The most complete Australopithecus skeleton

StW 573, a hominin skeleton more palatably nicknamed “Little Foot,” made its big debut last week:

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Ron Clarke showcases the lovingly-excavated skeleton (Photo credit: AP/Themba Hadebe)

The skeleton is remarkable in that it is the most complete australopithecine individual ever discovered, and is among the most complete in the entire hominin fossil record. Below I’ve compared it to the most complete Australopithecus afarensis (KSD-VP-1/1 and AL 288-1), A. africanus (StW 431 and Sts 14), and A. sediba (MH1-2); the Dikika infant would be a neat comparison, too, but I don’t know of any photos of its bones nicely laid out. The other skeletons are practically naked (or dismembered) compared to Little Foot.

Australopithecus skeletons.png

Little Foot (red) compared with other australopithecine skeletons. Images not to scale! (Photo credit: The Internet!)

Beyond it’s completeness, the other parts of story of Little Foot are equally fascinating – from its discovery based on already-known fragments to the possibility that it is older than “Lucy” (AL-288). Ron Clarke has painstakingly and I’d say very successfully removed the skeleton from the hard breccia in which the fossils were encased. Having spent the better part of the past two decades with the skeleton, he has argued that Little Foot represents a second hominin species at Sterkfontein, Australopithecus prometheus (Clarke 2013), the species to which hominin fossils at Makapansgat were originally attributed (Dart 1948). With the unveiling of the skeleton, I’d guess that in the coming years we’ll see renewed investigations into the number of species at Sterkfontein, and the general comparison between hominins from there and Makapansgat.

From pictures in the media releases, we can see a few things that weren’t known from previous publications. I’ll outline a few here, but emphasize that these are only  superficial observations and will need to be borne out by further research.

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“EXPELLIARMUS”

At the top of the trunk, the cervical vertebra seems to have a fairly wide spinal canal, a human-like ‘bulging’ which Meyer and Hausler (2015) suggest might reflect innervation of highly manipulative hominin hands.

Stw 573 thorax

Close up of the skull and upper trunk of StW 573, highlighting the cervical vertebral canal (white arrow) and first rib (orange arrow). Original photo credit: AP//Themba Hadebe.

In addition, the first rib may be relatively long front-to-back (as opposed to wide side-to-side), possibly indicating a more barrel-like chest than in other early hominins; the angle of the photo and the clear break between the proximal and distal portions, however, makes this unclear.

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Hominin first ribs/bacon, with StW 573 on the far right. Not to scale! Modified from this post.

The distal forelimb (i.e., radius and ulna) are not as elongated as in apes, but the femur is not as elongated as in the genus Homo. From the pictures, the femur neck appears short like in humans, not as elongated as is characteristic for australopiths and early Homo.

Limb comparison Stw 573

Limb proportion comparison. Humerus (top row), radius & ulna (middle), and femur (bottom). Image modified from Asfaw et al. (1999). StW 573 scaled to same humerus length as the human. Note also that all bones are from the right except the StW 573 upper limb.

The apparently short femur neck, similar to humans, contrasts with the wide, flaring ilium of the pelvis. This appears fairly flat, short and wide (Australopithecus af) compared to modern humans’ more strongly curved ilium. But this inference is just from a picture and it’s likely that the fossil needs a bit of reconstruction to uncover the true anatomy.

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StW 573 pelvis (left) compared with Sts 14 (A. africanus, middle) and SH pelvis 1 (archaic Homo, right). Sts 14 modified from Berge & Goularis (2010) and SH pelvis 1 from Bonmati et al. (2010).

I’d like to emphasize that these are just first impressions based on press release photos, and actual analysis of the skeleton are necessary to tell if these impressions are correct. As could be expected, the skeleton as a whole looks typically australopithecine, although the short femur neck may be a bit different. As 2017 draws to a close, let’s hope 2018 sees the testing of these predictions.

References

Asfaw B. et al. 1999. Australopithecus garhi: a new species of early hominid from Ethiopia. Science 284: 629-635.

Berge C and Goularis D. 2010. A new reconstruction of Sts 14 pelvis (Australopithecus africanus) from computed tomography and three-dimensional modeling techniques. Journal of Human Evolution 58: 262-272.

Bonmati A. et al. 2010.Middle Pleistocene lower back and pelvis from an aged human individual from the Sima de los Huesos site, Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 18386-18391.

Clarke RJ. 2013. Australopithecus from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. In The Paleobiology of Australopithecus, Reed et al., eds. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business.

Dart R. 1948. The Makapansgat proto-human Australopithecus prometheusAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology 6: 259-284.

Meyer M. and Hausler M. 2015. Spinal cord evolution in early Homo. Journal of Human Evolution 88: 43-53.

Blood spattered Easter eggs from Raymond Dart

Some of the more colorful ideas and text in the anthropological literature are courtesy of Raymond Dart.

Dart, hammering away to remove a fossil from some breccia. I hope. Image credit.

Dart, hammering away at some breccia to remove a fossil. I hope. Image credit.

In 1925, Dart identified the Taung fossil as a close relative of humans, and coined the scientific name, Australopithecus africanus. This was a pretty good idea, as Taung was the first in what is now a large collection of fossils attributed to this species.

Taung was such an important discovery, you can now walk across it as you enter the fossil collections at Wits University.

Taung was such an important discovery, you can now walk across it not once, not twice, but thrice! as you enter the fossil collections at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University.

Some of Dart’s ideas that made it into print, though, were a bit more fanciful. Aside from his description of Taung, he is probably most famous for hypothesizing the “osteodontokeratic” culture, the idea that the myriad broken animal bones in Makapansgat cave were in fact tools used by australopiths for hunting and murder. MURDER! It was a neat idea at the time, but his vision of bloodthirsty, bone-dagger-wielding australopithecines is not accepted today (nor back when he was writing).

Dart was trained as an anatomist, and much of his work was devoted to writing up australopithecine fossils discovered at site of Makapansgat in South Africa. These are probably the best descriptive papers I’ve found in all the literature, as Dart’s whimsical visions of violence and bloodshed occasionally made their way into otherwise dry scientific prose.

In 1948 he very casually put it out there, that the front teeth of the MLD 2 mandible were lost in “fatal combat . . . presumably by a bludgeon” (emphasis added). Of course, the teeth were probably lost long after the poor kid died, rather than being knocked out “at the hands of a kinsman more expert than himself in the accurate application of directed implements” (Dart, 1948: 393-394). But Dart’s version is certainly more interesting than the more likely taphonomic explanation.

MLD 2

The MLD 2 mandible, poor kid, as illustrated in Dart (1948). Note that the incisor tooth sockets are empty, likely the result of taphonomy rather than bloodsport.

Dart (1958) later described the MLD 7 ilium, which he’d presumed to be a female, from the same site as MLD 2. Dart recounted the violent demise of MLD 2, raising the possibility of a similar death for the MLD 7 individual: “The adolescent boy [MLD 2] … was killed by a bone-smashing blow on the chin from a club or fist. Did brother and sister share here in death the same cannibalistic fate?” (emphasis added) Bloodshed, cannibalism, Australopithecus according to Dart had it all. Although these are unlikely characterizations of australopithecines, there is evidence of cannibalism in later fossil humans.

These gruesome Easter Eggs come to mind as I’m reading his 1956 paper about brain evolution. Here, Dart (1956: 28) says that hominins began walking on two legs after a dietary shift: “The forest-loving vegetarian anthropoids clung to their four-handed climbing and fruit while the terrestrial predaceous australopithecines, depending on their speed of foot and deftness of hand, lusted after flesh!” (emphasis added) Today, this idea would simply be written as, monkeys and apes live in trees and eat fruits while australopithecines lived on the ground and ate meat. But Raymond Dart wouldn’t stand for this. Oh no.

My grad school advisor, Milford Wolpoff, used to lament that students today don’t want to read anything older than the past 5-10 years. But Dart is a shining example of some of the rewarding Easter Eggs that await those who dig deeper into the literature. [I’m reminded also of Don Cousins describing “the colossal poundage of the lowland gorilla ‘Phil,’ who lived in the St. Louis Zoo from 1941-1958″ (1972: 269, emphasis added].

ResearchBlogging.org
Some good, older stuff

Cousins D (1972). Body measurements and weights of wild and captive gorillas, Gorilla gorillaZoologische Garten NF Leipzig 41, 261-277.

Dart, RA (1925). Australopithecus africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa Nature, 115 (2884), 195-199 DOI: 10.1038/115195a0

Dart, RA (1948). The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6 (4), 391-412 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410

Dart RA (1956). The relationships of brain size and brain pattern to human status. The South African Journal of Medical Sciences, 21 (1-2), 23-45 PMID: 13380551

Dart, RA (1958). A further adolescent australopithecine ilium from Makapansgat American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 16 (4), 473-479 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330160407

Osteology Everywhere: Ilium Nublar

Jurassic Park is objectively the greatest film ever made, so I don’t need to explain why I recently watched it for the bajillionth time. Despite having seen this empirically excellent movie countless times, I finally noticed something I’d never seen before.

Hold on to your butts. What's that on the screen in front of Ray Arnold?

Hold on to your butts – what’s that on the screen in front of John Arnold? (image credit)

The film takes place on the fictitious island “Isla Nublar,” a map of which features prominently in the computer control room when s**t starts to go down. Here’s a clearer screenshot of one of Dennis Nedry‘s monitors:

Isla Nublar from the JP control room. Quiet, all of you! They’re approaching the tyrannosaur paddock…. (image credit)

It dawned on me that the inspiration for this island is none other than MLD 7, a juvenile Australopithecus africanus ilium from the Makapansgat site in South Africa:

Figure 1 from Dart, 1958. Left side is MLD 7 and right is MLD 25. Top row is the lateral view (from the side) and bottom row is the medial view (from the inside).

Figure 1 from Dart, 1958. Left side is MLD 7 and right is MLD 25. Top row is the lateral view (from the side) and bottom row is the medial view (from the inside). These two hip bones are from the left side of the body (see the pelvis figure in this post). Note the prominent anterior inferior iliac spine on MLD 7, a quintessential feature of bipeds.

Isla Nublar is basically MLD 7 viewed at an angle so that appears relatively narrower from side to side:

MLD at a slightly oblique view (or stretched top to bottom) magically transforms into Isla Nublar.

MLD 7 at a slightly oblique view (or stretched top to bottom) magically transforms into Isla Nublar.

It’s rather remarkable that some of the most complete pelvic remains we have for australopithecines are two juveniles of similar developmental ages and sizes from the same site. In both, the iliac crest is not fused, and joints of the acetabulum (hip socket) hadn’t fused together yet. The immaturity of these two fossils matches what is seen prior to puberty in humans and chimpanzees. Berge (1998) also noted that MLD 7, serving as an archetype for juvenile Australopithecus, is similar in shape to juvenile humans, whereas adult Australopithecus (represented by Sts 14 and AL 288) are much flatter and wider side to side. Berge took this pattern of ontogenetic variation to match an ape-like pattern of ilium shape growth. This suggests a role of heterochrony in the evolution of human pelvic shape, or as Berge (1998: 451) put it, “Parallel change in pelvic shape between human ontogeny and hominid phylogeny.” In layman’s terms, ‘similar changes in both pelvic growth and pelvis evolution.’

Bloodsport in Australopithecus africanus?

ResearchBlogging.orgA few months ago in a post about the ilium and cannibals, I relayed a quote by Dr. Raymond Dart who was the first to recognize (and name) the hominid genus Australopithecus, back in 1925. I’d also mentioned that he was described [in a reference that escapes me] as “blood-thirsty.” This macabre descriptor came to mind again, as I’m reading his (1948) description of the MLD 2 mandible, of a juvenile A. africanus from Makapansgat cave in South Africa (figure is from the paper):

“[Individuals represented by MLD2 and another skull fragment] met their death by manually applied violence. The fractures exhibited by the mandible show that the violence, which probably occurred in fatal combat, was a localized crushing impact received by the face slightly to the left of the midline in the incisor region, and administered presumably by a bludgeon… this youth probably met his fate at the hands of a kinsman more expert than himself in the accurate application of directed implements” (p. 393-394)

This rather fanciful hypothesis may reflect Dart’s alleged bloodlust, and the condition of the fossil likely reflects damage that occurred after death during the sometimes abusive process of fossilization.


Reference
Dart, R. (1948). The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6 (4), 391-412 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410