Two Loughborough University professors have been involved in the study of fossils discovered in South Africa which could prove to be a major breakthrough in our understanding of the evolution of modern humans.
Noel Cameron and Barry Bogin have completed 12 months of research on the near-two million year old fossilised bones, perhaps belonging to related individuals, that were found in a cave at Malapa, 25 miles from Johannesburg, in 2008.
Noel Cameron, Professor in Human Biology and Associate Dean for Research in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, says the skeletons could be the ‘most significant find’ in man’s attempt to discover his direct ancestors.
Professor Cameron got involved in 2011, three years after the bones were found by a nine-year-old boy called Matthew Berger, son of Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
While out with his father, Matthew discovered the fossilised remains of a juvenile male hominin, an ancestor to modern humans that was later dated to have lived almost two million years ago. The remains of an adult female, another adult and an infant, were also discovered.
It is the first time that so much associated material has been found together. The quality of their preservation, and the extensive quantity of the cranial (head and jaw) and post-cranial (material other than the skull and jaw) material, make their contribution to our knowledge of our ancestors potentially extraordinary.
Professor Cameron has a long association with South Africa fossils. He spent 14 years in the medical school in Johannesburg which housed the most extensive repository of fossilised hominid remains in the world, including the original “missing link” known as the “Taung child”, first reported by Professor Raymond Dart in February 1925.
He is a leading expert on human growth and development and last year he was asked by Professor Berger to determine whether the juvenile male (known as MH1) had the growth characteristics representative of hominins (modern humans or their extinct relatives) or one of our closest primate ancestors such as chimpanzees.
The pattern of growth and development is key to understanding not only the rate of development and the period of immaturity but also the likely duration of the reproductive period and subsequent lifespan or our ancestors.
Professor Cameron elicited the help of his colleague, Barry Bogin, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Loughborough, who is also recognised internationally for his expertise in human growth and development.
Having completed their research on the post-cranial material they say the skeletons are ‘the most significant find’ in our attempt to discover how our direct ancestors grew and developed.
Professor Cameron said: “Usually, very few fossil fragments, other than the skull, are found because animals will have taken the rest away and eaten it.
“The chances of finding a post-cranial skeleton from the neck down are fairly small. This material forms the largest amount of post-cranial material from a hominid fossil ever found.
“With this amount of material we were able to look at a variety of bones to allow us to determine whether or not the pattern of growth reflected that of an ape or something more modern.
“The pattern of growth is fundamentally important. The only reason you look like you do is because of the way in which you grew.
“So if you understand the pattern of growth you can determine how far away they were from apes and how close they were to modern humans.
“Beyond that I can’t go much further because this work is clearly ground-breaking and the results are embargoed until publication in a major scientific journal next year.”
Professor Berger named the skeleton Australopithecus sediba, (sediba means “natural spring” or “well” in the local Sotho language) and researchers writing in the US journal Science have described it as an immediate ancestor of Homo erectus, the ancient form from which modern humans arose.
Other palaeontologists have yet to be convinced that the creature is an immediate ancestor of H. erectus, and hence our own species, H. sapiens.
But if Professor Berger is correct the fossils will fill a gap between Lucy, the 3.2m year old hominin unearthed in Ethiopa in 1974 and H. erectus, which lived from 1.8m to 1.3m years ago. Members of a team of more than 100 scientists from all over the world have been involved in the project.