Fossils of ancient human ancestors found hidden in plain sight

The remains turned up in a large rock in a laboratory at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the university announced today.

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The tooth of a hominid, Australopithecus sediba, embedded in a rock that contains significant parts of a skeleton of this early human ancestor.

Two years ago, scientists announced they had discovered partial skeletons from a new species of human ancestor in a South African cave.

Now, more remains have turned up — in a large rock about 3.3 feet (1 meter) in diameter hiding in plain sight in a laboratory at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the university announced June 12.

The rock was found almost three years ago, but the true value of what it contained didn't become apparent until early last month, according to the university.

The rock has been scanned in CT scanner, a device typically used for medical purposes.

"We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body, including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements," Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the university, said in a statement.

Berger lead the team that discovered this species of early human ancestor in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg andnamed it Australopithecus sediba,

Plans are underway to allow the public to watch, either in person or via a live Internet video feed, as the fossils come out of the rock. A laboratory studio, designed in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, is expected to be built at the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the heart of the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage Site in South Africa, according to the announcement. 

In 2010, Berger and his colleagues announced the discovery of a new species of human ancestor after finding two partial skeletons, an adult female and a juvenile male, estimated to be nearly 2 million years old. Given its combination of primitive and more modern human-like characteristics, he and colleagues have argued that this species, named Au. sebida, may be the ancestor to the genus Homo, to which modern humans, Homo sapiens, belong. 

Other researchers have questioned this, and Au. sebida's position in the human family tree has remained uncertain.

"It's beautifully preserved and sometimes wonderfully completed," Donald Johanson, founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University said of the Au. sebida fossils removed from rock so far. "But at 1.8 or 1.9 million years old, it is really too late to evolve to be an ancestor to Homo."

This is because other fossils belonging to Homo have been also been dated to around this time, he explained.

The latest discovery has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_ParryorLiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.