Early Human Ancestors May Have Had "Harem" Societies

Brain Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 29, 2007

Some early human ancestors may have lived in "harem" societies much like those of modern gorillas and orangutans, a new fossil study suggests.

Such an arrangement is known to arise in some modern primate species when males mature later in life than females and become much larger than their mates.

In these cases a single dominant male mates with and protects a large harem of females.

The new find is based on analysis of fossils from the human relative Paranthropus robustus.

The primate species, which lived in Africa about 2 million to 1.2 million years ago, is closely related to early humans but is a dead-end branch of the family tree.

P. robustus is a descendant of Australopithecus afarensis, the species that also gave rise to the Homo genus that includes modern humans.

Charles Lockwood, an anthropologist at University College London, and colleagues looked at roughly three dozen fossil skulls and teeth from P. robustus.

Telltale traits of the fossils showed that male members of the species matured late in life.

This led Lockwood to theorize that P. robustus males competed for groups of mates much the way gorillas do today.

The findings appear this week in the journal Science.

Size Matters

Male gorillas and orangutans grow significantly in adulthood and tend to become dramatically larger than females of their species.

Continued on Next Page >>


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.