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New A. afarensis Skeleton Answers Some Questions
June 22, 2010 6:43 AM   Subscribe

Ever since the famed Lucy skeleton was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, there have been some unanswered questions. She was very tiny, and some researchers claimed it was unlikely that she (and, by extension, Australopithecus afarensis) could walk. Although other specimens were found throughout the 70s, none were more than bone fragments. Recently, researchers announced that they found another partial skeleton, and they believe it proves that afarensis was bipedal.
posted by Plutor (7 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. That is great. Walking upright is what makes us special. I read once that walking upright freed up our hands, and our very adroit hands required and helped us develop strong brains to control precise manipulations. It also allows us to carry our very helpless babies (who can't hang on like chimps) while they grow their big brains and long legs. Carrying babies, in turn, made mothers of infants dependent on others to gather and hunt food for them, which led to strong communities. Our big brains and recognition of "others" required us to conceptualize our "selves" to fit into the story of us. Hence, self-consciousness (which may be shared by dolphins and chimps, also big-brained, social animals). I am not a scientist, and I obviously oversimplify, but this is just so interesting.
posted by wheeooh at 7:19 AM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


wheeooh: "Walking upright is what makes us special."

Ironically, this discovery may prove for the first time that walking upright does not make us special. It'd be the first non-Homo that walked upright (H. erectus was so named for this reason).
posted by Plutor at 8:11 AM on June 22, 2010


I think maybe the most interesting thing about this whole article (which is quite interesting indeed) is the fact that the curator and head of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History shares his name with Ras Tafari. Of course, Haile-Selassie is probably like Smith in Ethiopia, but still.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:44 AM on June 22, 2010


There's been conclusive proof of bipedal australopithecines (and indeed, Australopithecus afarensis) since at least 1979, with the discovery of the Laetoli Footprints - two sets of bipedal footprints which were preserved in ash and fossilized in the same layer as A. afarensis specimens. They're about 3.6 million years old. I was told that their discovery was an accidental byproduct of a mudfight which actually used elephant dung, but this may just be apocryphal :-P

Incidentally, this group of paleontologists were the folks who published on Ardipithecus ramidus - Tim White and Yohannes Haile-Selassie (among others). Early hominid paleontology is such a small field!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:23 AM on June 22, 2010


Sys Rq, actually, in Ethiopia, the name convention is that your first name is what your parents give you at birth; your second name is your father's name; your third name is your grandfather's name; and so on. Ethiopians (like many Arabs) can trace their paternal line back quite far this way.

Most will go by just their first name, toss in a second name for clarity, and, when having to conform to western conventions, sometimes use the third name, add a hyphen, etc.

Also, Haile took on that name when he became monarch, to connect him to the royal line of his family. But it's no surprise the names are popular.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:31 AM on June 22, 2010


ChuraChura: "with the discovery of the Laetoli Footprints - two sets of bipedal footprints which were preserved in ash and fossilized in the same layer as A. afarensis specimens."

The Laetoli Footprints are proof of incidental bipedal walking, but not necessarily exclusive bidalism. Only skeleton analysis can really demonstrate the latter. (Chimps and bonobos, for instance, can walk on two legs for extended periods of time.) Although the Wikipedia article does say that computer simulations have shown the footprints were made with a foot arch and human-like gait.
posted by Plutor at 11:45 AM on June 22, 2010


Ironically, this discovery may prove for the first time that walking upright does not make us special. It'd be the first non-Homo that walked upright (H. erectus was so named for this reason).

But that's a pointless distinction. We can't test any of these skeletons against the biological species concept (which is the best thing going when it comes to divvying up species, and that's damning with faint praise), so who knows if there's a real division between Homo and Australopithecus beyond what some mid-century archaeologists believed? The more important point is that upright bipedalism developed since the split with chimpanzees, which we know a priori.


The Laetoli Footprints are proof of incidental bipedal walking, but not necessarily exclusive bidalism. Only skeleton analysis can really demonstrate the latter. (Chimps and bonobos, for instance, can walk on two legs for extended periods of time.) Although the Wikipedia article does say that computer simulations have shown the footprints were made with a foot arch and human-like gait.

Well, there's also that the prints indicate the earliest adducted big toe.
posted by The Michael The at 4:07 PM on June 22, 2010


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