Child’s fossil could be missing link between man and ape

April 4th, 2010 - 1:53 pm ICT by IANS  

London, April 4 (IANS) A two-million-year-old skeleton of a child, discovered in South Africa, could be the missing link between apes and humans, and may lead to the history of human evolution being re-written, a media report said.
The Telegraph reported that the new species of hominid, the evolutionary branch of primates that includes humans, is to be shown when the child’s skeleton is unveiled in the coming week.

The skeleton was discovered by Lee Berger, a professor from the University of the Witwatersrand, while going through cave systems in the Sterkfontein region of South Africa, located near Johannesburg.

The fossilised skeleton, which is almost complete, belonged to a previously-unknown type of early human ancestor that may have been an intermediate stage as ape-men evolved into the first species of advanced humans, Homo habilis, scientists say.

The skeleton shares characteristics with Homo habilis, whose emergence 2.5 million years ago is seen as a key stage in the evolution of the human species.

Most fossilised hominid remains are scattered fragments of bone. This discovery will allow scientists to answer questions about what early ancestors looked like and when they began walking on two legs.

The presence of a pelvis and complete limb bones would allow scientists to study the posture and method of walking.

The media report said that if the specimen also contains hand bones, it could provide clues about the species’ dexterity and such evidence will prove crucial in determining when the ability of modern humans to handle stone tools first emerged.

Phillip Tobias, a human anatomist and anthropologist who has seen the skeleton, said the latest discovery was “wonderful” and “exciting”.

“To find a skeleton as opposed to a couple of teeth or an arm bone is a rarity. It is one thing to find a lower jaw with a couple of teeth, but it is another thing to find the jaw joined onto the skull, and those in turn uniting further down with the spinal column, pelvis and the limb bones.

“It is not a single find, but several specimens representing several individuals. The remains now being brought to light by Dr Berger and his team are wonderful,” he was quoted as saying.

A group of ape-like hominids known as Australopithicus, which first emerged in Africa around 3.9 million years ago, gradually evolved into the first Homo species. Thereafter the Australopithicus species lost their more ape-like features as they started to stand upright and their brain capacity increased, scientists believe.

Around 2.5 million years ago Homo habilis, the first species to be described as distinctly human, began to appear, although only a handful of specimens have ever been found.

The Telegraph said that it is thought that the new fossil to be unveiled in the coming week will be identified as a new species that fits somewhere between Australopithicus and Homo habilis.

Simon Underdown, an expert on human evolution at Oxford Brookes University, said: “A find like this could really increase our understanding of our early ancestors at a time when they first started to become recognisable as human.”

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