Africa Unveils Ape-Man Skull Unearthed in 1994

Reuters, April 2000

Johannesburg, South Africa- South African scientists revealed details Wednesday about a pair of fossils, including the most complete ape-man skull excavated, which they hope will shed light on humankind's distant origins.

The pair, christened Orpheus and Eurydice after the Greek mythological lovers, are 1.5 million years old and have been identified as Paranthropus robustus, a hominid line that became extinct about 1 million years ago.

"They are not direct ancestors of modern humans but are more like 'kissing cousins' of our ancestors," scientist Lee Berger said after a news conference, where the pair- discovered in 1994 but revealed only now- were put on public display for the first time. Scientists say the skull belongs to a female of the species, whereas the other fossil, a lower jawbone or mandible, belongs to a male.

The fossils were unearthed four miles from the renowned Sterkfontein caves north of Johannesburg, which have yielded many hominid finds, including the recent discovery of a complete 3.3-million-year-old arm and skull.

Describing the day he and his team made the discovery, paleontologist Andre Keyser said: "I knew immediately what I was dealing with and was extremely excited and absolutely delighted to have found it. It was certainly the highest light of my carreer as a paleontologist."

Scientists say the significance of the find includes the fact that they now know what a female Paranthropus robustus looks like and know the difference between the male and female of the species.

Those differences are highlighted by a crest along the top of the male's skull to which the muscles of the lower jaw were anchored. The female, apart from being smaller, has no such crest- a distinction found today in male and female gorillas.

Scientists hope that the species' differences from and similarities to humanity's ancestors, and the reasons for extinction, may provide clues to humans' march up the evolutionary ladder. The reasons for hominid extinction are a matter of debate in the scientific community. Some speculate that modern man at a very early stage may have shown his dark side by eliminating potential rivals.

Berger said humanity's ancestors, as omnivores who ate both meat and plant matter, may have outcompeted the specialist Paranthropus, which was primarily a vegetarian, like today's great apes.

Like the baboons who live in the same area today, the pair of hominids may have wintered in the cave where they were eventually entombed for scientific posterity. But Berger said they "had more in common with humans than the great apes."

Los Angeles Times, Thursday, April 27, 2000 .........Reuters
Article provided courtesy of Janice Bartmess

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