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First of Our Kind [Preview]

Sensational fossils from South Africa spark a debate over the origins of Homo

In Brief

  • The origin of our genus, Homo, is one of the biggest mysteries facing scholars of human evolution.
  • Based on the meager evidence available, scientists have surmised that Homo arose in East Africa, with Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, giving rise to the founding member of our lineage, Homo habilis. Now fossils from a site northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, could upend that scenario.
  • The fossils represent a previously unknown species of human with an amalgam of australopithecine and Homo traits that suggest to its discoverers that it could be the ancestor of Homo.

Sometime between three million and two million years ago, perhaps on a primeval savanna in Africa, our ancestors became recognizably human. For more than a million years their australopithecine predecessors—Lucy and her kind, who walked upright like us yet still possessed the stubby legs, tree-climbing hands and small brains of their ape forebearers—had thrived in and around the continent's forests and woodlands. But their world was changing. Shifting climate favored the spread of open grasslands, and the early australopithecines gave rise to new lineages. One of these offshoots evolved long legs, toolmaking hands and an enormous brain. This was our genus, Homo, the primate that would rule the planet.

For decades paleoanthropologists have combed remote corners of Africa on hand and knee for fossils of Homo's earliest representatives, seeking to understand the details of how our genus rose to prominence. Their efforts have brought only modest gains—a jawbone here, a handful of teeth there. Most of the recovered fossils instead belong to either ancestral australopithecines or later members of Homo—creatures too advanced to illuminate the order in which our distinctive traits arose or the selective pressures that fostered their emergence. Specimens older than two million years with multiple skeletal elements preserved that could reveal how the Homo body plan came together eluded discovery. Scientists' best guess is that the transition occurred in East Africa, where the oldest fossils attributed to Homo have turned up, and that Homo's hallmark characteristics allowed it to incorporate more meat into its diet—a rich source of calories in an environment where fruits and nuts had become scarce. But with so little evidence to go on, the origin of our genus has remained as mysterious as ever.

Lee Berger thinks he has found a big piece of the puzzle. A paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, he recently discovered a trove of fossils that he and his team believe could revolutionize researchers' understanding of Homo's roots. In the white-walled confines of room 210 at the university's Institute for Human Evolution, he watches as Bernard Wood of George Washington University paces in front of the four plastic cases that have been removed from their fireproof safe and placed on a table clothed in royal blue velvet. The foam-lined cases are open, revealing the nearly two-million-year-old fossils inside. One holds pelvis and leg bones. Another contains ribs and vertebrae. A third displays arm bones and a clavicle. And a fourth houses a skull. On a counter opposite the table, more cases hold a second partial skeleton, including a nearly complete hand.

Wood, a highly influential figure in the field, pauses in front of the skull and leans in for a closer look. He strokes his beard as he considers the dainty teeth, the grapefruit-size braincase. Straightening back up, he shakes his head. “I'm not often at a loss for words,” he says slowly, “but wow. Just wow.”

Berger grins. He has seen this reaction before. Since he unveiled the finds in 2010, scientists from all over the world have been flocking to his lab to gawk at the breathtaking fossils. Based on the unique anatomical package the skeletons present, Berger and his team assigned the remains to a new species, Australopithecus sediba. They furthermore propose that the combination of primitive Australopithecus traits and advanced Homo traits evident in the bones qualifies the species for a privileged place on the family tree: as the ancestor of Homo. The stakes are high. If Berger is right, paleoanthropologists will have to completely rethink where, when and how Homo got its start—and what it means to be human in the first place.

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