TUKUL 3: Palaeoanthropology

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The Australopithecines

The Australopithecines are African Hominids that appeared about 5.0 Myr ago. After the first discovery in 1925 of a skull of an Australopithecus in South Africa (the Taung child), several hundreds fossils referable to these Hominids were discovered in East and South Africa. They can be divided into two large groups: the gracile Australopithecines with three species Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus bahrelghazali, Australopithecus africanus and the Paranthropus or robust Australopithecines, with three species: Australopithecus (Paranthropus) aethiopicus, Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei and Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus.

Australopithecus bahrelgazali

Australopitecus afarensis is well known in East Africa in the sites of Laetoli, Koobi Fora, Omo and Hadar. The famous skeleton of Lucy, represented by 52 bone fragments belonging to the skull and to the post-cranial skeleton, was discovered in 1974 at Hadar, in levels dated to 3.5 and 3.0 Myr.

Australopithecus bahrelghazali, informally called Abel, is a mandible discovered in 1995 in Chad (site KT 12) and dated between 3.5 and 3.0 Myr. This is the first Australopithecus known West of the Rift Valley. This mandible is characterized by an archaic dental morphology. 

Australopithecus africanus, which includes the Taung child, is probably slightly more recent than the other two species and is so far known only in South Africa. The size of this Australopithecus is small and it has a height of about 125 cm; the dentition was adapted to an omnivorous diet.

The Taung child

In East Africa, within the group of the robust Australopithecines or Paranthropus, two species are known in levels dated between 3.0 and 1.4 Myr: Australopithecus (Paranthropus) aethiopicus and Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei.

Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus, appearing around 2.2 Myr, is instead known only in South Africa. Stronger than the “gracile” species, with a height of about 150 cm and a weight of about 50 kg, these robust Australopithecines present a dentition adapted to a diet of roots and tubers. In males the skull is characterized by a strong sagittal crest which documents the development of temporal muscles related to the masticatory apparatus.

Three new species, discovered in recent years, should be added to all these well known species of Australopithecines: the first one, discovered in the Middle Awash Valley in Ethiopia, is called Ardipithecus ramidus; the second one, identified more recently from several findings in the Lake Turkana region, is known as Australopithecus anamensis; the third one was recently described under the name of Australopithecus garhi. Ardipithecus ramidus, recovered from a level included between two tuffs dated to 4.0 Myr, was initially considered the oldest known hominid. However, there is no widespread agreement among palaeoanthropologists concerning the phylogenetic position of this fossil because of the lack of molarization of the premolars and the thickness of the tooth enamel which make this fossil more similar to apes. Also the phylogenetic position of Australopithecus anamensis is still being debated.

Since some of the Australopithecines were contemporaneous with the earliest representatives of the genus Homo, between 2.5 and 1.4 Myr, they cannot be considered direct ancestors of humans. Only Australopithecus garhi, dated to 2.5 Myr, could mark the beginning of the line leading to the genus Homo. The Australopithecines are characterized by a skull with relatively thin bones, reinforced by robust features and with a strong pneumatization, a cranial capacity of about 500 cm3, a continuous torus over the orbits, massive and robust mandibles without chin, relatively large premolars and particularly wide molars, a lower premolar with two cusps, and a molarized lower deciduous first molar. The morphology of the pelvic bones and the lower limbs show a bipedal gait which was confirmed by the footprints found at Laetoli (Tanzania) dated to about 3.5 Myr. The upper limbs indicate an ability to make wide movements which also allowed an arboreal behavior. It has been sometimes suggested that the Australopithecines could be responsible for the first lithic tools.


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