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Anthropologists Find 4.5 Million-year-old Hominid Fossils In Ethiopia

IU Bloomington paleoanthropologist Sileshi Semaw holds the fossil of a hominid 
mandible (lower jaw bone) believed to be about 4.5 million years old. (Photo 
by: Sileshi Semaw)

ScienceDaily (Jan. 21, 2005) — BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Scientists from Indiana 
University Bloomington and seven other institutions have unearthed skeletal 
fossils of a human ancestor believed to have lived about 4.5 million years ago. 
The fossils, described in this week's Nature (Jan. 20), will help scientists 
piece together the mysterious transformation of primitive chimp-like hominids 
into more human forms.

The fossils were retrieved from the Gona Study Area in northern Ethiopia, only 
one of two sites to yield fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus.

"A few windows are now opening in Africa to glance into the fossil evidence on 
the earliest hominids," said IUB paleoanthropologist Sileshi Semaw, who led the 

Semaw and colleagues also report new evidence that suggests the human ancestors 
lived in close quarters with a menagerie of antelope, rhinos, monkeys, giraffes 
and hippos in a northern Ethiopia that was far wetter than it is today. The 
environmental reconstructions suggest a mosaic of habitats, from woodlands to 
grasslands. Research is continuing at Gona to determine which habitats A. 
ramidus preferred.

"We now have more than 30 fossils from at least nine individuals dated between 
4.3 and 4.5 million years old," said Semaw, Gona Palaeoanthropological Research 
Project director and Stone Age Institute research scientist. The Stone Age 
Institute, a new research center dedicated to the study of early human 
evolution and culture, is affiliated with Indiana University's CRAFT, the 
Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology.

In their letter to Nature, Semaw and his coauthors describe parts of one upper 
and two lower jaw bones -- with teeth still intact -- several loose teeth, part 
of a toe bone and intact finger bones. The scientists believe the fossils 
belong to nine individuals of the species A. ramidus. The scientists used argon 
isotope dating of volcanic materials found in the vicinity of the fossils to 
estimate their age.

In the 11 years since the naming of A. ramidus by University of California 
Berkeley anthropologist Tim White and colleagues, only a handful of fossils 
from the species have been found, and only at two sites -- the Middle Awash and 
Gona, both in Ethiopia. Other fossils of slightly older age are known in Kenya 
and Chad. Anthropologists working in Ethiopia believe Ardipithecus is the first 
hominid genus -- that is, human ancestors who lived just after a split with the 
lineage that produced modern chimpanzees.

Despite the millions of years that separate us, modern humans have a few things 
in common with A. ramidus. Fossils from Gona and elsewhere suggest that the 
ancient hominid walked on two feet and had diamond-shaped upper canines, not 
the "v"-shaped ones chimps use to chomp. Outwardly, however, A. ramidus would 
appear a lot more chimpanzee-like than human.

Gona has turned out to be a productive dig site. In a Nature cover story (Jan. 
23, 1997), Semaw and colleagues reported the oldest known stone tools used by 
ancestral humans. The Gona artifacts showed that as early as 2.5 million years 
ago, hominids were remarkably skilled toolmakers. Last month (December 2004), 
Semaw coauthored a paper in Geological Society of America Bulletin summarizing 
Gona's geological properties and the site's cornucopia of hominid fossils 
spanning several million years. (Science magazine gave the article an "Editor's 
Choice" nod.)

Scott Simpson (Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the 
Cleveland Museum of Natural History), Jay Quade (University of Arizona), Naomi 
Levin (University of Utah), Robert Butler (University of Portland), Paul Renne 
(Berkeley Geochronology Center and the University of California, Berkeley), 
William McIntosh (New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources and New 
Mexico Tech.), Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) and 
Michael Rogers (Southern Connecticut State University) also contributed to the 
report. It was funded by grants from the Leakey Foundation, the National 
Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the Stone Age Institute.

The authors thank Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of 
Cultural Heritage, the National Museum of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Ministry 
of Youth, Sports and Culture for providing permits for the ongoing work at the 
Gona dig site, and the Afar people for making the fieldwork a success.
Adapted from materials provided by Indiana University.
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Indiana University (2005, January 21). Anthropologists Find 4.5 
Million-year-old Hominid Fossils In Ethiopia. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 4, 
2009, from­ /releases/2005/01/050121091108.htm

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