We May Have Discovered A New Species Of Ancient Hominin

Little Foot's Skull. Wits University

Bones first discovered 20 years ago in South Africa are at the center of a heated debate. The fossil (dubbed “Little Foot” because of its little feet) is a fully intact hominin skeleton – a specimen, some are saying, that represents an entirely new species of early human, New Scientist reports.

Because of the contentious nature of the skeleton, the first set of research papers have been published online (1, 2, 3, 4) before being peer-reviewed.

Initial analysis of the skeleton (one of the most complete on record) suggests it belonged to a 1.3-meter-tall (4.2-foot) elderly female who died approximately 3.67 million years ago, which is more than a million years older than paleoanthropologists originally thought. The shape of her teeth implies her diet would have been almost entirely plant-based, unlike the omnivorous diet of a close hominin relative, a species called Australopithecus africanus. Meanwhile, the shape of her upper and lower limbs indicates she spent the majority of her time on two legs, not four.

According to the researchers, Little Foot would have been more adept at climbing trees than we are, but modern humans have the edge when it comes to carrying objects.

Ronald Clarke, the paleoanthropologist who spent the last two decades excavating Little Foot, believes she is, in fact, an entirely new species of hominin, one that he is now calling Australopithecus prometheus.

Why A. prometheus? According to Ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan responsible for creating humankind with clay – a fitting name for a (potentially) new species that may be an important stepping stone in the evolution of us. A. prometheus was originally coined by Raymond Dart in 1948 to describe another fossil found in South Africa, which he argued (rightly, as it turned out) provides evidence in favor of the "Out of Africa" theory. But the name didn’t stick.

"There are many, many differences [between Little Foot and A. africanus], not only in the skull but also in the rest of the skeleton," Clarke told New Scientist, including a flatter face, bigger teeth, and a large gap between the upper canines and incisors.

But not everyone is entirely convinced and the papers will have to undergo the review process before Clarke’s suspicions can be confirmed.

While the team is still waiting for their work to be reviewed, they have hurried things along somewhat due to various controversies over who should be allowed access to the fossils. The first set of research papers has been published on a pre-print server to beat any competing research teams. Already, a second team has been granted access to the bones.

If A. prometheus is a new species (and it is a big if), it will be the first new species of hominin since the discovery of Homo naledi in 2015. 

[H/T: New Scientist]

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