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Fossilised skull reveals face of early human ancestor

Published: 02nd October, 2019 at 08:00
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The skull belonged to the oldest-known member of Australopithecus – a group of east African hominins that preceded the emergence of the Homo genus by around two million years.

The skull was discovered in 2016 at Miro Dora, in the Mille district of the Afar Regional State in Ethiopia. Analysis of its shape indicates that it belongs to Australopithecus anamensis, an ancient hominin that dates back to a time when early human ancestors were transitioning from living in trees to living on the ground.


The structure of its leg bones and ankle joints indicates that they walked upright on two feet, but their long arms and wrist bones also suggests that they were accomplished climbers. The size of the skull’s cranial cavity indicates that its brain was about the same size as a chimpanzee’s.

Side view of the skull © ESA

The researchers used distinctive features of the skull, particularly those of the upper jaw and canine teeth, to determine that it belonged to a representative of Australopithecus anamensis, a hominin species that lived between 4.2 and 3.8 million years ago.

Read more about our human ancestors:

The term ‘hominin’ refers to any human-like ape species, including modern humans as well as all of our early ancestors.

Front view of the skull © ESA

The age of the fossil was determined as being around 3.8 million years old. To deduce this, sedimentologist Beverly Saylor and her colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio dated the minerals in layers of volcanic rock found nearby.

Facial reconstruction of A. Anamensis © ESA

Palaeoartist John Gurche, who is artist-in-residence at New York’s Museum of the Earth, used the skull to piece together an incredibly realistic facial reconstruction of A. anamensis.

The skull and a 3D-printed replica © Getty Images
© Getty Images

The skull was displayed alongside a 3D-printed replica during a press conference in Addis Ababa hosted by Ethiopian palaeoanthropologist Prof Yohannes Haile-Selassie, who found the skull.


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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