Paleontologists discovered for the first time ever a nearly complete skull of an Australopithecus anamensis and we now know what the species looked like. As a relative of the famous “Lucy”, the skull that was found had a protruding jaw with large canine teeth and it dates back to 3.8 million years ago.
The “Lucy” specimen was discovered in 1974 and dates back to around 3.2 million years ago. While the Australopithecus anamensis specimen does have a face that looks similar to Lucy’s, there were also several differences between the two. One of the major differences was that the canine teeth were larger than those of Australopithecus afarensis, but smaller than the ones from earlier hominids. And the lower jaw protruded like that of an ape-like creature. One of the similarities between the two is that they both walked on two legs and climbed trees.
The facial features are even more different than the delicate faces of modern humans – the Homo species first evolved approximately 2.8 million years ago. Based on the bone size, the Australopithecus anamensis fossil (known as “MRD”) from 3.8 million years ago was probably a male. Another interesting fact is that its brain was around the same size as that from a modern day chimpanzee. You can see pictures here of the skull as well as what our ancient human ancestor actually looked like millions of years ago.
Finding a nearly complete skull was a huge discovery, as scientists didn’t know much about the species before this magnificent find. “What we’ve known about Australopithecus anamensis so far was limited to isolated jaw fragments and teeth,” Yohannes Haile-Selassie, who is a paleoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as well as the study’s co-author, told reporters, adding, “We didn’t have any remains of the face or the cranium except for one small fragment near the ear region.”
On February 10, 2016, Haile-Selassie and his colleagues discovered the skull in two big pieces buried in the sand of an ancient river delta located in the Godaya Valley of the Afar region of Ethiopia. Beverly Saylor, who is a professor of stratigraphy and sedimentology at Case Western Reserve University, said that the river probably carried the skull a short distance from the place where the ancient human ancestor had died.
It is believed that the Australopithecus anamensis species more than likely overlapped with Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species) for 100,000 years or more. This would mean that the species didn’t just evolve into a new species and the old ones all of a sudden disappeared. “Now, instead of a simple model of one species evolving into another, it seems likely that even early on in human evolution that there were multiple hominin species living at any one time, and that our evolutionary tree is very bushy at its base,” explained John Kappelman, who is an anthropologist that studies early hominins at the University of Texas at Austin.
This raises another very important question on which species actually began the first Homo species. The Australopithecus afarensis species is a great candidate for our most-direct ancestor, but since other australopithecines were also around at that time, it could have been any of them. While it has been suggested that another australopithecine group called Australopithecus deyiremeda lived between 3.5 and 3.3 million years ago, not everyone is on board with it being a different species.