Australopithecus sediba

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Australopithecus sediba
Skull MH1 of Australopithecus sediba (original)

Skull MH1 of Australopithecus sediba (original)

Temporal occurrence
Pleistocene ( Gelasian )
by 2.0 million years
Human (Hominoidea)
Apes (Hominidae)
Australopithecus sediba
Scientific name
Australopithecus sediba
Berger et al., 2010

Australopithecus sediba is a species of the extinct genus Australopithecus that lived around two million years ago in what is now South Africa . “The reconstructed skeleton shows many ape-like, but also some 'modern' featuresthat can be assigned to the genus Homo . So could Australopithecus sediba climb well, but also go upright on two legs, though probably very shaky. "The exact position of Australopithecus sediba in the pedigree of Hominini and thus its relationship with the anatomically modern humans is still unclear.


Australopithecus is an artificial word . The name of the genus is derived from Latin australis ("southern") and Greek πίθηκος, old Gr. pronounced píthēkos ("monkey"). The epithet sediba (with an emphasis on the i) means “well” or “source” in the Bantu language Sesotho , in a figurative sense also “origin”. Australopithecus sediba means "original southern monkey".

In a press release in 2010, the University of the Witwatersrand asked the children of South Africa to suggest a nickname for the smaller fossil MH1. In the course of this competition, more than 15,000 entries were received, with Karabo (in Setswana : “answer”) being selected. However, this term was only used in the children's book by Marc Aronson and Lee Berger, The Skull in the Rock , published in 2012, and not in the scientific publications.

Initial description

Matthew Berger with the MH1 collarbone fragment he found

The holotype of Australopithecus sediba is the partially preserved skeleton Malapa hominin 1 (MH1). It was discovered in the Malapa Cave . It is located 40 kilometers west of Johannesburg and 15 km north-northeast of the well-known fossil sites of Sterkfontein , Swartkrans and Kromdraai . The Malapa Cave is also located in the area of ​​the UNESCO World Heritage Site Cradle of Humankind . The first fossil of Australopithecus sediba - the right collarbone , archive number UW88 - was discovered on August 15, 2008 by Matthew Berger, the nine-year-old son of Lee Berger .

MH1 comes from a young - presumably male - individual whose large permanent molars had already erupted and were in occlusion . Among other things, the facial skull including numerous, relatively small teeth of the upper jaw , parts of the also toothed lower jaw , a humerus , a fibula and various fragments from the area of ​​the spine , ribs and pelvis are preserved from MH1 . From comparisons with extant great apes and humans was concluded that MH1 already around 95 percent of the cranial volume had an adult. Compared with children living today, this would speak for an age of 12 to 13 years; However, the development of the australopithecines took place more quickly, so the child died at a younger age. Its level of development is most comparable to the fossils OH7, the holotype of Homo habilis , and KNM-WT 15000, known as the Nariokotome boy or "Turkana Boy".

As a paratype , MH1 was set aside by the partial skeleton MH2 of an adult individual, which had been found less than 50 centimeters away from MH1. The first fossil discovered by MH2 was a humerus (UW 88-57) that Lee Berger discovered on September 4, 2008. MH2 was able to assign, among other things, a single upper jaw tooth, lower jaw fragments and a largely preserved right arm including the almost completely preserved bones from the shoulder and finger area. The arm bones of MH2 were exposed in an anatomically correct arrangement, while the bones of MH1 were scattered over an area of ​​around two square meters. Since the pubic bone and other fragments of the hip bone were also preserved, MH2 could be identified as presumably female. The body weight during lifetime is estimated at around 30 to 36 kilograms.

Australopithecus sediba was first scientifically described in 2010 by a group of paleontologists led by Lee Berger . This first description states that Australopithecus sediba probably descends from Australopithecus africanus and has more common tooth and bone features with the earliest members of the genus Homo than any other Australopithecus species described so far . Australopithecus sediba could therefore be interpreted as a potential ancestor of the early homo species ("[...] potentially ancestral to Homo [...]").

Both skeletons were buried together under rubble shortly after their death and thus saved from destruction by large scavengers; However, an investigation using synchrotron microtomography at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility revealed that fossilized insect eggs can be detected inside the skull.

Description of the type specimens

Reconstruction of the skull (original picture by Lee Berger)


According to the first description, the skull of MH1 is characterized by a mosaic of partly derived characteristics , partly original characteristics , which make it distinguishable from the older Chronospecies Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis as well as from later species of the genus Homo . For example , Australopithecus sediba differs from Australopithecus garhi in the lack of prognathism (no pronounced snout , as there is no prominent protrusion of the upper jawbone), from the species of the genus Paranthropus in the lack of their characteristics for extremely strong neck and masticatory muscles. Most closely, MH1 resembles Australopithecus africanus , which is also known only from South Africa , but which has, for example, a much more expansive cheekbone and a less pronounced chin bone ; this morphological proximity to the second South African Australopithecus species was confirmed in a 2013 study on the condition of the dentition. At the same time, however, further evidence was published, suggesting that Australopithecus sediba was rightly separated as an independent species from other Australopithecus species.

A volume of only 420 cubic centimeters has been reconstructed for the inside of the skull of MH1. The first computed tomographic examinations of the inside of the skull had indicated that the natural cast of the skull - caused by stored sediment - had impressions of cerebral convolutions. The skull cast was then scanned in high resolution and a three-dimensional virtual model of the previous brain surface was constructed on the basis of this data. According to this reconstruction, the brain of MH1 was "clearly typical of Australopithecus with regard to the interior of the skull and features of the cerebral convolutions " (in the original in Science : "decidedly australopith-like in cranial capacity and convolutional patterns"); however, there are “some indications of changes in the orbitofrontal region [of the prefrontal cortex ] that go beyond what can be found in other australopithecins with similarly fully preserved skull casts ( Sts 5 and Sts 60), which may be elements of the development of a human-like frontal lobe in the The transition from Australopithecus to Homo suggests. ”This interpretation that the brain of Australopithecus sediba is“ more modern ”than that of other finds of this genus was contradicted by several colleagues in an accompanying article in Science ; the skull cast from MH1 was only compared with finds from Sterkfontein, but other fossils should have been included.

The very small brain size of only 420 cubic centimeters ( about 750 cubic centimeters are already attributed to Homo rudolfensis ) and the body size of MH1 and MH2, estimated at just under 1.30 meters, are given in the first description as reasons for classifying the fossils as another species of the genus Australopithecus and not as another species of the genus Homo . Nevertheless, Australopithecus sediba shares various anatomical features with the early homo species , especially in the area of ​​the pelvis and the hip joints , which suggest an increase in the efficiency of two-legged walking compared to predecessor species. In addition, the size of the premolars and molars ranks at the lowest end of the known findings of Australopithecus africanus , they are rather similar to those of Homo habilis , Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus . The structure of the feet, on the other hand, is less similar to homo .

The body below the skull

The bones of the right hand of MH2 (originals)
The MH2 basin , original finds with additions. The left half is a reflection of the right.
(Illustration by Lee Berger)

A comparison of the preserved arm and leg bones, on which the muscle attachments can still be clearly seen, shows that the arms - as in other Australopithecus species, but not as in the homo species - in relation to the legs are “monkey-like “Were long. Nonetheless, those who worked on the fossils argued that they had found clues for a thumb that could be easily opposed and with the help of which it was even possible to make stone implements . However, this interpretation was immediately rejected by other paleoanthropologists as being too speculative. In two studies published in 2019 and 2020, however, those who worked on the sediba fossils stuck to their assessment that the thumb - although unusually long in comparison with all other species of hominini - was also suitable for precision grips.

One of the co-authors of the first description, Peter Schmid from the Anthropological Institute of the University of Zurich, also admitted that the forearm bones are "monkey-like long" and the finger bones are "robust, curved" and have "strong attachment points for the tendons of the flexor muscles", " which points to strong climbing hands ”, that is, to an arboreal way of life that is still heavily inhabited by trees. Lee Berger made a similar statement in an interview: “ It's got long arms though, long ape-like arms, primitive wrists, and short but powerful and curved fingers. “In 2013 and 2019, detailed examinations of the arms confirmed that in Australopithecus sediba they were still very original and well suited for climbing around trees, but not for working with tools.

The chest , which is narrow towards the neck and wider towards the bottom, differs considerably from the broad, cylindrical design that has been handed down from Homo erectus and also exists in Homo sapiens . In addition, the shoulder girdle is higher on the side in the shoulder joint area than on the neck, making the upper body look similar to that of a large African ape living today - features that make climbing easier. In a study published in 2013, it was derived from these features that the construction of the upper body did not encourage the arms to swing back and forth when walking and running. The shape of the spine differs in various characteristics from that of Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus .

The pelvis has some features that are also detectable in homo , but in a study published in 2011 it was expressly left open whether this is the result of a particularly close relationship between Australopithecus sediba and homo or an expression of homoplasia . In 2012, additional bones were discovered in a rock block, which after their exposure could possibly be assigned to MH1. In a study published in 2019, the reference to homoplasia was renewed.

Some bones probably belonging to MH2 from the area of ​​the foot and the lower leg also show a mosaic of "archaic" (the heel is particularly mentioned ) and "modern" features that are not present in other hominin fossils known to date. It is therefore assumed that in Australopithecus sediba the ability to walk upright could have developed largely independently of - that is, parallel to - other Australopithecus species and that the individuals of this species were adapted both to stay in trees and on the ground.

Further findings of Australopithecus sediba

The pit at the Malapa site (center). The photo shows the scientists Lee Berger and Job Kibii in it, according to Berger a few moments after the discovery of MH2.
View over the Malapa site (some distance in the center of the picture) to the north

In addition to the two fossils MH1 and MH2, two other skeletons of Australopithecus sediba were discovered in the Malapa Cave : a child and an adult individual, whose detailed scientific description is still pending.

In April 2013, Lee Berger suggested at a meeting of the Association of Physical Anthropologists that there may be remains of skin on one of the skulls and one lower jaw.


The fossil partial skeleton MH1

With the help of uranium-lead dating , it was possible in 2010 to determine an age of 2.026 ± 0.021 million years for a layer of soil below the skeletons; the fossil-bearing layer above was found to be 1.95 to 1.78 million years old based on magnetostratigraphic analyzes. In 2011, the age of the fossils was then dated to 1.977 ± 0.002 million years by uranium-lead dating.

In the first description it was noted that, due to the few finds, no statement can be made about when and how long the species existed. Why the species became extinct is also unknown.


The analysis of the habitat of Australopithecus sediba has not yet been published; In an interview, however, Lee Berger referred to the numerous herbivore fossils found and mentioned that the site was forested two million years ago.

Accompanying finds of Dinofelis and Megantereon as well as of fossil precursors of the black hyenas and African wild dogs , horses , pigs , klipspringer and rabbits were interpreted - in addition to the stratigraphic findings - as evidence that all animals fell into a cave system during their lifetime, which had openings on top. After their death, their carcasses were believed to have been washed down by the ingress of water to a deeper location and buried under washed-up and falling rock. The cave system was later filled up with rock and was only partially exposed again by quarry workers in the early 20th century.

Findings on food intake

A team of researchers led by Amanda G. Henry from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed the wear patterns on the teeth of MH1 and MH2, subjected the tooth enamel to an isotope analysis and examined the tartar of both fossils. This resulted in numerous indications of the type of food consumed.

According to these studies, the teeth show more complex signs of wear than has been found in other species of australopithecins. This fits the finding that fossilized remains of tree bark were detectable in the tartar, so-called phytolites (38 in total), which were first examined in an early prehistoric man. The isotope analysis showed that predominantly C 3 plants and only to a very small extent also C 4 plants were consumed; the diet consisted mainly of fiber-rich parts of trees, shrubs and herbs, less often of grass . What was noted in the study was that, despite the small sample size, plant remains from numerous different plants were found, which suggests a very varied diet. Compared to animals living today, this diet is most similar to that of chimpanzees and giraffes , compared with findings on fossil species of hominini most closely to that of Ardipithecus ramidus . The analysis was also interpreted to the effect that Australopithecus sediba probably still lived predominantly in forests. According to Lee Berger, it is "the first direct evidence of what our early ancestors put in their mouths and chewed - what they ate."

A computer-aided reconstruction of the biomechanical forces acting on the jaws when chewing revealed indications that Australopithecus sediba was unable to chew large amounts of very hard food.

Controversial: the phylogenetic classification of the finds

The preserved bones of MH1 (original picture by Lee Berger)
The preserved bones from MH1 (left), MH2 (right) and - for comparison - from Lucy (original illustration by Lee Berger)

The approximately 2 million year old fossils of Australopithecus sediba come from an era from which very few hominini fossils are known: less than from the era of Australopithecus afarensis (4.0 to 2.9 million years ago) and less than from the time around 1.5 million years ago and after. The oldest finds of Homo erectus are also dated to an age of 1.9 million years , the anatomy of which "largely agrees with that of modern man in many details." The Australopithecus finds from the Malapa cave are thus filling a fossil gap precisely at the time when Homo erectus, the immediate ancestor of Homo sapiens, first appeared. Lee Berger described his find, therefore, as "the Rosetta stone , which gives access to the understanding of the genus Homo unlocks." One of John Francis Thackeray submitted morphometric comparison of MH1 and MH2 with other Australopithecus and homo fossils found in 2010 evidence of significant differences between on the one hand Australopithecus sediba and on the other hand Homo rudolfensis , Paranthropus robustus and Paranthropus boisei .

In contrast to Lee Berger and the other authors of the first description, who interpreted both fossils as a possible transition form between Australopithecus and Homo in 2010 and confirmed this in 2011, other paleoanthropologists are more cautious. They point out, like Tim White and Ron Clarke , that it could be a late, South African branch of the Australopithecines , which lived next to existing members of the genus Homo , it said in an article accompanying the first description.

The background to this more cautious interpretation is that one of the oldest fossils assigned to the genus Homo , the lower jaw of a Homo rudolfensis discovered by Friedemann Schrenk (inventory number UR 501 ), was dated to an age of 2.4 million years and is therefore significantly older than the finds of Australopithecus sediba . Furthermore, the upper jaw AL 666-1 , which was also assigned to Homo , was dated to an age of 2.3 million years due to a layer of volcanic ash lying directly above it. In addition, the new finds have relatively few characteristics in common with Homo , so that these critics - as before - ascribe Australopithecus afarensis the status of a precursor species of the genus Homo . Since it is fundamentally possible that "late" fossils of a long-lived precursor species could be dated younger than "early" fossils of a successor species developed from the precursor species, in 2019 it was calculated with the help of statistical models how great the probability is that such a development is for Australopithecus sediba and the oldest gay species apply. The study published in Science Advances came to the conclusion that this probability is almost zero.

In the journal Nature it was criticized that the authors of the first description had failed to sound out the range of variation of Australopithecus africanus before they assigned the finds to a separate species; In addition, the position of Australopithecus africanus in the family tree of the hominini is unclear. At the same time, it was criticized that the description of the species was essentially based on a juvenile skeleton, without any reliable data on how little or how significantly juveniles differed from adults. In 2011, other paleoanthropologists joined the criticism of the - in their opinion - too far-reaching interpretations by Lee Berger's team. The lower jaw of MH1 is - in comparison with other Australopithecus finds - relatively small and light and therefore resembles the lower jaw of Homo ; however, it is possible that this similarity is mainly due to the young age of MH1. The relatively archaic structure of the feet also contradicts the hypothesis that Australopithecus sediba is a direct descendant of Australopithecus africanus , since it already had a more "modern" structure.

In a publication published in 2013 on the position of the species in the family tree of the hominini, Lee Berger, as co-author, finally admitted that it is not yet possible to make a reliable statement on this. Nonetheless, Bernard Wood wrote in a review article at the end of 2014 that “the skeletons of Malapa come from direct ancestors of Homo sapiens .”

Donald Johanson , one of the leading paleoanthropologists and discoverer of " Lucy ", however, saw similarities with the OH 62 ( Olduvai Hominid ) found in 1986 and thus the obvious classification of the new finds within the genus Homo .

The anatomist and anthropologist Ella Been, an expert on the spinal columns of hominine fossils, and Yoel Rak (both Tel Aviv University ) argued in 2014 that the shape of the vertebral canal of the Australopithecus sediba finds were very different; in two individuals the vertebrae resembled those of Homo erectus , in the other two individuals those of Australopithecus . It is possible that individuals of two different species were found in the cave. In 2019, Lee Berger's team contradicted this assumption in detail.

In 2017, William H. Kimbel and Yoel Rak reiterated their criticism of the classification of Australopithecus sediba as a direct ancestor of the genus Homo . According to your analysis of the MH1 skull , the characteristics referring to homo are only present in an adolescent individual; as an adult, MH1 would have resembled Australopithecus africanus . In 2019, Lee Berger reaffirmed in a new analysis of the skulls that Australopithecus sediba was the “most likely ancestor” of the genus Homo “or belongs to a close sister group of the ancestor”.

See also


Web links

Commons : Australopithecus sediba  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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