Australopithecus sediba: an evolutionary mosaic

The skull of MH1, a juvenile member of the species Australopithecus sediba.

Two beautifully preserved partial skeletons of a new species of human are described in the current issue of Science magazine. The new species has been given the taxonomic name Australopithecus sediba. The remains were discovered in Malapa, South Africa, located a mere 15km from the famous Sterkfontein caves. The site preservation is incredible, especially considering its great antiquity. The specimens themselves are relatively free from distortion and show few signs of taphonomic modification.

The fossils are around 2 million years old based on a combination of radiometric and palaeomagnetic dating, as well as the associated animal remains found at the site. The skeletal remains are those of an adult female and a boy of between 9 and 13 years. A. sediba would have stood at about 1.3 metres tall and had relatively long arms like those seen in other australopithecines.

Palaeoanthropologists are split on whether these fossils are members of our genus, Homo, or the earlier Australopithecus. The boy’s brain, which is estimated to be around 95% its projected adult size is only 420 cc, some 90 cc below the smallest brain known for early Homo (with a brain case of only 510 cc, KNM-ER 1813 itself is considerably smaller than other Homo specimens). It is on a par with the cranial capacity of the diminutive species Homo floresiensis.

The Malapa hominins have a mix of both australopithecine and Homo traits, with the authors of the paper suggesting greatest specific affinities to A. africanus. The small body, long arms and small brain case are indeed more suggestive of australopithecines. A. africanus, itself is a very variable species and it would not be absurd to suggest that the Malapa hominins represent one tail of the bell curve of variation within that species. The biggest difference between the Malapa hominins and A. africanus is the small dental dimensions of the former. Other traits are more typically associated with Homo, such as long legs, short hands, a derived pelvic configuration, gracile jaw with a weakly developed chin, small teeth, a flat face and a projecting nose. This mosaic anatomy should be a warning to palaeoanthropologists wishing to identify species based on a single anatomical feature.

It has been suggested that A. sediba could be a candidate ancestor for Homo, based on the number of derived traits it share with early representatives of that genus (more than any other known australopithecine). While the site is too late to be ancestral to Homo, the species may not be.

So should sediba be classified in the genus Australopithecus or Homo? The traditional way of distinguishing Australopithecus from Homo was the larger brain size of the latter (with a cutoff point of around 600 cc) and its use of stone tools. Using of a trait like brain size is highly problematic, since it is strongly correlated with body size and there is not a one-to-one correspondence between brain size and brain function. The recent discovery of H. floresiensis, with its small but derived brain, was found together with sophisticated stone tools. Similarly, a preliminary analysis of A. sediba suggests that its brain is more derived than its size would suggest. The first unambiguous appearance of stone tools in the palaeoanthropological record are attributed to H. habilis. Stone tools have not been recovered from Malapa but formal excavations have yet to get underway there. If stone tools are recovered it will require a rethinking about how we define our genus. While brain size is not the only distinguishing characteristic palaeoanthropologists use to separate Homo and Australopithecus, the dividing line is nonetheless an arbitrary one. For the moment, I think Australopithecus is a reasonable preliminary designation for this material, particularly considering our incomplete knowledge of the fossil record.

News headlines touting A. sediba as the “missing link” between humans and apes is misguided on multiple levels. The term “missing link” comes from an outmoded understanding of evolution. Moreover, humans did not suddenly appear with Homo. This is a gross over-simplification of how evolution works. We should not expect to see a momentous change between the first members of a new species or genus and their parent population. Indeed, there is considerable debate as to whether members of the species H. rudolfensis (e.g. KNM-ER 1470) and H. habilis (e.g. OH 24 a.k.a. “Twiggy”), which lie on the generic dividing line, would actually be more accurately classified as australopithecines. I’ve seen grown men (it seems to be men that get most bent out of shape about such technicalities) argue vehemently over such taxonomic subtleties. Evolutionary theory would dictate that the line between Homo and Australopithecines be a fuzzy one. In fact, if we had a complete fossil record it would be near impossible to know where to draw the line between different genera and species.

In the meantime, more individuals are being slowly uncovered at Malapa. Among these finds, are the arms bones of a 12 – 18 months old infant uncovered metres away from the two published specimens. Whether A. sediba maintains it australopithecine designation or not, is much less interesting than what this population tells us about hominin variation circa 2 million years ago.

Lee R. Berger, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Steven E. Churchill, Peter Schmid, Kristian J. Carlson, Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Job M. Kibii (2010). Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa Science, 328, 195-204: 10.1126/science.1184944

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