New hominid evidence
By: Christine Sievers, 10 September 2011

The site, Malapa, continues to astound with ground-breaking discoveries: skeletons of a woman and a child who died very close in time to each other have revealed a wealth of new information on the species Australopithecus sediba, indicating that it is a likely ancestor for our species, Homo, according to Dr Lee Berger of Wits University. 

The importance of the latest finds is that unlike the isolated bones of early hominids that are usually found, at Malapa the bones make up the most complete skeletons ever found, including the most complete hand ever described in an early hominid, the most complete undistorted pelvis (hip bone), the most accurate scan of an early human ancestor's brain, as well as new pieces of the foot and ankle. This has made it possible to identify a mix of modern and ancient features within one individual, for example, the hand with a thumb longer than ours, was adapted for climbing in trees, but also capable of sophisticated precision grip; the small brain (about the size of a grapefruit) had a human shape; the pelvis combined the shape and form of more ancient and more modern hominids; and ankle and heel bones showed the individuals probably practised a unique form of bipedalism (walking upright on two feet), but that they also spent time in trees.

Uranium/Thorium age estimations and palaeomagnetic dating based on the reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles between 1.977 and 1.98 million years ago give a date, to within 300 000 years (unheard of accuracy for those times), of when these ancient hominids roamed around the area now known as the Cradle of Humankind. The team studying the more than 220 fossil bones and associated surroundings is one of the largest ever assembled in the history of archaeology or palaeontology. With more than 80 scientists, students and technicians from across the globe involved in the study, and a range of expertise from amongst others, geologists, computer specialists, functional morphologists, anatomists and physicists, more announcements of astounding discoveries are likely.

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