The “Neo” specimen skull (Homo naledi)
Rising Star Cave is the site in South Africa excavated by Dr Lee Berger and his team. It was here that they found a new species of ancient human called Homo naledi. Now another chamber in the cave has been unearthed and yielded even more fossil bone evidence and this newest discovery has yielded a skull “wonderfully complete.”
It is believed H. naledi shared the landscape with early modern humans and probably other hominin species as well between 226-335 thousand years ago. Dr John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the research leaders and he says this newest discovery adds more evidence that the cave system was being used by H. naledi to cache their dead. The new chamber has been named the Lesedi Chamber. So far 130 bone pieces have been found in the new chamber. One skeleton is said to be remarkably complete and is being named “Neo.” Continue Reading
Last month the University of Texas at Austin published results of a study linking evolution of the human skull to bipedalism which has been a point of debate in the past. According to that study the evolution of bipedalism can can be detected in fossil human remains using a key feature of the skull.
At the base of the skull is a large hole where the spinal cord connects to the brain known as the “foramen magnum.” When we compare that hole with other primates we find that in humans it is positioned forward toward the center of the base of the skull whereas in other non-bipedal mammals it tends to be more at the rear of the skull.
Scientists have theorized that the reason for this difference in humans is connected with bipedalism and the need for balancing the head directly atop the spine which is necessary for walking on two legs. Although most researchers believe this is the case some have not. The controversy has gone on since 1925! Continue Reading
Very few fossil remains of chimps and gorilla ancestors have been found anywhere in Africa but here are a few:
Nakalipithecus nakayamai was found in 2005 by a team of Japanese and Kenyan researchers in mud flow deposits in the Nakali region of northern Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. For short it is simply known as the “Nakali Ape.” The fossil remains consisted of a jawbone and 11 teeth that were dated at 10 mya. The enamel on the teeth was thick suggesting its diet consisted of hard nuts and seeds. It is believed that this species is close to the common ancestor shared between humans, chimps, and apes (gorillas). It resembles Ouranopithecus fossils found in Greece.
Nakalipithecus nakayamai artistic impression
Ouranopithecus includes two species. One being O. macedoniensis (found in Macedonia and dated at between 9.6 mya- 8.7 mya) and the other being O. turkae (found in Turkey and dated at 8.7-7.4 mya). Fossil remains of Ouranopithecus were found in Greece and Bulgaria and it is believed to have been a Eurasian ape which is now extinct. Based on dental and facial anatomy this species may belong to the dryopithecines which were a tribe of Eurasian apes believed to be close early ancestors to gorillas, chimps, and humans (the Great Apes). However, opposing theories have this species more closely related to the Ponginae (orangutans). Some researchers consider this species to be the last common ancestor of humans and apes and the early ancestors of Australopithecines and Humans although this theory is highly controversial and not widely accepted. Continue Reading
Down in South Africa is a region known as the “Cradle of Humankind” not far from the city of Johannesburg. It is called by this name because more fossils of early human ancestors have been found there more than anywhere else. This is the very place where Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger found Australopithecus sediba in 2008 and Homo naledi in 2015.
This is also the place where in a fossilized human partial skull and brain were found back in 1924 by Raymond Dart of the Department of Anatomy at Witwatersand University. This find was and still is incredibly rare! This fossil is believed to be from the hominid species Au. africanus and it took a long while for it to be accepted by academia as an ancient human ancestor because at the time of the find Piltdown Man ruled the roost in Paleontology. It was only after Piltdown Man was exposed as a HOAX that academics began to take Dart and his find seriously.
The fossilized partial skull and brain belong to an individual hominid nicknamed “Taung Child.” (sometimes referred to as Taung Baby). This specimen is believed to have been a very young Au. africanus and the fossil has been called the most important anthropological find of teh 20th century. Taung Child is believed to have lived somewhere between 2.8-3.3 mya. Dart and other colleagues such as Dr. Robert Bloom believed Au. africanus was a “transitional species” of ancient hominid between apes and modern humans.
Taung Child (Au. africanus)
This is not a large skull. In fact you can almost hold it in the palm of your hand. It has been postulated the Taung Child may have been killed by an eagle or other large predatory bird and this is based on damage to the skull and eye sockets. Paleoanthropologists estimate that this specimen stood about 105 cm (3 1/2 ft tall) and weighed between 9-11 kilograms (20-24 lbs). Its cranial capacity was between 400-500 cc. It is believed to have lived mostly in a Savannah environment in Africa. It is also believed to have been a Omnivore. This skull was actually dug up by quarrymen working in Taung, South Africa and it along with other fossils were sent to Dart for his examination.
Australopithecus africanus was once considered a “killer ape” because its fossils are often found alongside animal bones but today we know that predators also preyed on this species of ancient hominid. It’s also believed this species lived together in groups for protection. Not only is Taung Child a member of this species but so is “Mrs. Ples.” Au. africanus should not be confused with Au. afarensis which is the famous “Lucy” species. Continue Reading