- Paleoanthropologists have long thought that humans descended from a chimpanzeelike ancestor and that early human fossils belonged to a single evolving lineage. According to this view, only later did our predecessors diversify into multiple overlapping branches of humans, of which our species is the sole survivor.
- Recent fossil discoveries have upended that scenario, however, providing intriguing evidence that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees may not have looked particularly chimplike and that our early forebearers were not alone in Africa.
- The findings are forcing researchers to reconsider what traits indicate that a species belongs on the line leading to us—and to question whether it will ever be possible to identify our last common ancestor.
From a distance, you probably would have assumed her to be human. Although she stood only about a meter tall, with long arms and a small head, she walked, if perhaps slightly inelegantly, upright on two legs, as we, alone among living mammals, do. This familiar yet strange individual is Lucy, a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, who lived some 3.2 million years ago. She is one of the oldest creatures presumed to have strode on the evolutionary path leading to our species, Homo sapiens.
When Lucy was uncovered in 1974, evidence of bipedal locomotion virtually guaranteed her kind a spot in the human family tree. And although scientists had an inkling that other branches of humans coexisted more recently alongside our own, early human evolution appeared to be a simple affair, with Lucy and the other ancient bipeds that eventually came to light belonging to the same lone lineage. Thus, the discoveries seemed to uphold the notion of human evolution as a unilinear “march of progress” from a knuckle-walking chimplike ape to our striding, upright form—a schema that has dominated paleoanthropology for the past century. Yet as researchers dig back further in time, our origins are turning out to be a lot more complicated than that iconic image would suggest.
This article was originally published with the title Shattered Ancestry.