Lucy, the oldest human skeleton currently on display, may have to give up its place of honor in favor of a newer, or rather ‘older’ competitor named Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi for short. The oldest fossil skeleton is 4.4 million years old, predating Lucy by well over a million years.
The hominid’s fragments were first found around 1992, spurring an international team of scientists to launch a large-scale investigation of more specimens. Finally, on Thursday a complete skeleton was displayed along with a full analysis. Of course ‘complete’ is a relative term when dealing with creatures that have been in the ground for millions of years. Since Ardi pre-dates Lucy as the earliest humanoid skeleton, it will allow scientists to see “the early evolutionary steps that our ancestors took after we diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees.”
It appears that the ancient hominid was so divergent from the path that modern chimpanzees, that “no modern ape is a realistic proxy for characterizing early hominid evolution.” In other words, saying that humans evolved “from apes” is scientifically fallible, and the statement should rather be that humans shared a common ancestor which sprouted two different species, humans and apes. Ardi only emphasizes the differences from even an early stage between the two.
Ardi was at the time of death an adult female standing four feet tall, and weighing an estimated 120 pounds, interestingly far larger than Lucy. Lucy was approximately a foot shorter, and merely half the weight of this newer specimen. Ardi’s brain was comparable to a modern chimp’s in size. Its physical structure suggests agility meant for climbing trees, but it walked upright on two legs, but not as efficiently as the more evolved Lucy. The feet were flat like an apes, not arched like Lucy’s or a human’s. The hands were more like those of an ape’s with the thumbs sticking more to the side, rather than being fully articulate like a human’s.
The discovery took place in the arid flood-planes around the Awash River in Ethiopia, between Addis Ababa and Hadar. Interestingly enough, this is nearby where Lucy was found by Donal Johanson and his team in 1974. The man responsible for discovering the skeleton was a paleoanthropologist by the name of Gen Suwa, of the University of Tokyo in 1992 when he discovered a single upper molar. Later, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of anthropology at the Clevelans Museum of National History, uncovered bones nearby the first discovery. Finally, in 1994 a report of the new species was published. But now, a full skeleton has been assembled and this species has been added to the official lineage of the human race, removing Lucy from the Guinness World Records as the oldest skeleton of all time.
In time, there’s no telling what we’ll be able to learn from Ardi about ourselves and our origins. If in the past thirty years we’ve found two skeletons pre-dating everything we thought we knew about hominid evolution, what will we find in the next thirty years?