THE opening scene of Mel Brooks’s film “History of the World: Part One” dispenses with human origins in one line: “And the ape stood, and became man.” Would that it were that easy for palaeontologists to sort out. The transition to humanity is generally agreed to have occurred between Australopithecus, a genus of small-brained, bipedal primates whose most famous member is a fossil nicknamed “Lucy”, and the big-brained species Homo erectus. But pinning down when precisely this took place, and which of the various australopithecine species were involved, has been challenging. Now the most human-like australopithecine found to date is clarifying things—and staking a claim to be the species from which early humans evolved.
Fossils of the new species, Australopithecus sediba, were discovered in 2008 in a cave in South Africa. Initial research, led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, concluded that the species came too late in the fossil record to be the ancestor of the Homo lineage. This week, however, a range of new research into sediba, again led by Dr Berger, has been published in Science. These studies conclude that sediba did in fact predate Homo erectus and, moreover, that parts of its anatomy are surprisingly similar to modern man.