew about ancient hominid fossils like Mrs Ples.

The museum wrote to the new President, Nelson Mandela, and the situation improved.

There used to be palaeontology only at two museums in South Africa, Transvaal Museum and in Cape Town.

Now, there are more museums, including at Sterkfontein.

That an Australopithecus skeleton, found in August 1947, and the Mrs Ples skull, found in April 1947, closely together at Sterkfontein, are part of one body, was only discovered in 2002.

Previously, it had been thought the skull was adult, while the body was subadult.

However, later research proved the skull was also subadult.

This fossil is more complete than “Lucy”, of the related, older species Australopithecus afarensis.

Sterkfontein, and places close to it like Kromdraai and Swartkrans, are rich in fossils, including of hominids.

A find from the 1990s is Little Foot from Sterkfontein, which according to Dr Thackeray might be an Australopithecus afarensis.

In Kromdraai, remains were found of Australopithecus robustus, and of Homo habilis.

Also of wildebeest, hartebeest, zebra, and predators like the sabre toothed cat Dinofelis.

Hominid stone tools of the Olduwan type were found there, maybe for scavenging dead antelope.

In Swartkrans, remains were found of Australopithecus robustus, and of Homo ergaster.

At other places, one can also find fossils of the extinct baboon Parapapio.

And many fossil rodents, often with more now extinct species, like the mole rat Bathyergus hendeyi from Langebaanweg, as the places get older.

I asked a question on recent discoveries on Homo rudolfensis being more ape like than thought previously.

Dr Thackeray replied that Homo rudolfensis was complex, an example of how individuals are often difficult to pigeonhole into separate species.

See also here.

Olduvai gorge in Tanzania: here.

Tool-wielding chimps provide a glimpse of early human behavior: here.

Hominids and running: here.

Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man: here.

14 thoughts on “Fossil human ancestors of South Africa

  1. Ethiopia unveils new find of ancient fossils
    Tue Jul 10, 2007 12:13PM EDT

    ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian scientists said on Tuesday they have discovered hominid fossil fragments dating from between 3.5 million and 3.8 million years ago in what could fill a crucial gap in the understanding of human evolution.

    Ethiopian archaeologist Yohannes Haile Selassie said the find included several complete jaws and one partial skeleton and were unearthed in the Afar desert at Woranso-Mille, near where the famous fossil skeleton known as Lucy was found in 1974.

    “This is a major finding that could fill a gap in human evolution,” he told a news conference in Addis Ababa.

    “The fossil hominids from the Woranso-Mille area sample a time period that is poorly known in human evolutionary study.”

    Researchers say the area, about 140 miles northeast of Addis, boasts the most continuous record of human evolution.

    Last year, an international team of scientists unveiled the discovery of 4.1 million-year-old fossils in the region.

    Lucy, the most famous find, lived between 3.3 million and 3.6 million years ago. But Yohannes said Afar had yielded early hominid fossil remains spanning the last 6 million years.

    “This has placed Ethiopia in the forefront of paleoanthropology,” he told reporters.

    “Ethiopia is known to the world as the cradle of humankind.”

    © Reuters 2007.

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  2. Africa: Why the Human Race Emerged in Africa

    New Vision (Kampala)

    5 August 2007
    Posted to the web 6 August 2007

    Kihura Nkuba
    Kampala

    THE circumstances that made Eastern and Southern Africa unique in the evolution of humans, if well understood, can form a crucial part in promoting Eastern Africa’s tourist industry to rival Stonehenge of England or the Neander Valley of Germany.

    First was the appearance of primates in Eastern Africa. The primates were a result of mutagenic occurrences that ended the age of monkeys (40m-25 million years ago) and created about 24 different species of primates, only four of which survive to this day: the chimpanzee, the gorilla, the pygmy chimpanzee and the olangutun.

    These primates were totally absent in the Americas and in Western Asia, now called Europe. The absence of these primates in these regions cut the Americas and Western Asia from any forward process that led to humans. The primates lived a comfortable hunter-gatherer existence in the dense and wet forests of eastern and central Africa and parts of Asia.

    The most dominant primate and the subject became the Chimpanzee. The chimpanzee had developed social and organisational skills that allowed it to live in colonies or settlements providing support for one another.

    The chimpanzee is the wisest living mammal. Secondly, in 20 million years BC the tectonic plate underneath Eastern Africa moved again and the lava shot up and piled up to create the Kenyan dome and the Ethiopian dome in the east, and the Rwenzori and Muhavura dome in the west. A big deep ditch was created stretching from the Jordan to Mozambique, the scar now called the rift valley.

    After some period, the lava came tumbling down and filled the ditches between the two domes, filling in disproportionate amounts over this massive area. The result was the creation of grasslands, savannah, parklands, mountains, hills, rivers, crater lakes, breathtaking environment all the way from the Trans Jordan (including present day Israel) to Mozambique.

    This splitting of the earth meant massive fossilisation of plant and animal life which were incinerated in a massive conflagration.

    The rest of the forest cover was pushed out of Eastern Africa and retreated to the central Africa and in some countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia it disappeared altogether and was buried in the belly of the earth.

    Most of the trees and animalsthat were fossilised underneath this great East African rift valley systems became the many minerals of diamonds, gold, copper and oil. Thus in future no part of this rift valley will be found without oil because of the massive fossilisation of the dense forest and millions of animals.

    Probably out of necessity to collect food and carry it over long distances to their children, the chimpanzee begins to use hands and eventually becomes a biped. Bipedalism is linked to tool making which increased the brains of the chimpanzee.

    The chimpanzee does not look entirely like a human being and that is why scientists had suspected that there was another creature that existed between the chimpanzee and the first humans. They called it the missing link.

    However our DNA is similar to that of the chimpanzee by 98%. A question is always asked, why don’t the chimpanzees of today mutate into humans? Well, the conditions have changed; there is no earth-shaking environment for that to happen.

    They can change into humans no more than a 60-year-old woman can give birth to her own son, but the fact that she cannot does not prove that she has never done so.

    Secondly, these transformations took millions of years allowing mutations and responses. Modern humans have only been around for less than one hundred thousand years.

    The writer is a classical historian, writer, lecturer and broadcaster.

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  3. Fossils paint new picture of human evolution
    Wed Aug 8, 2007 4:46PM EDT

    By Julie Steenhuysen

    CHICAGO (Reuters) – An ancient skull and upper jawbone from two early branches of the human family tree — Homo erectus and Homo habilis — suggest the early human ancestors may have lived close together for half a million years, researchers said on Wednesday.

    The fossils, discovered in eastern Africa, challenge the understanding that humans evolved one after another like a line of dominoes, from ancient Homo habilis to Homo erectus and eventually to Homo sapiens, or modern people.

    “There has been a view that has suggested habilis very slowly evolved into erectus,” said Susan Anton, a professor of anthropology at New York University. “Now we have the two cohabitating, so that can no longer be the case.”

    The research, published in the journal Nature, was conducted by nine scientists including Anton, paleontologist Meave Leakey and her daughter Louise Leakey, both explorers in residence at the National Geographic Society, and Fred Spoor of University College London.

    Both fossils were found in 2000 east of Lake Turkana in Kenya as part of the Koobi Fora Research Project, which is affiliated with the National Museums of Kenya.

    Their proximity suggests the two species used different food sources and behaviors to live so closely without becoming extinct.

    “It’s within two or three minutes walking distance,” said Patrick Gathogo, a doctoral candidate from the University of Utah who helped study the geological layers.

    “They must have interacted with each other,” he said in a telephone interview.

    SISTER SPECIES

    The upper jaw bone of Homo habilis dates from 1.44 million years ago, which is earlier than other known fossils of that species.

    “The new fossil jaw suggests that Homo habilis was a sister species of Homo erectus, living at broadly the same time, rather than the mother species giving rise to it,” Spoor said in a statement.

    The second fossil, found in the same region of northern Kenya, is a well-preserved skull of Homo erectus, which dates from about 1.55 million years ago.

    This fossil is striking because of its size. It is the smallest Homo erectus skull found so far and it paints a different picture of the species, suggesting more diversity than researchers had believed.

    This diversity could mean that like gorillas, in which males have much larger skulls than females, Homo erectus might have exhibited sexual dimorphism, a primitive trait, the researchers said.

    Reduced size differences between the sexes is typically considered a trait acquired during human evolution.

    “It makes Homo erectus a bit less like us,” Anton said.

    Spoor said all available evidence still suggests that Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus, a process that happened in Africa more than 1 million years ago.

    He said it is likely the two species will have had a common ancestor living in Africa between 2 million and 3 million years ago.

    © Reuters 2007.

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