What was it like to be the child of an early human ancestor? Until recently, little was known about ancient childhood because few remains had been found of young children alive more than half-a-million years ago. But with the delivery of a tiny bundle to the paleoanthropological community, the scientific community will get its first view of an early juvenile hominid from head to toe: The partial skeleton of a 3-year-old girl buried in a flood 3.3 million years ago in Ethiopia.
A young Ethiopian paleoanthropologist offered the first glimpse of the child today, including a spectacular skull with both jawbones that will appear on in the journal Nature on Thursday. "It is the most complete partial skeleton of an early juvenile hominid ever discovered," says its discoverer, Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. More than half of the skeleton is preserved, which should give researchers a rare look at the way early hominids grew up and developed. "There hasn't ever been a fossil of that antiquity with so many winning cards," enthuses paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Alemseged was still a postdoctoral researcher when he and Ethiopian antiquities officer Tilahun Gebreselassie found part of the skull protruding from the ground in Dikika, Ethiopia, in December 2000, only 10 kilometers from the resting place of the famous 3.1-million-year partial skeleton called Lucy. After 5 years of hard labor to painstakingly remove cementlike sandstone from the skeleton, Alemseged concluded that the girl was the same species as Lucy--Australopithecus afarensis.
Although preparation and analysis are still underway and the bones of its upper body are still stuck together, the skeleton includes such rare bones as shoulder blades and an apelike hyoid bone, only the second ancient voice box bone ever found. The shoulder blades look so much like those of a gorilla that Alemseged thinks the girl might still have been adapted for climbing in trees, even though her knee and foot bones show she walked upright. This reignites a long-standing debate over whether this upright species still spent much time in the trees or merely retained ancient features it no longer used (Science, 15 April 1994, p. 350), says co-author William Kimbel of Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins in Tempe, Arizona, who thinks the features were not necessarily used for climbing. Regardless, says Alemseged, "now we can say: This is what a baby A. afarensis looks like."