The Science of Sustainability

New Clues to Our Ancestors' Mobility

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Zeray Alemseged preparing Selam fossil

Left: Zeray Alemseged preparing Selam fossil encased in sandstone (2002 photo). Right: Selam’s complete right scapula. A rare pair of shoulder blades offers new evidence that our ancestors were still spending time in trees (scale: each black or white section = 1 cm). © Zeray Alemseged / Dikika Research Project

With the holidays just around the corner, this is a time when many of us ponder what it means to be a better person—helping others in need, etc. But what does it mean to be a person? This provocative question is at the root of a discovery just announced on the cover of Science by Bay Area scientist Zeray Alemseged, Curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and Midwestern University Professor David Green.

Australopithecus afarensis (the species of the well-known “Lucy” skeleton) was an upright walking species, but the question of whether it also spent much of its time in trees has been hotly debated for 30+ years, partly because a complete set of A. afarensis shoulder blades has never before been available for study. In an extensive analysis of two complete shoulder blades from the fossil “Selam”—the only ones from this pivotal species known to science—Alemseged and Green found the bones to be quite apelike, suggesting that our forebears were still climbing trees as bipedalism was emerging.

Selam was a three-year-old A. afarensis girl who lived about 3.3 million years ago. Alemseged discovered her in Dikika, Ethiopia in 2000, and she represents the most complete skeleton of her kind to date. It took 11 years to carefully extract Selam’s paper-thin shoulder blades from the rest of the skeleton, which was encased in a sandstone block. Shoulder blades are so delicate that they rarely fossilize, so when they do, Alemseged notes, they are almost always fragmentary, underscoring the tremendous value of these particular bones. Once the bones were free, the team digitized and took detailed measurements of them to characterize their shape and function.

On the evolutionary path to “human-hood,” the emergence of bipedal locomotion (walking upright) and the abandonment of arboreal behavior (when we stopped hanging out in trees) are widely accepted as major milestones. But anthropologists have become sharply divided on whether the presence of ape-like characteristics in australopith species are evidence that tree-climbing was still important part of life or merely leftover traces of a feature no longer needed (like a vestigial tail).

Alemseged and Green looked at how young Selam’s shoulder blades compared to the shoulder blades of her mature A. afarensis counterparts: other human ancestors like Homo ergaster (“Turkana Boy”); Homo floresiensis (“The Hobbit”); A. africanus; and modern humans and apes. They found the pattern of growth in A. afarensis was more consistent with that of apes than humans. At the same time, most researchers agree that many traits of the A. afarensis hip bone, lower limb, and foot are unequivocally humanlike and adapted for upright walking. So were they walking or swinging?

This find suggests it was some of both, confirming the pivotal place that Lucy and Selam’s species occupies in human evolution. “Though not fully human,” Alemseged explains, “A. afarensis was clearly on its way.” Moving forward in time to the era of early Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago), anthropologists find sideward-facing shoulders, a major transformation from the ape’s upward-facing joint, likely a result of their growing dependence on tools and culture for survival. The team hopes that this recent find will inspire a host of new questions in the greater scientific community about what makes us human, and how best to go about finding answers.

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Helen Taylor

About the Author ()

Helen Taylor is a communications manager at the California Academy of Sciences, where she has the unique privilege of working alongside a herd of scientists, colony of penguins and swarms of research specimens. A lifelong science and nature enthusiast, she built insect collections and solar-powered cars through high school before earning a BA in human development at UC San Diego, and an MA in strategic public relations at USC. In 4+ years at the Academy, she has discovered the importance of ants, the weight of a biodiversity map, and the value of a species survival program, and now sees the natural world in an entirely new light. She is also a jeweler, foodie, and newly-minted diver.
  • Joseph Biddulph

    The "conclusions" are based on so many assumptions that I wonder at their value: for instance, examination of these shoulder blades is focussed on whether the creature in question climbed trees – people still do! Or whether they used tools, etc. I expect some laboratory scientists wouldn't be able to scrape a pelt with a flint, or light a fire in the wilderness with no matches – so have they "devolved"? A display in the National Museum in Cardiff shows various skulls of apes and humans, and I can't begin to explain to my grandchildren how this apparent "progress" from ape to man is made up of fragments of knowledge, over-strong interpretations, and so on – not to mention the obvious fact that the record is scarcely complete! I am old enough to remember Piltdown Man and that species of "early man" reconstructed from a pig's tooth! One gets a bit tired of the Cave Man reconstruct, the "noble savage" of the museum curator, with his romantic "closeness to nature" and so on: and the "controversies" of the experts – of course you must argue, since the evidence is so fragmentary that you need to impose your own interpretation of "Cave Man Culture" on it in order to draw any conclusions whatsoever.