South African researchers have unearthed the most complete skull ever found of a robust australopithecine, a hominid that roamed the veldt some 2 million years ago. Paired with a nearby jawbone, the find allows researchers to compare the male and female of the species
The skull, unveiled last week in Johannesburg, was found by retired government geologist Andre Keyser in 1994 at a site called Drimolen, near the renowned fossil-rich caves of Sterkfontein. As the most complete specimen of its kind, the skull "can tell us more about robust australopithecines than many, many fragmentary skulls," says Stanford University anthropologist Richard Klein.
To add to the excitement, Keyser also found a jawbone from a male robust australopithecine near the skull, which paleontologists think came from a female. These bones offer the first opportunity to compare "unequivocally associated" male and female robust australopithecines, says University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Lee Berger. The find shows, for instance, that the female lacked a skull ridge known as the sagittal crest that had been found on previous male australopithecines. She also had a substantially smaller jaw than the male.
The bones are featured in the May issue of National Geographic, which is funding the Drimolen excavation, and published in the April issue of the South African Journal of Science, which rather anthropocentrically notes that this species was not a human ancestor but "a failed early evolutionary experiment at being human."