If our friend Little Red Riding Hood was dumb enough to’ve thought a wolf in babushka threads was her grandma, well, she probably would have played Bingo with a grandmother-mimicking Australopithecus anamensis.
Australopithecus anamensis is the earliest undisputed hominid, found in deposits ranging from 4.2 – 3.9 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya (Leakey et al. 1995, White et al. 2006). Now, hominids are allegedly distinguished from other apes by having relatively short canine teeth distinguished by having relatively tall ‘shoulders,’ creating a diamond-shape in front view. Nevertheless, compared with humans these early australopiths had pretty murdersome canines, within the range of female chimpanzee species. (my dictionary is trying to tell me ‘murdersome’ isn’t a word, but I learned long ago not to learn right and wrong from a book)
Such canine form – relatively small with tall shoulders – was important in diagnosing Ardipithecus ramidus (> 4.4 million years) as a hominid back in the roaring 1990s (White et al. 1994). Of course, we learned in the 1980s that many ancient fossil apes looked superficially like hominids because of dental similarities, the result of either parallel evolution or hominids’ retention of primitive features. Indeed, even in light of the recently described Ardipithecus ramidus skull and skeleton, the main similarities with later, undisputed hominids are dental.
With this in mind, I’m struck by the canine of Nakalipithecus nakayamai, an ape from Kenya dating to nearly 10 million years ago (Kunimatsu et al. 2007). This is ape was a pretty important discovery because it began to fill in a rather lonesome Late Miocene ape fossil record in Africa. So, below is a picture of Nakali and anamensis canines, which I’ve tried to properly scale with the cutting-edge techniques of Microsoft Powerpoint (that is absolutely not a plug for Microsoft). On the left is Nakalipithecus, and the 2 on the right are Au. anamensis. The middle one is anamensis from Asa Issie in Ethiopia, and is the largest canine found of any hominid, ever I think. On the right is anamensis from Kanapoi in Kenya, not as big but sharp as shi…
…sh kabob skewers. Well crap, the “hominid feature” of short canine crown with nice shoulders is found in this 10 million year-old ape!
Two mutually exclusive scenarios could explain this similarity:  this canine morphology truly is a shared-derived feature of hominids, but hominids and Nakalipithecus just happened to evolve the same morphology independently for no better reason than, say, ennui.  This morphology is the ancestral condition for hominids (and chimpanzees and possibly gorillas). The fanciest cladistic methods won’t resolve this issue, only the discover of more badass fossils will. But if  is correct, that would deal a tough blow to the case of Ar. ramidus (and Sahelanthropus) behing a hominid. Really, it seems like the distinguishing feature of early hominids was their deplorable lack of distinguishing features.
Oy, if bones and teeth are prone to homoplasy (similarity due to parallel evolution and not because of common ancestry), could paleoanthropologists have a special proclivity for it, too (that is, in naming dental hominids)?
Kunimatsu, Y., Nakatsukasa, M., Sawada, Y., Sakai, T., Hyodo, M., Hyodo, H., Itaya, T., Nakaya, H., Saegusa, H., Mazurier, A., Saneyoshi, M., Tsujikawa, H., Yamamoto, A., & Mbua, E. (2007). A new Late Miocene great ape from Kenya and its implications for the origins of African great apes and humans Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (49), 19220-19225 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0706190104
Leakey, M., Feibel, C., McDougall, I., & Walker, A. (1995). New four-million-year-old hominid species from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya Nature, 376 (6541), 565-571 DOI: 10.1038/376565a0
Ward, C. (2001). Morphology of Australopithecus anamensis from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya Journal of Human Evolution, 41 (4), 255-368 DOI: 10.1006/jhev.2001.0507
White, T., Suwa, G., & Asfaw, B. (1994). Australopithecus ramidus, a new species of early hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia Nature, 371 (6495), 306-312 DOI: 10.1038/371306a0
White, T., WoldeGabriel, G., Asfaw, B., Ambrose, S., Beyene, Y., Bernor, R., Boisserie, J., Currie, B., Gilbert, H., Haile-Selassie, Y., Hart, W., Hlusko, L., Howell, F., Kono, R., Lehmann, T., Louchart, A., Lovejoy, C., Renne, P., Saegusa, H., Vrba, E., Wesselman, H., & Suwa, G. (2006). Asa Issie, Aramis and the origin of Australopithecus Nature, 440 (7086), 883-889 DOI: 10.1038/nature04629