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Move Over Lucy...

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Washington, DC (3/21/01)- A 3.5 million year-old hominid skull recently discovered in Kenya could lead to a major rethink of mankind's earliest origins. The skull appears to be that of not merely a new specie, but possibly an entirely new genus, says Meave Leakey of the National Museums of Kenya.

Right: Skull of the Flat-Faced Man of Kenya, Kenyanthropus platyops
Credit: photo by Fred Spoor, copyright National Museums of Kenya.

Leakey and colleagues discovered the nearly complete skull on the arid shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The resemblance of the skull to modern humans is said to be its most striking feature. The discovers have dubbed it Kenyanthropus platyops - the Flat-Faced Man of Kenya. Until now, many paleontologists believed the oldest human ancestor to be Australopithecus afarensis, popularly known as Lucy, after the partial female skeletal remains discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The 'Flat-Faced Man' is contemporaneous with Lucy, suggesting a possible alternative ancestry for humans.

"Kenyanthropus shows persuasively that at least two lineages of early human relatives existed as far back as 3.5 million years. The early stages of human evolution are more complex than we previously thought," said Leakey in a statement issued by the National Museums of Kenya.

While the two hominids may have lived in the same time and place, they are remarkably different. The skull of Kenyanthropus, for example has a much flatter face than Australopithecus. The new new skull also has particularly small molar teeth. The researchers speculate that the two hominids may have had separate diets and did not compete for food.

“We’ve always assumed Lucy was our ancestor and now we need to re-evaluate that idea. In the absence of any other fossils in the time between about 3.8 million and 3 million years ago, the only possible human ancestor that could be claimed was Australopithecus afarensis. Now that we have a new form of early hominid from the same time period that is quite distinct from afarensis, the anthropologists will have to decide which of these forms of early human actually lies in our ancestral tree. It cannot be both,” said geologist Frank Brown, dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences at the University of Utah.

The Kenyanthropus platyops skull was discovered in August 1999 by Kenyan research assistant Justus Erus, who noticed a tooth protruding from the mudstone sediment. It is the oldest known, nearly complete cranium of any form of early human. The skull is similar to an earlier discovery known as 'skull 1470' that was found in the eastern Turkana basin in the 1970s. Called Homo rudolfensis by some and a member of genus Australopithecus by others, the most recent discovery suggests it might actually be a descendant of Kenyanthropus.

"The discovery indicates that at almost every time in the past back to 4 million years, there were two or more species of hominid existing on Earth. So where we used to see a very simple ladder of evolution from one form to the next, the current thinking is that the evolutionary history of man and manlike creatures is more like a bush with many dead ends and only one stem that leads all the way to us," explained Brown.

The research appears in the March 22, 2001 issue of Nature.

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