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Ethiopian Fossil yields theory of life 3.3 million years ago

Ethiopian Fossil yields theory of life 3.3 million years ago

David Perlman

She was only 3 years old, but her fossil bones tell a contentious story of ancient prehumans who walked on two feet like us more than 3 million years ago, but climbed trees like her distant ancestors, the great apes.

Her partial skeleton was discovered embedded in the sandstone rocks of Ethiopia’s Afar desert a dozen years ago by Zereseney Alemseged, the noted anthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences. He named her Selam and still works to reconstruct her life.

After 11 years of painstaking laboratory analysis, the anthropologist and his colleagues reported the findings Friday in the journal Science. Although little Selam and all her families were clearly bipedal, the intricate shape of her two fossilized shoulder blades shows that their lifestyles must have involved “a substantial amount of climbing,” the scientists wrote. They may well have nested in trees at night and sought refuge there by day, Alemseged said.

Their shoulder bones also resembled those of tree-climbing gorillas, he said.

The fossil child was the same species as Lucy, the famed adult woman in the line known as Australopithecus afarensis whose skeleton was discovered in the Afar in 1974. Lucy’s bones were dated at 3.2 million years ago, but Selam was alive many generations earlier, about 3.3 million years ago.

Discussing his report this week, Alemseged said that over the long course of human evolution, Selam’s shoulder blades – her scapulae – show that she and all of Lucy’s species “had not fully abandoned the arboreal lifestyle, which would have been useful for nesting in trees, evading predators and provisioning themselves.”

“This was a significant adaptation, that enabled this short-statured hominin, with no sophisticated tools, to survive in a dangerous landscape filled with large felines and other carnivores,” Alemseged said.

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