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The ape-like skull that may be a clue to our ancestors

A remarkably well preserved series of fossilised skeletons have been unearthed from a cave in South Africa and identified as a new ancestral species of ape-like hominid that could have been the direct ancestor of humans.

The species lived about 1.9m years ago, walked on two legs and shared many other human features, but it also retained clear ape-like traits such as very long arms which showed that it had not yet made the complete transition from a life in the trees.

Researchers claimed yesterday that the species, named Australopithecus sediba, possesses such a mosaic combination of ape-like and human-like traits that it might belong to the group of “apemen” who evolved into the Homo genus — the human family.

The Homo genus came into existence two million years ago, possibly evolving from the Austral- opithecines, the “southern apes” that lived in sub-Saharan Africa before this period.

However, the paucity of the fossil record for this critical period in human history has cast doubt on exactly how the ape-to-human transition occurred.

Now, however, with the discovery of four skeletons belonging to Australopithecus sediba, scientists believe they may have found the ancestor of all species of Homo, from the primitive species such as Homo erectus and Homo habilis, to the anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

“We feel that sediba might be a Rosetta Stone for defining for the first time just what the genus Homo is,” said Professor Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersand in Johannesburg, the leader of the study.

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Two of the partial skeletons, an adult female about 30 years old and an adolescent boy with a complete skull, are described in the latest issue of the journal Science. Studies on two further partial skeletons, another adult female and an infant, have yet to be published.

The scientists discovered the first skeleton in 2008 from a pit-like excavation at Malapa, near Johannesburg.

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