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Lucy in 3.4 million-year-old cross-species cave tryst

New homonin fossil discovered

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The statement from the abstract is as prosaic as it gets: “A newly discovered partial hominin foot skeleton from eastern Africa indicates the presence of more than one hominin locomotor adaptation at the beginning of the Late Pliocene epoch.”

The implication, however, is profound: potentially a new species of hominin has been discovered in 3.4 million-year-old Ethiopian fossils, launching either a new direction in the study of human evolution, or at the very least, a fabulous argument about whether the fossils are or are not a separate species.

A new study published in Nature suggests that Lucy – the female specimen famous for identifying Australopithecus afarensis – didn’t represent the only line of hominins.

Unlike Australopithecus afarensis, the as-yet-unnamed specimen retains a characteristic not of upright-walking humans but a tree-dweller: an opposable big toe, designed for grasping tree branches.

According to the New York Times, the foot is similar to those of the species Ardipithecus ramidus, known from 4.4 million-year-old fossils from Ethiopia.

Of key importance in the find is that it demonstrates that humans probably didn’t take a single path to bipedal locomotion; rather, various lines seem to have evolved, with only one – us – the eventual winning line. ®

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