2,000,000-Year-Old Preserved Tissue May be Oldest Skin of Human Ancestor
A team of scientists in an ancient cave near Johannesburg , South Africa, researching early humans has disclosed that preserved tissue found in a 2 million-year – old fossil could be the oldest sample ever recovered of human skin. The discovery may uncover new knowledge about the species and our human origins.
The study was taken from the skeletons of 4’2″ tall of male juvenile species known as Australopithecus sediba, which were recovered in 2008 within an ancient cave in the Malapa Nature Reserve, situated in the ‘Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site’.
The area is important as nearly a third of the entire evidence for human origins in Africa comes from just a few sites in this region.
Professor Lee Berger, an anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who has been leading the excavation, noticed that the skull, which was embedded in cemented rock, had thin layers around it that looked like preserved soft tissue.
The cranium was examined using 3D scanning, microscopy and chemical analysis in an attempt to find out what the thin layers were made of.
“We found out this wasn’t just a normal type of rock that they were contained in – it was a rock that was preserving organic material,” said Professor Berger. “Plant remains are captured in it – seeds, things like that – even food particulates that are captured in the teeth, so we can see what they were eating. Maybe more remarkably, we think we’ve found fossil skin here too.”
Professor Berger, who made his comments in an interview with the Naked Scientists , explained that Australopithecus sediba was first discovered after his son Matthew stumbled upon a fossilised bone in the Malapa Nature Reserve near Johannesburg.
Australopithecus sediba was identified as a new species based on fossil remains from six separate skeletons discovered together at the bottom of the Malapa Cave, where they apparently fell to their death, and have been dated to between 1.977 and 1.980 million years ago.
Berger believes that the recently classified Australopithecus sediba species could very well be the most recent ancestor to the Homo genus.
This is based on a number of characteristics, some which are more humanlike that those seen in Homo habilis, considered by many scientists to be the earliest member of our genus. At the same time, Australopithecus sediba also shows similarities to much more primitive primates.
Researchers have spent decades trying to trace back the family tree of modern humans. However, the problem comes when new discoveries, such as Berger’s findings in Malapa, do not serve to clarify the picture but rather to muddy the waters even further.
Each ancient species appears to have unique combination of traits that make them seem so close and yet so far from being a true human ancestor.
The fact that A. sediba was a completely unknown species until just a few years ago, shows us how much we don’t know and how much more there must be to discover.
Berger stresses that our understanding of human evolution is nowhere near complete. We haven’t even finished looking at the things we thought we knew, he says.