With help from Google Earth, scientists in South Africa discovered a pair of 1.9 million-year-old skeletons that could be an early ancestor to humans.
Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and his nine-year-old son Matthew say they first noticed the fossils in the unexplored Malapa caves near Jonhannesburg in March 2008, but announced the discovery to the world for the first time on Thursday.
Named Australopithecus sediba -- after the word for "well-spring" in the Sesotho language -- the collection of 130 bones comprises two incomplete skeletons.
The researchers say they are currently excavating at least two other skeletons there belonging to the same species, and found the unexplored fossil site by surveying the area with Google Earth and satellite images.
The bones, which indicate a small-brained, burly-looking creature, hint at features present in both the modern Homo and previously-discovered Australopitheci nes.
Evidence suggests that they walked upright but took refuge in trees, were tall for their time (4 ft. 4 in.) but squat in shape, had the dainty teeth and protruding nose of a modern human but a tiny brain.
They also had long legs with primitive feet and long arms with fairly modern hands.
The discovery may shake up the evolutionary path that scientists have established for humans. But scientists disagree whether this species is a true ancestor or a related branch of the same family tree.
The Wall Street Journal explains the problem:
By the available evidence, though, the group to which the modern human family belongs—the genus Homo—was already widespread in Africa and parts of East Asia before these creatures lived. The scientists acknowledged that the specimens they unearthed had lived too recently to be the ancestors of the more advanced groups with whom they coexisted, but speculated that there may be older examples of the species awaiting discovery.
Important discovery? Absolutely. Significant to current scholarship? Debatable, and there aren't yet enough fossils found to be sure whether the creatures were evolutionary dead-ends or true predecessors.
The fossils aren't the oldest human ancestors ever found. That title used to belong to the 3.2-million-year-old "Lucy" skeleton, from the species australopithecus afarensis, discovered by anthropologist Donald Johanson.
It now belongs to the 4.4 million-year-old "Ardi," which SmartPlanet reported back in October 2009.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com