Anthropologist Helps Identify New Species

COLLEGE STATION, April 8, 2010 – Two well-preserved skeletons of a human ancestor never before seen have been discovered in South Africa by a team that includes a Texas A&M University anthropologist.

The discovery is outlined in two papers in the April 9 edition of Science Magazine, the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-like Australopith from South Africa,” is the cover story of the journal.

The lead author on the paper is the project director, Dr. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Darryl J. de Ruiter of  Texas A&M, the lead craniodental specialist on the project who helped determine the gender and age of the specimens, is the second author.

The genus name Australopithecus translates into “southern ape,” and the species is loosely referred to as an “ape man,” because they could still move around in the trees but once on the ground could walk on two legs as humans do, de Ruiter explains. “Sediba” means “fountain” or “wellspring” in the Sotho language.

 “We actually think we have found the best candidate for a direct ancestor of Homo, the genus to which humans belong,” de Ruiter said of the fossils, which are believed to be between 1.78 and 1.95 million years old.

The site of the remains – a 10-by-10 cave about 8 feet deep – was discovered in August 2008, de Ruiter said. It was actually Berger’s 9-year-old son Matthew who spotted the first bone.

Darryl de Ruiter

Darryl de Ruiter

“When I first saw the skeletons, I knew we had something special,” said de Ruiter, who examined the skull, jaws and teeth of what is believed to be an adult female and a juvenile male – possibly members of the same group. “Both were remarkably complete and extremely well-preserved.”

He said the skulls are human-like but smaller, and their teeth are similar to humans’.

The skeletons are shaped like those of early representatives of Homo, though they are relatively small like those of the australopithecines, the ancestors of Homo. Conversely, the teeth of the new species are small like in humans, but shaped like those of Australopiths. “What we have here is a clearly transitional form,” de Ruiter stated.

Only three other skeletons of this great antiquity in Africa approach this level of completeness, de Ruiter says: the 2.9-million-year-old “Lucy” from Ethiopia, the 2.2-million-year-old “Little Foot” from elsewhere in South Africa and the 1.6-million-year-old “Nariokotome Boy” in Kenya. However, this new site is unique in revealing multiple individual skeletons that can be directly associated with each other, de Ruiter says.

The team is continuing to search for additional skeletons at the site. De Ruiter said he and  some of his students are returning to the South African site this summer. Meanwhile, a contest is planned to allow South African schoolchildren to nickname the two skeletons.


About research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $582 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

Contact: Kelli Levey, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4645 or Darryl de Ruiter at (979) 845-4940.


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