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Early human ancestors had lots of company, fossils reveal (+video)

Our apelike forbears shared East Africa with lots of other hominid species, according to an analysis of fossils discovered in northern Kenya.

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"It had very flat facial features — you could draw a straight line from its eye socket to where its incisor teeth would be," researcher Fred Spoor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told LiveScience. "This shows east Africa about 2 million years ago was quite a crowded place with many diverse species of early Homo," Spoor said.

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The environment was more verdant back then than it is today, with a larger lake. "There was plenty of opportunities ecologically to accommodate more than one hominid species," Spoor said.

Other researchers suggest these new fossils are not enough evidence of a new human species. However, "these are really distinctive shape profiles — it really shows something completely different," Leakey said. "I feel pretty confident that we're not just dealing with variation in one species."

In principle, researchers might be able to reconstruct what this new species might have eaten by looking at its teeth and jaws. "The incisors are really rather small compared to what you'd find in other early Homo," Spoor said. "In the back of the mouth, the teeth are large, telling us a lot of food processing was going on there ... it may be possible it ate more tough, plantlike foods than meat."

Other extinct human fossils discovered in that area are thought to belong to H. habilis. As such, at least two different species once lived in that site in northern Kenya. However, it remains possible these other fossils do not belong to H. habilis, suggesting yet another species lived there at the same time, paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood at George Washington University at Washington, D.C., who did not take part in this research, said in a review of this work.

The scientists detail their findings in the Aug. 9 issue of the journal Nature.

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