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Meet your two-million-year-old ‘cousin’

Charlotte Edwards, November 12, 2020 6:45PM The Sun

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DNH 155, the fossilised skull of a Paranthropus robustus male. Picture: LaTrobe University media_cameraDNH 155, the fossilised skull of a Paranthropus robustus male. Picture: LaTrobe University

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Australian researchers have found the two-million-year-old skull of a ‘cousin’ of the human species.

LaTrobe University’s Dr Angeline Leece and Jesse Martin led the excavation, reconstruction and study of the Paranthropus robustus skull from South Africa.

The find could help us understand how humans evolved.

It took 300 hours to put together in a painstaking* process. Mr Martin told BBC that working with the pieces of the skull was like handling “wet cardboard”.

He even used a straw to suck the last pieces of dirt from it.

Paranthropus robustus is thought to have been a ‘cousin species’ of our direct ancestor, Homo erectus.

Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus are thought to have lived around the same time but Homo erectus survived for longer.

“While we were the lineage* that won out in the end, two-million-years-ago the fossil record suggests that Paranthropus robustus was much more common than Homo erectus on the landscape,” Dr Leece said.

Angi and Jesse with DNH 155. Picture: supplied media_cameraLaTrobe University’s Dr Angeline Leece and Jesse Martin with the skull. Picture: LaTrobe University

It’s thought Homo erectus ate both plants and meat and this could have helped the species outlive Paranthropus robustus.

Paranthropus robustus had small brains but large teeth, most likely to bite or chew food that was tough, such as the roots of plants.

Mr Martin said the skull — called the DNH 155 specimen — they found provides the first high quality evidence for microevolution within an early hominin* species, showing that Paranthropus robustus evolved their chewing adaptations in stages, possibly over hundreds of thousands of years, in response to environmental change.

The researchers believe these changes took place during a time when South Africa was drying out, leading to the extinction of a number of mammal species.

Until the skull was found at the Drimolen Main Quarry archaeological site north of Johannesburg, South Africa, there was very little evidence of the species.

SONY DSC media_cameraJesse Martin cleaning the skull. Picture: LaTrobe University

Dr Leece told the BBC: “Most of the fossil record is just a single tooth here and there so to have something like this is very rare, very lucky.”

The skull was found very close to where fragments of a Homo erectus child were uncovered in 2015.

Because the skull was discovered on South African Father’s Day (June 20) in 2018, the DNH 155 fossil is also known as the Father’s Day fossil. The findings of the analysis have been published this week in the Nature, Ecology and Evolution journal.

This story was first published on The Sun and is republished with permission.

Meet your two-million-year-old ‘cousin’

GLOSSARY

  • painstaking: done with great care and thoroughness
  • lineage: direct descent through generations
  • hominin: primates of the group homini, which includes humans and their ancestors

EXTRA READING

Found: exact location of first humans’ home

Oldest fossil of early human species is discovered

Cave find rewrites history of early humans

First look at humans’ ancient cousin

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What took 300 hours? Why?
  2. Where was the skull found?
  3. What was close by?
  4. What was happening to the environment at the time?
  5. Why is it called the Father’s Day fossil?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Similarities and Differences
Work with a partner to compile a list of the similarities and differences between the two ‘cousins’ of the human species, Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus. Use the pictures and information from the Kids News article to compile your list. Record your answers in a two-column table with similarities in one column and differences in the other.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Personal and social, History

2. Extension
How well do you know your own family history? Draw a diagram depicting your family tree including aunties, uncles and cousins as far back as you know. Take your diagram home and get mum or dad to help you complete parts you don’t know or are unsure of.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Personal and social

VCOP ACTIVITY
Aside from this, there is also this!
Brackets are a great literacy tool for adding aside comments, or comments that could be covered over and the sentence still makes sense. What’s inside the brackets is extra information.

They can be used for a variety of effects: to add more detail, to add humour, to connect with the reader etc.

My little brother, (the funniest kid I know) got himself into big trouble today.

Select 3 sentences from the article to add an aside comment to using brackets. Think about not only what you want to add to the sentence, but also what effect you are trying to create.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Which parts of the skull project would you enjoy doing? Which parts do you think you wouldn’t enjoy?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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