Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus was an ear­ly ances­tor of mod­ern humans, was much small­er than us, and walked upright, but was prob­a­bly unable to make tools.

South Africa, and the Cra­dle of Humankind in par­tic­u­lar, is extreme­ly rich in Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus fos­sils, which are rare in the world as a whole.

Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Dart of the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand iden­ti­fied the first Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus fos­sil at Taung, in what is now the North West Province of South Africa, in 1924. He gave the fos­sil, the Taung Child, the species name Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, which means south­ern ape of Africa”.

But Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus was not an ape at all. It was an upright-walk­ing hominid with human-like teeth and hands and some ape-like fea­tures, such as a small brain, flat­tened nose and for­ward-pro­ject­ing jaws.

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A bust of Phillip Tobias at the Sterk­fontein Caves

Many fos­sils of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus have since been recov­ered from Sterk­fontein and the Maka­pans Val­ley in South Africa, and from sites in East Africa.

The Cra­dle of Humankind is renowned for its Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus spec­i­mens, which lived between 3-mil­lion and 2-mil­lion years ago. The first adult fos­sil of this hominid (TM 1511), was found at Sterk­fontein by Dr Robert Broom in 1936. A well-known exam­ple is Mrs Ples” (Sts 5), which was dis­cov­ered by Broom and John Robin­son in 1947.

But there are oth­er Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus spec­i­mens dis­cov­ered in the Cra­dle of Humankind, which are not Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus. These include sev­er­al spec­i­mens, such as Stw 252, exca­vat­ed by Alun Hugh­es and Phillip Tobias, and Sts 71, dis­cov­ered by Broom and John Robin­son in 1947.

How would you know an Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus if you bumped into one?

The aus­tralo­p­ithecines were ape­like, but were dif­fer­ent from the oth­er great apes of the past and today in that their pow­er­ful jaws housed small­er canines – though they were still larg­er than ours. They were also habit­u­al­ly bipedal, mean­ing they reg­u­lar­ly walked upright (oth­er great apes walk upright only in short stints).

They were short­er and lighter than mod­ern humans, weigh­ing between about 27 kg and 49 kg (60 lbs and 108 lbs), and rang­ing from about 1.1 m to 1.5 m (37” to 411”) tall – very sim­i­lar to mod­ern chim­panzees. Their brain capac­i­ty was also com­pa­ra­ble to that of the mod­ern great apes, at about 390 cc to 550 cc, or about a third of mod­ern humans’. Their jaws pro­ject­ed more than ours.

They had strong, slight­ly curved, fin­gers and thumbs, while their feet were short, with less flex­i­ble toes than oth­er apes and more like ours. Their strong arms and fin­gers could have aid­ed climb­ing, which may mean they spent some of their time in trees.

We know lit­tle about their super­fi­cial appear­ance or the colour of their skin, but they prob­a­bly had a sim­i­lar amount of body hair to today’s great apes.

Males and females of some Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus species looked very dif­fer­ent. Males of some species were much larg­er than females, as with oth­er pri­mates, such as goril­las and orang­utans. This char­ac­ter­is­tic is called sex­u­al dimorphism.

Between 4-mil­lion and 2-mil­lion years ago, you might have bumped into an Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus any­where in East or South­ern Africa – they ranged wide­ly over the continent.

How the first Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus was found

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Bust of Robert Broom at the Sterk­fontein Caves

In the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry, palaeon­tol­o­gists believed that humankind’s ori­gins lay in Asia or Europe. Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Dart’s the­o­ry that the Taung Child was a human ances­tor was not well received. He did, how­ev­er, have a sup­port­er in Dr Robert Broom, a keen palaeon­tol­o­gist who had until then had spe­cialised in fos­sils of mam­mal-like rep­tiles found in the Karoo.

After the Taung Child was dis­cov­ered, Broom, deter­mined to find an adult Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, went look­ing in dolomite caves west of Pre­to­ria. He dis­cov­ered instead the fos­sil of a giant baboon, which received con­sid­er­able press coverage.

After read­ing about the baboon in a news­pa­per, two stu­dents, Hard­ing le Riche and GWH Schep­ers, who had vis­it­ed the Sterk­fontein Caves and recov­ered fos­sil mon­keys, approached Broom and encour­aged him to vis­it the caves with them.

At Sterk­fontein, Broom met George Bar­low, the site man­ag­er, who, as luck would have it, had also worked at Taung. Broom asked Bar­low to keep a look out for any­thing sim­i­lar to the Taung Skull, and a few days lat­er, Bar­low hand­ed him a rare find, a nat­ur­al brain cast in rock of the world’s first adult spec­i­men of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, lat­er cat­a­logued as TM 1511.

No dia­mond cut­ter ever worked more lov­ing­ly or with such care on a pre­cious jew­el – nor, I am sure, with such inad­e­quate tools. But on the sev­en­ty-third day, Decem­ber 23, the rock part­ed. I could view the face from the front, although the right side was still imbed­ded … What emerged was a baby’s face, an infant with a full set of milk teeth and its per­ma­nent molars just in the process of erupt­ing. I doubt if there was any par­ent proud­er of his off­spring than I was of my Taung baby on that Christ­mas.”Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Dart, on free­ing the Taung Child – the world’s first Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus – from the rocky brec­cia that sur­round­ed it, in 1924

Diverg­ing branch­es of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus was one of our most ancient hominid ances­tors. There were many Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus species.

Dif­fer­ent Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus species lived in South­ern and East Africa from about 4-mil­lion years ago until about 2-mil­lion years ago. Palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists are still try­ing to under­stand the rela­tion­ships between the dif­fer­ent species because the fos­sil record for Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus is frag­ment­ed and lim­it­ed, and new aus­tralo­p­ithecine finds are con­stant­ly com­ing to light.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus ana­men­sis, Kenya

Lived 4.2-million to 3.9-million years ago. Dis­cov­ered in Kenya in 1994. It prob­a­bly walked upright and lived in open wood­land habi­tats in what is now Kenya and Ethiopia.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afaren­sis, Ethiopia and Kenya

Lived 3.6-million to 3-mil­lion years ago.Small brained, walked upright, most­ly her­biv­o­rous. Climbed trees well and lived at a time when Africa was forest­ed. Best exam­ple of this species is Lucy”.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus bahrel­g­haz­a­li, Chad

Lived 3-mil­lion years ago.The type spec­i­men of this species is a mandible (low­er jaw) frag­ment, found in a dry riv­er bed in 1993 in Chad, the fur­thest west any Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus has been found.

Kenyan­thro­pus platy­ops, Kenya

Lived 3.5-million to 3.2-million years ago. Kenyan­thro­pus platy­ops had prim­i­tive fea­tures includ­ing small ear holes, but a low­er face that was sim­i­lar to the Homo habilis skull KNMER 1470. This cra­ni­um is referred to by some as Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus platy­ops.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, South Africa

Lived 3-mil­lion to 2-mil­lion years ago.Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus was sim­i­lar to Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afaren­sis. The best-known exam­ples of this hominid are the Taung Child and Mrs Ples”.

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Mrs Ples (Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus)

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus species (unnamed), South Africa

Lived 3.2-million years ago. An Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus skele­ton nick­named Lit­tle Foot” was found in the Sterk­fontein Caves in 1997. Once ful­ly exca­vat­ed, it will be assigned a species.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus garhi, Ethiopia

Lived 2.5-million years ago. Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus garhi may prove to be the link between the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus and Homo gen­era, and may have made the first stone tools – though researchers debate both these points.

Our ancient ancestors

Mrs Ples”

Mrs Ples” is the most com­plete skull of an Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus spec­i­men ever dis­cov­ered. The skull was found encased in brec­cia (a rocky matrix) at Sterk­fontein in 1947, by palaeon­tol­o­gist Dr Robert Broom and his assis­tant, John Robinson.

The dis­cov­ery of Mrs Ples” helped to high­light the view that humankind was born in Africa – a the­o­ry that most sci­en­tists were scep­ti­cal of at the time.

Mrs Ples was so named by The Star news­pa­per when Broom said it was an elder­ly female of the species Ple­sianthro­pus trans­vaalen­sis (“near-human from the Trans­vaal”), although the skull was lat­er iden­ti­fied as belong­ing to the same species as the Taung Child, Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, a dis­tant ances­tor of humankind.

Broom sug­gest­ed that the skull of Mrs Ples” rep­re­sent­ed a female, based on the small size of the sock­ets for the canine teeth.

Dr Fran­cis Thack­er­ay of the Trans­vaal Muse­um has argued that Mrs Ples” is the fos­sil of a young male, although oth­ers, includ­ing Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand Pro­fes­sor Ron Clarke, disagree.

What­ev­er gen­der she or he was, the indi­vid­ual was an ado­les­cent. If that indi­vid­ual had in fact been male, he would have been rel­a­tive­ly small.

Mrs Ples” was clear­ly on the road to human­i­ty. This hominid could walk upright, but had a small brain, sim­i­lar in size to that of a mod­ern chimpanzee.

At about 2.1-million years old, Mrs Ples” is one of the youngest known fos­sils rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus. Not long after that, Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus became extinct.

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Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afarensis

Lucy”, Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afarensis

Lucy” is the par­tial skele­ton of a 3.2-million-year-old Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afaren­sis from East Africa. It is arguably the most well-known hominid skele­ton in the world.

Dr Don­ald Johan­son and his team dis­cov­ered the skele­ton in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974.

For­mal­ly known as AL288-1, Lucy” was nick­named after the pop­u­lar Bea­t­les’ song Lucy in the Sky with Dia­monds, which the exca­va­tion team had been lis­ten­ing to on the radio.

Although the skele­ton con­sists of only 47 out of the 206 bones in the human body, it paints a remark­able pic­ture of ear­ly hominids in East Africa. Lucy was a mature adult but stood only about 1 m (33”) tall.

Lucy had arms that were slight­ly longer rel­a­tive to those of humans (her arms and legs would have been sim­i­lar lengths, while humans’ legs are longer than their arms). These longer arms and curved hand bones lead palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists to believe that Lucy would have been an agile tree climber, although some doubt whether she actu­al­ly used these traits or if they were just evo­lu­tion­ary fea­tures left from ear­li­er hominids. Many oth­ers, how­ev­er, are con­vinced that she was a tree climber.

Lucy’s baby”

In 2000, palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Zere­se­nay Alem­seged found a remark­ably pre­served baby female fos­sil that dates to about 3.3-million years ago. The three-year-old Diki­ka baby, named after the region in which it was found near the wind­ing Awash Riv­er in Hadar, Ethiopia, has been dubbed Lucy’s baby” after the famous 3.2-million year-old adult found in 1974.

But the baby may even­tu­al­ly out­shine its mother.

Its near­ly com­plete skull, tor­so and frag­ment­ed arms and legs offer new clues about Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus afaren­sis. Its par­tial knee and near­ly com­plete leg and foot are built for bipedal­ism, yet its shoul­ders are suit­ed for climb­ing, rein­forc­ing exist­ing the­o­ries that it was part-arboreal.

Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus lived in East­ern and South­ern Africa between 4.2-million and 2-mil­lion years ago. Lucy” and Mrs Ples” are arguably East and South Africa’s most famous Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus fos­sil finds.

How­ev­er, they are not the old­est hominid fos­sils. Hominid fos­sils dat­ing up to about 7-mil­lion years ago have been found in East and North Africa.

Some of the old­est hominids (pre­cur­sors of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus)

Sahe­lan­thro­pus tchadensis

This species is for­mal­ly known as Sahe­lan­thro­pus tchaden­sis, but is nick­named Toumai” (“hope of life” in the local Goran lan­guage). A skull of this species, dat­ed to approx­i­mate­ly 7-mil­lion years ago, was dis­cov­ered in Chad in 2001. The fos­sil per­haps rep­re­sents the ear­li­est known ances­tor to humans.

Orror­in tugenensis

Orror­in tuge­nen­sis is rep­re­sent­ed by 13 fos­sils found in the Tugen Hills of Kenya in 2000. The fos­sils include a par­tial femur, low­er jaw frag­ments, and sev­er­al teeth. Dat­ed to about 6-mil­lion years ago, this species could rep­re­sent the prover­bial miss­ing link” between apes and hominids, although its posi­tion in the hominid fam­i­ly tree is high­ly con­test­ed at present.

Ardip­ithe­cus ramidus kadabba

Ardip­ithe­cus ramidus kad­ab­ba is an approx­i­mate­ly 5.8-million year old species dis­cov­ered in the Mid­dle Awash Riv­er Val­ley of Ethiopia over a four-year peri­od and announced in 2001. Although the frag­men­tary remains include a par­tial low­er jaw with teeth, hand and foot bones, pieces of three arm bones and part of a col­lar­bone, it is a sin­gle toe bone which is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant find. The shape of this bone sug­gests this ape-like crea­ture walked on two legs, pre­sum­ably mak­ing it an ear­ly hominid very close to the branch­ing point between apes and humans.

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