Exact fossil replicas of two of the most complete skeletons of early human relatives ever found have been donated to the Natural History Museum
in London, of which the skull is on display from today.
The ancient human-like species, Australopithecus sediba, is 1.98 million years old and could be the ancestor to the first humans. The skeleton casts have been donated by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. 'This will be the first public exhibition of this early human-like species in the UK,' says Museum Director Dr Michael Dixon.
'This gift gives us an opportunity to show these spectacular finds to the public and for researchers and students to study them.'
The remarkable remains were uncovered from caves at Malapa, South Africa, and they were unveiled in April 2010 by Professor Lee Berger of the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits University and colleagues.
Evolution of modern humans
Australopithecines are known as southern apes and shared similarities with both apes and humans. A. sediba had an ape-sized brain and ape-like body shape but also human-like characteristics in its hands, face, teeth, pelvis, and shape of front brain cavity.
At nearly 2 million years old, A. sediba lived at a time when the first humans (genus Homo) evolved. It is the most human-like australopithecine ever discovered and may be a transitional species, giving scientists a snapshot of evolution in action showing a transition of Australopithecus to Homo.
'Australopithecus sediba has a critical role in shaping our understanding about the route of human evolution,' says Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Museum and author of the new book The Origin of Our Species. 'A. sediba provides valuable clues to the evolutionary changes that led to the genus Homo.'
A. sediba's discovery in South Africa also shifts the likely origins of modern humans away from East Africa.
More to come from Malapa
'Given that even more material is being excavated,' says Stringer, 'we will undoubtedly learn a lot more from the Malapa site about the evolutionary processes that led to the first humans'.