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New hominid species found
09 April 2010

Scientist Paul Dirks, Wits VC Loyiso Nongxa, deputy president Kgalema Montlanthe and scientist Lee Berger at the announcement

The Cradle of Humankind has given scientists more food in their hungry search for our origins, in the form of two skeletons belonging to an entirely new hominid species.

DID the incomplete skeleton in the glass case really walk this area almost two million years ago? Scientists say so.

Excited: professor Lee Berger
Excited: Professor Lee Berger

Two skeletons have been unearthed at Gladysvale in the Cradle of Humankind, and have been called Australopithecus sediba, an entirely new hominid species.

The University of the Witwatersrand, led by professors Lee Berger and Paul Dirks, discovered the new species, dating back 1,9 million years, in the cradle, northwest of Johannesburg. Berger is a palaeoanthropologist and Dirks is a geologist now based at James Cooke University in Australia.

Fragments of one skeleton, of a child, were on display at the announcement of the find on Thursday, 8 April at Maropeng, the intrepretation centre attached to the Sterkfontein Cave area, a world heritage site. Estimates are that the skeleton is of a boy between 11 and 13 years old; the other skeleton is of an adult female in her late 20s or early 30s.

"There are more hominid fossils [here] than I have discovered in my entire career," Berger said, barely able to contain his excitement.

Berger, whose 11-year-old son Matthew found the first fossil when he was nine, said two skeletons had been uncovered so far, and he expected many more fossils to be excavated from the site. They are the most complete hominid skeletons ever found.

Sediba is a Sotho word for a well or a spring, so named because it was hoped that "a great source of information will spring from the fossils". The particular site has been named Malapa.

The announcement of the remarkable find is the cover story of the prestigious Science journal, with two articles, written by Berger and Dirks, appearing today.

The incomplete skeleton of the juvenile Australopithecus Sediba
The incomplete skeleton of the juvenile Australopithecus Sediba

"I believe that this is a good candidate for being the transitional species between the southern African ape-man Australopithecus africanus [like the Taung Child and Mrs Ples] and either Homo habilis or even a direct ancestor of Homo erectus [like Turkana Boy, Java Man or Peking Man]," explained Berger.

The australopithecines are believed to be the ancestors of the Homo genus. The find promises to turn the palaeontological world upside down, with textbooks now having to be rewritten, he added.

The new species has long arms, like an ape, and short powerful hands, making it likely that it could have retained its ability to climb. A very advanced pelvis and long legs suggest that it was capable of striding and possibly running like a human.

"It is estimated that they were both about 1,27 metres tall, although the child would certainly have grown taller. The female probably weighed about 33 kilograms and the child about 27 kilograms at the time of his death.

"The brain size of the juvenile was between 420 and 450 cubic centimetres, which is small [when compared to the human brain of about 1 200 to 1 600 cubic centimetres] but the shape of the brain seems to be more advanced than that of australopithecines."

The world Australopithecus sediba lived in would have been a mix of open savannah grassland and forest.

Panoramic window
In the audience was Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe; the minister of science of technology, Naledi Pandor; and her deputy, Derek Hanekom; the premier of Gauteng, Nomvula Mokonyane; provincial MECs; ambassadors; other scientists; and members of the international media.

"The discovery opens an unusually panoramic window, revealing more about our African origins," said Motlanthe. "These time travellers have found their way into the present and, with the assistance of our scientists, they are able to speak to us from the distant past."

The small skull measuring between 420 and 450 cubic centimetres
The small skull measuring between 420 and 450 cubic centimetres

What is unusual about the find is that two partial skeletons have been found, opening up the possibility that they belong to a family. Berger is confident that the missing pieces of the skeletons will be found.

"I am having the adventure of my life," he said. The Australopithecus sediba would probably act as the Rosetta stone of fossils, explaining where australopithecines went.

This find means they would be taking a relook at Homo habilis. Some 130 pieces have so far been unearthed.

International team
Berger and Dirks have assembled an international team of scientists of about a dozen people, although some 60 scientists from around the world have been involved in the unravelling of the discovery.

The first step was a geological study, to help determine the age of the fossils. Other means of dating them have been used: assessing the uranium lead components in the rock; establishing the magnetic signals in the rock, which change over time; and dating the rate of erosion of the site.

Dirks embarked on a study to establish the context of how the fossils landed in the cave. This involved taking a series of sedimentary deposits and a detailed description of different rocks up to two metres deep.

"It is a hole in the ground - it must have been a cave," he said.

Investigation revealed that there had been a muddy flow of water that deposited fossils, with pieces remaining together, suggesting that they were carried down the flow together. Among the fossils found were a 1,5 million-year-old sabre tooth cat, and 2,36 million-year-old wild cats and dogs.

The erosion rate of the opening was measured, and it was established that it had been between 30 and 50 metres deep.

"The animals probably smelled the water in the cave," Dirks suggested, "and fell into the cave trying to get to it." They would have died instantly and their skeletons were carried down into a deeper chamber, joining others that had suffered the same fate. This is supported by the fact that the fossils have no scavenger or insect damage.

Excavations had not yet begun, he said; only the surface had been cleared.

This adventure began some 18 months ago, in early 2008, Berger said. He first charted the area on Google Earth, finding 600 new sites in the cradle, and then walked it with his dog, Tau.

The entrance to Maropeng, part of the Cradle of Humankind
The entrance to Maropeng, part of the Cradle of Humankind

On the day the first fossil was found he was walking with his son, Matthew; a post-doctoral student, Job Kibbii, and Tau. They walked to the edge of a pit and Berger encouraged his companions to look around.

"Within one-and-a-half minutes Matthew called out that he had found something," recalled Berger. At first he thought it was a fragment of antelope, a common find. But then he recognised the fossil as the collar bone of a hominid.

He soon found other fossils - a clavicle or shoulder blade, normally never found because it is so fragile and erodes quickly - and arm bones, while two hominid teeth "fell into my hands".

Matthew said he had been on sites with his father more than 20 times, and intended becoming a palaeoanthropologist too.

Treasure chest
Professor emeritus Philip Tobias, present at the announcement, described the area as a "treasure chest".

"I am thrilled that our expectations of the cradle area have so soon been realised," he said. "This evidence a kilometre or two from Sterkfontein has yielded several hominid individuals and that is something to get very excited about."

Describing the find as "a great joy", Tobias said that the fact that two skeletons had been found meant that it allowed scientists to study a family or community, which was much more valuable than studying individual fossils.

"Truly, visitors to South Africa, including football fans and players, will be coming home. And like all home comers, they will no doubt wish to explore their home - to see where their ancestors lived and to discover their roots," concluded Motlanthe.

Children in South Africa have been invited to come up with a name for the skeleton of the boy.

The fossil will be on display at Maropeng until 18 April, and will then move to Cape Town for the launch of Palaeo-Sciences Week from 19 April. It will again be on display at the Origins Centre at Wits during May.

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Last Updated on 30 April 2010