New research suggests that the fossils of our ancestors from the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa – which are part of the so-called “cradle of humanity” – are between 3.4 and 3.6 million years old. This is a million years older than previously thought. It also means that our South African ancestors roamed the Earth already in the time of a female hominin nicknamed “Lucy”, whose skeleton was found in Ethiopia in East Africa in 1974.
PNAS, Times of Israel, Bloomberg
The Sterkfontein limestone caves are located northwest of Johannesburg in South Africa. Excavations have continued since the end of the nineteenth century, and even today. Fossils of about 500 humans or humans have been discovered there, more than any other site in the world. Along with two other sites in South Africa, Kromdray and Swartkrans, Sterkfontein is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. They are the “cradle of humanity”.
In 1947, the most complete skull ever of Australopithecus africanus, a precursor to modern humans, was found near Sterkfontein. The research was named ‘Mrs. Please’. Scientists estimate the fossil’s age to be something between 2.1 and 2.6 million years old. But according to French scientist and co-author of the new study, Laurent Brussels, “this was not chronologically correct.” For example, Recent research has shown that the skeleton of ‘Little Foot’, also Australopithecus, was 3.67 million years old.Such a large age difference between Mrs. Ples and Little Foot seemed improbable because they were separated by so few sedimentary layers.
Researchers now suspect, based on new dating techniques, that Ms. Ples are between 3.4 and 3.6 million years old. This is older than Lucy, whose age has been estimated to be 3.2 million years. South Africa is once again in competition as the region in which humanity arose, at the expense of East Africa. On this note, “South Africa was largely ignored because it was very difficult to date the fossils,” explains Ronald Clark, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and co-author of the research paper in the scientific journal PNAS. Fossils have been largely dismissed as irrelevant to the story of human evolution. It’s a big step because it confirms that these primitive ancestors were all over Africa.”
Dominic Stratford, director of cave research and co-author of the study, added that South African Australopithecus africanus and East African Australopithecus afarensis were “contemporaries.” Perhaps it came to procreation between the two. “Over millions of years and at a distance of only 4,000 kilometers, these species have had enough time to travel and breed together…so we can pretty much envision a co-evolution across Africa,” said Laurent Brussels.
According to the study, human history is “more complex than linear evolution,” according to Brussels. Our family tree is “more like a jungle, in the words of our late friend Yves Coppins,” referring to the French paleontologist who co-discovered Lucy and who died last week.
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