By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent and James Burleigh
06 March 2005
Scientists in Ethiopia have found the world's oldest early human skeleton. Dating back 3.8-4 million years, it still has its ribs, vertebrae and pelvis, according to reports from Addis Ababa.
There is also an ankle bone which, with the tibia, proves the creature walked upright. The only other early hominid skeleton approaching that sort of age is the famous 3.2 million-year-old remains of an Australopithecus afarensis proto-human called Lucy, unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974.
The new find seems to have been part of a substantial community. Bones from up to 11 other early humans, probably of the same species, were found last month in the same geological deposit, Mille, 37 miles north of Hadar, where Lucy was found.
Yohannes Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian palaeo-anthropologist who found the remains, described the discovery as 'a once in a lifetime find'. Palaeontologists in Ethiopia had previously discovered the remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, a transitional creature with significant ape characteristics dating back as much as 4.5 million years ago but there is some dispute over whether it walked upright on two legs. The fossils would help 'join the dots' between the two hominids, said Mr Haile Selassie.
He said: 'This discovery will tell us much about how our 4-million-year-old ancestors walked, how tall they were and what they looked like. It opens the door on a poorly known time period and helps us understand the early phases of human evolution before Lucy.' Bruce Latimer, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio and co-leader of the team that discovered the fossils, said that the bones are the latest in a growing collection of early human fragments which help explain the evolutionary history of man.
Mr Latimer said: 'Right now we can say this is the world's oldest bipedal' - an animal walking on two feet. What makes it so significant, he said, is because 'what makes us human is walking upright'.
The disovery comes in a remarkable week for advances in understanding of our ancestors. On Friday it emerged that a brain scan of the 'Hobbit' apeman - Homo floresiensis - found on the island of Flores, Indonesia, last year appears to have settled a scientific dispute as to whether the creature was indeed a new member of the human family or just an unfortunate suffering a congenital brain disease.
H floresiensis was about three feet tall when fully mature, with a head perfectly in proportion to the rest of its body. Its remains, when tested, were shown to be about 18,000 years old. A team led by Dean Falk of Florida State University performed the scan of the creature's skull. He said the lining of the skull suggested the brain of H floresiensis was capable of the higher thought patterns characteristic of humans. ©2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.