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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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RE: how's your egocentrism now?
By MozeeToby on 6/22/2010 1:28:24 PM , Rating: 5
You're saying that some people respond to law, and others respond to religion. If that is true, then removing religion from the table would result in an increase in immoral behavior. If there exists a percentage that is moral only because of religion then removing religion will make the rate of immoral behavior go up.

So let's take a look at a very atheistic nation, say Estonia (only 16% theistic). Despite being a poor, atheistic nation their law enforcement is good enough to keep the crime rate right around average, and better than average for countries of similar prosperity. Now lets look at countries where the rule of law has failed. Let's say Sudan, a country where atheism is almost unheard of. Violent crime so common that it can only be called genocide. So we have an atheistic nation with strong laws that maintains order, and a theistic nation with no laws where order has collapsed.

Ok, you easily can point out the vastly different cultures in that comparison so let's make a better one. New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Before, the violent crime rate was high, but not extremely so. The same can be said for after. During the storm and it's immediate aftermath, when the rule of law collapsed, there was looting, mugging, and raping on a scale seldom seen in the US. Did everyone suddenly lose their religion during the storm?

My point, going all the way back to my first comment, is that the rule of law is much, much more effective at controlling people's base urges than theistic religion is. The vast majority of people will act morally in the vast majority of situations regardless of religious belief, but there is very tiny minority that will abuse any situation to its fullest; again, regardless of their religious beliefs.

RE: how's your egocentrism now?
By MrBlastman on 6/22/2010 1:42:27 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not going to debate you on religion. There is no point as you are to the extreme end of Atheism yourself. You've misunderstood my intent all along.

I'm talking about Religion OR Law.

We're now taking religion out of the picture, and lets just focus on the law aspect.

Remove laws, chaos ensues and peoples inhibitions come to bear. You said it yourself--Katrina,

During the storm and it's immediate aftermath, when the rule of law collapsed, there was looting, mugging, and raping on a scale seldom seen in the US.

And thus, have proved a LARGE part of my point. Religion works for SOME people, not all. Law works for the rest. I never said it was the major force, just one of two forces that could work.

As you have shown, Law was a much larger force in Katrina, and, I'd argue for the most of America, Law is the larger force in determining people doing right or wrong. We agree with each other there.

One of those two forces will have a bearing on almost any individual--it depends on the person but one or the other will influence their actions. Law tends to work better as the consequences happen quickly.

RE: how's your egocentrism now?
By MozeeToby on 6/22/2010 1:55:57 PM , Rating: 3
I don't disagree with you that they both have an effect, I'm simply saying that the effect of religion is massively dwarfed by the effect of law and order. Basically, if you're the type to follow a religious code, I would put money on you being the type to follow a legal one as well.

For what it's worth, I don't agree with the people who have been modding you down. Until part of this last comment you have been making well formed, non inflammatory arguments (which in my opinion is pretty much the only thing that should ever be rated below 1). On the other hand, deciding that I am an atheist (I am not) simply because I feel that religion isn't the biggest driver of morality is a bit inflammatory.

RE: how's your egocentrism now?
By MrBlastman on 6/22/2010 2:31:21 PM , Rating: 2
1). On the other hand, deciding that I am an atheist (I am not) simply because I feel that religion isn't the biggest driver of morality is a bit inflammatory.

My apologies then. :) I unfairly assumed you might be and I was wrong to do so.

I do agree on law being a stronger force--it is, as consequences are now versus later, at least, for the majority of people as they see it.

By addictedcommentsreader on 6/22/2010 3:18:40 PM , Rating: 2
Guys, I don't get the emphasis on distinction between law and religion. Religion is full of rules which I believe do play a great role in keeping society in order. Whether it's the very oppressive versions of Islam you see in some nations that people have to follow strictly, or the 10 commandments. Those are pretty "in your face" laws. If you're trying to use the obvious surface distinctions, then I can't seem to see the purpose of that. What I mean is that basically they are all rules to bring order.
As a side, it also seems to me that alot of "laws" may have origins in religion, or are at least further emphasized or strengthened by religion.
Also, regarding all the talk about society going into chaos without religion or law, it's not that if u take away religion or law that the floodgates will suddenly be open. It's the fact that our morality, what we learn and see growing up are due to those rules. We are shaped by it whether directly or indirectly as a mass societal effect and passed through generations. Hypothetically, if we were to stop teaching it to our children and also somehow isolate them from society's effect, i believe it would be a different society than if we didn't have the rules. I don't know how much, but i believe it would be significant enough to recognize the need for rules.
Humans do act very differently in different cultures and religions. I think it would be easier for people to accept if you didn't use the word "evil". Some South American civilizations were brutal. Tons of cultures have or had polygamy. In the past, there were many cultures in which there was a narrower definition of murder than we have now. So humans are animals and our natural instincts are our natural instincts. Laws and religions provide the rules to help shape macro and micro level morality. And so in that sense, if taken away, should have a big negative impact on how people conduct themselves.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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