Exciting new kenyan fossils challenge established views on early evolution of our genus homo
(NC&T/ICL) Human evolution over the last two million years is often portrayed as a linear succession of three species: Homo habilis to Homo erectus to ourselves, Homo sapiens. Of these, Homo erectus is commonly seen as the first human ancestor which is like us in many respects, but with a smaller brain. The new fossils are significant because both their relative geological ages and their physical attributes directly challenge these views about our human ancestry. One of the two fossils, an upper jaw bone of Homo habilis (KNM-ER 42703), dates from 1.44 million years ago, which is more recent than previously known fossils of that species. This late-survivor shows that Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived side by side in eastern Africa for nearly half a million years. "Their co-existence makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis," explains Meave Leakey, one of the lead authors of the paper. Instead, both species must have had their origins between 2 and 3 million years ago, a time from which few human fossils are known. "The fact that they stayed separate as individual species for a long time suggests that they had their own ecological niche, thus avoiding direct competition." The second fossil (KNM-ER 42700), found in the same region of northern Kenya, is an exquisitely preserved skull of Homo erectus, dated to about 1.55 million years ago. "What is truly striking about this fossil is its size," says Fred Spoor, another lead author. "It is the smallest Homo erectus found thus far anywhere in the world." Significantly, the variation in size of East African Homo erectus fossils, from the petite new skull to a large specimen discovered previously at Olduvai Gorge in neighboring Tanzania, almost rivals that shown by modern gorillas. "In gorillas males are much larger than females, and this sexual dimorphism is related to their strategy of having multiple mates," observes co-author Susan Antón. "The new Kenyan fossil suggests that, contrary to common belief, this may have been true of Homo erectus as well." Because great sexual dimorphism is thought to be a primitive, or ancestral, feature during human evolution, the diminutive new find implies that Homo erectus was not as human-like as once thought.
|Meave Leakey and members of the field crew excavating the Homo erectus skull KNM-ER 42700. (Photo: copyright Koobi Fora Research Project; photo by L.N. Leakey)|
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