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Prehistoric World

Ardipithecus Finds in Ethiopia

Edited from BBC News, 19 January 2005

Fossil hunters working in Ethiopia have unearthed the remains of at least nine primitive hominids which are between 4.5 million and 4.3 million years old.

The fossils, which were uncovered at As Duma in the north of the country, are mostly teeth and jaw fragments, but also include parts of hands and feet. All of the finds belong to the same species - Ardipithecus ramidus - which was first described about a decade ago.

Details of the discoveries appear in the current issue of Nature magazine. Scientists say features of a pedal phalanx, or foot bone, unearthed at the site confirm the hominid it belonged to probably walked upright like modern humans do.

'It is a very important finding because it does confirm [that] hominids walked upright on two feet, definitely [at] 4.5 million years ago,' said lead author Sileshi Semaw, of the Craft Stone Age Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington, US.

Ardipithecus ramidus is also marked out by its diamond-shaped upper canine teeth, which are more humanlike than the 'V'-shaped upper canines of chimpanzees. But overall, the creature probably looked more like a chimpanzee than a human.

Early steps

Professor Tim White, of the University of California, Berkeley, agreed it was becoming apparent that Ardipithecus ramidus was an important species which was a very plausible ancestor to later hominids.

'It's already clear that we're seeing the basic grade from which Australopithecus evolved,' he said. 'The real issues about the earliest hominids are now going to centre on whether we are seeing the same basic creature in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Chad.'

The most famous Australopithecus fossils are those of 'Lucy', a female skeleton discovered in Ethiopia during the 1970s. The so-called australopithecines are widely thought to have led onto the human lineage. Ardipithecus could therefore represent an earlier step on the path which led to modern humans, as well as a number of other, extinct hominid species.

Opening windows

The age of the newly described remains was estimated by dating volcanic material found in their vicinity.

'A few windows are now opening in Africa [through which we can] glance into the fossil evidence on the earliest hominids,' Dr Semaw explained. 'We now have more than thirty fossils from at least nine individuals dated between 4.3 and 4.5 million years old.'

Another Ardipithecus species, kadabba, lived in Ethiopia at around 5.77 to 5.54 million years ago. Genetic studies have suggested a common ancestor for modern apes and humans may have existed about six million years ago.

Other fossils found at the site show that Ardipithecus ramidus lived alongside monkeys, mole rats, and cow-like grazing animals. But the authors add that it is not clear exactly in what sort of habitat the hominids lived. The area in which the remains were unearthed would have had features of swamps, springs, and streams, as well as regions which experienced seasonal droughts.

Professor White discovered the first Ardipithecus ramidus fossils in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia with his colleagues Gen Suwa and Berhane Asfaw.



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