What Can Lucy’s Neighbors Tell Us About Human Origins?

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Abstract

New australopithecine species said to show diversity in humanity’s evolutionary history

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The cast of Lucy’s classic evolutionary story just acquired a new member, a veritable “Ethel” for the beloved “I Love Lucy.” A previously unknown australopithecine species apparently shared the Afar Region of Ethiopia with Lucy’s famous species, Australopithecus afarensis. Dubbed Australopithecus deyiremeda (pronounced day-ihreme-dah), its species name meaning “close relative” in the regional language, its discoverer Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History believes these fossils are the most conclusive proof yet of the contemporaneous existence of multiple similar species in the human family tree long before the emergence of more modern Homo species.

What They Found

Haile-Selassie’s team found the two lower jaws and a partial upper jaw unearthed by erosion near the Burtele tuff in Woranso-Mille area of the Afar Region. Based on radiometric and paleomagnetic dating of the strata in the region, Haile-Selassie and colleagues believe Australopithecus deyiremeda to be 3.3 to 3.5 million years old. This overlaps with the age of 2.9 to 3.8 million years old currently assigned to Australopithecus afarensis fossils, which are also from the Afar Region.

While similar in some respects to Lucy’s jaw and teeth, the new jaws are more robust, have thicker tooth enamel, and differ in the shape and size of the teeth. While even Lucy’s lower jaw is more like a gorilla’s than either a chimpanzee’s or a human’s,1 Australopithecus deyiremeda’s cheek bone (ramus) is set further forward on the jaw than Lucy’s and is thicker. It shares this characteristic with some Kenyanthropus platyops2 fossils from Kenya. The middle of the jawbone, however, resembles Lucy’s. And like other australopithecines, the subnasal angle and the depth of the palate suggest the jaw jutted forward, as do the jaws of modern apes.3

Australopithecus deyiremeda fossils

Here are two of the fossils of Australopithecus deyiremeda. Though the jaw would have jutted forward as ape jaws do and in some ways resembles the jaws of other australopithecine apes, most of its teeth are smaller and of slightly different shape. Paleontologists think this animal lived in the same time and place as Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis. Image reproduced from Y. Haile-Selassie et al., “New Species from Ethiopia Further Expands Middle Pliocene Hominin Diversity,” Nature 521, no. 7553 (May 28, 2015): 483–488, doi:10.1038/nature14448, extended data figure 5.

Australopithecus deyiremeda’s teeth are significantly smaller than Lucy’s, except for the third molar. Their shape also differs. For instance, the upper teeth, unlike Lucy’s, narrow near the chewing surface.4 Investigators believe these differences in teeth and the robustness of the jaw suggest the two species—“Lucy” and her “close relative”—could have evolved successfully side-by-side in ancient Ethiopia because they differed in diet.

“We’re convinced this is different from all the species we know,” says Haile-Selassie.5 He had hoped to strengthen that position by finding evidence linking the new jaws to the Burtele foot, a discovery he reported in 2012. (Read about it in “Transitional Tale Told by Toes.”) He was unable to find such evidence. Nevertheless, he believes that the Burtele foot, dated at 3.4 million years, belonged to an australopithecine species with more “primitive” characteristics than Lucy’s and a bipedal gait differing from that which most evolutionists ascribe to Lucy. (Read more about Lucy’s locomotion in “A Look at Lucy’s Legacy” and “Lucy, the Knuckle-Walking ‘Abomination’?”)

Search for Significance

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Curator of Physical Anthropology, Haile-Selassie, is naturally pleased with what he hopes will receive wide acceptance as a new australopithecine species. Other australopithecines have been found in Chad and Kenya and South Africa, but he asserts that his discovery of co-existing australopithecine species in the Afar Region sheds much more light on humanity’s evolutionary past:

The new species is yet another confirmation that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was not the only potential human ancestor species that roamed in what is now the Afar region of Ethiopia during the middle Pliocene. Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity.

This new species from Ethiopia takes the ongoing debate on early hominin diversity to another level. Some of our colleagues are going to be skeptical about this new species, which is not unusual. However, I think it is time that we look into the earlier phases of our evolution with an open mind and carefully examine the currently available fossil evidence rather than immediately dismissing the fossils that do not fit our long-held hypotheses.6

Furthermore, Haile-Selassie says that the dietary adaptations shown in the new jaws are typical of traits previously thought to have only evolved much later:

What we can say is that, because it is different from Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy’s species, both in terms of its enamel thickness and also the robusticity of the jaws, we can hypothesize that Lucy’s species Australopithecus afarensis had a different dietary adaptation compared to this species because what we’re seeing in this new species is adaptation to more heavy chewing like what we’ve seen in the Paranthropus . . . which evolved around 2.7 million years ago.7

Haile-Selassie is confident that his recent discoveries—the Burtele foot and the new jaws of Australopithecus deyiremeda—are species that coexisted with Lucy’s species in the same time and place. Summing up the significance of these fossils, he says,

Now with discovery of multiple taxa from the same time we’re trying to look into which one of these taxa, or which one of these species, actually gave rise to our genus Homo. So it brings up a lot of questions and tells us that Australopithecus afarensis, or Lucy’s species, was not the only probable ancestor that gave rise to our genus Homo.8

Some evolutionists may not jump on the bandwagon to celebrate discovery of our long-lost relative. While never doubting that humans have Lucy and various other ape-like “hominins” in our ancestry, not all evolutionists will agree that Australopithecus deyiremeda is a new species of australopithecine. In apes, male and female skeletons often differ greatly, so the discovery of more fossils in the future may redraw the boundaries between species. For now, Australopithecus deyiremeda is the newest named australopithecine species.

Happy Hominins?

New species or not, evolutionists are happy to welcome the new australopithecine jaws to the “hominin” family. The very word hominin embodies the unverifiable evolutionary assumptions that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor through a series of pre-human and extinct human species. Hominin refers to the human side of the evolutionary lineage after an ape-like ancestor branched off from the common ancestor supposedly shared with Great Apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans). But do we learn anything at all about human history from these fossils? Could Australopithecus deyiremeda possibly be our ancestor? Could Lucy? The answer is an unequivocal “no.”

Evolutionary scientists consider this fossil discovery to be significant because it demonstrates that diverse species of early human ancestors coexisted in time and space. However, while there may well have once been multiple species of australopithecine apes in Africa, australopithecine fossils are the remains of extinct apes and have no connection to humanity’s lineage. They were animals. The dates assigned to Lucy and other fossils from the region, as we have discussed elsewhere, are vastly inflated products of unverifiable worldview-based interpretations. Australopithecine apes, whether in South Africa or East Africa were not stepping-stones on the road to becoming human.

Claims that humans evolved from ape-like creatures are not based on testable observations showing how ape-like animals could actually acquire the information to become new, more complex kinds of creatures until they crossed into humanness. Rather they spring from the worldview-based conviction that humanity’s existence cannot be explained by the eyewitness account (Genesis 1–2) of the Creator who claims in His Word to have made us in His image about 6,000 years ago. Convinced then that people are just highly evolved animals, evolutionists connect the dots between fossils, comparing their characteristics and adaptations in an effort to draw a path to man. Sadly, those who do this are only fooling themselves and those who listen to them.

We see in the fossil record some extinct apes, such as australopithecines, and even some extinct varieties of humans, but no ape-men. While humans and apes share some features, they do not share a common ancestor. Humanity’s true origins lie not in the supposed transitions to bipedality or braininess or dietary innovations, but in the Word of God. God created Adam and Eve, the first two humans, on the sixth day of Creation Week, the same day He made all kinds of land animals, which would have included australopithecine apes. He made the first man from the dust of the ground, not from the animals he had just made (Genesis 1:26–27, 2:7). And God specified that the living things He made would reproduce after their kinds, as we see them doing today. Therefore we know that God did not use evolution to create us.

Knowing the truth of our origins helps us understand what has gone wrong in this world as a result of mankind’s rebellion against God. But knowing this truth we also see that God has made a way to eternally rescue us from this rebellion through the coming of Jesus Christ as a human being to die for our sins (Romans 6:23), to restore all who receive His grace to a right relationship (John 1:10–14, 10:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18–19) with our Creator.

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Footnotes

  1. Australopithecine mandibles have a robust ramus that Rak and colleagues wrote resembles a gorilla’s far more than a chimp’s or a human’s, a finding they deemed at odds with the traditional evolutionary view of australopithecines in the human lineage. See Y. Rak et al.,“Gorilla-like Anatomy on Australopithecus afarensis Mandibles Suggests Au. afarensis Link to Robust Australopiths,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 no. 16 (April 17, 2007): 6568–6572, doi:10.1073/pnas.0606454104.
  2. There is debate about the identity of these fossils, dated 3.3 to 3.5 million years. Some consider them to be australopithecine.
  3. Haile-Selassie et al.,“New Species from Ethiopia . . .” doi:10.1038/nature14448.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ewen Callaway,“New Species of Early Human Discovered Near Fossil of ‘Lucy,’” Nature, May 27, 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/new-human-ancestor-discovered-near-fossil-of-lucy-1.17644.
  6. “Curator Discovers New Human Ancestor Species,” Cleveland Museum of Natural History, May 27, 2015, https://www.cmnh.org/nature2015.
  7. “New Human Ancestor Species from Ethiopia - May 2015,” YouTube, 5:35, posted by The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, May 27, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bqXd9-VnFE.
  8. Ibid.

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