Ancient Hominid Fossils go on display in South Africa

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays many of us visit relatives and spend time with the family.  Perhaps you may have had relatives come and stay with you over the festive season.  However, if you want to visit some very ancient ancestors then head down to South Africa, as some very rare ancient hominid remains have just been put on display.

Southern and eastern Africa is believed to be the cradle of mankind, the part of the world where our species H. sapiens evolved.  At Maropeng, north of Johannesburg a new exhibition has opened with a number of ancient hominid and ape fossils on display.  Most of these items are normally kept under lock and key in museum vaults but this new exhibition is permitting the public to see some of these prehistoric relics for the first time – a kind of window onto the evolution of humans and our own species.  This area is famous for its hominid fossils, it is regarded as one of the most important sites for palaeontological research into early human origins.

Amongst the exhibits are fossilised animal bones that show signs of being butchered by ancient human hands, plus the burned remains of animals, some of the first fossil evidence of humans using fire in a controlled way.

One of the fossils on display is the nearly complete skull of a Paranthropus.  This particular skull dates from around 1.8 million years ago , the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch, a time when a number of ape and hominid species co-existed in Africa.  Scientists believe that it was around 1.8 million years ago that the ancestors of modern humans such as H. habilis split away from the ape/primate evolutionary path and began to develop the characteristics that would lead ultimately to our evolution.

The skull of Paranthropus  is very ape-like in appearance with heavy brow ridges, wide cheekbones (to accommodate a strong set of teeth for a largely vegetarian diet) and a sloping cranium.

This particular specimen stood about 1.1 metres to 1.2m tall, about the size of a 10 year old child.  The skull is quite small when compared to a modern human.  The brain size has been estimated to be approximately 530 cubic centimetres, less than half that of our own species and tests on the fossil indicate that this little ape-like creature probably only lived until about twenty years of age.   It was certainly a harsh environment, there were many predators including sabre-toothed cats and other hominid species such as H. ergaster competing for food.

This particular species went extinct about one million years ago, but its discovery in the 1930s was a vital step in the understanding of human evolution.

The more human-like Homo ergaster, was perhaps the first human species to develop stone tools,  although Paranthropus may have used bone and horn implements.  A change in climate to more arid conditions led to the extinction of Paranthropus, it seems they were not able to survive the climate change – perhaps a lesson there for modern humans.

“Being a vegetarian will make you extinct,” joked Christine Steininger, a palaeoanthropologist.

“Paranthropus used a very niche part of the environment whereas early Homo was very much more general,” said Lindsay Marshall, curator of the Maropeng exhibition centre. “Early Homo could accommodate and survive across a much broader environment.”

It is our ancestor’s inherent adaptability that may have helped them survive and to give rise to the human species.  Being a generalist rather than a specialist could account for the survival of our ancestors.

As an evolutionary dead end, Paranthropus is more of a cousin to modern man than a direct ancestor, but its existence is proof that the pattern which finally led to the emergence of Homo sapiens is far more complicated than a simple straight line.

One of the Display Cases at the Exhibition

Picture Credit: Naashon Zalik (National)

The display case shows the Paranthropus skull in the foreground

“What makes Paranthropus so special is they were co-existing with Homo ergaster but would ultimately die out,” Ms Marshall commented.  “We are dealing with an evolutionary tree, branches that are sprouting off, species that eventually died out.”

Nonetheless, the ancient Paranthropus fossil provides some tantalising glimpses into hominid evolution.  It exhibits several significant human characteristics.  Merely from the curved surface of one of its metatarsal bones, Bernard Zipfel, the curator of collections at the University of the Witwatersrand and also a palaeoanthropologist, can deduce that it walked on two legs, albeit not as efficiently as modern humans.

“Walking upright is one of the primary evolutionary occurrences towards us as humans today,” he said.  “Once we got up on to our hind legs we were able to free up our hands to do more with them and then that developed the brain”.

East Africa is generally regarded as where the first hominid species evolved, thanks to the world-renowned discoveries of Richard Leakey and examples such as Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis.  It has been estimated that as many as five different species of Australopithcines co-existed in Africa around 2 million years ago.

But specialists in South Africa are keen to stress their own region’s vital role, and the geographical rivalry between the eastern and southern part of the continent is an extra element in the academic debate on the intricacies of human evolution.  From the limited fossil data available it does seem that hominids evolved in Africa and our own species can trace its origins to this continent.  Some of the earliest fossils of our own species have been found in South Africa.

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