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article imageNew human ancestor from S.Africa a vital 'missing link'

By Christopher Szabo     Apr 6, 2010 in Science
Johannesburg - Archeologists say the discovery of a two-million-year-old skeleton of a child could provide a 'missing link' in the history of human evolution. The previously unknown species of early human ancestor is to be revealed in South Africa later this week.
The UK Telegraph reports that scientists believe the skeleton, which unlike most hominid fossils, is nearly complete, belonged to a previously unknown type of human ancestor that may have been an intermediate stage that later developed into Homo Habilis.
The near complete skeleton was found by Professor Lee Burger of the University of the Witwatersrand (known locally as ”Wits”) in Johannesburg. He was exploring cave systems in the Sterkfontein region near Johannesburg in an area dubbed the ”Cradle of Humanity” for all the finds originating there.
The discovery is considered so important that President Jacob Zuma has visited Wits University to view the fossils. The nature and environmental documentary programme 50/50 stated on Monday night it would reveal something of extraordinary importance next week. This is likely part of a major upcoming media campaign to publicize the find.
Professor Phillip Tobias, a world-renowned paleoanthropologist at the university, who was one of the experts to first identify Homo habilis in 1964, was one of the few scientists to be given access to the skeleton. He said:
To find a skeleton as opposed to a couple of teeth or an arm bone is a rarity. 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.
The new fossil was found with a number of other partial skeletons, encased in breccia sedimentary rock in Malapa cave.
Scientists hope the find will provide new information about how the human species evolved from the apelike Australopithecus, which dates back to 3,9 million years ago, to Homo habilis, described as the first distinctly human species, from around 2,5 million years ago.
The new fossil is thought to fit somewhere between Austrolopithecus and Homo habilis and would be a ”missing link” between the two.
A palaeoanthropologist at Sheffield University in the U.K. said the information was key to filling in gaps in our knowledge of early humans. He said:
The information we have right now is probably only based on a few hundred individuals through out the whole world, but some of these are single isolated teeth.
If this new specimen is more complete and provides better information, all those models about locomotive behaviour will have a chance to really go under scrutiny and refined.
The finds are expected to be announced later this week.
More about Discovery, South Africa, Hominid, Evolution, Human
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