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An artist's scupting of A. afarensis, based on the earlier Lucy skeleton.  (Source: Educa Madrid)

The bones of "Big Man"  (Source: Y. Haile Selassie et al./PNAS 2010)
"Whatever we’ve been saying about afarensis based on Lucy was mostly wrong."

Much like the revolution of modern astronomy in the late 1400s and early 1500s dissolved the notion that the Sun revolved around the Earth, a renaissance in paleontology is dissolving virtually any doubt that remained about man's origins.  Another new discovery has just been completed, the latest of several high profile publications over only the last year.

The new skeleton is a male Australopithecus afarensis, which has been discovered in Ethiopia’s Afar region.  The skeleton joins the celebrated "Lucy" skeleton, unearthed by paleoanthropologists in 1974, and a child skeleton unearthed last year.

The ancient male, an ancestor of modern man, lived approximately 3.6 million years ago in the plains of Eastern Africa, according to several dating techniques.  Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who led the team, says the skeleton offers some major new insights into the species.

The skeleton has been nicknamed "Big Man" as it towers at 5 to 5½ feet tall over the much shorter 3½-foot-tall Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago.  That large height deviation raises questions over which of the specimen is the norm in terms of height.  The new skeleton was unearthed between 2005 and 2008 at a dig site only 48 km from where Lucy was found.

The skeleton also reveals new insights into the bone structure of the species.  Big Man's 32 discovered bones reveal long legs, a narrow chest, and a inwardly curving back.  All of these indicate that he walked much like a human and enjoyed a ground-based lifestyle.  This is very different from the awkward gait that Lucy was thought to have.  Lucy also had been thought to climb trees a great deal.

The shoulder blade of Big Man is quite different from chimpanzees or gorillas.  And the ribs also appear human-like.  All of these factors indicate a far different chest shape than the chimplike, funnel-shaped chest that reconstructions of the Lucy skeleton indicated.

While confusing perhaps in context with Lucy, the conclusion that ancient hominids were not chimplike is consistent with the analysis of the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus hominid that was conducted last year. 

Professor Haile-Selassie states, "Whatever we’ve been saying about afarensis based on Lucy was mostly wrong.  The skeletal framework to enable efficient two-legged walking was established by the time her species had evolved."

Carol Ward of the University of Missouri in Columbia seems to agree with these conclusions, stating, "This beautiful afarensis specimen confirms the unique skeletal shape of this species at a larger size than Lucy, in what appears to be a male."

While the discovery may have cleared up debate about whether Lucy was more chimplike or humanlike, the debate about gait is sure to continue.  Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman states, "There’s nothing special I can see on this new find that will change anyone’s opinion."

Anthropologist Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University, however, believes that the discovery shows Big Man to be a good runner, which could have made the 3.6-million-year-old footprints found more than 30 years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania.  Among the evidence supporting this hypothesis are Big Man's pelvis supported humanlike hamstring muscles and human-like arched feet.

The full study on the Big Man discovery is published here in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A separate 3.3 million year old skeleton of a 3-year-old baby female A. afarensis was presented four years ago.  Nicknamed "Selam" (the word for "peace" in several African languages), the near-complete skeleton was found in 2000 south of the Awash river by a team led by Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The paper on that discovery was published in a 2006 edition of Nature and can be found here.

These discoveries add to the aforementioned recent discovery of "Ardi", the discovery of Australopithecus sediba, and the completion of an early draft of the Neanderthal genome.  All of these wonderful discoveries have helped to blow away the fog of uncertainty surrounding human evolution and offered a much clearer picture of how man arrived at its current form after a slow process of evolution that took millions of years.


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Artistic sculpting...
By MrBlastman on 6/22/2010 10:54:10 AM , Rating: 1
I have a hard time understanding how an artist can accurately sculpt afarensis when they don't even have a skull or what appears to be any major skullbones.

I see a partial arm, hip, ribs, vertebral column extending to the neck and leg and what looks to be a scapula but no head. How are we to know that it was hairy and ape-looking at all?

From what I can see here, it very well could have looked quite like a modern human with very little body hair and the face could be similar to ours. So really, the ape like picture is pure speculation.

Or, maybe it isn't human at all, perhaps it was a visitor that died on earth? Or, perhaps a time-traveler using superstring manipulation died accidentally on safari?

There just seems to be a huge gap between Lucy and Afarensis here, we need to know more.




RE: Artistic sculpting...
By boobo on 6/22/2010 11:01:05 AM , Rating: 2
The sculpture is based on Lucy, not on the big man skeleton pictured underneath. Scientific art always gives some freedom to the artist (like in artist depictions of black holes for scientific magazines). There's a lot of that in the Lucy sculpture. However, her skeleton did have some rather large skull fragments.


RE: Artistic sculpting...
By MrBlastman on 6/22/2010 11:05:01 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly. It is based on Lucy's skeleton, not Afarensis. It could look like a multitude of things. We don't know until we see the skull.

The skeletal differences are so markedly dramatic between the two that I garner they would have a huge difference in their skull, and ultimately facial appearance as well.


RE: Artistic sculpting...
By boobo on 6/22/2010 11:28:00 AM , Rating: 2
But Lucy is also classified as an Australopithecus Afarensis. The sculpture was not meant to depict the Big Man at all. It was completed before these new bone fragments were even published.

Of course, classifications systems and classification choices are subject to change based on new evidence, and it does seem like a bit of a stretch to classify these two together...


RE: Artistic sculpting...
By ThePooBurner on 6/22/2010 1:18:29 PM , Rating: 2
Not ones that would lead to anything that looks like an ape, though. The placement of the fragments in the full size skulls they build, or rather, the full size skulls they build around them are ridiculous. There is no way they could make that kind of leap from the pieces they have.


RE: Artistic sculpting...
By geddarkstorm on 6/22/2010 2:00:29 PM , Rating: 2
That is an unfortunate problem with a lot of these hominids. Most of the time, you just have little fragments, and the blanks are filled in under assumed anatomical ratios (usually quite less than 30% of any part of a creature is found). However, there's very little proof or evidence to support the criteria they use for this, and you can always see whatever you want to see when filling in the blanks, period (that goes for ALL data of any type). Worst yet, there's the assumption the bones found millions of years later are representative of what they were in life, without any warping from geological forces, or shrinking, or other changes. Even rocks warp and morph in shape, and a fossil is just a mineralization rock.

I become rather disillusions with anthropology after taking a course in it. Sometimes they reconstruct whole species based just on teeth they find! No... I doubt most people here really know what goes into it or what it means.

Still, this new skeleton is more complete than most (I'm not kidding)! And strangely very like a modern human...


RE: Artistic sculpting...
By GTVic on 6/22/2010 2:10:28 PM , Rating: 2
The bones for this skeleton were spread out over miles. They can claim what they've found is from one individual, based on the fact that they've recovered 40% of a body with no duplicate parts. Given the amount of fraud in the industry, you have to question whether this proves anything. Even if you accept it, what if she was just the Mini-Me of her generation.


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