Is Australopithecus Sediba the Most Important Human Ancestor Discovery Ever?
Three years ago researchers added a new branch to the human family tree: Australopithecus sediba, a nearly two-million-year-old relative from South Africa. By all accounts it was a dazzling find—two partial skeletons, an adult female and young male, from a site called Malapa just outside Johannesburg. And it has been making headlines regularly since then whenever scientists release results of new studies of the material, as they did earlier this month. Any time human fossils, especially skeletons, are unearthed it’s a big deal, because such remains are so incredibly rare. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that A. sediba may just be the most important hominin (modern humans and their extinct relatives) discovery yet.
Now, I can already hear the protests of more than a few paleoanthropologists. But hear me out-and then if you don’t buy it you can tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.
To appreciate the importance of any given discovery, we must consider it in its historical context. Viewed that way, one might consider the 1856 discovery of Neandertal fossils in western Germany to be the most important, since it marked the beginning of human paleontology as a field of inquiry. The Taung child (Australopithecus africanus), found in South Africa in 1924, was another momentous find, offering up the first convincing evidence that humankind originated in Africa. Then there’s the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis)-the most complete hominin skeleton known at the time she was found in Ethiopia in 1974 and still the best known to the public—whose anatomy established that hominins walked upright long before brain size expanded, settling a longstanding debate. More recently, the 18,000-year-old Flores hobbit (Homo floresiensis), announced in 2004, made waves with her diminutive proportions and other traits that challenge longstanding ideas about hominin adaptation and biogeography. And Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus) was a sensation when scientists unveiled her in 2009, suggesting that some enduring notions about the origin of bipedalism and the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees might be wrong.