Australopithecus sediba - the 1.97 million-year-old extinct human relative causing contention at the foot of the human family tree - may yet have more surprises in store.
Researchers studying the fossils of a woman and young boy are optimistic that a thin layer coating the bones may be mummified skin. If so, this would be the first evidence of any soft tissue preserved in an extinct human relative.
Such a find could have monumental implications for the study of human evolution, as skin contains the vital ingredient of life - DNA. Tests could then be performed to detect signatures of interbreeding for instance, between Sediba and other hominins.
What’s more, stone tools found in the surrounding area may also have been fashioned by A. sediba, but caution must be shown when making the latter assumption.
According to discoverer Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, ”what we have never found is direct association of an early hominid species with lithics [stone tools].”
Sediba was discovered in 2008 at South Africa’s notoriously rich Cradle of Humankind site and later described in detail in a series of Science papers. Remnants of the pair’s last meal is embedded in their teeth and their diet is also being investigated by examining their enamel.
Translating as “spring” or “fountain” in a local dialect, Sediba’s position in the story of human evolution remains largely unanswered. Donald Johansson, discoverer of Lucy – the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis female – even went as far as to suggest that Sediba belonged to our genus, Homo.
Read the New Scientist news story here.
Nature news article: Calloway, E. 2011. Fossils raise questions about human ancestry. Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2011.527