The Telegraph UK has reported that the nearly complete skeleton of a new species of hominid — one which may well rewrite the history of human evolution — has been found near Johannesburg, South Africa.
The two-million-year-old skeleton of a child, which is part of the evolutionary branch of primates that includes humans, will be unveiled this week. The skeleton was found by Professor Lee Berger, from the University of the Witwatersrand, while exploring cave systems in the Sterkfontein region of South Africa, in an area known as “the Cradle of Humanity.”
Palaeontologists and human evolutionary experts behind the discovery have remained silent about the exact details of what they have uncovered, but the scientific community is already abuzz with anticipation of the announcement of the find when it is made on Thursday.
The find is deemed to be so significant that Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has visited the university to view the fossils. Professor Phillip Tobias, an eminent human anatomist and anthropologist at the university who was one of three experts to first identify Homo habilis as a new species of human in 1964, described the latest discovery as “wonderful” and “exciting” — he added:
“It is one thing to find a lower jaw with a couple of teeth, but it is another thing to find the jaw joined onto the skull, and those in turn uniting further down with the spinal column, pelvis and the limb bones… it is not a single find, but several specimens representing several individuals. The remains now being brought to light by Dr Berger and his team are wonderful.”
Scientists believe that a group of apelike hominids known as Australopithicus, which first emerged in Africa around 3.9 million years ago, gradually evolved into the first Homo species. Over time the Australopithicus species lost their more apelike features as they started to stand upright and their brain capacity increased.
Around 2.5 million years ago Homo habilis, the first species to be described as distinctly human, began to appear, although only a handful of specimens have ever been found. It is thought that the new fossil to be unveiled this week will be identified as a new species that fits somewhere between Australopithicus and Homo habilis.
If it is confirmed as a missing link, it would be of immense scientific importance, helping to fill in a gap in the evolutionary history of modern man.