Remains of earliest child discovered in Ethiopia

September 20th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

LONDON (Reuters) – A 3.3 million-year-old skeleton of the earliest child ever found shows the ancient ancestor of modern humans walked upright but may have also climbed trees, scientists said on Wednesday.

They discovered the well preserved remains of the three-year old girl of the species Australopithecus afarensis — the species which includes the famous fossil skeleton known as “Lucy” — in an area of Ethiopia called Dikika.

“It represents the earliest and most complete partial skeleton of a child ever found in the history of paeleoanthropology,” said Dr Zeresenay Alemseged, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The skull, torso and upper and lower limbs including the hand show both human and ape-like features. The state of the ancient bones suggest she was buried in a flood which may have also caused her death.

The remains provide the first evidence of what babies of early human ancestors looked like. The nearly complete skeleton will also provide information about the child’s height and structure.

“This child will help us understand a lot about the species to which it belongs,” said Alemseged, the leader of the international team of scientists who reported the findings in the journal Nature.

“The lower part of the body, which includes the foot, the shin bone and the thigh bone clearly shows us that this species was an upright walking creature,” he told Reuters.

But some of the features from the upper part of the body, including the shoulder blade and arms are more ape-like. The fingers are long and curved which suggest she might have been able to swing through trees.

“My opinion is that we cannot exclude that Australopithecus afarensis climbed trees,” he added.

JUVENILE “LUCY”

Dr Simon Underdown, of Oxford Brookes University in England, described it as a massively exciting discovery of a juvenile “Lucy”.

“The skeleton shows that Australopithecus afarensis clearly walked on two feet but the upper body hints at lots of time spent climbing in trees,” he said in a statement.

“This tremendous fossil will make us challenge many of the ideas we have about how and why we came to walk on two feet,” he added.

An analysis of the sediment in which the remains were found enabled researchers to build of a picture of the type of environment in which the child lived.

It was a lush area with flowing water, forests and grassland which was also affected by volcanic eruptions. The range of habitats was suitable for hippos, crocodiles and relatives of the wildebeest.

“We can see from the sediment that the region was very much characterised by a mosaic of environment that ranged from forests and woodlands near the rivers, to seasonally flooded grasslands to a flood plain that would have supported more open vegetation,” said Dr Jonathan Wynn of the University of South Florida who dated the sediments surrounding the remains.

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