Earliest Hominid Fossil Found in Kenya

ByABC News

N A I R O B I, Kenya, Dec. 4, 2001 -- French and Kenyan scientists have unearthed fossilized remains of mankind’s earliest knownancestor that predate previous discoveries by more than 1.5million years, the team announced today.

They said the discovery of “Millennium Man,” as the creaturehas been nicknamed, could change the way scientists think aboutevolution and the origin of species.

The first remains were discovered in the Tugen hills ofKenya’s Baringo district on Oct. 25 by a team from College deFrance in Paris and the Community Museums of Kenya.

Older by 1.5 Million Years

Since then, the scientists have unearthed distinct body partsbelonging to at least five individuals, both male and female.

“Not only is this find older than any else previously known,it is also in a more advanced stage of evolution,”palaeontologist Martin Pickford told a news conference.

“It is at least 6 million years old, which means it isolder than the [previously oldest] remains found at Aramis inEthiopia, which were 4.5 million years old.”

“Lucy,” the skeleton of Australopithicus afarensis found inEthiopia in 1974, is believed to have lived around 3.2 millionyears ago.

An almost perfectly fossilized left femur shows the mucholder Millennium Man already had strong back legs which enabledit to walk upright — giving it hominid characteristics whichrelate it directly to man.

A thick right humerus bone from the upper arm suggests italso had tree-climbing skills, but probably not enough to “hang”from tree branches or swing limb to limb.

The length of the bones show the creature was about the sizeof a modern chimpanzee, according to Brigitte Senut, a teammember from the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

But it is the teeth and jaw structure which most clearlylink Millennium Man to the modern human.

It has small canines and full molars — similar dentition tomodern man and suggesting a diet of mainly fruit and vegetableswith occasional opportunistic meat-eating.

Previous Dating Proves Age of Site

Although no dating has been done on the remains justunearthed, strata from where the fossils were recovered havebeen previously proven twice by independent teams — fromBritain and the United States — to show an age of 6 million years.

The Baringo area is part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley,which has long been rich in archaeological and palaeontologicaldiscoveries and the source of almost all fossils related toman’s earliest ancestors.

The area is rich in calcium carbonate and calcium phosphatethat replace the organic material in bones to form fossils in anenvironment sealed by lava or volcanic ash.

Pickford and Senut said they were confident the team wouldunearth even more remains that could help form a near-perfectpicture of Millennium Man.

“We are just going to publish our initial findings, to getthe excitement, and continue with our work,” Pickford said. “Iam sure there is still a lot more out there — possibly evenolder.”

Chew Marks on Leg Bone

Fossil parts of other species found at the same site hint ata rich variety of fauna and flora.

“We have found fossils of trees, fossils of rhino, hippo,antelope … many things,” said Senut. “They would not be whatyou recognise today, but earlier ancestors of them.”

Chew marks on one femur of Millennium Man suggest ourearliest ancestor may have met an unfortunate end, but one thatis still played out across parts of Africa every day.

“It looks like he was killed and eaten by some sort ofcarnivore, probably a cat,” said Pickford.

“It was probably dragged up a tree to the cat’s usual eatingplace and then bits fell into the water below.”

The latest fossils were found in the village of Rondinin inthe Tugen hills, around 150 miles northeast of thecapital, Nairobi.

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