Research News

New Skeleton Gives Path From Trees to Ground an Odd Turn

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Science  03 May 1996:
Vol. 272, Issue 5262, pp. 654
DOI: 10.1126/science.272.5262.654


Durham, North Carolina—Our human forerunners, during the past 5 million years, are thought to have gradually adapted from a life in the trees to one on the ground. But new information about one of these forerunners, Australopithecus africanus, may show that adaptive path to be rather crooked. Hundreds of africanus specimens—many of them “kept on the back burner” by the boycott against South Africa's old apartheid government—are just now coming under scrutiny. They include the mo st complete australopithecine skeleton found since “Lucy,” the famous representative of an africanus predecessor, Australopithecus afarensis. And at the recent meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, resear chers used these bones to show that the body proportions of africanus were more apelike—and perhaps more suited to a life in the trees—than those of afarensis, its presumed ancestor. This could mean africanus doubled back on its evo lutionary tracks for some reason. Or perhaps Lucy wasn't the ancestor of africanus—or us—after all.