Lucy, the famed partial skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974, has a new companion – a male skull found just 55 kilometres from her resting place, which scientists say helps to fill a major information gap on the early evolution of man.
The 3.8 million-year-old skull, called 'MRD' is one of the most complete fossils found of Hominids that are more than three million years old, according to Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Ethiopian top paleoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the US. He is also co-author of two studies published in the journal Nature.
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Previous, lesser-known remains have been found, but the skulls or skeletons are not complete.
“This is a game-changer in our understanding of human evolution during the Pilocene,” said Haile-Selassie during a press conference on Wednesday.
Why? Because previously paleoanthropologists thought that the Australopithecus anamensis beings – like MRD – gradually morphed into A. afarensis, or Lucy, after thousands of years.
MRD is important because scientists in the study say his skull shows that both species cohabited and evolved together for some 100,000 years.
The study describes MRD's skull as small, adult male, with the middle and lower parts jutting forward. Lucy has a flatter face that corresponds more with a modern human face. The skull gives clues as to the early stages of development of broader faces and jaws to accommodate chewing tough food.
Connections to other finds
Ardi, or Ardipithecus ramidus, who was also found in Ethiopia in 1994 is apparently about 4.5 million years old.
And Toumai, from the Sahelanthropus tchadensis, was discovered in Chad in 2001. He is considered by scientist to be the first human representative and is some seven million years old.
MRD's characteristics are considered similar to Toumai (Sahelanthropus), as well as Ardi (Ardipithecus), among others, which is a new piece of information for researchers.
MRD was found by Ali Bereino, a local from Afar, in what was once a river delta on a lake shore at Woranso-Mille, some 55 kilometres from where Lucy was originally found in the northeastern Afar region of Ethiopia.
Bereino said he immediately brought the jaw that he had found to Haile-Selaissie, who went to the site as workers soon found the rest of the cranium.
"The area was one percent dirt and 99 percent goat poop,” said Haile-Selassie.
"People were not disgusted by it...but some of them of course had to cover their faces because the smell was so bad,” he said.
A small price to pay for such a discovery.
"I did not believe my eyes when I saw the rest of the skull," he said, describing the find as "a eureka moment and a dream come true".