Scientists have conducted research on the fossil of an extinct 4-million-year-old cranium that was part of the Australopithecus genus, and have determined that this hominin was remarkably similar to humans living today. The fossil was originally recovered in the Sterkfontein Caves back 1995 and was the oldest hominin that had ever been discovered in South Africa, showing clearly how humans had evolved over time.
As Science Daily report, scientists have used high resolution imaging systems for their virtual paleontology to study the cranium of the fossil. Dr. Amelie Beaudet, who works at the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand, explained that studying the fossil’s cranium in a virtual fashion like this allows researchers to better understand the evolutionary connection between ancient hominins and modern humans today.
“The Jacovec cranium represents a unique opportunity to learn more about the biology and diversity of our ancestors and their relatives and, ultimately, about their evolution. Unfortunately, the cranium is highly fragmentary and not much could be said about the identity nor the anatomy of the Jacovec specimen before.”
After careful observation of the Australopithecus fossil, Beaudet and her team were able to observe that the blood flow of this hominin’s brain with its spongy bone would not have been that different from our own.
“Our study revealed that the cranium of the Jacovec specimen and of the Ausralopithecus specimens from Sterkfontein in general was thick and essentially composed of spongy bone. This large portion of spongy bone, also found in our own cranium, may indicate that blood flow in the brain of Australopithecus may have been comparable to us, and/or that the braincase had an important role in the protection of the evolving brain.”
Scientists next examined the relationship between this hominin and that of the Paranthropus by comparing their cranial anatomy. What they found was astonishing to researchers, as the cranium of the Paranthropus was actually quite thin in comparison, according to Beaudet.
“We also found that the Paranthropus cranium was relatively thin and essentially composed of compact bone. This result is of particular interest, as it may suggest a different biology.”
The site of the Sterkfontein Caves is less than 25 miles away from Johannesburg and is a particularly rich site when it comes to really understanding how humans evolved. Scientists have discovered more than 800 hominin fossils here, including one that is to date the most complete early hominin that has ever been recovered anywhere in the world.
With the use of modern virtual scanning techniques, Dr. Amelie Beaudet explained that fossils that were found in the past at this site can now undergo complete re-examination to help scientists learn more about both the differences and similarities between them and us.
“The Jacovec cranium exemplifies the relevance of the Sterkfontein fossil specimens for our understanding of human evolution. Imaging techniques open unique perspectives for revisiting the South African fossil assemblage.”
The new study that shows a similarity between the cranium of modern humans and the 4-million-year-old hominin fossil has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.