Australopithecus anamensis; a face to fit the name

Ethiopian palaeoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Ohio, USA has been involved in the search for early human ancestors in the Awash Valley of the Afar Depression in Ethiopia since 1990. The Middle Awash Project, founded by his mentor Tim White, has been enormously successful over the years. That is because most members from the top down are persistent, inured to heat and sharp sighted. Haile-Selassie is a case in point. In 2016 near a place called Miro Dora, he and a local worker independently spotted two parts of what turned out to be a near-complete cranium of an australopithecine (Au. anamensis) (Haile-Selassie, Y. et al. 2019. A 3.8-million-year-old hominin cranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 572, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1513-8). When it was dated at about 3.8 Ma, using the 40Ar/39Ar method and magnetic reversal stratigraphy (Saylor, B.Z. and 13 others 2019. Age and context of mid-Pliocene hominin cranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 572, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1514-7), his find caused quite a stir.

The near-complete cranium of an Au. anamensis found in the Afar Depression of NE Ethiopia. Note the lateral fflattening caused by sedimentary burial. (Credit: Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Fragmentary hominin fossils, including a complete lower jaw, found near Lake Turkana, Kenya in 1994 were sufficiently different from other, known australopithecines to warrant their recognition as a new species, Australopithecus anamensis. Seeming more ape-like than the famous ‘Lucy’ fossil Au. afarensis and also older – 3.9 to 4.2 Ma compared with 3.0 to 3.8 Ma for Lucy’s species –  Au anamensis  has long been regarded as a possible ancestor of afarensis, or even a more primitive member if the same species. The new, almost perfect cranium – except for some distortion during burial – cohabited the Afar Depression with Au. afarensis, for as long as 100 ka, and is sufficiently different to retain its species status. Because many palaeoanthropologists consider Au. afarensis to be early in the evolutionary line that lead to humans, the new find seems to throw a spanner in this linear hypothesis. However, there is another possibility that may resolve the issue.

During the Pliocene, Afar was a very diverse place with many volcanoes, lava flows and minor rift systems. It is possible that geographic complexity separated and isolated small groups allowing them to diverge genetically, in the manner of island faunas. Australopithecus afarensis may have arisen from such isolation, going on to outcompete its ‘parent’ species Au anamensis whose numbers progressively dwindled. Nevertheless, the emerging diversity of coexisting hominin populations in the Pliocene seriously challenges linear evolutionary hypotheses aimed at understanding the origin of our own genus (see Taking stock of hominid evolution February 2002 and Hominid evolution: a line or a bush? May 2006).

See also: Video of the discovery and summary of subsequent research

Barras, C. 2019. Rare 3.8-million-year-old skull recasts origins of iconic ‘Lucy’ fossil. Nature, v. 572, p. ; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02573-w

Spoor, F. 2019. Elusive cranium of early hominin found. Nature, v. 572, p. ; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02520-9