Friday, April 9, 2010

Skeletons open window to new species

CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, South Africa – Nine-year-old Matthew Berger dashed after his dog Tau into the high grass one sunny morning, tripped over a log and stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery. Scientists said Thursday that he had found the bones of a new hominid species that lived almost 2 million years ago during the fateful, still mysterious period spanning the emergence of the human family.

"Dad, I found a fossil!" Matthew cried out to his father, Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who had been searching for hominid bones just a hill-and-a-half away for almost two decades. Fossil hunters have profitably scoured the rolling grasslands north of Johannesburg since the 1930s.

Matthew held in his hands the ancient remains of a 4-foot-2 boy. Berger, with the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and his fellow researchers have since found much more of the skeleton, including his extraordinarily well-preserved skull, and three other individuals. South Africa's children will compete to name the boy.

In a report being published today in the journal Science, Berger, 44, and a team of scientists said the fossils from the boy and a woman were a surprising and distinctive mixture of primitive and advanced anatomy and thus qualified as a new species of hominid, the ancestors and other close relatives of humans. It was named Australopithecus sediba.

The species sediba, which means fountain or wellspring in the Sotho language, strode upright on long legs, with human-shaped hips and pelvis, but still climbed through trees on apelike arms. It had the small teeth and more modern face of Homo, the genus that includes modern humans, but the relatively primitive feet and "tiny brain" of Australopithecus, Berger said.

Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 million to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.

Berger's team said the new species probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. At a Wednesday teleconference, he described it as a possible ancestor of Homo erectus, an immediate predecessor to Homo sapiens, or a close "side branch" that did not lead to modern humans.

Many agreed that the skeletons' discovery in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site where dolomitic limestone caves contain fossils of ancient animals and hominids, was a major advance in the early fossil history of hominids.