One of the most hotly debated issues in current human origins research focuses on how the 4.4 million-year-old African species Ardipithecus ramidus is related to the human lineage. "Ardi" was an unusual primate.
Though it possessed a tiny brain and a grasping big toe used for clambering in the trees, it had small, humanlike canine teeth and an upper pelvis modified for bipedal walking on the ground.
Scientists disagree about where this mixture of features positions Ardipithecus ramidus on the tree of human and ape relationships. Was Ardi an ape with a few humanlike features retained from an ancestor near in time (between 6 and 8 million years ago, according to DNA evidence) to the split between the chimpanzee and human lines? Or was it a true relative of the human line that had yet to shed many signs of its remote tree-dwelling ancestry?
New research led by Arizona State University paleoanthropologist William Kimbel confirms Ardi's close evolutionary relationship to humans. Kimbel and his collaborators turned to the underside (or base) of a beautifully preserved partial cranium of Ardi. Their study revealed a pattern of similarity that links Ardi to Australopithecus and modern humans, but not to apes.
The research appears in the Jan. 6-10 online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Kimbel is director of the ASU Institute of Human Origins, a research center of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Joining ASU's Kimbel as co-authors are Gen Suwa (University of Tokyo Museum), Berhane Asfaw (Rift Valley Research Service, Addis Ababa), Yoel Rak (Tel Aviv University) and Tim White (University of California at Berkeley).
White's field-research team has been recovering fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidusin the Middle Awash research area, Ethiopia since the 1990s. The most recent study of the Ardi skull, led by Suwa, was published in Science in 2009, whose work (with the Middle Awash team) first revealed humanlike aspects of its base. Kimbel co-leads the team that recovered the earliest known Australopithecus skulls from the Hadar site, home of the "Lucy" skeleton, in Ethiopia.
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