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Fossils fill gap in human lineage  By Paul Rincon 
 BBC News science reporter 
Fossil hunters have found remains of a probable direct ancestor of humans that 
lived more than four million years ago.  
The specimens of this ancient creature are helping bridge a long gap during a 
crucial phase of human evolution. 
Professor Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and
colleagues unearthed the cache of fossils in the Middle Awash region of
Ethiopia. 
They describe the finds, which belong to the species Australopithecus anamensis 
 , in the journal Nature. 
Australopithecus  is an important ancient genus of humanlike creatures, or 
hominids. 
“ I think you could argue...what we're monitoring here is the genesis of
that second stage of human evolution - the genesis of Australopithecus   ” 
Tim White, UC Berkeley 
Our own genus, Homo  , is widely thought to have evolved from this group. So 
the relationship of Australopithecus  to even earlier bipedal hominids is 
crucial to understanding where we all ultimately come from. 
When placed together with other fossils from the same general area of Ethiopia, 
the 4.1-million-year-old anamensis  specimens appear to establish an 
evolutionary succession between earlier and later species. 
"The fact anamensis  is sandwiched between earlier and later hominids is what 
is really
significant about this Ethiopian sequence," Tim White told the BBC News
website. 
Middle man  
The finds close the gap between a more ancient species known as Ardipithecus 
ramidus  , which is found at 4.4 million years and a later species known as 
Australopithecus afarensis  , which is present in the Middle Awash 3.4 million 
years ago. 
Australopithecus anamensis  is intermediate between the two not only 
chronologically but also in terms of its anatomy. 
The anamensis  species is not new, but, say the researchers, "this is the first 
time
that these three species have been shown to be time-successive in a
single place". 
One explanation is that one species simply evolved into the other - so-called 
phyletic evolution. 
Another possibility is that Australopithecus  first emerged as a side branch of 
Ardipithecus  . Under this scheme the mother species would have lived alongside 
the
daughter species for some period of time before the mother species died
out. 
But no overlap between any of the three species has been found in Ethiopia. 
Mind the gap  
"I think you could argue, fairly, that the circumstantial evidence
based on geography and habitat is of one evolving phyletically into the
other and what we're monitoring here is the genesis of that second
stage of human evolution - the genesis of Australopithecus  ," White explained. 
But, he added: "We cannot disprove the alternative hypothesis just yet." 
The new discoveries go some way to bridging the gap between Ardipithecus  and 
Australopithecus  , but do not entirely plug it. 
"The gaps don't get entirely filled; you fill a big gap and create two smaller 
ones," said Professor White. 
"Now we're looking at a gap between 4.4 million and 4.1 million. That's
300,000 years; an awful lot of time when measured on a human timescale,
but not that long on a geological one." 
The fossils represent at least eight individuals and include the largest 
hominid canine ever found, the earliest known Australopithecus  thigh bone as 
well as hand and foot bones. 
In the woods  
The excavation at Asa Issie also uncovered the remains of pigs, monkeys and big 
cats. The fauna suggest that anamensis  was living in a closed, wooded habitat. 
Australopithecus anamensis  had a significantly thicker layer of enamel on its 
teeth than Ardipithecus  , suggesting the later hominid was adapting to eating 
a more abrasive diet of roots. 
In many species, this is a fallback food when resources are scarce, but it is 
not clear what caused the diet shift in this case. 
The Turkana Basin in Kenya has also yielded Australopithecus anamensis  
fossils. 
Australopithecus afarensis  was first recognised in the 1970s on the basis of 
the now famous "Lucy"
skeleton from Hadar, Ethiopia, and footprints preserved in volcanic ash
at Laetoli, Tanzania. 
Tim White, Gen Suwa and Berhane Asfaw discovered the first Ardipithecus ramidus 
 fossils in the 1990s. 
paul.rincon-inter...@bbc.co.uk   
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/4900946.stm

Published: 2006/04/12 21:34:32 GMT

© BBC MMIX

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