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Concept: Australopithecus africanus


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


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


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


The distinctly human ability for forceful precision and power “squeeze” gripping is linked to two key evolutionary transitions in hand use: a reduction in arboreal climbing and the manufacture and use of tools. However, it is unclear when these locomotory and manipulative transitions occurred. Here we show that Australopithecus africanus (~3 to 2 million years ago) and several Pleistocene hominins, traditionally considered not to have engaged in habitual tool manufacture, have a human-like trabecular bone pattern in the metacarpals consistent with forceful opposition of the thumb and fingers typically adopted during tool use. These results support archaeological evidence for stone tool use in australopiths and provide morphological evidence that Pliocene hominins achieved human-like hand postures much earlier and more frequently than previously considered.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Human evolution, Archaeology, Tool, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus, Raymond Dart


The dichotomy between early Homo and Paranthropus is justified partly on morphology. In terms of diet, it has been suggested that early Homo was a generalist but that Paranthropus was a specialist. However, this model is challenged and the issue of the resources used by Australopithecus, the presumed common ancestor, is still unclear. Laser ablation profiles of strontium/calcium, barium/calcium and strontium isotope ratios in tooth enamel are a means to decipher intra-individual diet and habitat changes. Here we show that the home range area was of similar size for species of the three hominin genera but that the dietary breadth was much higher in Australopithecus africanus than in Paranthropus robustus and early Homo. We also confirm that P. robustus relied more on plant-based foodstuffs than early Homo. A South African scenario is emerging in which the broad ecological niche of Australopithecus became split, and was then occupied by Paranthropus and early Homo, both consuming a lower diversity of foods than Australopithecus.

Concepts: Human, Human evolution, Hominina, Paranthropus, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, Pliocene mammals


Until recently, our understanding of the evolution of human growth and development derived from studies of fossil juveniles that employed extant populations for both age determination and comparison. This circular approach has led to considerable debate about the human-like and ape-like affinities of fossil hominins. Teeth are invaluable for understanding maturation as age at death can be directly assessed from dental microstructure, and dental development has been shown to correlate with life history across primates broadly. We employ non-destructive synchrotron imaging to characterize incremental development, molar emergence, and age at death in more than 20 Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus and South African early Homo juveniles. Long-period line periodicities range from at least 6-12 days (possibly 5-13 days), and do not support the hypothesis that australopiths have lower mean values than extant or fossil Homo. Crown formation times of australopith and early Homo postcanine teeth fall below or at the low end of extant human values; Paranthropus robustus dentitions have the shortest formation times. Pliocene and early Pleistocene hominins show remarkable variation, and previous reports of age at death that employ a narrow range of estimated long-period line periodicities, cuspal enamel thicknesses, or initiation ages are likely to be in error. New chronological ages for SK 62 and StW 151 are several months younger than previous histological estimates, while Sts 24 is more than one year older. Extant human standards overestimate age at death in hominins predating Homo sapiens, and should not be applied to other fossil taxa. We urge caution when inferring life history as aspects of dental development in Pliocene and early Pleistocene fossils are distinct from modern humans and African apes, and recent work has challenged the predictive power of primate-wide associations between hominoid first molar emergence and certain life history variables.

Concepts: Human, Primate, Hominidae, Human evolution, Hominina, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus


The Buxton-Norlim Limeworks southwest of Taung, South Africa, is renowned for the discovery of the first Australopithecus africanus fossil, the ‘Taung Child’. The hominin was recovered from a distinctive pink calcrete that contains an abundance of invertebrate ichnofauna belonging to the Coprinisphaera ichnofacies. Here we describe the first fossil bee’s nest, attributed to the ichnogenus Celliforma, from the Plio-Pleistocene of Africa. Petrographic examination of a cell lining revealed the preservation of an intricate organic matrix lined with the calcitic casts of numerous plant trichomes-a nesting behaviour unique to the modern-day carder bees (Anthidiini). The presence of Celliforma considered alongside several other recorded ichnofossils can be indicative of a dry, savannah environment, in agreement with recent work on the palaeoenvironment of Plio-Pleistocene southern Africa. Moreover, the occurrence of ground-nesting bees provides further evidence that the pink calcrete deposits are of pedogenic origin, rather than speleogenic origin as has previously been assumed. This study demonstrates the potential value of insect trace fossils as palaeoenvironmental indicators.

Concepts: Evolution, Africa, Insect, South Africa, Fossil, Australopithecus africanus, Trace fossil, Taung Child


Since the announcement of the species Australopithecus sediba, questions have been raised over whether the Malapa fossils represent a valid taxon or whether inadequate allowance was made for intraspecific variation, in particular with reference to the temporally and geographically proximate species Au. africanus. The morphology of mandibular remains of Au. sediba, including newly recovered material discussed here, shows that it is not merely a late-surviving morph of Au. africanus. Rather-as is seen elsewhere in the cranium, dentition, and postcranial skeleton-these mandibular remains share similarities with other australopiths but can be differentiated from the hypodigm of Au. africanus in both size and shape as well as in their ontogenetic growth trajectory.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Greek loanwords, Validity, Charles Darwin, Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus


Carbon isotope studies of early hominins from southern Africa showed that their diets differed markedly from the diets of extant apes. Only recently, however, has a major influx of isotopic data from eastern Africa allowed for broad taxonomic, temporal, and regional comparisons among hominins. Before 4 Ma, hominins had diets that were dominated by C3 resources and were, in that sense, similar to extant chimpanzees. By about 3.5 Ma, multiple hominin taxa began incorporating (13)C-enriched [C4 or crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM)] foods in their diets and had highly variable carbon isotope compositions which are atypical for African mammals. By about 2.5 Ma, Paranthropus in eastern Africa diverged toward C4/CAM specialization and occupied an isotopic niche unknown in catarrhine primates, except in the fossil relations of grass-eating geladas (Theropithecus gelada). At the same time, other taxa (e.g., Australopithecus africanus) continued to have highly mixed and varied C3/C4 diets. Overall, there is a trend toward greater consumption of (13)C-enriched foods in early hominins over time, although this trend varies by region. Hominin carbon isotope ratios also increase with postcanine tooth area and mandibular cross-sectional area, which could indicate that these foods played a role in the evolution of australopith masticatory robusticity. The (13)C-enriched resources that hominins ate remain unknown and must await additional integration of existing paleodietary proxy data and new research on the distribution, abundance, nutrition, and mechanical properties of C4 (and CAM) plants.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Primate, Hominidae, Human evolution, Hominina, Paranthropus, Australopithecus africanus


A newly discovered partial hominin foot skeleton from eastern Africa indicates the presence of more than one hominin locomotor adaptation at the beginning of the Late Pliocene epoch. Here we show that new pedal elements, dated to about 3.4 million years ago, belong to a species that does not match the contemporaneous Australopithecus afarensis in its morphology and inferred locomotor adaptations, but instead are more similar to the earlier Ardipithecus ramidus in possessing an opposable great toe. This not only indicates the presence of more than one hominin species at the beginning of the Late Pliocene of eastern Africa, but also indicates the persistence of a species with Ar. ramidus-like locomotor adaptation into the Late Pliocene.

Concepts: Giraffe, Pliocene, Australopithecus afarensis, Hominina, Bipedalism, Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus, Ardipithecus