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Headlines Published on 04 October 2006

Title Skeleton of the earliest juvenile human ancestor found

An international team of scientists under the direction of the Max Planck Society have uncovered the earliest remains of a child ever found. The discovery of the 3.3 million-year-old girl - she was three when she died - a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species, was made in present day Ethiopia.

Some of the remains are in display in Ethiopia.  © National Museum of Ethiopia
Some of the remains are on display in Ethiopia.
© National Museum of Ethiopia
The find stands to be one of the most significant discoveries in the study of human ancestry due to the completeness of the skeleton and the condition of the fossils. The research team was lead by Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged of the Dikika Research Project (DRP), supported by the Max Planck Institute of Leipzig, Germany. The DRP is an international and multidisciplinary project including several researchers with diverse areas of expertise.

The find gives researchers a unique look into the morphology, behaviour, locomotion and development of our earliest ancestors. The fossil record involving human remains is at times frustratingly incomplete; usually consisting of only a skull or jaw. The Dikika discovery includes the whole skull with a natural brain impression in the sandstone, spinal column, ribs and an almost complete foot.

Of particular importance is the discovery of the hyoid bone, which supports the base of the tongue. The bone has never been found in the human fossil record except for in one Neanderthal specimen, a rather recent cousin. It is assumed that the hyoid plays a vital role in human speech development and it will lend insight into the nature and evolution of the human voice box.

Other information gleaned from the remains is that she walked upright, even at such an early age, though probably still very adept at climbing trees. Her brain is comparable to that of a chimp of the same age, though when compared to adult specimens, its development is closer to that of modern humans.

Part of the skeleton was first uncovered in 2000 and was subsequently painstakingly unearthed over several seasons of excavation. Due to the almost perfect state of the fossils, researchers surmise that she was covered over, most likely by a rapid flood, which may also have killed her, soon after she died.

Not all of the skeleton has yet been thoroughly studied, and scientists expect it to yield many secrets about the earliest chapters of human prehistory.

More information:

  • Max Planck Society

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