The Fight Over This 3.7 Million Year Old Human Ancestor


Move over Bigfoot! There’s a new ‘foot’
in town! His name may be Little Foot, but the questions surrounding this skeleton are
anything but little! Hey everyone – Natalia here, guest hosting
for DNews. Understanding human origins has been a preoccupation
with humans since…well, since we originated. And since the discovery 41 years ago in East
Africa of a 3.2 million year old female hominin named Lucy, AKA Australopithecus afarensis,
paleoanthropologists have discovered several new hominin species. A hominin is one of our
upright walking ancestors. One such possible new species includes specimen
StW 573, or Little Foot. Little Foot was first discovered in the early 1990s in concrete-like
material called breccia in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves. Sterkfontein has also
yielded the remains of Australopithecus africanus, a species of hominin that lived 2-3 million
years ago. Therefore, there was question whether Little Foot is simply another A. africanus
individual or perhaps a new species altogether! Researchers have spent over 20- yes 20- years
excavating Little Foot! During this time they tried to determine his age and species. Fortunately,
his head is well preserved and exhibits traits that differ from A. africanus, such as larger
cheek teeth, a longer, flatter face, and slight sagittal crest, or a bony ridge along the
top of the head. And, as you may have guessed…little feet. Scientists also have worked hard to
determine the age of Little Foot and even employed a new technique to estimate how long
ago Little Foot’s little feet walked the earth. According to researchers Little Foot
died 3.7 million years ago making him a lot older than all other A. africanus individuals
AND a contemporary of Lucy’s species A. afarensis, which lived from 3.9 to 2.9 million
years ago. Hence Little Foot has been dubbed a new species, Australopithecus prometheus!
According to researchers this development would imply that there could have been a link
between Australopithecines in East and South Africa which is incredibly exciting! However, despite researcher assertions that
Little Foot is a new species that lived 3.7 million years ago, there are those that disagree.
Hey, it’s not science unless there’s a debate! There are scientists that argue Little
Foot is younger than 3.7 million years old. And there is question if A. prometheus is
a new species or he is just another A. africanus individual that falls within the range of
variability within that species. When it comes to human evolution there are two camps; lumpers
and splitters. Lumpers are conservative about dividing species into multiple taxa. Whereas
splitters are liberal with their degree of speciation. For example, since it’s discovery,
Homo ergaster had been considered it’s own species but now it’s commonly lumped in
with Homo erectus rather than split the two into separate taxa. Or they refer to Homo
ergaster as a subspecies of Homo erectus. If you think about it, the morphology, or
the anatomical structure of an organism, can greatly vary within a species. Look at our
own species- we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Or better yet-dog breeds! It’s
hard to believe a chihuahua and an English Bulldog are the same species…but they are!
Like many paleoanthropological discoveries drawing the line between species, is complicated
since researchers rarely have multiple fully-intact, pristine skeletons to work with. Funny enough, Little Foot’s new name is
from Greek mythology. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods and delivered
it to humankind. Perhaps, Little Foot will live up to his new name by igniting some heated,
yet inspired, debates about the origins of humankind. So ladies and gents, I have feeling there’s
going to be more news about our pal Little Foot. Paleoanthropologists will surely continue
discussing his age and whether or not he’s a new species. And this is a perfect example
that science is not static; it’s constantly evolving as new information is discovered. So what do you think – is Little Foot a new
species or not? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe for
more DNews every day of the week.

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