Odd Fossil Skeletons Show Both Apelike and Human Traits

September 19, 2007

Ancient humanlike fossils discovered at the site of a medieval castle fill crucial gaps in the story of our evolution, scientists say.

Researchers unearthed the 1.77-million-year-old skeletons at Dmanisi in the republic of Georgia.

The fossils of three adults and a teenager are thought to belong to Homo erectus, the earliest known Homo species found outside Africa.

But the remains suggest the individuals were particularly primitive, appearing to be noticeably different from populations of the same species elsewhere.

The scientists described the ancient hominins as small-brained, tree-climbing, meat-eating midgets that were both apelike and human in appearance.

"If this [group] is Homo erectus, it is the most primitive and oldest one known," said David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian National Museum in T'bilisi, Georgia, who led the study.

(Lordkipanidze is a grantee of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)

The find is just the latest to come from the fossil-rich Dmanisi site, which was uncovered during archaeological work at a ruined medieval castle in 1991.

(Related news: "Skull Fossil Challenges Out-of-Africa Theory" [July 4, 2002].)

Small-Brained Tree-Dweller

The newfound fossils reveal that the Dmanisi ancestors had unusually small brains and bodies compared with early H. erectus fossils from Africa.

The team estimates that the individuals stood 4.7 to 5.4 feet (1.45 to 1.66 meters) tall and weighed 88 to 110 pounds (40 to 50 kilograms). The new fossils also reveal apelike arms and hands.

"Their hands were still well adapted to life [in the trees]," Lordkipanidze said of the four newfound specimens, adding that they likely slept in trees at night for safety.

Continued on Next Page >>




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