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Ardipithecus ramidus and the Paleobiology of Early Hominids

Tim D. White et al.


Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley were forced to ponder human origins and evolution without a relevant fossil record. With only a few Neanderthal fossils available to supplement their limited knowledge of living apes, they speculated about how quintessentially human features such as upright walking, small canines, dexterous hands, and our special intelligence had evolved through natural selection to provide us with our complex way of life. Today we know of early Homo from >2.0 million years ago (Ma) and have a record of stone tools and animal butchery that reaches back to 2.6 Ma. These demonstrate just how deeply technology is embedded in our natural history.

Australopithecus, a predecessor of Homo that lived about 1 to 4 Ma (see figure), was discovered in South Africa in 1924. Although slow to gain acceptance as a human ancestor, it is now recognized to represent an ancestral group from which Homo evolved. Even after the discoveries of the partial skeleton (“Lucy”) and fossilized footprints (Laetoli) of Au. afarensis, and other fossils that extended the antiquity of Australopithecus to ~3.7 Ma, the hominid fossil record before Australopithecus was blank. What connected the small-brained, small-canined, upright-walking Australopithecus to the last common ancestor that we shared with chimpanzees some time earlier than 6 Ma?

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Evolution of hominids and African apes since the gorilla/chimp+human (GLCA) and chimp/human (CLCA) last common ancestors. Pedestals on the left show separate lineages leading to the extant apes (gorilla, and chimp and bonobo); text indicates key differences among adaptive plateaus occupied by the three hominid genera. Credit: Illustration of Ar. ramidus: Copyright J. H. Matternes.

The 11 papers in this issue, representing the work of a large international team with diverse areas of expertise, describe Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominid species dated to 4.4 Ma, and the habitat in which it lived in the Afar Rift region of northeastern Ethiopia. This species, substantially more primitive than Australopithecus, resolves many uncertainties about early human evolution, including the nature of the last common ancestor that we shared with the line leading to living chimpanzees and bonobos. The Ardipithecus remains were recovered from a sedimentary horizon representing a short span of time (within 100 to 10,000 years). This has enabled us to assess available and preferred habitats for the early hominids by systematic and repeated sampling of the hominid-bearing strata.

By collecting and classifying thousands of vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant fossils, and characterizing the isotopic composition of soil samples and teeth, we have learned that Ar. ramidus was a denizen of woodland with small patches of forest. We have also learned that it probably was more omnivorous than chimpanzees (ripe fruit specialists) and likely fed both in trees and on the ground. It apparently consumed only small amounts of open-environment resources, arguing against the idea that an inhabitation of grasslands was the driving force in the origin of upright walking.

Ar. ramidus, first described in 1994 from teeth and jaw fragments, is now represented by 110 specimens, including a partial female skeleton rescued from erosional degradation. This individual weighed about 50 kg and stood about 120 cm tall. In the context of the many other recovered individuals of this species, this suggests little body size difference between males and females. Brain size was as small as in living chimpanzees. The numerous recovered teeth and a largely complete skull show that Ar. ramidus had a small face and a reduced canine/premolar complex, indicative of minimal social aggression. Its hands, arms, feet, pelvis, and legs collectively reveal that it moved capably in the trees, supported on its feet and palms (palmigrade clambering), but lacked any characteristics typical of the suspension, vertical climbing, or knuckle-walking of modern gorillas and chimps. Terrestrially, it engaged in a form of bipedality more primitive than that of Australopithecus, and it lacked adaptation to “heavy” chewing related to open environments (seen in later Australopithecus). Ar. ramidus thus indicates that the last common ancestors of humans and African apes were not chimpanzee-like and that both hominids and extant African apes are each highly specialized, but through very different evolutionary pathways.

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