The Earliest Australopithecines

The new skull from Chad: Sahelopithecus

The hominid find of the century (so far). A new and well-preserved skull from 7-8 Ma, from Chad was reported in July 2002. It should alter the story of the origins and early evolution of hominids. Described in two papers in Nature: Brunet, M. et al. 2002. A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa. Nature 418, 145-151; Vignaud, P. et al. 2002. Geology and palaeontology of the Upper Miocene Toros-Menalla hominid locality, Chad. Nature 418, 152-155. Bernard Wood's commentary is a triumph of opinion and assertion over logic and evidence: I'll discuss that at more length later.

"Normal" australopithecines

Ardipithecus: New pieces of Ardipithecus, announced July 2001

Australopithecus anamensis

  • Knuckle-walking in early australopithecines. Features of the wrist of early Australopithecus are claimed as the traces of "knuckle-walking" in their (and our) ancestors. No real surprise: knuckle-walking is the way that today's chimps and gorillas get around on the ground in a quadrupedal mode, with the fingers curled under into a fist, and stress passed upward into the lower arm. Australopithecus was already walking upright, of course. Frankly, I don't see the big deal here. What worries me is that the authors allegedly claim that knuckle-walking is a feature of African apes only. Well, I've seen orangs knuckle-walking, and have photos to prove it. Knuckle-walking is probably deep within anthropoid lineages, which spoils this part of their story, but doesn't alter their demonstration that our ancestors knuckle-walked.

    Footprints at Laetoli, and bipedalism

    Australopithecus afarensis

    Australopithecus in South Africa

    Australopithecus africanus

    Robust Australopithecines

    Robust australopithecines are currently being re-assessed, and all this section may change. For example, many experts now call all robust australopithecines Paranthropus.

    Claim that Australopithecus robustus used tools. In January 2001, a report suggested that A. robustus used specially selected bone tools to dig into termite mounds. (Termites are very nutritious, it is said: twice the calories of steak!).

    However, if you read the actual research paper (Blackwell and d'Errico 2001), you will find two separate lines of thought.
    1. There are specially selected bone tools at three South African sites that were undoubtedly used to dig into termite mounds.
    2. Homo is found at two of the three sites, and A. robustus is found at all three: that indicates, but only weakly, that A. robustus, rather than Homo, made the tools.
    That says to me that the case is not as clean as the news reports would have it that Australopithecus robustus was either making the tools or eating termites. I think it would be wise to wait for more evidence here!

    Australopithecus garhi

    A new report from October 21, 2003 described tools associated with butchered bones, and they are at 2.6 Ma. This is more evidence that some Australopithecus, probably A. garhi, was technologically advanced. This is not a huge breakthrough (it pushes back the date by 100,000 years or so), but any site of this quality is welcome. The New York Times took its article off its free material.

    Previous stories on A. garhi and its tools and inferred behavior:

    The Earliest Tools

    Note that the earliest tools were probably made by a species that we would place at present in Australopithecus. This is a hot area of research: be prepared for surprises (and arguments)! However, there is a growing appreciation for the technological skill of these first stone tool makers.

  • February 17, 2004. Australopithecus had a more advanced brain than we had thought. BBC News OnLine.

    Page last updated, October 23, 2006

    Links last checked September 29, 2005.

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