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A skull of an Australopithecus sediba.

The skull of the young male Australopithecus sediba rests near the spot where the fossil was discovered.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic

Brian Switek

National Geographic News

Published April 11, 2013

Everybody knows "Lucy." For nearly four decades, this famous partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, dated to 3.2 million years ago, has been an ambassador for our prehistoric past, and her species has stood as the most likely immediate ancestor of our own genus—Homo.

But in a spate of new studies, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand, and a team of collaborators have put forward a controversial claim that another hominin—Australopithecus sediba—might be even closer to the origin of our lineage, possibly bumping Lucy from the critical evolutionary junction she has occupied for so long.

Berger and colleagues named Australopithecus sediba in 2010. The 1.98-million-year-old hominin, known from partial skeletons of an adult female and a juvenile male, along with an isolated tibia, was discovered two years earlier at the South African cave site of Malapa.

Since that initial announcement, Berger and coauthors have been further analyzing the anatomy and geological context of the fossils, with their studies culminating in a series of six papers published Thursday in Science.

Together, the papers on the teeth, jaw, limbs, and spine of Australopithecus sediba highlight the fact that this early human possessed a strange mixture of traits seen in both early australopithecines and Homo. These findings make the fossils a significant point of contention among those devoted to understanding where and when our genus evolved.

What Teeth and Bones Say

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Australopithecus sediba's closest relative appears to be Australopithecus africanus, a species that also lived in South Africa from around three million to two million years ago.

In a paper examining 22 discrete traits on sediba's teeth, Joel Irish of Liverpool John Moores University and colleagues found that the species more closely resembles A. africanus than other early hominins. But the teeth also show some features shared with early members of our own genus, such as Homo habilis.

Analysis of jawbone by Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University and colleagues also argues for a distinct species status for sediba,countering earlier claims that the fossils may represent simply a late form of africanus. According to Berger, the dental features makeAustralopithecus sediba "the best candidate" for the ancestor of the Homo lineage, although he notes that this connection is contingent on finding more complete fossils of other hominins.

Other aspects of the skeleton retain a more archaic anatomy. The upper arms of Australopithecus sediba, anthropologist Steven Churchillof Duke University and collaborators report, had the anatomy and proportions of a limb still suited to climbing through the trees.

Australopithecus sediba was probably a climber "of some sort," Berger says, but he notes that "climbing trees is not the only option available to a hominin living on karstic terrain," or landscape pocked by limestone gullies and caves. (Exactly how the hominin got around and what the environment was like 2 million years ago is part of the next phase of research, Berger says.)

Additionally, University of Zurich anthropologist Peter Schmid and co-authors report that the chest of Australopithecus sediba retained the funnel-like, flared shape of other early australopithecines. Compared with the living skeletal extremes of chimpanzees and our species, the upper body of Australopithecus sediba was still much like that of the nonhuman apes.

Curiously, less-well-preserved parts of the lower rib cage have a much more human-like appearance. Scott Williams of New York University and colleagues report that the spine of Australopithecus sediba was also human-like, with a relatively long and flexible lower back that shares more in common with the spines of Homo erectus than with those of other australopithecines, including the curvature of the spine that is a hallmark of upright walking.

But while sediba was clearly a biped, it did not walk at all like we do. According to Jeremy DeSilva of Boston University and his co-authors, the heel bone of the female skeleton of Australopithecus sediba suggests she would have turned her foot inward as she stepped, with the outside edge of the foot contacting the ground along with the heel.

"Contacting the ground on the outside edge of a twisted-in foot causes the foot to rapidly and excessively rotate so that the inside of the foot is driven into the ground," Berger says, which begins a "chain reaction" of rotation of the shin, femur, and torso to keep balance.

No other known hominin walked like this, hinting that the way humans walk isn't the outcome of an ever-improving evolutionary trajectory, but one result out of several possible alternatives that evolved among our ancient relatives.

Sediba's odd mode of walking, Berger says, "might be a compromise locomotion of a hominin that had features of the foot that are adaptive for both upright walking and tree climbing."

An Enduring Controversy

Because of all these varied skeletal clues, Australopithecus sediba is said to possess a "mosaic" of traits that mix the archaic and the derived. But are the ways that Australopithecus sediba resembles early Homo species true indicators of a close evolutionary relationship—or are they traits that evolved independently in both lineages?

Few scientists believe this question has even begun to be settled. Berger himself has more confidence.

"My stance is that [Australopithecussediba exhibits so many derived, Homo-like traits across the whole of the body that it must be considered as, at the very least, a possible ancestor of the genus Homo," he says.

This hypothesis faces difficulties, Berger says, because of a "nostalgia" for previous hypotheses and because sediba's remarkably informative skeletons are being compared "with a fragmentary and disassociated record of a small number of bits and pieces, many of which have simply been cobbled together into the basket we call early Homo."

Berger also discounts the record of possible earlier Homo fossils—such as a 2.33-million-year-old jaw found in Ethiopia—as "shockingly bad" and therefore argues that such fragmentary finds do not rule out Australopithecus sediba as a Homo ancestor.

Most other researchers, however, concur that the Ethiopian jaw is indeed Homo and that the trail of our own genus significantly precedes the Malapa finds.

Berger doubts that the new papers will convince those who disagree with him, but affirms that "across the body, head to toe, sediba has a remarkable number of shared derived characters with definitive members of the genus Homo, including H. erectus, Neanderthals, and humans," thus underscoring a possible evolutionary connection.

Paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison points out that the dental details are the best evidence for a possible connection between the Malapa hominins and early Homo. "The new papers really spell out the shared features in the mandibles and teeth in a way that supports their position with A. africanus as a sister taxon to Homo."

A Complex Picture

Still, Hawks cautions, "I think the story could be more complicated." Relatively little is known of early Homo species, Hawks points out, and "knowing what we do about the mixture of later humans—including Neanderthals—it's possible that early Homo and later australopithecine relationships included widespread mixture also."

Regardless of what Australopithecus sediba turns out to be, however, the fossils offer an important caution about interpreting more fragmentary human remains found elsewhere.

"That mosaic of anatomy is the most important insight from this site. It says that when you find a fragment that looks like Homo, you can't expect the rest of the skeleton will look like Homo," Hawks says. "No single fragment can look more like Homo than these skeletons do overall, yet these skeletons have many features that don't look like Homo. And that's what we expect from an evolving lineage."

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Rick Potts is uncertain of how Australopithecus sediba might be relevant to the origin of Homo, especially since the earliest Homo fossils are hundreds of thousands of years older, but notes that the combination of features in Australopithecus sediba "is astonishing."

That's what makes the placement of the hominins so difficult. "From what we know so far," Potts says, "I think Australopithecus sediba is best seen as a compelling example of the highly experimental nature of evolution in the several hundred thousand years around the time of the origin of Homo."

Ultimately, he says, determining the place of Australopithecus sediba will hinge upon "debates about whether it is the overall morphological pattern that is key to assessing where something like Australopithecus sediba sits in human evolution or [whether] it is the discovery of isolated traits in each area of the skeleton."

The hominin "is so curious in its totality," Potts says, "it might lead to some rethinking of how we classify fossil humans and place them in our evolutionary tree."

Lu Viana
Lu Viana

vamos ver o que a continuação das escavações nos reservam

Juan Barrenechea
Juan Barrenechea

It is of course very interesting, in the sense that this A. Sediba would be close to A. Africanus which leads to the H. Habilis and H. Erectus, nevertheless as it seems, neither of them ended in H. Sapiens. At the present it seems that the A. Anamensis, via H. Ergaster, is the closets hominoid to H. Sapiens

What is actually clear is that in not anymore correct to continue speaking of Lucy as  “the most likely immediate ancestor of our own genus—Homo”.
 This  A. Afarensis  is mainly in relationship with the Parantrophus 

Juan Pablo Barrenechea

Are Nakrem
Are Nakrem

I was thinking about traveling to Mars, but at my stay, I would realize that stepping out to get a smoke, would be bad to my health!

Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson

The important thing is whether or not they communicated intelligently with each other. Bipedalism is not necessarily an indication of an intelligent life form as many species are bipedal, even T-rex was bipedal, birds are bipedal, lemurs are sometimes bipedal when they walk between trees with their awkward arms-in-the-air style of theirs. 

The missing link still has not been discovered between humans and hominids. Perhaps they are looking on the wrong continent? Antarctica probably was the continent that contained many of pre-human life forms, and a few of them became stranded in Africa just years before the continents separated. We possibly will never know about this until Antarctica is explored more for mammalian fossils, but they are now buried under two miles of ice. 

Also there is only one thing to be - human. Half human just isn't human at all and is just playing with words. Why not call them half apes as well. A better term would be ape/human prehistoric hybrid.

Walt L.
Walt L.

Poor Babu. It must be continuously confusing to phantasy phabricate how it is that some Deity generated all the 5000-plus fossilized skeletal remains of primates that seem moderately similar to "homo sapiens sapiens," yet only us'ns managed to survive for the last 6,017 years. What caused the massive die-off of all those exotic hominid critters? How did the dying primates embed themselves in geologic strata that give the impression of being millions of years old? Why do we have their DNA in us? How long ago did Neanderthal and Denisovan  become extinct? Who was Cain's wife? Shoes? Did the Deity give us shoes 6,016 years ago and cause a measurable change (but certainly not evolution) of the human gait? With almost 500 different Neanderthal remains available, and some of them intentionally buried, 2 major things are very clear: their skeletons are quite different from modern humans, and they existed prior to various holy books having been written. My goodness, next thing you know some expert will claim that humans manufactured Japanese Jomon pottery 12,000 years ago!

Hank Munster
Hank Munster

This is about as scientific as changing the dewey decimal system. Fantasizing about the super distance past got me fired from my last job. These 'scientist' should try work that will actually help the future.

Marcos Toledo
Marcos Toledo

Lets see how long Australopitecus Sediba last on our human ancestor tree. Awaiting other canidates claim for being our direct ancestor palaeotology continue it's long snaking trial.

Terry Conklin
Terry Conklin

This enduring controversy over our ancestry is heartening. I'm thankful they retain open minds, unlike those who today are making "Global Warming" a matter of religious doctrine, suitable for burning skeptics a heretics. 

Sean McGee
Sean McGee

So, humans aren't vertebrate mammals?

All terrestrial tetrapods share a common ancestor, much less apes and humans. Don't "believe"in evolution? Then go lick a petri dish full of MRSA. Your faith should keep you safe from infection.

Tom Shaver
Tom Shaver

@Joe Johnson Antarctica holds many clues to the history of humanity. A great amount of artifacts from a past civilization are now being found exposed by the melting ice.  How long has ice covered these artifacts? I do not know that. I do know that an advanced civilization existed on earth before the end of the last ice age. 

Jonathan D'Sa
Jonathan D'Sa

@Terry Conklin Sorry Terry.  "Global Warming" is man made and the entire scientific community is in agreement - kind of like the scientific community is in agreement that the world is round (not flat)

Hank Munster
Hank Munster

@Sean McGee To Believe in evolution, do I have to believe in spontanious creation, because if there is no God, there is no hope for many of us less superior apes. Scientist used to explore Gods universe, now too many think their gods. The politian takes power from the church by using science to prove God is unreal. So it this a quest for truth or power? I think those rich enough to give fame and fortune to a scientist are more interested in power than truth.

Walt L.
Walt L.

@Babu Ranganathan "From Trilobites to Kilobytes" or 'How Cain Slew Abel then Married a Neanderthal Chic" (who could most certainly not have been his sister) would make a fantastic novella to describe human evolution. Or better yet, Genesis 6: "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose." Now there were giants in the Earth (possibly troglodytes) at that time, and the offspring of God's sons and men's daughters were mighty men of renown." Thus, homo sapiens evolved from some serious outbreeding. Go figure.

luke edgerton
luke edgerton

@Babu Ranganathan

Bachelor of the Arts in Biology? 
The beautiful thing about science is that it is a paradigm made up of theories that are expected to be challenged. Yes, a lot of text-books maybe outdated, but that is why teaching institutions try and use currently revised editions of trusted texts, or utilise more current alternative texts that are more widely accepted by a peer-reviewed community.

Oh, one more thing, your opening paragraph about how a slight anatomical change would be painful and a disadvantage is correct, but also shows your lack of understanding of the process of evolution. Try and promote your pseudo-science elsewhere.

Sean McGee
Sean McGee

So, humans aren't vertebrate mammals? All terrestrial tetrapods share a common ancestor. Much less humans and apes. If you don't "believe" in evolution, lick a petri dish full of MRSA. Then look up MRSA.

Marty Holden
Marty Holden

@Hank Munster @Sean McGee  Wow dude, Practice fallacy much.  You're not really supposed to combine them.  You lose track of where you started. The church takes power from you by pretending in fairy sky folk.

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