The Japan Times
February 8, 2001

Fossils from Ethiopia expected to fuel controversy over human origins

Man's oldest known ancestor said found

PARIS (AP) Researchers introduced to the world Tuesday what they believe is man's oldest known ancestor, more humanlike than the previously oldest bipedal, or upright, hominid Lucy and, at 6 million years, nearly twice her age — a finding bound to fuel controversy over the origins of man.

For the French-led team that unearthed the 12 bones and teeth in central Kenya late last year, the findings suggest australopithecines like Lucy are not in the direct line of human ancestry, the researchers said.

The findings were presented at a news conference at the prestigious College de France, which funded the work. They are to be published later this month in France's "Les Comptes-rendus de 1'Academie des Sciences," when the Millennium Ancestor, as it is now dubbed, will be given a scientific name.

The group contends the jaws, teeth, arm, hand and leg bones show that their Millennium Ancestor is the earliest known bipedal hominid and likely a direct ancestor of man. The previously oldest hominid remains, discovered in Aramis, Ethiopia, were dated at 4.5 million years.

The researchers also say their fossils, found in the Lukeino Formation of the Rift Valley, show that Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old hominid discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is from a lateral branch in the map of human evolution, as some have long contended.

Martin Pickford of the College de France, and Brigitte Senut, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, were leaders of the team.

When on the ground, the Millennium Ancestor never walked on all fours but could still climb trees, Pickford said.

"I suspect that if you saw it walking around, you would say it is either a strange chimpanzee walking upright or it is a rather odd-looking human," Pickford said.

What they know is that, just like humans, the size of the teeth is much smaller than those of australopithecines and the femur much larger. Australopithecines displayed the reverse — small bodies and large cheek teeth.

But paleoanthropologists have placed australopithecines in the direct lineage of human evolution, making Lucy a direct ancestor.

"I think we can throw that aside now," said Pickford. "Here, we are with a creature ... older, more humanlike."

Eleven of the 12 bones and teeth were found last year. However, a lower molar found by Pickford in 1974 triggered debate over whether it belonged to a hominid or a chimpanzee. The issue was only resolved with last year's finds, the group said.

"It's a fossil that will make people talk," said the College de France's Yves Coppens.

FRENCH REAEARCHERS Dr. Brigitte Senut (left) and Dr. Dominique Gommer on Tuesday replicas of fossilized human remains. The original remains were found by a French-Kenyan team in central Kenya. AP PHOTO