Lucy, meet Ardi.
Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, is the newest fossil skeleton out of Africa to take its place in the gallery of human origins. At an age of 4.4 million years, it lived well before and was much more primitive than the famous 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, of the species Australopithecus afarensis.
Since finding fragments of the older hominid in 1992, an international team of scientists has been searching for more specimens and on Thursday presented a fairly complete skeleton and their first full analysis. By replacing Lucy as the earliest known skeleton from the human branch of the primate family tree, the scientists said, Ardi opened a window to “the early evolutionary steps that our ancestors took after we diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees.”
The older hominid was already so different from chimps that it suggested “no modern ape is a realistic proxy for characterizing early hominid evolution,” they wrote.
The Ardipithecus specimen, an adult female, probably stood 4 feet tall and weighed about 120 pounds, almost a foot taller and twice the weight of Lucy. Its brain was no larger than a modern chimp’s. It retained an agility for tree-climbing but already walked upright on two legs, a transforming innovation in hominids, though not as efficiently as Lucy’s kin.
Ardi’s feet had yet to develop the arch-like structure that came later with Lucy and on to humans.
Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, a leader of the team, said in an interview this week that the genus Ardipithecus appeared to resolve many uncertainties about “the initial stage of evolutionary adaptation” after the hominid lineage split from that of the chimpanzees. No fossil trace of the last common ancestor, which lived some time before 6 million years ago, according to genetic studies, has yet come to light.
The other two significant stages occurred with the rise of Australopithecus, which lived from about 4 million to 1 million years ago, and then the emergence of Homo, our own genus, before 2 million years ago. The ancestral relationship of Ardipithecus to Australopithecus has not been determined, but Lucy’s australopithecine kin are generally recognized as the ancestral group from which Homo evolved.
Scientists not involved in the new research hailed its importance.