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Australian scientists have unearthed the oldest known skull of the Homo erectus species

Mark Dunn, April 5, 2020 6:44AM Herald Sun

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The DNH 134 Homo erectus skull outline. media_cameraThe DNH 134 Homo erectus skull outline.

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Australian and international scientists have unearthed the oldest known skull of the earliest human species* named Homo erectus*.

The two-million-year-old fossil*, named DMH 134, was carefully rebuilt from more than 150 pieces of bone and is believed to be about 200,000 years older than any other Homo erectus fossils found.

La Trobe University Professor Andy Herries, who lead the international team of palaeontologists*, said the fossil could belong to the group that every single person in the world relates back to.

The skull specimen*, believed to belong to a toddler aged just two or three, was discovered in South Africa.

media_cameraPhD researcher Angeline Leece helps dig up the DNH 134 skull.

Prof Herries said while this ancient species had a smaller brain than humans of today, it walked on two feet and was the first to leave Africa to settle large parts of the world, right through to Asia.

Prof Herries said despite the young age of the toddler at death, the brain was only slightly smaller than other examples of adult Homo erectus — the first of our ancestors* to be almost human-like in body and behaviour.

“Homo erectus is considered the direct ancestor of all later species of humans including us, as well as Neanderthals* and Denisovans* and is the first human ancestor to really look much more humanlike, with bigger brains, a modern way of walking and running, and the development around 1.8 million years ago of more complex stone tools,” Prof Herries said.

Rewriting the history of modern humans

Prof Herries said Homo erectus lived at the same time as other types of humans in South Africa — Paranthropus and Australopithecus.

“This suggests that one of these other human species, Australopithecus sediba, may not have been the direct ancestor of Homo erectus, or us, as previously hypothesised*.

“As the last surviving human species, we should not think we are immune* to the same fate as Australopithecus, who likely became extinct as a result of the changing climate two million years ago.”

La Trobe PhD student and research co-author Jesse Martin took five years to reconstruct the ancient skull and fellow PhD researcher Angeline Leece analysed the fossils.

Homo erectus disappeared from the African landscape 1 million years ago and across much of Asia 500,000 years ago, but a population lived up to 110,000 years ago in Indonesia.

Homo sapiens — Latin for ‘wise man’ and the species of modern-day humans — are believed to have first appeared 300,000 years ago in Africa.

The research is published in the journal Science.

GLOSSARY

  • species: breed or family
  • Homo erectus: a species of ancient humans
  • fossil: the remains of a plant, animal or human in rock or dirt
  • palaeontologists: scientists who study fossils
  • specimen: an individual animal, plant, etc. used as an example of its species
  • ancestors: an older person in your direct family
  • Neanderthals: an extinct species of human from the ice age
  • Denisovans: an extinct species of human
  • hypothesised: when a theory is formed based on evidence
  • immune: protected from or resistant to something

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is the name of the skull fossil found?
  2. How old is it thought to be?
  3. Where was the fossil found?
  4. Which ancient ancestor was most humanlike in behaviour?
  5. Which species do modern humans belong to?

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