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Hominid Fossil from Ethiopia May Be Man’s Direct Ancestor

By Curt Suplee
THE WASHINGTON POST -- From the remote Ethiopian outback, fossil-hunters have recovered the partial remains of a previously unknown, 2.5-million-year-old creature that may be the long-sought immediate predecessor of human beings.

They also found what appears to be the earliest known evidence of ancient hominids (our two-legged, humanlike forebears) using stone tools to butcher animal carcasses and prepare meat.

That ability, said co-discoverer Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley, no doubt contributed to the “dietary revolution” that provided humans with sufficient high-energy, high-fat nutrition to migrate out of Africa eventually.

If ultimately accepted by a majority of experts -- an outcome that is always uncertain in the notoriously contentious field of paleoanthropology -- the new finds could answer one of the paramount puzzles in human evolution: Exactly what species was the direct ancestor of the first humans?

The newly unearthed specimen “is in the right place, at the right time” to be that ancestor, the international researchers write in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. The skull and associated jaw show that the creature, a large male, belonged to the now-extinct hominid group called Australopithecus, bipedal foragers anatomically about midway between apes and true humans. Somewhere around 2.5 million years ago, that line divided into two branches. One became a large-toothed, big-jawed, “robust” version of australopiths. The other turned into our genus, Homo.

There is scant fossil evidence from this key evolutionary period. Nonetheless, two species have been regarded as the most likely progenitors of humans. One is Australopithecus afarensis, which existed between 3.9 million and 2.8 million years ago in East Africa. Its most celebrated fossil representative is the skeleton dubbed Lucy. The other, somewhat more plausible, candidate is A. africanus, which inhabited southern Africa between 3.5 million and 2.5 million years ago.