Lucy's Baby [Preview]

An ancient infant skeleton yields new insight into how humans evolved to walk upright

In Brief

  • Researchers working in northeastern Ethiopia found the remains of a baby Australopithecus afarensis, a species believed to be ancestral to our own.
  • Some 3.3 million years old, the spectacularly complete skeleton is the earliest child in the human fossil record.
  • Preserving bones never before known for A. afarensis, the specimen is raising questions about how our ancestors became bipedal.
  • The Dikika infant may also illuminate the order in which other body parts changed over the course of human evolution.

The arid badlands of ethiopia's remote afar region have long been a favorite hunting ground for paleoanthropologists. Many hominins—the group that includes all the creatures in the human line since it branched away from that of the chimps—once called it home. The area is perhaps best known for having yielded “Lucy,” the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor known as Australopithecus afarensis. In 2006 researchers unveiled another incredible A. afarensis specimen from a site called Dikika, just four kilometers from where Lucy turned up. But unlike Lucy, who was well into adulthood by the time she died, the recently discovered fossil is that of an infant, one who lived 3.3 million years ago (and yet has nonetheless been dubbed “Lucy's baby”).

No other hominin skeleton of such antiquity—including Lucy—is as complete as this one. Moreover, as the earliest juvenile hominin ever found, the Dikika child provides an unprecedented opportunity to study growth processes in our ancient relatives. “If Lucy was the greatest fossil discovery of the 20th century,” says Donald C. Johanson of Arizona State University, who unearthed the famed fossil in 1974, “then this baby is the greatest find of the 21st thus far.”

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