New Human Ancestor Discovery Means ‘Lucy’ May Not Be The ‘Mother Of Mankind’ As Previously Claimed

The tools of a new human ancestor could potentially dethrone Lucy — the most well known Australopithecus afarensis — as the “Mother of Mankind,” as she has been called since her discovery in 1974.

This new human ancestor, dubbed Australopithecus deyiremeda — which means “close relative” in the native language of the Afar people — was discovered in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region in Ethiopia and has been dated to 3.3 million to 3.5 million years ago, which puts it smack in the middle of the date range given to Lucy — 2.9 million to 3.8 million years ago.

What this discovery means is that those who have long refuted the claims that Lucy was the first direct ancestor of Homo sapiens may, in fact, have been right all along. While Lucy and the species A. afarensis as a whole can still claim the title of a forerunner of Homo sapiens, they were not the only ones. In fact, with this newest discovery comes the possibility of even more Australopithecus species than was originally thought, says Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“The new species is yet another confirmation that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was not the only potential human ancestor species that roamed in what is now the Afar. Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity.”

The human ancestor’s bones, comprised of the fossilised remains of an upper and lower jaw, were found in March, 2011, in the Burtele area of Ethiopia, only about 35 km north of Hadar, where Lucy was found, making the two species virtual neighbors. Though the new ancestor’s bones are similar to A. afarensis, there are obvious differences, according to a study published in Nature. The teeth of the new human ancestor are of a different shape and size, and as well have a different enamel thickness to A. afarensis. A. deyiremeda’s lower jaw is also more powerful.

Discoveries such as these always bring out skeptics and cause debate among colleagues, and this new human ancestor will be no different, says Haile-Selassie.

“This new species from Ethiopia takes the ongoing debate on early hominin diversity to another level.

“Some of our colleagues are going to be skeptical about this new species, which is not unusual. However, I think it is time that we look into the earlier phases of our evolution with an open mind and carefully examine the currently available fossil evidence rather than immediately dismissing the fossils that do not fit our long-held hypotheses.”

Are you skeptical about this new human ancestor? Do you believe it changes the way we view human history, or does it not make a difference to you?

[Image Credits: Header – ABC News, Body – EarthSky]