WASHINGTON – A new relative of the human species may have been uncovered in Ethiopia’s Afar region. Four days ago, jaw and teeth fossils were found that represent a previously unknown branch of mankind’s family tree, dating back roughly 3.4 million years ago, a similar timeframe to the famous “Lucy.”
This new fossil pre-dates the oldest known member of the genus Homo, which only goes back 2.8 million years. The finding of the fossil was announced in a paper released in the journal Nature on Wednesday, giving the new species the name Australopithecus deyiremeda. In the language of the Afar region in Ethiopia, the name means “close relative,” which is a reference to its close relationship with other species in the history of human evolution.
Leading the discovery of these new fossils was Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He explained the significance of the new discovery, “Our branch, which includes Homo sapiens and our closest extinct relatives, arose from the evolutionary grouping that now includes the new creature as well as Lucy’s species. The new arrival, and the possibility of still more to come, complicates the question of which species led to our branch.”
The new discovery is evidence that there were multiple species of hominins that co-existed more than 3 million years ago. It was previously thought that Lucy’s species, which goes by the name Australopithecus afarensis, was the ancestor of all the hominins, which eventually evolved into the genus Homo. However, there are now multiple possibilities with regard to human ancestry.
With multiple species living in close proximity to one another, Haile-Selassie opines, “They would have been rivals if they were exploiting the same resources or had similar foraging strategies.” However, it’s possible that the two species did not share a diet due to dental differences that indicate that wouldn’t have necessarily competed for the same resources.
Of course, there is some skepticism on this new discovery. Tim White, an expert in human evolution from the University of California-Berkeley, believes the new fossils are from Lucy’s species, explaining, “Anatomical variation within a biological species is normal,” adding, “That’s why so many announcements of this sort are quickly overturned.”
However, if this discovery is indeed genuine, it adds a new wrinkle in the mystery of human ancestry.