Fossil Find Is Missing Link in Human Evolution, Scientists Say

April 13, 2006

When the famous skeleton of an early human ancestor known as Lucy was discovered in Africa in the 1970s, scientists asked: Where did she come from?

Now, fossils found in the same region are providing solid answers, researchers have announced.

Lucy is a 3.5-foot-tall (1.1-meter-tall) adult skeleton that belongs to an early human ancestor, or hominid, known as Australopithecus afarensis.

The species lived between 3 million and 3.6 million years ago and is widely considered an ancestor of modern humans.

The new fossils are from the most primitive species of Australopithecus, known as Australopithecus anamensis. The remains date to about 4.1 million years ago, according to Tim White, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

White co-directed the team that discovered the new fossils in Ethiopia (map) in a region of the Afar desert known as the Middle Awash.

The team says the newly discovered fossils are a no-longer-missing link between early and later forms of Australopithecus and to a more primitive hominid known as Ardipithecus.

"What the new discovery does is very nicely fill this gap between the earliest of the Lucy species at 3.6 million years and the older [human ancestor] Ardipithecus ramidus, which is dated at 4.4 million years," White said.

The new fossil find consists mainly of jawbone fragments, upper and lower teeth, and a thigh bone.

The fossils are described in today's issue of the journal Nature.

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According to White, the discovery supports the hypothesis that Lucy was a direct descendent of Australopithecus anamensis.

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