for National Geographic News
The world's oldest known child has been discovered in East Africa in an area known appropriately as the Cradle of Humanity.
The 3.3-million-year-old fossilized toddler was uncovered in north Ethiopia's badlands along the Great Rift Valley (map of Ethiopia).
The skeleton, belonging to the primitive human species Australopithecus afarensis, is remarkable for its age and completeness, even for a region spectacularly rich in fossils of our ancient ancestors, experts say.
The new find may even trump the superstar fossil of the same species: "Lucy," a 3.2-million-year-old adult female discovered nearby in 1974 that reshaped theories of human evolution. (Related: "Fossil Find Is Missing Link in Human Evolution, Scientists Say" [April 2006].)
Some experts have taken to calling the baby skeleton "Lucy's baby" because of the proximity of the discoveries, despite the fact that the baby is tens of thousands of years older. (See a historical photo gallery on A. afarensis and more information about Lucy.)
"This is something you find once in a lifetime," said Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the team that made the discovery. (See a video discussing how the new child skeleton was found.)
A Complete Find
The child was probably female and about three years old when she died, according to the researchers.
Found in sandstone in the Dikika area, the remains include a remarkably well preserved skull, milk teeth, tiny fingers, a torso, a foot, and a kneecap no bigger than a dried pea.
Archaeologists hope that the baby skeleton, because of its completeness, can provide a wealth of details that Lucy and similar fossils couldn't.
The age of death makes the find especially useful, scientists say, providing insights into the growth and development of human ancestors.
"Visually speaking, the Dikika child is definitely more complete [than Lucy]," team member Fred Spoor of University College London (UCL) said.
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