South African scientists today revealed details about a pair of fossils, including the most complete ape-man skull ever excavated, which they hope will shed light on our distant origins.
The pair, christened Orpheus and Eurydice after the Greek mythological lovers, are 1.5 to 2 million years old and have been identified as Paranthropus robustus, a hominid line that became extinct about one million years ago.
“They are not direct ancestors of modern humans but are more like ‘kissing cousins’ of our ancestors,” Lee Berger told Reuters after a news conference, where the pair — discovered in 1994 but revealed only now — were put on public display for the first time.
Near the Famous Sterkfontein Caves
Scientists say the skull belongs to a female of the species while the other fossil, a lower jawbone or mandible, belongs to a male.
The fossils were unearthed four miles from the renowned Sterkfontein caves north of Johannesburg, which have yielded many hominid finds, including the recent discovery of a complete 3.3 million-year-old arm and head.
Describing the day he and his team made the discovery, palaeontologist Andre Keyser said: “I knew immediately what I was dealing with and was extremely excited and absolutely delighted to have found it. It was certainly the highlight of my career as a palaeontologist.”
Scientists say the significance of the find includes the fact that they now know what a female Paranthropus robustus looks like and know the difference between the male and female of the species.
They also hope its differences and similarities from humanity’s ancestors, and the reasons for its extinction, may provide clues to humanity’s own march up the evolutionary ladder.
The reasons for hominid extinctions are a matter of debate in the scientific community.
Some speculate that modern man at a very early stage may have shown his dark side by eliminating potential rivals.