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Concept: Australopithecus afarensis


Laetoli is a well-known palaeontological locality in northern Tanzania whose outstanding record includes the earliest hominin footprints in the world (3.66 million years old), discovered in 1978 at Site G and attributed to Australopithecus afarensis. Here, we report hominin tracks unearthed in the new Site S at Laetoli and referred to two bipedal individuals (S1 and S2) moving on the same palaeosurface and in the same direction as the three hominins documented at Site G. The stature estimates for S1 greatly exceed those previously reconstructed for Au. afarensis from both skeletal material and footprint data. In combination with a comparative reappraisal of the Site G footprints, the evidence collected here embodies very important additions to the Pliocene record of hominin behaviour and morphology. Our results are consistent with considerable body size variation and, probably, degree of sexual dimorphism within a single species of bipedal hominins as early as 3.66 million years ago.

Concepts: Human, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Bipedalism, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus, Ardipithecus, Laetoli


While there is broad agreement that early hominins practiced some form of terrestrial bipedality, there is also evidence that arboreal behavior remained a part of the locomotor repertoire in some taxa, and that bipedal locomotion may not have been identical to that of modern humans. It has been difficult to evaluate such evidence, however, because of the possibility that early hominins retained primitive traits (such as relatively long upper limbs) of little contemporaneous adaptive significance. Here we examine bone structural properties of the femur and humerus in the Australopithecus afarensis A.L. 288-1 (“Lucy”, 3.2 Myr) that are known to be developmentally plastic, and compare them with other early hominins, modern humans, and modern chimpanzees. Cross-sectional images were obtained from micro-CT scans of the original specimens and used to derive section properties of the diaphyses, as well as superior and inferior cortical thicknesses of the femoral neck. A.L. 288-1 shows femoral/humeral diaphyseal strength proportions that are intermediate between those of modern humans and chimpanzees, indicating more mechanical loading of the forelimb than in modern humans, and by implication, a significant arboreal locomotor component. Several features of the proximal femur in A.L. 288-1 and other australopiths, including relative femoral head size, distribution of cortical bone in the femoral neck, and cross-sectional shape of the proximal shaft, support the inference of a bipedal gait pattern that differed slightly from that of modern humans, involving more lateral deviation of the body center of mass over the support limb, which would have entailed increased cost of terrestrial locomotion. There is also evidence consistent with increased muscular strength among australopiths in both the forelimb and hind limb, possibly reflecting metabolic trade-offs between muscle and brain development during hominin evolution. Together these findings imply significant differences in both locomotor behavior and ecology between australopiths and later Homo.

Concepts: Human, Locomotion, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Hominid, Bipedalism, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus


The Pliocene fossil ‘Lucy’ (Australopithecus afarensis) was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 1974 and is among the oldest and most complete fossil hominin skeletons discovered. Here we propose, on the basis of close study of her skeleton, that her cause of death was a vertical deceleration event or impact following a fall from considerable height that produced compressive and hinge (greenstick) fractures in multiple skeletal elements. Impacts that are so severe as to cause concomitant fractures usually also damage internal organs; together, these injuries are hypothesized to have caused her death. Lucy has been at the centre of a vigorous debate about the role, if any, of arboreal locomotion in early human evolution. It is therefore ironic that her death can be attributed to injuries resulting from a fall, probably out of a tall tree, thus offering unusual evidence for the presence of arborealism in this species.

Concepts: Bone, Ethiopia, Human evolution, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Lucy, Afar Region, Afar Depression


Our understanding of the origin of the genus Homo has been hampered by a limited fossil record in eastern Africa between 2.0 and 3.0 million years ago (Ma). Here we report the discovery of a partial hominin mandible with teeth from the Ledi-Geraru research area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia, that establishes the presence of Homo at 2.80-2.75 Ma. This specimen combines primitive traits seen in early Australopithecus with derived morphology observed in later Homo, confirming that dentognathic departures from the australopith pattern occurred early in the Homo lineage. The Ledi-Geraru discovery has implications for hypotheses about the timing and place of the origin of the genus Homo.

Concepts: Human, Observation, Human evolution, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Homo ergaster, Horn of Africa, Transitional fossil


Sexual dimorphism in body size is often used as a correlate of social and reproductive behavior in Australopithecus afarensis. In addition to a number of isolated specimens, the sample for this species includes two small associated skeletons (A.L. 288-1 or “Lucy” and A.L. 128/129) and a geologically contemporaneous death assemblage of several larger individuals (A.L. 333). These have driven both perceptions and quantitative analyses concluding that Au. afarensis was markedly dimorphic. The Template Method enables simultaneous evaluation of multiple skeletal sites, thereby greatly expanding sample size, and reveals that A. afarensis dimorphism was similar to that of modern humans. A new very large partial skeleton (KSD-VP-1/1 or “Kadanuumuu”) can now also be used, like Lucy, as a template specimen. In addition, the recently developed Geometric Mean Method has been used to argue that Au. afarensis was equally or even more dimorphic than gorillas. However, in its previous application Lucy and A.L. 128/129 accounted for 10 of 11 estimates of female size. Here we directly compare the two methods and demonstrate that including multiple measurements from the same partial skeleton that falls at the margin of the species size range dramatically inflates dimorphism estimates. Prevention of the dominance of a single specimen’s contribution to calculations of multiple dimorphism estimates confirms that Au. afarensis was only moderately dimorphic.

Concepts: Human, Ethiopia, Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus, Donald Johanson


Middle Pliocene hominin species diversity has been a subject of debate over the past two decades, particularly after the naming of Australopithecus bahrelghazali and Kenyanthropus platyops in addition to the well-known species Australopithecus afarensis. Further analyses continue to support the proposal that several hominin species co-existed during this time period. Here we recognize a new hominin species (Australopithecus deyiremeda sp. nov.) from 3.3-3.5-million-year-old deposits in the Woranso-Mille study area, central Afar, Ethiopia. The new species from Woranso-Mille shows that there were at least two contemporaneous hominin species living in the Afar region of Ethiopia between 3.3 and 3.5 million years ago, and further confirms early hominin taxonomic diversity in eastern Africa during the Middle Pliocene epoch. The morphology of Au. deyiremeda also reinforces concerns related to dentognathic (that is, jaws and teeth) homoplasy in Plio-Pleistocene hominins, and shows that some dentognathic features traditionally associated with Paranthropus and Homo appeared in the fossil record earlier than previously thought.

Concepts: Human, Ethiopia, Human evolution, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Australopithecus, Afar Region, Afar Depression


The cave infills at Sterkfontein contain one of the richest assemblages of Australopithecus fossils in the world, including the nearly complete skeleton StW 573 (‘Little Foot’) in its lower section, as well as early stone tools in higher sections. However, the chronology of the site remains controversial owing to the complex history of cave infilling. Much of the existing chronology based on uranium-lead dating and palaeomagnetic stratigraphy has recently been called into question by the recognition that dated flowstones fill cavities formed within previously cemented breccias and therefore do not form a stratigraphic sequence. Earlier dating with cosmogenic nuclides suffered a high degree of uncertainty and has been questioned on grounds of sediment reworking. Here we use isochron burial dating with cosmogenic aluminium-26 and beryllium-10 to show that the breccia containing StW 573 did not undergo significant reworking, and that it was deposited 3.67 ± 0.16 million years ago, far earlier than the 2.2 million year flowstones found within it. The skeleton is thus coeval with early Australopithecus afarensis in eastern Africa. We also date the earliest stone tools at Sterkfontein to 2.18 ± 0.21 million years ago, placing them in the Oldowan at a time similar to that found elsewhere in South Africa at Swartkans and Wonderwerk.

Concepts: South Africa, Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus, Stratigraphy, Little Foot, Sterkfontein, Ronald J. Clarke


Carbon and oxygen isotopes of mammalian tooth enamel were used to reconstruct paleoenvironments of Australopithecus afarensis from the middle Pliocene locality of Dikika, Ethiopia. Isotopic analyses were conducted on 210 mammalian herbivore teeth from 15 different taxa collected from the Basal Member (∼3.8-3.42 Ma) and Sidi Hakoma Member (3.42-3.24 Ma) of the Hadar Formation. The isotopic analyses aim specifically at reconstructing shifts in the relative abundance of C(4) grasses in mammalian diets, and more generally at paleoclimate factors such as aridity and seasonality, as well as habitat structure. Carbon isotopic data suggest a wide range of foraging strategies, characterized by mixed C(3)/C(4) to C(4)-dominated diets in wooded grasslands to open woodlands. Weighted average C(4) dietary proportions range between 60% and 86% in the Basal Member and 49% and 74% in the Sidi Hakoma Member. Paleoclimatic conditions based on the reconstructed mean annual water deficit from the δ(18)O(enamel) values indicate a wetter climate as compared to either the early Pliocene or the Pleistocene nearby. The middle Pliocene habitat structure at Dikika could be as diverse as open grassland and wooded grassland, and woodland to forest in the Sidi Hakoma Member while wooded grassland, woodland to grassland are evident in the Basal Member. All habitats except closed woodland and forest are persistent through both members; however, the relative proportion of individual habitats changed through time. These changes could have put the fauna in competition for preferred habitats and food resources, which could have forced migration, adaptation to other resources and/or extinction. Thus, the existence of A. afarensis throughout the middle Pliocene indicates either this species might have adapted to a wide range of habitats, or its preferred habitat was not affected by the observed environmental changes.

Concepts: Pliocene, Hadar, Ethiopia, Woodland, Australopithecus afarensis


The discovery of a relatively complete Australopithecus sediba adult female skeleton permits a detailed locomotor analysis in which joint systems can be integrated to form a comprehensive picture of gait kinematics in this late australopith. Here we describe the lower limb anatomy of Au. sediba and hypothesize that this species walked with a fully extended leg and with an inverted foot during the swing phase of bipedal walking. Initial contact of the lateral foot with the ground resulted in a large pronatory torque around the joints of the foot that caused extreme medial weight transfer (hyperpronation) into the toe-off phase of the gait cycle (late pronation). These bipedal mechanics are different from those often reconstructed for other australopiths and suggest that there may have been several forms of bipedalism during the Plio-Pleistocene.

Concepts: Foot, Walking, Human leg, Locomotion, Human skeleton, Australopithecus afarensis


The enhanced dietary flexibility of early hominins to include consumption of C4/crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) foods (i.e., foods derived from grasses, sedges, and succulents common in tropical savannas and deserts) likely represents a significant ecological and behavioral distinction from both extant great apes and the last common ancestor that we shared with great apes. Here, we use stable carbon isotopic data from 20 samples of Australopithecus afarensis from Hadar and Dikika, Ethiopia (>3.4-2.9 Ma) to show that this species consumed a diet with significant C4/CAM foods, differing from its putative ancestor Au. anamensis. Furthermore, there is no temporal trend in the amount of C4/CAM food consumption over the age of the samples analyzed, and the amount of C4/CAM food intake was highly variable, even within a single narrow stratigraphic interval. As such, Au. afarensis was a key participant in the C4/CAM dietary expansion by early australopiths of the middle Pliocene. The middle Pliocene expansion of the eastern African australopith diet to include savanna-based foods represents a shift to use of plant food resources that were already abundant in hominin environments for at least 1 million y and sets the stage for dietary differentiation and niche specialization by subsequent hominin taxa.

Concepts: Human, Nutrition, Eating, Food, Human evolution, Hadar, Ethiopia, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina