A “remarkably complete” 3.8-million-year-old skull of an early human has been unearthed in Ethiopia, scientists announced on August 28, a discovery that has the potential to alter our understanding of human evolution. The skull, known as MRD, was discovered not far from the younger Lucy — the ancient ancestor of modern humans — and shows that the two species may have co-existed for about 100,000 years.
- This skull is one of the most complete fossils of hominids more than 3 million years old, the renowned Ethiopian palaeoanthropologist of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History who is a co-author of two studies published on August 28 in the journal Nature.
- It “looks set to become another celebrated icon of human evolution”, joining the ranks of other high-profile hominid findings, Fred Spoor of the Natural History Museum of London wrote in a commentary accompanying the studies.
- Toumai (of the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis) is around 7 million years old and is considered by some palaeontologists to be the first representative of the human lineage.
- It was discovered in Chad in 2001. Ardi (for Ardipithecus ramidus, another species of hominid) was found in Ethiopia in 1994 and is believed to be around 4.5 million years old.
- Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and is 3.2 million years old. Australopithecus afarensis is one of the longest-lived and most studied early human species. The new skull, MRD, belongs to the species Australopithecus anamensis.
- Discovered in February 2016 at the site of Woranso-Mille, just 55 km from where Lucy was found in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia, MRD offers “the first glimpse of the face of Lucy’s ancestor”.
- Other lesser-known Australopithecus fossils date back at least 3.9 million years, but they featured only jaws and teeth. Without the skull, scientists’ understanding of the evolution of these extinct hominids has remained limited.
- Until now, there was a big gap between the oldest human ancestors, which are about 6 million years old, and species like ‘Lucy’, which are two to three million years old.