I Love Dinknesh

January 22, 2011

Torah Kachur

Torah on location in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Our favorite ancestral hominid, Lucy, is actually named Dinknesh in the Afar tribal language.  Dinknesh is a funny word, I like it - it means "wonderful."  And wonderful she is; a cast of her fossil is housed in the National Museum in Addis Ababa along with her best buddy Ardi.    Ardi and Lucy are famous, and deservedly so; their near complete skeleton fossils have told us ridiculous amounts of information about where we came from.  Here's a hint: we came from Ethiopia, the cradle of humankind and civilization.


Millions of years ago, Ethiopia was a lush and verdant place where sabre-toothed tigers roamed with giant warthogs and our cousins, the early hominids.  Then, a fissure in the land formed and opened into the Great Rift Valley, which created an arid climate complete with grasslands and large open spaces of savannah.  All of the sudden, hominids had to adapt to wide open spaces.  They became bipedal - like Ardi and Lucy - possibly to move across long distances and see over the tall grasses.  Ardi and Lucy are the poster children of bipedalism and represent our literal first steps.  But we've been blinded by Lucy and Ardi's lovely reconstructed faces and forgotten about the evolutionary steps in between.


          Lucy Australopithecus afarensis National Museum Addis Ababa Ethiopia Torah Kachur Science in Seconds


There are incomplete and less famous fossils found throughout the Great Rift Valley that have helped piece together the puzzle of the evolution of humans.  The rapid change of environment from the fissure causing the Great Rift Valley created incredible selective pressure for hominids to adapt and evolve.  Which means many transition species and spin-off hominids gave it a go.  They may not be as sexy as Lucy (or as complete a fossil), but information about species like Ardipithecus kadabba or Australopithecus garhi provide incredible insight into who we are. 


Ardipithecus kadabba is a sexy little beast of a fossil that really only has its jaw, but the 6 million year old fossil ALA-VP-2(10)... (Boring name, I'm calling her "Grannie")... is likely a precursor to Ardi.  Her fossil shows that the jaw is more chimpanzee-like and teeth were likely used to eat ripe fruit rather than for defense, suggesting a difference between hominids and apes.  No pelvis was found but she was likely not bipedal, at least according to popular thought.


Then there is Australopithecus garhi at 2.5-2.6 million years old - the post-Lucy period.  There is a hypothesis out there that suggests that A. garhi is actually a descendant of Lucy that formed the chain between the Australopithecus and Homo species.  There isn't much evidence for this, but the A. garhi fossil is really awesome.  There is also a suggestion that A. garhi was one of the first species to use stone tools (the site where this particular fossil was discovered is also rich in stone tools.)


We don't know a lot about where we came from, but Lucy and Ardi are supercool little chicks, and we will continue to fill the gaps with lesser known species and fossils.  So come join a dig and find your own fossil!  If only you can survive the Ethiopian heat.



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